Sunday, January 21, 2007

New York Top Ten: Food - Part Deaux!

Here is the second half of my New York food list Once again, in no particular order, I give you:

The Tasting Menu at Babbo: I’m sure there are those that think Babbo (110 Waverly Pl., New York, NY 10011) is not the best Italian restaurant in the city, but I am damned if I can find even one of them. Babbo is the flagship restaurant of Chef Mario Batali – he of the famous shorts and orange crocs – and traces its pedigree to the now almost mythical, Po restaurant on Bleeker St., where Mr. Batali perfected his craft. And while he owns numerous other fine establishments in the neighborhood such as Otto, Del Posto, Esca and Lupo, it is obvious that Mr. Batali’s heart is really at Babbo. If, on the day that you dine there, Mr. Batali is in the kitchen, consider yourself twice blessed. For Babbo doesn’t so much surpass one’s expectations as shatter them and leave them lying in the dust. From the fennel pollen (!) in the goat cheese tortellini to the hot chili flakes in the linguine with clams to the guinea hen with pumpkin to the ricotta based cheesecakes, there is absolutely no shortage of wonderful surprises at Babbo. Even the choice of music – 70s rock for the most part – is surprising.

And the tasting menu is where the creative brilliance of Mr. Batali and his staff really peak. A roster of food and wine pairing that is in a word, sublime. There are things like ducks and venison and pink peppercorn honey on that tasting menu! If you have to visit only one restaurant in New York, this should be your destination.

Coq Au Vin at Tout Va Bien: Tout Va Bien (311 W. 51st St., New York, NY 10019) has been in its present location for more than half a century and it that time it has become a favorite of French sailors in town for Fleet Week. So you know that they must be doing something right. It is the classic bistro – loud and informal, especially when the sailors are in town. The, very good, house wine can be ordered by the pitcher as can the sangria, the wait-staff is friendly yet knowledgeable and the tablecloths have red and white checks. In short – a happy place. Their take their coq au vin very seriously though and most of the times it is cooked to perfection – the chicken just barely hanging on to the bone and the sauce thick with the aroma of the wine it was cooked in. Equally good is the bouillabaisse (available only on Fridays). It is also one of their most popular dishes so if you get there late at night or when the theater crush is the heaviest, you order it at your own risk. But one worth taking as most of the time they get it right.

Chinese at Grand Sichuan International and Wu Liang Ye: Having grown up on “Indian Chinese” as perfected by the Tibetan cooks in Delhi and the Tangra chefs in Calcutta, the transition to the more authentic Chinese food available in the city was a bit difficult in that everything tasted slightly bland. Then I discovered, almost simultaneously, Grand Sichuan International (745 9th Avenue, New York, NY 10019) and Wu Liang Ye (338 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016). Both of them specialize in the Sichuan style of cooking and the food at both places is the make-your-eyes-water-and-your-nose-run kind of spicy. Which is all to the good I say. Although both places make half-hearted stabs at Cantonese cuisine, if you stick to their core competence when ordering, you won’t be sorry. Either the green tea, which is gratis, or a Coors light will go a long way in assuaging your protesting innards. Grand Sichuan even features freshly slaughtered chicken and it makes everything that it is put in better. For spicy Chinese food, especially on a night when serious drinking is contemplated, there really is no better place than one of these temples to the chili-pepper.

Brunch: A meal that I discovered after moving to the US, brunch is already one of my favorite American food traditions. Not least because after an, um... busy Friday night, steaks and eggs in the morning with a Bloody Mary really hits the spot, if you know what I mean. In a place like New York, there are literally zillions of places where you can eat brunch of course but two of my favorites are Joshua Tree (366 West 46th St, New York, NY 10036) and Candela (116 East 16th Street, New York, NY 10003). Joshua Tree is open till 4 AM Thursday through Sunday and till 2AM Monday to Wednesday so it’s a one stop shop to get both the hangover and the cure! It serves brunch on Saturday and Sunday till 4PM and for my money makes the second best eggs Benedict ever (other than my own, of course!).

Lit up almost entirely by a multitude of candles and with a number of nooks and crannies where people who don’t want to be disturbed can retreat, Candela is a rather beautiful restaurant near Union Square. If there were such a thing as a romantic brunch, this is where you would bring your date (and be reasonably assured of a happy ending, if you know what I mean). And the food is good too. The brunch menu (served only on Sundays) has a seriously good frittata stuffed with sausage and spinach and a banana French toast that hits just the right spot. They have burgers too which, while they are not the best in the world, come on a toasted brioche bread that soaks up the juices from the patty without turning into a soggy mess. And for 20 bucks, you get all the Mimosas and Bloody Marys you can drink. What could be a better way to send a Sunday afternoon?

Cheesecakes: And finally, dessert. The subject of cheesecakes is another one of those issues that is sharply divisive and on which people have rather strong opinions. There are number of places where one might get really good cheesecakes including at the aforementioned Babbo which does a ricotta and robiola cheesecake that is out of this world but for authentic melt-in-your-mouth New York style cheesecakes, it is (almost) universally acknowledged that you need to go to Junior’s (386 Flatbush Avenue Extension at Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11201) or Elaine’s (17 Cleveland Place, New York, NY 10012). Junior’s is justifiably proud of its “World’s Most Fabulous Cheesecake”. Around since 1950, Junior’s cheesecakes are certainly not for the weak of heart. Packed with cream cheese goodliness and crisp and crunchy crust, Junior’s cheesecakes can be the downfall of just about any diet known to man. But as the song goes, “what a lovely way to burn.”

A New York Times described Elaine’s cheesecakes as “ethereally light” and having then tried it, I agree completely. It almost seems impossible for a cheesecake to be that light. But don’t be fooled – it still packs a punch and will leave you feeling sated like only a cheesecake can. A word to the wise – don’t try this after downing a 20 oz. steak dinner. You will do justice neither to the steak nor the cheesecake.

So there you have it, the ten not to be missed food experiences in New York City. Once again – the usual disclaimer: these are my favorites, not the favorites. Watch this space for the next list.

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