September 23, 2009
Why is it that there is something about every place I've ever lived (and that is a pretty long list now) that just leaves me wanting in some way. There's something lacking that's elusive and I can never explain to anyone what it is exactly, but I know it's just not there. I've lived in Rome, Florence, Boulder, CO., Oregon, Seattle, Las Vegas and now Nashville, TN. But none of them can compare to New York.
You know I'm not talking about quality of life, or beauty, or weather, community or the cost of living. All of those things can be found in other places and the places I've lived have New York beat on all of those fronts. But what matters to me most--the deal breaker of all deal breakers-- is the FOOD. And for this, New York must be the best city in the world.
I've been many times before and have always had great food, but no other trip was as packed with fantastic dining experiences as this one. We had four days and four nights of amazing meals, all of them a tribute to this gastronomically great city, and all of them a result of my brother's uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time. It was his 40th birthday that occasioned this weekend in NYC with the whole family. And it was perfect that we spent it with him in his world, eating in his favorite places (all places where he's worked) and meeting the people who have influenced him on his new path of culinary discovery. I couldn't be happier for him.
So it was that the first night started out with one of the simplest and best meals of the weekend. Greg worked at Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn when it first opened, less than a year ago. His friend, the chef and co-owner, Jean Adamson was the chef at Freeman's where he bartended for a couple of years and where he first started to love food. Jean played a big part in that.
She is the kind of chef I would like to be if I had those professional ambitions. She's competent, super skilled, understands seasonal food and classic preparations and is at once sweet and modest, capable and confident. A strong woman in a man's world.
Vinegar Hill House
I will let the real food critics' reviews do the talking, (Frank Bruni wrote about Vinegar Hill in August) and I'll just tell you briefly what we ate and enjoyed. There is a lot of great food to talk about here, so get ready.
A plate of farmstead cheese and salami with homemade crackers and pickled quail eggs was brought to the table first. It was perfect in every way. Then we had some salads: shaved market vegetables, little Japanese eggplants that were so simple and good, a watermelon salad with feta, olives and mint, a roasted corn salad and a simple plate of some of the freshest lettuce I've ever tasted. It was all beautiful and the ingredients really stood out as farm fresh and local. Indeed, we ran into Jean the next day at the Union Square Farmer's Market buying produce for that evening's menu.
For mains, we had housemade pappardelle with pork sugo, an amazing cast iron chicken, and what is arguably their most popular dish, the Red Wattle pork chop (above) that melted in your mouth. I think there was a fish on the table too but I don't even remember it. I do remember the desserts, however. A specialty of the house: rich chocolate Guinness cake and my favorite, an almond cherry crostata that was the perfect homespun ending to that meal. And that was just the first night!
Day two was spent walking around in Chinatown and Little Italy, where I visited DiPalo's Market and the historic Alleva Cheeses. Then we made our way uptown and strolled through the Union Square Greenmarket where the produce was practically jumping out of the stalls it was so attractive. It didn't hurt that it was a picture perfect Fall day in New York. We had lunch at a little walk-up pizza place where they served beer in 32-oz styrofoam cups and you sat on the sidewalk with loads of others lining up for a slice of their namesake artichoke and spinach pie.
Dinner was a treat of the sort that's hard to duplicate anywhere else except at Roberta's in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Carlo Mirarchi, the chef, and his partners own this club-house for foodies where a wood-fired oven brought from Italy fires out pizzas day and night, and a continuously evolving roster of meats --lamb, pork (heavy on the pork), beef, duck and chicken vie for space on the picnic table in a lively, young atmosphere. Wine is poured by knowledgeable servers into little mason jars and out back the shipping container used to ship the oven now holds a studio where the Heritage Radio Network presents webcasts on all things food and farming, and an organic garden sits on top.
I blogged about Roberta's when I visited my brother last November. I thought it was great back then and it's only gotten better. This place could not be anywhere else but in an industrial area of Brooklyn where creative people with heartfelt ambitions get together and roast a pig for fun or, with help from a donation from Alice Waters, fund a greenhouse on top of a shipping container in the back of the restaurant, soon to expand to more gardens that will supply all of the produce for the restaurant. Talk about local. It's is such a cool and inspiring place.
Oh, and the food. Read more about it here, but let's just say we rolled out of there happy and stuffed and well taken care of. Carlo brought us a salumi and cheese plate first, followed by apples with bacon and walnuts, then a delicious testa (pig's head) ravioli, and then a remarkably good tripe in a spicy ragu that was as good as any I've had in Italy.
We thought that would be it, but the formidable chef Carlo wanted to do something special for my brother who used to work beside him in the kitchen when they first opened, and brought out the largest pork shoulder I've ever seen. Slow cooked all day, it was perfectly charred on the outside, soft and juicy and falling apart on the inside and served with dark greens and tiny fingerling potatoes. An awesome dish.
[Writing this, I can barely handle this blog post and its litany of incredible food (imagine how much fun it was!) and I am so grateful for my brother's guiding us around the city's current culinary hot spots. I felt like a famous food writer or critic and I enjoyed every minute of it (and every pound I put on afterward). It is no coincidence that passion for cooking and love of good food runs in our family.]
And now, for the grand finale: My brother's birthday dinner at Minetta Tavern. To say that we are lucky, again, is an understatement. This place was reviewed and given 3 stars by Frank Bruni recently, who says they are "serving the best steaks in the city" right now. (Listen to his own words and see the pics here, since I was too enthralled and the lighting to dark to take any).
this photo courtesy of the NYTimes.
It is impossible to get a reservation at this West Village hot spot and the celebs and big shots flock in to experience the latest in the Keith McNally empire of NY restaurants. A Paris bistro meets old timey New York steakhouse where the ingredients and execution are near perfection and the atmosphere is infinitely more fun than a stuffy white tablecloth dining room. We started with a glass of bubbly and a dozen Long Island oysters. Appetizers included an heirloom tomato salad that was superb in its simplicity, squid stuffed with salt cod, peppers, olives and preserved lemon, eggplant salad, steak, veal and lamb tartare and oxtail and fois gras terrine.
We could have stopped there and it still would have been one of the best meals I've ever had. But what came next exceeded all my expectations for what steak should taste like. First they brought out their famous Black Label burger with carmelized onions and pomme frites. We cut it into five pieces and raved. Then, the piece de resistance: a Dry Aged Cote du Boeuf with roasted marrow bones that they presented to the table whole and then returned with it sliced. And did I mention the tender New York Strip that accompanied that? It was more meat than I've ever seen, much less eaten. I've never tasted beef so melt-in-your-mouth good. They are justly famous for this and it is the way steak should be prepared, cooked, presented and enjoyed. Perfection.
I won't go into the chocolate soufflé or the pistachio gelato or the chocolate, coffee and vanilla pots de cremes.
To say this was one of the better meals of my life would not be an exaggeration. I felt like it was MY birthday! I know my brother enjoyed it too. It's always fun to be on the other side of the house pretending to be a customer in the place where you toil for hours sight unseen. I am so proud of him for being a cook at Minetta and working in a kitchen of that caliber. I met his chef, Riad Nasr, earlier in the day when we ran into him on the street. He seemed too nice to be such a killer chef. But that must be what makes it all so successful: there is so much heart in the food and pride in the place. An all-around superb dining experience.
Whew. I'm too tired and this is too long to go on about the other places that we visited during the day: Babycakes and Orchard 88 coffee, Ninth Street Espresso, The Donut Plant, La Esquina and Prune for lunch. What a culinary tour of delights. After all that, my stomach may need a break, but my heart is still in New York.