I went to New York recently to visit my daughter Lena, see her apartment and meet her dog, Fabio, a rescued Mexican Hairless. She lives in an area of Brooklyn known as Crown Heights? That’s supposed to be said with a bewildered Southern California interrogative lilt.
Frankly I’m appalled that my daughter has chosen to stay in New York after college. When I did my 5-year stint in New York as a Not Ready For Prime Time Player, that Trade Winds’ lyric “New York’s a lonely town, when you’re the only surfer-girl around” often played in my head. I suppose the writing was on the wall when Lena, a third generation Southern Californian, never learned to drive.
Naturally I’m proud of my daughter for countless reasons but one in particular is that she’s actually making a living in New York with little financial help. I have to admit to being a little suspicious and having frightening fantasies of her being a pot messenger amongst other morbid scenarios that say more about me than anything else. She lives in a gorgeous but admittedly run-down, vintage 4-story walk up which explains why the rent is so cheap but the apartment is big by any standard. A few of its tenants sit out front all day playing the dozens. Some are drunk, some are dentally challenged, but they all know her and they all look out for her.
When she gave me a culinary tour of her neighborhood, I got the second clue as to how she managed to live so frugally.
There's a place in New Jersey where you can have a New York milkshake with your sushi. Seriously. Baumgart's Café, name aside, is Asian with a quirky edge. I spent hours on their menu and I have to say that you can get anything. There's ice cream, of course, because they started as a soda fountain, but then the fun begins with sesame chicken, pastrami, gazpacho, duck crêpes, fries, salads, wraps, pot pies, an entire sushi menu, all your Chinese favorites, omelets, cappuccino, key lime pie, smoothies, egg creams and root beer floats. Those egg creams say we're not in Kansas. Where we are is across the Hudson in Edgewater.
We're zooming to dinner, as much as anyone gets to zoom which is not very much and certainly not in a New York minute. And not when your GPS lady freezes; I don't know why she freaked as soon as I crossed into New York. From Baumgart's patio, I stare longingly at the Upper West Side, the Empire State Building and all the snazzy real estate since the last time I was here. We love Manhattan even from afar but not too far.
Did I read Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter? Yes. Is it why we went for dinner at Prune? Yes. Am I glad we did? Absolutely!
Our taxis slowed down on a narrow street in NYC’s East Village as our driver struggled in the darkness to find street numbers. All of a sudden car headlights appeared in back of us and laid on their horns breaking the peaceful silence of a short East Village street. Our driver assured us we were very close to Prune even though none of us could find the storefront. We exited the cab after ending our conversation on home cooking in his native Ghana and thanked him for our cab ride filled with stories. Once we were out of the cab finding Prune restaurant was simple. We could smell the aroma slipping through the multiple cracks in the painted black storefront. We followed our noses like rabid bloodhounds catching a scent.
Shabby chic? Most definitely! No, I don’t think a set decorator could fabricate the wornness of this restaurant nor would they want that on a resume. I think it earned its wornness over many decades. Maybe I am wrong and maybe it is faux but this place is a charmer and it is as comfortable as a pair of UGG slippers. It’s a place you dream of having in your neighborhood - but don’t.
The food isn’t perfect but it is just perfectly real. The salad greens we ordered were classically ‘too’ large but the olive oil that dripped from them was a luscious yellow green and I know that it was freshly pressed last month. So, if you go, pick up your knife and fork and focus on the realness. I loved the simplicity of the food and its surroundings.
If you have been to Russ and Daughters you know that they have 5 kinds of salmon, the best smoked fish, many flavors of cream cheese and then you have to pick a bagel, toasted or not: lots of choices and combinations. I had worked out the fine details of what I would order. I had one shot at it as we were on a tight eating schedule. Not every minute over a 5 day span, a few minutes here and there. I could study all I wanted but until I saw what the various salmon looked like on that day it was only a guess.
We flew into JFK, checked into our hotel and it was still only 9:00AM. Next stop, Russ and Daughters. A subway ride south combined with a brisk walk as our phone’s GPS showed us the way. It started raining but we had an umbrella, then it started sleeting - that was fine, we are made of hearty Maine stock. All of a sudden it started snowing the biggest flakes we have ever seen and it reduced NYC to the feel of a small town. That is until the snow thunder started.
My friend, Barbara and I were escaping the icy tundra of Maine for a long weekend in New York City to indulge in great food, theater and art.
We started our Sunday morning at the MOMA as the doors opened. Up to the fifth floor we flew. As I walked into the first gallery I was overcome with the ‘scent’ of a museum. I love that smell. My soul was being ‘refilled’. I was free floating in art heaven when I noticed Barbara looking at her watch so we wouldn’t be late for the lunch reservations she made. I looked the other way and thought about disappearing into the crowd. We had 2 more floors when it was time to go. I thought, today lunch is such an interruption.
Our greeting from the Maitre D’ was warm, friendly and he was impeccably attired. He led us to a nice table with a stellar view of the printed glass mural by Thomas Demand, Clearing II. I was concerned that only two tables were occupied-why was this not a popular place? At that point, I had no idea there was a restaurant worthy of a Michelin star in the MOMA and we had lunch reservations at it. Yes, it was the Bar Room at The Modern. I hadn’t asked a single question about our Sunday reservations. A simple, quick lunch and back to exploring two more floors of art was exciting enough for me.
I’m obsessed. There’s no way of getting around it. I’m a walking Jackie Mason routine. At lunch, no before lunch, I’m deciding where we will go for dinner. At dinner, I’m wondering if the dessert menu will speak to me or will I just head home to my private stash. I always have a private stash of freshly baked goods. I’m more of a junkie when it comes to food.
I’m going to focus on just visiting New York here because Los Angeles, where I live, is different, and a few nights a week I try to cook. I’m not a very good cook and I’m so lazy that sometimes I pick up one sweet potato, not two, and a salad from the salad bar and call it dinner. My husband will remind me we can afford two sweet potatoes, but I shop at Gelson’s, so maybe we really can’t afford two.
Back to New York, where there is a huge difference in my energy level. All my friends comment on it. From the second I arrive, I’m off and running. First day, my husband had done some research. He suggested we walk to 11th avenue -- Hells Kitchen, where there is now a food marketplace called Gotham West Market. It’s similar to Eataly or the Ferry Building in San Francisco, though on a much smaller scale.
Two different people recommended a seafood shack in the West Village in New York. Two people – it’s a sign.We must try it, I said to my oldest-newest-best-friend. We waited in the predicted long line—something I hate and generally do not engage in We chatted with out-of-towners and I offered up my favorite food destination, Morandi. Then we were told to grab two seats at the counter. I pointed to my left, a quick celebrity sighting, an offbeat one. Louise Lasser. A former Mrs. Woody Allen.
Libbie kept telling me she could NOT be Louise Lasser since she was far too young. We argued back and forth as I stood my ground. Turns out she was talking about the waitress and I was talking about Louise Lasser, eating a dainty kale salad. That’s not what I would order, I thought.
We went for it, ordering too much -- partly due to hunger. A few appetizers that sounded southern and perfect. Fried Green Tomatoes, which, honestly, I can never resist. Libbie loves deviled eggs, so an order of those, and a shrimp, crab and avocado cocktail. And of course a lobster roll, at “market price,” which means expensive, $32.00. I had no problem with that, as it might have made it worth the subway trip downtown. Turns out, the deviled eggs were made with sour cream, not mayonnaise. So, after one bite, I put mine down and knew never to order those again. Then, the Fried Green Tomatoes, not great at all. Followed by the lobster sandwich, which was fine but certainly not the best I’d ever had. What a waste, I thought, of ingesting fattening food. What a waste of money. This was off my list, not that it had yet made it on.
Working on an article for Bespoke Magazine about multi-course upscale dining, I interviewed Chef Gabriel Kreuther at MoMA's The Modern.
We talked on the phone for half an hour during which time he told me about his culinary background ("Alsatian"), his opinion about double-digit multi-course dining like Thomas Keller's 24 course-meals ("afterwards, aren't there maybe 2 or 3 dishes that were memorable? why not just have those next time.") and why he loved cooking in a museum ("the art inspires me in the kitchen").
At the end of the conversation he offered, "Next time you're in New York, I want you to come to the restaurant and taste my food." Happily I was flying into the city the next day so I could accept the invitation.
We went to the Lower East Side the other night to see what the young people are up to. Our son, Max, was playing a gig at the Bowery Ballroom with a great band called dinowalrus. They totally killed — awesome. Jill and I were the oldest people in the neighborhood by at least thirty years.
We didn’t make reservations for dinner before the show because we always assume we can get ourselves fed when it’s just the two of us — often at the bar. I did have a destination in mind, though — Xicala, a tapas/wine bar that looked online to be properly LES. It was raining, so we scurried from the Grand Street subway across Bowery to Elizabeth Street, where Xicala promised to be and it was closed. Locked shut. I later checked their website, which says they’re “undergoing a makeover.” Good luck, Xicala. See you next time.
We were now wandering aimlessly in the rain, looking to grab a quick bite before the show. It was definitely an any-port-in-a- storm situation. We saw little orange lights coming out of a dark front window and crossed Elizabeth Street to see what was up and it was a restaurant called Little Rascal that serves Turkish food. Yeah — Little Rascal — Turkish. It made no sense to me, either. But our interest was definitely piqued — and our appetites as we’re both partial to Turkish food.
Nestled under a nail salon, down just a few stairs, there lives an outpost of delicate seafood, with a touch of unexpected spice.
The thing most people will have heard of from Chef Andres Figueroa’s Mexican-inspired tapas menu is the crickets. I think most of the conversations will go something like this:
“It’s a new place where you can get crickets!” “Crickets? Really, did you try them?” “Sure did, and they were great, you should totally eat some.”
As the chef told us, it is part of his goal of bringing some of the (unfamiliar to most Americans) flavors and textures of Mexican street food to the streets of New York. Crunchy and salty with a hint of lime, crickets turn out to be an excellent hot sauce delivery vector, and one I hope my local sports bars stock in the future.
Still, a snack of crickets seems to be more a gimmick to get you in the door than an end in itself. And if the gimmick works on you, you’ll be glad it did, especially if you order heavily from Figueroa’s seafood offerings.
by David Latt