New York

balthazar1v.jpgI have always wanted to eat at Balthazar. After many years of fruitlessly trying to go to Balthazar, I finally succeeded. Maybe it was the way the restaurant teased me over these past few years that I had become thoroughly intrigued: The restaurant’s Parisian frontage and the crowds of diners seen through the windows beckoned me. Maybe it was the promise of la vie Bohème. From afar Balthazar has that je-ne-sais-quoi look, but from up close it seems just a bit faux and overdone. I think the restaurant tries too hard to look authentic with its crackled mirrors, dark paneling, and dim light fixtures.

To make sure I got in this time, I made reservations almost three weeks in advance, but I still could not get the specific time I wanted. Still the eventual time was suitable enough for a stress-relieving Friday night out this past week with my friend Amanda of the Undomestic Goddess. When we arrived, one of the many hostesses confirmed that indeed the reservation was made, but then told us to wait for the maître d’ to direct us to our seats. A little confusion followed in which we were stormed by a large group coming from the bar area and then another group entering. We almost didn’t get served—a somewhat sordid start to an evening meant for relaxing.

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ny_carmines_upper.jpg My new best friend, Laraine Newman, recently took me to Carmines here in Los Angeles, an old school Italian joint that was once the stomping grounds of the Rat pack. From what I heard, there was quite a lot of stomping that took place there. Not only rich in City of Angels History, it has terrific food and a staff eager to please. If you ever feel the need to step back in time and slip your butt into a comfy old red leather banquette that boasts the resting places– at least temporarily – of such legendary butts as those belonging to Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra, this is the place. A history of Carmines is available on this site, written by Laraine, and is well worth the read.

However, my Carmines story involves the other coast. In the early 90’s, Godfried Polistanna and partners opened what was the first new ‘Family Style’ restaurant in maybe fifty years on Manhattan’s Upper West side.  Designed to look like it had been there for ages, it was also as ‘old school’ as a new place could be. A huge space with lots of dark wood, simple tables and white linen, it was adorned with mismatched chandeliers and lamps, its walls covered with old photographs of every conceivable Italian looking man, woman, child and family. It was a revived Don Peppi’s in Queens, a throwback to the Italian joints on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, and it was a huge, huge hit. Most nights the wait for a table was two hours, maybe more. People couldn’t get enough of it.

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1cafeorlin.jpgThere are many foods I will not miss about New York City: street cart hot dogs dressed in a syrupy mess called “onions,” over-priced dry pasta from ancient red sauce joints in Little Italy, the thousand dairy-free sugar-free fat-free ice cream substitute Tasti-Delite variants, which taste like glue after the first lick. But I long for Café Orlin, the Middle Eastern-inflected diner on Saint Mark’s Place where I think I spent a quarter of my income the past two years.

My standby meal in college was Diana’s Breakfast, hummus drizzled with olive oil, chopped tomato, and onion; tabouli; and two eggs any style (I had mine sunny-side up). I ordered extra pita and a side of homemade harissa and I constructed two little Middle Eastern tacos of the various ingredients and nibble at them slowly. My then-boyfriend and I ate this meal almost every day, with coffee (Americano with milk in undergrad, skim cappuccino during the pursuit of my Master’s degree). Once, when I was home in Chicago, he called me during breakfast. My mother told him I was eating “hummus with eggs and tabouli,” then passed the phone to me.

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russdaughtersextIf 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.

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panda1It is not every day that I meet a furry friend on my travels through coffee shops. Normally, I find a heart shape design or a leaf, or a flower in the foam of my cappuccino-- a symbol of my barista's or baristo's skill, passion for his or her art, and hope to make my day that much better. But last week, after returning to Via Quadronno for one of their delicious cappuccini, my friend and I were handed what seemed to be the most delicate design I had even seen.

There he was--just staring at us with beautiful details. The cappuccino was actually for my friend Ashley, and I could see the sadness in her eyes as she knew the design would soon be gone when she went to drink the coffee. The panda's eyes almost formed a tranquil look as well--as if he knew his time was short.

For the rest of the day I continued to talk about my run-in with a panda bear at the cappuccino shop. My co-workers were nearly as amazed as we were. So I made it my mission to visit another well-known cappuccino place in Lower Manhattan, La Colombe.

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