Painting the Town Red

gothamwestI’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.

potatofritattaWe walked around the building and decided on the tapas restaurant, which was calling to me much more than the noodle place -- but I think I’m down to trying it soon. El Colmado has a lovely comfortable bar where you can see the chefs prepare the food. Oysters abound, but the waiter mentioned their special: a Spanish Tortilla, which is really like an omelet. It’s something I keep reading about and have been intrigued by. This one was made with onions and potatoes. I’m in my potato period (Picasso had a blue one) now, so they had me at potatoes, and it was superb.

Speaking of Picasso’s Blue Period, the next two restaurants were red. RedFarm and Red Rooster. RedFarm, on the Upper West Side, is a new Chinese joint -- no reservations, kill me now. I hate that new trend. But I do like to eat early, so we didn’t stand in a line, not that I would have. I haven’t waited in a restaurant line since the early 70’s at the Chart House in Malibu. Hated it then, would hate it even more now.

I just read some online reviews and most raved, except one that was accurate in this statement “I can see no reason to go to RedFarm unless you’re the kind of person who hears about a new place and feels compelled to go there.” Well, that was us. And we were split. My husband, who likes spicier food, enjoyed all the dishes. I wasn’t blown away and found everything to be too spicy. Next time, I try RedFarm, I will ask the waiter or waitress for less “heat.”

We shared hot & sour soup with sweet shrimp and three kinds of mushrooms. Okay, I’m impressed, and according to my husband, it’s great. It was just too spicy for me. Since the chef, Hong Kong born Joe Ng, is considered a dim sum master, next time I will order dumplings -- but not the pastrami egg roll. Yes, some of the dishes are “out there” and much more fusion than traditional Chinese.

redroosterNext, was the winning meal. Red Rooster has been on my to-do list for years, but I never seem to make it there. Harlem always sounds too far. Yes, you can get a reservation. Over the years, I have cancelled a few fearing that the A train would be too crowded. This could not be further from the truth since the restaurant is on 125th street and we were coming from 64th. I didn’t have a reservation this time, so we got there early and were planning on a bar seat. Well, what a crazy notion, because by 6:00 the bar was deep in bodies, all waiting for a seat at the bar.

redroostercornbreadNo problem. I pulled my I-promise-to-leave-by-a-certain-time bit. The hostess seated us. (And we kept our promise so they could turn the table over.) The whole vibe of Red Rooster is so exciting.

My husband told me a story from his youth—I had heard it before, but it had never really registered it until this moment. He went to see James Brown at the Apollo. An almost entirely African American audience. The young girl sitting next to him said out loud, very loud, to her parents, “I don’t wanna sit next to some CRACKER!!”

It doesn’t take me long to order when it’s Southern food. On the menu was Fried Chicken and Waffles, so I went for it. And we got corn bread, the best we both have ever had. Sweet, moist with a hint of cayenne. Come on, I didn’t need any more food after this. But I had ordered fried green tomatoes, another dish I will never turn down.

redroostercrabcakesMy husband ordered a grilled fish entree and to be redundant, crab cakes to start. Those crab cakes with a Creole remoulade!!! Best ever. The winning dish of our New York trip.

A few chicks sat down near us and started ordering like old pros. A goat meat appetizer. I asked them about it. Turns out, one of them in town on vacation takes her food seriously. She does a lot of research. She follows certain famous chefs on the Food Network, including the chef and owner of Red Rooster, Marcus Samuelsson.

She gave us some background on Samuelsson. He was born in Ethiopia where his mother died in a tuberculosis epidemic. He and his sister were adopted together by a Swedish family and moved to Goteborg, Sweden, when he was three years old. He got turned on to cooking by his Swedish maternal grandmother Helga, who he named his famous meatball dish after. His eclectic dishes are also influenced by his Ethiopian roots.

On this night, I didn’t have to go home to my private dessert stash because we ordered a good one -- Puddin’ in a Jar, which is dark chocolate pudding, citrus salad and cinnamon sauce.

On my last big food day, I headed to the West Village to one of my favorite restaurants for lunch, Buvette, a French bistro. My friend Peggy ordered the Salade De Poulet -- roasted chicken, haricots verts & potatoes in mustard vinaigrette. It’s like a Nicoise salad, but instead of tuna, chicken. Loved those warm potatoes. (Remember, I’m in my potato period.) I kept eating off her plate even though I ordered my favorite -- Oeufs -- eggs, steamed light and fluffy, the way I like them, served with grilled bread.

I met my husband for dinner at I Sodi, a charming Tuscan place that had been highly recommended. My friend told me to order the Spaghetti Cacio E Pepe, spaghetti with pecorino and black pepper, which was a bit rich for me, but so good. And I can’t ever turn down ravioli with butter and sage, so I ordered the Ravioli Burro E Salvia, which is house made spinach and ricotta ravioli. We also order Branzino Al Cartoccio, a whole branzino roasted with capers that we shared. A perfect last meal in New York, where I did not feel compelled to order a dessert. I had a stash of two cupcakes waiting for me -- one from Magnolia, and the other from Mitchell London.


Fredrica Duke shares how she discovered her love of food while growing up in Los Angeles on her blog Channeling the Food Critic in Me.