Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Obviously, you could spend any number of lifetimes in NYC and not try everything it has to offer on the food front. But, given the fact I was there for less than I week, I did not think I had done too badly.

I had managed to break out of Manhattan which is something all too few visitors do and all visitors ought to do if they are interested in food and I had filled my time and my stomach with some of the best NYC has to offer.

The last couple of days were no different.

Friday came and I had plans to try again to have breakfast at Barney Greengrass. When I arrived on the Monday, it had been closed. For years, when I had stayed in this neighbourhood for business, I had walked past this shop where Mr Greengrass proclaimed himself the self styled “Sturgeon King” and had eaten there before. I had not been overwhelmed by it and had never seen the need to return.

It is however, as quintessential a NY store as you are ever likely to find and I thought it was worth another go if only to confirm how blah it had been the first time around.

My companions this time were not to be native New Yorkers but some fellow travellers from London, Gavin & Anny who happened to be in town at the same time as I was. We had already planned to have lunch together, but agreed that a bit of eggs and onions in the morning might be a good start. Unfortunately, a late one for them before meant they were running behind schedule in the morning. I was the first customer through the door when the shutters came up and was greeted by a message from G&A saying that they were going to be half an hour late.

Did I wait patiently so I could enjoy breakfast with my friends? Did I bollocks like? I ordered.

The place was already filling up by now with locals who are, as all New Yorkers incredibly specific in their ordering demanding their food in detailed and very specific ways. It is impressive to listen too, but you can’t help thinking that in most cases they are doing it because they can, not because they could tell the difference if it came any other way.

Still, my order, given in a much more deferential British style

“may I possibly have some lox, eggs and onions please? Ooh, could I have a bialy too. I want to try one of those”

was taken promptly and the food arrived soon after. It was better than I recall with the eggs less dry than on my previous visit and the fish actually having some taste. I rather liked it. The bialy just struck me as a bagel without the hole, but perhaps I am missing something.

By the time I had done eating, my friends had still not turned up, so I left a message for them at the counter and headed off to fill my morning. As soon as I walked out of the door, I bumped into them crossing Amsterdam Avenue and they looked most put out that I had not waited. As I explained to them, in this crazy business of EAT MY GLOBE, you snooze, you loose.

I was planning to meet them later anyway for lunch, so we went our own ways until our planned meeting time at Noon.

One thing that I never fail to have on my visits to NYC is a huge, enormo, fuck off steak. There is something about a NY steakhouse that just can’t be replicated. The hubbub, the waiters in ill fitting dinner jackets and the ludicrous portions of meat. Of course other places in the US have great steakhouses, but there is something about those in NYC that draw me to them like a moth to a flame.

Above all others in New York is Peter Luger’s Steakhouse in Brooklyn. It is, for many, The Holy Grail of steaks and there are plenty of New Yorkers who will stop talking to you if you even suggest that any other place in the city or the country comes close. Mind you, in some cases that would be a good thing.

I waver on the supremacy of Peter Luger over others. This was to be my fifth visit. So far it had been a draw. I had been subjected to two dreadful meals there, but had also experienced two meals when I began to see what all the fuss was about. It was time to break the tie.

As I arrived, Gavin and Anny were already there, trying to make amends for their inexcusable lateness early I guess. Now it was my turn to make them wait as, before we sat down, I did what I always do when visiting this famous institution. I sucked down one of their unfeasibly large and vaguely competent Martinis.

By the time I had got a nice buzz on, it was time to head to the table. There is only once choice here for the visitor who does not have the opportunity for repeat visits, the porterhouse. Given that Anny would not eat vast amounts, but Gavin and I would, we plumped for the order for three people with some chips.

Appetizers here are actively grim, but eating strips of fatty bacon and crappy tomato salads help pass the time while you wait for the main event which in this case was, I am pleased to say, well worth waiting for.

We devoured the huge slab of meat, cut into large chunks and served with its own juices, in rapid time while sinking more martinis (in my case) and beer, for Gavin & Anny.

I was pleased. I want to like this place and the fact that it had let me down on other visits was a disappointment. This was not. This was as good a steak as it is possible to get and I gnawed at the bone much to the distaste of my companions.

By mid afternoon, I was already bushed, so headed back to Sanjoy & Evelyn’s flat for a quiet night.

The next morning was much the same. I took it easy, partly in anticipation of an early start to Mexico the next day and partly in anticipation of a fun afternoon at the glamorous abode of my chum, Cathy.

Now, Cathy is a smoker. I don’t mean she likes to puff on a ciggie, although in her private world she may well do. I mean she loves to smoke stuff. In her small but perfectly formed garden, she has A Big Green Egg, a rather fearsome looking beast in which she smokes hunks of meat for long periods of time.

Over the years, Cathy has smoked any number of bits of animal for me to try, but now she raised the bar by ordering a 40lb hunk o’ hog via her work in the restaurant trade, having it cut up and smoking it for god knows how long in preparation for a “Thank the Lord he’s leaving New York” party in my honour.

At the prearranged time, I arrived with Sanjoy & Evelyn in tow along with another dear friend, Jeanette who I have known for ever and who had gladly agreed to come along for the porky ride.

Cathy had invited about 20 other people, I think, and, as I helped her bring the slabs of meat up from the garden to be pulled apart, others arrived bringing even more food.

Sandy Levine arrived bearing a Shaker Pie, which is made by baking slices of lemons and sugar in a pastry case. Another friend, Meredith, gelato maker to Don Mario Batali, came with two tubs of her incomparable ices and yet another person, whose name totally escapes me, sorry, arrived with a tray filled with “Mac & Cheese”

Normally, those words fill me with as much horror as the word “pizza” and I steer clear of it whenever it is used as a threat against me. However, it actually looked good and smelled better. I tentatively took a small portion and, after sniffing it again, had a bit. What can I tell you? I am a convert. It was so good I went back for seconds and thirds until I was pulling crusty bits of cheese off the bowl in desperation normally reserved for crack addicts.

The pork was good too, but then I knew it would be. Particularly after offering my expert help pulling it apart into fatty strands

It was a triumph, as indeed was the whole evening. Much food was eaten and much wine and scotch drunk. The desserts vanished in seconds as if someone had announced that there was going to be a sugar shortage

I was sorry when the time came to leave. Not because it was just the end of my time at this particular joyful party but because it was the end of my time in New York and, not being in publishing anymore, I was not sure when my next chance to return would come.

It is a city of people to whom I give hell for their blind loyalty to a place with huge numbers of failings. It is a city that could never possibly live up to its own publicity as the greatest place to eat on Earth and it is a city that has the capacity to bewilder and annoy at every turn.

For all that, it is a city I love to bits and have not tired of, even after a hundred visits. It is a city that is filled with people I love to bits and who had gone all out to make this section of EAT MY GLOBE a special one. They had succeeded.

With their help, I had been to the ends of the boroughs in search of amazing things to eat and the city had not come up wanting. I was full up to the brim in so many ways and already thinking of what I would do when I returned.

One thing I did know was that it would include seeing my friends, Cathy, Sandy, Beth & Peter, Jeanette and all the rest. Above all, however, it would include, God willing, spending time with Sanjoy & Evelyn, my other parents without whom New York would never feel the same.

The next morning, I realised that I had left the party in such a rush, I had forgotten to collect my favourite woolly hat tucked down the side of a chair at Cathy’s place. A shame, that hat has been around the world with me many times.

Mind you, I did not think that I was going to need it where I was going next.

I was off to Mexico

Monday, January 28, 2008


There is no more beautiful sight in the whole of NYC than the inside of the recently restored Grand Central Station and there is no better a person to meet there than my good chum, Sandra Levine.

Inevitably, I met Sandra or Sandy through food websites, but alongside her passion for food, which is considerable as I can testify after tasting a number of excellent meals, is a dedication to capturing and recording some of the architectural highlights and heritage of this city.

When I was planning the NYC part of my trip, I made it quite clear to Sandy that she was down in my book to play guide as I headed off to explore a neighbourhood that had caught my imagination when watching movies and documentaries about NY’s vibrant Italian community, Arthur Avenue. She, for whatever reason, seemed to think that accompanying me for a day’s mooching around NY could be an agreeable way to pass the day.

Situated in the Bronx, a short train ride from Manhattan (hence the meeting point) Arthur Avenue seems to still retain its title as the de facto capital of Italian New York City particularly in the face of its Manhattan equivalent being devoured by an encroaching Chinatown. It is facing its own challenges however, as Sandy, who has forgotten more about NY than anyone else I have met has ever known, explained. The latest influx into the area is a large Albanian community who have begun to take over the businesses of the area including the restaurants which they still run as “Italian” even though a pale imitation of their former selves.

Still, Sandy thought it was still worth a trip and that was good enough for me to brave the train and find the street easily with some helpful and accurate signage

It is, from what I can tell, definitely a fixture on the tourist trail, with people using it as a feeding point when visiting The Bronx Zoo or the nearby Botanical Gardens. However, on a quiet Thursday mid morning, we were able to spend a good few hours wandering around with precious few other people around to crowd us as we went from store to store gawking everywhere and sampling where we could.

The names alone are enough to conjour up a time when this neighbourhood was screaming with new immigrants from Italy. Not yet ready to assimilate and still craving tastes and ingredients from home. De Lilo’s pastries,

The Cantabria Pork Store and Casa Della Mozarella

Umberto’s Clams, Teitel Brothers (didn’t sound very Italian to me)

The Calandra Cheese store and the Indoor Market.

Sandy is nothing if not thorough so had prepared a list of places that not only she, but others, had said should be on any self respecting tour of Arthur Avenue. We tasted canoli at De Lilo’s (in truth not that great)

and clams at Umberto’s.

In fact, We sucked down clams at two stalls and we stared hungrily at the enormo sandwiches at the Indoor Market.

It would have pretty easy to have made a meal by snacking our way along the street, but I wanted to sit down and have lunch at one of the famous restaurants on the Avenue itself. I think Sandy was slightly bemused by this. She warned me that the quality could be variable and that the pricing was made up on the spot depending on how smart you looked or how expensive your shoes were.

I understood and was fully prepared for it not to be a great meal, but, as I explained to Sandy, this style of “red sauce” Italian cooking, something which is truly an American creation, was as alien to me as eating horse in Mongolia or Elk in Finland and as such, it had every bit as much right to be sampled even if it turned out to be pretty awful.

Well, for the record, the food at our chosen place, Dominick’s was pretty bleh. A heavy pasta dish in a shrimp sauce,

and chicken Scarpiello which was nice and stewed all served with a glass of “context” wine. That is wine that is just about fine in context but which you would not use on your chips under any other circumstance. Yes, we were overcharged too. The bill came to $40 which I am told was because of my accent. I am used to my British charm getting me into trouble, but rarely has it been the cause of a price hike in a restaurant.

Despite all of this, I loved Dominick’s. With the hustle and bustle that only American Italians seem capable of and noise enough from a lunchtime crowd to compete with a jet engine, it was enormous fun. Everybody in there seemed to be having a great time including our table companions who were extolling the virtues of the food more based on memories of childhood than any inherent quality of what was placed in front of them or us.

Would I ever go back there? Of course not, but I am so glad I did. You will have to ask Sandy what she thinks……………

It was still only early afternoon and had time to kill before my evening plans. Sandy kindly agreed to give me more of a guided tour, this time around some of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She really knows her stuff and we walked for about an hour as she showed me buildings of note and worth including Kossar’s which is famous for making Bialys.

Now, I have to be honest and say that, while I had heard of these things, I had never actually tried one. Similar to a bagel, but simply baked instead of being boiled first, they have their origin in Polish Askenazi cooking and seem to be something that is distinctly a New York thing.

Another distinctly New York thing is having an opinion on everything and everything and I laughed out loud when Sandy told me that her husband, Alan, now refuses to go there since they started selling the Bialys pre packaged after a change of ownership.

I am not sure if my chortling offended her, but Sandy announced that she had to head off to her own life which left me to potter around for a while before heading off for supper.

There are, I am sure, for all of you, some foods you just don’t get. I have met people who can’t eat a pork pie or a slab of black pudding without coming over all green. I have met people who go “ugh, fish” when offered the chance to eat something scaly. I have even met people who don’t eat meat but, lets not go there, that way lies madness.

I am, thankfully free of most of that silliness, but I do have an Achilles heel and it is pizza. I can’t stand the stuff and for years have bored anyone who will listen and plenty who wont by describing it as “snot on toast”

It is just one of those things I just don’t get. Why would you do such a thing to even half decent ingredients? It also seems to be entirely racially based. I could be had up in front of The Anti Italian Defamation League on some charge or other because I eat Turkish Pide like a good un, hell, I even eat cheese on toast, which being doughy and cheesy, is basically the same thing.

But, the thing that people love about this “Italian” speciality, its mix of dough, tomatoes, cheese, meat and slicks of olive oil, just turns me off. I know it’s my failing, but I also know I just don’t like them. So sue me.

People have tried to convince me otherwise and convert me to their evil ways but, so far, without success.

That night, my chums Beth & Peter Pizio were going to take another stab at it and, as agreed, I met them at Beth’s office in time to have a little Dutch courage in the form of a couple of pints of Guinness before heading off to the scene of, what they hoped would be, my Damascene conversion.

Their choice?

Pasty’s located deep in the heart of Spanish Harlem and their particular favourite because of its coal oven as opposed to wood. My suggestion that it would just make it coal oven cooked snot on toast as opposed to wood oven cooked snot on toast seemed to go unnoticed.

What can I say? The salad was nice. The pizzas were enormous, well of course they were, this is, after all NYC. On one, Garlic and basil with some anchovies on my bit. On the other, ricotta and sun dried tomatoes. I wanted to like it if only to please Beth and Peter who are excellent fellows and I really did try eating a slice of each, but in truth I was more taken with the cute waitress from New Zealand and chatting to my chums than I was with what was on my plate.

Those of you who know me will tell you this is a rare occurrence.

Beth and Peter insisted on picking up the tab which was incredibly generous. When they come to London, I am treating them to a Pork Pie and I will be equally as hospitable as they chow down on chunks of lardy pastry and fatty meat (yum!) See how they like them apples

After supper, they walked me almost all the way home across town to Sanjoy & Evelyn’s flat before saying goodbye and heading uptown to their own place.

So it was another fun day in NYC. Spent in the company of hugely agreeable people. I also got to try two more uniquely American foods, red sauce Italian and NY Pizza.

What can I tell you? I just think it is good of New York to take the blame for them.

Monday, January 21, 2008

My first day back in New York had been about family.

I had barely left the comfortable surrounds of Sanjoy & Evelyn’s apartment and felt suitably refreshed the next morning as I headed out to visit three places which, to me as a visitor, sum up everything that is special about eating in New York.

Continuing the research into my theory that America’s greatest contribution to world cuisine is the sandwich, I headed down to Houston St and the site of one of the great sandwiches on planet earth, Katz’s Deli.

Prone as the people of New York are to hyperbole, it would not be any great surprise if the much lauded pastrami sandwich was good, but not as good as they say. For once, they are absolutely right. It is every bit as good as they say. Possibly, even better. Slabs of moist meat are carved off and piled onto slices of rye bread, topped with a little sweet mustard and served with a plate of pickles.

On this journey, there have been moments when I have just stopped for a second and reminded myself, where I am, what I am doing and why I am doing it. The trip is hurtling along and I want to allow myself time to reflect on the whole point of the exercise.

I did it on The Great Wall of China as I stopped and thought about my mother who had always thought about making the trip. I did it in Mongolia as I stood by the Ger camp and watched nomadic horsemen shoot by at rapid pace and I did it in Finland as The Princessa prepared a meal in which everything served was grown or caught on their land.

Special moments.

It may be odd to say, but I had a similar moment sitting in Katz’s deli. It was not just that the sandwich was good. Of course it was. It was exceptionally good, particularly when each bite was alternated with a chomp on a “half Sour” pickle.

It was just the realisation that I was in one of the great cities on earth, doing what millions of New Yorkers had done before me and experiencing something that could be copied but never matched. It is a unique experience and that is what EAT MY GLOBE was about.

Mind you, I was soon shaken out of my reverie by the sounds of the rapidly filling deli and concentrated on the last few mouthfuls of my breakfast. The only weakness was the bread, which was non descript. I assumed it was just generic white bread, but found out later, from a friend, Sandy, that it is rye bread. The same friend told me that she even mules in her own superior bread and transplants the meat to create a superior sandwich. I laughed out loud when I heard this, but, if you really want to know how seriously New Yorkers take their food, there it is, literally on a plate.

A pastrami sandwich for breakfast is not something to be taken lightly. That much meat early in the morning sits rather heavily on the tum and, as I had two more meals that day, I decided to head off for a bit of a stroll around the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The weather was lovely, with a slight breeze and I spent the next couple of hours working my way up towards my lunchtime destination with just a few stops to avail myself of the free Wi-Fi that seems to be a common and splendid feature of many of New York’s parks.

By 1pm, I was ready for lunch and found myself outside Sushi Yasuda. There are very few times when the feel an anticipatory shiver of excitement before a meal. The times I have a reservation at this Japanese restaurant makes up much of the list.

New York is responsible for my love of Sushi. Oh, we have sushi in London and it is getting to a stage where I would even describe it as “good” I would never describe it as “epiphanal” which is a word I would use for some of my sushi experiences in NYC.

The first of such came in late 2002, when a friend, Abby accompanied me to a small restaurant called Jewel Bakko. She insisted that we go for the omakase which basically meant we sat there while they plonked stuff in front of us. It was at that point that I first really began to understand how good sushi could be.

My first meal at Yasuda, sitting at his station as he placed piece after stunning piece of uber-fresh fish under my nose, raised the bar again. Even now after a trip to Japan, which included some truly extra-ordinary eating experiences, I was still thrilled to have the chance to go again.

They don’t make it easy, however, with lots of reconfirmations required to make sure my seat was ready for me when I arrived bang on time. It is worth all of that nonsense for the experience itself and, twelve or more pieces of sushi later and about $60 lighter, I still have no cause to knock Yasuda from the very top of my own personal sushi table. It is not just the quality of the fish served nor indeed the technique involved in creating the nigiri and maki. It is the man himself, bustling and humerous, attentive to both his customers and to the task at hand.

At one point, as he placed my third piece of uni, sea urchin, in front me and said “better than sex”

I looked back at him and said “I don’t know, my memory is not that good”

He bent double with a sudden crack of laughter and then placed another piece down on my place setting, saying ‘better have two”. I love this guy and I love this place. If I lived in NYC or we had an equivalent in London, I would be eating there every week.

Given that I had already eaten two meals and had one more to go, I decided to walk down from Yasuda’s to Tribeca where I was going to meet one of my dearest friends, Cathy Loup.

Cathy (pictured here with a large piece of pork, which is another story all together) may not be a native New Yorker, but she represents everything that is best in the inhabitants of the city. She is fiercely proud of it and living there. But, unlike so many of its residents, not blind to its faults and the fact that there may just be other places on earth worthy of consideration.

She also has one of the best hearts of any person who has ever walked the globe. It would take a lot hard investigation to find any person who could come up with a bad word to be said about her and, even then, the most damning thing they would be able to say is that she has a fondness for cheese from Wisconsin.

When my mother died, it was Cathy whose regular mails to me as I sat in Washington Airport waiting to fly home from a business trip, kept me going. When I came to New York on my many business trips, it was her kitchen to which we decamped to produce Bengali dinners or unfeasibly large chunks of roasted meat and, when I look to have someone to break bread with, she is one of the first on the list.

So, inevitably, on this leg of the journey, she was the first person I was going to dine with and left it to her to choose a place.

She chose The Kabab Café in Astoria, Queens. Never heard of it? I am not surprised. Unless you are a reader of any one of the food boards, there is no reason why you would have come across this tiny, unassuming place run by the irrepressible Ali. I only got to know it when another friend, Nina, took me there with promises of offal in all its many and varied forms.

She was not wrong. From a kitchen the size of a small shower cubicle, Ali produced plate after plate of food taken from bits of the animal that would normally be let on the abattoir floor. The flavours were revelatory and the atmosphere fuelled by good wine made the evening one of the best I have ever spent in the city.

I had not been back for three years. A shame, but I was determined to make up for it. So, after collecting Cathy from work we headed over their by subway and wandered in to find Ali little changed and hard at work over the stove.

“come here Indian boy” he shouted recognising me even though he had not seen me in too long a time.

“have some of this” he added thrusting a battered something into my hand.

I bit down and a crunch gave way to a creamy inside.

“brains, my boy” he beamed. “gotta have brains”

I was back at The Kabab Café. Thank God.

It was as good as I remember. Course followed course as we devoured every bit of any number of animals. From glands to gonads, from brains to marrow bones. It is, by its nature, a bit one note “stuff in sauce” Cathy said hitting the nail on the head. But, I don’t care. If it is one note, it is a hell of a note to have.

At the end of the meal and two bottles of wine later, Ali, offered us slices of honey cake to finish our meal off, washed down with some mint tea. A perfect ending.

We bundled out into the cold night air warmed by a last farewell hug from the man mountain himself and smiled our way back into the city.

Another great day in a great city and a chance to catch up with some old friends. Yasuda, Ali & Cathy