24 June 2017
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D*MN Food Trip: The Big Apple

Those who know me best aren’t surprised when I plan entire trips around eating and drinking. It’s what I do. What better place for such a trip than New York City? Recently, the three of us ventured to the Big Apple for a long weekend with a modest goal: stuff our collective souls in as many restaurants and bars as possible in a three-day period.

We decided to focus on the lower third of Manhattan. I was fully prepared with a map detailing several dozen hot spots and local classics. Realistically, crossing 10 names off of my list would have satisfied me. However, it ended up being closer to 20.

We arrived in the early afternoon on a Friday and immediately hit the ground running. Our first stop was one of Mario Batali’s more casual offerings, Otto Enoteca & Pizzeria, in Greenwich Village. I had previously dined at several of his more upscale establishments nationwide – Babbo and Del Posto in New York City, B&B Ristorante and Carnevino in Las Vegas, and Mozza in Los Angeles – and was curious how this more casual counterpart would compare. Aesthetically, it looked like a wine bar that you might find throughout Italy – a laid-back environment with specials scribbled on the walls and servers scurrying throughout the room.

We sat down at a communal table just before happy hour, and there was already a crowd brewing. This being our first meal of the day, we decided to ease into things with a sampling of antipasti and salads. Highlights included wonderfully simple combinations of broccoli and Pecorino, and white beans with Soffritto. Salads ranged from good to excellent, with the show-stopper being a refreshing mix of fennel, apple and walnuts.

With the sun still shining, we next ventured to SoHo for a quick stop at Dos Caminos, the glorified Mexican “chain” from BR Guest Hospitality (Atlantic Grill, Blue Fin, Blue Water Grill, etc.). I wasn’t expecting much from the kitchen, but on a sunny day in New York nothing beats tableside guacamole and margaritas while sitting outside. Both were excellent, but not the best I’ve ever had. Dos Caminos does make for fabulous people-watching, and today was no exception. The place was packed with locals and tourists alike.

Having awakened our taste buds, we set out for something a little more substantial. I had heard great things about Boqueria and was hoping it was still early enough to snag a few seats at the bar and dig into some small plates. Founding chef Seamus Mullen recently split ties with the restaurant, but I was optimistic the kitchen was still turning out the same quality food even without its top toque.

We entered the tiny room and, luckily after one drink, were able to claim three seats. The bartender was helpful, guiding us through the menu and recommending some of the top dishes. Sautéed wild mushrooms were kicked up a notch with Manchego cheese, while roasted Brussel sprouts were perfectly charred and accented with bits of chorizo. I’ve had patatas bravas dozens of times, but Boqueria’s take with salsa brava and roasted garlic is one of the best renditions out there. A perfectly cooked hanger steak with seasonal vegetables was a sublime ending to our third stop of the day.

After a quick shower and change of clothes, we headed to the Meatpacking District for some socializing with the beautiful crowd. Whether you love or hate this pretentious neighborhood, there’s no denying the fun factor it creates night in and night out. Our first stop was the over-the-top steakhouse, STK. With branches in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Miami, STK is not your grandfather’s steakhouse. It’s the epitome of scene over substance.

On this trip, I was more interested in seeing what all the hoopla was about, so we decided to forgo the pricey chow and just soak in the scene. It did not disappoint. The sexy dining room was filled with models poking at expensive appetizers and gentlemen digging into prime chops. Heads turned left and right. Table hopping seemed the norm, rather than the exception. What else would you expect from a restaurant with a door man?

Following a round at STK, we headed to another “meet” market just a couple blocks away. The Standard Biergarten, set within the über trendy Standard Hotel, is in large part responsible for reviving the Meatpacking District after several years in relative obscurity. Make no mistake about it, this is not your typical biergarten. You won’t find surly middle-aged men dressed in loose t-shirts at The Standard, but rather young hipsters and trend-setters gathering for expensive cocktails and maybe a game or two of ping pong before attempting to gain access to the exclusive Boom Boom Room on the hotel’s 18th floor.

We settled down for a few drinks at one of many communal tables in what is basically an outdoor, upscale cafeteria that is so crowded on a Friday evening that you could probably auction off a seat to the highest bidder. We resisted the temptation and sipped our drinks with some friends while taking in what is arguably the greatest scene of the moment.

By 11 PM, our stomachs were growling, so we headed about 50 feet to our dining destination, The Standard Grill. Like many restaurants in New York, the room was still buzzing as we sat down at our table and quickly gazed at the menu. Most trendy hotels these days are luring in celebrity chefs to helm their restaurants, which often creates a lot of publicity but, even more often, fails to deliver the goods. The Standard Grill is quite the exception. Chef Dan Silverman held executive positions at The Lever House and Union Square Cafe but was a relative unknown outside of Manhattan foodie circles. Not the case anymore. Silverman has created a sophisticated menu that doesn’t play second fiddle to the eye candy situated throughout the brasserie’s handsome environs.

For the serious carnivores, there’s an excellent Niman Ranch burger and two cuts of beef meant for sharing – an expensive but tasty porterhouse and a less costly, but equally good, rib-eye. On the lighter side, try any of the seasonal soups or salads, especially the snow-pea and radish medley with cider vinaigrette. A gigantic roast chicken was overcooked and surprisingly bland but helped out by a side of duck-fat smashed potatoes. The perfect ending to a satisfying meal, aptly named the deal-closer, was a bowl of bittersweet chocolate mousse topped with homemade whipped cream.

As we drifted off into the night for more drinks and socializing, I could only think to myself, how could tomorrow’s line-up possibly top such a memorable day of feast and frolic? You’ll just have to read on to find out.

After a few short hours of shut-eye, we awakened on Saturday morning a little bleary eyed but undeterred. Where to go first? How about the latest and greatest from master restaurateur Danny Meyer, whose portfolio (Eleven Madison ParkGramercy Tavern, The Modern and Union Square Cafe ) is the epitome of New York City fine dining. Maialino, situated in the recently refurbished Gramercy Park hotel, continues the renowned Meyer formula of superior service in comfortable, non-pretentious settings.

Like its predecessors, there is a casual bar/lounge area near the restaurant’s entrance, with a somewhat more-formal dining room in the back. Helmed by up-and-coming chef Nick Anderer, formerly of Babbo and Gramercy Tavern, Maialino is Meyer’s first foray into Italian cooking. While the surroundings don’t exactly remind you of the quintessential Roman trattoria, Anderer’s cooking is uncannily authentic. We started with selections from the patisserie – toffee-glazed brioche, olive-oil muffins, and doughnuts with cream – all of which were surprisingly light, yet equally delicious.

While my brother couldn’t resist ordering a salad (he almost always does), I opted next for the Ricotta pancakes with maple syrup and apple compote. No offense to my Dad, but these pancakes were so light and fluffy that they practically melt in your mouth. Locanda Verde’s rendition with lemon and Ricotta might take the cake in terms of my favorite, but these were most certainly a close second. Finally, when in Rome, you have to try the pasta. We sampled several, with a clear favorite: cacio e pepe, a rustic combination of delicate tonnarelli folded with creamy Pecorino and black pepper. Simple, and simply delicious.

Fully energized, we ventured south for a brisk walk before our next stop in SoHo, a visit to Keith McNally’s ever-popular French brasserie, Balthazar. Many credit McNally with changing the face of SoHo when he opened the bustling bistro more than 20 years ago, and I was curious what all the fuss is about. We sat down in the extremely crowded room and surveyed the scene – there was tons of energy, but where were the celebrity sightings I’d been reading about for all these years?

Star-gazing aside, the sour cream hazelnut waffles would make IHOP jealous – light on the inside, crunchy on the outside, and bursting with flavor. A side of frites was good but not great, with no offense to Bobbly Flay, who proclaimed these frites the best he’s ever had. In true bistro fashion, we ended our second brunch of the day with a pot of French press coffee and were immediately transported to the streets of Paris, if only for a moment in time.

Stuffed to the brim, we decided that a few libations were in order before our next meal. Mercer Kitchen was just around the corner, so we popped in for a few rounds as the sun continued to brightly shine on this warm Fall day. Set within the contemporary Mercer Hotel, the kitchen is run by celebrity chef Jean-George Vongerichten and makes for a great night of dining or drinking. If you go for the food, don’t miss the legendary hamburger and fries, or steamed shrimp salad with champagne vinaigrette. If you go for the drinks, there is a small bar in the hotel’s main lobby, but I would suggest venturing downstairs to the restaurant’s main bar, where you can avoid most of the camera-toting tourists.

When in New York, you have to eat pizza, and I was itching to try one of the city’s newest establishments. Located in the Bowery, Pulino’s is the latest-and-greatest from the aforementioned McNally, and his first collaboration with a celebrity chef – James Beard winner Nate Appleman, a transplant from much-hyped A16 in San Francisco. Ironically enough, Appleman split ties with Pulino’s not long after its opening, with rumors circulating that the chef and McNally were not seeing eye-to-eye on the execution of its primary offering, pizza.

Pulino’s pie is not the typical old-school NYC slice, but rather follows the current trend of gourmet pizza made from the highest-quality ingredients. We sampled three varieties – quattro formaggi, margherita and mushrooms with pancetta – with the clear favorite being the four cheese combination of mozzarella, grana, fontina and gorgonzola, kicked up with a slathering of roasted red onion. The thin crust was perfectly charred and blended nicely with its supporting cast of toppings. My one complaint: uneven baking left several of the slices undercooked as you made your way from start to finish. And nothing is worse then soggy pizza. Hopefully, they’ve since worked out the kinks.

Stuffed to the brim, we headed back to our hotel for some much-needed rest and relaxation. I felt good about the progress made so far and was excited about tonight’s prospects. First up, a visit to the Lower East Side hot-spot, Stanton Social, a bustling bi-level restaurant/lounge from frequent Food Network contributor Chris Santos.

I was confident that Stanton’s scene would be second to none, but how would the food measure up? The upstairs lounge was stuffed to the brim with wannabe fashionistas and the Wall Street types who love them, so it took considerable time to find ample bar space for our selection of small plates. When they finally arrived, it was clearly worth the wait. In terms of creativity and execution, nothing compares with Santos’ french-onion soup dumplings, an inventive take on the classic bistro staple.

We had time for a quick stop before dinner, so we ventured a few blocks over to another McNally institution, Schiller’s. We didn’t have time to sample the fare, but I’d sure enjoy a neighborhood joint like this in DC. As the clock ticked past 11 PM, we hopped a cab to the Village for the evening’s main course at the recently reincarnated Minetta Tavern. Yes, another McNally venture, bringing our one-day total to four. I had high expectations for Minetta – most of the city’s critics have dubbed it the toughest reservation in town. But would this playground for adults amount to all style and no substance? In short, somewhat.

As we walked through the seemingly modest front entrance, I was immediately struck by the restaurant’s intimacy. This isn’t an oversized, Vegas-style monstrosity that seems to be the culinary norm these days. The bar area is small and packed with locals, leading past a group of plush crimson banquettes – a McNally trademark – to the equally tiny main dining room. The original tavern opened in the 30s, in a corner space on MacDougal Street, and flourished, over the years, as a hangout for generations of Village pub crawlers. McNally has taken the place upscale and stationed a giant bouncer by the front door, but he’s wisely left most of the old saloon-era interior intact.

The real overhaul at the new Minetta Tavern is in the kitchen where, unlike some of its neo-speakeasy predecessors, it’s actually focused on serving first-rate food. Don’t get me wrong, the scene lived up to the hype. We sat down at our four-top just before midnight, and the room was still a buzz with the perfect blend of A-list exclusivity and frenetic chaos as servers whisked throughout the room. The gentleman taking care of us was friendly and knowledgeable, and he didn’t treat us at all like second-class citizens. I didn’t even need to glance at the menu, having done so in weeks leading up to our trip: crab salad to start, bone-in New York strip to finish.

While waiting for our sustinance to arrive, we chatted up a nice couple from the Midwest celebrating an anniversary weekend. Maybe we weren’t the only out-of-towners granted a reservation on this bustling Saturday night. I thoroughly enjoyed my beautifully composed salad of plump, jumbo crab, paired wisely with fatty avocado and cut through by a burst of acetic grapefruit. It was a perfectly light opening act to the strip, which arrived a few mere minutes after we finished the first course (big pet peeve).

Perhaps it was my high expectations after reading dozens of praiseworthy reviews beforehand, but my steak didn’t quite make the cut. First, it was underseasoned, which to me is mindboggling. The outside did have a nice char on the crust, but the inside was overcooked and lacked any cohesive flavor. At $54, you do get your money’s worth in terms of sheer quantity. I just wish that the quality lived up to the hype. Maybe next time, we’ll go for brunch.

Stuffed to the brim, we drifted into the night for a few libations at the nearby Pegu Club. I could tell my crew was fading fast into a food comma, so we called it a night around 2:30 AM. Like a friend of mine recently wrote to me, Pegu definitely feels like it was great five years ago. Better late then never, but I definitely won’t go back.

We awoke on Sunday and swiftly marched to our brunch destination, Blue Water Grill, just off Union Square. On the way, I couldn’t resist temptation and devoured a hot dog from Papaya King. Nothing says foodie trip like a piping hot dog smothered with mustard at 11 AM. We arrived at Blue Water Grill and opted to eat at the bar of this beautifully restored bank, which gained popularity during Sex in the City’s heyday (Carrie Bradshaw and the gang were nowhere to be seen).

The food at Blue Water Grill is good, and sometimes great. Maybe we caught them on a bad day. My organic veggie omelet was cooked well but lacked seasoning, and its accompanying potatoes were soggy and too salty. Luckily, the mimosas helped wash away my brief sorrows. Be advised – go for dinner and order anything seafood.

Following a somewhat unsatisfying first meal of the day, we headed north in search of a sportsbar to take in the day’s NFL action. Searching via iPhone for something in the Chelsea neighborhood, we stumbled upon a relatively new player in the increasingly popular arena of upscale sportsbars, Ainsworth. Sometimes, it pays to be lucky rather then good. Ainsworth was the jackpot – a gigantic space packed to the brim with young females cheering on their favorite teams, and fiesty gents checking out their (sexy) opposition. We nestled down at the bar and chatted up the locals. Before we knew it, hours had gone by, and we were in need of some serious nourishment.

A quick cab ride south found us once again in the Meatpacking District. It seemed when reviewing the last several days, we were lacking in flavors from the Far East. What better way to fill the void then trendy (and somewhat overpriced) Asian-fusion? I’ve eaten at the original Buddakan in Philadelphia, and the most recent outpost at The Pier in Altantic City, so I knew what to expect with the food. My real motivation on this trip was to witness the scene at Stephen Starr’s incarnation in Chelsea Market.

Inside the immense, 16,0000-square-foot space, pretty people congregated around a hotel-style reception desk to check in at their tables. Beyond the reception desk is the bar area, where we opted to dine. Down below the bar are the dining rooms, in an area so vast and potentially confusing that the hostesses had to guide parties of diners down to their tables (I got lost twice trying to find the men’s room). Everything about this Buddakan makes it a nightclub, except it also serves really good food. We ordered the usual suspects – such as edamame dumplings, steamed pork buns, rock shrimp tempura and crispy calamari salad, which were perfect for sharing among friends – and, in between, $12 cocktails. If only Starr would bring the Budda to DC?

The food at Buddakan comes out quick, so we were able to squeeze in one final meal at nearby Scarpetta, celebrity-chef Scott Conant’s ode to regional Italian cuisine. I’d read many times about his simply prepared spaghetti with tomato and basil, so there was no need to glance at the menu as we sat down at the bar with eager anticipation. Conant rose to prominence cooking uptown at the now-shuttered Alto and Convivio, and recently he has been more focused on brand-building – he’s opened Scarpetta in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, Miami and Toronto – and television appearances.

At least in the case of his signature dish, spending more time in front of a camera – instead of in the kitchen – hasn’t affected the quality of what’s on the plate. His famously restrained spaghetti pomodoro (with basil and delicately simmered Roma tomatoes) is as good as advertised, and quite possibly the best rendition in New York. One of my good friends – a connoisseur of haute Italian cuisine – might be not be so generous with her praise, but for me this was the perfect last meal to a weekend that would (hopefully) make any self-proclaimed foodie proud.

How’s that for a D*MN Food Trip, Tim and Nina Zagat?

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