Saturday, July 22, 2017

New York - The Classic Food

We did eat well when in Manhattan. Our meals could be classified into four buckets – (i) the classic budget New York eating places and foods, no 11 Madison Park here;11 Madison has just been voted as the Worlds Best Restaurant by that slightly dubious Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants Survey. The places we were looking forward to eat at served the classic American, New York food – Hamburger, Pizza, Cheesecake, Cannoli, Hot Dig, Bagels & Pastrami (ii) restaurants we were taken to by S&T our delightful resident New Yorkers (iii) the big meals the ones we wanted to go to in the first place Peter Luger & Babbo and (iv) the utterly delightful serendipitous Korean Barbeque restaurant Baekjong and the French Bistro Benoit by Alain Ducasse .

Peter Luger I have already written about. Babbo and the serendipitous ones will feature by and by. This post will cover those in bucket (i) i.e. New York classics

Before I plunge into the post, we noticed something strange. In all the places we ate [with the exception of the Halal Boys and the expensive restaurants] the food had less salt. This was something that not only HRH The Queen of Kutch and I faced but when we had S&T along, they too reached for the salt cellar. So it wasn’t that we Mumbaikars had differently tuned palates. Probably, Mahatma Gandhi only influenced Martin Luther King. He did not do a Dandi Salt March here. Is salt hugely expensive in Manhattan? I am being facetious. But there was a problem with seasoning, or lack of.

What can be more American than a hamburger? When arriving by taxi to the hotel I had noticed lines of people outside a restaurant called Black Tap. I passed this in a flash. This was about 2 pm Then later, about 5 pm while exploring the environs around our hotel we had noticed lines of people still standing outside Black Tap. So on our first night, after a few beers at the local bar we thought we should see what the fuss was about at Black Tap. By now it was close to 9.45 pm. There were still lines. So, we stood in line and soon enough we were granted entry. Since there were only two of us as opposed to larger groups, we got a place to sit almost at once. A beer, a glass of wine and two burgers were ordered – the All American and the Texas Burger. We have eaten lots of burgers in London which are touted as being excellent. These burgers beat everything we have eaten hands down. You could taste the meat in the patty. The bacon was generous and most importantly the ratio of bread to meat was such that you had less bread. Plus, they did not needlessly fancy up the bread by using the pretentious Brioche bun, the favorite of gourmet burger places. This was good old white bread toasted on the inside. It was delicious, the best burger we had eaten. Excellent start.

Wine in a Jam Jar

Another peculiarity we noticed was the huge number of `Halal’ street carts in Manhattan. Street carts are famous in Manhattan, with all manner of food being served. Over the years this new category has mushroomed. The food they serve is rather peculiar, from all beef frankfurters to chicken kebabs [much like chicken tikkas] to versions of chicken and shrimp served on rice. The carts have a predominantly yellow colour scheme. Arabic music blares from these carts which are run by predominantly Egyptian and Bangladeshi migrants. The explanation for their existence is that they started to cater to the taxi drivers in Manhattan who are generally of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghan origin i.e. Muslim i.e. eaters of halal food.

Besides these, there is a loose, probably franchised operation, under the name ‘Halal Guys’. They have the yellow colour scheme, with yellow T Shirts and yellow carry bags and they are located in and around 5th and 6th Avenue and 53rd Street. For reasons unknown, they have acquired cult status. They serve the chicken kebabs I mentioned as well as a beef product comprising of mince, mixed with spices and cooked on a flat top. This personifies mystery meat. Long lines of people wait to buy the food. The after office lines are long. Tourists as well as locals seem to be customers. The food is either served on a platter or in Pitta bread. We had one Pitta. This comprised of an 8 inch Pita bread topped with shredded lettuce, chopped mystery meat and doused with a mayonnaise/tahini/yogurt sauce. This was wrapped in foil. Fairly tasty but bloody oily. This was on day two. I am thankful to God, that neither of us was food poisoned. The hygiene levels were abysmal and the composition of the mystery meat, was, a mystery. We were very lucky and foolish. Not recommended.

A Cannoli is a famous Sicilian dessert. You must have seen several documentaries where Cannoli is featured. Dough is rolled out wrapped around a small wood cylinder and deep fried. The cylinder is removed and the hollow crisp pastry is filled with sweetened Ricotta. Rocco Pasticceria in Bleeker Street in the West Village has been making these for years. We were taken to this famous institution by S&T. Quite good. Also had a New York Cheese Cake. Delicious, but more of that later.

I am sure you would have heard of Lombardy’s Pizza in Little Italy in Manhattan. It has been serving Pizza from a coal fired oven since 1905. Legend. Like Peter Luger, cash only. Tourists from the world over make the pilgrimage, as do, obviously, American tourists. We ordered the classic Margherita and a simple salad of fresh Mozzarella and Tomato. The Salad was good. The Pizza was much like what you get in Mumbai. A medium crust with a lot of tangy heavily flavoured tomato sauce. This was not a nirvana causing pizza. It was passable, we have eaten many better. Thoroughly decent but nothing exceptional. Pizza making has advanced a lot since 1905. No complaints. This restaurant was on our list as a must do and thus was done.

A hot dog is classic Manhattan food. From street carts that sell it to Archie comics of our youth to every teenage movie, hot dogs form part of Americana. Grays Papaya is considered one of the better hot dog places. Nathans who hold the famous hot dog eating contest at Coney Island on the 4th of July and Papaya King being also highly regarded. Grays Papaya has its iconic shop at Broadway in the Upper West Side. On our way to the other legend Zabars – a grocery store – we had lunch at Grays Papaya. The best thing to order is the Recession Special which gets you a 200 ml juice [except Pineapple and Orange for which there is an extra charge] and two hot dogs for a super cheap $5.95. The hot dogs were good. I know the obvious, the hot dog itself is better than what you get in India, however the primary difference why this was so good is the ratio of bread to meat. The hot dog rolls here are quite small, thus you have, in proportion, a lot more meat. This, I believe make a much better product. Good stuff.

Katz Deli was the other Manhattan legend we ate at. Those of you who are movie buffs would remember the fake orgasm scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally – I mean the original Hollywood one with Meg Ryan not the new Bollywood knock off Jab Harry Met Sejal. That was shot in the deli. Katz is a Jewish Deli and has lines snaking out of the door during mealtimes. We went at a reasonably late 9 pm on a Sunday so we got a table. Katz is famous for its Pastrami, Corned Beef and Hot Dog. S of S&T was with us. We ordered the Pastrami on Rye with Mustard [excellent, melt in mouth, tasty meaty and delicious] Corned Beef with Sauerkraut [not as good as the outstanding Pastrami] a single Hot Dog [top notch better than Grays] a local Jewish Potato Latke [potato grated and formed into a patty and deep fried – very ordinary] and at S request a New York Egg Cream [Fizzy soda water, milk, chocolate and vanilla – much like the Coca Cola float we used to have as children]. The Pastrami was really good. For those who want to know, the difference between Pastrami & Corned beef is while that both are cured, which means they've been brined in a salt water solution with spices and seasoning, the cooking process differs after the curing. Corned beef is boiled while Pastrami is smoked. Well worth going to, but stick to the Pastrami sandwich.

Potato Latke with Sour Cream 

The brilliant Pastrami Sandwich

The Corned Beef Sandwich 

Bagels. All American, but, more than that, all New York. The legendary place to have Bagels is Russ & Daughters. For a variety of reasons we went to Ess A Bagel, highly rated though not legendary. A single bagel is large, too large for HRH the Queen & me to have one each. So we split a classic, Bagel & Lox that is a Bagel with cream cheese, tomato, lettuce, hold the onion, and Smoked Salmon. It was nice, but frankly did not float my boat. HRH The Queen, loved the Bagels. She thought they were among the best she has eaten. 

A paragraph of the other Jewish delicacy - Matzo Ball Soup. You must have heard of the phrase, chicken soup for the soul. This was exactly that. It actually tasted Golden. It was like no chicken soup I have ever eaten. You must have this with a Pastrami Sandwich.

And Cheesecake. New York Cheesecake is world famous and enjoyed all over the world. Without getting caught up in details, a New York Cheesecake uses only Cream Cheese as its ingredient. In other versions, all considered inferior and/or healthy, add Ricotta, Mascarpone, Sour Cream and, in India, Paneer. A true New York Cheesecake is very rich and dense. Of course you get several flavoured versions too but the classic is unflavoured. We had three, all highly rated by critics. The first was at Rocco Pasticceria. The second was at Peter Luger. The Peter Luger Cheesecake is bought out by them from S&S Cheesecake a well-known bakery. The unquestioned star of the Cheesecakes, was the one from Juniors. This was heads and shoulders above the other two. Lighter creamier and simply better. If you are to have a New York Cheesecake do have it at Juniors. Excellent. Have a look at the three photos. See the differences. Also note that there are varying degrees of collapse in each of the versions.

The Cheesecake at Juniors 

Cheesecake at Peter Luger 

Cheesecake at Rocco Pasticceria 

So folks, that is a longish post on our quest to eat classic New York food. All of it was enjoyable.

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