New York City: It's Almost All About the Food

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It is an inevitable feeling, one that leaves me all twisted up inside every time we board a plane/train/automobile and make the trek back to Louisville from wherever our travels have taken us.  I don’t want to leave.  I want to go back.  I need to go back.

This feeling was ever apparent on our recent trip to New York City.  Despite an unexpected third night to explore, my mind and soul were left parched, and the thirst to return is palpable, almost all-consuming.  The thing about New York City is that it is virtually impossible to scratch the surface in one weekend.  But do you even do so in a lifetime?  It’s varied corners and pockets of people seem endless, the city moving forward at a rapid pace and remaining rooted in history all at the same time.  It is a beautifully overwhelming place to visit and the desire to return is a confliction I am happy to possess.

Z and I were inundated with recommendations of where to go, what to eat and what to drink.  Everyone has a strong opinion about New York City and everyone has an all-time favorite restaurant.  A spot that spoke to them the loudest, that left an indelible impression on their heart.  I wanted to go to all of these haunts and then some but alas that was impossible.  Instead we remained focused on a few key restaurants and would fill the time in between meals walking and absorbing our surroundings.  Since we couldn’t be everywhere we resolved to be in the moment.  And we had some fantastic moments.

The first of which occurred as soon as we arrived in the city.  We landed at LaGuardia at 9pm, took a quick cab ride straight to our home base in the East Village, The Standard, refreshed and hit the pavement by 10:15.  Our first stop: Prune.

It is a shoebox of a restaurant, no more than two dozen patrons accommodated at once.  The kitchen sits square in the back, much, much smaller than what I had conjored in my mind when reading Blood, Bones and Butter, Chef and Owner Gabrielle Hamilton’s self-penned recounting of her life and the food that shaped it.  However unlike a book you read prior to seeing the movie, only to find the movie has portrayed the characters and stories in a grossely inacurate manner, I was a bit taken aback when Z and I stepped through the open doors of Prune.  It was even better than I had imagined.

The menu is concise and well-constructed, making the decision for the diner that much more of a challenge as you quickly find yourself wanting to order one of everything, the idea of selecting one of the four entrees nearly impossible.  It just so happened that we came to Prune on a night they were introducing a new menu, and, after much debate and some disappointment over the fact that both the pasta starter and the cold roast beef with lettuces were sold out, we settled on a spicy chicken soup, Gabrielle’s play on pasole, to begin our meal.

Our first course was followed by the fried rabbit with buttermilk dressing and onions and the ‘fish taco,’ an artful take on a classic, the crispy skinned catch of the day layered atop a crunchy, paper-thin flatbread and topped with mixed herbs and peppery radish.

As our varied selections posed a bit of a wine conundrum, we were delighted to find a bottle of 2004 Lopez de Heredia Viura, a ten year old bottle that is a rich and unusual white wine with an almost port-like quality, offering enough body to hold up to the chicken and rabbit and a bright acidity to accentuate the fish.  It was also the perfect pair for our fantastically simplistic dessert of fresh peaches served on crisp, buttered bread, confectioners sugar coaxing out the natural sweetness of the fruit.

Saturday morning brought along a short stroll to Russ and Daughters, a 100 year old classic seafood deli located on East Houston Street in the Lower East Side.  If you’ve watched many cooking or travel shows, chances are you’re already familiar with this NYC staple, however it manages to retain every ounce of it’s natural charm, refusing to change regardless of the fame and attention their expertly cured fish and pickled herring have brought upon them.

We sandwiched our way into the store, fitting snuggly between two long deli cases, one a rainbow of smoked salmon, trout, sturgeon and herring, the other a sampling of confections of old.  Mounds of house made cream cheese play with your imagination, looking more like freshly spun gelato than the schmere for a bagel.

I resisted the urge to go against my gut and stuck with my plan to order the classic smoked salmon sandwich, selecting Scottish salmon, plain cream cheese and a plain bagel with onions and capers.  Z was thankfully more adventurous and requested the Fancy Delancy sandwich, a unique layering of smoked tuna with wasabi flying fish roe and horseradish-dill cream cheese.  We wiggled our way through the crowd of waiting customers and took our breakfast on the road, hailing a cab to Central Park.

We strolled the expansive park until we found a cozy nook and we dug into our sandwiches.  Mine, while simple, was a shining example of why the trinity of smoked salmon, cream cheese and bagels came to be in the first place.  The salmon was silky, salty and rich, the cream cheese soothing and light.

The bagel had wonderful texture.  I was in smoked fish heaven.  Z enjoyed his selection as well, the wasabi flying fish roe offering that distinctive pop, an addictive textural element that complimented the spicy cream cheese and highlighted the thinly sliced tuna.  After lunch we set our sights on Eataly, beginning the hike across town with a long walk through Central Park.  We marveled at the thousands of people who were occupying this expansive and famous space.  The serenity of the park was refreshing and calming.  There was plenty of room for everyone to stretch out, relax, and escape the hustle and bustle.

The lush greenery slowly began to fade as we exited the outskirts of the park and reentered the throngs of people rushing about the streets of New York.  We made the three mile walk to Eataly, strolling through Times Square along the way.

Originating in Italy, the aptly named Eataly was brought to America by celebrity Chef Mario Batali.  It is difficult to describe Eataly as it multifaceted, the only overarching commonality being it’s devotion to the foods of Italy.  A celebration of all things Italian, Eataly is a hybrid market-meets-restaurant-meets-wineshop-meets-bookstore-meets-specialty-foodstore.

There are five aisles dedicated to pasta alone.  You can find nearly every olive oil in world at Eataly.  There is an entire shop dedicated to Nutella for crying out loud!  Upon entry, my initial reaction was to turn and leave.  There was too much to see and it felt too confusing.  But we elbowed our way through the crowd waiting in line to select their scoop from at least thirty different flavors of gelato, and entered the belly of the beast.

Several exposed kitchens from the various restaurants located in Eataly were buzzing, orders being shouted between servers and Chefs at the pass, countless individuals standing at a ham bar indulging in Italy’s finest cured meats, the clinking of wine glasses ringing through the air.  We settled in at the bar of Il Pesce and enjoyed freshly grilled shrimp and slices of raw tuna drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with flaky black sea salt.  It was a perfect pick me up after our three mile trek and was just light enough to help us continue on for another three miles, as we made our way back through the street of New York to The Standard in the East Village.

I would go back to The Standard in a second for the service, the amenities and the great location.  But the view – THE VIEW!  That is more than reason enough to book this hotel during your next New York City jaunt.  Within walking distance of countless bars and restaurants, we set out for some pre-dinner libations.  We were happy to find two seats at the bar at Terroir, a wine-centric watering hole which dubs itself as the ‘elitist bar for everyone.’  Z had discovered this cozy wine temple during a recent business trip to New York and we enjoyed some German sparkling to kick off our second night in the city.  It was going to be one to remember.

And then, there was Ko.  The most intimate in David Chang’s series of New York City staples, Ko is unlike any other restaurant Z and I have ever experienced.  Nestled behind a decorative iron door, marked only with the eponymous peach, the singular bar of Ko stretches the length of the room, providing seating for only 12 patrons at one time.
This dining experience is made all the more intimate by the three masterful Chefs working on the opposite side of the bar, the full kitchen on display as if you had been invited into someone’s home.  You are entirely ensconced in what is happening in front of you, deft hands working quickly and efficiently as sauces are simmered, fish is seared and beef is charred over a blisteringly delicious flame.
Ordering alcohol always leaves me a bit befuddled during a meal of this length and magnitude, an unknown (but sure to be plentiful) number of courses awaiting our consumption.  Z and I enlisted the advice of the hostess – “champagne and beer” she replied, without missing a beat.  And so it was.  Twelve courses later I had savored thinly sliced mackerel layered over watermelon, black sesame and kimchi, was given goosebumps by the perfect pearls of handmade tortellini stuffed with peas and paired with crab and almond, and had eaten the best egg dish of my life.  Soft boiled, the egg is sliced open on the plate, the viscosity of the yolk just right, pouring ever so gently onto the dish.  Caviar dotted the brilliant yellow, miniature potato chips provided crunch and salt.
Z and I both agreed that the egg course was easily one of our top ten best bites.  What really made the dinner was the interaction we had with the Team, Chef Jay patiently answering each and every question I peppered his way.  My only complaint about the dinner is that it was too short, the 12 courses passing in a flash while we were entranced by the show being put on in front of us.  I simply didn’t want to leave.
The next day we meandered our way to Estela for brunch.  I had heard nothing but effusive praise for this relatively new and self-coined ‘beverage driven restaurant’ tucked away on Houston Street.
The menu comes off as simplistic, however there is much more to each dish than the sum of the few deceivingly simple items noted.  The blood cake with onion marmalade and egg was as complex as it was homey and comforting, the cake lightly caramelized around the edges while the yolk mixed and mingled with the slow cooked and practically candied onions making up the jam.  A lighter than air dollop of fresh burrata cheese topped our second dish, a charred baguette soaking up bracingly fresh salsa verde.  From texture to taste I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
My favorite dish of the meal came in the form of fried arroz negro with squid and romesco.  The crispy rice and squid ink took me back to a seaside table in Barcelona, the cool breeze from the ocean whispering against my skin as I dipped my fork into the paella pan.  We recapped our adventures from the evening prior, laughing as we recounted the many comedic moments we were treated to courtesy of the lineup at the The Comedy Cellar.  A veritable institution and training ground, many of the most popular comedians of past and present have honed their craft on the tiny stage located under ground off of MacDougal Street.  We arrived early and found a spot at the bar at The Fat Black Pussycat, which is located just above the theater.
 Our bartender was friendly and attentive, and, after friendly conversation, promised to secure two front row seats for us when our show time arrived.  Each night the Comedy Cellar presents a lineup of up-and-coming standup artists peppered with spontaneous appearances from veterans such as Louis CK, Dave Chappell, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld.  The bar was lively and it didn’t take us long to notice the small gathering of comedians seated at the table directly behind us, Aziz Ansari (best known for his role on NBC’s 30 Rock) quietly reading through a small notebook.
We laughed for a solid hour and a half that night, watching 15 minute sets from brave new comedians giving it their all and more practiced artists like Aziz who were trying out new bits, playing with jokes and various angles to see how they passed with this intimate crowd.  With tickets a mere $24, the Comedy Cellar has landed at the top of our must-do list for any and all return trips to NYC.


Our original plans to return to Louisville Sunday evening were unexpectedly stymied just as we were prepared to head to LaGuardia.  Our flight had been canceled and our only option was to catch the first return trip on the docket for Monday morning.  The Standard accommodated our quick return and we decided to head over to Bar Ssam for a mid-afternoon snack of steamed buns with pork belly, hoisin, cucumber and scallion, blackened bluefish with miso, chips and pickles and tempura soft-shell crab with pimento cheese, green tomato and sesame seed.  
We jetted over to the West Side of the city to stroll the High Line, a long and winding park that sits above street level.  An ingenious repurposing of space, the High Line was built on a converted historic freight rail line.  
With plenty of grassy space and creative seating areas, we watched the sun set and allowed our appetite to build back up for our final dinner of the trip. L’Artusi had come highly recommended by a dear friend and former New Yorker. We sampled perfectly al dente bowls of pasta while admiring their unique wine offerings. As we rode back to our hotel post dinner I could sense my body fighting against itself. I was tired. I was full. My feet were beyond aching. I was overwhelmed by all that I had seen, by all that we had done in a few short days. And, while our lucky misfortune of a canceled flight had extended our stay, it was hard to accept that there was still so much to do, still so much to see. How could we possibly be leaving already? I am constantly having to accept the fact that I will never see it all, never do everything my wild little mind has conjured in my dreams. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try my damnedest. With that said, until next time, New York.


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