There's nothing quite like New York during the holidays--especially if a visitor avoids a blizzard, as we did. And even in a blizzard, Joe is quick to point out, Manhattan building superintendents shovel sidewalks faster than you'd think. Still, there's serious slush; if you go during the winter, plan on waterproof boots. We like to be there in December, when the lights are gorgeous, and every time we visit, they are more dazzling. And this time, even for a former Brooklyn kid and his New York-loving wife, it seemed as though the natives' mood is lighter, more jocular, friendlier and altogether happier than we've ever seen it.
Not surprisingly, we ate. We ate near where we were staying, we ate in the Theater District, we rode the subway downtown and walked uptown, we took buses across town.
For the most part, we did quite well. A report:
In the midtown Theater District, next to Shubert Alley, is a recent outpost of Junior's, a venerable Brooklyn restaurant particularly known for its cheesecake. Their first branch was in the Grand Concourse of Grand Central Station, where we'd grabbed a quick bite several years ago and were, to put it politely, extremely disappointed. But circumstances this particular day called for Food Right Now, and there we were. Warm welcome, extremely efficient staff, and at 2 p.m. on a non-matinee day (matinee days are otherwise known as Wednesday and Saturday), the crowd was as much locals as it was tourists. Our advice is to treat this place as though it was a traditional New York delicatessen. Sure, there's barbecue and seafood, but we figure those are there as a courtesy to the unknowing visitor. When we go to a seafood restaurant in New Orleans, we don't order corned beef; there's no sense in going to this sort of restaurant and ordering ribs.
Why? Because one sip of the matzoh ball soup will convince anyone that this is a real New York experience. The soup itself is rich and flavorful and hot enough, the matzoh ball the perfect point between a floater and a sinker. An excellent version of the classic. A chopped liver sandwich on an onion roll came as two small rolls, almost slider size, with huge scoops of the chopped liver, moist rather than gluey, nicely oniony. For the half sandwich, offered on the menu with a bowl of soup, after much deliberation, we chose smoked tongue. Folks who go for lean meat should think about it as a delicatessen possibility, and Junior's version was excellent, moist and tender, thinly sliced and as lean as a tenderloin.
Yes, there are egg creams, the legendary drinks that contain neither egg nor cream. Chocolate syrup, preferably Fox's U-Bet brand, a splash of milk, and then seltzer, stirred to make something much like the liquid in a chocolate ice cream soda. And in an uncharacteristic fit of good behavior, our cheesecake was the sugar-free variety, but nevertheless wonderfully tasty. Many of the New York-style cheesecakes are very dense and dry, but not this guy. Creamy, and light without actually being fluffy, it satisfied.
You can do a great deal worse in this neighborhood.
1515 Broadway (West 45th St.), New York
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair
Sandwiches and Entrees: $7-$23
Very much not a tourist-type place is Barney Greengrass, technically also a delicatessen, but nearly everyone comes here for smoked fish. If the almost ancient interior with its strange New Orleans wallpaper isn't fashionable, no one cares. (Careful viewers may recall seeing it in movies and several episodes of “Law & Order”) The crowds waiting outside on weekend mornings are clearly locals and former locals making a pilgrimage to the self-styled Sturgeon King, now past the century mark. We seldom visit New York without a breakfast-or-brunch stop here.
Warning: Servings are immense; an appetizer usually suffices unless you're planning on sharing. But on the other hand, the menu offers temptations for almost everyone. Running well into three figures are caviar presentations, but but there's also that strange item sometimes found on deli menus, small cans of tuna and salmon. We stay away from both those extremes. On this visit, we had only one kind of smoked fish, whitefish, the only smoked item to properly rival the house's legendary sturgeon. Some cream cheese, some onion, a few black olives, a bagel and a toasted Bialy alongside. A Bialy is a peculiarly New York bakery item, a little like a bagel, a little like an onion roll, not really either, named for Bialystok, a town in Poland where it originated. Whether it's the skill of the baker or the quality of the water (claimed by some), Bialys are not worth eating in the many American restaurants Joe has tried.
For the rest of the meal, we sampled a couple of new things, both of which were great. For those who like sushi restaurants' offerings of broiled mackerel or salmon jaws, head directly to the broiled jaws and "wings" of Nova Scotia salmon, rich and oily and impossible to eat with any delicacy at all. For lovers of big fish flavor, they're a joy. And after listening—okay, eavesdropping—on several folks while we waited our turn on the sidewalk outside the store, in the rain but under an awning that only leaked a litttle, we tried the Greengrass blintzes, The crepes were tender and fried to a crisp, packed full with parcels of sweetened white farmers' cheese, it was a fine contrast of tastes and textures, some of the best blintzes we've found in New York.
There's usually a family member behind the cash register, dealing with customers buying at the retail counter. The casually dressed employees deal with the weekend crowds better than the cops in Times Square on New Years' Eve.
541 Amsterdam Ave. (West 86th St.)
Breakfast, lunch and early dinner (closes 6 p.m.) Tues.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor
Sandwiches and Entrees:$5-$400
Another return visit was to the Neue Galerie's restaurants. The elegant Cafe Sabarsky spoke of a 45- minute wait, so we went downstairs to the Cafe Fledermaus, not nearly so handsome but with the same excellent menu. The goulash soup was named one of the city's 50 best by New York magazine last month, and we'll vouch for that. The elegant russet-colored dish is full of subtle, lovely flavors, with a note of real paprika and just a wee bit of caraway--exactly the thing for a cold day. Bratwurst with sauerkraut, roasted potatoes and mustard was fun, and so was the warm spiced wine. But it was the desserts and the coffee that really came up to the standard set by the gulaschsuppe, to give it its proper spelling. Real Viennese coffee-house style choices like an einspanner, a double espresso with whipped cream, are available, and the exquisite desserts, most of which arrive mit schlag, or with whipped cream, demand attention. We've tried several over the years, liked them all, including this visit's rehrucken, a chocolate almond cake in a special pan, along with the housemade orange jam.
You can read what we wrote about upstairs, along with some photos, here . And they still serve breakfast, a nicely eccentric touch; the menu is on the museum's website.
Cafe Fledermaus and Cafe Sabarsky
1048 Fifth Ave. (East 86th St.), New York
Breakfast & Lunch Wed.-Mon, Dinner Thurs.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair to Good
Sandwiches and Entrees: $12-$28
Drifting toward the opposite end of the budget spectrum from Barney Greengrass, but equally casual is Nyonya. On the edge of Chinatown, which keeps creeping north into Little Italy, it's moved across the street but kept its large, relatively inexpensive cash-only menu, and its youngish clientele. The kitchen turns out dishes from Malaysia and its many influences, and there are almost too many options, especially for the adventurous eater. No reservations for a party of fewer than six, by the way, so there's the possibility of a wait.
Still, around 7 on a weeknight before Christmas, we were seated immediately. The new dining room is larger than it looks from the street and even veers toward elegance. While we've heard stories of service glonks (a glonk, of course, is larger than a glitch), our experience was speedy and pleasant. It was obvious that we were doing a lot of people-watching, and no one made us feel rushed.
We began with one of Nyonya's most popular appetizers, roti canai. Roti, a thin Indian bread described here as a crispy pancake, arrived with a dipping sauce of chicken curry, with far more full-flavored, tasty, slightly spicy sauce than chicken; using the roti to pick up chicken pieces was impossible until real utensils arrived. Our other appetizer was a baby oyster omelet, something Joe pounced on without any hesitation. Puffy and crisp on the outside, flavored with what we think were some garlic chives inside, the oysters were fresh, not canned, and came alongside some sweet chili sauce that was rather superfluous.
For a main course, a special that night was a seafood soup with a ruddy, thick liquid showing a considerable amount of fire—the server did ask about our heat tolerance—shrimp, mussels and scallops and a fried shrimp cake atop some noodles in mid-bowl. (Similar soups are available on the regular menu.) Nasi Lemak, a rice and curried chicken dish arrived in a small bowl atop a plate that held two other bowls of vegetables, one the chili anchovy promised on the menu, along with some onion, the other some mixed and very spicy vegetables. Also riding shotgun were a few slices of cucumber and half a boiled egg and a generous serving of rice. While the chicken was nice, a good combo of sweet-hot-salty, it was the rice that blew us away. Perfectly cooked, yes, but wonderfully flavored with coconut, just a hint of cloves and screw pine or pandanus leaves. Absolutely addictive.
If you've ever wondered how much fresh coconuts are appreciated where they're a native fruit, dessert can be a whole coconut, carved up a little, cut in half and served with a spoon to dig out both the soft jelly-like flesh, and the firmer meat as well.
A couple of notes on the menu: Yes, it really is large, and has some startling items on it like “dried curry fish head” and “sting ray wrapped with banana leaf.” Other items, rather than giving details, merely add “Please ask server before you order!” Many of the choices in the vegetarian section are not actually minus animal protein, while chicken broth rice is described as meatless. Beef is listed in the poultry section, and proving that Malaysia really is a multicultural society, there are several pork entrees. Lots of seafood—we're hoping that next visit we can find something that approximates the chili crab we ate in Singapore.
199 Grand St., New York
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: No
Wheelchair access: Fair
And almost by accident, we ended up at another Malaysian restaurant, but a very different one, a few nights later. We'd eaten at Fatty Crab downtown when we were in New York a couple of winters back, and had been extremely impressed. Since then, the restaurant's success has led to a larger branch on the Upper West Side, which we discovered while strolling down Broadway. Happy memories flooded back and we changed plans. The uptown location makes a considerable effort to be cutting-edge hip, but happily, the food quality matched our memories. In addition, the uptown outpost, unlike its smaller downtown sibling, takes reservations.
The room is dark, and the music cranks up to rather annoying levels, but the young servers are knowledgeable and eager to help. The bar is serious about cocktails, and that menu deserves attention, too. Beer varieties are intriguing, too, there are 10 wines by the glass, and if that's not enough, watermelon juice and fresh coconut water are also served.
Jalan Alor chicken wings are named for a formerly raffish neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur that's now apparently a foodie paradise. Grilled with garlic, ginger, soy and sesame, they're sticky and delicious, hefty joints of succulent meat. The steamed buns are puffy little wraps with a pork filling laid atop them, a spicy sauce between bun and meat, and another one, with sweetness and more heat, into which they're dipped. Killer bites, absolutely killer. The green mango salad was nice, clean-tasting and fresh, a wonderful crunchy contrast to the other dishes. One of the Crab's signatures is the watermelon pickle and crispy pork, pickled red flesh of watermelon and fair-sized dice of pork belly cooked until crisp. The pickling is light and doesn't overwhelm the piggy flavors. Good, but not as tasty as we recall it being.
Still no desserts, although the chef's mom is a chocolatier and there's an offer of a delicious chocolate-chili-almond bar instead of the mochi rice candy square that arrives with the check. (Mochi is free; chocolate bar is not.) It was interesting to note that despite the, uh, deeply contemporary feel of this place, it's surprisingly kid-friendly, even to the point of including a children's menu. Nice to see, and a pleasure to watch two young gents dining near us who obviously had been here before and were knocking back dumplings as if they'd been doing it since they cut their baby teeth.
2170 Broadway (West 77 th St.), New York
Lunch Mon.-Fri., Dinner Mon.-Sat., “Supper Sundays” 12 noon-10 p.m. (that's what the website says)
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Good
Sandwiches and Entrees: $12-$25