Culinary-tale of New York – great bites (and sups) from the Big Apple

Manhattan from Staten Island Ferry.
Ferry to lower Manhattan.

New York food & drink travelogue – “After an adequate start to our Big Apple breakfasting, in a sparsely-populated Italian restaurant on the border between – appropriately enough – Little Italy and the East Village, Tribeca’s Gee Whiz Diner was a dream come true.  With its open kitchen, cosy booths and friendly/efficient/sassy staff, it could have been populated straight from central casting. 

Mention “The Big Apple” or “The City That Never Sleeps” and people instantly know of the metropolis to which you refer.  Glance out of the aeroplane window when landing at Newark Liberty airport and you are greeted by a skyline that has not only formed a central backdrop in countless films, TV programmes and novels, but has also greeted immigrants from across the globe who went on to build a nation.

Everything about New York seems iconic and familiar.  Yet take time to explore this fabulous city and you will find a diverse mosaic of differing neighbourhoods, cultures and architecture. Visitors may think they know NYC from the media, but it is more atypical and extraordinary than is sometimes imagined. And that is equally true of the city’s food and drink.
This is what JML and I came to realise during a birthday-celebratory long weekend in autumn 2015, encompassing Manhattan, Brooklyn and (briefly) Staten Island.  Our trip to New York wasn’t all about food and drink.  But as two lads who rarely pass up an opportunity to partake of a tasty morsel or alluring beverage, it played a pretty central part. So join us on our Big Apple culinary journey…
Beer in New York's Blind Tiger Bar
Beer at the Blind Tiger – tasty! (pic Courtesy of The Blind Tiger).
B is for beer, Brooklyn and breakfasts
Now I know that America’s national, alcoholic drink of choice is almost certainly beer.  And from our last visit to NYC, some eight years ago, it was apparent that that state-side brewing wasn’t all about the more insipid, mass-produced brands that now also adorn the booze aisles of UK supermarkets (thank you Brooklyn Brewery for that particular revelation).  Also, I have recently rediscovered home brewing (watch out for a post on this soon), meaning I have absorbed some the internet buzz that exists regarding craft beers emanating from the USA.  So an initial pint of pretty decent IPA procured from a food stand in Battery Park, and enjoyed whilst overlooking the Hudson River and a distant Statue of Liberty, was an unexpectedly welcome refreshment three hours after clearing immigration at Newark. However…
Even the most mundane midtown or Tribeca pub seems to have a bar adorned with an intriguing array of pumps offering tempting brews, each advertised with a branded, sculpted tap handle. Ales from the likes of Goose Island, Allagash, Lagunitasand Brooklyn jockey for attention.  And whilst not all of these could be considered “craft” beers, they are none-the-less very appetising.  Yet also dotted across NYC are veritable temples dedicated to real ale, such as The Blind Tiger in Greenwich Village.  Its unassuming entrance on Bleecker Street hides a smashing colonial-style dark wood and brick interior lined with blackboards displaying the plethora of brews currently on offer. And what a range…  IPAs, Belgian tripels, oatmeal stouts, saisons, porters, lambic ales, all sourced from New York and neighbouring states. To be honest, I could have stayed supping all day, but we restricted ourselves to a couple of quaffs. Oh and be warned – east coast breweries like things strong – Victory Hoppy Belgian-style quad at 13% ABV anyone?
Bait and Tackle Bar, Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Red Hook’s Bait and Tackle bar – in soft focus, naturally…
Beer also featured in our visit to Brooklyn – where two of our Edinburgh friends were ensconced whilst work had brought them to the City That Never Sleeps. Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighbourhood is what real estate agents describe as “up and coming”. Imagine the area around Leith Docks, and you have the picture of where our mates chose to reside.  And in the Bait and Tackle, we found this dockland neighbourhood’s answer to the Port of Leith.  If you ever end up in this bit of the smashing borough that is Brooklyn, do check out this eclectic former fishing supply shop-turned-bar.  And if you are carnivorous, or even if you are not, a trip to Prime Meats should certainly be in order.  A “farm to table” restaurant located in the Carol Gardens neighbourhood, its cuisine has a Germanic alpine influence that makes the most of local and fresh ingredients.  Treated by our friends to a tremendous dinner to celebrate JML’s birthday, starters of grilled octopus, and herb and gruyere spatzle were sublime.  But the mains stole the show: sukrut garnie – bone-in pork belly with German wurst and saurekraut was delicious, yet by the same token the steak frites, and dry-aged cote de bouef looked and tasted amazing.
Huevos Rancheros, served at Fort Defiance, Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Hearty huevos rancheros from Fort Defiance, Brooklyn.
What I didn’t mention above was the smashing, American wine that accompanied the meal. The copious, smashing wine. The copious, smashing wine that made us trust a certain smart phone navigation app that directed us along the quickest walk home, through a very “interesting” area of Brooklyn, where we were stopped by two members of NYC’s finest, concerned for our safety.  Do not fear, we made it back safely – to the Bait and Tackle  So the next, brilliantly blue sky-emblazoned, squinty-eyed, cardboard-mouthed, morning demanded a hearty breakfast. Cue Fort Defiance in Red Hook.  A subtly, yet beautifully, decked out restaurant that serves a heavenly “all-Amercian” (eggs any style, Nueske’s bacon, hash browns and toast), and an even more divine huevos rancheros.  Worth crossing the East River for this alone.  Wandering back to Manhattan through picturesque, leafy streets lined with brownstones, we decided there and then that our next visit to NYC would involve more exploring of Brooklyn and its inviting cuisine.

Italian Connection omelette - Gee Whiz Diner, New York.
Italian Connection omelette – Gee Whiz.
Now, back to breakfast. It might be a cliché, but I have always had a mental picture of a trip to New York having a compulsory requirement involving sitting in a traditional diner, pouring over the menu, deciding how the bacon should be served and whether the eggs should be “over easy” (I’m still to learn exactly what that means).  After an adequate start to our Big Apple breakfasting, in a sparsely-populated Italian restaurant on the border between – appropriately enough – Little Italy and the East Village, Tribeca’s Gee Whiz Diner was a dream come true.  With its open kitchen, cosy booths and friendly/efficient/sassy staff, it could have been populated straight from central casting.  The brunch menu is expansive, service is very “New York”, and the food tasty and substantial. I love omelettes. The one with brocoli and cheese was great, the “Italian Connection” (mushrooms, prosciutto, spinach, tomato, mozzarella, basil) was superb.  As was immortally uttered in Katz’s Diner, “I’ll have what she’s having”…

Pumpkins at Unions Sq Green Market, New York.
Plump pumpkins at Union Sq.
C is for celebrations
Ostensibly, our trip to New York was to celebrate JML’s birthday – but truth be told, we hardly needed an excuse for our visit! However, the special occasion warranted some marker.  So after wandering through the cultural and architectural tapestry the comprises China Town, Little Italy, and The East Village, we paused close to the Flatiron building at Union Square Green Market.  This is a substantial get together of local food producers, and the amount and variety on offer would certainly eclipse many of our farmers’ markets in the UK.  If only I had had access to a kitchen in NYC, I would have gladly left with bags packed with delicious produce.  Great as the Union Square Market was, this wasn’t our ultimate foodie destination on this gloriously sunny Saturday.
Even though now based on the western side of the Atlantic, the culinary skill of chef – and fellow former native of Birmingham (West Mids, as opposed to AL) – April Bloomfield had crossed my foodie radar.  Having earned her gastronomic stripes at such London legends as Bibendium and The River Cafe, together with business partner Ken Friedman she was responsible for opening New York’s first gastro pub – The Spotted Pig – in 2004, which soon went on to earn a Michelin star, as did the pair’s second restaurant – The Breslin. In 2010 the duo of eateries became a trio, as the oyster bar and seafood restaurant that is The John Dory opened for business. And what a restaurant this is.
John Dory restaurant, Manhattan, NYC.
Stylish & sumptuous dining at The John Dory.
Located on the corner of Broadway and 29th Street it is a beautifully conceived space, lit with huge picture windows that bounce light off shimmering tiled walls and floors. Exposed steel roof beams hint at an industrial past, but most obvious is the interior’s extremely stylish nod to midtown’s Art Deco heritage. If the architecture is alluring, the food is just as splendid.  Being lunchtime on a Saturday, we dined from the brunch menu, which is a slightly pared down version of what might be expected at weekday lunch, but no less impressive.
Shellfish plateaus comprised a sumptuous carnival of molluscan and crustacean treats of all kinds.  Want to go minimalist, and just slurp back an oyster or six?  Not a problem, as the “raw bar” (something I certainly hadn’t ever encountered in Edinburgh!) offered not just an East Coast – West Coast choice of these iodine-infused bivalves, but a state-by-state inventory. Yet our appetite was ultimately piqued by The John Dory‘s intriguing selection of plates – “ración” style portions that allowed for the maximising of a flavoursome experience.
Squid stuffed with chorizo, John Dory restaurant, NYC.
Splendid squid stuffed with chorizo.
Baby squid stuffed with chorizo was a superb take on surf and turf, elevated further by the accompaniment of a smoked tomato vinaigrette. Unexpectedly, oyster pan roast turned out to be a luxurious version of chowder, comprising a salty broth concealing meaty molluscs, set off by a super uni (sea urchin roe) butter-laden crostini.  Kedgeree, made with basmati rice and beautifully cured smoked haddock, did its Scottish-Indian origins proud. Yet for pure extravagance, it had to be a lobster tail roll.  Smothered in – but not dominated by – a rich take on Mary Rose and tucked into a super-fresh brioche bun, who needs thermidor?! Return, we shall.
Halloween pumpkins on Greenwich Village brownstone steps.
Halloween in Greenwich Village.
T is for tourism – food tourism
A friend who had recently returned from being state-side recommended that a “must do” for any foodie visiting New York had to be the sampling of the city’s vibrant and diverse culinary culture in the form of a walking food tour.  A bit of internet searching later, and amongst the many choices on offer we decided to explore the food and drink to be found in Greenwich Village, courtesy of Foods of NY Tours. Given that the area around Bleecker Street – which lies at the heart of “the Village” – is a veritable cornucopia of gastronomically-focused retailers of all kinds, the tour had to rate amongst the best three hours I have spent in NYC. And what certainly made the event such an absolute pleasure was the wit, wisdom and unbridled enthusiasm of our guide, RJ – a native New Yorker who knows the food, drink and culture of this particular bit of the city like the back of his, cannoli-clutching, hand.  Here’s just a sample of the delectable delights our walking culinary adventure introduced us to:
Joe’s Pizza – a Greenwich Village institution that has been around for decades, its offering had been named “the best pizza in NYC” by New York magazine.  Having tasted a slice of their “plain cheese pie”, I can understand why. Just the best ingredients, expertly cooked, and the secret (apparently) is that the base borrows heavily from the recipe for bagel dough.
O & Co – If it’s a good thing to know one’s onions, being intimate with one’s olives – or more accurately, the oil they produce – is blinking fantastic. Drop in this boutique to get a proper handle on the very best of cold pressed, and oil so good it’s “extra virgin” on the ridiculous (sorry). Plus, they really provide the low down on why some “vintage” balsamic vinegars may not be all they first appear…
Faicco’s Italian Speciality Shop – the name says everything about this superb purveyor all things edible and Italian, offering ingredients such as sundried tomatoes, homemade sausages and mozzarella you will want to rush home and cook with, and morsels such as arancini – way more than just rice balls – you will certainly want to wolf down there and then.
New York food tour guide with cookies.
RJ cookie-ing up a storm!
Palma – glance through the picture windows of this redbrick-housed, organic, Italian restaurant and you will be hooked. It is the sort of place that welcomes you in, even before you smell and taste the food. Yet, we didn’t get a chance to perch amongst its white stucco walls and wooden tables, oh no. Instead, we found ourselves in the occluded farmhouse secreted at the back of this eatery – a relic of the original Dutch settlement of the south of Manhattan.  Huddled around a kitchen table, in what resembled my Grandma’s kitchen, I sampled one of the most fantastic cauliflower dishes I have tasted, in the form of Cavolfiore Palma. Simple and delicious. Do the tour, get the recipe!
Murray’s Cheese Shop  – A village stalwart since the 1940s, under its current owner it matures and stocks a sea of wonderful cheeses from Europe (as might be expected) AND superb, varied fromage produced in the USA.  Our guided, mini-master tasting class certainly demonstrated just how accomplished American cheese making (and mongering) has become.
Milk & Cookies store, Greenwich Village, NYC.
Milk & Cookies – delights within…
Milk and Cookies – Now even though I maintain not to have a particularly sweet tooth, it was impossible to resist the alluring aroma and “just out of the oven” taste of these high-end biscuits – OK, OK, “cookies”.  The shop’s premises may be diminutive, but its baked offerings certainly rate amongst the best I have tasted.
To be honest, the above synopsis hardly scratches the surface in terms of the wide culinary variety and sheer, unbridled enthusiasm for all things gastronomic encountered on the Food of NY Tours’ enthralling guide to Greenwich Village. It really was a microcosm – or perhaps metaphor – for the absolute pleasure New York has to offer in terms of eating and drinking. Visit NYC and expect the culinary unexpected, be prepared to discover something delicious round every corner, and sometimes even in the most unlikely of places. But most of all be enthused by, and be sure to share in, the utter joy and passion New Yorkers exhibit when it comes to their food and drink!

 (This feature article stems from our visit to New York in late October 2015).      

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