08 November, 2010

In between again, still thinking about food.

There are the beginnings of things and then there are the ends. 
Somewhere between yesterday and today we passed the peak of the fall colors.  More leaves are now on the ground than on the trees.   
I've spent an inordinate amount of time planning, pulling together, and celebrating the birthday of my ten-year-old.  And that, too, as of this weekend, has come to a close. 
For the record, it involved sparklers, an excess of handmade signage and balloons, bowls of popcorn and a borrowed film projector (to show Le Petit Nicolas). Oh, and a sleepover that included fourteen spirited tireless best friends.
And yet, and yet, New York is still very much on my mind.  To be more accurate, NY food is on my mind, in all its variegated glory. 

Culinary possibilities in New York can seem nearly infinite. If you should find yourself in, say, SoHo, you can also easily find yourself in front of a thickly-sliced, well-pickled and delightfully basil-y Vietnamese papaya salad, simply by ducking into Bun (143 Grand at Lafayette).      
Then there are special Vietnamese banh mi (baguette sandwiches) sprinkled here and there across Manhattan.  While you won't find the selection or quality available in, say, Southern California (with its far larger Vietnamese population), my sandwich, crammed with pickled carrot and fresh herbs and greens, still pleased me.
Having gotten a bit of Vietnamese, it was time for some serious slurping.  Time for Japanese udon soup.  To explain my passion for Japanese--and other foods non-French: outside of Paris, Japanese restaurants are (still) relatively few and far between in France, especially, of course, in the countryside. 

New York's East Village, however, is filled with noodle shops and other Japanese restaurants.  In fact Japanese can be found in the financial district and any number of other areas, but the East Village seems to have far more than its fair share. With New York University right there, you'll find an awful lot of Japanese students wolfing down heart-warming soup goodness right beside you.
Now that I'm looking at this photo of udon soup bubbling away in a cast-iron bowl (taken at Udon West), I realize you can't even see the thick, chewy namesake noodles for all those toppings.  Sorry about that.  I was too focused on eating.  Other udon places you could try: simple but good at Onya, the first outpost of an Osaka udon chain, and upscale, wide-ranging Seo, which also offers soba (buckwheat) and ramen (thin wheat) noodles. (An authentic noodle bar is likely to have zero atmosphere, but it really doesn't matter, as the hearty soups are hot--and inexpensive--bliss.)  Please note that each of these photo collages can be clicked on, to be viewed in far greater detail.
After a good bowl of soup, you can walk all day.  Which I did, managing to take in a large chunk of Chinatown in the process.  There were all those intriguing ingredients to explore, like dried sea cucumber...but since sea cucumber takes a really long time to hydrate then prepare, etc., etc., I settled on a bit of dragon beard candy, made before my eyes by two neatly uniformed people beside a food cart.  If you haven't had it, here's more of a photo description
The snack essentially consists of very fine strands of cotton candy (far less sweet than the Western version) expertly spun by hand and wound around a crunchy, peanutty center.  You bite into one of these, there's a bit of give, and then they shatter in your mouth with a powdery pop.  As long as there's good weather, you should be able to find Yao, his food cart and his candy, which he sells 6 for $3.
While out wandering, there's that schizophrenic moment when you falsely imagine yourself deep in Chinatown, and all of a sudden you bump up against Little Italy.  In New York, the two countries are just a street-width apart.  But boy, does the scenery change.  Seeing all those top-shelf ingredients, the avid cook in me was desperately wishing for more lenient airline weight restrictions and a fatter pocketbook.  I got to do some more longing at the brand-new complex that is Eataly, on Fifth Avenue.  (4,600 square meters, or 50,000 square feet!  In Manhattan!)
Eataly features several restaurants, a year-round rooftop beer garden and microbrewery, a cooking school-- and you can buy all things good and Italian, from designer cookware to fresh crimini.  Expensive (quelle surprise), but pristine, authentic ingredients. It is built on the same premise as the slow-food promoting original in Torino...only it's in Manhattan, and backed by three high-profile Italian American restaurateurs.  When I went, it was chock-full of Italian Italians, as there was an Italian wine fair filling the space.  I stuck to my (very fine) espresso.
For the somewhat less well-heeled (or those allergic to chic-ish spots), there are always the ubiquitous food carts and trucks, which turn out often quite delicious fare, whether artisanal ice cream, or Malaysian, or Korean, or Latin.
For those who adore South American cuisines but would rather sit down, there's Empanada Mama, in Hell's Kitchen, just a block or two over from the Theater district.  So GOOD, I made a collage of their dishes (I'm still working on the empanada altar).   The empanadas are absolutely crammed with rich, flavorful fillings.  My favorites were the Reggaeton (Caribbean style roast pork with sofrito yellow rice and peas), Cuban (falling-apart tender slow-roasted pork) and Spicy Chicken, but as there are over forty different kinds of empanadas, plus a full menu including meal salads and family-style dishes, there's something for everyone.  I just never got past those fantastic fried empanadas (they have baked ones, and corn flour ones too, which I liked less), plaintain chips and tostones.  While the dumplings may look puny, after two or three of them and some plaintain chips, I promise you're stuffed.  Empanada Mama is also easy on the wallet: an empanada costs just $2.52.  They are open 24 hours a day, there's takeout and they deliver.  Plus they have loads of funky cocktails. 
I preferred to savor my Cosmopolitan at Birdland, an intimate (and famous) jazz club named after Charlie Parker. Relocated to Midtown Manhattan, on the edge of the Theater District, the club serves food and very fine musical fare.  The night we went, there was Afro-Latin jazz on offer, with a fun Calypso drum.  Very nice, very fusion.  And to my slightly cocktail-addled mind, so very New York.


  1. I do not need to tell you how much I love New York. Looks like you had a fantastic time. When I'm in NYC, I think a lot about where my next meal is going to come from, and of all the places I want to try to cram in before it's time to come home again.

    One of my "must have" NYC meals is always chicken schawarma. I just can't get it here. We go to Zaytoons in Brooklyn which has fantastic middle eastern food. When we were up there last, we ate Vietnamese at a restaurant called Nha Trang One in Chinatown. My journal says I had a chicken curry, spring rolls, fried squid, and a "33" beer. It was gooood.

    Empanadas. Yes. They are to die for. I've never been to the place you mention, but I will put it on the list. We had a family friend come over and make authentic empanadas for us and my kids beg for them all the time now. They are so. Much. Work. If I could pop down to a restaurant and pay $2.52 for one, I'd be about as happy as I could be. Plus plaintain chips? Awesome. We do tostones a lot here. Similar, but different, and highly delicious.

    We had a big party this weekend. Check out my blog for food pics!

  2. Hi Rose,

    I did have a great time. And I do miss the empanadas!

    Chicken shoarma/shwarma is fairly available on this side of the Atlantic, but the last time I had it I was still living in Amsterdam...

  3. I was very fortunate in the eighties to spend a couple of months in New York and live in an apartment that was in Soho proper; I remember how fun it was to stroll in the neighborhood and check out all the restaurants and stores; I am sure it is even better now and the choices are even more numerous.

  4. You seem to know more places to eat in NYC than I do...I must try some of your suggestions soon.
    At least you didn't mention Little Brazil on west 46th street - something to come back for.
    'Little Japan' is west 49th and 'Little Korea' is west 32nd street.
    If we ever meet I will wear something jonquil!


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