Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Food and Fun Two Go: New York City

For the food obsessed, there is nothing quite like a trip to New York City. The number of dining choices, from the dirt cheap to the high end, are enough to make your head spin. A few weeks before each trip to NYC, the food-related anxiety starts to set in. How are we going to pack all the restaurants I want to try into 2 days? Will I pick the right places? What if I "waste" a meal on something subpar? Sound familiar? Ok, maybe I'm just a weirdo.

Before a trip I always reach out to friends both actual and virtual (via Twitter) for recommendations. For this trip, my friend Jess sent us a great list of her favorite cheap eats. While scanning the list, my eyes locked on "Peanut Butter & Blackberry Jelly Doughnut" at Doughnut Plant.

Approximately 25 minutes after arriving in New York, I was stuffing my face with said doughnut. I'm happy to report that it was delicious and the creme brulee and blueberry cake doughnuts were stellar, too. We washed it all down with a cup of spicy chai and a jug of fresh squeezed OJ, and took a sugar coma walk through the pretty High Line park.

Following a game at Madison Square Garden, we set our sights on my greatest source of stress: Saturday night's dinner. There were so many restaurants I wanted to try with so many complicated reservations policies. After a ton of research, I eventually chose Talde, Top Chef contestant Dale Talde's brand new restaurant in Brooklyn. Since Talde doesn't take reservations, we hopped on the subway with the goal of arriving by 5:00 p.m.

Sadly, the NYC subway system had other plans for us. Weekend construction meant that trains were running on different lines or not running at all. After inching along the tracks for 45 minutes, I called an audible and we bailed somewhere in lower Manhattan. As my Talde dreams slipped away, I came very close to having a meltdown in the middle of the sidewalk. All that planning and menu researching, and I was stuck in an unfamiliar part of town with no plan for dinner.

Thank goodness for B who swooped in with a hug and with his iphone, and began to name restaurants in the area. As tears began to well in the corners of my eyes, I mumbled the only restaurant name that could salvage this night: Momofuku. I looked at B and said "get me to Momofuku please." Now, as B pointed out, there are several different Momofuku restaurants in New York City. I didn't care which one, I just wanted to get to something David Chang-related and I wanted to get there quickly. With B's phone as our guide we hoofed it at least a mile to Momofuku Ssam Bar.

I feared a nightmarish wait for a table (no reservations accepted), so I walked in to put our name in and sent B around the corner to put our name in at Momofuku Noodle Bar. The food gods must have felt sorry for me because the wait at Ssam Bar was only five minutes! I called B and he hurried back from Noodle Bar (which was quoting a one hour wait before 6:00 pm), and we were seated at Ssam Bar with a nice view of the open kitchen.

We had a ridiculously good meal of shared plates. Chang's famous steamed pork buns were as delicious as advertised, but my heart skipped a beat when I tasted the spicy pork sausage with crispy rice cakes. I would never have ordered this dish if our waitress hadn't promoted it, and I will forever be grateful to her. I have a thing for mochi (squishy rice cake) and spicy food. Put them together, and pan fry the mochi so they are crispy and squishy, and you have my idea of the perfect dish. That is my Best Thing I Ever Ate nominee for the "spicy/savory" category. I'm still dreaming of it, and I'm going to recreate it at home thanks to the recipe being widely available online.

Feeling a skillion times better after dinner, I practically skipped across the street to Momofuku Milk Bar. B and I ordered a cereal milk shake, slice of crack pie, cornflake-marshmallow cookie, and blueberry & cream cookie. We took our loot back to our hotel room and had a dessert-fest. We oohed and aahed over the crack pie and promptly fell asleep by 9:30 p.m. Night owls we are not (but we did wake up before 5 a.m. to catch our train).

On Sunday, after a fabulous breakfast of Momofuku cookies, we braved the subway again and made it to Chinatown. Our destination was dim sum at Oriental Garden. It's a good idea to go early as it is a small place and gets packed by midday.

We deliberately chose Oriental Garden for its small size. A smaller place generally means that dishes don't languish on the carts getting cold. There was a constant turnover of piping hot, fresh dim sum dishes. We'd rank this as one of the better dim sum meals we've had recently.

After stuffing ourselves with dumpling deliciousness, we walked over to Ground Zero to the National September 11th Memorial. You need to go online and get free timed entry tickets in advance. Also, be prepared to wait an hour in line (with tickets) to go through security.

The memorial was stunningly beautiful. From the two pools in the footprints of the twin towers to the tree (pictured below) that was found in the World Trade wreckage, everything was a gorgeous, yet solemn reminder of that awful day.

After the Memorial visit, we went over to the Brooklyn Historical Society where B became the first person to ever spend 2 hours in a 200 square foot museum exhibit. Nobody loves the Brooklyn Dodgers and their history more than B.

We capped off our whirlwind weekend with a burger at Top Cheftestant Angelo Sosa's Social Eatz restaurant. Best burger of our lives? Maybe not, but the atmosphere was fun and it was an easy cab ride to Penn Station for our train trip home.

New York, as much as your "Greatest City in the World" advertising and attitude irritates me, I have to admit you are home to some fantastic eats and cultural sites. I'm already researching restaurants for our next trip. Any "must eat" places to add to my list?

Second Thoughts from B

Chicago Tribune columnist, Mary Schmich, famously advised, "Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard." You may remember the line from the 1999 Baz Luhrmann song called, Everybody's Free (To Feel Good). For whatever reason, that statement has always stayed with me.

The idea is that NYC is a one of a kind place that everyone should experience (that some brilliant PR firm twisted this into the Greatest City in the World tagline). Fundamentally, I couldn't agree more. There is an energy in the city that is unlike anything I've ever experienced. Maybe that comes with millions of people living on top of each other. Or maybe it is a result of the dizzying amount of entertainment and cultural options that are always at your fingertips. Or maybe there is something to be said about the greatness of this city.

The other piece to Mary Schmich's line is the notion that NYC will make you hard... that something about being there speeds you up, makes you cynical, or strips your naivete. I think this is very true and perhaps it comes from the same reasons that makes the city great: overcrowding, unlimited access, and being surrounded by greatness.

What we are not told is how long it takes for NYC to make you hard. I know plenty of people who have lived there for years, yet maintain their easygoing demeanor that seems so foreign in the streets of New York. For me, however, a weekend is enough, and that's probably why I don't idolize the Big Apple as much as others do. You could say that I'm not tough enough, but I'd say that I don't want to be that tough.

Regardless, I need my trips to New York to be short and sweet. A weekend is perfect, and that's just another reason why I love DC. Being a relatively easy train ride away allows us to indulge and then retreat to the relative calm of the District.

Thankfully, I've married someone who is a planner (can you tell?), who makes sure that we get our money's worth out of our time in New York. The "never waste a meal" mantra allows us to see a lot without being enslaved by a rigid itinerary or frantic pace. Over the course of several weekenders, I feel like I've thoroughly experienced New York ("lived in" would be an overstatement) without it making me hard. That was the point, right?

This particular trip to NYC was harder than most. Between a shady DC taxi driver, subway construction delays, and shoddy hotel service, we could have easily declared the weekend an epic fail. But with so many highlights to choose from, I'm sure that the challenges will quickly fade in our memories. They'll be replaced by a dangerously good blueberry cake doughnut, a uniquely cool urban park, a dish full of flavor and texture that made my wife's head explode in a good way, a slice of pie more addictive than the drug its named after, a memorial that truly honors the memory of thousands, and the 1955 World Series banner hanging in a small historical society building in Brooklyn. Not bad for a trip that lasted about 36 hours...

Doughnut Plant:Doughnut Plant on Urbanspoon
Momofuku Ssam Bar:Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon
Momofuku Milk Bar:Momofuku Milk Bar on Urbanspoon
Oriental Garden:Oriental Garden on Urbanspoon
Social Eatz:Social Eatz on Urbanspoon

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