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Eating the Big Apple

The foodie mecca is a great destination for gourmet indulgence

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So much to choose from, so little time. You need more than three days to munch your way through the Big Apple, but I did my best.

It had been a decade since I went to New York to report on restaurant trends. Ten years is an eternity in the food world; half the restaurants I visited that were "in" back then aren't even open anymore. Yet New York wasn't as cutting-edge as London at that time, and France, as always, offered not just restaurants to the gourmet traveller, but markets, bakeries, chocolateries, confiseries and charcuteries.

But New York is red-hot on the gourmet radar these days, thanks to risk-taking young chefs like Momofuku's David Chang and Corton's Paul Liebrandt, who garner critical acclaim alongside established bigwigs like Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert and Mario Batali, who are still at the height of their powers.

It has also become a destination for so much more than fancy dinners. Yes, there's great high end, but there's also inventive ethnic food, delicious casual fare, and a renewed interest in American cuisine.

Walking the streets of New York, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of gourmet emporiums, cool bakeries, tiny taco shops and fancy food trucks. And how 'bout all those gorgeous cocktails!

The only dilemma was, for a three-day visit, where to start?

As the choices were countless (heck, you could plan a food trip alone around Brooklyn), the itinerary would be ambitious. And Manhattan in summer is hellishly hot, not exactly a climate to induce serious noshing, so fall is a great time to go.

Check out the food-centred websites -- eGullet.com, chowhound.com, seriouseats.com -- and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and all the food-lovers seem to be endorsing one New York dining or snacking experience as highly as the next. If anyone is eating badly here, you'd never know it from the hype.

I asked some chef friends for recommendations, read as many restaurant reviews as I could manage, and then changed my mind a million times when on the ground to suit my appetite.

I wimped out on the Momofuku Ssäm Bar duck lunch after eating two huge doughnuts for breakfast at Doughnut Plant. Brunch at Minetta Tavern is supposed to be terrific, but the idea of sitting in a dark dining room on a sunny morning seemed ridiculous. Sadly, a bite at Torrisi Italian Specialties took a back seat to the Eataly experience.

And I never did manage to get to the first restaurant on my list, Porsena, the small but fabulous authentic Italian restaurant run by the brilliant chef and cookbook author Sara Jenkins. There was just too much to do.

But if anything, that missed visit gives me a great reason to return as soon as possible. The knockout food, superb service and the sheer friendliness I experienced in New York left me wanting only one thing: more!

This is what I managed.

THE FANCY DINNER SPOT: Eleven Madison Park:

11 Madison Ave. (at 24th St) www.elevenmadisonpark.com (Gramercy)

THERE are a plethora of choices on the high-end in NY. Would be it Per Se? Jean-Georges? Daniel? Le Bernardin? None of the above.

The restaurant chefs talk about most is Eleven Madison Park. The jewel in N.Y. restaurateur extraordinaire Danny Meyer's crown, this beautiful restaurant is renowned for its food, but perhaps even more for its service. With only 80 seats and 30 cooks working in the kitchen, the level of cooking here, overseen by chef Daniel Humm, is off-the-charts intricate.

The new menu features a list of ingredients -- lettuce, foie gras, pork, chicken, chocolate, etc. -- from which you chose four with no prior knowledge of the accompaniments. It's all a bit of a surprise and every plate presentation is swoon-worthy. Some of the food was salty, but it was great to see Quebecois foie gras and Gaspor pork on the plates.

The service is indeed exemplary, the wine list is filled with choice bottles, and at the end of the meal, they hand you a menu card with everything you ate printed out in detail. Count about $200 per person including tax and tip. But it's well worth the expense. This isn't dinner, it's an experience. Go.

THE CASUAL OUTDOOR LUNCH: Shake Shack

7 locations in N.Y., original location Madison Square Park near Madison Ave. and East 23rd St. www.shakeshack.com. (Gramercy)

RIGHT across the street from Eleven Madison Park, Shake Shack is another Danny Meyer property and probably his most genius one of all. The premise is simple: a super chic snack bar (designed by the architectural and environmental design firm Sculpture in the Environment) that serves top-notch burgers, frozen custard (think super-rich soft serve), killer hotdogs, crinkle fries, thick milkshakes, and even beer and wine.

Get ready to stand in line for at least a half-hour to enjoy this gussied-up fast food, but it's worth the wait. There are several locations, but the original, in the flower-laden Madison Square Park (which had fallen on hard times until given a full makeover in 2001), makes for the ideal New York experience from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

FOR BREAKFAST: SFLBBouchon Bakery

One Rockefeller Plaza, and 10 Columbus Circle, (3rd floor). www.bouchonbakery.com (Midtown and UWS)

CALIFORNIA-BASED star chef Thomas Keller is now a force to be reckoned with in New York. His empire includes the gastronomic restaurant Per Se, but he also opened outlets of his upscale Bouchon Bakery in two locations in the city. The baked goods are very fancy French as in croissants, eclairs, and mille-feuilles. But there are also American favourites like muffins, sticky buns, Snickers parfait and even foie gras dog biscuits.

I found the scene a bit touristy and the pastries are pricey. But for those of us who like to eat and run, the counter here overlooking the Today Show studios is a great option.

ANOTHER BREAKFAST OPTION: Pain Quotidien

13 locations in N.Y. www.lepainquotidien.us

BREAKFAST for some is bacon and eggs, but I'd rather get my carbs at lunch or dinner in a nice restaurant than in some hipster hangout in Chelsea. For a fast breakfast, I quite enjoyed this European chain with locations all around New York, where you sit at communal tables and enjoy a tartine or bowl of granola with your latte while mapping out the day's schedule. Yeah, it's a chain, and, no, it's not a place the foodies usually frequent. But I liked the quiet ambience, the Mozart playing in the background, and the cute jam caddies on every table.

THE PILGRIMAGE: Prune

54 East 1st Street. www.prunerestaurant.com (East Village)

FOR those of us who read Gabrielle Hamilton's fantastic memoir Blood, Bones & Butter, a trip to her East Village restaurant, Prune, is sure to bring many of her stories to life. I had a great simple lunch here, beginning with a spicy Bloody Mary, followed with a delicious chef's salad, a scrumptious burger with salty fries, and finishing off with a perfect chocolate pot de creme.

The restaurant is tiny and a bit shabby, but oh-so comfortable, the staff could not be friendlier, and the people-watching is as good as it gets. Be sure to reserve one of the 28 seats well in advance, and if you haven't read Hamilton's book yet, pick up one on the spot. If you're lucky, she just might be on hand to sign it for you.

THE "KILL TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE" LUNCH:SFLBThe Modern at MOMA

9 West 53rd St. www.themodernnyc.com (Midtown)

CHANCES are, you're not only going to New York to eat. Museums are usually on the agenda, and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) is a must. Hours spent admiring the Picassos, van Goghs and Jackson Pollocks are sure to drum up some major hunger and you'd be hard-pressed to find a better museum restaurant than MOMA's the Modern.

Yet another restaurant from the Danny Meyer Union Square Restaurant group, the Modern offers diners the option of a full-blown, multi-course gourmet experience in their main dining room overlooking the sculpture garden.

For those less willing to splash out for the BIG lunch, there's the bar room, where you can order all sorts of terrific looking and tasting dishes la carte. I sat at the bar and enjoyed the food and bustling scene immensely (they also have a great selection of wines by the glass and the friendliest waiters I've ever encountered).

Expensive, yes, but after admiring all that serious art, lunch at the Modern seems a better fit than a hotdog on the sidewalk.

THE COOL PLACE: Bar Boulud

1900 Broadway. www.danielnyc.com (Upper West Side)

A foodie destination everyone raves about, Bar Boulud is Daniel Boulud's wine bar that specializes in big-bottle formats and charcuterie overseen by the famous Parisian charcutier, Gilles Verot. Sommelier Michael Madrigale has garnered plenty of admirers for his wine service and selection, and every night some large format Jeroboam or methuselah is uncorked and served to happy oenophiles who sit in this handsome room's bar or banquettes wolfing back some seriously scrumptious French food.

The homemade pates, terrines, head cheese, saucissons and "rillons" (crispy chunks of fried pork belly) are a must, and I'd also recommend chef Damian Sansonetti's aioli platter, paleron de boeuf, or coq au vin with a side of the amazing super green spinach.

But no matter how stuffed you are after the food and wine, don't pass on pastry chef's Ghaya Oliveira's desserts. There are tarts, parfaits, chocolates, ice cream, tuiles and foams -- all as beautiful as delicious.

Bar Boulud is located directly across the street from Lincoln Center, making it ideal for pre- or post-theatre dining. They also do a great brunch.

The hot place: The Dutch

131 Sullivan St. at Prince St. www.thedutchnyc.com (Greenwich Village)

Boulud alumnus Andrew Carmellini (former chef at Cafe Boulud and Locanda Verde) may be known as an Italian specialist, but his latest restaurant, The Dutch, is all American. The West Village restaurant has a noisy bar up front and a more intimate (but still noisy) dining room in the back. The decor is warm and homey and the cuisine is more comfort food than haute cuisine.

Dinner features plates like heirloom tomatoes topped with American burrata, crab salad with Bloody Mary sauce and green goddess dressing, rabbit pot pie, and veal loin with roasted tomato sauce. Desserts are old-fashioned like Devil's food cake with black-pepper boiled icing, and salted key lime pie.

The only weak spot here is the short wine list and the noise. The room is too loud for intense conversations at the table. But book a table early, start off with a dozen oysters, and when you leave, a long walk around this tony neighbourhood is the ideal way to end the evening.

A walk down memory lane: Dean & Deluca

SoHo Store 560 Broadway at Prince Street). www.deandeluca. com (SoHo)

It all began in 1977 in Soho, back when this coolest of cool hoods was grimy and crime-ridden and gourmet foods equalled bottled salad dressing, Kalamata olives and Swiss chocolates. Walk into this gourmet emporium some 30 years later and marvel at the bread, the cupcakes, the produce, the meat counter, and the cheese.

What I like here are the honeys, the spices, the olive oils, and all the other bottled foodstuffs you can slip into your suitcase. This is also a great place to stock up on chocolate bars, especially the intense and original Mast Brothers chocolate made in Brooklyn. Serrano pepper chocolate bar, anyone?

The indulgence: Doughnut Plant

379 Grand St. www. doughnutplant.com (Chelsea)

Nothing beats a coffee and doughnut, and the doughnuts at Doughnut Plant are probably the best in the world. Located right next door to the famous Chelsea hotel, Doughnut Plant makes cake and yeast doughnuts in the most interesting variety of flavours, including lavender, blueberry, Valrhona chocolate, banana pecan, and creme brulee.

Biting into their vanilla bean doughnut, I was transported back to the taste of homemade doughnuts of my youth.

Added bonus: the doughnuts are huge. Unreal.

The place everyone is talking about: Eataly

200 5th Ave. (between 23rd and 24th Streets) eatalyny.com (Gramercy)

In walking distance from Doughnut Plant is this new 50,000-square-foot food market dedicated to all things Italian. Spearheaded by culinary superstars Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Eataly founder Oscar Farinetti, this massive food hall offers areas for shopping, eating, learning, drinking and endless people-watching.

Not only will you find hundreds of varieties of pasta (dry and fresh), tomatoes (canned and fresh), and mozzarella (imported and made on-site), there's also meat (fresh and cured), kitchen supplies, and cook books. There's a gelato bar and espresso bar and a wine bar. Restaurants include a pizza and pasta place, a salumi section, a vegetarian counter, a fish restaurant and more.

There's just so much going on here that you'll want to spend at least an hour gawking at all the products and another hour tasting, tasting, and tasting.

Word of advice: to avoid waits, book your table in one of the eating sections as soon as you arrive. I had the pasta and pizza. Simple, inexpensive and bang on.

The fun place: Fishs Eddy

889 Broadway at 19th St. www. fishseddy.com (Gramercy)

Most of us food lovers also have a weakness for dishes, and if your idea of heaven is vintage china, New Yorker cartoon mugs and retro cake stands, this funky shop is sure to charm. Scan the crowded shelves and you'll find discontinued old restaurant plates, new plates, big plates, small plates, T-shirts, napkins, kitchen towels and so much more. Prices are reasonable and the style here is more fun than fancy. A great place for gift shoppers.

The oh-so-New York experience: Union Square Farmer's Market

14th St. and Broadway, open Mon. Wed. Fri. and Sat. (Gramercy)

You can tell a lot about a city by visiting its farmer's markets, and the Union Square Green Market is an oasis of green in the middle of Gotham City. Farmers sell honey, ciders, breads, pies, cheeses, vegetables, eggs, flowers and so much more.

No, it's not as sexy as a Provenßal market or even as large as Montreal's Jean Talon Market, but it's teeming with New Yorkers with kids, spouses, friends and dogs in tow, talking to the producers, buying up all kinds of lovely organic produce and looking for a little taste of the country in the shadow of this massive metropolis.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2012 D1

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