New York is the place I gravitate to in times I mark as significant. I flew in from London to usher in the new millennium with friends 15 years ago and now I am back to celebrate a milestone birthday. I am staying with Gina, a friend from my University of Paris days, at her flat in Brooklyn. Clinton Hill: all brownstones, strollers and coffee shops with quirky names.
The first night she takes me to Colonie. We sit at the bar and have pluots on bruschetta ($9), grilled scallops and a dish of grilled cauliflower with vinegared white anchovies, capers and a smush of cauliflower cream at the bottom($12).
The next day Gina suggests Frankies Spuntino. I have the pici in tomato sauce, studded with fat olives. There is a mozzarella that wouldn’t be out-of-place in Milan. There are overhead fans that turn slowly. Outside, there is a courtyard of amber coloured trees with strings of lights running to and fro. I go from being worried at tackling an American sized plate of pasta to lamenting that I’ve finished it so fast.
No time for dessert because I am rushing off to meet Andrew, an old friend and colleague from my Melrose and Morgan days. We have a pie rendezvous at Four & Twenty Blackbirds. I haven’t grown up with pie and I am skeptical that this place, in it’s out of the way location, will be worth the pie pilgrimage. We both have apple pie, I meet his daughter for the first time and he tells me what it’s like to work for Danny Meyer. (It’s worth the trip for the pie alone.)
That evening Gina takes me to the River Cafe. The sun sets behind the statue of liberty – which despite many trips to New York – I have never seen. The Maitre D’ is French, the headwaiter is German and most baffling of all is the Japanese man who serves the bread, explaining the choices with such a thick accent that you just have to go with visual prompts rather than the audio. This is a special event restaurant, one that prompts Gina to say: “You can’t go in jeans Suzy.” Accordingly, the menu reads like a whose who of classic dishes; oysters, foie gras, scallops, wagyu beef, duck breast, black cod and so on. The cake she has ordered for me comes with chocolate renditions of the Brooklyn bridge on its sides.
The following day, Gina has to leave and I meet my best friend from high school, Jo, who has flown in from Israel so we can celebrate our birthdays together. Much to her consternation, I pull out a typed list of places I need to hit and things I need to try. Doughnuts from the Doughnut Plant and Dough (Dough – no contest). Coffee from Blue Bottle and Stumptown. Num Pang that we get as takeaway from Chelsea Market to eat on the High Line.
For dinner I take Jo to Semilla, a “vegetable forward” restaurant (their expression not mine) that serves 18 people a fixed menu for $85 without wine. Semilla made it to America’s Best New Restaurants feature in Bon Appetite and was recently awarded a Michelin star. There is a dish of shaved Matsutake mushrooms with pumpkin ragu which I don’t get at all. It tastes like vegetable peelings and calling the minced pumpkin seeds a ‘ragu’ irks me. I like the bar with a narrow walk way that the staff sashay down with plates and when they meet, pivot sideways. Maybe the food is conceptual but with the exception of the bread and the sprouts – it’s not delicious which is a prerequisite for me.
El Rey is another restaurant I found out about from Bon Appetite and I have been piecing together their recipes in my Barcelona kitchen, like the famous avocado El Rey, from Instagram feeds. In the bricks, it is just as good as I imagined it and the space is bigger and more charming.
Except for a cold day at the start, we are blessed with mild temperatures and plenty of sun. I walk through the parks whenever I can. A young couple are singing folk music in Washington park, a troop of men sing apacpella in central park.
Dinner at Cosme – a 5:30 reservation – which I had made 2 weeks ahead. It’s dark, the way they like their restaurants in New York. We are advised to order 2-3 dishes each to share. The dishes are roughly $20 each. Wines by the glass are another $15. It’s delcious but expensive. Once they’ve added on the tax and the minimum $20 tip we are looking at close to $100 each. I am realising New York has become considerably more expensive and with the flagging Euro – you feel it acutely.
My friend insists that one of our food related adventures features a burger and she picks the Burger Joint. We enter the pristine lobby of Le Meridian hotel to find it marinating in a fugue of grease and burger. I wonder what the people paying $500 a night think of that? We join a queue that snakes, incrementally to a boxy restaurant. The menu is hand scrawled on a piece of card board at the entrance. Inside you order and then peer anxiously around the room to fling yourself into the first vacated seat. The walls are thick with tagging, around me are ladies who have paid for a blow dry. I laugh that this restaurant is the equivalent of paying $700 for a pair of jeans so they can put the holes for you in the right places. Or that this is a chance for older middle class to experience the hipness that would normally go with a neighborhood where they would stand a good chance of getting mugged without the associated risk.
Except there doesn’t seem to be any crime in New York. At least not from the way that people carry themselves. I see many an iPhone peering precariously out of back trouser pockets. Around the city, there are outdoor charging stations where phones are left to languish while their owners chat nonchalantly nearby. I’m incredulous, in Barcelona at least half my friends have been pick pocketed. Easily, half.
So no petty crime. And you know what else they don’t have? Bathrooms. Everyone is walking around with a 1 litre coffee in their hand and I want to stop people on the subway and ask how they do it? Whenever I ask, I am told to go to a Wholefoods (there is always a Wholefoods close by) and then you have to wait in line for the one unisex bathroom that serves a three-story shop and a further surrounding 4 blocks.
I have a book from Baked, so I arrange to meet Nuala, my friend and neighbour from London at their shop. I order a slice of cake. It’s obscene, easily 1/4 of a European sized cake, three layers and sickly sweet. I make note not to bake from that book again. Momofuku Milk bar also falls into the “don’t bother” category for me.
Chinatown is amazing. Way better than Chinatown in London. There is a woman selling live crabs under a bridge. The crabs are so feisty they keep scrambling out of the cardboard box but none get away.
I have fantastic dumplings at Mimi Cheng’s Her secret sauce is divine. I eat more dumplings than I should, simply because I am compelled to keep dipping. Red Farm meanwhile is a disappointment. They are known for a dish of ghost shaped dumplings (with eyes) and a slice of deep-fried sweet potato fashioned to look like Pac-man. He is held upright by a chunky guacamole. The fried roll is filled with Katz’s deli pastrami and comes with a mustard dipping sauce. It’s an example of American fusion that I really dislike, where there is no logical pairing or evolution, just a decision to put random things together and call it new.
Eately is I N C R E D I B L E. To look at. The pasta we have is simply ok. There are walls of Barilla pasta. A marble basin, in a marble vestibule where they make fresh mozzarella. They have the most obscure things, like a risotto cookbook from Villa D’Este at lake Como.
I shop for sprinkles and baking accessories at New York Cake & Baking Supplies. I caress the wares at Williams Sonoma and buy a heavy Bundt pan which along with the masses of stuff I’ve bought for my children, necessitates a new suitcase, which I am charged $84 for by American Airlines (American Airlines meanwhile? Awful! They lost my reservation on both legs of the trip. Use antiquated planes, the ones with a tiny tv at the front for the entire plane. Terrible customer service, no apology. Ugh. Just avoid.) I spend half a day at Barnes & Noble and fall in love with and buy the Gjelina cookbook.
Matzo ball soup at Eisenberg’s when my throat began to tickle. A Luke’s lobster roll ($16) when I don’t want to sit down for a long lunch (pristine meat, doused in melted butter and crammed between sweet soft bread).
My last night, I go down to Williamsburg and have a Roberta’s marguerita pizza with Nicole who lives locally and works for the MOMA. There is a line at six o’clock. I am getting used to this. We eat at the bar. They play The Cure, really loud: Pictures of You. Nicole looks exactly the same, we are sipping beer and she is talking about a guy. There is a part in the song where it sounds like someone has reached into a bag and thrown a million sharp stars into a room, turning it from dark to blinding white. For a fleeting moment, I am the girl I used to be, looking at the woman I’ve become. It makes my heart ache or swell, I can’t tell which.
After all, this was the point of this trip, to eat yes but also to think (unencumbered by the daily, the usual) of what has been and what I still want it to be.
There is still time for one quick snack and I get a mackerel filled roll from Shelsky’s and eat it on the window ledge of Gina’s apartment and watch her corner of the world go by.
New York Addresses (My favourites sport an asterix):
Baked – 279 Church St, Tribeca
*Blue Bottle Coffee – 85 Dean St. Brooklyn, NY 11201
Chelsea Market – 75 9th Avenue (Between 15th and 16 Streets), New York, NY 10011
*Colonie – 127 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Cosme – 35 E 21st St. New York, NY 10010
*Dough – many locations
Doughnut plant – many locations
*Eately – 200 Fifth Avenue | New York, NY 10010
*Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop – 174 5th Ave, NY 10010.
*El Rey – 100 Stanton Street NY / NY 10002
*Four & Twenty Blackbird – 439 3rd Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215
*Frankie’s – 457 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY 1123
Luke’s Lobster– many locations
Momofuku Milk Bar – many locations
*Mimi Cheng’s – 179 Second Avenue (between 11th and 12th Streets) New York, NY 10003
*New York Cake & Baking Supplies – 56 W 22nd St, New York, NY 10010
*Num Pang – many locations
Red Farm – 529 Hudson between W. 10th and Charles St, 10014.
*Roberta’s – 261 Moore St, Brooklyn, NY 11206
*Russ & Daughters – 127 Orchard St, NY 10002
Semilla – 160 Havemeyer St. No.5, Brooklyn, NY — 11211.
*Shelsky’s – 141 Court St, NY 11201.
*Stumptown Coffee – 30 W 8th Street, Greenwhich village 10011
*Taïm Falafel – 45 Spring St, 10012.
The River Cafe – 1 Water Street, Brookyn 11201
*Williams Sonoma – many locations