Oh my god, I read a book! About food, of all things.
I had the pleasure of reading Ayun Halliday's latest book/memoir (as in, she's got a few under her belt), Dirty Sugar Cookies in which she hilariously recounts food-related tales (maybe not so hilarious at the time, like the "Australian Pizza that microbes probably wouldn't even touch") from her childhood up to her children's childhoods in eerily exact detail. Okay, maybe the conversations are fudged a little, but it's not every day that your roommate exclaims, "I don't want to get diarrhea!" (page 104). Each anecdote ends with a personal recipe written in inimitable Ayun fashion, my favorite step being one from her brownie recipe: "Melt 2 sticks of butter. Sweet Jesus." If she wrote a recipe book, it'd be one of the few that I'd want to read and not just blankly stare at in a food porn-induced daze.
Since Ayun is an NYC resident, I asked her to provide some guidance to the best food related things in NYC. She went beyond my expectations and...really wrote a helluva lot, which is great because her writing is fun to read. :) AND READ IT, YOU SHALL, because I said so. I present to you...
Ayun's List of Best Things in NYC
(I'll add links soon.)
- I have to admit, I'm not so into the bakery cookies. A cookie place called One Girl Cookies opened up down the street, and it's very pretty inside, but I can't make the mental leap that would allow me to pay 75 cents for something smaller than a Nilla wafer. They look like something you'd feed a doll. A toy poodle could devour one in a single bite.
- Come on out to Brooklyn, baby! There's this little cafe in my hood called the Boerum Hill Food Company. It's owned by Saul and Lisa Boulton, who own Saul, one of the two Brooklyn restaurants awarded a Michelin star recently. How's that for pedigree? I recommend the Sunshine Muffin, but even better is the Ginger Scone, which tastes as though it has an entire stick of butter in it. If my past forays in scone baking are anything to go on, it probably does. (Note to scone and muffin pilgrims: if you make the trek, and Lynn, the bearded, bald waiter is on duty, make sure you give his necklace a gander and tell him I sent you!)
- vegetarian restaurant
- Well, I've mentioned the Vegetarian Dim Sum House quite a bit on this tour, so I'm going to go with 18 Arhens, which is run by a Buddhist nun, who occasionally leaves her post to worship at an altar in the back. No bathrooms, no chopsticks, no frills except the distinctive experience of seeing downtown office workers ministered to by a Buddhist nun... There's an amazing soup with edamame (i think the menu calls them green soybeans) and optional egg.
The runner up would be Tiengarden on Allen St.
- cheap eat
- In Red Hook, ringing the soccer fields across from the big public swimming pool, a few dozen street stalls materialize, seemingly out of thin air. It's sort of like Brigadoon, except that theyappear every weekend instead of once every hundred years, and they're not Scottish. They're Mexican, which is a real treat, as good Mexican food is elusive in this town. I had the best ceviche of my life here, for five bucks. It came in a disposable plastic cup like the kind you might find next to the ice bucket in a Holiday Inn.
Runner up is the Lahore Deli on Crosby Street, this little hole in the wall that's a Pakistani cabby hang out.
- The molten chocolate cake at The Good Fork, a restaurant that some friends recently opened on Van Brunt in Red Hook.
- late night spot
- Decibel Sake Bar in a basement on east 9th street. Pass through that portal and you're in Tokyo. Accordingly, you should drink hearty and not obsess over how much it's going to cost.
- early morning spot
- Back before the feral young entered my life, I loved going out to breakfast at 7A and not just because I could get a big plate of eggs, toast and spuddies for a buck-ninety-nine! I liked sitting by the window, watching what few people were out and about in the East Village at that hour.
- grocery store
- I've got a sentimental attachment to Fairway. Our first apartment in NYC was on 79th and West End and I spent my first few months there pining for everything I'd left behind in Chicago, even though I had always wanted to live in New York. I spent a lot of time walking up and down Broadway (just like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver!). Fairway's abundant sidewalk produce displays were one thing that had the power to cheer me, though to be truthful I did the bulk of my shopping at the West Side Market because the cashiers were marginally nicer. Fairway was a legend, but not nearly the dynasty that it is today, with the organics upstairs and the cafe and the branches in Harlem and Red Hook (where the parking lot has a view of the Statue of Liberty!)
Then, there are the many groceries that cater to one particular ethnic group (and groupies like me). Some of my favorites are:
- kitchen supply store
- I'll have to split this one into sub-categories.
On the high end, A Cook's Companion on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn is one of those stores where I walk in and think I want or need everything, but usually walk out empty handed because, really, there's nothing wrong with my old whisk and I can probably find some cheerful oven mitts at a 99 cent store, no need to blow the budget on a bright pink, industrial rubber elbow length model that looks like the love child of a Swedish cartoon character and a sex toy. It's a good place to go for a present. I recently bought Tivoli rocket-shaped popsicle molds for this wild little boy of my acquaintance. I was like, "Hey, Toby, I got your birthday present yesterday!" and he was going nuts because he wanted to know what it was, so I said, "Okay, I'll give you a hint. It's something I read about in Bon Apetit.
On the low end, we have Hung Chong Imports on Bowery, right around the corner from my beloved Doyers Restaurant. One day I'm going to go buy myself a wok big enough to sled in and one of those little waffle iron dealies that turn out tiny cakes shaped exactly like walnuts. I love that the frankness with which they display their rat traps.
- neighborhood to eat in
- I have to go with Chinatown because of the prevalence of street food, cheap restaurants, and little groceries where you can pick up unfamiliar snacks (and bargain-rate squid.)
- Jacques Torres. Just don't go the day before Easter Sunday.
- Totonno's on Neptune Avenue in Coney Island. Expect a long wait in line before you're served with a grimace (and in my case, twenty bucks worth of kiddie rides before we can venture west of the boardwalk) but the pies make everything worth it.
- Nice One Bakery on Bayard. They've got the best coconut buns and the counter ladies live up to the name. Once I got a note from this woman who subscribes to my zine, who'd recently traveled to NYC with her toddler daughter, and they went to Nice One because I recommended it on my website. She enclosed several photos of her kid perched on the counter, surrounded by adoring, pink-kerchiefed counter ladies. She said it was the highlight of their trip.
- Jalapeno cheddar bread from the Union Square Farmer's Market. I forget what that bakery stall's name is, but I can confirm that as of a couple of weeks ago, they set up on the north side on Wednesdays (and probablyother days as well. I got hooked on the stuff when we lived in the East Village, having discovered it first at the little Sunday greenmarket on the west side of Tompkins Square. Look for the fierce and fit woman with a portrait of her cat tattooed on her much-tattooed arms.
- best/worst dinng experience
- I've had a lot of those, both kinds, but here is a memorable dining experience I had recently (last November 4, to be exact). Greg and I were celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary and we'd planned to go to the Dominican Republic or something, but life intervened and eventually, our grand plan got whittled down to "Well, we'll go to Saul, and then a movie around the corner." But then I had a crisis of confidence that this wasn't special enough, so at the last minute, we got a reservation at Jewel Bako, with plans that we would continue the celebration at The New York Gypsy Festival. Greg had something to do in the city, and I had to await the babysitter in Brooklyn, so we arranged that when I came up out of the subway (in my red 40th birthday dress and lipstick!) I would call for his coordinates. He was at Kiev, having a martini, and he was all nervous-like.
"I got you something and you're going to hate it, but you have to like it because it was very expensive," he said, rather fiercely.
"Oh, whatever it is, I'm sure I'll love it," I said.
"No, you're going to hate it. But it was very expensive."
"Well, you know I'd love it even if you got it at a thrift store," I insisted, starting to get worried.
"You have to love it because I spent a lot of money on it. I went into Tiffany's and said, "I'm married to this hippie woman and it's our anniversary and I want to get her something nice."
"How'd that go over?" I cringed.
"The salesman suggested I should go down the street where there are these antique stores that would have something more to your taste. But, I didn't see anything there, so I came back. And I got this because Tiffany's is a New York icon and we moved to New York right before we got married, so..."
He hands me this turquoise Tiffany's bag, inside of which is another turquoise Tiffany's bag, inside of which is a turquoise Tiffany's box, inside of which is a turquoise Tiffany's pouch � they really know how to build suspense, and add to this the fact that I was now pretty convinced that I would hate it, and that the bartender had Kill Bill playing over the bar and I couldn't bear to look at it, since from the sound of things, it seemed like Uma Thurman was fixing to start slicing that other woman up with her sword. Well, Greg's present turned out to be a beautiful silver locket containing photographs of Inky and Milo as babies (though he said he almost put in two pictures of Milo because he couldn't tell them apart anymore.) His relief was palpable, as was mine.
So, we go to Jewel Bako and the owner, Jack Lamb, was there � I'd read all of those articles that declared him and his wife, Grace, the miraculously stylish wonder-couple of the East Village . He took our coats with a flourish, made a heroic fuss over my dress, wished us a happy anniversary, and shoe horned us into a little table just this side of the sushi bar. I was amazed at how tiny the place was and how the roof looked like the palate of the whale in Pinnochio. All these beautiful waitresses, wearing nice dresses instead of uniforms, slinking around the jammed-together tables.
The horror of the prices. I put on a brave front with regard to this last because it was our 10th anniversary and I was the one who'd suggested we go here. Then Jack Lamb appeared at Greg's elbow with three pink cocktails in tiny stem glasses and he held his glass aloft and made some theatrical, poetic toast to romantic love that was very much appreciated by the former bride. We ordered sake and tried to really savor our teeny portions of exquisitely plated appetizers and then sushi. I'm admiring the mackerel � which really did look like a jewel, possibly because it would have fit on a ring, and then, when I look up, I notice that Greg is totally bombed.
I have never seen someone go from not drunk to drunk that rapidly. It was like the blink of an eye. I was sure he was pulling my leg, but no, he was genuinely hammered, because in his nervousness that I wouldn't like the locket, he'd slammed down two martinis before I even arrived at Kiev! He was sort of weaving and moaning and smiling this silly, bleary smile. I guess it wouldn't be funny if he did this on a regular basis, but the last time he'd gotten this plastered was at our wedding reception, ten years earlier, so there was a kind of beautiful symmetry afoot. I noticed that Jack Lamb and all the discreet waitresses had started giving us as wide a berth as was possible in that itsy-bitsy space. Greg excused himself to go to the bathroom, and I sat there for like fifteen minutes, forcing myself to drink in all the details of this celebrated restaurant, since odds now seemed quite likely I would never return. It also seemed likely that Greg might never return to our table. I had visions that he'd passed out with his head in the toilet and that Jack Lamb would have to break down the door, but finally, he staggered back. It was a miracle he wasn't crawling on his hands and knees (as he did on Grand Ave the night we were wed!)
I whipped out my credit card and got us the hell out of there. Poor Jack Lamb! He'd probably intended to deliver one final speech on the wonders of love as he handed us our coats. Alas, the moment was necessarily subdued. I was just glad Greg didn't go crashing into the coat closet. The brisk November air revived him only enough to make it to the F train (no Gypsy Festival this anniversary!)
I have to say, I really got a bang out of it. For once, it was my husband and not me who'd fucked up in such a spectacular, public way, and this made me feel very tenderly toward him. As I recall, he wanted to stop for some pizza because our $200+ meal had not come close to filling him up. He kind of reminded me of the child who blurts out that the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes. Jewel Bako was good, but for folks like us, bustling, unfancy Taro Sushi in Brooklyn is a much more comfortable fit. If it hadn't been for Greg, my meal at Jewel Bako would have been pleasant, but ultimately forgettable.
Many thanks to Ayun for letting me be part of her book tour and for contributing to my site! I feel honored, like I'm a real blogger! Or something! To read the scoop from other food blogs, check out Ayun's website. I hope you guys consider reading her book since...you should. Obviously, I recommend it, unless you don't like funny things, in which case you kinda suck and must remove yourself from the Internets.