Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Manhattan Mangia Mystery

Christmas time in Manhattan--we dreamed about it and talked about it and this year saved up and actually did something about it.

Wasn't easy. We looked for a reasonably priced hotel and--whaddaya know--found one: the Blue Moon (you wonder if a detective agency rents an office here), a boutique hotel with a distinct look:

No generic Hilton this--even the rooms had a European feel, and on our floor at least was named after '30s Hollywood stars. Ours was the Paul Muni (I was tickled pink; the rest of my party were all blanks stares) and featured a wrought iron bed:

Hm. A little kinbaku anyone? 

The bath a unique chrome-and-tile style:

And omigod--a balcony with a view. Not much of a view but still:

With a room this nice (even at a reasonable rate) in Manhattan we had to cut corners somewhere; I figured we could eat fairly well without paying too much. 

Yeah right. But there were alternatives, if you care to look.

Once upon a time seemed as if every other street corner in Manhattan had a hot dog stand: Sabrett's all-beef dogs with the snap casing, kept warm in a pot of hot water while buns steamed in a separate compartment. The vendor would spoon onions in tomato sauce from a little bin, sauerkraut from another, spicy brown mustard squirted from a squeeze bottle, pull out a can of soda (I liked ginger ale) from a chiller (yet another compartment, refrigerated this time), hand the heaping dripping handful over (napkin sticking out at an angle) with soda can for a fistful of change and you were good for the day, or at least till dinner. 

Now the stands have vanished--or in some case have been swallowed up by the food trucks. Case in point: Adel's #1 Halal Cart:

Six or seven bucks got you a large toasted pita cone filled with ground lamb shredded lettuce diced tomatoes chopped onions, covered in white yogurt sauce:

A few more bucks and you got the falafel plate: crunchy spicy chickpea burgers with yellow rice a salad and more of that mysterious white yogurt (Taziki? But there's no cucumber) sauce:

Come morning the plan was to visit Russ & Daughters Cafe, where for a moderate price you could eat smoked fish and bagels and sit down too (you couldn't in their original location). Only when we got there it was past ten and a hostess told us the wait was about ninety minutes.

For brunch? Fuhgeddaboudit. 

One thing nice about Katz Deli--among its many other virtues--is that it's a few blocks away from the cafe (on East Houston Street) and even with a horde of hungry dozens seeking lunch the wait time would still be O ten minutes tops. You came in, you take your ticket, you walk up to the four or five meat cutters behind the long counter, you gave your order; while waiting the cutter would serve you a free bite of warm pastrami, freshly cut from a large slab (you do your best to chew on it without noticeably drooling (oishiii!)). You get your intimidatingly large heap of meat with rye bread perched precariously on top on a tray along with a chilled can of Dr. Brown Celery Tonic--the soda best suited to cut through all that cured fattiness--and you shuffle to a table. 

And O look--they have actual restrooms:

Note regulation funny signage posted on upper right corner of  men's room door. 

Bit of explanation: of course Katz had restrooms--it's just that they used to be elsewhere, roughly behind the soda counter, and you walked through what looked like a dark secret passage to enter (I remember sawdust on the floor) some dark secret chamber. Now they have apparently put in properly maintained rooms with tiles and even an easily accessible door--will wonders never cease? 

For the three of us we ordered two sandwiches: the pastrami on rye, the chopped liver, the plate of new and sour pickles. It was more than enough--

The pastrami of course is the best in the city: beef navel lovingly rubbed with spices, cured for weeks, smoked for days, boiled and steamed--how do the cooks know it's done? "It jiggles" they say and if you shake the plate or prod with a fork you know what they mean: the meat quivers like a heavy breast on a heaving chest. Frightening and erotic--and appetizing--all at the same time:

I suspect I ordered the lean (old timers know to order the fatty) but even lean is yielding to the tooth, provocative ("Bite me!"), marbled with buttery fat. Hand slicing as opposed to machine means thicker cuts (being so tender it really doesn't matter) but also that the blackened rub (peppercorn coriander seed bay leaf and if I say any more I'll have to kill you) falls between the slices, seasoning the meat (which is why every apprentice aspires to be a cutter--it's an art, and customers tip you for the privilege of tasting your art).

The rye bread is good not exceptional; most folks ignore it having had the best of the best...only those who know know that any bread no matter how ordinary after having laid under that pile of divine beef soaking all the seeping juices will deliver when bitten an unforgettable mouthful. Better than fresh creamery butter--no--better than rendered bacon fat--no--better than the drippings in a cast iron pan after you've fried steaks in it is this humble slice of rye soaked in pastrami juices. Really.

Of course their chopped liver ain't exactly chopped liver either: beef and chicken organ meat broiled, the sugars caramelized, with chopped boiled egg and schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) mixed in. Bits of chew, unctuous sweetness, brainfrying richness like a nozzle jammed between your eyes and a gallon of butter pumped into your cranium.

No they're not shy about their portions.

After attending service at the Church of Delicious Nibbles we made our way to One World Trade Center--

The observatory? Are you kidding? Tickets were $44 that day (apparently they go up during Christmas season) and if we all went that would've been two hundred dollars easy. Better to just step out and take a few pictures, of the tower and the nearby Oculus--

--basically a mall beside the tower noted for its high (really high) ceiling and posh stores:

At Boulud's Epicerie ordered the suckling pig Cubano (confitted pork, Jambon de Paris, Gruyere cheese, house-made pickles and mustard on a hot-pressed ciabatta roll):

And the banh mi (Thai sausage, Jambon de Paris, pate, jalapeno-flavored mayo, carrot-radish slaw).

Now I can safely say I've eaten at David Boulud's and still have both arms and legs attached.

I can also confidently say that the best thing about the sandwiches was the bread--hot crusty loaves with a soft inner crumb and a deliriously delicate flavor (Was it the flour? The fat used? The New York water?). 

Of course we went to Times Square; can't visit the city and not visit the Square, even scrubbed up and Disneyfied:

And even Disneyfied there's still tasty affordable eats like Wafel & Dinges, open from 11 AM to 9 PM (later if I remember right during the Christmas season), offering Liege-style Belgian waffles, or an extra-thick extra-crispy sweeter version of what we mortals usually eat at breakfast.

They like to pile on their dinges (toppings)--like with their Throwdown Wafel: 

Couldn't be simpler--wafel topped with Spekuloos and whipped cream--and yet the combination manage to beat Bobby Flay. Speculoos for those who don't know is what peanut butter would like to be when it dies; it's Nutella's younger sister and whenever Nutella hears the name she flies into a fit of fealous jage--

Actually it's spiced Belgian shortbread cookie crushed into a thick paste, then spooned (well ladled) on a freshly turned-out wafel to melt under its warmth into ooey goodness.

Throw in the Double Trouble:

Basically two wafels sandwiching strawberries Nutella whipped cream and Speculoos, drizzled with chocolate sauce.

Next day was Sunday and we wanted breakfast. No not bacon eggs or waffles (Omigod I couldn't even bring myself to look at another waffle): I mean congee. Chinese rice porridge. Except as usual we woke too late and it was more lunch than breakfast.

Never mind. We ended up in Congee Village in the Bowery. Walked up insanely chichi decor:

Had hot rice porridge served in large clay bowls, one with frog meat (tender chickeny) and snails (chewy faintly livery (which I liked)):

One with frog meat and abalone (chewy expensive):

And--our favorite--pig intestines fried and served in a sweet sauce. Basically tender pork fat rolled up in chewy crispy casing:

The afternoon was spent in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) a fast-growing chic district of shops and restaurants and yes I can show a pic of the Brooklyn Bridge and yes said bridge is huge and impressive--but I won't. Here instead is the single most charming sight in the city:

Jane's Carousel  was a 3-row 48-horse ride constructed in 1922 for an amusement park in Ohio; Jane Walentas and her husband bought the machine at auction and spent twenty-seven years restoring it--scraping away varnish and paint with an X-acto knife, replacing the weathered aluminum leaf (or aluminum leaf with gold wash) with palladium and 24-karat gold leaf:

Above: a pic of my favorite horse--not just because he's covered in palladium and 24-karat gold, but because he wears all that palladium and gold with an attitude.

Course we also had to visit Jacques Torres' original chocolate shop (hecked to the dilt for Christmas):

Of course we had to sample some of the sweets if only a scoop or two of the decadent-looking frozen products:

I tried the mango sorbet. Not as a rule fond of mango-flavored foods; love and always will a ripe Guimaras mango, peeled like a banana and eaten like war booty (like there was no tomorrow). But Torres' was good, easily the best fruit-flavored sorbet I've ever tasted (partly because it's so simple: puree, sugar, frozen water) outside of a real Philippine mango.

New York ended not in Manhattan or Brooklyn but in Flushing, Queens, and having lived off cheap eats I managed to save enough cash for one big last-day splurge. 

Sik Gaek is an unpretentious little place off Crocheron Avenue; inside it's noisy boisterous and fun. You sit in long picnic tables with holes cut out in the middle and gas burners fitted in; you yell your order to the servers (who yell back; otherwise no one gets to eat) and they bring you food.

Starting with the banchan, or small appetizer plates served before the main meal (clockwise from the bottom left)--kimchi, sliced vegetables with a fiery dip, fried eggs-- 
More banchan (clockwise from left): sauteed spinach (sigeumchi namul), kimchi, spicy sweet rice cakes (tteokbokki):

Then the meat platter: shortrib, 'snow flap shortrib' (Maybe a sirloin tip?), ribeye cap, ribeye finger, filet mignon:

O almost forgot--also had the live sannakji, or live octopus.

Yes that's correct: live octopus. Small cephalopod snipped up and served on ice. Dip in sesame oil (to prevent sticking to your throat and perhaps choking you to death--karma is a so and so, revenge a dish best served cold) and chew carefully and thoroughly (resistance is futile):

The taste is sesamelike (duh), chewy even crunchy (because it's undenatured) and surprisingly sweet (because it's still alive)

Actually it's not alive--the octopus is dead and cut apart but the tentacles (due to nerve cells firing) keep moving, a kind of persistent illusion of life.

Still--they do struggle don't they?

And that's it--coming back from New York I was penniless, or practically so. Till the next time I manage to save up--annyeonghi gaseyo!

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