Sunday, July 30, 2006

I ♥ Cheap Eats – FB2B, part 23

Once a year, the local city magazines in most metropolitan areas do an issue about the least expensive places to get a good, quality meal. I always find them to be great reads. They are also a means to discover the range and variety of what a town has to offer in the way of ethnic and creative cuisine.
This week’s (July 31-August 7) issue of New York Magazine, which arrived in my mailbox last week, is their annual “Cheap Eats” review. In it, they look at places to get a meal for under $25.00. From the outside, that might not sound like anything close to a possibility price-wise in a city like New York, what with the highest of the high-end dining establishments located here like Per Se, Masa, Alain Ducasse, etc.

Because, however, this is a large, diverse community, with many different incomes, there is a plenty of room for producing interesting and tasty meals that don’t make too large of a dent in one’s checkbook or require sacrificing rent for a night out on the town. The profiles of these restaurants are usually filled with interesting tidbits, and I often find some leads on places to mentally add to my “to be tried” list or am reminded of places that I’d eaten at once upon a time to which I really should return.

This year, I was thrilled and pleasantly surprised to see quite a few of my stand-by, Go To restaurants featured. If you can get your hands on the issue, the food photography is mouth-watering, at least to my eyes, or maybe I was just really, really hungry at the time I was reading the magazine. As with anything else in New York opinions as to what should have made the list will vary, and this is not something to be tackled on an empty stomach! The magazine provides their evaluation criteria in the article. Here are some of my thoughts on their choices (rankings ran from 1-101):

Shake Shack (#17)
Ranked among the 4 Star restaurants and snagging the number 1 slot in the burger category, I have no argument with this one. I would have liked to see it a bit higher, but think that maybe it was demoted a little for its infamous line. As with many popular NYC attractions (Shakespeare in the Park, movie night at Bryant Park, anything at Central Park) faithful patrons have devised all sorts of elaborate strategies for how to avoid waiting in what seems like an interminable queue just for an addictive Shack Burger, fries, and the frozen custard flavor of the day. There’s now even a camera installed so that hungry devotees can check online to schedule their arrival so as to avoid the crowds.

Thanks very much to them for having their 2006 opening day preview on my birthday this year. It was so worth it, and I even have the card to prove that I was there among the early-birds.
Otto Enoteca Pizzeria (#24)
I visited this ristorante a few months ago and wrote a review about the food and drink that we had on that excursion. I still haven’t managed to make it back to try the pizza, but it is on my list of things to do when I can round up some folks who’d like to try it with me.
Via Emilia (#41)
My heart skipped a beat and I started to hyperventilate when I thought that this Northern Italian gem had been lost forever. The part of the block on Park Avenue South where it was located has been cleared to make way for some new building – my money is on the usual condos. Turns out, they managed to relocate about a few blocks away and while I haven’t had a chance to visit their new digs yet, I’m just waiting for the first cold snap so that I can indulge in their luscious tortellini con panna or ravoli di zucca and maybe wash it all down w/ some Lambrusco. Although the owner is from Modena, it wraps me in warm memories of my years in Bologna and the food is nearly as good as being there in person.
Rickshaw Dumpling Bar (#71)
When the line at Shake Shack is really just too long and my patience too short, this other neighborhood joint is my backup dining destination for the Madison Square Park area. Dumplings are a great meal in my book. These come in all sorts of interesting flavors (the standard Pork, Peking Duck, and Chicken & Lemongrass are among some of the options) with matching dipping sauces (like plum and peanut). Paired with a side salad or soup, they make a wonderful, inexpensive, filling lunch break. While their chocolate ones got lots of press, I wasn’t really a fan.
Sip Sak (#78)
Meze are another sure-fire way to tame an appetite. I had eaten Turkish food when I lived in London, but had to wait several years until it followed me back here to the States. It was worth the wait. A drink with friends at the rooftop café at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, followed by a group dinner sharing the meze sampler plus a few other dishes at Beyoglu (the original uptown restaurant by the same owner as Sip Sak), and Saturday night out in Manhattan comes in at the bargain price of about $35.00 per person (depending upon how much one drank at the Met).
Republic (#97)
On one side of Union Square, is this delicious noodle bar with all sorts of flavorful, Asian-spiced menu choices. Although inside the restaurant, the long communal tables and deafening acoustics make it difficult to have intimate conversations, the noodles more than make up for it. Besides, when your bowls arrive, you’ll be too busy slurping up the long beauties to talk to your companions anyway. A meal and some locally-grown organic veggies bought at the Greenmarket will make up for everything else you put into your body during the workweek.
Buon appetito!

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Pesto Pronto – FB2B, part 22

Happy Anniversary to the Greenmarkets! As both the New York Times and New York Magazine highlight they turn 30 years old this week. In a way, it is hard to imagine the city without these culinary resources, they’ve become something of an institution. Specials and the latest seasonal produce are highlighted on blogs, and new arrivals are heralded in the Dining In section of the Times on Wednesdays. The market has even published its own cookbook.

In fact, the markets are such a part of New York life that one of them even played a role in the healing our wounds after 09/11, when it had to leave Downtown Manhattan (along with many of the firms whose employees shopped there during lunchtime). The re-opening of the market that had been at the base of the towers was greeted as a return to something close to normal life and a sign of the city’s resiliency (along with the re-opening of Century 21!).

The market’s own booth at the Union Square market patiently handles queries from anxious foodies asking when the newest arrivals will be there and when whatever is next in season is anticipated. This week’s New York Magazine has a detailed map of the square and all the vendors who are usually there on Saturdays, but my favorite thing to do is just to walk around and take in what is for sale.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Vive La France! - FB2B, part 21

The Weather Channel says that it’s currently 92 degrees Fahrenheit outside (about 30 degrees Centigrade). That’s hot enough to do nothing but just sit around inside watching television and drinking cool liquids. But, to do that today would be something close to culinary sacrilege.

New York summers and street fairs go together like, well, just about anything you can think of to combine. To the uninitiated, these may sound like great fun: food, crafts, vendors, etc. all in a few city blocks. To those who get to live with them, they are experienced with the same measure of ennui and tolerance of the many themed parades that close down Fifth Avenue several times a year. They shut down bus routes, cause detours, change well-laid plans, and cause mounds of frustration.

There is, however, one special fair that takes place each year on a Sunday in mid-July that draws out the folks who most likely don’t usually brave these spectacles. The Alliance Française in New York holds its Bastille Day celebration in Midtown Manhattan, taking over three blocks on 60th Street. Local proprietors, restaurants and many things French are featured.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The end of the season – FB2B, part 20

*Sniff* I can’t believe it’s here already. The end of the season has come and I completely missed them. I’m not talking about baseball. I don’t mean hockey. I’m not even referring to the World Cup. No, the season I am talking about is short, sweet and red. It is enticing, sometimes decadent, and very, very delicious.
The last of the farmers’ market strawberries have come and gone. Each year, as with asparagus, there is the fervor among the food set, especially those who try to eat as seasonally as possible, to hunt out and obtain, for as many weeks as is feasible, locally-grown, tangy-sweet, juicy strawberries.
I know that this might seem strange as you think, “What is this about? I see strawberries all the time. They are in my local grocery store year-round.” Those specimens you see in the plastic containers during the winter are a far cry from the ones to which I am referring. They could almost not even be the same fruit.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Name Change - FB2B, part 19

You may notice that there's yet another break in the sequence in which I usually post, especially as I took a hiatus a while back. I've been debating changing the name of this blog for a while and decided during my "six-month self-review" - triggered most likely by the fact that we've been going through these at work as well lately - that I should just take the plunge and not hesitate any longer.

Today is a bank holiday in the United States. As I couldn't afford to take off yesterday, it is sort of weird week for me. Saturday and Sunday were filled with the usual scramble to get errands done. Yesterday was really quiet, even more so than the day after Thanksgiving, and lots of places seemed closed. The financial markets closed at 1:00 p.m. and, in one of the major perks of working in the industry, some of us got to leave a couple of hours later, several hours before my usual departure time. Ahhhh, I did miss that when I was temping for non-financial companies.

What getting home when there was still plenty of sunlight did, was give me time to deal with the pile of magazines and papers on my floor. You know the one. It starts to take on a life of its own, growing, spreading, until really you think it should be paying rent in your room. It looked much larger earlier in the day. O.K. Maybe the rest of you have a more ordered existence than I.

In the pile were some great notes and recipe ideas. I also discovered some thoughts for the blog that I'd scribbled on various pieces of paper. It made me realize how much this concept I'd discussed a little more than six months ago over coffee with a friend has evolved more into something that does what the title now suggests: explore experimenting with food and enjoying various tastes.

It is my hope that the new title doesn't scare anyone away and, in fact, draws some of you "lurkers" (the term for those who read but don't post - I didn't make that up, btw) out to post your comments and ideas. Cooking and eating are about experimenting and trying new things and new recipes. I hope that my photos and tips will inspire you to do just that.

Buon appetito! (and now I have to return to the Italy-Germany game to root for my Azzurri - yes, that is a link to ESPN, probably one of the only that will ever happen on this site)

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Salad Days - FB2B, part 18

It’s hot. It’s bloody hot, but at least it’s dry. After lots of rain this week, it’s now really hot outside, just in time for a holiday weekend. Better yet, I feel as though my apartment traps heat so there’s no real escape.
This is the time of year when it is just excruciating to cook. Anything that causes the temperature to rise inside is to be avoided. Greens wilt. Appetites dwindle. Nothing seems appealing.

On the other hand, this is also the time of year when really great produce is available and loads of wonderful fresh fruit is coming into season. I took advantage of the nice weather to check out the newest edition to the farmers’ markets in town.

Nina Planck, who used to run the Greenmarkets in New York City, has set up two markets. One of them is on a thin triangle of land on Lafayette Street between Spring Street and Kenmare Street. This is the one that I visited today.  The newsletter they sent around said that some of the showings would be lighter as the heavy rain this week caused damage to some of the crops. Nina’s folks came up from Virginia to lend a hand this weekend. Next time, I’m going to try the other market on 6th Avenue between Bleecker Street and Houston Street.

Although, as the photos show, there were some nice veggies available, I didn’t find what I really wanted there, so I ended up at my usual – the Union Square Greenmarket. Unfortunately, it was later in the afternoon, my having been distracted by the England-Portugal World Cup match, so many places were closing up. I did pick up some salad greens and my first fresh local raspberries of the season.

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