Foodie Features

Postcard From New York

By Rosie Birkett

Between them, Manhattan and Brooklyn provide every dining scenario a hungry traveller could possibly desire – the only glitch being deciding where to go. Here Rosie Birkett gives you some pointers.

New York is known as the city that never sleeps, but it could just as well be branded ‘the city that’s never hungry’. This is a place where for plenty of people, ‘the kitchen’ is something they try and bag a table near at the hottest new opening. I have a friend who lives in a studio in Manhattan. She uses her oven as a storage cupboard, her cooker top is an extra surface for her (largely decorative) crockery.

As well as the limitations of small apartments, this everyday approach to dining out is driven by the fact that New Yorkers are utterly spoiled when it comes to restaurants with diners, street vendors, cafes or delis offering disparate cuisines from every corner of the globe, all around the clock. They throng to the hottest new spot, perusing Twitter, blogs, restaurant gossip sites like Eater and Grub Street; and they’re a fickle lot – one minute swarming for the stickiest steamed Korean bun, the next fixated by the way a certain chef grills their romanesco to a perfect nutty char. Restaurants here have to keep on top of their game to stay memorable, which makes things all the better for the likes of you and me, who are just visiting.

Let’s start in Brooklyn, which has, in the past few years, soared to the top of any passing sybarite’s hitlist.

The rise of the borough as a drinking and dining district has been rapid and widely documented, and, as well as a delicious smorgasbord of informal, vibrant restaurants touting everything from proper Southern barbecue (fettesaubbq.com) to chicken and waffles (sweetchicknyc.com), there are now several – albeit charismatically maverick – haute cuisine restaurants where you can sample some of America’s most exceptional cooking.

Some of them, like Blanca (Blancanyc.com), which received a Michelin star in 2014’s guide, are rather more difficult to find than others. The restaurant is incongruously set in the basement of a building only accessible via sister restaurant and hipster favourite, Roberta’s (robertaspizza.com), a kinetic pizza joint in the stark, industrial neighbourhood Bushwick. If (and it is a big ‘if’, though the restaurant is now taking online reservations via SeatMe.com) you manage to reserve a seat at the counter of this chef’s table restaurant, you’ll have to make your way past the superb seasonal pizzas in this fairy light-lit former garage before sampling rather more delicate delights like nduja ravioli topped with anise hyssop. These come courtesy of self-taught chef Carlo Mirarchi, who crafts twenty-eight small, immaculate and delicious courses during the sitting.

If you’re more of a bruncher than a multi-course supper sinker, get yourself to Diner (dinernyc.com) in Williamsburg early on a weekend and bag a seat at the bar of this former 1920s Pullman dining carriage. Opened by local mega restaurateur Andrew Tarlow 15 years ago, this place has been instrumental in shaping the much-mimicked sparse, scruffy Brooklyn aesthetic which is shared by restaurants all over the world – and by his more recent projects like the Reynard restaurant at the trendy Wythe hotel (wythehotel.com). With its characterful, decrepit tiles, marble bar and tightly packed tables, this original is an atmospheric place to unwind, observe hip Williamsburgers in their natural habitat, enjoy a Silver Lake Sling – a heady blend of gin, Campari, Grapefruit and allspice, and one of its generous plates.

The burger here is famously good, thanks to being made with delicious grassfed beef (all the meat here comes through sister butcher Marlow and Daughters (marlowanddaughters. com) – also part of the Tarlow empire) and crispy, skin-on shoestring fries. But you would do just as well to order one of the daily-changing brunch plates which like the fabulous biscuits with sausage, gravy and poached eggs – comes highly recommended.

For the best of the city’s street food, head down the road to 80 North 5th Street (at Wythe Ave) for Smorgasburg (smorgasburg.com) at the Brooklyn Flea and food market, which runs here over winter on a Saturday and Sunday until March. In this sprawling warehouse you’ll find seventy-five unique food vendors selling everything from Asian fusion hotdogs to handmade granola – and you might just pick up some cute vintage kitchenware from one of the retro stalls in the process. From April, the flea market moves to Fort Greene Flea on Saturdays, with Smorgasburg moving to Brooklyn Bridge Park on Sundays.

And then there are the places that you might just happen upon, as we did with Maison Premiere (maisonpremiere.com). Tucked behind an unremarkable awning on bustling Bedford Avenue, this place reveals an invitingly New Orleansian interior of whirring ceiling fans, glowing lighting and a large marble bar. Drip absinthe paraphernalia twinkles from the middle of the bar, where dapper barmen perfectly mix their concoctions. This is the sort of place you can get lost for hours, slurping local oysters – at around $2 a pop they’re some of the best value in the area – and carefully made cocktails. We tried delicious oysters from Maine and New York State, and supped perky, hoppy local craft beer from mason jars followed by the odd absinthe cocktail.

“New York is known as the city that never sleeps, but it could just as well be branded ‘the city that’s never hungry’.” - Rosie Birkett
Foodie Features

It’s a short subway ride across to Manhattan’s hip East Village, which positively pulsates with a dizzying array of well-honed restaurants. But if you’re in this part of town you just have to seek out Momofuku Ssäm Bar (momfuku.com), one of Korean American chef David Chang’s many eating spots. Chang is a Harvard lecturing, James Beard-winning global super chef with multiple outposts of his Momofuku group – including the twelve-seat, two-Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko, and Milk Bar bakery – in the city, and restaurants in Toronto and Sydney. He’s frequently named in ‘most influential’ lists in magazines like Time and Esquire, and despite his cooking’s high technique and his constant quest for new flavours – as witnessed by his development ‘kitchen lab’ – has pioneered a relaxed, no-nonsense way of cooking and eating that has arguably redefined American dining.

Ssäm Bar has been featured in The World’s fifty Best Restaurants list consecutively for the past five years, and, having feasted on its generous, surprisingly affordable bowls, it’s not hard to see why. Meals here have to start with one of Chang’s famous steamed pork buns – smeared with sweet, perky hoisin sauce and stuffed with a hefty chunk of fatty, melty pork belly, cucumbers, and spring onions; and include something from the daily rotisserie. We loved the perfectly pink slices of duck which came over soft fluffy rice, with watercress, fresh bib lettuce (great for wrapping) and chive pancakes.

And it’s not just Brooklyn that knows how to do subterranean eating dens. Also in the East Village, on Kenmare Street, is La Esquina (laesquinanyc.com) – one of the city’s most exclusive Mexicans. The restaurant proper lies hidden underneath a cheery taqueria and corner deli, selling some of New York’s best tortas and tacos (watch out for the avocado, queso fresco, black bean, pico de gallo and salsa verde). You’ll need to book weeks in advance to secure a table in the grungy, deceptively sprawling downstairs grotto, but trust me, it’s worth the hassle.

Sip on a salty, expertly crafted margarita made with one of the vast, glittering array of tequilas before being led to your table in the cavernous dining room. Music will pump as plates of Mexican delicacies fill your table. We adored the quesadillas of sweet roasted corn, deeply savoury mushrooms and fresh Queso Oaxaca; and the Queso Fundido – a skillet of thick molten cheese with crunchy roasted pumpkin seeds and plantain chips to scoop it up. Make sure you save room for main courses like the juicy Mayan prawns in a rich, well-spiced mole sauce.

But if you’d rather keep your eating above ground level, you can’t go wrong with Benoit (benoitny.com): lauded international chef Alain Ducasse’s sumptuous Midtown bistro. In a fast and furious food scene that’s increasingly characterised by pimped-up junk food and hip, young, occasionally irritatingly nonchalant staff, it’s a beacon of calm and a wonderful example of classic French hospitality. Based on its sister restaurant in Paris, which belonged to one family for almost a hundred years before Ducasse took it over in 2005, this place serves up French bistro classics through a prism of Ducasse’s modern French techniques.

Sit in one of the plush red velvet banquettes, under a wonderfully over-the-top painted ceiling of sky and clouds, and sink into cheesy gougere or three with a glass of Champagne, before feasting on hors d’oeuvres with a twist, like the leeks vinaigrette ‘mimosa’. Slurp some oysters on the half shell, or some garlicky escargots and then move onto a main event like the signature dish of whole roasted organic chicken with sweet, fragrant garlic cloves and crispy pommes frites.

Hop over the road to West 55th Street for a well-mixed nightcap at the cosy, dimly-lit, institution The Monkey Bar (monkeybarnewyork.com) and toast The Big Apple: a city that, as its nickname implies, never lets you go hungry.

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