Monday, March 31, 2008

New York Food Fest 2007

Hordes of hungry people lined up along the sidewalk against the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge. The door swung open with a deliberate forcefulness. A muscular arm shot out from the door beckoning seductively towards the crowd.

Thinking about my two week trip to New York, the one image that stands out most in my mind of New York food is the manager of Grimaldi's waving in more eager customers. I never intended for food to be the main drive of my trip to the Big Apple, but if food was my religion, this would be my pilgrimage.

The various cuisines I encountered gave me a taste of the extreme variety available in a truly cosmopolitan city. The many cuisines I sampled included Italian, Kosher, Chinese, Korean, Thai, American home-style, Turkish, Indian, Cuban, Middle Eastern and Pizza. Yes, pizza is a type of cuisine; at least it should be in New York.

Here I have listed some categories with restaurants worth mentioning. Below, I have wrote a few words on all the restaurants I went to in the city. The reviews are long, so feel free to just refer to these categories for a quick rundown.

Best Value: Gray's Papaya
Most Worth the Wait: Grimaldi's
Most Over Hyped: Veniero's
Most Courses for Your Money: Taj Mahal
Most Impressive Menu: Big Nick's

Italians have long maintained a dedicated presence in the New York food scene and as such, I expected great things from the Italian places I did visit. Mangia e Bevi, translated "food and drink" in English, offered a variety of seemingly authentic Italian cuisine at the border of Hell's Kitchen. My veal saltimbocca topped with a delicious brown sauce and prosciutto did not disappoint. Well, with a pitcher of white sangria, it's hard to disappoint. Alcoholic judgment impairment aside, this was the second time I came to this restaurant and for good reason. I specifically chose this one to return to because of its great atmosphere and food.

Closer to Union Square on the East side of Manhattan, Cafe Centosette is a dark Italian restaurant serving some common Italian dishes. The bruscetta di pomodoro, only four pieces for $7, failed to qualify for that seven dollars. My lobster ravioli with saffron cream sauce definitely was defined by its sauce, a little salty, but good. However, I would have liked the taste of the ravioli itself to stand up without the excessive use of sauce.

Veniero's, the 111 year-old Italian bakery famous for its cannolis and other Italian pastries, failed to impress me. The cheesecake was much better than the cannoli, but that could just be because of my abhorrence to orange peel which tasted like an ingredient in the cannoli. The service was despicable and in itself a reason to avoid this neighborhood classic.

When I mention kosher, I meant specifically the kosher bagel shop I visited in the Lower East Side near Chinatown, Kossar's Bialys. Following a tip from Zagat's, I arrived at the shop surprised by its draconian interior. They really are just a bakery; they even only sold cream cheese separately and not included with the bagel. My onion bagel was soft and moist, but it lacked the critical crispness of a fresh bagel. I supposed that was my mistake for arriving late in the morning, but otherwise it was still delicious. If you do decide to stop by, pick up a dozen or so and a good tub of cream cheese. I recommend the chive cream cheese.

Flushing, the new Chinatown of New York located in Queens has the feel, and unfortunately the smell, of all the other Chinatowns in the world. Except perhaps the Chinatowns in Canada, I hear those are spectacularly clean. In a quick adventure here, I walked in for a quick, cheap bite at a Four Entrees and a Soup restaurant. In true Panda Express fashion, you take a tray, load it with four things, then grab a soup at the end. And, as in true Panda Express fashion, the food was terrible. Enough said.

Apparently, the Korean district of New York consists of only one street, W. 32nd. Coming from LA, home to one of the largest Korean towns outside of Korea, I did not expect much from this miniature Seoul. Woo Ri Jip, a Korean equivalent to Famima with a buffet line, made me reconsider New York's Korean populace. The buffet food was not spectacular, but for the price, you can get a good amount of different foods.

Thai cuisine fits into American taste buds so readily because of its exoticism and overindulgent sweetness. In truth, good Thai food is supposed to be a balance of the five Thai flavors sweet, savory, spicy, sour, and bitter, but I get the feeling that American Thai restaurants weigh heavier towards our sweet tooths. Klong, in St. Mark's Place, with its signature Klong pad thai wrapped in an egg white omelet, satisfied me with its flavor balance. Its calamari appetizer even made a believer out of a previous squid antagonist.

Near NYU, a popular thai brasserie Cafetasia features low prices for decent food. While their basil udon was too soupy and their service lackluster, my biggest complaint would be the lack of air conditioning. It did not please me to wait so long for a table only to be melting as I ate my meal. The beverages did not even arrive until after the appetizers and entrees. Still, for a standard price of $7 for an appetizer and entree combination, it might be worth it to check it out again.

Upon the recommendation of a resident New Yorker, I went to Big Nick's for a half pound burger. Wanting to evaluate the burger on its simplest merits, I ordered the plain American cheeseburger. What I got was more than I expected. The beef is Angus beef that puts McDonald's new Angus burgers to shame. Cooked to order, Big Nick's burgers made you feel good to eat so much cow meat at once.

Serendipity 3, with a name like that, I never would've expected an $80 check for a group of three. I would consider Serendipity to be the Fenton's of New York, for all you Bay natives. The focus is on the dessert, although they are certainly not cheap. Their signature Frrrozen Hot Chocolate, actually a trademarked name, seemed no more special than a chocolate milk slushie with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. The sundae was also nothing spectacular. There is a $1,000 sundae on the menu that is supposedly covered in edible gold leaf, but that was beyond this food critics purview. I will admit though, I did enjoy Serendipity's coleslaw tremendously.

Hearty and Hale Soups is a chain of soup based fast-food restaurants with numerous locations in Manhattan. Their soup menu changes daily with the impressive claim that one could eat there everyday for a month without repeating a soup. My curried chicken chowder had the appeal of a creamy chowder with a spicy twist.

On that note, for a great lobster bisque, the best I have ever had, go to the Lobster Place in the Chelsea Market. It has incredible depth of flavor and aroma. The Lobster Place is a fish market offering many varieties of seafood all looking relatively fresh and delicious.

New World Grill, North of the Theater District, is a small indoor dining area with a large patio. The food was unmemorable, but if pushed, I would say that the grilled shrimp with coconut sauce is bland and unimaginative.

Up until this trip, I had never went to a Turkish restaurant before. Turkuaz, in the Upper West Side, captured my adventurous side. In a decor designed like the inside of a large tent, the waiters dressed in colorful Turkish vests. My lamb dish with Greek yogurt reminded me of so many other Middle Eastern lamb dishes, but left a mark of its own. The bread they served warm was fluffy and worth a trip on its own.

Nestled in a row of Indian restaurants with similar names, Taj Mahal stands out. As generic a name of an Indian restaurant gets, this one makes an impact with its dinner special. For under ten dollars, I got a drink, soup, appetizer, entree, and dessert. Each course was delicious on its own, but together, made for an even more delightful experience.

Havana Central, with several locations throughout the city, was a pricier Cuban restaurant. The ham sandwich I had for lunch there was one of the better ham sandwiches I have had at Cuban places before. Otherwise, this restaurant was not spectacular.

Mamoun, with at least two locations, one near NYU and one in St. Mark's, is cheap falafel. I had a chicken kebob pita there, but it was still under $5. Other than the price, I did not see anything else worth mentioning.

While in New York, I knew I needed to try this famous pizza that true New Yorkers swear no one else can get right. I went to two places, the first, Ray's Pizza did not strike me as anything earth-shattering, but the second, Grimaldi's, redefined pizza for me. Waiting in line in Brooklyn for more than an hour, I thought that Grimaldi's must be overrated. After all, this was the first restaurant I had ever seen awarded an extraordinary Zagat rating. Upon insistence that I try the plain pizza, I ordered one with no toppings. A good pizza dough and great tomato sauce really do make the pizza. But having discovered that, there was no reason why I could not add some sausage and onions to my next pizza that only improved on the original. Grimaldi's is worth the wait, trust me on that.

Of all the places that I went in New York, only one place did I go more than once. Gray's Papaya, a hot dog chain that specialized in specialty tropical drinks, enchanted me. The drinks that I had, the coconut champagne, pineapple juice, and banana daiquiri (all non-alcoholic) were festive and original, but the true charm came in the hot dogs. While not quite as great as Pink's in LA, Gray's hot dogs had a smoky flavor to them that added to the crunch of the sausage. At $3.50 for two hot dogs and a specialty drink, this deal can't be beat.

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