Monthly Archives: December 2015

Soup and sandwich lunch special at Gramercy Tavern

I didn’t just take one day off in December, I took all its Mondays off, leaving me with a few opportunities for lunch adventures that would normally be too difficult or too rushed when I’m on the clock. Unfortunately, everyone’s new favourite bagel purveyor, Sadelle’s, is not open on Mondays, which was disappointing because I usually eat too late on weekends to be able to get there when things are fresh and because Soho and its shopping hordes do not encourage weekend visits. Something about the luxury of not having to be anywhere on a day when most people bemoan the return of having to be somewhere meant that I wanted to be somewhere more comfortable, where I could take my time, and really turn a Monday on its head by having a glass of wine with my afternoon meal.

My decision was made when I saw an Instagram post of the Gramercy Tavern’s weekly soup and sandwich special: a gussied up Egg McMuffin alongside mushroom soup. Winter has yet to arrive in the city, but on a day when my cheeks got rosy after a few minutes of walking, the combo sounded pretty perfect. And I knew from experience that the price would be, too. $17. The soup and sandwich deal is an off-menu lunch special that the front walk-ins-only tavern room runs along with a much-loved burger. I’ve taken advantage before of having the casual meal in the sumptuous room, and knew I wouldn’t be disappointed (especially because of the included bread service). I’ve always had to wait for a seat at the bar, but it’s usually minimal, and it has always been worth it. The chairs are comfortable, the service is as attentive as in the dining room, and the food is consistently good. I’ve been able to make a lunch here work within the confines of a normal weekday, but clock-watching was the last thing I wanted to do and, again, wine.

 

Creamy mushroom soup with leeks and buttermilk

Mushroom soup shouldn’t be that surprising, but this one was. The expected earthiness and richness were there, but so too was a light tang from the buttermilk that kept the bowl interesting until the last spoonful.

Country egg and Canadian bacon sandwich on an English muffin with spinach and raclette cheese

I took full advantage of a long lunch by having my soup and sandwich separately (they’re normally served together) but also chose this service so that I could build up anticipation for this marvelous egg sandwich. The muffin and Canadian bacon were both made in-house, and it’s that kind of attention that makes this lunch deal one to remember. The muffin had notably been buttered and toasted on both sides, leaving me with slick fingers that encouraged eating the sandwich all in one go instead of with ladylike pauses to clean my fingers. The ham had the salt, the cheese, the richness, and the spinach, the chew. I would have liked my yolk runnier, but then that would have removed any chance at decorum. There was a mayonnaise present that I forgot to ask about, but its citrus notes did a tremendous job of cutting through the ham, cheese, and egg and adding an element of brightness.

As a side note, I learned that if you order your soup and sandwich separately, you’ll get your sandwich with a side of greens. Not necessary, but good for someone like me who is always in need of more vegetables.

Pumpkin pie sundae – pumpkin ice cream, speculoos butter, cinnamon-marshmallow fluff

 

Another reason why it was easy to go to Gramercy Tavern on this day was because I knew that a seasonal dessert I had been lusting after was still available. The picture doesn’t do it justice. The spices, the creamy texture upon creamy texture, the cold temperature. Right in my wheelhouse. Happy Monday.

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Arcade Bakery

A new, immediately praised French bakery that opens on the ground floor of an office tower sounds pretty alright when you work in midtown, the mecca of office drones. But the tower is actually in Tribeca, which means it’s too far to visit over a lunch hour. And the bakery—Arcade—is only open Monday to Friday, which means the possibility of ever visiting becomes severely reduced. For the most part, this is fine, a non-issue. I’m largely indifferent to viennoiserie, good bread can be found at many other places, and the pizza the bakery is becoming known for doesn’t have much pull in a city full of good pizza. But when I read that they make a “laminated” baguette, it quickly went to the top of my list for a day-off lunch. Because despite indifference to the croissant, I am all for trying a bread type made for butter being wrapped in a pastry made largely of butter. I adore the simplicity of a baguette with butter, but I am open to handling the decadence of it being wrapped in it, too.

My photos aren’t the greatest at showing its structure, but Arcade’s laminated baguette is essentially, that: yeasted bread wrapped in laminated, croissant-like pastry. The interior crumb of the baguette is tighter and (obviously) more buttery than a traditional baguette. But you can see a difference between the exterior flaky layers and the interior soft bread. For someone like me, who tends to bleed gluten, it was magical. The lamination meant flaky shards appeared when the crust was breached, but they weren’t as abundant as with a traditional croissant.  And the crumb wasn’t as chewy as a traditional baguette, but the flavour more than made up for it. Arcade offers a choice of laminated baguettes, either salted or seeded with an “everything” mix. I went for the former.

 

I would have been very happy setting myself up back at home with the baguette and a stick of butter, but I put in some extra effort when I saw that my local Whole Foods had some European-style ham in stock. I could not inhale this take on a jambon beurre fast enough. Salt and fat in all the best forms brought together by an extraordinary bread baton.

 

To add insult to injury, or to make this one rare visit to Arcade worth it, I also bought a slice of their speculoos babka. While there might actually be speculoos butter or crushed cookies in the filling, I got more of the sense that Arcade used all the gingerbread-like spices of the famous cookie rather than just the products themselves to make this bread. This was a good thing in my opinion because it was bolder in flavour and more creative. It was reminiscent of speculoos without tasting like they just loaded a loaf with a Trader Joe confection. As I got an end slice, it wasn’t as moist or as full of filling as a middle one might be. My intention was to eat a portion as dessert and restrain myself enough to freeze the rest, but I couldn’t stop going back for more, pulling at the chewy bread and dipping my fingers in the spiced filling. My freezer never had a chance.

 

Restaurant August

In theory, I love OpenTable and online reservations. I love making plans, thus I love making reservations. I loathe talking on the phone, thus I’m happy to use a website to book a table. But time after time, OpenTable in particular has proven to me that making an old fashioned reservation over the phone is the best bet (when possible). I’ve been seated at clearly the worst table in the restaurant, more than once, using the system. At this point, if I use the system, I specifically write in the Notes that I don’t want a table near the door or the restroom. I’ve logged on the moment reservations are available to only see tables at 5:15 or 10:45 or to see that there are no tables available—it’s possible but highly suspect for everything to be gone immediately. Restaurants don’t seem to respect the service all that much either if they’re giving users the worst seats or not making all tables available. A necessary tool in the industry perhaps, but not one I like to use when reservations are essential or hard-to-get. I try to only use it for booking a work lunch at a generic place or at old standbys that people tend to forget about.

But I get lazy. And when I’m doing my travel research in front of the computer, it’s easy just to click on the Reservations button instead of picking up the phone. So, I made my two NOLA reservations via OpenTable and hoped for the best in terms of seating. One was for lunch on my last day at John Besh’s Restaurant August. Despite my fondness for knowing that my Grandma Ruby used to love watching “Emeril Live!” late at night, I was not going to make him a priority on this NOLA journey. John Besh, however,  that lovable, floppy-haired, blue-eyed gentleman who shows up as a symbol of NOLA dining and cuisine as often as Mr. Lagasse, is a celebrity chef whose food I was interested in trying. I can sometimes be a sucker for someone who always seems to wear a genuine smile. August appears to be the flagship restaurant within the group he oversees. It only offers lunch on Fridays, and a Friday lunch is exactly when I had the time to visit. Leisurely Friday lunches are celebrated in NOLA—it is considered the best time to visit historic Galatoire’s—so, I was excited to take part in this local pastime. Until I learned that I would have to leave much earlier for the airport than anticipated, meaning my reservation was going to be too late. When I called August (three days in advance) to see if I could come at an earlier time, there was no record of my OpenTable reservation.

WTF.

I had a confirmation number, but the girl on the other end of the phone could find nothing with my name. My anxious nature meant that I got short with her quite quickly. What was her solution? What would have happened if I had just shown up at my reserved time? Shown up after having made a reservation well in advance because I wanted to dine at Mr. Besh’s revered restaurant? (I like to be dramatic when the opportunity arises.) She curtly told me she would phone me back in 10 minutes. An hour later, I had to call her back to get the solution: After much Tetris-ing (her words) of the tables, they could accommodate me at an earlier time and would “take good care of me.” Easily flattered, all dramatic thoughts dissipated, and OpenTable became the enemy again.

 

Parmesan and egg custard amuse

 

 

Lobster salad amuse

 

Fried green tomatoes with crab, shrimp, and chow chow relish

 

Crispy pompano with shrimp, chard, and brown butter

I’m not sure if I was taken care of better than anyone else in the restaurant that afternoon, but I was taken good care of. If only by the fact that I got to sit in the beautiful day lit-front room of the historic French-Creole building and not tucked away in a corner like solo diners often are. The captain who took care of me presided over the room and discussed the menu as if everything was his, reminding me of the existence of a genuine hospitality and pride that is often overshadowed by snobbish indifference in NYC.

The food overall was good, and I had started early enough to have a leisurely meal before the hassle and hustle of an airport. The custard amuse was smooth and creamy; the lobster one, unfortunately, tasted only of sea salt. The fried green tomatoes were the headliner of my appetizer, but the ample amount of accompanying tender shrimp and sweet crab made me wonder if the dish should be retitled. Same with the “crispy pompano,” which was well-cooked and delicious in its pool of brown butter, but I was presented with fish skin that was more like, chewy. My dessert, a deconstructed banana pudding, was perfect. The colour of real bananas may suggest pablum, but the flavour beats anything that comes out yellow. And the inclusion of the bruleed bananas with cold ice cream also seems reminiscent of the local favourite Bananas Foster. I could see myself wanting to visit the bar late at night just for that plate.

Banana pudding with peanut butter, marshmallow and ‘nilla wafer ice cream

 

I wish I had learned something about why my reservation went missing to prevent it from happening again. Right, I didn’t learn anything. I was reminded of something: Picking up the phone is always best. (Kisses to all my faraway friends who never hear my voice!)

 

MIgnardises – praline and truffle

(Cochon) Butcher

When travelling, I feel that FOMO (fear of missing out) presents itself as a case of The Shoulds. The thinking goes, because this is my first/only time in this place, I should see this, I should see that, I should eat here, I should eat this. For example, at a most basic level, you should eat pasta if you’re in Italy. But what if you don’t? I don’t think your experience is less than, but is it different? Unfinished? Radical? I’ve always thought that someone’s vacation in New York City could consist solely of walking the streets and eating stale pretzels and dirty water dogs,  and she or he would still have one of the best times ever. I have a hard time applying that sense to my own life when The Shoulds set in, however.

Case in point, I recently went to New Orleans for the first time for a work conference.  This was by no means a vacation. With almost no personal time to explore the city during the day and a very modest Vacation Rhianna fund to supplement the company per diem and use for Uber, I felt constrained. The Shoulds were competing for money, time, and interest. I found that NOLA is definitely a place where people have opinions on what you should eat and what you should drink. Not being a big drinker, I am not too bothered about missing out on cocktails like the Ramos Gin Fizz and Vieux Carre. But with approximately only six meals, I also had to prep about not being bothered about missing out on a lot of the regional dishes and/or the specific places at which to try them.

I was pretty set on getting a muffuletta given my sandwich proclivities. But not at the famous Central Grocery in the French Quarter. A friend of mine grew up in the city and strongly advised passing, even on the sandwich in general. But The Shoulds wanted me to have one, so I planned on getting mine at Butcher, the sandwich shop offshoot of the acclaimed restaurant Cochon. The bread, meat, and olive salad were all said to be of a higher quality than Central’s, in an easier-to-dine environment. You order at the counter at Butcher, but then receive table service. It’s all very laid back, but still attentive. Exactly the kind of place I needed after sitting in a stuffy, hotel ballroom all day making nice with strangers. (I’m sure I will write a long post about my introversion one day.)

I was all ready to order the muffuletta when I arrived, and then I wasn’t. I didn’t want it. I didn’t want the olive salad. I didn’t want that round of bread. I didn’t want to eat what The Shoulds wanted. I wanted and got The Gambino instead. Kind of like an Italian Combo, it has house-cured cotto, coppa, and soppressata, with an arugula salad and a herb vinaigrette. It was need-to-squish tall. The bread had been very lightly toasted, momentarily masking its lack of freshness. While this was disappointing, the quality and flavour of the salty meats and acidic garnish did a good job of letting me largely forget about it. The highly recommended marinated Brussels sprouts might have been the clincher, though, for leaving me satisfied about my visit. Just a touch warmer than room temperature, the (I assume roasted) sprouts hit the textural sweet spot of being cooked just short of becoming soft. Neither the menu nor my memory can offer any info on what the marinade is, but know that I ate a bowl that was probably meant to be shared by three because the salty-sweet-sour notes sang strongly to me.

As I walked back to the hotel, I mentally checked the restaurant off my Should list but not the muffuletta. I didn’t know how I felt. A little liberated. A little embarrassed. As though I was someone who went to Italy and didn’t eat pasta. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I missed out on fuss and am wondering if I will regret it one day. The Shoulds aren’t afraid to scold.  I mean, even if you don’t eat pasta, you’re probably eating like risotto, right? I’d hardly call that missing out, Shoulds.


San Matteo Pizza & Espresso Bar

I’ve never lived in a desirable neighbourhood. That is, a neighbourhood my friends and peers would choose for themselves. Growing up in a city where my concept of neighbourhood was where your house was, where you likely went to school, and what word you looked for on the bus marquee, I never saw it as a reflection of my parents’ values, aspirations, or taste beyond a decent house and convenience to amenities like groceries and schools. (I am aware of my naiveté.) You travel to different parts of the city to get what you need if it wasn’t within a few blocks, no big deal. Life is in your city, not your neighbourhood. So as an adult, I’ve almost wholly looked to make a home in places where I could get the most from that close to me, the most convenience, the most ease for my daily activities—work, transit, groceries, exercise. The one exception was when I first moved to New York and found an apartment that was more cache than common sense for my routine. Lo and behold, the story ends with my asshole landlord raising the rent astronomically. It was then when I could fully articulate what I want from my neighbourhood, especially in a city like this where it can become your everything. What I found landed me on the Upper West Side, a place that often gets silence when I tell others where I live, or for those who know, prompts the question, “Do you still like living on the Upper West?” I’ll keep my justifications to myself, but yes, I do.

I will never promote the dining of my neighbourhood as being destination-worthy, but I do understand its function and why, despite high prices and a lack of creativity in the menus, establishments are always full. They do what every other restaurant does in this city without the addition of interlopers: they feed the neighbourhood. And in mine, that means lots of folks with enough disposable income to go out or order in most nights of the week (but again, maybe that’s everywhere). So, I assume it only serves them best to be consistent and good enough. Salmon for the mom, a steak for the dad, and pasta for the kidlets. Pub fare for the young finance guys. Just-hot-enough Thai for the retired ladies’ book club. An endless number of places that could serve as the setting for one of Jerry’s, Elaine’s, or George’s problematic dates. Sweeping generalizations, I know, but this is what I see as I walk past and wonder, who eats there? I’m being unfair because in amongst the good enough, there is good. It’s just not highly promoted across the city because there is no need (and because the Upper’s can be so uncool in the eyes of those who reside in the Lower’s). Their seats are filled nightly with those who live close by. The fact that those seats can be easily filled without lines of bloggers or tourists builds trust and loyalty with those who will return after, or without, the Instagram photo.

While a little more moneyed and conservative than the Upper West, the Upper East Side has presented me with similar experiences. Lots of good enough, unspectacular meals with some legitimately good places that I should try to get to again, but don’t. Unless there’s a reason beyond eating. I embrace a forced hand, and so when dinner was required before a talk at the 92nd St YMCA, I returned to a pizza place that some friends and I had enjoyed previously when on the UES for an event, San Matteo.

I don’t think you have to be Italian to make good pizza, but for what it’s worth, San Matteo is a small, Italian-run Neapolitan pizza restaurant that fulfills my chewy, charred-crust cravings very nicely. The tight room is simply adorned and could easily be a cozy spot on an Italian city side street. The list of pizzas, panuozzos (pizza dough sandwiches), and calzones is long despite the tiny workspace that fronts the wood-burning oven, but each one seems rooted in traditional Italian ingredients and flavour profiles. Lucky for me, I arrived while happy hour was still on—to be appreciated given that it’s not really a bar—and I took advantage of the $5 deal.

My calzone of choice was the Ripieno, with tomato sauce, homemade mozzarella, salami, buffalo ricotta, and prosciutto cotto. The tomato sauce adorned the top, preventing it from getting dry but also serving as a dip for the perimeter. Ripping those crusts off and sinking my teeth into the chewy dough was immensely satisfying. The flavour of the dough does not touch some of the better known and simply better Neapolitan pizza places in the city, but it is better than good enough. The thick edges were unbalanced by thinner dough around the filling, resulting in a soupy, fork-and-knife required middle. But I think, in fact, that makes it “authentically” Neapolitan. I prefer not to use utensils with such a dish, but given that I used them to eat a mess of creamy cheeses and salty meats, I can deal. Very well.

 

Innards