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  • Category Archives Food and Restaurants
  • The Man Himself

    In 2002, I negotiated the sale of my business which operates under my own name. After extended negotiations between parties, the deal ultimately fell through. The sticking point? My attorney would not give the buyer exclusive and perpetual right to my name, the way the contract was drafted. When I asked why, she was so obstinate about this point. After all, they were buying the business, which was built around my name, were they not? She said there was extensive case law where former business owners were prohibited from opening new, unrelated enterprises utilizing their names. It was a good offer financially, and for years I have blamed myself for allowing my lawyer to “lose the deal.” Until this morning, when I read the story of Patsy Grimaldi.

    On February 9, 2011, I wrote Zero Minutes!, about my visit to the legendary Brooklyn Pizzeria, Grimaldi’s. The story title referenced the unusual and fortuitous lack of a line, which was typically hours long. Now visitors have a new option – Juliana’s, which operates from the same spot that Grimaldi’s once did. Grimaldi’s is located around the corner, located in the landmark building, One Front Street.
    I assumed that the new pizzeria, typically less crowded, garnered its traffic from those who mistakenly went to the original location, or, like I did last night, opt for a shorter line. Online reviews for Juliana’s were quite high, surprising, until I learned the reason why.

    In 1998, Patsy Grimaldi sold the naming and branding rights to Frank Ciolli. Disputes between Ciolli and the landlord led Ciolli to move Grimald’s to its current location at One Front Street, leaving the original coal oven behind. Regretting his departure from the business and seeing his name negatively portrayed in the media, Patsy reopened in 2011 at the original location. Unable to use either Patsy or Grimaldi in the name, he settled for Juliana, Patsy’s late mother.

    The pizza was delicious and the waiter very cordial. In conversation at the meal’s end, he informed me that the older gentleman walking throughout the restaurant was none other than the man himself, THE Patsy Grimaldi. Stunned, I immediately told him of my previous story on the pizzeria and asked if I could meet the owner. The waiter, in spite of a very hectic environment, made it a point to arrange a meet and greet. And so, a few minutes later and, after he posed with patrons for photos, I met Patsy Grimaldi. I complimented his pizza, and he told me a little about the back story  and how unhappy he was at the way events had unfolded in the Grimaldi saga. He suggested that I come back at a later date if I wanted to discuss the story at length. I told him I would come back and shoot video as well. He agreed.

    And so it was another New York moment, all due to a serendipitous sequence of events. After a day of touring in Williamsburg and Bushwick, I was ready to return home in Manhattan. My girlfriend, however, tired of eating in the same old haunts, suggested taking a chance to see how busy Grimadl’s would be. When we arrived at Fulton Ferry, it was the typical mob of patrons, which meant either trying Juliana’s or returning home. At Juliana’s, there was no wait, as we were immediately ushered in by an older man waring a cook’s smock with Patsy Grimaldi embroidered on it. I assumed it was a relic of the old Grimaldi’s and evidence of a competitor capitalizing on the location of a previous owner. But alas, I was wrong. We had, in fact, stumbled upon the real thing, run by The Man Himself :)

    Food Note: How’s the pizza? Excellent – one of the top pies in New York City. A signature coal-fired thin crust with the ingredients and toppings in perfect proportions – not too cheesy (and thereby oily), the bane of nearly every pizza in town.

    For more pizza, check out my list of the Best Pizza in New York, on which Grimaldi’s is included.

  • The Cronut

    In 2008, I wrote Where’s the Special, about my feeling that special things were disappearing from New York, the kind of things that made the city unique and why many traveled or settled here. After all, what’s the point of expending time, energy, and expense to visit a place if its merchants and restaurants are nothing but regional chain stores that one can find as easily where one lives? Sure, there is culture here and unique cultural institutions, but one cannot dismiss the importance of restaurants and shops to the visitor and resident. As these merchants become more commonly found outside New York, there is an erosion of the specialness of the city.

    And so, when something unique in New York City catches fire, it becomes a wildfire. The special takes the world by storm, like the international craze for the cronut, the invention of celebrated chef Dominique Ansel. By now, this is old news to many readers here – the cronut has been featured everywhere on TV and in print. It has been copied worldwide. But the real story, apart from the merit of this delectable pastry, are the lines that form daily for this croissant/donut hybrid.
    The pastries are made at the Dominque Ansel Bakery at 189 Spring Street in SoHo, where the cronut debuted on May 10, 2013. The shop opens at 8AM, lines form as early as 5:30AM. Within a short time, the daily production run of 250 cronuts at $5 a piece is spoken for. The croissant/donut hybrid is not made by simply frying croissant dough. From the Dominique Ansel website:

    The Makings of a Cronut™…
    Taking 2 months and more than 10 recipes, Chef Dominique Ansel’s creation is not to be mistaken as simply croissant dough that has been fried. Made with a laminated dough which has been likened to a croissant (but uses a proprietary recipe), the Cronut™ is first proofed and then fried in grapeseed oil at a specific temperature. Once cooked, each Cronut™ is flavored in three ways: 1. rolled in sugar; 2. filled with cream; and 3. topped with glaze. Cronuts™ are made fresh daily, and completely done in house. The entire process takes up to 3 days.

    There is only one flavor of Cronut™ every month. The inaugural flavor in May was Rose Vanilla, and for June it is Lemon Maple. In July, we introduce the Blackberry Cronut™, and in August it’s Coconut.

    Recently, one of my customers arrived at our shop. She was a flight attendant who had flown to New York City specifically to get cronuts. Our shop was abuzz, and I asked to get photos of her prize acquisitions, which were housed in an elegant, metallic gold box. I did not ask for a sample. I was happy just to see them in person – something special from New York City. The Cronut :)

  • Di Hut Doig

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    Oscar Meyer Wienermobile


    Despite growing up on them, I hated homemade baked beans. My family loved them; relatives and friends did, too. My mother was a good cook, and it took hours on Saturday for her to make this occasional special meal. However, no amount of time nor secret ingredients nor expertise was to change my palate. In time, seeing that I would not be persuaded, she would make a separate meal for me – hot dogs. Because she knew I LOVED hot dogs. Later in life, when we could afford it, my mother would spring for Hebrew National hot dogs, a big step up from the regular hot dog and an exciting moment for me.

    I could eat a lot of hot dogs, or so I thought. Certainly not enough to challenge the contestants of the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, of which I knew nothing. And as I was to learn, I could not even eat enough to compete with one of the Morin girls.
    The Morins lived a few houses away from us in my childhood hometown of Bristol, CT. They were French Canadian, and like my parents spoke Franglais*. They would often Frenchify words and phrases they did not know the proper French for or English words best left in English, such as hot dog. Their interpretation came out sounding something like “di hut doig,” which even to my family was an uproarious bastardization and became a private joke. But, funny as it may be, the achievements of one of the Morin girls regarding di hut doig was no laughing matter.

    One day, my mother announced that one of the Morin girls could eat SEVEN hot dogs. Astonishing, since she was not overweight at all. This clearly trumped anything I could hope for. At a cookout, I could eat three, perhaps even four, but nothing like my neighborhood nemesis.

    After moving to New York City, my hot dog consumption waned considerably. Within just a few years I became a vegetarian, so di hot doig was off the menu. My interest was renewed with the popularizing of the soy hot dog and its numerous brands: Tofu Pups, Not Dogs, and Smart Dogs. For me, hot dogs were much about being a vehicle for condiments and toppings – sautéed onions, peppers, mustard, relish, and occasionally cheese. Once adequately smothered and buried in a good quality, well-prepared bun, a soy hot dog is not bad at all.

    Recently, while crossing Broadway at Spring Street, I had my first sighting of the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. It was Friday afternoon, and traffic was snarled and slow-moving, as it typically is during rush hour, so I was afforded a few moments time to reach for my camera and record the rare event. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Wienermobile was making a week-long tour of New York City with special events planned. It was quite a spectacle to see the bright yellow vehicle cruising New York City streets, often surrounded by a sea of yellow taxis. It was stunning to see such a large, immaculate virtual shrine to one of the favorite foods of my youth and the Morin girl – Di Hut Doig :)

    *Franglais means a mangled combination of English and French, produced either by poor knowledge of one or the other language or for humorous effect. Franglais usually consists of either filling in gaps in one’s knowledge of French with English words, using false friends with their incorrect meaning or speaking French in such a manner that (although ostensibly “French”) would be incomprehensible to a French-speaker who does not also have a knowledge of English (for example, by using a literal translation of English idiomatic phrases).

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Guanabana

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    I aspired to be a fruitarian and was obsessed with fruit. I had fantasies of finding my own Shangri-La. And I had at last a vacation booked to visit my first tropical island – Puerto Rico, where I hoped at least to find some taste of tropical paradise.

    My girlfriend at the time was Hispanic, and she had few relatives who hailed from Puerto Rico. Knowing my passion for all things fruit, her cousin asked if I had ever tasted guanabana. When I responded in the negative, his response was, “Ohhhhhh, guanabana.” When I asked others about this mystery fruit, I got the same response. It became a private joke among us and a comedic refrain, much like Comin’ Up Comin’ Up. I could see that my trip to Puerto Rico was to become a mission to find guanabana. I did finally have guanabana, known as soursop in the United States, which can be found in markets here, particularly those catering to West Indians. It has a quite unique flavor and texture, perhaps an acquired taste.

    At the time, I believed that natural sugar was better than refined. I learned that West Indians prepared sugar cane juice. I reasoned that this certainly must be the nectar of the gods, and I lusted for a taste. However, I had never seen sugarcane juice in New York City but I learned that it could be had in Spanish Harlem. I remember the excitement when I saw my first large stalks of sugar cane at a street side vendor. The cane was run through a press and juice came running out below. I purchased a small cup. It was ghastly sweet – virtually undrinkable, even between a number of people. What had I been thinking? It was literally pure sugar and water. Better to stay with fruit.

    Recently, on a trip to Jamaica Bay, a wrong turn in East New York, Brooklyn, brought me to a fruit stand. It was tidy and pristine-looking, and my companion and I had eaten little. Stopping was de rigueur.  The fruit looked phenomenal. Everything appeared to be at optimal ripeness. There was watermelon, papaya, mango, pineapple, cantaloupe, avocado, banana, coconut, and bags of peeled oranges.

    The owner, Ulysses, was so congenial and sensed my love of all things fruit. He welcomed my photography and as I explored his roadside domain, I learned that the entire group socializing behind the stand was his family – father, mother, brother, and uncle. His father, Victor, was busy preparing fresh coconut, something rarely found for some inexplicable reason. A small container for $2 was an extraordinary bargain. Papaya, typically a pricey fruit, was selling for much less than typically found in Manhattan. I purchased a large specimen for $6.00.

    We spoke of guanabana and the world of fruit. As I surveyed his fruit stand, leaning against a truck were stalks of sugarcane, and as chance would have it, they had a press and were making juice. When I told them that my companion had never had sugarcane juice, they offered a sample with abundant ice, which did some to chill and dilute the sugary drink. But to me, fruit is a virtual metaphor for good, with or without Guanabana :)

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • I see lines, gentlemen.

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    I was astonished. Amazed. It was the first time since 1968 that I saw a restaurant surface being cleaned that needed no additional cleaning. I was at Nathan’s in Coney Island, and the stainless steel counter was already gleaming, yet it was being cleaned anyway. I was more astonished to find out that, according to Kiera, she and I shared a common corporate policy.

    I say astonished, because the policy I had in common was that of McDonald’s, where I worked while in high school in the late 1960s. The work atmosphere at the time was BRUTAL and our manager was relentless. He stood cross-armed behind the customers and regardless of the sales volume, he had a number of mandates, some impossible to meet. He wanted NO LINES, no matter how many people entered the store, even during mealtime rushes. He would terrify us by barking, I see lines, gentlemen. We would ramp up the speed of our serving as much as humanly possible. I recall a collision of two counter people who were literally RUNNING. The crash resulted in the contents of a triple thick shake forming a geyser. In order to further expedite our orders, we calculated order totals in our heads as we scurried about, picking up items in the very particular order prescribed by the McDonald’s corporation in our training.

    Another policy was that we were always to be in motion DOING SOMETHING. If nothing needed to be done, we were to clean. If all was clean, were were to clean more. The prospect of being fired for noncompliance was quite real in this zero-tolerance environment. I told Kiera and her coworker the story of my McDonald’s experience. I asked if they had a similar policy. She and her coworker affirmed, explaining her constant cleaning of the already clean counter.

    I remember the stress of working at McDonald’s to this day, and my thoughts go back to those harsh conditions whenever I see lackadaisical customer service, so common nowadays. Here, however, at Nathan’s in Brooklyn, I felt at home. Service was good, Kiera and the staff were polite, and there was lots of buffing of stainless steel counters with cleaning rags. It was a slow afternoon with storm warnings, so there was no waiting. No need for a manager barking behind us, I see lines, gentlemen :)

    More Coney Island/Nathan’s: Coney Island at Sunset, Hot Dogs and Fries

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Wo Hop

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    We always ordered bean sprouts with black bean sauce and vegetable chow mai fun. Incredible as it may sound, growing up in New England, I had never eaten Chinese before. Now, coached by our friend Dick, we were sophisticated. We knew what those menu items were, what to order, and most importantly, where to eat.
    Dick was a native New Yorker, introduced to us by Ferris Butler. He was much older and wiser, perhaps 25. He knew everything about New York City, because, after all, he was a taxi driver. And he assured us that the best Chinese in New York City was Wo Hop at 17 Mott Street in Chinatown. It never occurred to us to question him.

    Wo Hop, love it or hate it, is an institution, established in 1938. Reading various reviews, I found that many shared the same sentiments about the place and the reasons patrons eat there.

    Many of the people who dine at Wo Hop go there just to be reassured. Reassured that the restaurant that they long ago decided was the best in Chinatown is still there, and that the staff still remembers them.
    It’s bland, hastily prepared and gloppy with sauce. There are huge amounts of it and you suspect a lot of it began life frozen. It’s unreformed, Americanized Cantonese cuisine from the World War II era. Many a foodie will tell you that this is some of the worst food in Chinatown. The devoted, however, tend to find the dishes that please and bring them comfort and stick to them. … It still retains a certain romance of a bygone Chinatown, when such food and surroundings would have seemed exotic. Everyone knows about Wo Hop. But it still feels like a secret.

    Brian Silverman of New York Magazine says:

    Popular with the bridge-and-tunnel crowd and glassy eyed civil servants, this tiny subterranean dinosaur serves all the classics you loved in your youth: egg drop soup, chow mein, egg foo young, subgum vegetables. Much of the food is simply prepared and heavily battered. And corn starch-thickened oyster and black bean sauces rule. But there’s something comforting about it. Maybe it’s because day or night, Wo Hop is there for you with a bowl of wonton soup, brimming with wontons freshly rolled by the kitchen staff, or soy sauce-soaked chunks of brown roast pork—and not the food-dyed red pork you’ll get at other joints. Whatever you order, you will not leave hungry: Portions are elephantine and the food dense. And if you charge in here, post-clubbing, you may just exit up the stairs when the sun is breaking in the east.

    We used to visit Wo Hop at all hours, day and night. There was one waiter in particular who appeared to be working regardless of the time we visited. We nicknamed him “24-hour man.” Early evening, late night, early morning – he was there.

    Yesterday, on a visit to Chinatown, I felt compelled to visit. I took the steps down into the subterranean depths for the first time in decades. I felt as if I recognized one of the waiters, but it is doubtful that any of the staff has remained in a span of 40 years. No, I’m sure it was just a wave of nostalgia clouding my memory. Here, in New York City, in such a highly stressful environment, old, familiar places are a palliative. For many, Wo Hop is one stop in The Comfort Zone :)

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Caffe Roma

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

    I have a friend, no longer living in the city, who was Italian, a native New Yorker, and lived near Little Italy. I recall once, early in our friendship, asking for suggestions for an Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street. He replied that, categorically, he would never eat Italian there. He cited mediocre quality and that he refused to pay to eat Italian food in a restaurant when he could make it much better himself. His wife concurred that he made a mean red sauce.

    Of course, restaurant patrons know that being able to make it yourself is no reason to be eating home. Many New Yorkers eat every meal out – not surprising given the affluence here and the staggering number of restaurants.
    If you are inclined to eat on the legendary Mulberry Street in the heart of Little Italy, forget being able to peruse menus unfettered. Here, you will be accosted by aggressive hawkers, making promises, offering deals, and assuring you that the food inside is excellent and that you will not be disappointed.

    Recently, a friend wanted to celebrate her birthday by taking a trip down memory lane and dining at SPQR, a place she had not frequented in many, many years. SPQR is an institution, massive and well-known. It never occurred to us to call before visiting to inquire if it was still in business. As luck would have it, when we arrived at 133 Mulberry, we found the place had closed and only recently in early 2013, after being in business over 30 years. As we stood dismayed by our misfortune, we were immediately approached by a staff member of an establishment directly across the street who assured us that much of the staff of SPQR had migrated to their kitchen, the food was excellent, blah, blah, blah.
    A bit put off by the predatory behavior, we strolled the street, settling on a place some short distance away. Dinner was acceptable, if not memorable.

    To heal the wounds of our unsuccessful initial mission, I suggested that we have dessert at Caffe Roma, the only place in the neighborhood that my aforementioned friend approved of, albeit decades ago. I had visited once eons ago, so, not knowing what to expect, I suggested that we lower our expectations.
    My dining companions were immediately pleased with Roma as we approached it, located at 385 Broome Street at the corner of Mulberry Street. The ambiance at Caffe Roma is decidedly olde New York – the place has been run by the same family and in the same location for over a century – since 1891.

    Surprisingly, the place was quiet and we were fortunate to get prime real estate, a table in the front corner window. We shared a number of desserts and found the place a pleasant respite from an otherwise very touristy area. Nearby pastry shop Ferrara’s is a good example of an establishment that many avoid for that reason. Like so many eateries in New York City, reviews of Caffe Roma range the gamut, particularly regarding service. We found it very pleasant, and if by choice or chance, you find yourself in Little Italy, and want to avoid feeling like prey, try Caffe Roma :)

    Posted on by Brian Dubé

  • Mashed Yeast

    You want some sprouts, man? It was the 1970s in Washington Square Park, and a friend, rather than trade in drugs, was offering free raw alfalfa sprouts from a clear plastic bag. Sprouts were huge in New York City, as was raw foodism and other innumerable variants on extreme dietary regimes.

    Natural foods or vegetarianism had not yet gone mainstream. Even in New York, there were no Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or Jamba Juice, or anything like them. It was infinitely better than the burbs, however, one still had to search to find those few establishments catering to vegetarians – places like the Cauldron or Angelica Kitchen.

    The problem with vegetarian or natural foods restaurants, historically and even to this day, is that the cuisine is guided primarily by what is NOT, rather than a celebration of flavor. Of course all restaurants strive to make things tasty, however, whereas in French cooking, regardless of any health consideration, if it tastes good it’s going IN, in the natural foods or vegetarian community, if it is tastes great but is verboten dietarily, it’s staying OUT. And then there are things eaten irrespective of taste because of their purported health benefits, like brewer’s yeast. At the time, the phrase health foods was used more than the currently prevalent natural foods. The prevailing thinking at the time is best illustrated by an experience I had:

    I used to frequent a health food store on 8th Street in Greenwich Village. I knew the owner, Gene, well and found myself many days visiting the shop, lingering and socializing. One day, I pointed out a health bar to Gene that was particularly dreadful – it was made with raw grains and had a distinctive taste of raw dough and was bitter. Having never tried that particular bar, the owner grabbed one, tore the wrapper open and took one bite. He immediately spit it onto the floor and through out the rest. He agreed it was disgusting and inedible. I asked if these actually sold. He said yes, quite well. More importantly, I asked if any were ever purchased more than once by the same customer. He said yes. Incredulous, I asked why. He answered because they thought it was healthy.

    Although certainly today’s natural foods strive for a much higher standard, nonetheless the industry is still largely guided by restriction. It is this that leads someone like Anthony Bourdain to make his notoriously caustic remark about vegetarians.

    All this said, I was a vegetarian for decades and still am health conscious in my eating habits. Recently, I decided to revisit and introduce to my girlfriend the legendary Angelica Kitchen, a place I had not been to in 30 years. I had no idea what to expect – my memory of the place was old-school grubby decor and strict dietary guidelines.

    I was surprised walking in that it was now quite upscale in decor. The place was packed with a cue for a table. Certainly things had changed, and already I had a story idea and title – Vegetarianism Grows Up. I was very optimistic and full expected that Angelica’s would be added to the “list” and would be part of my regular restaurant rotation. I remembered their famed “Dragon Bowl” and ordered that, along with soup and their bread and miso-tahini spread. My girlfriend ordered a dinner salad.

    The food arrived. As we ate, things became progressively more and more disappointing. The bread brought back memories – it was the same, leaden and tiresome even with the miso-tahini spread. The soup was extremely bland. My girlfriend’s salad entree was appetizer-size and plain. Cold drinks were described as chilled – ice is taboo and not available. Nonetheless, most online reviews for Angelica Kitchen are excellent.

    There is a great scene in the film Annie Hall with Woody Allen that echoes my sentiments and ties my life experience in health foods together nicely. In the film, Woody visits Annie in LA. They meet in a health food restaurant. Looking at the menu, Woody orders a cliched meal: I’m gonna have the alfalfa sprouts and a plate of the Mashed Yeast. :)

    Related Posts: Whole Earth Bakery, Vegan Chic

  • Do the Right Thing 2

    It was more than one year after 9/11, and restaurants downtown were doing promotions to win patrons back into downtown Manhattan and invigorate commerce in the area. My girlfriend at the time was passionate about food and followed the New York City restaurant buzz. And so on November 8, 2002, we visited Les Halles Bar and Grill on John Street for a dinner deal that was too good to be true. We were accompanied by my friend Leslie, a regular reader and subject of this website.

    There was a lot of buzz about Les Halles, owing to its dynamic duo – celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and proprietor Philippe Lajaunie. The pair was appearing regularly on the Food Network’s TV show, A Cook’s Tour, featuring Bourdain’s worldwide culinary romps with sidekick Lajaunie. So, in addition to what we hoped would be fine food at a discount, perhaps if we were lucky, we’d have had an opportunity to meet Bourdain and/or Lajaunie.
    When we arrived, it was mayhem. The maitre d’ was swamped, and the whole scene was out of control. I wanted to leave, however, my friend Leslie pulled me aside and suggested that since my girlfriend had been so excited about this outing that I tolerate the situation and not rain on her parade. I saw her reasoning and committed to stay the course.

    As we waited outside on the street, I reflected on my travels to France. I so loved my visits there and the numerous dining experiences I had. This was a world apart from that and a huge disappointment. The situation perplexed me. Did Lajaunie, a Frenchman, need business this badly to turn the whole experience into a circus? Frustrated and irate, I turned to my girlfriend and Leslie and said that this experience at Les Halles went against everything the French stood for.
    A man at a light post nearby overheard me and approached us. As he neared, I recognized him as none other than the owner, Philppe Lajaunie himself. I was quite nervous. Unknowingly, I had insulted an internationally known restaurateur and TV celebrity. Best I had shut my mouth, but now I had made my bed and it was time to lie in it.
    I was sure Philippe would challenge my comment, and I wondered what he was planning to say in response to my comment that his restaurant went against everything the French stood for. He introduced himself and said that he had overheard me. Shockingly, he said, “I couldn’t agree with you more.” He gave me his business card. We chatted about France. He welcomed a photo. Wow. Instead of public humiliation, I was coming up smelling of roses.

    He was not pleased with the chaos and crowd either. Regretful and apologetic, he offered us compensatory drinks. He escorted us to the bar and ordered for us from the bartender. He saw to it that we got a table in a timely manner and visited us during the course of our dinner. I was impressed with Philippe’s candidness and lack of defensiveness. It was another case of restaurant management’s Do the Right Thing :)

    Related Posts: Random Acts of Consideration, War Against Disservice, War Against Disservice Part 2

  • Premium

    There is great comfort in the familiar – the worn shoe, the daily routines. Here in New York, creature comforts provide a balm, soothing the scratches from a city that can be jarring and stressful. For the resident, there are many comforting icons of the familiar, whether it be a neighborhood diner like the Waverly, or those things recognized around the world, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center.
    I find great comfort in these enduring icons, particularly after living in this city for over four decades, a place where change is ever present – sometimes welcome but also often the enemy. As Professor Gurland once said in a lecture at NYU, people are driven to look for stability in a world of change. At another time, a close friend who knew me well, suggested that I needed a country home, not to seek country in the city. Certainly both individuals made good points – my ability to survive in this city has been enabled by seeking peace, tranquility, comfort, the durable, and the classic. Finding secluded spots, such as community gardens or Dead Horse Bay, is what I seek here, not the over-animated urban environments of clubs, bars, or other scenes.

    Certainly I must not be alone. How else to explain, at least partially, the success of a restaurant like the Meatball Shop? There you will find many reasons for a thriving business, not the least of which is a cuisine that revolves around an American comfort food, meatballs. For me, the deepest and most profound comforts are those which draw on connections to places, experiences, and things of my childhood.

    My father was one of the most dependable, predictable people I have ever known. He had a creative side, but essentially he was a man who lived by habit and routine. He loved pastries, crackers, and breadstuffs. At many meals, a box of saltine crackers appeared. But not just any box – a metal can sporting the Nabisco logo in one corner and proclaiming Premium in large type in the center with smaller type below it, Saltine Crackers. Newly purchased boxes of saltines were opened and the four sleeves of crackers were slid into that tin, keeping them fresh. We stored our crackers in that can for decades.

    Driven by my family’s obsession to modernize, minimize, and sanitize, that can is no longer. Apparently they neither had interest in keeping nor found charm in an old can. I recall once advising my folks that they should consider keeping such a container, that perhaps it may be of value some day. My instincts were right – these Nabisco tins have become collectible, and recently while at the indoor flea market at One Hanson Place, I spotted one – the word Premium leaped out from a table of goods.

    It was only recently that I learned that the Nabisco conglomerate was formed in New York City and occupied what is now the Chelsea Market building. I am sure that these cans evoke different things to its numerous collectors, but to me, that tin is a link between New York City, home of the National Biscuit Company (later Nabisco), and meals in New England with my father as I sat ruminating and fixated on that word Premium :)

  • Soba

    I was born and my parents grew up in an area where cheese type was identified by color. One color. If you doubt me or do not understand, read The Yellow Kind, I Guess here. Eating out was mostly about value and portion size. One of my uncles and his wife ate virtually nothing but starches – dinner consisted of potatoes, macaroni, and a stack of white bread with, perhaps, a token pot of boiled carrots.

    It was the very olden days, a time before the Internet or cable TV. I had never had any ethnic cuisine, not even Chinese food. I had never heard of bagels or delis. Fortunately, my mother was a good cook and she maximized the potential of traditional foods from northern New England. She baked. We had very little packaged or prepared foods. We occasionally had pancakes made from buckwheat – a flour I would encounter years later. Nonetheless, I really knew next to nothing about food and ethnic cuisine.
    So, when I arrived in New York City in 1969, it was nothing less than incredible, thrust in the midst of one of the most diverse cities in the world with all the representative cuisines. Here, I learned virtually everything I would ever know about food. It has been an extraordinary culinary adventure and, like for many New Yorkers, eating out is one of my primary activities.

    Shortly after moving here, I became a vegetarian. Natural foods had not yet permeated the American landscape, so living in the Village was particularly special. Outside the city, it was virtually impossible to find restaurants catering to the vegetarian. But here, one could find a plethora of health food stores and restaurants. One of those was East West on 9th Street. East West was a cut above the others, somewhat more expensive, so I did not eat there as frequently as I would have liked.
    It was at East West that I first became acquainted with two of my favorite food items, both in one dish – pesto and Soba noodles. Since that time, most of my Soba noodle experience has been in home cooking in soup. Most Japanese restaurants favor noodle dishes and soups with ramen and udon. But I love the coarser, earthier texture and flavor of Soba, which is made from buckwheat flour. Until recently, Soba noodles were much more difficult to make and more expensive. Now they are made by machine and can be more easily found in markets.

    I recently had a hankering for Soba noodles, and rather than hope to find a place serving them by sheer happenstance, I decided to become more proactive. Perhaps surprising, but there are a handful of restaurants in New York specializing in Soba – one is soba-ya Japanese Noodle Restaurant at 229 East 9th Street. I had my first meal there Sunday night.
    It was immediately apparent that this was a serious establishment, evidenced by the large Japanese clientele and the woodsy ambiance with a decor featuring traditional elements. It was a warm and cozy place on a cold winter night for a hot bowl of soup. With Soba :)

  • Pass In The Night

    In the 1960s, I worked one summer at North and Judd Manufacturing, one of the oldest companies in Connecticut. Begun in 1812 with the manufacture of wire hooks, eyes, and other small metal items, North & Judd added the manufacture of saddlery hardware in the 1830’s and grew into a company that produced over 40,000 items.
    The history is interesting, but working there was not. As an entry level employee, I was given the least desirable work, tapping thousands of the identical part every day, working for minimum wage. It was grueling and a good look into the engine of the industrial world and the toil and sweat that keeps it oiled and running.

    North and Judd and places like it across the land are shrines to the unsung soldier, the worker performing the thankless task. But it was also there, amidst the grit and grime of one of America’s oldest factories, that I found extraordinary people. Unlike Professor Robert Gurland, however, the glimmer of these individuals does not shine far, and only a handful of those around them will ever know of their extraordinary character or talents. And, of course, any close friend or associate who may champion their talents will be dismissed as merely patronizing.

    I met a woman in that factory who had manufactured the same part for over 30 years. I think of her from time to time when performing repetitive tasks. Some cynics may write her off as nothing but a drone, someone akin to a robot. I, however, prefer to celebrate such an individual. Certainly, working 30 years at one job demonstrates something, if nothing more than extraordinary tenacity. Our setup man in that factory was also extraordinary, tending to the needs of dozens of pieceworkers, troubleshooting setups, and machinery, always resourceful and under extreme time pressure. I have long desired to travel cross country on a sabbatical, ferreting out such people and gathering stories for a book, Ordinary Lives of Extraordinary People.

    Recently, I was traveling in the hinterlands of Staten Island. It was mid-afternoon and hunger had come upon me. It was too early for dinner, but I needed something. I had no interest in doing online research, so I chose a place at whim, Tony’s Pizzeria on Arthur Kill Road. The place looked rather unappealing, but I entered nonetheless, expecting a New York-style dirty and rundown interior behind its garish exterior.
    It was immaculate.
    I was immediately greeted by the counter person, who seemed genuinely concerned about my every need. Much like my experience with the Italians in the South of France, where everything was No Problema, here, too, no request presented any problem but, to the contrary, was heartily embraced. When I later asked for a cup of ice, he responded, “of course.” My dining companion concurred that this individual was the most attentive and accommodating wait person we had ever encountered. I got neither his name nor a photo.
    It is unlikely that I will be there again and equally unlikely that you will visit Tony’s Pizzeria yourself. He will, like so many extraordinary individuals, go largely unnoticed, and our chance encounter will be little more than Two Ships That Pass In The Night :)

  • Flies or No Flies

    It takes a lot to raise the eyebrows of a New Yorker. However, in 2007, I wrote Rats R Us about one of the most outrageous displays of rats gone wild in New York City and how it caught the attention of residents and even made national news. New Yorkers stood outside a Taco Bell/KFC in Greenwich Village and watched rats cavorting on the floors and tables while local news media sent reporters to the location and filmed the incident – you can see the video here. I featured a photo of the closure notice by the Department of Health which had a myriad of humorous comments scrawled over it by passersby. It was a classic New York response – a blend of sarcasm with a super tolerant attitude of the slings and arrows of the gritty side to this city.
    On December 11, to the surprise and chagrin of many, John’s Pizzeria was closed by the Department of Health. Here is the report from the DOH website:

    Violation points: 45
    Sanitary Violations

    1) Raw, cooked or prepared food is adulterated, contaminated, cross-contaminated, or not discarded in accordance with HACCP plan.

    2) Evidence of mice or live mice present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.

    3) Filth flies or food/refuse/sewage-associated (FRSA) flies present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas. Filth flies include house flies, little house flies, blow flies, bottle flies and flesh flies. Food/refuse/sewage-associated flies include fruit flies, drain flies and Phorid flies.

    4) Facility not vermin proof. Harborage or conditions conducive to attracting vermin to the premises and/or allowing vermin to exist.

    5) Pesticide use not in accordance with label or applicable laws. Prohibited chemical used/stored. Open bait station used.

    I was not particularly shocked. Irrespective of the quality of their pizza, John’s is far from the paradigm of cleanliness. The place is quite run down, and attention to detail never appeared to be the order of the day. It’s a money machine that swallows patrons daily who wait in long lines to get in. It is nationally known and on the “must do” list of many visitors to the city who care nothing about how the place looks or manages its food and premises. With such a deluge of patrons, who has time or need to worry about vermin, flies, or proper food handling? I am sure it will reopen soon and, undaunted, New Yorkers will line up again, Flies or No Flies :)

    Another recently closed pizzeria: Ray’s (Not Enough Dough)

  • War Rations

    New York City is noted worldwide for its cuisine. It is, arguably, perhaps one of its strongest suits, with tens of thousands of restaurants in the five boroughs, spanning the gamut from fast food to haute cuisine. You can enjoy a great falafel from Mamoun’s for $2.50 or spend $100 per person or more at places like Babbo. In all cases, you will at least be provided with light, seating, and a temperature controlled environment, unless you opt for al fresco dining, which is not typically seen near the beginning of December. Unless you are working outdoors with no other options – like gutting a house on Staten Island in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which is where I found myself this past weekend.

    Saturday, I ordered Chinese for delivery for a work crew of 10 which we ate truck side (bottom photo), my first experience with “tailgating”, sans the grill, coolers, tables, or summer weather. Sunday, a work crew member opened two cases of MREs – my first ever experience with war rations. MREs (Meals Ready-to-Eat) are self-heating emergency meals. Ours were A Pack, made by AmeriQual group, the largest provider of MREs to the U.S. Military. Each meal pack comes in 6 varieties and includes an entrée with a self-heating unit, side dishes, beverage mix, condiment, utensil, and towelette.

    The crew was a stoic bunch and enjoyed their rations sitting on the ground in Tyvek suits soiled with every manner of dirt and sewage.  There were no complaints, just perhaps a bit of impatience as we struggled to open the various foil packs, read the instructions for heating, and tried to execute them, while standing in the cold. I was far from my home in Manhattan in many ways, where it was business as usual with shopping and eating out. This was not Shake Shack nor dining New York style. We were only a public bus ride away, yet some of Staten Island is still a disaster zone, where for some, today’s lunch is War Rations

  • The List

    Thelewala Restaurant at 112 MacDougal Street

    Some time ago, a friend and fellow diner began to routinely ask of a new place, “So, are we putting it on The List“? The List is now one that is shared between a number of friends I typically eat with.
    Any New Yorker who eats out frequently (or every meal) typically keeps a mental list of restaurants. Such a list is dynamic, changing organically over time as places are added and others dropped. Eating becomes an exercise in balancing mood and desire with deciding which place or cuisine should be next in the rotation. Exploring new restaurants becomes not just a quest for variety for one meal but also simultaneously judging whether the place is a candidate to be added to The List. Of course in the case of a group list, not every member is equally enamored with every restaurant, so the choice of where to eat as a group also takes into consideration places that may be less liked or be the favorites of others.

    Historically, MacDougal Street (between West 3rd Street and Bleecker) has not been a place to canvas if you are looking for quality merchandise or good food. It is arguably one of the tackiest and most touristy streets in New York City. There are a handful of places that have found favor with locals such as Olive Tree, Mamoun’s Falafel, and Panchito’s, but generally, I have avoided the block. However, in the past year or so, there have been quite a number of shop openings, all newly and nicely done, and I have dabbled down the block, discovering a few places of note.

    I love Indian food, and a tiny place, Thelewala at 112 MacDougal, recently caught my eye one evening – the street outside the restaurant was overflowing with a large number of young Indian Americans. Any ethnic restaurant dominated by customers of that ethnicity is a good sign. The window was virtually wall papered with glowing reviews from reputable sources such as the New York Times, which called it one of the 10 best inexpensive restaurants of 2011. Trying it out was necessary, and I was not disappointed.

    I have eaten Indian cuisine for decades but did not recognize the words Thelewala, Nizami, or many of the entrees. I learned that Thelewala is a street cart vendor in India, so, as I suspected, this food offering was a departure from standard Indian fare that I was acquainted with. From the New York Times:

    This is street food at its brightest and most fresh. Thelewala is nominally a restaurant — it has a counter, a few stools — but the menu is short (six rolls, three platters, four chaats, no desserts) and cheap (the most expensive item is $8). According to the owner, Shiva Natarajan, whose portfolio of restaurants includes Dhaba and Bhojan, it’s the kind of late-night fare that vendors hawk to idling cars in his native Kolkata (formerly Calcutta).

    Like everything at Thelewala, the chaats are painstakingly made to order. There is no holding pattern here, no steam tables or heat lamps. Order a Thelewala chicken roll ($4.50), and strips of hormone-free chicken are pulled out of a marinade of green chile, cilantro, ginger and garlic, and cooked on the griddle. It’s what you’d expect in the middle of the day; it’s dazzling to find such care and craft at 4 a.m.

    The food is delicious, and without consultation or the vote of my friends, I have added Thelewala to The List :)

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