Sunday, January 14, 2007

Notable noshing in NYC

My classmates and I recently returned from our arts and culture immersion in New York City, an eight-day trip that constituted an entire semester’s worth of a class credit. Not only did we immerse ourselves in the city’s arts scene, we also immersed ourselves in delicious, delicious food. With the myriad multi-course meals the cohort consumed, it seems like we each took in a semester’s worth of calories in the process. Fortunately for us, New York involves a lot of walking.

As a group, we ate better than any crowd I’ve ever traveled with – hats off to Janet and Johanna for arranging countless lovely meals of countless lovely courses. (Special thanks are due as well to those restaurants that included a fruity dessert option alongside the ubiquitous cheesecake or chocolate torte/mousse – and extra points to Josephina’s at Lincoln Center for the gorgeous blackberries that accompanied their tasty key lime tart.)

Among these fantastic meals, there were standout dishes that must be mentioned, detailed below.

Bottino (246 10th Ave, between 24th and 25th)
Bottino, an Italian restaurant in the Chelsea gallery district, was particularly refreshing – we ate there on Saturday, after three decadent days of intensive, immersion-style indulgence. Their light fare suited the unseasonably warm and sunny day perfectly. Though my entrée of grilled Norwegian salmon was lovely, the standout course of this meal was the starting salad: thick-sliced tomatoes under a mound of baby arugula, finished off with a light vinaigrette and sheets of shaved parmigiana. Strips of freshly cut basil interspersed throughout the greens gave the mild salad a boost to balance the dry, salty Parmesan. I was seriously talking about this salad for days – and I’m historically not a salad person.

Penelope's (at 30th and Lexington)
The very next day I experienced another culinary revelation. We had all day Sunday free. Rather than going to museums, films or performances, as so many of my more studious classmates did, I met up with friends for brunch, at Penelope’s in Murray Hill. As with most brunch menus, I found myself drawn to at least half of the items listed; but since my neighbors to the right and left were both ordering the enticing pumpkin waffles, I opted for the “Sam I Am,” a breakfast-time tribute to Dr. Seuss that, thankfully, avoids the use of food coloring.

This incarnation of green eggs (sans ham) differed from any I’ve seen before. The color came not from spinach, not from pesto, but from grilled asparagus, which was scrambled with two farm-fresh eggs, per the menu’s description. Once again, the finishing touch – a sprinkling of tangy feta cheese crumbles – brought the dish to life, enhancing the intermingled flavors of egg and asparagus. Penelope’s scored even more points by allowing the substitution fresh fruit – honeydew melon and berries in rich reds and blues – for the dish’s usual French fry accompaniment; and their portion sizes were spot-on, perfectly satisfying.

Monday brought with it another dining delight, about a hundred blocks north of Penelope’s at Sylvia’s soul food restaurant in Harlem. (Sylvia has another outpost in Atlanta, and, for everywhere in between, two cookbooks and a line of canned vegetables and bagged mixes for the home convenience cook.) The bookends of the meal were the high points here: you just knew, when the waitress appeared bearing plastic pitchers of orange drink, that this would be a down home, feel-good meal. Just behind the beverages came a procession of family style platters piled high with lightly crispy fried chicken and fish and heaping bowls of rice, potato salad, and deliciously addictive collard greens; sweet, crumbly cornbread nestled in red plastic baskets completed the Southern spread.

But the crowning glory of the meal was Sylvia’s dessert: banana pudding (a menu choice that Jon desirously foretold). To me, banana pudding at a large-scale operation usually means goo of an alarming yellow tint, bordered in its tiny bowl by Nilla wafers and buried beneath a swirl of Reddi-Whip. But the similarities stopped at the beige cafeteria-plastic mini-bowls. I had no idea something as generic and ubiquitous as banana pudding could be this delicious. I’m not sure how they did it: all I know is that it involved real bananas – I found slices amid the velvety pudding – and a scoop of some miraculous mixture involving Nilla wafers, delicately garnished with a tasteful dollop of whipped cream. As this was family-style dining, the wait staff didn’t bother to count and just kept bringing desserts: Somehow I resisted, but a good few classmates helped themselves to seconds. Needless to say, I’m trying to hunt down the recipe…

The next day, our last full day in the city before returning to Syracuse, held one last food find. At Taboon, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, we were overwhelmed by the onslaught of various mouthwatering meze (appetizers), but somehow managed to save room for the main meal (and who could forget dessert?). My entrée of heraime – a halibut filet, baked in a tomato-based, lightly spiced sauce with roasted pepper and cilantro and served in the skillet – came with a side of couscous.

Oh my God, this couscous. It wasn’t even seasoned, at least not overtly, but it was simply awe-inspiring. Finer than the instant grains available in grocery stores, this couscous felt to the mouth how one imagines the fluffiest cloud might feel. I always found the instruction to “fluff” one’s couscous ridiculous, but it makes total sense after this meal; however, I don’t think any couscous poured from a box or rendered by my hand could ever attain the downy texture of Taboon’s miraculous side dish. Delicious on its own, when combined with the subtle flavors of the fish and its sauce, it turned a merely OK dish into a very good one.

Of these places, I highly recommend Bottino and Penelope’s. As I scout out more restaurants in NYC, most likely of the grad-budget-friendly persuasion, you should expect further posts and recommendations...

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