NYC through the stomach

By Steve Korver, October 2011

The US economy is generally collapsing more quickly than other economies. So it’s really a perfect time, exchange-wise, to visit New York City and indulge in what is the centre of the food universe. However it does help having a food-obsessed host to point the way. And with some luck, you can also squeeze in some more traditional sightseeing.

It’s smoking
54431-rect-220Char No. 4 is a bar-restaurant with a passion for bourbon. Its interior is appropriately amber-hued and woody. The 19th-century row house location in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn might make it potentially pretentious. But it’s not. They serve ‘American fare with a focus on smoked meat’. And anyway, I have long trusted my food-obsessed host to regularly reward me for knowing him. He is the man who earlier introduced me to such global culinary touchstones as the ‘herring in a fur coat’ at Petrovich and the rainbow of innards that they concoct at St John.

Char No. 4 can indeed provide complementing bourbons to accompany each of their morsels of comfort food.  The fried jambalaya rice balls with Andouille aioli had me feeling like I was back home in the land of Dutch kroketten and bitterballen – and I mean that in a good way and not a bad. But I am an emotional eater and I only really started to get weepy when I tasted the house-cured lamb pastrami with coriander aioli, pickled onions and grilled rye-caraway bread. By the time we were served the roasted salmon with black kale, roasted garlic and smoked pistachio-preserved lemon vinaigrette, my eyes had turned into waterfalls. It was all top nosh. On our way out, we bumped into the chef who said it was his last night before heading to California. Now it was my food-obsessed host’s turn to get overly emotional.


Borscht memories
borscht-capadesAfter visiting the stacked silver boxes of the excellent and appropriately named New Museum, I was standing on the corner of 2nd and 9th in East Village waiting to meet friends for lunch at the famed Ukrainian eatery Veselka (read a great profile here). I used to eat here regularly years ago as a displaced teen and remember it always being filled with one half Ukrainian locals and the other half proto-hipsters (this was in the late 1980s before the neo-hipsters found succour in Williamsburg).

While watching the traffic going by I leaned back on a newspaper box for Village Voice and started to wonder why this weekly seems to halve in size each time I visit. Certainly Craig’s List took a big bite out of their classifieds business. But did Chowhound take a bite out of their reviewing business?

Suddenly my food-obsessed host bikes by. I experience the moment of recognition as a small stroke as he lives in Brooklyn and this just seemed like too much of a coincidence. But he just happened to be having lunch with his own food-obsessed friend a few blocks up. After I recover, he reassured me that while the rest of the hood has gentrified, Veselka remains a prime choice for lunch. (Later I would bump into him again a couple of times nearer his home while he was out getting Montreal bagels or sourcing fresh sardines from one of the excellent food shops along Court Street. This is just how it flows in a megapolis.)

Veselka’s borscht proved to be perfect and the varenyky dumplings divine. My first urge when confronted with the cabbage rolls was to just slap my face down hard on top of them and just start truffling down like a hog in heat. But to avoid burning my nose and eyes in the rich mushroom sauce, I tried to slow down by telling the story about my best friend growing up. His mother was Ukrainian. Whenever we were overly-energetic little boys, she would yell: ‘Boys please calm up; you are making me climb the ceiling.’ Oh, we would laugh. And then the next day we would point and laugh at my Dutch mother whenever she got all freestyle with the expressions of her new country – ah, the lot of the immigrant. Actually now that I think back, my friend and I were not actually to blame for our excessive energy levels. We were just still buzzing from the beet sugar in the borscht his mother had fed us for lunch.

Veselka’s borsht gave me the drive to walk very, very quickly across Manhattan towards Chelsea and finally check out the much-hyped ‘green’ (read: ridiculously over-designed but nice) High Line walkway that used to be the elevated train track that brought all the meat in and out of the Meat Packing District. Food history: it’s everywhere in New York.


The bread of Georgia
BazaarGeorgianBread-1870sIt was assumed by my food-obsessed host that we would stop off at Georgian Bread on our epic bike ride to Jacob Riis Park. Riis (1849-1914) was not a foodie but a journalist-reformer who used his camera to document slum life and invented flash photography on the way. So in a way, he can be considered a father of food photography.

As we cycled through Brighton Beach, not far from Coney Island, I was triggered by sense memories from years past: the sweat of a Russian bath house, the gentle squeak of a Nathan’s hotdog, being hypnotised by an old man slowly baking mighty pies in a pizza joint called Di Fara. This imperturbable Italian would pull out each pizza during the long baking process to give the bubbling mass a few massaging pokes with his fingers. He would then slice out some more fresh mozzarella here, and ladle out some more sauce there. Then he would put the pizza back into the oven for a few more minutes before repeating the whole process again. Meanwhile the line of saliva puddles would extend around the block. When I asked my food-obsessed host about the current state of Di Fara, he answered: ‘Now it’s just completely Disneyland.’

The Georgian bakers were however keeping it very real. In a small, hot room with a single clay oven, two men made two types of bread: a baguette-like shotipuri and a cheesy khachapuri. We opted for the cheesy to go. The older baker bagged it and passed it over a narrow counter. A small fridge was filled with a few dips and the intensely-mineral Borjomi mineral water. (And just to be clear: we are not talking about Georgia the state of pulled pork, but about Georgia the country in the Caucasus, much celebrated for their culinary skills, winemaking traditions, and being the birthplace of Stalin.)

Later on the empty and windswept beach of Jacob Riis Park with its abandoned art deco pavilion, we pulled out the crispy Frisbee-sized disk filled with salty, pudding-textured cheese. As it melted in our mouths, we all stared at each other with disbelief. Can something made by humans actually taste this good? We aided digestion by contemplating the sea, until someone tells us that this is the point where Hurricane Irene entered the city a few weeks earlier. ‘NYC has become a tropical climate, don’t you know?


A perfect Mexican. Dammit!
robertsPerhaps my food-obsessed host had climate change in mind, when we later went to the Mexican restaurant Fonda in Park Slope. After cycling away cheese bread calories, it proved to be the perfect spot to unwind over a couple of spicy michelada beer cocktails. And dammit, the food was excellent again. But I was enjoying it less now because I was beginning to resent not living fulltime in a culinary capital. There were a few moments, for instance when picking at a huge wooden bowl filled with perfect guacamole, that I got distracted and started to unconsciously hum a happy tune. But otherwise I just complained about how Amsterdam has little range when it comes to cheap eats – Suri-Indo-Chin and, klaar, that’s it. Give me cheap Mexican! Give me cheap Vietnamese! Give me cheap sushi! Hell, I’d even be happy with a mid-range Serbian!


Finally, something real to complain about
Welcome to Williamsburg. My food-obsessed host warned us against going to Diner on a weekend, but we did not listen. We were stupid. But we had to be in the neighbourhood anyway and who can resist an authentically rundown diner in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge serving locally-sourced dishes? But while wedged in among the hipsters, we ended up waiting an hour for a table and then an hour for our food.

Except for a signature burger, Diner’s specials change daily – to the point that the amazingly chilled wait-staff sit down with you to write down all the specials on the paper table cloth. But in the end we were too hungry to care. We inhaled once, maybe twice, and our plates were empty. But the meals were obviously straight-up fine. It could have been quite possibly perfect on a week day. But I would never rebel against my food-obsessed host again.


Holy duck
riis_sabbathMy food-obsessed host remembered that I come from generations of duck harvesters. So it was sweet of him to take me for our last lunch to the corner of 2nd and 13th to Momofuku Ssam Bar, owned by the acclaimed Korean-American chef David Chang (a man known for his swearing and his love for offal). Their duck lunch is definitely of a whole fresh other feather. First a duck-and-pork sausage is embedded under the duck’s skin. This mutant hybridogenesis is then roasted on a rotisserie before being cut up and served with rice (which absorbed the melange of fats), duck confit (which adds yet greater depth to the melange of fats), chive pancakes (also handy to absorb the melange of fats), Bibb lettuce for wrapping (which help keep your fingers less sticky from the melange of fats), and a quartet of freaky sauces (which each combine in their own exotic way with the melange of fats).

As we made quacking and snorting sounds of delight at the bar, a brown-roasted pig buttock – a rather cute, rounded one – is served to the table across from us. It comes with a dozen oysters and rows of bowls with different kinds of fermented kimchi. Meanwhile in the open kitchen a guy is handling tripe that looks as if it came from a water buffalo. Serious stuff. A few weeks after our lunch, NY Times food critic Sam Sifton cited Momofuku Ssam Bar as his top choice for ‘For Blowing the Mind of an Out-of-Town Guest’.

I totally agreed. My mind was blown. And certainly my belly felt pretty blown on the airplane back home.

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