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Seeking a few good recs for a mid-June trip (lots of details inside)

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Greetings, Manhattan Chowhounds!

I'm a regular on the Florida forum, but my girlfriend and I will be in NYC from June 18th through the 22nd, and we're hoping you can point us to some great places. We're staying at the Doubletree Metropolitan Hotel New York City at 569 Lexington Ave (in Midtown?), and we'll be spending some time near Baruch College of The City University of New York at 55 Lexington Avenue. We will probably take cabs most places or walk to anything that's close. Just something to keep in mind: I recently graduated grad school and may or may not have a great new job by then, and she's in grad school currently, so neither of us are loaded.

We visited NYC for a whirlwind 2-night trip last year, and some of the highlights included:

West Bank Cafe (based on a recommendation from here; it was pretty good but I don't think it blew either of us away, no offense)
Norma's (her idea; very decadent, but the service was so snooty and snobby that I don't think we'd go back)
Katz's Deli (completely awesome pastrami on club, and we're definitely going back this time)

We also grabbed two meals at those convenience store/deli/supermarkets you guys have all over the city -- surprisingly good gourmet sandwiches that saved our lives in the draining August heat. And I got a slice of pizza from a random Ray's (not sure which one) somewhere near St. Mark's Bookshop in the Village, which was really good.

Since we will have more time and won't be as rushed, we're looking forward to a few great meals this time around, although not necessarily expensive, trendy, or fancy. That said, I would have loved to get us a reservation at Babbo based on all the hype, but by the time I called, they couldn't get us in at a time that worked. Can anyone recommend one really awesome restaurant for a special night out? We don't want French or Indian food, stuck-up service like Norma's, or tiny portions. I don't mind paying for quality, as long as there is some quantity involved too. :) Maybe an interesting tasting menu, so we can sample lots of specialties? Are there any Italian places that are similar in food style to Babbo that won't break the bank? How is Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill? The online menu makes it sound fantastic.

Beyond that, how worthwhile is Barney Greengrass: The Sturgeon King? I saw Anthony Bourdain go there on his old Food Network show, and since I love delis and smoked fish, would it be worth a trip even though we're also going to Katz's? Are there any other must-try delis, particularly anything close? I'm cool with either Jewish or Italian-style delis -- I like nothing more than great sandwiches with salted, cured meats and wonderful cheeses. What about fantastic bagels near our hotel? Would H&H be worth a special trip?

My girlfriend definitely wants to try the frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity, so we'll go there at some point. I have been checking out the Il Laboratorio de Gelato website, as that sounds right up my alley, and neither of us would be opposed to sampling the famous cupcakes at the Magnolia Bakery.

Are there any interesting "concept restaurants" these days? I always thought it would be neat to try the Automat, just for the experience, but I'm reasonably sure it has been gone for years, if not longer. Any sort of unforgettable or unique dining experiences for a couple of 30-year-olds from Orlando?

Also, we don't have Trader Joe's in FL, and everyone raves about it. Would a TJ trip be worthwhile to load up on snacks and goodies for the hotel room and the trip home? What about Dean and Deluca? We wouldn't say no to amazing Mexican, Thai, Greek, or Chinese food either, particularly if any places are convenient to the hotel.

EDIT: One more thing -- we don't drink, so no need to worry about wine selections at restaurants or finding cool bars to hang at.

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  1. Definitely worth hitting Trader Joe's for snacks during and after. It's located on East 14th Street near Union Square so you may want to coordinate the visit with your other activities. If you're into nuts, they have an excellent and rather extensive selection; last but not least, they are reasonably priced!

    Enjoy your visit!!

    1. for your batali fix, try LUPA for lunch. otherwise, i would suggest a relative splurge at GRAMERCY TAVERN. there is fine dining and the less expensive walk-in front section. very nice & no snooty there.

      bourdain aint gonna lead ya wrong -- BARNEY GREENGRASS is totally worth it. go for breakfast.

      for fun there is a new retro style automat on st. marks place aka e8th st (that's around the corner from the bookstore).

      make sure to go to IL LABORATORIO DE GELATO on the weekend when traffic is closed & there is shopping along orchard st. have a glass of wine & a truffled egg & whatever else grabs you to eat at 'INOTECA.

      enjoy your visit & report back!

      1 Reply
      1. re: mrnyc

        Yes, we have an Automat. It's called Bamn! and it's not very good.

        There are other gimmicky places in town (Ninja comes to mind, as do some of the children's themed places like Mars 2112 or Max Brenner), none of which really get positive reviews.

      2. > Doubletree Metropolitan Hotel New York City at 569 Lexington Ave (in Midtown?)

        Yup. Lexington and 51st Street. I don't know the area that well but I do know that Aquavit is around there. There's not much else of foodie-note around there. Midtown places often survive / do well just due to location...

        > Baruch College of The City University of New York at 55 Lexington Avenue.

        That's 24th Street and 3rd Avenue. You are very close to Curry Hill and a lot of the good places in and around Gramercy/Flatiron and Union Square, at different price points such as Tiffin Wallah, Chennai Garden, Roomali, Saravanaas, Shake Shack, Blue Smoke, A Voce. You'll find you get a lot more recommendations if you name the specific intersection, in general, BTW.

        Re: Babbo. Did you try calling one of Mario Batali's other restaurants, like Lupa? Note that you can also dine at Babbo as a walk-in customer but that requires a bit more patience and planning, and it won't feel quite as special. But it is doable.

        For your special night out...the cheapest tasting menus I know of are at Degustation and the red-hot and popular Momofuku Ko. Both are counter seating only (no tables) and rely upon an open kitchen where you can observe your food being prepared. Neither of those are French or Indian. However, the Ko reservation is next to impossible. Degustation is a definitely possibility, so call and reserve soon.

        You might also want to consider some New American restaurants or those specializing in local ingredients, like Craft, Blue Hill, or Gramercy Tavern. My favorite is Gramercy Tavern It's pretty popular, so I'd call ASAP to make reservations. They have some of the best service in town. Do you have a maximum price point for your special night out?

        Barney Greengrass is definitely worth a trip because it's very different from Katz's -- all that wonderful smoked salmon. It's old school NY. However, if time is a consider, you can easily get your smoked salmon fix at Russ & Daughters, which is very close to Katz's Deli. However, Russ & Daughters only does take out. You can easily choose a nice smoked salmon to go on a bagel with cream cheese and get it to go. At Katz's Deli, the thing to order is the pastrami. Go to both!

        Il Lab is definitely worth a trip. Keep in mind that they close early, like around 6pm, so it's not a good after-dinner spot. Skip Magnolia, it's overrated, and the frosting is sugary-coma-inducingly-sweet. I always feel a bit sick after eating a Magnolia cupcake. If you want more interesting sweets and baked goods, though, try La Maison du Chocolat, Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery, Grandaisy, Kee's Chocolates, Birdbath, Abraco, Bouchon Bakery, Madeline Patisserie, or Batch, the Dessert Truck, the Wafels and Dinges truck....

        TJ's and Dean and Deluca are fine if you're nearby, but the line to checkout at TJ's is always a mile long. Even the express line takes forever on a normal day! That's because there's only one TJ's in NYC. There's multiple Dean & Deluca's, but D&D is usually pretty expensive. It's a splurge snack for me there if I go. I get a few take-out items (usually from the meat or cheese or baked goods counters) and leave. For example, they carry cupcakes from Sage (who don't have a Manhattan retail presence) as well as iberico ham from Spain.

        > amazing Mexican, Thai, Greek, or Chinese food either, particularly if any places are convenient to the hotel.

        Manhattan is kind of weak on amazing Mexican and Thai, I can't think of any awesome Greek by your hotel, but you are rather close to the midtown location of Peking Duck House (can't speak to its quality as I've only been to the Chinatown one).

        Manhattan for visitors:
        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/521062
        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/514935
        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/510567

        Best breakfasts/brunches in Manhattan:
        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/445794

        Here's a recent thread about quick take out / snack places:
        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/514186

        Make sure you check out RGR's LES Noshing Tour too:
        http://www.chowhound.com/topics/493333

        1. Don't forget New York's food carts. Cheap and quick (except for the long lines at some of the most popular ones. A search on "food carts" or "vendors" should point you in the right direction. Or perhaps someone more knowledgeable than I will make some specific suggestions around Baruch.

          1. I too felt Serendipity was "a must" - trust me when I say - it isn't.

            3 Replies
            1. re: texann

              Skip Serendipity. Long wait, over-priced, and (other than the frozen hot chocolate) the food is not so good BUT they have a per person minimum forcing you to eat bad food to taste the one good thing on their menu.

              1. re: Love to Eat

                I haven't eaten at Serendipity but have seen some negative reviews. But in light of your girlfriend's wishes, I think Big Bad Lou would have a MUCH more pleasant trip giving in and going to Serendipity. It's just one meal/dessert.

                About your Italian place, if you can't get into Lupa, you may want to give Otto a try. It's another Batali joint specializing in pizzas although their pizzas are their weak point. Their antipasti is really good (especially their vegetables). Their pasta isn't bad either. And the gelato is ridiculously delicious -- I think it's better than Il Lab. Bar Pitti is also not a bad place either if you want Italian.

                Not Italian, but Batali also has a Spanish tapas place called Casa Mono. It's very hearty robust food. I love tapas-sized portions because you can try more things. And these tapas are pretty large compared to what you get at other tapas restaurants.

                1. re: Miss Needle

                  How about Crispo? for your dinner out?? It was recommended to me by the local nyc chowhounds and was really terrific.

            2. I agree with skipping Magnolia's and Serindipity, both are highly over rated. Il Lab. de Gelato is great, epically the Thai chili chocolate. If you want cupcakes near Il Lab is Sugar Sweet Sunshine, their spice cupcake is great or try P*Ong, their chocolate cupcake and strawberry coconut are great. Lupa is my rec. for Italian. You can do the Eleven Madison Park Gourmand tasting for you splurge and a great bargain is Jean George for Lunch. IMO best slice pizza is Joe's on Carmine street.

              2 Replies
              1. re: misnatalie

                I agree with Mis Nat's recs for Lupa, EMP, and JG- all easy to get into for lunch without a rezzy. I also stongly back MrNYC's rec for Gramercy Tavern (fantastic 5 course lunch tasting menu- and they let you mix and match your choices from almost any app or entree offered on the regulare menu).

                Feel free to check out my photo blog for pics and comments on all the above.

                http://www.flickr.com/photos/fudee

                1. re: FuDee

                  Not sure that J-G is that easy to get into lunch without a reservation. Also, Jean-Georges only serves lunch M-F. On the weekends, they'll direct you to Nougatine. If you try to walk in and they're fully committed, I think they direct you to Nougatine as well.

                  FuDee, GT lets you do that for the prix fixe, too -- you can substitute a dish with something from a tasting menu! Works for both lunch and dinner. It's one of the most flexible menus I've ever seen, and the staff seems to advertise/encourage you to make up your own tasting or prix fixe menu.

              2. Try lunch or brunch at Perry St. The best bargain in the city!!! Check out their web site.
                Skip Serendipity and Magnolia. So overhyped, no longer good.
                Barney Greengrass is excellent.
                Little Owl in the west village has excellent food in the most cozy tiny space.

                1. Thank you all for the comments so far! Gramercy Tavern is intriguing, as are Lupa and Otto. But I notice nobody has mentioned Mesa Grill. I know it's kind of cool to hate Bobby Flay's TV persona, but I've always thought he made amazing-looking food, and my mouth waters just reading the online menu. Has anyone been to the restaurant?

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Big Bad Voodoo Lou

                    I gave up on eating dinner there after a few expensive and underwhelming meals.Food was regularly served at the incorrect "doneness", dishes were forgotten by the waitstaff and the seasoning of dishes was consistently off. The menu reads better then the food you actually get. I do still like brunch very much at Mesa.

                  2. Check out this super cool dessert place, Rice to Riches, in SoHo for very delicious rice puddings. I like their lemon poppy and raspberry flavors.

                    http://www.ricetoriches.com/index.2.php

                    1. A couple of ideas for you:

                      - Bamn in the East Village is basically an old-style Automat with interesting food. Notice I said interesting, not necessarily good :) But it's fun -- try the shaved ice (it's huge) if the day is hot.

                      - Have you tried Del Posto instead of Babbo? Babbo is better, I think, but Del Posto is easier to get into..... maybe Esca if you want more Batali?

                      - Mesa Grill: I love Bobby Flay.... but Mesa Grill has seen better years. Not worth it.

                      - Serendipity: it's like Bamm... go for fun, but the food is so-so.

                      - Trader Joe -- some people are going to disagree with me, but I have to say it anyway -- forget TJ and go to Balducci or Dean and Deluca -- you're in NYC, not suburban NJ.... so do the NYC thing :)

                      - I like Rice to RIches too.... definitely worth going to.

                      - Pizza -- in Midtown, try Angelo on 57th St -- totally rocks, I love it. In the Village, lots of choices, just check the boards.

                      - Barney Greengrass -- one word: go! Totally rocks, and by no means should it be Katz or BG -- go to both!

                      - Chain/theme -- ok, if you absolutely MUST go, don't go to Max Breener or Mars 2112 -- the food totally sucks, really and truly. Ninja, on the other hand, is kinda fun, and the food is at least edible. But again, this is NYC.... do you really want to waste a meal on one of those places?

                      -- street carts can be fun too.... do the taco trucks (there's a great one on 14th st) or the Halal stuff on Sixth Avenue in Midtown.... all worth it. Have fun with this!

                      -- Shake Shack in Madison Square Park --- totally rocks, worth it especially on a great day in the park.

                      Have Fun!

                      1. Hey folks! Thank you again for your recommendations from several weeks back. My girlfriend and I got back today from an exhausting few days in the city, but the food was definitely the most consistently awesome part of our trip.

                        Once we got to our hotel on Lex and 51st on Wednesday afternoon, we went to Katz's Deli for lunch, and it was AWESOME. The cantankerous and intense Richard was our server, and he seemed to approve of us splitting a monstrous pastrami sandwich on club, a hot dog with kraut, a potato knish, and Dr. Brown's root beer and black cherry soda. Everything was fantastic, of course, and I bought six club rolls that I mailed down to my father in Miami, since Katz's doesn't ship those and you can't get them anywhere in Florida. I don't think we were able to eat again that day, after being so stuffed from Katz's!

                        Thursday took us to Barney Greengrass for an early lunch, and it was just as great as Tony Bourdain (and so many of you) said. I got the sturgeon, nova, eggs, and onions with a toasted bialy with cream cheese, and my girlfriend enjoyed a bagel with nova and cream cheese after the waiter warned us their lox would be way too salty to enjoy. We topped off the meal with the best black and white cookies in existence, and bought a box with several of them to go.

                        I really would have liked to go to Babbo for our one "splurge" dinner, but I couldn't get reservations that worked and didn't want the hassle of getting there super-early to hope and pray we got seated. Instead, I booked us at Craft on Thursday night, and enjoyed a sumptuous tasting menu. Interestingly, I would never have ordered any of the dishes normally, but they were all magnificent, and worked really well together. You can see their most recent tasting menu here: http://www.craftrestaurant.com/craft_...
                        (Unfortunately, several of the dishes had mushrooms, which absolutely kill my stomach, and the night after our feast at Craft was no exception. But I had to try them, and it was almost entirely worth it.

                        )

                        My girl had her conference to attend on Friday, so after an uncharacteristically early wake-up time for both of us, she went off in a cab and I wandered around Midtown on foot most of the day. Perhaps the best surprise, food-wise, was finding Ess-A-Bagel on 51st Street and 3rd Avenue, a very short walk from our hotel. That place was amazing. I wished I could shrink it down and pack it in my suitcase to take back to Orlando with us. I had a toasted everything bagel with chopped liver at 7:30 AM -- the breakfast of champions!

                        We reconvened for about an hour, but neither of us felt like having lunch yet. That didn't stop us from going to the nearby Pinkberry, after all the hype we've read on Chowhound and elsewhere. It might be a "girly" place, but I have to admit the decor was great, and we both loved the regular plain Pinkberry flavor (she thought the Coffee was gross and I hated the Green Tea). We split a large one with pineapple, kiwi, and mango, and it was cool and refreshing and would probably make a mint if they ever expanded the business to places like Orlando and Miami. She went back to her afternoon sessions and I went off on a longer "walkabout."

                        After lots of walking, I made my way down 49th Street toward the Theater District and Times Square, and had the best gyro ever from a halal food cart around 7th Avenue, on the opposite side of the street and a block or so down from 30 Rockefeller Center. Despite my stomach distress from the night before, I opted for the "white sauce" (not tzaziki), hot sauce, and extra onions on my gyro, and it was awesome. But since that wasn't enough to sate me on my Pac-Man-like quest, I stopped at Famous Original Ray's on 8th (I think?) for a wonderfully crispy, greasy, drippy slice and a refreshing soda. In retrospect, I would have preferred a second gyro or another selection from the halal cart, but I felt like I ought to get a NY-style slice of pizza in my travels as well.

                        That night, we were both pretty tired after our long days, so I brought sandwiches and drinks from Azure, the grocery store/deli around the corner from our hotel on 51st and 3rd, across the street from Ess-A-Bagel. I am fascinated by the little convenience/grocery/deli/gourmet stores you guys have all over Manhattan, since in Florida we just have giant supermarket chains (Publix and Winn-Dixie) and gas station convenience stores that almost never offer fresh food.

                        After my glowing review of Ess-A-Bagel, I returned there early on Saturday morning to bring us back breakfast before my girlfriend's excellent presentation at the conference. She wanted their honey nine-grain bagel with butter and a cinnamon crumb muffin, and I forgot exactly what I got but it was really good. I also bought more black and white cookies that had a slight lemony taste. Still better than anything we can get in FL, but not as good as the ones from Barney Greengrass (which had already been devoured). After her presentation, she wanted to go back there and have lunch before the matinee performance of Spring Awakening (I surprised her with tickets), and we got there with moments to spare.

                        Saturday night was one of the most pleasant experiences we had on our trip, and definitely the most relaxing. We visited a friend of hers in Brooklyn Heights and watched the sun set on a pier, before visiting her beautiful apartment and getting amazing Middle Eastern take-out from the Tutt Cafe in Brooklyn. (I realize the Outer Boroughs have their own forum, but this was our only non-Manhattan meal, and it was so good that I have to plug it anyway: http://lighthousenews.us/RESTAURANTS/... .) Interestingly, while neither of us could ever see living in Manhattan (and more power to those of you who do!), we really loved what we saw of Brooklyn Heights, since it seemed to combine the best of both worlds -- the hustle and bustle of the big city and the slightly slower pace of suburbs (like the one we live in outside Orlando). But Spring Awakening was fantastic, we visited three awesome bookstores (The Strand, Bluestockings, and Book Culture) and two great comic shops (Forbidden Planet and Midtown Comics), and just ate amazing things the entire time. I'm back home, tired from all the walking, and I'll have to watch my budget over the next few weeks, but I wouldn't have traded this trip for anything in the world.

                        That said, next time we'll try to do Babbo, Il Laboratorio del Gelato, Salumeria Biallese (how I would have liked to bring stuff home from there!), Trader Joe's, Serendipity for desserts, and who knows where else!