Self-Guided 3 Day Food Tour
My BF and I are temporarily living in Philadelphia and decided to take advantage of the $1 bus to NYC to go on a self-guided food tour over Memorial Day weekend. A long time lurker of the boards, I researched for quite some time before even booking the trip. Armed with a laundry list of suggestions from all of you fine folk, we hit the streets from dinner on Friday to lunch on Monday. I blogged about it in full with pictures for anyone who is interested in longer reviews and I'll summarize here by day for the sake of time and space. :) Hope that's okay!
Friday - Street Food and Pizza
Map in hand, we hunted down the Halal cart on 53rd and 6th. The food cart was easy to find, mostly because of the massive line. There are thousands of food carts in the city and this was the only one I saw with a line. I knew I was in the right place because everyone here was very specific in your description of a plain cart with round containers and yellow bags. Thank you, all of you, who gave such perfect instructions! :)
We ordered the mix combo which came with spiced long grain yellowish-orange rice, chunks of chicken meat, gyro meat, warm pita bread and some sad looking squares of iceberg lettuce. I’m sure the lettuce was there to add a splash of color and nothing more. I’m not sure if anyone eats the lettuce with all that lamb, rice and chicken goodness in the container. The lamb was the winner–-it was amazing. It was perfectly cooked, cut and seasoned with a mixture of Middle Eastern spices. The food itself was served hot and the sauces that went with it were at standing temperature. My favorite! I hate it when cold sauces make hot food cold. The white sauce tasted a bit like a mix between Donair sauce and Ranch dressing. It was perfect with the lamb but especially with the chicken which needed a little punch of flavor. The red sauce was most likely spit from Satan himself. It was hotter than hell! I put a tiny drop on my tongue and it instantly burst into flames. The white sauce was very cooling and enjoyable so we mixed that into the plate and chowed down. Delicious AND cheap. You can't ask for much more than that.
After checking out the sights in Times Square and around Rockefeller Plaza, we grabbed a slice of pizza from a shop called Delizia on 92nd and 2nd on the Upper East Side close to our hotel. We shared a slice of white pizza with ricotta, mozzarella, pecorino Romano and basil and a square Sicilian slice of what they called “grandma’s pizza”. Grandma makes her square pizza with a generous helping of chunky marinara on top of a plain cheese base. Of the two, the white pizza was the best. It was great but I don't know that it would be worth a special trip--it just happened to be close to where we needed to be.
Saturday – Momofuku Ssam Bar and Cupcakes
After we were both cleaned up, we made our way to The Village in search of Momofuku Ssam Bar. I’d heard all about the pork buns from all of you Chowhounds and just had to try them. Ssam Bar has a $25 prix fixe lunch that included dessert so we both ordered from the set menu. I ordered the steamed pork buns (of course) and the spicy rice cake dish. The boy ordered the beef tendon and braised beef brisket. The pork buns were exceptional. They were made with fatty pork belly, hoisin, cucumbers and scallions. The cucumbers were unexpected and really rounded out the heaviness very well. The bun itself could have used a bit more hoisin sauce but that’s just me being fussy for a little more moisture. The bun itself was soft, fluffy and folded. Wait, folded? I was expecting it to resemble a steamed empanada but the dish looked more like an Asian taco.
The sichuan beef tendon was served with bitter green mango and peanuts. The tendon was easily the most surprising dish of the weekend for both of us. Neither of us had had it before and it was not what I expected at all. I thought it would be chewy in texture–kind of like a beef version of calamari–but it was buttery and soft. For a beef dish, it was almost oddly sweet without being sickening or over sugared. The bitter mango offset the sweetness quite nicely. The rice cakes themselves were funny looking. I asked the server and she said they’re made from a huge roll that looks like a tube–I’m pretty sure it was tteokbokki. They cut the tube into little pieces so they looked like mini-marshmallows or gnocchi on my plate. They were crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. The sauce in the dish was red chile based and complimented the crumbled pork quite nicely. It was spicy enough to sting my lips when I licked them but not so much to make me regret ordering the dish. I had a Thai iced tea parfait with lemon mascarpone and almond tea crunch for dessert. The boy had a blondie pie, which was buttery and very dense. It was good but the parfait was simply amazing. It was light and refreshing with a nice crunch to compliment it. The lemon mascarpone was worth a round of dueling spoons between me and the boy as we tried to scrape up the last little bits.
After dessert, we went to Milk Bar for cookies. I got the blueberries and cream cookie due to my infatuation (obsession) with blueberries. My bf got the cornflake and marshmallow cookie. I might be biased but the blueberry cookie is seriously good. The cornflake was a little too buttery for me. The blueberry cookie had a fruity burst in every bite. Loved it.
After we felt like we could nosh again, we started the cupcake tour. What a fantastic event for me. I had put a lot of thought into it and knew which places I wanted to go to. I wanted to avoid tourist traps with dry cake like Magnolia--I've read enough reviews around here to trust the 90% of you who say Magnolia isn't that great. Map in hand, we set off to find Chikalicious Dessert Bar (CDB), Pinisi Bakery (PB) and Sugar Sweet Sunshine (SSS). Here's what was had in order of how they were eaten with rankings.
1. Triple chocolate cupcake (CDB) - Chocolate cake with a dark ganache center with chocolate buttercream frosting. Holy wow. I promised myself I wouldn't eat the whole thing and promptly broke my promise. The ganache center was amazing. My only complaints were with the frosting to cake ratio and the temperature. I would have liked more frosting but the size of the cupcake (reasonable, not too large) and the ganache made up for it. The cake itself was a little too warm and the frosting was kind of melted because of that. #3.
2. Banana cupcake (CDB) - was like really moist banana bread with cream cheese frosting. It was like the banana version of carrot cake. The cake itself wasn't as dense as banana bread which was what made it awesome. #4
3. Red velvet (PB) - Looked fantastic but tasted awful. You could only taste the cream cheese frosting which wasn't even sweet enough. NONE of the red velvet cake taste came through. Cupcake itself was too large to really be a cupcake and it was also cold. Who refrigerates cupcakes? Ugh. I'm sure I could have gotten a better cupcake at Magnolia. This was a one bite to the trash cupcake. #7
4. Black & White...Just Right (SSS) - That's the actual name but I went for the one with the blue tinted frosting because it looked more fun. This was a chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream and it actually was "just right". The frosting to cake ratio was PERFECT. It had a few sprinkles but not so many that it altered the taste of the frosting or the texture. The cake was moist and the temperature was the best of the bunch. Cool but not cold. Loved it. No complaints for this classic cupcake. #2.
5. Pumpkin (SSS) - The pumpkin cake had the perfect blend of fall spices and we really enjoyed it even though it was 90 degrees outside. It was paired with cream cheese icing which was a million times better than the cream cheese frosting on the red velvet cupcake. I found the cake part to be a little dry but Ryan really seemed to love it. #5
6. Pistachio (SSS) - Best cupcake I've ever had in my life. The buttercream frosting was simple vanilla with some crushed pistachios sprinkled on top. The cake itself was moist and full of pistachio flavour. I don't know how they did it! It tasted like they would have needed to create their own pistachio extract for this. The cake was pretty, too. It was green! #1
7. Lemon Yummy (SSS) - Surprisingly good and tasting very much of lemon but sickeningly sweet. I'm not sure if anyone could finish more than a few bites of this cupcake. The flavour was fantastic, don't get me wrong, but it was like lemon and sugar overload. It would have been much better as a mini-cupcake where you take one or two bites to the finish. #6
Saturday - Eleven Madison Park
I know I have two posts for Saturday but EMP deserves it's own post. Thanks to the very detailed reviews of some thoughtful people around here, we decided to go to EMP for dinner on Saturday. I cannot thank you all enough, especially RGR who speaks highly of EMP time and time again. I'm including some detail here as well incase there are other lurkers like me out there. :)
Walking through the revolving door, you could tell right away that this would be a special experience as the host at the door started pushing as we stepped in in an effort to make the revolving door easier for us. We were greeted very warmly and brought to our table. The dining room itself was breathtaking. The high ceilings in the space may have looked gothic anywhere else but EMP dressed it up with classy, soft lighting and white flowers everywhere. Our captain for the evening asked if we would like to start the evening with a glass of champagne. I happily took him up on his offer and he strolled over with the champagne cart. After explaining some of the differences in the bottles they had, I settled on a rose champagne that wasn’t too acidic or too sweet–it was perfect and it really showed how well he was listening to what I like. The sommelier came over shortly after I’d flipped through the wine list a little and he, too, listened intently to what I had to say. He made a suggestion for a bottle–St. Innocent Pinot Noir ‘White Rose’ 2006 from the Willamette Valley–and it could not have been more perfect. It wasn’t too sweet, it wasn’t dry, it had an interesting violet and vanilla combination. The boy and I both loved it and I would love to have it again.
After looking over the menus for a little while, we made our selections. The boy picked the 5 course suckling pig menu and I went for the 5 course spring menu. We had already resolved to share everything. After placing our orders, we were presented with a rectangular tray of hors d’oeuvres. There was cucumber with smoked salmon, a bacon and leek quiche, foie gras with asparagus gelee on a cracker and crispy cornets of veal sweetbreads. We were delighted to see right away that there was one of each for both of us. All were delicious but the sweetbreads were the clear winner. Wow, what tasty little morsels they were. The texture of the sweetbreads was absolute perfection. If I have to describe them, I’d say they were creamy like a soft cheese filling in a ravioli. The crispy exterior gave way easily and didn’t overpower the flavor of the sweetbreads. Amazing. And the presentation was top notch! We knew we were in for a great night at this point.
Our first course came out after a nice pause. The boy was served a terrine of various parts of the pig’s head with cornichons and baby radishes. I was treated to a plate of asparagus with mixed preparations, Parmigiano Reggiano and smoked meat. The terrine was fantastic but my favorite element of the two dishes was the asparagus ice cream. It was so unexpected for this little dollop to be cold and tasting so much of asparagus. They really knocked that one out of the park. For his second course, the boy was presented with suckling pig pork belly with an array of vegetables. I had Atlantic turbot with spring peas. My turbot was okay but not fantastic. I felt the peas overpowered the fish. Perhaps I’d have felt my dish was much better had the boy’s pork belly not been so fantastic. Honestly, I think we were fighting over the last few vegetables on his plate. The pork was a great mixture of spices, salt, fat and juice. The vegetables were truly outstanding. You could tell that someone labored over these vegetables in the kitchen. They weren’t there just to make the plate look pretty or more interesting. I think the only thing from his plate that wasn’t eaten was a small sprig of grass with a clover hanging from it. Outstanding.
Up next for the boy was pig confit with cipollini onions, dried plum chutney and five spice jus. This was easily the best dish of the night for him so far. Slow-roasted pork was pulled, then compressed under a layer of crispy pork skin. The dried plum chutney, the five spice, the caramelized cipollini and the green onion all complemented the pork so well, too. Just a remarkable dish, all the way around. The boy was ready to call it the best dish of the night… until he tasted mine. My seared and lightly poached Atlantic halibut with Meyer lemon, massive capers and parsley was the best dish ever. Ever. Not just “of the meal” or “of our trip” or any other qualifiers like that. Ever. It was simply the best dish I have had and it will be very hard to top it. It sounds so simple but I think that’s what made it so delicious. The perfectly cooked fish, the crispy wafers, the Meyer lemon… wow, that lemon was outstanding. The texture was just right for making it’s way onto a bite of fish without being too heavy to overpower the flavor of the halibut or being so runny that it was lost during transport. This dish was so unbelievable that adjectives fail me and wouldn’t do it justice anyway. The boy commented that he was totally floored with his confit until he had a bite of my fish. At that point, he felt completely depressed because mine was so good that his now sucked. Haha.
Thinking nothing could top my fish and how much we raved about it, I have to admit the next two dishes came close. The boy had a pork rack with morel mushrooms and roasted asparagus. I had a milk-fed veal glazed with ris de veau, morel panna cotta and fava beans. The stand out item in both dishes were the morels. I had to have the boy eat more than his fair share of my veal because I was starting to feel full and wanted to pace myself for dessert and macarons. We happily fought over the regular morels and morel panna cotta, the latter of the two being a favorite for me.
Dessert was fantastic for both of us although I don’t know that we finished either plate. We took our time over coffee but I knew there were still macarons to be had so I was determined not to fill up my last few free spaces in my belly. The boy’s ice cream sandwich was actually pretty remarkable. We each took a bite expecting it to taste like mint chocolate ice cream but it actually tasted of real mint. There was none of that sickeningly sweet fake flavor to be had in this mint ice cream at all! It was exceptional. As for mine, it was chocolate and malt ice cream with some more fantastic Meyer lemon… what more could a girl want? I happily dived into my upscale lemon Whopper.
Macarons, bread and butter, cheesecake pre-dessert amuse and other aspects are described on my blog along with more detail of the above but I don't want to crowd up the board too much, especially as a n00b. :) I'll just say that all were fantastic and deserving of a little blog love. Service was immaculate. Truly, I couldn't have asked for more.
P.S. RGR, if you're reading, you might like to hear you were mentioned over dinner by our captain. We had been chatting and he asked how I heard about the restaurant. I mentioned Chowhound and he said, "I'll bet you were sent here by RGR." I thought that was amusing. You're a famous (and incredibly helpful) foodie. :)
As I told you, I was looking forward to reading your EMP review. And what a fabulous review it is! Actually, I read it on your blog because I wanted to see the photos.
Truth be told, we've had almost all the dishes you and the boy had. We did the pig tasting a few weeks ago, and some of the plates from the seasonal menu are als on the current 5-course lunch Gourmand menu, which we've also had. So, it was lovely re-living them through your superb descriptions. I must say your food memory is truly impressive. Far better than mine, I assure you.
The EMP staff does keep an eye on Chowhound, so they can't help but know that I am a huge fan.
Btw, do you by any chance know the name of your captain?
All your reviews are terrific, so go ahead and "crowd up the board" whenever you come to NYC. :-)
Thank you, RGR. :) Sadly, I don't know his name. I would describe him as average weight, tall and clean cut with dark hair and fair skin but I fear that might describe 50% of the men who work there. Haha. If I did have his name, though, I would surely address him a note by mail to thank him and his team for giving us such a flawless, memorable night.
Yes, that description does fit several of the men, including the Dining Room Manager, Will Guidera, and the Sommelier, John Ragan.
If you have a printout of what you ordered or a copy of your credit card slip, the captain's name might be on them. But regardless, if you want to write EMP to tell them how much you enjoyed your evening, the entire staff would be thrilled to know how your feel. And if you mention that your captain was especially instrumental in making the evening perfect, the computer system will know who he was so your thanks can be relayed to him.
Sunday - Katz's Deli, Russ & Daughters, Dessert Truck, Pommes Frites and Spitzer's Corner
Lunch was awesome on Sunday! We went to Katz’s Deli for pastrami on rye where Harry met Sally. I was tempted to act out the scene from the movie. The sandwich itself was incredible but, sadly, I have nothing to compare it to since I’d never had pastrami before. It truly was a flavor explosion, though: warm pastrami, run-off juices, mustard and rye bread all coming together in perfect harmony. The sandwich was so thick and piled very high--there was easily over 1 pound of thick-cut hot pastrami on there. It was nicely seasoned and complimented perfectly by the mustard, something I am not normally that fond of. I would order it again if they had a children’s menu. Haha. As a friend of mine put it, “that’s not a sandwich, it’s a full-on attack of some innocent bread!” The pickles were good but the potato salad was worth skipping.
After Katz’s, we walked one block to Russ & Daughter’s for lox and cream cheese on a bagel. I picked the Nova lox and the scallion cream cheese. It was a perfect combination and we were both surprised at how good it was. I'm from Nova Scotia where the fish comes from and even I was impressed. The best part of Russ & Daughters was that the man behind the counter let me taste a few different kinds of lox before we settled on one. I also found a black and white cookie when we were in there and just HAD to get one. I'm a huge Seinfeld fan and had to experience the harmony for myself.
We made our next food stop at Dessert Truck. I was so excited to find it. I had been looking forward to trying their goat cheese cheesecake. This tasty nugget was served with a crisp cookie, rosemary caramel sauce and fresh blackberries… in a paper cup with a plastic spoon. It was a bit of a novelty and we didn’t eat the whole thing but I love the concept. The flavor of the cake itself was fantastic but I did not detect any rosemary in the caramel sauce. The blackberries were a little too sour. It wasn’t a total swing and a miss since the cake was good but, if I ever go back to Dessert Truck again, I will try something else.
After tossing the sad remains of our cake, we walked through the Village until we found Pommes Frites. Looking at the menu, he waffled over wasabi mayo and sundried tomato mayo. My first choice was Vietnamese pineapple mayo with pomegranate teriyaki coming in a close second. I usually win the culinary battles and Pommes Frites was no exception. The boy braved the line and emerged victorious with his hands practically shaking over the prospect of twice-fried Belgian fries in his little paper cone. I’m happy to report that he was not let down and ended up being very pleased with the Vietnamese pineapple mayo! AHHHHHHHH these were some DELICIOUS fries and WOW, the sauce was awesome. It was clearly the right choice for these fries–-sweet and tangy with a slight kick, something that complimented the grease very well. Besides the mayo, the fries themselves were fantastic. It’s all too common these days to get naked, cold fries with no skins and no character. Pommes Frites lacked none of that.
After Stomp, we walked through the Village until we found Spitzer’s Corner, a gastropub recommeded by some foodie friends who had spent some time in NYC. They made a great recommendation! We got a nice table at Spitzer’s and enjoyed a night of some interesting pub food and a great beer selection. They have 40 craft brews on tap as well as a nice bottle selection. I started out with the panko-crusted asparagus spears which came with a citrus soy dipping sauce. I would have liked the sauce to be a little thicker so that it stuck more to the asparagus but, overall, the dish was okay. The boy started out with truffle mac and cheese which was seriously yummy. Mixed with parmegiano reggiano, white cheddar and fontina, the cheese complimented the generous helping of truffle and panko topping. Next up for me was the short rib burger with hickory sauce, BBQ onions, lettuce and pickles on the side. This was a mighty tasty burger but I just wasn’t feeling it. It was cooked well and presented nicely but something was just amiss. Perhaps I should have taken the server’s suggestion to add cheese, bacon or a fried egg. I’m not sure what would have saved my impression of the burger but I only took 3 bites before calling it quits. This may have had something to do with the fact that I was so full from the rest of the day! The boy wasted no time plowing through his PBLT of which I was happy to taste a few bites. The braised pork belly had the perfect jus dancing around its fatty layers. Accompanied by a simply dressed green salad and some slow-roasted tomatoes, this dish came in a loud second place to the boisterous mac and cheese.
Monday - Jean-Georges
We were seated at a table at the back of the dining room. Again we were side by side and facing the whole room, which we loved. The space was very bright but also very stark—there was just one lone lighting structure on the ceiling and some tiny flower arrangements on the tables. After placing our orders and refusing wine (I don’t like to be tired after lunch), we were treated to a trio of amuse-bouche. The crab fritter was the standout offering of the bunch, with it’s flaky crab meat and sprinkling of spices. The dehydrated pineapple on mozzarella was nothing exciting even though the mozzarella was good. I’m not sure what would make anyone pair mozzarella and pineapple but it just didn’t work as well as some layered cured meat or even roasted vegetable would have. The herbed broth wasn’t hot enough for me and tasted suspiciously like dishwater by the time I got to the bottom of the glass. I should have stopped after the first sip which was the best of the three I took.
For my first course, I choose the foie gras brulee on brioche with pineapple-Meyer lemon jam. The foie was FANTASTIC; however, I would have liked to have the brioche on the side as opposed to under the foie because it made it harder to eat. That’s just a small complaint, though. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining about the foie because it truly was delicious. Buttery yet firm, cool but not cold, crispy but not burned, it was perfect for me. I had been worried that, as a result of being bruleed, it would be too sweet or taste like flammable fluid but was very pleased to learn it did not. The boy seemed to really dig it as well but we both agreed that the jam didn’t do much for it. The jam was good on it’s own but the flavor was completely lost when paired with the foie. I think a savory jam, instead of sweet, would have paired better with the rich-tasting foie. The boy was presented with a dish of goat cheese gnocchi with caramelized baby artichokes and parsley. I was a little surprised when it was set on the table because I felt that we had been lied to. Where was the gnocchi? These were balls of goat cheese sitting in a little pool of plain olive oil. I was so confused. They were good, don’t get me wrong, but… really? I was expecting gnocchi that tasted of goat cheese. I don’t want to say this dish was bad, because it was not, it was just misleading and made us disappointed.
The boy was happy to see sweetbreads on the lunch menu and, after such success at EMP, he wanted to give the sweetbreads at Jean-Georges a chance. They were nicely pan fried and contained the perfect mixture of creaminess and fattiness. My dish, however, sucked. I’ve tried to come up with some positive words for the halibut dish I was served that was swimming in almond milk but there are just none. I don’t even think a fan of almonds would like this dish unless they like to drink sugared almond extract. I love halibut and I’ve had it more times than I would ever care to count. It wasn’t just a case of being unfamiliar with the fish–-this fish was ruined. I would not recommend this dish to anyone.
The rhubarb dessert was 1/2 great, 1/2 just okay. The rhubarb and birch beer float was fantastic and I was happy to get a little spoon with it so that the boy and I could both get a bit of the ice cream in the small cup. The green tea cake, however, was a little dry and had nothing that really gave any creaminess to it. The rhubarb alongside it was delicious but nothing to write home about.
The homemade marshamallows, however, were great. I was really excited to have these fresh, fluffy pillows of sugary goodness plated in front of my eyes. Cut from long strips in a jar, we were treated to vanilla, rose water and ginger. The rose water truly tasted of rose water while the ginger was the best. I could have done without the vanilla but it was nice to make the progression from vanilla (plain) to ginger (unique). In hindsight, I regret not asking for more of the rose water and ginger marshmallows to take home as I sat at the table and dreamed up some upscale s’mores I would make with them.
Again, macarons, petit fours, other dessert and more details on my blog.
One last thing: I just want to say huge THANK YOU again to everyone who contributes here. I hope you know how good you all have it in NYC. :) Thank you for taking the time to share your stories, reviews and suggestions in meticulous detail. We would not have had such great success, from street food to cupcakes to EMP, without you!
Thanks for the report! Wow, you guys hit up a lot of my favorite places! Looks like you had a great time.
NB: FWIW, a lot of places in NYC do red velvet cupcakes and they often aren't up to snuff, sadly (even Sugar Sweet Sunshine, for that matter). For Pinisi, I usually stay with any cupcake that has chocolate in it, and especially if it's one of the spicy ones.
I thought the cupcakes at SSS were great. They were welcoming and comforting, just like my Nan's. I agree with fdresident, it's a home cooking thing. Fancy cupcakes are all the craze and the trend, I suppose, but give me some old fashioned buttercream any day and I'm a happy camper. BTW, I read your review of the pistachio cupcake and I couldn't disagree more! That was the best cupcake EVER... for me. :)
The ones at Tonnie's Minis are good, too, but I find that it's easier to list the good Red Velvets out (of which there seem to be too few).
Overall, I think for cupcakeries, quality control is a huge issue -- refrigeration, keeping the cake part from drying out, turnover, etc. Maybe even the "good" places are uneven dependent upon when you hit them up, and what flavors you like.
Of course! That's to be expected. Sometimes you also get your expectations set high and look for the little flaws instead of just finding them. My cupcake experience in NYC was AWESOME (one of the best parts of the trip for me) and I learned that I will just make my own Red Velvet at home. Haha!
Kathryn, we hit a lot of your favourite places because I'd been following your posts for WEEKS before the trip! Haha. I'm not kidding--the sole purpose of the trip there was to eat and these boards were the driving force. I'm sad to say that I made the wrong choice with my red velvet cupcakes. If you ever come to Philadelphia (the bus is $1--totally worth it), there is a cupcake shop here called Brown Betty that does them up right. I just thought I would be making the right choice at Pinisi because of the props I'd seen for the red velvet here combined with the fact that they have "red velvet" painted on the side door panel. Oh well. It was only a small bland blip on a fantastic map.