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Trip report-family with 9 year old, cheap to spendy, near museums - LONG!

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Hello –

So, I just spent a week in Manhattan – all my research was done using Chowhound. You guys rule – thanks so much for all the recs! Paying it forward with a report targeted at tourists with kids – not aiming for the hottest/newest, just aiming to eat well while enjoying a beautiful sojourn in your amazing city.

We stayed in an apartment in Hamilton Heights. I hyper-planned, after checking in, to take the bus to Patsy’s, swinging by Cuchifritos 116. Our delayed flight nixed that plan, so I reverted to plan B – order from Uptown Veg for delivery. I thought I had confirmed that we were in the delivery zone, but got an error message from GrubHub saying otherwise. So, I plugged the address into GrubHub, and from the “available” restaurants, chose Harlem’s Floridita. Same error message. My 9 year old and I were losing it – my husband was out getting some staples for the apartment, so I called him and asked him to pick up food from Harlem Public – right across the street. I was skeptic – they seem famous for fried avocado and a peanut butter burger…but the Public burger, medium rare, delivered in spades! Perhaps because we were starving and exhausted, but also because the meat was flavorful with a great seared crust, the bun a perfect consistency, nicely dressed, with a lovely salad on the side. The scene is hipster - the burger is solid.

More about Hamilton Heights – Jumbo Pizza for egg on a roll - bacon egg and cheese in my case. If you are visiting, and you like bacon, eggs, cheese, and bread products, and you need a quick hand held breakfast – this was great. Breakfast tacos are the breakfast sandwich of Texas – cheap, hard to mess up, easy to elevate. Also, the Chipped Cup is a sweet little coffee shop with pastries from Ceci Cela. Great croissant – huge, nice balance of flaky crispy to moist and buttery. But, I have read about CCs almond croissants and I am here to say that if what I had is truly representative, then I don’t know what to think. Flat, oversweet, with a weird, wet, almost custardy interior. My son, who has never, ever, turned down a sweet treat, gave me most of his. I didn’t eat it.

Pizza: We were interested in old school pizza slices, the kind I subsisted on as a student in the ‘80s. First up was Sal & Carmines – I loved the whole experience. The ancient guy and the ancient cash register and the proper, proper slice. Slices taken from pizza on the counter – warm, not hot. Walked back to tables to consume. Crust was foldable but sturdy – great flavor and crunch with just enough pillow-y yeasty softness. Perfect balance of cheese and sauce. My boys were floored…and it did the trick for me. Just can’t get this kind of pizza many other places.

The other slice was at Patsy’s East Harlem. Totally different animal. They seem to sell these slices as fast as they can make them – and with good reason. Everything tasted so fresh – fresh tomato sauce, excellent cheese, and the crust was very thin – and absolutely delicious. Ate in the window, chatting with other slice eaters – one told us he had been getting pizza there for 22 years. Great hang, great pizza – although I would recommend letting the slice cool a bit before tearing into it. Yeah, right.

Jewish deli/appetizing: We went to Barney Greengrass, and were extremely underwhelmed. Got the sturgeon appetizer with a bialy and cream cheese, plus an extra everything bagel. The breads were fine, the cream cheese was industrial, and the sturgeon was bland, with a bizarre wet texture. Is this what they are famous for? Yuck. I saw some people eating a sturgeon-egg scramble, and it looked good, but if it is the same fish I had, I would pass. Also saw a couple sharing bagels and huge mounds of chopped liver and whitefish salad…looked good, but my own chopped liver is my bar, and I knew I was going to Russ and Daughters soon after – they never have disappointed. The belly lox is salty and unctuous, the sable is silky and savory. The salmon/whitefish salad is sooooooooooo good. The best part, this time, is since I got a quart of pickles, the beautiful blond woman who sliced my fish gave me her recipe & technique for half-sours.

Bagels: Tried Absolute Bagel and Kossars. Both good, but we all thought Absolute Bagels were pretty special. We got one with a garlic/scallion shmear, and found it a little soft. Went back and asked for a well-done bagel, and found nirvana. The little bubbles on the crunchy, crunchy crust – the yeasty flavor of the soft interior – just great. Kossars bagels and bialies to me are kind of the standard – the kind of stuff you eat and take for granted until you find yourself somewhere you are unable to get anything close. I’m taking a bunch home.

Proper sit-down meals: I have been obsessing over Casa Mono for years, and this was one of the most magical, delicious, amazing meals I have ever had. We went early, with the kiddo, and they were as welcoming as can be. He had his first taste of foie gras (what was I thinking? Should have waited until he was a LOT older!) and we all swooned. Not just ‘cause it is perfectly seared foie, but because the “cinco cebollas” accompanying it were an inspired accompaniment. Charred green onion, an onion reduction, marinated red onions…I mean, the sweetness of the onion is a perfect match for foie, and the different onion preparations ensured a riot of textures. My favorite dish of the night was the skirt steak – the romesco was good, the onion mermelada was good, but that meat. Sweet fancy moses – I live in Texas, and I have never had beef as good as I had this week. The chorizo meatballs were also amazing. I found the flavors in the duck egg dish a bit odd – I mean, it was like seeing Chaim Soutine painting where you understand that the vision is perfect, but you just don’t quite get it. All told, the service was awesome, the food was mind-blowing, and I will be thinking of that skirt steak for years to come.

The other sit-down meal was after the AMNH – I chose Gazala’s as a place to hopefully encounter soulful, interesting food after an exhausting day. The thin pita, which was one of the big draws for me, was basically flavorless. The platter was plebian – boring dolmas, bland hummus, decent labne, over-fried falafel and kibbe, and the spinach boureka was downright bad – stinky spinach, unbalanced. The “tahini” looked like watery ranch dressing and had no sesame taste whatsoever – when I asked what it was and she said “tahini” I said “really?” I saw her mention it to another server. Then, the table next to us questioned the beans on their plate – they didn’t recognize them as fava beans. The server assured them they were, but offered to take the plate back. Something hinky there. Would have been better off standing in line for Shake Shack, I reckon.

Random notes:

Fraunces Tavern: Great atmosphere, great beer! Mediocre fish and chips, but here’s the excellent deal – a pint of outstanding oyster stout with 3 oysters on the half shell for $12. PERFECT! A short walk from the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island boats, and a worthy historical/museum destination in and of itself.

Red Rooster: kind of a let-down, but I only had snacks. Lovely white sangaree (white sangria with st. germain and sage – perfect on a hot day). Deviled eggs were good, and the chicken skin mayonnaise was incredible, due to the berbere seasonings. SO good. But, “smoked” ceviche was dull and not smoky, and the plantain chips were either store bought or stale, cornbread was ok, tomato jam was great.

Vanessa’s dumplings: I would eat here every day if I could. CHEAP, delicious. The chive and pork pan fried dumplings were great, with thick (but not too thick!) skins, great crunch, and fresh, meaty, juicy filling. The spicy wontons were wonderful, with big chunks of fresh shrimp in delicate wrappings, topped with smoky chili oil and fresh cilantro. The duck pancake was amazing both as a value and as a taste treat. Very close to the LES Tenement Museum.

Uptown Veg: The first time I went here, I was blown away. This time, I was happy and satisfied. I think maybe expectations played with my mind and taste buds….? Perhaps the first time, I wasn’t expecting much from vegan soul food, and I was blown away. Perhaps this time I was ready to be blown away, but it didn’t feel like the first time. Still - very good! Curry chicken drumstick, collards, sweet potatoes…all yummy, and leftovers were even better. Close to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

Pok Pok Phat Thai: There is no more perfect drink on a hot walk through the LES than the pomegranate drinking vinegar. The food was excellent – my boys don’t like Thai food that much, and so maybe it was because it had been quite a while since I had it, but I found the fresh cold and crunchy lettuce and scallions were delightful against the warm, savory, soft and crispy noodles and proteins in the kuaytiaw Khua Thaleh. Love that they serve on banana leaves. That toasty rice water was awesome too.

Essex Market: NORDIC SANDWICH from Nordic preserves is fantastic. Lovely Norwegian smoked salmon, crème fraiche, red onions, capers, fresh dill, and black caviar perfectly balanced on a crusty hero roll. $10. One of the best sandwiches I have ever had. This is one of those things I will try to recreate, but I suspect I will fail miserably. Formaggio was a disappointment – I got some Creminelli, Fra Mani, and Biellese salumi, but between the super thin slices and the fact that they were kept in a pretty cold fridge, everything was kind of crumbly and weird texture for salumi. Saxelby cheese was great – the knowledgeable and fun attendant steered me toward Nancy’s camembert (luscious) and The Lady in Blue – the perfect mild bleu. Jessica at Pain D’Avignon was a kick, but I wasn’t wowed by the baguette (a little chewy for me), picholine mini-baguette (only one bite with discernable olive flavor), cheese bread (fine) or croissant (bready and heavy).

The best part of Essex came at the Brazilian meat stand. The stall owner had the World Cup on – the Brazil and Chile game, and he was selling feijoada for $5.00 a bowl. About 20 people gravitated to the little screen, and such an impromptu little community of futbol lovers emerged. Brazil won, and everyone was high-fiving and smiling…it was neat. What was even NEATER was that they had Armandino Batali’s amazing salumi there, and they knew how to store and slice it. That mole sausage is an absolute wonder. The smoked paprika was also delish.

So, for anyone who actually reads this and sees something they recommended or reported on – thank you very, very much. I read y’all just for fun, and you helped us have a great week in a great city.

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  1. Nice.

    Patsy's slice won, eh?

    1 Reply
    1. re: villainx

      Yes, it did, villainx - thank you for steering me to one of our favorite experiences!

    2. Great write up.

      Just want to say that we bring home two dozen Absolute bagels when we visit. Wrap each individually and then into zipping bags to freeze. Toasted they're still better than anything else.

      1 Reply
      1. re: c oliver

        Ooh - thanks for the freezing tip, c oliver! I will dole these out to myself (oh, I guess to my guys too...if they insist) and ration my whitefish salad and lox and sable. Gotta go get some good cream cheese - although I suspect a toasted everything Absolute bagel with plugra might bring tears to my eyes.

      2. Thanks for that extensive report. Some of it surprised me. One question is, was Sal and Carmine's pizza saltier than an average slice?

        About Gazala's: I've found the original branch in Hell's Kitchen to be consistently good, with the caveat that I haven't been back for maybe a couple of years. The uptown branch charges more and is not as good, as I decided not to go back after the last visit.

        I'm surprised you had a bad experience at Barney Greengrass. I haven't eaten there, but I did have delivery of their lox and scrambled eggs and eat some of their whitefish when I was living uptown, and I thought it was wonderful.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Pan

          Hi Pan -

          Don't know if I can speak to an "average" slice - don't really get slices in Austin, or SF, much. It was saltier than Patsy's, but I didn't find it overly salty. Really rang bells for the slices I had in the 80s in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens when I just grabbed random slices on the go.

          The uptown Gazala's was to fill a need after visiting the American Museum of Natural History - close-by, sit-down, interesting. Not sure I would make a special trip during a week-long vacation just to try the Hell's Kitchen branch, but like you, I won't go back to the uptown one.

          I didn't try the whitefish at BG, but mentioned that it looked good. How does it compare to Russ and Daughters? I just had some on an Absolute Bagel and heard the angels sing - one of my favorite things ever, anywhere. Funny, but eating in the BG restaurant, with its vintage wallpaper and dishes, and the great people-watching, was one of the high points. The sturgeon, for which they claim to be royalty, was weird, and I did not enjoy it.

          1. re: saticoy

            Oddly enough, I haven't bought much at Russ and Daughters, because their stuff is expensive. So I can't make a comparison for you.

        2. Thanks for the thorough report, saticoy.

          You reminded me we need to return to Casa Mono. And Essex Street Market.

          2 Replies
          1. re: financialdistrictresident

            I also need to return to Casa Mono! When, oh when...?!?! I went back to Essex Street Market and got some smoked fish from Nordic preserves. Trout was good, but peppered mackerel, oh MY!

            1. re: saticoy

              Have to get back to Essex soon. The stuff at Nordic sounds good.