Best(ish) Burger in NY

As is sometimes happily the case, I have come across something that fits nicely into both sides of my blogging world – food and NYC.

jgmelonGrub Street has gone national! Whooo-hooooo.

And yet, my joy is dimmed slightly by the fact that their recently published Burger Register (New York’s 82 Most Notable Burgers) fails to include a burger of such excellence and which is held in high regard across a wide swathe of the population that I can only assume it’s an very early (or very late – depending on how you look at it) April Fool’s Joke.

Seriously. JG Melon’s burger is the very defnition of sublime, the very essence of all that is burger. The other 82 burgers wish they were that good.

A Gripe About Tripe

Okay, not tripe itself, but rather what it seems to represent in British Cookery today. By which I mean an almost dementedly determined return to “old fashioned school dinners” and all that entails. I may not be able to follow the height or shape of this season’s hemlines, but I do try to keep an eye on food trends as they wash over these shores, and I have to say the news ain’t good.

Now I’ve never tried tripe itself, but would probably quite like it as I enjoy most offal. I have, however, tried Lancashire Hotpot, Chicken Pot Pie, Ham Terrine, Confit Duck, and just about every cheap cut of steak one could imagine. Whilst I have in various forms enjoyed all of the above, I have never enjoyed them when faced with a hefty price tag as a side order. And herein lies my gripe. Home – or school – cooked dinners of yore appear to have become the latest craze amongst the chefs and proprietors of the UK restaurant and TV cookery scene. Where once were featured “fresh” and “light” and “innovative” dishes, now we are faced with the old staples of either a penurious home, or an equally penurious school canteen. And it strikes me as a terrible sham.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Recently I was taken to dinner at one of Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurants — The Warrington in Maida Vale. I was very excited to find that we were not eating from the downstairs “pub” menu, but were in fact eating upstairs in the glam dining room. And what did I find on the menu? Well, for starters (and I do mean that literally) “potted duck” and a special of “ham hock terrine.” I was forced to opt for the English asparagus with home-made mayonnaise because it was the only option that didn’t arrive smothered in some form of aspic or in a novelty jar of some sort. (More on novelty jars later.) The asparagus – being in season here for its brief yearly fling – was gorgeous, as was the mayonnaise, but I had hoped for some fresh seafood other than the dreaded whitebait, or at least a dish that would deliver a crisp start to my meal and that didn’t require bread on which to be slathered.

The mains, from “hangar steak” to “chicken and wild mushroom pie” and “pork belly” all smacked horribly of a faux “credit crunch and back to tradition” aesthetic, by which I mean “famously cheap ingredients sold at outrageous prices in the name of nostalgia”. I opted for the pork belly and my companion the chicken pie. And how were they? Well, they were pork belly and chicken pot pie. Not awful (though the crackling on my pork belly was leathery and therefore rendered the meat a tad too salty for even my tastes), but not extraordinary either. Neither dish justified either its billing or its price, not only in execution but more importantly, in conception. They were quite simply simple food that could be easily reproduced at home, and probably with better results. They attempted to suggest home-cooked meals, but the point of home cooked meals is that you cook them at home, or they’re cooked for you at home by somebody who loves you. Which really is what makes them taste so good. Serve them in an environment with damask napkins and glam tableware and they become culinary fakes. A bit like the girl in the war years who could actually get silk stockings but drew a line on her legs so the other girls wouldn’t think she was a tramp.

My second example – and this is the one that really churns my gut – is this season of “The Great British Menu” on BBC2. This cookery (I should say Cheffery show, really) is an annual event that features chefs from various restaurants around the country competing in regional heats to have their dishes presented in a celebrative banquet. The first year it was the Queen’s Jubilee Luncheon, the next a luncheon banquet for the great and the good of France, and this year it’s the turn of returning service men (and women) from UK campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. And what has been the prevailing theme this year? “Home,” or if the starters are anything to go by, “Rationing, And How We Preserved For It Last Time.” No less than eight contestants have presented as their first course some sort of ham hock terrine or deep fried ham hock ball, confident that this dish will fill returning soldiers with a warm glow of recognition. Well of course they’ll bloody recognise it. The poor brave folk have probably been eating some sort of processed ham for months on end, and therefore deserve much better. Worse yet, these “ham hock terrines” or “duck shepherd’s pies” are presented in exactly the same sort of jars our real or imaginary grandmothers used to preserve jams and jellies and chutneys, and probably ham hocks too. It’s nothing more than an insincere form of nostalgia presented in a re-sealable jar. We viewers (though hopefully not the returning forces) then get “witty” versions of fish and chips, rabbit, and perhaps worst of all, a “Lancashire Hotpot” to share. What perhaps galls me most about this is not only that the chefs in question do not find these dishes in any way patronising, but that the judges (including Mathew Fort and Prue Leith) don’t either. Almost every time a dish with “high end” ingredients or a more esoteric approach goes before them, the judges ponder whether those who are “un-ranked” would appreciate said dish, as if just about anybody at a swanky banquet wouldn’t appreciate something a tad glam or out of the ordinary, what with it being a swanky banquet and all. They are in fact invited as guests to a feast, not a BBC Costume Drama. Which leaves the question of whether any of these soldiers don’t have homes to visit, and hotpots cooked by their actual families to savour. Of course, not all of them do, and certainly not all of them who do, have families who would cook said hotpot as a home welcome, but they’re not represented by these dishes either. Where then is a good curry, or a roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, or- cookery style heaven forfend – a good spag bol? Or, really, just egg and chips?

To finish, what galls me about the latest cheffie trend is just how dishonest it actually is. To be sure there have always been high-end restaurants that have prided themselves on serving the old standards (I’ll note the Shepherd’s Pie at the Ivy, for a start), but that’s because these eateries don’t slavishly follow trends to little end. But to pretend that because chefs have (in this more financially difficult age) glommed onto cheaper ingredients out of a sense of cultural and traditional home-coming is a bit like pretending that Messrs Galliano, Lagerfeld, Armani and the like have decided in the interest of cloth preservation that we should all be wearing corduroy and sensible shoes. At the same prices.

So go to a high-end eaterie for “trad” food if you must, but I pray you, go on a Sunday lunchtime, when most restaurants and gastropubs will serve you that all-time British classic, the Sunday roast. And best of these for me? The Pantechnicon Rooms, on Marbury Street in London’s Belgravia. A tad pricey, yes, but utterly delicious food, sides like you wouldn’t believe, and the most swoonsomely intoxicating choice of novelty martinis with which to wash down your meal.

A Guide for Guides to Gotham Grub

l_53396.jpgFabulous Foodie is just one of the blogs I am involved in. The other is Greater Gotham. Today I thought I’d bring together and this is the result – not so much a guide to the food of New York as a guide to online guides (with a few specifics thrown in). So sit back, grab your classic gotham coffee and wander along with us.

New York Magazine’s Best of New York Food is always worth reading (and keeping for future reference) but the real, daily stop at NYM for food lovers is Grub Street, their food blog.

The food section of the New York Times practically deserves a post in and of itself but can be summed up with the The Dining & Wine Section and the Diner’s Journal blog

Time Out New York helpfully provides the New York Cheap Eats Pyramid as part of it’s annual Cheap Eats issue. After all, one must pay rent but that doesn’t mean one doesn’t want to go out and enjoy what the city has to offer. But it’s not all cheap over at Time Out. The Restaurants and Bars section of their site offers not only a wealth of listings but “refer to again and again” content like their Eat Out Awards, their “only online” additional information and foodie gift buying tips.

There are, of course, the usual guides to the Grub of Gotham. Typical of that breed is the Food Network’s A Tasty Travel Insider’s Guide to New York which if uninspired, is at least well organized. I prefer my guides with a bit more originality and personality of their own.

Speaking of originality and personality: Eater. From the folks that brought us Curbed. There are a few Eaters now – San Fran and La – but this is the original. Not only does it cover who and what is happening in the Gotham Grub scene but it rounds up what everyone else is saying about it. That’s helpful not only for those who want to follow the crowd but those who want to avoid them. Two guesses as to which category yours humbly falls into.

Also brimming with personality and opinion are NYC Nosh, Restaurant Girl and Savory New York. Savory is eating up tons of my time lately. Why Savory, in particular? Because it’s a wiki (one of my favorite things) and a video guide to New York City restaurants scene and if there’s one thing I like better than reading about it, it’s watching it.

Slow Food New York City has a directory of eateries, bars, food markets and shops that have earned the Slow Food Snail of Approval. If you ascribe to the Slow Food philosophy or even just think they might be on to something, pick your night out from this list and you won’t be sorry. If you don’t want to wait to “walk it off” then you’ll want to try out Foods of New York, food tasting walking tours of New York. Don’t feel like leaving the house after all? Surf on over to Menu Pages, the ultimate directory of NYC restaurants menus. 4000! Read them online or print them out.

old_town.jpgIf you want a side order of history with your meal, you could go to Fraunces Tavern but while no doubt interesting to some, is not the first place I think of for a fun meal. Instead, stop by Katz’s Deli, Lombardi’s or Old Town Bar. All three have been dishing out the goods for over 100 years and there’s a tasty reason they are still around. If you’ve still jonesing for more history, Forgotten NY (a favorite website of mine in the general sense) also has some culinary offerings worth looking at in their New York’s Oldest Bars and NYC’s Classic Diners sections.

And that brings us to the end of today’s tour. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I know I have but now I really must go get lunch. I’m STARVING! Next time we take a virtual tour, it’s gonna be a tour of the food itself. So, come hungry.

Green Carts in Gotham

I confess, foodie friends, that on a day like today – hot, humid and grey – I don’t feel especially inspired to do much beyond delving deeply into a dish of white chocolate raspberry truffle Häagen-Dazs (the key, I am sure, to living a long and happy life). But I am refraining from such activity for a bit longer so I can share some local (local to me anyway) food news with you.

Here in Gotham, mini-Mayor – known to the rest of you as Mike Bloomberg – can often be found pushing food-related legislation intended to improve people’s health or lives whether they like it or not. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t.

As a non-smoker, I wasn’t terribly put out when the smoking ban made the smoking section in restaurants a thing of the past. Oh, some of my friends have been temporarily banished to the sidewalks on an evening out but they’ve managed just the same and I get to spend less time at the dry cleaners so there you are.

I didn’t care for the idea of restaurants being compelled to post the calorie count of every item. Not that I didn’t think people could use the information – but it seemed to me, to be a logistical nightmare for the restaurant owners. Not the big chains who control and/or dictate their entire ingredient flow and production process. I mean, the cafe owner who doesn’t know EXACTLY how many calories are in every single item he gets from every supplier or EXACTLY how many calories are in this slice of pie vs. the other one.

Besides, I didn’t want to be faced every single morning with the truth about my morning Starbucks and muffin. I know – knew, I should say – that there were better choices but a Venti Mocha Frappaccino made me HAPPY, DAMN IT! Then those hideous numbers came and denied me my plausible deniability. My morning routine became tainted by guilt, by the shame of the self-destructive. It was the same drink and the same muffin I had overpaid for lo these many years. But now, I was forced to face the fact that no only was I overpaying for what was essentially ice – I was also undermining any healthier eating later in the day because my overpriced ice was coated in chocolate sauce. Fine. I gave them up.

But just recently, one of mini-Mayor’s pet projects from a few months back has come into effect and it is one that I can get behind whole heartedly. The Green Carts Legislation. The city has created 1,000 new permits for street vendors who exclusively sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Of course, there are 9000 other food vendors who would like permits for the stuff they are selling – soups, hot dogs, pretzels etc. But these 1000 permits are very specific about the fresh fruit thing and are to be targeted in neighborhoods that are VASTLY under-served by major supermarket chains and where obesity and diabetes rates have skyrocketed way past the average. In fact, the official press release had some numbers that surprised me a great deal.

“A recent study by the Department of Health found that supermarkets in Harlem are 30 percent less common than on the Upper East Side, and that while 20 percent of Upper East Side bodegas carried leafy green vegetables, only 3 percent of those in Harlem could say the same.”

Sounds like the only thing they have less of than supermarkets is banks. But that’s another issue for another time. 30 percent? A lot. Of course, I’m not sure what is being done to address the price of these now more accessible fresh fruit and veggies. Putting them within reach physically but out of reach financially won’t help anyone. I’m still perusing information regarding this legislation to see if that is being addressed.

Carnegie Deli Discovery

Discoveries of note today: the perfect time for breakfast at the Carnegie Deli? 9 am on Saturday.

Why? Because not only is there no line outside but there’s hardly anyone inside. My friend and I were gobsmacked. Pleased not to have to wait in the line o’ myth and legend, mind you. It is, after all, summer – a season we both agreed we would happily vote off the island. But gobsmacked all the same. It really didn’t start filling up until we were leaving.

The most shocking part of the whole outing was watching a family of four walk in, with Dad carrying a tray of Dunkin Donuts coffee. We assumed they must be lost or looking for a restroom. No! They asked for a table! They walked into the Carnegie with coffee from not only somewhere else but from Dunkin Donuts and proceeded to sit down to eat. The LOOKS they got from the staff! Lord, oh lord. Had they been grapes, they would have shriveled to raisins. But – the customer is always right even when they are deeply, tragically and outstandingly wrong. The staff served them – an air of pity (tinged slightly with disapproval) in their eyes.

I decided he must be from out of town.

Your Condiment Or Mine? A Sea Dog’s Tale

It occurred to me recently, as I was contemplating the many “gourmet” dinners I had sat through on board the SS Noordam, that by far my favourite meal had been lunch.

By which I mean a hot dog.

Oh yes, I had been served lobster tails, Chateaubriand, escargot, Grand Marnier souffles, and the like.  But while all the above were competently prepared (if not with any true flair), none had given the me sheer pleasure of my daily lunchtime hot dog, with the ketchup, the mustard, and the onions.

Now the hot dog itself was nothing special; and nor should it have been.  A hot dog is, after all, simply a soft-cooked sausage in an equally soft-cooked bun. But the point of the hot dog is not what it brings to you; but rather, what you bring to it.

It’s really rather a personal thing.

Are you, like me, a ketchup and mustard and onions man?  If so, should the onions be raw (like mine- dusted liberally with salt), or fried to a dark tangle?  My mustard simply must be the vibrantly yellow American sort, but  do your tastes run more to the mellow warmth of German mustard, or the outright heat of the English variety? Does ketchup have no place on your personal dog?

And what of pickles and the like? How do you “relish” your dog?  I’m no fan of the sweet pickle myself, but I do absolutely adore a hefty chunk of a properly sour dill pickle on the side, on which to crunch and suck after the main course, as it were. But I’m well aware that there are those who love a sweet pickle relish, or a corn relish, or even to have their dog smothered in chili con carne.

While those are not to my taste, I share with all those who love the aformentioned relishes the sheer pleasure of not only ingesting your favourite food, but also to have it smeared deliriously over most of your face.  It is, after all, all but impossible to eat a hot dog (relish or no) in a gracious manner, and thus it should be.  The more personal a given meal becomes, the less delicacy it requires, at least when it comes to table manners.  There are no discreetly coy wipings of the corners of one’s mouth when it comes to a hot dog; only the gaping of one’s maw, and then the not-so-secretly pleased swiping at one’s top to dislodge the heftly dribble of whatever relish took your fancy.  Followed, but of course, by the slow, lingering licking of said relish off your fingers.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that of all the meals I was presented with on board this somewhat pretentious ship, it was none of the entrees that were meant to impress me that did the trick, but rather the ones wherein I got to impress myself.

By just how much I love my own taste buds. Which, high falutin’ ship or no, is just how it should be.

Happy National Pie Day!

pie2.jpgHappy National Pie Day, everyone!

Listen, I love pie. I have such fond memories of pies gone by and always feel extra competent in the kitchen when I produce a first-class apple cobbler. I love pie as much as the next person. But I couldn’t help wondering — do we need a ‘National Pie Day’? Whose idea was this anyway?

I went to find out.

In the course of my investigation, I came across the American Pie Council (APC). They claim to be “the only organization committed to preserving America’s pie heritage and promoting American’s love affair with pies.” As I can find no other organization making that same claim, I shall take them at their word. But what do they do, you ask, to preserve and promote the pie love? They host the National Pie Championships put out a quarterly newsletter called Pie Times to help Pie lovers keep up to date on what’s new in the “pie world.” And finally – yes, I have found the responsible party – they designated and registered National Pie Day.

OK, so I knew who was at the bottom of this whole National Pie Day but is there enough to really justify a special day? The APC (and co-sponsor Crisco) thinks so. Or rather, the people who took the APC/Crisco survey in 2004 thought so. What was learned?

  • The average American eats six slices of pie a year. I am below average! While I suppose in these weight conscious days, I should be pleased but I am too busy being shocked. All those people eat more pie than me!
  • One out of four Americans prefer apple pie, followed by pumpkin or sweet potato (17 percent), chocolate (14 percent), lemon meringue (11 percent) and cherry (10 percent). I refuse to believe more people prefer sweet potato pie to chocolate. I just won’t believe it.
  • Nearly twice as many people prefer their pie unadorned as those who like it à la mode, with either ice cream or whipped cream topping. I go both ways on this. Obviously, savory pies – unadorned. Sweet pies – well, it depends on the pie. I can’t commit.
  • About three of four Americans prefer homemade pie over pie from a bakery, restaurant or supermarket. Hmmm . . . I wonder if the percentage would be the same if they ONLY ask the ones who cook aforementioned homemade pie.

pie.jpg To help those looking for a way to mark this auspicious day, they have recommendations including but not limited to sharing pie with those around you, throwing a pie-centric party or joining the Pie of the Month Club.

Wanna make a night of it? Try a pie-centric eatery. Or order a pie since more and more outstanding places all over the country will ship their delights – fresh! – to your door

Seek out the pie-making stars and dessert-o-holics in your neck of the woods and let us know what they are doing for National Pie Day.

Of course, the best way to celebrate National Pie Day would be – make a pie. Here are some places to check out for inspiration or new pie recipes:

The pie possibilities are endless (as a simple search in google proved). Pies are popular, come in endless varieties, serve up well in almost any course and for any occasion. My quest at an end, I have concluded that yes, when it comes to the ‘pie of it all.’ there really is more than enough reason to have National Pie Day.

Delectable. Delicious. Dumplings

dumplings.jpgEvery once in a while, I have a topic that fits into both Fabulous Foodie and Greater Gotham. On such occasions, I feel efficient, accomplished and just a wee bit like I am getting away with something sneaky. This is one of those topics.

I read a lot of food columns (partly for Fab Foodie purposes and partly because the next best thing to eating it, is reading about it) and The Boston Globe got me thinking about dumplings. See, they too read Smitten Kitchen (which I swoon over regularly) and the author of such, Deb Perelman is a regular contributor to NPR and wrote a piece for them last month entitled Beyond Potstickers: A Dumpling Lover’s Confession.

Well, not unlike the Boston folks, I too felt the need to confess. I have never met a dumpling I didn’t like. Oh sure, I’ve met some that gave me pause for a moment but never for more than that. They are culinary gifts – only with these you get to eat the wrapping. They can be sweet or savory, large or small, sticky, salty, solid or slippery. Dumplings can be anything and from anywhere.

Having said that, I have a favorite dumpling. Luckily for me, my darling dumpling is close at hand here in New York (see, there is a Gotham connection after all) It is the xiao long bao (soup dumplings). In New York, there are two sources for first class XLBs – Goodie’s on Chatham Sq in Chinatown and Joe’s Shanghai’s (in midtown, downtown and in Elmhurst) . My favorite ones are the pork ones. I think of them as inside out won ton soup. Perfect little packets of joy complete with a ritual for maximum enjoyment (“grab, lift, glaze, nibble, slurp”). The crab variety is just as tasty.

I first encountered these delectable dumplings about 10 years ago when I was working downtown, not too far from Chinatown. A couple of my co-workers (technology guys always know where to find the best food) dragged me off to Goody’s (as it was then) – a place that they admitted lacked atmosphere or any real sense of service. “Never fear,” I was assured. “It will be worth it.

And it was. For that I shall always thank them.

Actually, you know – I’m feeling rather peckish a the moment. Hmmm . . .

Tofu Cheesecake, not a recipe

I had a fascinating conversation at a swanky restaurant last night. I was attending a celebratory dinner at a very hip media-friendly place called “The Hospital,” and wound up sat next to an admirably committed young woman who has become a strict vegan for largely political reasons.

Veganism is a food movement that I find difficult to comprehend, but only really because I’m a committed carnivore who wouldn’t sniff at eating their own relative should we be caught in any sort of “Donner Party” situation. We all draw our own moral lines, food-wise, and mine runs along the “I shall never willingly wear faux leather so I feel it absolutely morally correct to eat beef” skein. So while I could possibly commit to a lifetime of vegetarianism, I never could with veganism, because I could never give up milk. Cheese I can live without, but not that late night glass of milk with my cookies or peanut butter. I do, however, admire anyone who can not only have strict epicurean morals, but stick by them too.

So I learned a great deal last night. Not about lentils or nut cutlets or anything like that, but about the vegan question of “old or new.” By which I mean, coming up with whole new ways of employing the ingredients at your moral disposal balanced against the desire to simulate dishes that quite frankly demand ingredients best described as forbidden.

To which end, we got onto the topic of “Silken Tofu Cheesecake.” After I’d made my usual snarky comments about tofu being readily available on the end of your average HB2 pencil, she allowed that, while said “cheesecake” was perfectly pleasant, it was not quite pleasurable enough to make her forget the dairy-based original.

So I asked, what is the point of simulating food you now feel morally compelled not to eat? Surely, if you’re giving up dairy products, shouldn’t you also give up all that goes with them? Isn’t it a bit like ordering the Veggie Burger from McDonald’s? Shouldn’t you be re-thinking things entirely? Moving on to non-pastures new? I didn’t mean it in a Catholic sense, as if veganism was some sort of hair shirt to wear to the table, but rather in the sense that if one took that path, one might perhaps leave their previous meal-time definitions behind entirely. Find new kinds of dessert that didn’t invite comparisons to her culinary past.

To which she responded, most reasonably, “Why?”

She allowed that Silken Tofu Cheesecake was a less than satisfying substitute for the real thing, but added that it was but one dessert, one dish, one recipe. And that giving up actual Cheesecake was not one of the greatest challenges in her life to date. Also, she just likes the sheer idea of cheesecake, so is quite prepared to eat the cheesecake she gets.

To put words in her mouth, you may not be able to go home again, but the town is still there and you can usually live with the changes, especially if it’s just for a visit. And she’s not living a life of self-denial, but rather a life of positive commitment, one in which she’s allowed peanut butter.

She certainly didn’t win me over to the cause of veganism, but that wasn’t her aim. She was simply hoping that the kitchen might offer her just a bit more than the inevitable “Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables Tossed On a Plate With A Dash Of Balsamic Vinegar,” which was of course, well, fruitless.

Which is when I really started learning. Because I thought, “Why can’t one of the vegetarian options on the menu for each course, be a vegan option?” Especially at the kind of high-end, celeb-savvy joint we were frequenting last night. Is it really so difficult for trained cooks to come up with a starter, main course, or dessert that does not involve animal products in any way? Must it always be roasted vegetables and or/pasta or polenta with lashings of cream and eggs and cheese?

Not that I’m suggesting they offer the Tofu Cheesecake. That still sounds perfectly foul to me.

The Charcoal Roundup

I’ve attended not one but two barbecues over the weekend and been exposed to far too much charcoal . Even without the choking smoke, two barbecues in the space of twenty four hours is a bit much for anybody, let alone when one is full of family and the other is full of Uber Homos.

Now you might not think that your average Uber would enjoy a barbie. A Barbie, yes, but not a barbie. You might think that all that smoke, and fire, and eating of food with your hands, might put them right off. There you would be quite wrong. Continue reading “The Charcoal Roundup”