Day One (evening) :
A late-night arrival into JFK and a sluggishly-advancing shuttle van meant we didn't settle into our midtown hotel until past 11 PM. The bitter winds blowing in from upstate and the East River didn't help matters any. But a brisk walk around our block reminded us that we were once again in the city that never sleeps - meaning, the city where it is always possible to find a plethora of open restaurants, no matter the hour. "How civilized," I muttered into my scarf. In the end, we passed up the welcoming (and warming) interiors for a curbside hot dog and bag of roasted chestnuts. We're easy to please.
Day Two :
The ubiquitous coffee and roll from the ubiquitous sidewalk vendor. Would New York be able to start its day without these carts?
With a cold wind barely edging past the mid-20s whistling through the cavernous blocks, I took evasive action and warmed myself as best I know how - two cups of espresso and a fast walk from The Bowery to Lincoln Center in just over an hour. To say I warmed myself up is to damn my accomplishments with faint praise. The espresso(s) were purchased and consumed at the charming Ballaro / Caffe Prosciutteria, a newish East Village Italian-themed coffee shop and food purveyor (77 Second Avenue and E. Fourth). My prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich + green salad was delightful. Did I mention the two espressos?
That evening, we managed to meet up with two distinct sets of friends, from opposite sections of the country and opposite moments of our lives, and two different restaurants our friends had independently chosen - restaurants that were literally across the street from one another. The Indian food at Basera smelled so wonderful that I felt bad at having to duck out to make our other engagement. The purposefully-tacky decor and rock album-illustrated menus at Vynl meant I didn't mourn my loss too much. The fried chicken and mashed potatoes were pretty great. Don't let any talk of fusion or gourmet trendsetters confuse you - New York is an awesome comfort food town.
As snow flakes from an approaching East Coast storm started making their way across Soho, I literally stumbled across a place I'd long been aware of - Once Upon A Tart, home to finely crafted tarts, cookies, sandwiches, soups. I even own the cookbook.
I managed to snag a seat in the impossibly cramped interior, and ordered myself some herbal tea and their famed tuna salad sandwich on a poppy seed roll. Heavenly. When I offered my seat to the New Yawk matron and her impossibly beautiful young daughter, I was told I was "very kinnnnnd".
....lovely interior decor......
....served alongside paired wines (in this instance, the 2007 Auslese from Kracher (Burgenland, Austria)...
Following the evening's performance (Fela!- check it out), I suggested we take advantage of the post-production hour and check out what had been advertised as New York's only casual 24-hour brasserie - Pigalle Brasserie. Casual, yeah - I could have done without the flat screen over the bar tuned to ESPN. But keep your back to the TV, and a surprisingly warm interior takes over.
Plenty of seasonal holiday brews (don't you just love ale with hints of pine needles?), an excellent charcuterie plate (with pickles and brined lentils), and an after-dinner sampling of a now-deemed-safe-and-legal glass of absinthe (much tsk-tsking from the wife). Vive le France!
However, the Ssäm Bar proved a favorite - for us, our L.A. friends, and a good friend from upstate who made the long journey from Albany to meet us there. Asian-themed appetizers and east/west fusion without a hint of condescension or compromise. Shigoku oysters with kimchee. Newman's Farm bbq rib sandwich. Pork scrapple (yum). Fried brussels sprouts with fish sauce vinaigrette, mint and delfino. Plus, tender and amazing steamed pork buns with slow-cooked brisket - Asian tacos!
Plus, spicy rice cakes with chinese broccoli and shallots!
....and then marching over to the unfortunately named Spitzer's, a gastropub that served amazingly flavorful duck confit, wondrous house-cut french fries, and an appetizer dish of Gus's Pickles, a Lower East Side tradition of sorts I had long wished to sample.
What better way to wash the taste of finely crafted New York microbrew out of one's mouth than sampling New York's other great culinary tradition - the rapidly expanding world of cult cupcakes. I see you over there, Magnolia Bakery (and so do all the teeming hordes with their "Sex And The City" location maps). And nice meeting you, Crumbs (plenty of you back in Los Angeleeeze). But how about investigating something new - Sugar Sweet Sunshine.
The pumpkin cupcake I devoured was all one hopes for in such matters - soft, bouyant, excellent frosting. The confused Brazilian boy next to us who kept asking his increasingly bemused companion questions about American culture probably enjoyed his cupcake, too - but I suspect the disillusionment of realizing that there is more to American culture than was dreamt of in the American Pie movie franchise was probably a bitter pill. No, not all of us received swirlies in high school, my friend. Nice try.
An old childhood friend from Jane's Walla Walla days is currently serving as a Presbyterian minister at a lovely Upper East Side congregation, and we enjoyed both her company and the views from her 27th floor apartment. That evening, she took us and yet another friend (a fellow childhood friend from Walla Walla - how many of them are there in this city?) into the busy streets below, first to Libertador, an Argentine-themed restauarant that we visited solely for their attractive bar....
....and then down the street a bit to see if we could weasel our way into Sfoglia, the Nantucket- and-Manhattan Italian ristorante that informs website visitors that reservations should be made weeks in advance. We somehow managed to score an 8 o'clock table. How civilized.