i recently responded to my own call to eat on an east coast eating tour, which was actually more of a new york eating tour, but nevertheless there was a lot of eating and a lot of my own money (bye bye tax refund!) poured into the restaurant industry. it's been almost two years since i've really been in manhattan, which is sacrilege for someone who loves food so much. yes, san francisco offers many foodie destinations but new york is just in a league of its own when it comes to the number of restaurants to be sampled and enjoyed.
when i was planning this trip about two months ago, i had a list of 8 restaurants/bakeries i wanted to try: 1) le bernardin; 2) jean georges; 3) daniel; 4) wd50; 5) the spotted pig; 6) momofuku noodle bar; 7) casa mono; and 8) chickalicious. plus, i had to make a stop at otto's for their olive oil copetto, which i fantasize about quite often. considering i only had 2 days, this would have been an amazing gastronomical feat. aside from the logistical challenge, taking my bank account into consideration and imagining the butter and cream i would consume as cellulite, i quickly decided to trim my list down. still, i managed to make it to five restaurants in two days (with of course some major rich food stomach back-up to deal with but that's a story for another day and another kind of gastro blog - you know, the intestinal kind).
after four hours on my new sweet ride, the bolt bus, from downtown d.c., i was dropped off on the edge of chinatown. it was a rainy, cold east coast day, and the smug san franciscan in me thought, "thank lord i live in california." after a few blocks in the rain, i found a subway stop and made my way to the east village for my first stop at momofuku. i had scoped out the yelp reviews beforehand. it seemed that the pork belly steamed buns were a must and the ramen was a hit-or-miss, but as a ramen addict i couldn't resist ordering a bowl. my steamed buns arrived first. in my mind these buns were going to resemble the cha-siu bao you get at dim sum - a soft white dumpling shaped bun with the meats nestled inside. instead, they were served more peking duck style, which was even better for me. after taking my first bite, i decided that i never wanted to eat pork belly in any other way. the richness of the pork belly melted on your tongue and you were left with the salty-sweetness of the plum sauce. it was the perfect combination of flavors and textures. my ramen came next. at this point, i was in love with momofuku and was completely bought into the hype. however, the ramen made me doubt the hype some. the broth was overly salty. the chicken was dry and forgettable. and for 12 hard-earned bucks, you were better off getting two orders of the pork belly steamed buns or mixing and matching between the other choices of chicken and shitake mushroom (who a vegetarian friend of mine dreams about often). also, i had to say i was a bit peeved when i asked for a cup of tea and they responded, "we don't serve hot drinks." response in my head: "huh? come again? no tea at an asian place? what kind of we're better than a typical asian joint bullshit is that?"
by this time it was mid-afternoon, and i was craiving something sweet. no new york trip is quite complete without a trip to otto's for their olive oil coppetto. the olive oil gelato stays the same but the toppings are always seasonal. for those that are making a face right now, just think about how many great dishes start off with olive oil, so don't knock it until you've experienced the ultimate in gelato flavors. this time around, my generous scoop of gelato came adorned with some fennel seed brittle, candied kumquats and lime curd. i may have shared a bite with my friend ryan, but most likely i just hoarded the whole thing claiming i was sick and probably shouldn't share food. yes, folks it really is that good.
so now, two restaurants later, i needed to go walk off all the love i was feeling in my belly. as i'm redecorating my sf apartment, i couldn't think of a better place to kill a few hours than abc carpet & home. this store stretches your imagination and inspires you to think about all the possibilities your abode has. at $5k for a chair though, it also makes you think, "what wall street thief do i have to marry?" after 2 hours of admiring many unattainable mid-century pieces, it was time to head down to the west village to meet up with my high school girlfriends for dinner at the spotted pig.
when i got to ilana's apartment, it was about a quarter after six. since the spotted pig was just 3 blocks away, we thought we cold easily stop by and put our name down while the rest of our party made their way downtown after work. when we called at a quarter after six to see if there was a wait, the host told us there wasn't a wait yet but it'd get pretty busy by seven. so at seven, we walk over to the restaurant and were greeted by a too-cool-for-school host. when we tell him that we've got a party of four, he nonchalantly tells us the wait is two hours. i suddenly remembered why i've stopped eating out at hip joints. ahh, i guess the recession doesn't affect all restaurants, and certainly not ones that carry the hipster celebrity of the spotted pig. we hopelessly put our names down and rejectedly walk away. however, two and a half hours later, we ended up back at the spotted pig. my saintly friends were willing to withstand their hunger so i could keep to my new york eating agenda.
after finally getting sat around 9:45, i was determined to try as much as i could off the menu. i needed to make the meal worth the three hour wait i'd put three hungry friends through. however, none of my three dishes are really worth writing about. i had the chicken liver toast as my "bar snack." the dish should have been served with half the liver, twice the toast and much less salt. next i had the sheep's ricotta gnudi with brown butter and sage. while they were the most adorable little dumplings i had ever seen, it was all tang and not enough salt in this dish. lastly, i wrapped up the meal with the housemade pork sausages. i never met a sausage i didn't like (men excluded), and i certainly did like these. however, at twenty-seven bucks a plate, these were hardly worth the price. i left the spotted pig seventy-five bucks poorer and so, so disappointed.
i was hoping the next day would be better as i moved from one star territory to three stars times two. my parents and brother were going to join me on my eating adventures and we had a six star michelin adventure lined up: lunch at jean georges and then a late dinner a le bernardin. i had heard lunch at jean georges was the best deal in town, but i was ready to see if a cheap three star lunch meant a watered down three star experience. while the service was exquisite (my brother could not get over the synchronized lifting of the entree covers by the servers), the decor was just a tad too sterile for my taste (hello upper east side) and more importantly, the food left much to be desired. opinions from the peanut gallery included: too much salt; rabbit was too dry; the description for this soup should have been thyme forest with a splash of young garlic soup. don't get me wrong. the food was good . . . if it had not been jean georges. what it all came down to was that it just wasn't the amazing i expected from a three-star experience.
luckily, le bernardin reaffirmed my belief that a three star restaurant can be a perfect (or at least near perfect) dining experience. i've wanted to dine at le bernardin for years, and after reading "on the line," (my copy was personally signed by chef eric ripert "to jess, le petit cochon"!) i was even more excited to experience one of the best seafood restaurants in the world. le bernardin's menu is divided into four sections: 1) almost raw; 2) barely touched; 3) lightly cooked and 4) dessert. each diner chooses one dish from each section. the problem is that there are about a dozen different options under each section and all look delicious. luckily, i was dining with my family, and we are all good food sharers. for myself that night, i chose the geoduck, served ceviche syle for my almost raw; the escolar poached in extra virgin olive oil for my barely touched; pan roasted monkfish with israeli couscous for my lightly cooked; and greek yogurt panna cotta for my dessert. each piece of seafood was expertly prepared and my only criticism of the evening was there needed to be another ingredient to cut the acid of the geoduck ceviche, like cucumber or hominy. for the amount of geoduck that was served, my mouth felt completely puckered from all the acid by the end of the dish.
our le bernardin adventure was made complete by an appearance by the eric ripert himself in the dining room. the table next to us had been reserved for a vip. when he arrived, i think every single staff member stopped by his table, including chef ripert who came out from the kitchen to chat with our mystery diner. i was tempted to stop by myself and ask him if he was interested in adopting me as his goddaughter. and for those of you who caught the le bernardin challenge on episode 11 of top chef season 5, you might remember the server who introduced all the dishes to the contestants at the restaurant. we were lucky enough to have him take care of us that evening. my brother claimed he had never seen a steadier hand as we watched him pour our glasses of wine.
even though not every stop on my east coast eating tour was fabulous, i'm glad i ended it on a high note. it was one of those meals that i was so sad to see end and as i finished my last bite, i wished we could have started all over again.