Monday, December 28, 2009

NYC Restaurants: Momofuku, Spotted Pig, Prime Meats, Calexico

The Christmas of Everyone Being Supposed to be Somewhere Else is behind us now, in all its craziness, and I will report on my successes and failures as a last-minute hostess to two friends from Moscow and their 18-month-old baby. Our friends were supposed to be connecting through New York to Miami--the Ritz Carlton Palm Beach was left to languish without them--and were one of the last flights to land at JFK, thanks to Saturday's big snowstorm. Imagine their surprise when they discovered that not only was the connecting flight canceled, they were stuck in NYC through Thursday. Well, the Ritz Carlton Palm Beach's loss was my gain.....

These friends are something of bon vivants (clearly!) and we've never hung out extensively in NYC, so I was inspired to provide them with the latest in terms of dining.

Arrival night, in the strange lavender swirl of snow, we ordered Mexican from Calexico, that new place on Union St in Red Hook. Sadly, Viva, the much better Mexican on Sullivan St., has closed. Calexico is ridiculously overpriced for what you get, the menu is very limited, and it's really more of a lunch place. Edible but disappointing. (Oh, and if you're thinking Bon Vivant? Ordered Mexican? Really? Be aware that neither delivery nor Mexican is available in Moscow at all, and we have many friends from all backgrounds who (used to) beg us to order Viva when they came over. R.I.P. )

Day two, after sledding in Prospect Park we took the babies in their snowsuits and stopped at Prime Meats, which I expected to be trendy and unfriendly. Well.... maybe it was the holidays, but they were great. We got a booth right away, the hostess produced two booster seats, and the food was fantastic. The little girls stuffed themselves with spaetzle mac-and-cheese; the sides--sweet, melting braised cabbage; soft pretzel with mustard were delicious, simple, original. In both atmosphere and food it was a great, mellow, casual New York bohemian-type dining experience. As the Russians would say, 'democratic.'

Day three, it worked out that we were by the Spotted Pig shopping right at noon, so I thought I would ride the wave of trendy places being friendly and pleasant. Also had good memories from the Spotted Pig from years ago. Big mistake! Have since heard, and agree, that the kitchen has fallen off dramatically. The liver crostini was still delicious and the Bloody Mary perfectly bitter, but some fish chowder was grossly rich and overly salted, and the artichoke heart salad overdressed and misconceived. Also, the service really irritated my friend by not having mayo for the fries and *refusing* to bring onions for his burger. Just not ok guys, no matter how important you think your chef's opinon is. Tacky.

However, New York City and I redeemed ourselves splendidly Monday night at Momofuku Saam Bar. Ah, Momofuku. Your hype is deserved. We ate oysters. We ate crispy brussel sprouts in a delicate ricey broth. We had pork buns and pickled honeycrisp apples and drank rose wine and then had some duck. We were jammed across from each other at a big communal table and still managed to have a wonderful conversation and everyone's bag was hanging on everyone else's hook and no one minded. My friend was thrilled, and I was thrilled too, that we'd managed to pull off something really special and only in NYC. Even if we were all supposed to be somewhere else.

Friday, December 11, 2009

My Favorite NYC Restaurants

Someone just asked me what my favorite NYC restaurants are and the question, or at least my response to it, suprised me. I'm sick of restaurants. This is crazy, because I love to eat and drink and talk and smoke cigarettes and generally subject my body to all the pleasure and abuse I can make time for. Eating out is one of my favorite things in the world. All those size 12s in my closet? A testament to immoderate enjoyment, ordering dessert and eating all of it, drunkeness, the bread basket....

What I'm tired of is the cult of the restaurant in New York City. My friend just tried to organize a birthday party at the private-dining-room Airstream trailer in back of Marlowe & Sons in Williamsburg, and, after days of back-and-forth, they told her they wouldn't be able to do it. When your day includes a rejection from a private-dining Airstream trailer in Williamsburg, things have gotten silly. People take food seriously, which has many wonderful consequences, but maybe too seriously? Don't we have better things to do with our time than spend hours trying to figure out what restaurant to go to? I'm not kidding, in New York, this can take a solid chunk of a Thursday afternoon. Chefs and restaurateurs are caught in a bind, too. To make money, your restaurant needs to be a hot place, but once you're in the white-hot eye of exposure, you're mainly in the business of turning people away, not feeding them. So, that's the long version of my answer. I don't even know anymore about restaurants. It's too much of a pain in the ass to stay on top of it.

The short answer is this classic list, some new, mainly old, all delicious, in no order, but all more-or-less places where you should be able to get a table at little or no notice and eat and drink and relax in a glowing, noisy room amongst friends.

The Good Fork
My Red Hook, Brooklyn local. I have been eating here a few times a month for three years and each time is still a treat. Great wines by the glass. Husband-and-wife maitre 'd/ chef team, lots of walk-in tables, food that balances perfectly between comfort and sophistication, local-fresh-ingredients yadda yadda. I particularly love the steak-and-eggs with kimchee rice (I have tofu instead of steak) or the wild boar ragu. It's a small, quirky, glowy, casual room that the owners designed and built themselves. In the summer there's classic NYC junkyard garden seating out back. The epitome of the kind of laid-back, somewhat scruffy foodie dining that NYC invented.

Dok Suni
119 First Ave between 6th and 7th Sts; (212) 477-9506
No reservations, always packed (but the tables move), pitch-black, poky-elbow-crowded East Village date place with various challenging features like surly service, tiny, hidden bathroom and difficult to manouver metal chopsticks. To me, this gets an A for NYC atmosphere. People say it's not authentic Korean but it's family-owned by some Korean girls and their mom, so who is to say what's authentic? I get the rice wine (?) with the little bits of cucumber floating in it, spreads of kimchee, shrimp dumplings, and always the hot bibimbop, a searing-hot iron pot of crusty-bottomed rice, pickles, vegetables, egg and tart plum sauce (and steak if you so opt).

The Oyster Bar
Like everyone else, I used to for lunch with the coworker I was secretly sleeping with. It's really a lunch and after-work place; it's simply too huge to stay rollicking all night long, but during the day or for an early dinner, I love the Oyster Bar. Eat at the counter. Look no further than a flight of oysters, a bowl of chowder and consume plenty of Bloody Marys on the side. (For the out-of-towners among us, this is a NYC institution in Grand Central Station, which is itself a beautiful city landmark that remains in everyday use, a secular cathedral, warrens of subterraean passages, various strata of heating and humidity, an ebb and flow of people like the tides, quintessential New York....)

Will be a few more, but I'm also tired of looking at last week's post atop my blog, so here goes....

Friday, December 4, 2009

Vice Mag goes to Mecca

This is one of the craziest travel docs I've ever seen:

Paris Bargain Hotel: Hotel Marceau Bastille

There is, for me, a type of hotel that exists in the perfect middle-ground... the type of hotel that is trying to be a boutique hotel, but is the bargain version. What do I need, at the end of the day, in a hotel? I need a nice, comfortable bed with bedding that doesn't make me feel paranoid, in a bright, attractive room. It can be simple, but usually I find the corporate-business-hotel version of simple to be depressing. Anyplace that uses poly comforters or any other comforter that may not have been washed is depressing. Carpet is often depressing. Recently renovated helps a lot in terms of freshness and brightness. Cheaper, new furnishings are often better than well-used high quality ones. I, personally, don't need to stay someplace that has the world's most cutting-edge renovation or design...the jackass-award winner, you know what I mean. Sometimes those hotels are beautiful, and I've certainly stayed in plenty of them. Often it's even easier to find a hotel in the trendy category than the kind I'm talking about, which offers the same basic amenities--clean, modern design; nice bedding; freshness--without the prices/attitude/goofy mustachioed bellhop.

So, thus, voila, the Hotel Marceau Bastille in Paris. . I offer the enormous caveat that I haven't stayed here since 2006, but I love this hotel. I just did a search, and for one of the nicer "ecolo" rooms (which I highly recommend), at short notice in December, it's 150 Euros ($225) for 2 people for a night. For this time of year, at these exchange rates, that is a great deal. This hotel is in the humbler Bastille neighborhood, a short walk from the trendy-hip Marais, and doesn't have room service, but it's always been just right for me. It's not a "destination hotel," but who wants their hotel to be the 'destination' in Paris!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

New York over Christmas

So, I've been working on a few epic New York ideas, one is my own personal hotel-guide, since, working for Time Out New York and then living abroad for years, I've stayed in a lot more NYC hotels than the average New Yorker. But what occurs to me at the moment would be most useful is some guidelines on things to do in NYC over the holidays, if you're visiting, since, I'm sorry, but this is the world's worst time to be in New York. If you want to go to one of the big museums, it's going to be hectic. New York is COLD over the holidays, and to go to MoMA, for example, you'll have to stand in a long line for admission outside, and then more to check your coat inside, and then it will be so crowded you'll barely be able to see the art. When I lived in Moscow, I'd arrive home for the holidays with big plans of art I wanted to see, and then would train it up to midtown all mellow and delighted, and then....would see the lines and get upset and just go back to Brooklyn. I realize locals are always more indignant to see things they *expect* to be quick and easy overrun, and for art fans who really want to see the Met or the MoMA, of course it may be worth it. But....I wonder if people would be interested in making their NYC visit less touristy by totally avoiding Midtown, Macys, the Empire State Building and Central Park. I'm going to do a few posts on this in the coming weeks, but the first suggestion is: The Lower East Side.

Even when the rest of the city is overrun, the Lower East Side, during the day, is pretty relaxed. You have to be open to grunge, to some extent, but there are lots of restaurants and little galleries and to me, this kind of grubby-deli, old-school, street-level New York is what New York is all about, anyway. Unfortunately the new New Musuem ( space on the Bowery has a very hot, hot, hot show right now, Urs Fischer: Marguerite De Ponty (through Feb 7), and is overrun, at least, I can testify, on the weekends. If you did happen to go by there midday and it was possible to get in, I'd hit it, but wouldn't stand in line for 20 min. There's also a cute, hip place to have lunch around the corner, Freeman's Alley (, but that's also jammed when the crowds are out. If you keep walking several blocks on Rivington Street, away from the New Museum, you'll cross a cool old park (Chrystie St) that I really recommend a wander through the community garden there (The M'Finda Kalunga Community Garden!), and eventually come across 'inoteca ( at the corner of Ludlow, which is a hip, delicious Italian restaurant that is often crowded at night but open for lunch every day and has great service and a surprisingly friendly, non-snobby attitude, considering the location. Other galleries in the LES: 11 Rivington ( And a list here: Though, the art down here tends to be a bit too fashionable, if you know what I mean, it can provide a nice structure for a wander through a neighborhood that's all bars and restaurants and indie boutiques.....

Also, here's this article in Time Out New York on "top 10 out-of-the-way galleries". I would say these are lesser-known even to New Yorkers, so might be a bit far afield for tourists, but FYI.