Guest City: New York — Who needs blue skies and ocean breezes when you can have brownstones and David Chang

Thursday June 2, 2011

It only took a half day in New York for me to matter-of-factly decide that I wouldn’t be getting on the return flight to San Francisco, much as a person with a fear of heights accepts their fate atop a two story ladder – no, no, I’m fine right where I am, thanks.  I had never understood those people before, but there I was, somewhere in the Flatiron district, sighing with relief.  It was decided, done, final.

Of course, I did get on that return flight in the end, which we’ll get to in Part 2.  But, today, we’re going to focus on nostalgia.

The nice thing about New York is its reluctance to change.  It is so comfortable and comforting – once you have lived here, the city becomes part of your muscle memory.  You instinctively know when to take the V rather than the F.  You know where the closest Duane Reade is.  The buildings, for the most part, are just as you left them.  Actually, it feels like you never left at all.

The problem, of course, is that New York can’t be exported and so you have to leave it right where you found it.  Here are some of the most memorable, and least replicable, dishes and neighborhoods that Manhattan and Brooklyn have to offer:

1. A & A Bake and Doubles in Bedford Stuyvesant

If you ever want to go on a Caribbean vacation and want very VERY good food, consider Trinidad.  If you can’t make it to Trinidad, then go to A &A Bake and Doubles on Nostrand Ave (Take the A/C to the Nostrand Ave stop).

Oh, these things are good.  They fall within the realm of food that tastes exquisite but gives you no hints as to how you might recreate it.  A double is like an empanada — two pieces of leavened flat bread with curried peppery chick peas, mango, and a splash of hot sauce inside.  It’s the flat bread that makes these things ridiculous – it is at once fluffy and chewy and incredibly paper thin.  It’s not an empanada, because it’s not flakey or dry at all.  It is not like a tortilla, because it is much much softer and more elastic.  It is not like naan or paratha, because it is much thinner and lighter.  And it’s not like roti, because it’s more substantial.

So, yes, GO HERE.  It’s not a restaurant, it’s a storefront.  It’s not the nicest neighborhood.  There is no room to sit, so you’ll have to get them and walk.  None of this will matter once you taste one.  Go. GO. GO.

2. Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens

Like most post grads in New York, I ended up in Brooklyn after I couldn’t afford rent in Manhattan.  I only managed to live in Carroll Gardens for one year before my rent rose by $400/month, and I had to move deeper into the F line.  That one year, though…I felt like Anne Shirley moving into Patty’s Place – it was a place that grew, but wasn’t built.

I’d heard that Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens had gotten fancy, and I was worried that it had turned into Soho or something.  It hasn’t.  It is still full of brownstones with immaculate front lawns (I mean that literally – so many Virgin Mary statues) and overflowing gardens and hanging tree limbs.  It is lush in the spring and downright wondrous after a snow storm.

Prime Meats is on the impossibly adorable Court Street (you’re going to have to walk up and down the entire length of Court Street and try to not die of cute overload.)  I used to grab cookies at the mint green, pink, and doily decorated Sweet Melissa’s and sneak them into the two-screen Cobble Hill Cinema across the street, where you could watch one of two movies for $5 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.   Somehow 2003 Brooklyn was even more precious than 2011 San Francisco.

Moving on.  Prime Meats is towards the southern end of Court Street on the corner of Court and Luquer St (take the F line to the Carroll Street stop).  The décor is old-timey wood and glass, the music is 70’s alt country, the dress code is Brooklyn hipster meets “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (we debated whether it was a dress code or they all spontaneously showed up to work looking like that, but crossed our fingers and hoped for dress code in the end), and the food is German.  It should make absolutely no sense, but it somehow works.

The food was very good, and the menu has more bistro fare than Schmidt’s or Walzwerk in SF.  Like, Prime Meats serves a creamy version of cheese spatzle (so it’s like mac n cheese rather than straight up, melted cheese over spatzle) as well as a cheeseburger and a bone marrow appetizer – it’s not all sauerkraut and pork schnitzel.

This is a popular restaurant and it doesn’t take reservations, so go there early to avoid a 2 hour wait.  That being said, the bar area is pretty nice, so the wait might actually be a pleasant one.

3. Momofuko Noodle Bar in the East Village

No secret here, Momofuko is great and affordable.  I ate here for the first time back in 2005, when it first opened and as I was in the process of packing up my stuff and leaving NY.  That was unfortunate for me, as I spent the next 5 years pining for the Ginger Scallion Noodles.  I tried to recreate it (the ingredients were in the dish’s name after all) with no success, and lord knows I couldn’t get anything like this in DC.

I’m pretty sure the angels sang when David Chang revealed that he was going to write a cookbook.  I spent all of last summer cooking my way through it (after first puzzling my way through SF’s Japantown looking for ingredients).  The cookbook is wonderful, and Mr. Chang is an oddly good instructor, in his own casual, off-the-cuff way.  I learned to cook with a whole new set of flavor profiles and learned techniques that I now incorporate into my own dishes.

So, heading to Momofuko (on 1st Ave between 10th and 11th St) was very much a homecoming, and it was outstanding.  My version of his dishes compare sufficiently well to the restaurant’s (pat pat myself on the back.)  We had the Momofuko Ramen, Ginger Scallion Noodles, and Shiitake Buns.  The buns were the highlight.  The mushrooms had a caramelized flavor to them, and the sweet, vinegary cucumbers and dry,bitter scallions balanced the whole sandwich perfectly.

Go there on your next trip to New York, then buy his book, and then head to SF’s Richmond and Japantown markets.  Your life will be better for it.




Comments are closed.