At first, I was upset when Fredi took over the space that formerly housed my favorite mexican lunch spot ($5 lunch specials!).  I bitterly chalked it up to gentrification and paid little attention to the cute little wine and sandwich bar that emerged.  Until my coworkers came into the office with these incredible meatloaf heros.

Fredi Meatloaf Sammy

Deliciousness

I decided right then that I was wrong to judge Fredi and that I needed one of my own.  Fresh baked breads, roasted peppers and a meatloaf that reminded me of home won me over.  Delicious skinny handcut fries as well.  Just the other day I went by for another and found them shuttered.  Far too soon.  Here’s to hoping they pop up somewhere else.

I’m trying to get back on the wagon after a summer full of barbecue and my new deep fryer.  Here’s a quick look at a tasty veggie option from one of my favorite Union Square lunch spots: Grey Dog Coffee.  A hearty bean-based patty that holds its own even with the spicy red onion.  Thumbs up!

Grey Dog Veggie Burger

Tastes better than it looks

PS – Rest in peace, Carmine Street.  This sammy is from the University Place location.

Didn’t realize that it’d been four months (?!) since my last post here.  Terrible I know.  But I’m back!  Now that it’s (almost) too cold for me to gallivant in the streets, I have a TON of new culinary experiences to share.  Read on!

After Hurricane Katrina, my community of family and friends was flung from San Francisco to Austin, Atlanta and everywhere in-between: Memphis, Indianapolis, DC, Houston, rural Louisiana, etc.  But the place I felt most at home, in spite of the fact that none of my family or closest friends were here, was NYC.  Simply because here, I can more easily experience the best aspects of New Orleans culture – food, music, art, architecture, drinking – than in any other city in the world.  New Orleans and New York have a special affinity for one another, and there is virtually no New Orleans specialty that New York cannot provide.  (I’ll argue the opposite as well in another piece.)

So for me, New York is like a giant playground of my favorite NOLA things – fried oysters, jazz, street ignorance, festivals, strong cocktails – interspersed with pockets of genuine NOLA lovers, folks who really do “know what it means” to miss New Orleans and are committed to keeping the love of the place alive in their hearts.  What’s even better is that there is a strong community of folks that works to ensure that NOLA music and culture is consistently brought to New York and exposed to new audiences: the NOLAFunk guys, as well as the venues Sullivan Hall, Highline Ballroom, Terminal 5, a bunch of places in Williamsburg, and more I’m sure that I’m overlooking.  I mean, Trombone Shorty headlined the Red Hot + New Orleans at BAM and it was outstanding.

More fun on a daily basis, however, is rooting out restaurants that dabble in NOLA cuisine.  NOLA’s culinary charms have drawn many an aspiring chef to its bosom, and many of those chefs eventually land in New York.  I stumbled onto this affinity purely coincidentally.  Fried oysters happen to be my favorite seafood dish – I used to eat a 12″ fried oyster po-boy about twice a week in NOLA – and it was in the course of hunting them down in New York that I realized that every place that ended up having a delicious fried oyster had a chef that either was from New Orleans or trained in New Orleans, or spent time living there.  Here’s a roundup of my favorite NOLA/NOLA-influenced (note I said *my* favorite; I’ve never been to Mara’s Homemade or Bourbon Street mostly b/c I think they’re tacky – hello purple, green, and gold exterior – AND I’ve heard mixed reviews from folks whose tastebuds I trust. So they’re not included):

Blue Ribbon

Eric and Bruce Bromberg are music aficionados who are no stranger to NOLA’s charms.  Eric Bromberg attended Tulane while pursuing a music career in NOLA, which is all the validation I need that he *knows* NOLA food.  Then they both went to Cordon Bleu.  I love every recipe they’ve ever touched.

The fable of their humble beginnings goes that they wanted to make a restaurant where they as food- and music- industry folk getting off work late could get great food – not pizza/hamburgers, etc – so their restaurant was one of the first with a kitchen staying open until 4:00 AM.  Ten restaurants later, we know it worked.  I’ve only eaten at four out of the 10, but I’ve never ever been disappointed.

Needless to say, It was like music to my ears when Blue Ribbon Sushi opened a location behind the Time Warner Center.  I no longer had to trek downtown or to Brooklyn for my fried oysters!  I could get them on the way home from work.  Also, their more casual fare at Brooklyn Bowl is delightful. (Hello, Oyster Egg Shooters!)  It also doesn’t hurt that Questlove and/or Q-tip spins there on a monthly basis, and there’s a constant roster of great music, much of it the stuff that can be found on the NOLA music circuit.  My last show there was Robert Randolph, the slide guitar king.

ACME

There’s an ACME on Decatur Street in New Orleans.  This one is as close of an approximation as you can get in NYC.  There’s also a cute little live music venue in the basement, featuring assorted indie acts.  I usually come here when I know I want assorted seafood but I’m not quite sure what to get.  You know the drill.  There were rumors of Acme’s closing earlier this year after a “can’t-refuse” offer was made to the owner, but I believe they’re back in business.

The Green Table

I love everything about this place.  The fact that the menu is largely seasonal items plucked fresh from the farmer’s market that day, the fact that they expanded from 6 tables to 12 and finally have a bar.  That they are dedicated to sustainability and social responsibility.  But most importantly, I love the fact that Brett Sims is a ragin’ cajun who has managed to bring a fried oyster po-boy to within walking distance of my office.

The Redhead

Duck gumbo, anyone?  Although I usually go for their outstanding southern fried chicken.  Meg Grace’s pastries also never disappoint; I’ve definitely purse-nabbed some of the cookie treats they sometimes give with the bill.  Her bacon peanut brittle is also quite notable, and there’s an annual Crawfish boil that’s done just right.

Fort Defiance

St. John Frizell – also a Tulane alum – studied the Central Grocery muffuletta and has created quite the tasty approximation.  The red beans and rice and hurricanes are also nothing to scoff at.  I was there the day the Saints won the NFC Championship in 2009.  We all cried and hugged, and ate King Cake from Randazzo’s.

Two Boots Pizza

The Two Boots = NOLA + Italy.  It’s my favorite NYC slice, hands down (Sorry, traditionalists. Crawfish pie!!!)  I usually get the Cleopatra Jones, but all of it, even the veggie pies, are outstanding.

Great Jones Cafe

Great Jones is probably the only place in New York where I’ll eat the two sacred staples of NOLA cooking: red beans and gumbo (only when I don’t feel like making it myself).  I also appreciated their fried oysters and andouille sausage.  It’s also one of the most non-assuming places in the city.  No flash and panache here, just good food and nice people.  You really do feel as though you’ve been transported to a little bayou town when you step inside.

NOLA PLACES I HAVEN’T BEEN, BUT INTEND TO (Shout out to Garden & Gun for a few reminders):

Imperial Woodpecker Snowballs – Yes, Real Snowballs in NYC. ‘Nuff said.
Ninth Ward
Cheeky Sandwiches – they’re only open 8am-6pm (time for a work field trip!)
Tchoup Shop at d.b.a. – I generally avoid DBA in NYC for a number of reasons, but if they reopen this summer I’m doing it.
Creole – I believe I got into an argument with the chef here at the Black Culinarian Alliance dinner at Tavern on the Green three years ago.  We were arguing about the texture of one of his dishes, which was completely wrong in my opinion.  I don’t remember which one, but suffice it to say that I’ve never eaten there either, but I’m still curious.

Does this need an explanation?  I don’t think so.  Here’s to hoping this cart outlasts the temporary summer lunch market at Madison Square Park.

Tacos from the 23rd St. Calexico Cart

One Steak, One Chicken, Extra Pico, All Good

As a Harlemite, the most exciting and heralded restaurant event of the last six months was by far was the opening of Red Rooster.  A black celebrity chef opening a soul food restaurant in Harlem!  Nevermind that he’s Swedish.  The tittering commenced.  Aunties and church members from across the country called and asked, “Have you been to that Marcus Samuels restaurant yet?” (They always butcher his last name.)  And before Red Rooster, I always had to reply, “No, unfortunately I can’t afford to go to Aquavit.”

But Red Rooster is a delight of a place, another showpiece in Harlem’s popping restaurant scene.  The decor is welcoming, there’s always a vibrant scene of people waiting, eating, drinking, mingling in the front bar.  And the downstairs lounge is never empty Thursday to Saturday, a racially and generationally diverse crowd boogie-ing down to old school jams on the early side, hip hop and dancehall after midnight.

Then there’s the food.  Having never sat down to a full meal at one of Mr. Samuelsson’s other venues, I have no basis for comparison.  But from years of observing him and following his career, I expected soul food, but with his signature international flavor profiles and his own fine-dining finesse.  And I wasn’t disappointed.

I heard a few grumbles from the local color that “well it wasn’t all that” and “it wasn’t enough food” and whatnot…  But one must understand: it’s soul food, something that is defined as variably and subjectively as each cook or eater’s tastes.  Is it going to taste like your mother’s?  Or the favorite neighborhood spot back home that had the bomb [fill-in-the-blank] whatever?  NO!!!  This is Marcus Samuelsson’s vision, the vision of an Afro-Swede’s interpretation of American soul food.  It’s not going to be to “your” taste, or even to a “traditional” taste.  It’s to his.  You either like it and enjoy it, or you don’t.  No shade, but I personally hate both Sylvia’s and Amy Ruth’s food, both heralded as staples of Harlem soul food.  Too greasy, not enough thought or spice for my cultured creole tastebuds.  But I loved this.

The food and drinks were simply delicious.  Yes I had the fried chicken.  No, it wasn’t earth shattering and groundbreaking – it was fried chicken and french toast.  But expertly made, with a unique flair.  Worth a trip uptown, for those daring enough to brave the 2/3 train to 125th.

I hate Times Square.  While the bright lights are noteworthy, and can be mesmerizing (I begrudgingly admit), the throngs of slack jawed tourists staring blankly up into the sky or otherwise just looking lost make my blood pressure soar.  They make me want to punch them in the face or yank their cameras and run.  Normally a demure person, Times Square turns me into a hard-charging, elbow-throwing neanderthal, growling and hissing at innocent bystanders.

So I thought of it as a personal challenge when a friend suggested a visit to Taste of Times Square.  Having worked in the area before, I was skeptical of the restaurants that would be presenting.  Times Square isn’t exactly known for it’s culinary delights, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to subject myself to the uncultured masses, lines and other ridiculousness to eat a tiny plate from Hard Rock Cafe or Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.  But a tiny voice said, “You’re so jaded.  Just go!  It’ll be an experience, if nothing else.  You might be pleasantly surprised!”

So I get there and immediately have to stop myself from hyperventilating, freaking out and leaving when I enter the fray.  I squeeze around, starving, and trying to see what’s on people’s plates, what looks good.  The first thing I notice is the mob around the Virgil’s tent.  When I worked in the Bryant Park area, I ordered a fried chicken po-boy from Virgil’s every Friday, so I was no stranger to it’s charms.  However, I dodged the line my friends stood in and went for a dry-ish chicken sandwich from the Stadium Grill at Bowlmor Lanes (sparse on the condiments…  the individual layers were good though).  But not pic-worthy.  I continued walking and became intrigued by the prospect of a raw oyster with creamy Guinness (yes, the beer) sauce on it.  It was disgusting and a bad idea.  I spit it out.

It was fun to see giant shrimp or anthropomorphic bowling pins in bibs dancing around to some pretty impressive blues music throughout the festival, but the best food by far was above 46th St.  Toloache was serving up Tacos al Pastor spiked with pineapples and cilantro, Brasserie 1605 was serving up lobster potstickers with asian slaw, and there were two amazing desserts, a strawberry shortcake with some sort of fruit-mousse, and the killer, bananas foster cheesecake, which I was too full to actually eat.  I think the cheesecake was from Ruby Foos.  The shortcake was forgettable.  But again, I could barely keep straight which restaurant was serving what between the music and the hungry throngs pushing each other around.

At 7:00pm, with one hour left, we realized that we were far too sober to be pushing through a bunch of sweaty tourists, so we made a detour to the $5 happy hour at Brazil Brazil on 46th.  The caipirinhas needed extra sugar, but for $5 we didn’t complain.  Two quick rounds, then we made our way back for the last of the festival.  I had another plate of lobster potstickers (forgot to take pics, I was so busy gorging).  The best part of the festival, though, was the lady hawking plastic ziplock bags for people to “take home” some of the food.  We actually saw folks with entire bags of wings, ribs, etc.  It would’ve never occured to me in a million years to bring ziplock bags to an event of this nature, much less sell them.  But it’s that hustler ingenuity, the enterprising spirit of New York and it’s endless opportunities.  It manifests itself in every nook and cranny of the city, from the darkest corners of a block to the penthouse suites of the same, all in pursuit of that nameless dream.

Reason #1 why I absolutely LOVE New York City.

I will use any excuse possible to visit 67 Burger in Ft. Greene.  Sunny out?  Take a burger to Ft. Greene park.  Raining?  Plenty of space in the actual restaurant to camp out and dry off over a burger and beer.  Not hungry? It’s a long train ride back to Harlem, you might be before you get back.  It’s just good. The curly fries are everything the curly fries of my childhood should have been but weren’t.  They also have a nice selection of beers on tap, I believe I went with the Kelso IPA on this particular afternoon.I will use any excuse possible to visit 67 Burger in Ft. Greene.  Sunny out?  Take a burger to Ft. Greene park.  Raining?  Plenty of space in the actual restaurant to camp out and dry off over a burger and beer.  Not hungry? It’s a long train ride back to Harlem, you might be before you get back.  It’s just good. The curly fries are everything the curly fries of my childhood should have been but weren’t.  They also have a nice selection of beers on tap, I believe I went with the Kelso IPA on this particular afternoon.

67 Burger Bacon Cheese w/Curly Fries

67 Burger Bacon Cheese w/Curly Fries

Oh, Shang (Thompson LES).  I would’ve linked, but your website is down.  Your food, so delicious.  Your service, so atrocious.  I waited 20 minutes for a table in a half-empty restaurant, only to be called forward, then asked to wait 15 more minutes while they prepped a table.  It was Valentine’s day (’11), I had the special, a delightful steak garnished with peppers that made my eyes water (in a good way).  It was a great deal, $25 for a prix fixe that included a little bubbly, a nice dessert.  But then a tragic soft-indie-rock band started soundchecking in the middle of dinner…  Not too romantic.

Spicy Steak at Shang, Thompson LES

Spicy Steak at Shang, Thompson LES

In a later visit, I watched as horrified dinner patrons scurried away (some abandoning tables) from blasting urban club music while a D/E-list hip hop producer, hangers-on and a gaggle of chickenheads drank free liquor (some “healthy” infused tequila shit that tasted like cough syrup) to the dismay of the tragically overstaffed bartenders (all 2 of them).  The sushi chefs had actually taken seats on the balcony because no one was actually ordering food.  I wept a single tear for the establishment.  Because the decor and the food really had the potential to be quite sexy.  However, this restaurant’s demise is proof positive that it really takes more than just that.  It’s ambiance, vibe, warmth, hospitality, people, attitudes that make the place.

I hope the chef lands someplace great, it’ll be worth a visit in calmer pastures.

Hot.  New.  Hours long waits (no reservations). Communal tables. Tiny aisles. Fun wax-crayon menus.  Delicious food.  Get there early.  Or super late.  Or put your name on the list and have a cocktail nearby (they’ll call).  Get the special, whatever the daily is.  All of it.

The Daily Special w/Daily Greens

The Daily Special w/Daily Greens

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