Friday, December 29, 2006

New York Holidays: Our List

New York is always in transition, so it's almost a surprise when we visit an old haunt and it's still there. One of our friends apparently refuses to believe that the Second Avenue deli is gone for good as she keeps advising us to stop by.

Eric finds it amusing that every walk with my Dad or I seems to include at least a half a dozen exclamations that begin with "That's where such-and-such used to be." "It's next to where you used to be able to get the best kosher pickles." "There used to be a bank there, but before that it was a butcher who sold good lamb." "There was a used bookstore there that was evicted in the 90s."

I tell him this is how native New Yorkers navigate the city. We work from landmarks, like where you can get the best pastrami, or the place that has the Statue of Liberty outside, or that store that sold used illegal British bootleg LPs. It was easy enough to demonstrate to him.

"Where are we shopping?"

"That place, up on Broadway, you know it's a couple of blocks down the street from the Peruvian rotisserie chicken."

"What coffee place?"

"The one opposite the 24-hour bagel shop you love."

So when change comes, it is highly upsetting. When I find the old familiar landmarks, it's likewise, comforting. Here are some of the places on our list for this trip.

Old favorites:
  • Chez Laurence (245 Madison Ave @ 38th, 212-683-0284) This place is one of my Dad and my favorites. Classic French patisserie and bistro. We were vastly disappointed not to be able to get any brioche on this trip (the pastry chef is - quelle horreur - gone for the holidays), so no pastries either. Still, we are willing to overlook this in favor of their eggspresso (Steamed eggs with scallions) and some nice country pate.
  • Flor de Mayo (2651 Broadway @100th, or 484 Amsterdam @83th, 212-663-5520) Pollo a la Brasa-- order it now. That's all I have to say.

  • French Roast (2340 Broadway @85th, 212-799-1533) This old standby diner on 85th is pictured at the top of the page. Good coffee (by our caffeinated, freaky West Coast standards), nice breakfast -- it's the perfect place to get something to eat early if you need more than just a bagel.
  • H & H Bagels (2239 Broadway at 80th, 212-595-8003) Simply the best bagel anywhere. Growing up on the West Side, I remember H&H as a hole in the wall place where there was barely enough room for the ovens plus a customer or two. My Dad used to let me pick the bagels for our breakfasts and I always had to get a couple of "everything bagels" with a garden of seeds and salt and garlic and yum. Their store is now palatial by comparison, and you can mail order your bagels from from anywhere in the world, but I'm curiously reluctant to do so. In my mind, I still want to stand in front of those baskets of bagels sniffing out which of them have just come from the ovens. Anything else just seems wrong.
  • Maison du Chocolat (1018 Madison Ave. in Rockefeller Center, 212-744-7117) Yeah, yeah, so technically not a native New York institution, but we're making it into one. The New York arm of Robert Linxe's exquisite Parisian chocolate empire, this place serves up almost all of his heavenly chocolates-- and even the geometric and severe buche de noels.
Linxe has this way that the French has with flavor. He apparently has made some sort of deal with the Devil which involves stealing the souls of various herbs, flowers, berries and the like, and infusing them in a diabolical fashion into his chocolates, which melt away in your mouth leaving only the animus lingering behind.
  • Metro Diner (2641 Broadway on the west side of Broadway @100th, 212-866-0800) Oddly enough, on the lengthy list of New York diners, this is another favorite, probably because it's near where we used to live, and we're sentimental about it. It's the kind of place where the waitress will keep you plied with coffee and commentary in a thick Brooklyn accent, and you could spot someone like Richard Dreyfuss in the next booth.
  • Murray's Cheese (254 Bleecker St, 888-MY-CHEEZ) Of course we have to include a cheese place -- at least one. Murray's has the selection we never see on the West Coast-- French cheeses. Sigh. They benefit greatly from the fact that they're closer of course -- and we were shocked and appalled at the price they were charging for Mt. Tam, but the Delice de Bourgogne....
  • Zabar's (80th & Broadway, 212-496-1234) I have long held a grudge against Zabar's -- the owners held the property on which my old dance studio stood, and during the real estate boom and gentrification of the 80s, they evicted us and shut the place down. I still have issues with them, but on this trip, I finally relented and we walked into the place. Okay they have a nice selection of food, and just because I hate the place doesn't mean it's not a foodie's dream.

On Notice:
In the grand tradition of Stephen Colbert, here are some haunts we went back to and found, for one reason or another, disappointing.
  • Cafe Lalo (201 West 83rd Street @Amsterdam) Lalo used to be one of our favorite places to warm up with a nice cup of coffee and some rugelach. Yes, it was always crowded, and yes it was a bit pricey, but we liked the atmosphere and the friendliness of the place. Well, that's over. We squished ourselves into Lalo for a cup of coffee and rugelach (for Eric) and I ordered a plate of cheese and requested a glass of water. It took our waitress about five minutes to bring him the cup of coffee, and then she seemingly forgot about us. After about ten minutes I waved her down so I could get my glass of water, and she was gone before I could even enquire about the status on the rugelach and cheese, neither of which needed to be cooked, so we didn't think we had a particularly difficult order. After about 20 minutes we started to think that the above-mentioned items were not coming, but were counting ourselves lucky because our waitress managed to throw coffee into the lap of the woman next to us. When we were able to get her attention again, we told her to cancel the order and bring the check. I watched her go over to the counter where three sad, lonely rugelach had been sitting for several minutes and say to someone behind the bar, "They don't want them anymore." Yeah, we don't want it anymore.
  • New Leaf Cafe (Fort Tryon Park, (212) 568-5323) This place proudly announces that they were reviewed in the recent Michelin guide to NY. I guess it's gone to their heads, because service here was horrible. again, we were looking only for three cups of coffee and a slice of cheesecake, which the hostess said would be fine, providing we sat in the bar and ordered it up at the counter ourselves. This didn't pose a problem, so we did so, but judging from the look on the bartender's face, you would have though we had asked for the sun, the moon and the stars. We got some cheesecake flung at us in a rather peremptory manner, and he then conveniently forgot about anything else. New York, I ask you, WHAT is up with service these days??
  • Serendipity 3 (225 E. 60th, 212-838-3531) This used to be the place where my high school friends and I would stop on special occasions -- a favorite haunt of Andy Warhol's. Oh the Frozen Hot Chocolate... Is it still as good? I couldn't tell you because I have not been able to get into this place in years, YEARS, I tell you. I understand that they take reservations, and walkups have a hard time getting in, but this place is ridiculous. We stopped by on our annual attempt to get in and after fighting my way into the front foyer, I was told the wait was two hours. I feel like I ought to have made a reservation right then and there for December 2007.
New to us: So, all of this poor service was thrown into relief by the better service at a few places that we finally got around to trying.
  • Citrus (320 Amsterdam Ave, 212-595-0500) A block from our hotel, this sleek modern fusion place (they do Mexican and Japanese as a sort of side-by-side thing) is surprisingly restful and the food was at a higher level for New York (about median for San Francisco, I have to admit.) What won us over though was the warmth of the staff, who took enormously attentive care of us that evening. They have other places in the city, including on the next block, Josie's, which was not as enticing in the culinary sense, but still served up some homey warmth.
  • Dizzy's Club (Jazz at Lincoln Center, 5th floor, 212-258-9595) At long last, we got to New York before the JALC went on holiday vacation! We've been trying to get up to the club to hear something since it opened, and despite some heavy jetlag, we were not disappointed. Even the food was far from the usual bar fare, featuring hearty New Orleans-style favorites, Gumbo-laya, Country Meatloaf, pecan pie. Then there's that gorgeous view over the city. Mmmmm...
  • Isabella's (359 Columbus Ave. @77th) Not a terribly distinctive place, (it's owned by the same group that does Ruby Foos) but Isabella's, which is opposite the Museum of Natural History, is a pleasant oasis for a friendly upscale brunch.
  • Trattoria Pesce (1079 1st Avenue, (212) 987-4696) We went here for my birthday, and this quiet location (there are several others around the city) makes the trattoria look like a friendly neighbohood joint. Good fish, nice pasta -- what's not to like?
Where R U?
  • Shopsin's (54 Carmine Street) This crazy Village place is something of an institution, but by the time we finally got around to checking it out, they were closed!! It's too bad because after Calvin Trillin's New Yorker article we were excited about eating there. My Dad has navigated their 900 item menu -- but now will we ever have the opportunity to do so?

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