Eating New York in Sub-Zero Weather (Estela, Prune, Del Posto & Russ & Daughters Cafe)

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Here’s how cold it was in New York: on our last morning there, I left a pair of gloves behind for the person I borrowed them from and rode the elevator down to the street with Craig to catch a cab to the airport. Craig had gone to the trouble to get me a cappuccino from our favorite New York coffee shop, Joe, which he handed to me as we stepped outside. The temperature that day, with wind-chill, was close to negative 10 degrees. NEGATIVE TEN. And no cabs were stopping, so there I was with my bare hand holding on to this warm coffee drink and the feeling was so awful–the cold was searing my hand so fiercely–I had to toss the full cup of coffee into a trash bin so I could shove my hand into my pocket. That’s the coldest I’ve ever been.

And yet, before you call me an L.A. traitor, even in the most miserable weather, New York is still my boo. I actually hadn’t been back in over a year, not because I didn’t want to, but because in the whirlwind of Skeleton Twins stuff, it just didn’t happen. Then, for Christmas, Craig presented me with tickets to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch (one of my favorite musicals) on Broadway starring the show’s creator John Cameron Mitchell the day after my birthday in February. “February?” I asked incredulously. “It’ll be fine!” he promised.

And when we got there, it was pretty fine (relatively speaking). That first night, we grabbed a burger at J.G. Melon on the Upper East Side:

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Atmosphere-wise, this was a perfect place to first set down in New York. The hustle and bustle, the New York characters, our waitress who was so direct and the opposite of L.A. flaky. But the burger had some issues, even though it’s supposedly one of New York’s best. We each ordered ours medium rare, but when they came out, they were beautifully charred on the outside….

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…and outrageously raw in the middle. Like supermarket ground beef still-in-the-package raw. By the time we figured that out, we were already halfway through our burgers, but the experience unsettled my stomach for a few days.

No matter! The next morning, we set out for our first full day in New York for a while, caffeinating ourselves at Joe:

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Eating relatively mediocre but no-wait brunch food at Maison Kayser:

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And then walking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, outside, we saw a hawk devouring a pigeon:

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Inside, we studied the ancient Greek stuff first; this bowl is tens of thousands of years old:

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Napoleon is not amused by Craig looking at his phone:

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After that, we decided to brave Central Park, despite a fluttering of snow:

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On the other side, we met up with my old roommate (from the start of this blog) and psychic twin–we were born in the same hospital on the same night and didn’t know each other until college–Lauren who was so pregnant, she was basically carrying a full-grown man inside of her:

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She was two weeks overdue, and asked me to rub her belly to see if some psychic twin magic could help induce labor. And guess what? Five hours later, she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Foster. Congrats Lauren and Amy!!!! I guess I have the magic touch.

That night, Craig and I visited one of our favorite semi-secret pre-theater haunts, Bar Centrale, for their famous Sidecars:

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And a spread of not-so-great food that fills you up before your show. But the food’s besides the point; you go there for the people watching. For example, that night? We saw Will Ferrell.

Then it was off to see one of my favorite musicals (and favorite productions of a musical) of all time: Cabaret.

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It was Emma Stone’s final night and she was really fabulous; I was so impressed by her lack of vanity. She didn’t make the performance all about her, she sort of disappeared into the role. Meanwhile, Alan Cumming phoned it in a little, but that didn’t matter—it was great to finally see him as the emcee (my previous emcees were Michael C. Hall and John Stamos). The dramatic highlight of the evening, though, didn’t happen onstage; instead, it happened in the audience. I was two rows behind Craig and he had to ask the family next to him to shush because they were talking throughout the show. Then, during the rest of it, the older daughter would quietly mock Craig to her parents; imitating him having his hand on his chin, acting all hoighty-toity. It was pretty funny, though also highly distracting.

The next day, we met up with our friend Chris Dufault for brunch at Lafayette, still an excellent brunch spot even a year and a half after this post:

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I also love it because you can make a reservation online, so you don’t have to wait in a big brunch line which is the absolute worst.

That night, we hit up Estela, a relatively new restaurant on Houston near Soho that everyone’s been raving about (President Obama even ate there). Wow, this place was incredible. I’ve never seen Craig react so excitedly to food before–especially over a salad. But this endive salad, which looks deceptively simple, was easily our favorite thing that we ate over the course of our whole week in New York:

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What made it so great? Well, first of all, it was dressed with really high-quality olive oil and orange juice. But what made it sing was what was buried underneath; a mixture of deeply-caramelized croutons, pieces of anchovy, walnuts, and chunks of cheese (Ubriaco rosso) that was like an otherworldly, savory granola. Here’s a horrible pic of what I’m talking about:

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Apparently, we’re not the only ones to go crazy for this salad. Bon Appetit even has a recipe for it, so you can try to make it at home.

As for the rest of the meal, we devoured these salted cod and potato croquettes with aioli:

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Swooned over the burrata with salsa verde and charred bread (a strangely green and vegetal take on a classic combo):

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The fried arroz negro with squid and romesco was like a darker, more corrupt version of paella; we loved every bite:

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The steak with spicy marmalade, potatoes, and taleggio was the most expensive dish on the menu at $34, and while the steak itself was a cheaper cut (flank steak, if I remember correctly), all the components made it sing and the ultimate effect was undeniable:

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In the battle over dessert vs. cheese, we each fended for ourselves, resulting in cheese for Craig and this mound of chocolate mousse like stuff covered in whipped cream for me. It was the least impressive part of the meal, but I still ate every bite:

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Oh, and it’s important to mention that the whole point of Estela is the wine (the wine director Thomas Carter, is a really cool guy who we first met at Blue Hill Stone Barns) and our waitress gave us great advice and we loved everything we drank though I’m totally blanking on what, precisely, that was.

Next day, we made our inevitable pilgrimage to the 2nd Ave. Deli with our good friend Diana who happened to be in New York when we were (just for one night). Here’s the iconic matzo ball soup:

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With a half sandwich, pastrami, on rye of course:

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That night, we bid farewell to Diana and met up with our friend and noted food/travel writer David Prior at Prune. Here’s David and Craig at the table:

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We ordered very well, if I do say so myself. Started out with Garrotxa cheese, buttered brown bread, and onion; radishes with butter and salt; and some kind of shredded endive/radicchio salad:

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Then, for our entrees, blistered squid with fresh pork sausage and smoked white beans; roasted breast of veal with potatoes; and braised green cabbage with garlic and anchovy:

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(I loved the anchovy in with the cabbage, that’s a good idea for doing at home.)

The most memorable bite of the night came with the dessert: a cold candied orange. I think the recipe’s in the book? The whole thing is edible; sweet, not too bitter, and entirely delightful. Our other desserts were the coffee tart and something that I’m totally forgetting:

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Next day, I paid a visit to Hummus Place, which I always love, and it didn’t disappoint.

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That shug–or green hot sauce–really makes the whole meal. I’ve tried to recreate it at home, but it’s never as good as it is at Hummus Place.

That night, we gathered with some friends in Brooklyn and since my birthday was the next day–along with my friend Angela’s, and also our friend Ben’s birthday was around then too–Angela’s girlfriend Diane bought us a Momofuku birthday cake, which was a serious cake moment:

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The next day, on my actual birthday (February 18th: where’s my gift????), I did all of the planning because otherwise Craig would be too nervous and he might make some serious mistakes (wrong restaurant, wrong show…aren’t I a low-maintenance boyfriend?). After lunch with some friends in the meatpacking district, Craig and I zipped uptown to see ON THE TOWN:

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I can’t express in words how much I loved this. The show was like a candy-colored, New York fever dream; every moment a classy, high-style extravaganza. The songs (by Leonard Bernstein), the dancing (inspired by Jerome Robbins), the direction (from John Rando, who also directed Urinetown), and the performances were so first rate, I sat there the whole time with a giant smile on my face. Craig loved it too (I was nervous it might not be his thing) but the show is the perfect thing to see if you’re doing a quick jaunt to New York. Especially if it’s your birthday.

As for the birthday dinner, I spent a lot of time fretting about this in California. What would be the right place? At first, I thought Le Bernardin–there’s nothing quite like that in L.A.–but after a call with a snippy hostess (her tone was so icy cold, you could store fish in it), I made a reservation at Gramercy Tavern. But as it got closer, I realized I went to Gramercy Tavern for my last birthday in New York, so suddenly pivoted 180 degrees and picked Del Posto. I’m not crazy about Del Posto’s space–it feels like a New Jersey country club–but the food had won so many laurels. Four stars in the New York Times. Plus, over the years, I’ve read lots of stuff about and by the chef there, Mark Ladner (his cacio e pepe is my go-to recipe) and then I judged the Piglet and got to spend lot of time with Brooks Headley (the pastry chef at Del Posto)’s dessert cookbook. So the decision basically made itself for me.

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It was a big, epic meal so I’m not going to show you EVERYTHING here, but some highlights include minted octopus with ‘nduja, giant beans, and hearts of palm:

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Spaghetti with Dungeness crab, sliced jalapeño, and minced scallion:

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Pork and veal agnolotti with sugo into & cauliflower cacio e pepe:

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Poached lobster with marbled polenta sauce & shiitake puntarelle salad:

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Sliced lamb with gnocchi alla Romana (recipe in this month’s Lucky Peach, I read it on the plane), warm figs & pistachio Gremolata:

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Finally, warmed La Tur with Bob’s Honey:

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My phone died before I could take pictures of Brooks Headley’s desserts—Butterscotch Semifreddo with melon Agrumata & crumbled sbrisolona; and fette biscottate with cashew butter, stout & chocolate–but they were outstanding. (Sadly, I didn’t get to try his weirder stuff, like eggplant with chocolate.)

All in all it was a lovely, birthday dinner; we had a corner table and our server took a lead from our casual vibe and chatted us up about growing up in Maine, catching lobsters with his dad, and foraging for mushrooms. The wine manager, too, talked to us like normal people (not in that stiff fancy restaurant voice) and guided us to two half bottles, a white and a red, that complemented the meal nicely (in case you’re curious: Maison Vevey Albert Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle 2013 Valle d’Aosta; and La Mozza “Aragona” 2009 Toscana).

The only thing is, when the bill came, it was way heftier than we’d expected. Suppose that’s what happens when a theater major and a creative writing major do the meal math. No matter: it’s a birthday memory I won’t soon forget. Thanks, Craig!

Far and away, though, the meal I was most looking forward to–and perhaps the one I enjoyed the most–was the one that we had on our last day in the city; a brunch with our friend David at the new Russ and Daughters Cafe.

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I’ve long been a fan of the idea of Russ & Daughters–I learned about them reading Calvin Trillin’s “Feeding A Yen” over a decade ago–and I once ate a bagel with their famous smoked fish outside their flagship store on Houston. (Sorry this post doesn’t have any pictures.) But the truth was, I rarely found an occasion to go down their to buy smoked fish to bring back to my old apartment; if they’d had a restaurant attached to it, I would be there all the time. And now they DO have a restaurant and it’s on Orchard street, really close by, only I don’t live in New York anymore. This universe is a cruel place.

The inside has a fun, retro design:

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Here’s Craig and David at the table:

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What did we eat? What didn’t we eat!

We started with the Hot Smoke/Cold Smoke: kippered (baked) & Scottish smoked salmon spread with waffle-cut potato chips.

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Then the Super Heebster Bagel Toast with whitefish & baked salmon spread, wasabi-infused fish roe, horseradish dill cream cheese:

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The Pastrami Russ with pastrami-cured salmon, Muenster cheese, sauerkraut, mustard, pickle, on a pretzel roll:

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The Shtetl board with smoked sable, goat cream cheese, tomato, onions, and capers:

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And the eggs benny with poached eggs, Scottish smoked salmon, sautéed spinach, Hollandaise, and challah:

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That was definitely the most goyisha bite of the morning; the highlights for me were all the super Jewy stuff, the Heebster and the Shtetl board in particular. I could eat those things every day (and probably would if I still lived in New York). For dessert, we were gifted (I was Instagramming the meal and the manager caught on) with the Halvah ice cream which had a great almost peanut buttery taste:

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That night, for the last hurrah, we went to see the very thing that brought us to New York in the first place: Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

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Only, John Cameron Mitchell–who we were so excited to see–injured himself in the show a week earlier, and was out getting knee surgery. So we saw Michael C. Hall (it comes full circle; remember I once saw him as the emcee in Cabaret) and he was really, truly fantastic. Like a Tim Curry-esque, intimidatingly masculine version of Hedwig. I really dug it; the show is quite the spectacle.

That night, we had dinner at Jeffery’s in the West Village and they were blasting the loudest rap music I’ve ever experienced at a restaurant. I could see how some people might love that, and if they’d switched the album to Carol Channing’s original cast recording of “Hello Dolly” I might’ve loved it too, but as it was I left the place with a splitting headache.

And then the next morning my phone said this:

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And it was time to leave. Only, I couldn’t leave without one more signature New York bite:

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Nothing fancy, just a toasted everything bagel with lox spread from the Pick-A-Bagel near where we were staying, but those offensively garlicky notes and pungent onion undercurrents reminded me of what it was, again, I’d be leaving behind. New York’s not an easy city, especially in 0 degree weather. But it’s the contrast of that bitter cold outside, and the warmth of a great meal or a great show inside, that makes being there so fantastic. Which is all to say, I can’t wait to go back…just when it’s a wee bit warmer.

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