I’ve Got Friends in High Places…Well one, her name is Molly and she works at The Union Square Cafe

It’s difficult to gauge my success here on the world wide web in the context of the world at large. Yes, many people read my food blog but how many people in the world know what a food blog is? I rest my case.

But my friends are eager supporters of what I do. Take my lovely and talented friend Molly: she’s been working at The Union Square Cafe all summer and she keeps wanting me to come in as “The Amateur Gourmet.” “If you come in when I’m working,” she’ll say, “I can get you V.I.P. treatment.”

Me a V.I.P.? A man who dips a wine glass in Nutella, fills it with red wine and calls it dessert? There must be some kind of mistake! But when my parents surprised me with the news they were coming this weekend (despite my eager protests of “don’t come! I have work! I just started school!”) I took Molly up on her offer and she made a reservation for us on Friday night.

Here she is with my parents:

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Isn’t she cute? And just like she said she would she told The Union Square Cafe that I was a V.I.P. “I told them you were The Amateur Gourmet, that you have a food blog and it took off.” I flushed a bit but my mom ate it up. Our reservation was at 9 and we were seated a few minutes late but that’s ok, as any V.I.P. knows you don’t want to be seated right away. That’s an insult.

Our V.I.P. status entitled us to courses beyond the ones we ordered. Mostly this was due to Molly who started off by bringing us a basket of garlic potato chips. Dad and I snacked greedily. (I forgot to snap a picture of it.)

“Any celebrities here tonight?” we asked Molly. She went to find out and reported that Alanis Morisette was in a little earlier. I took the news that we missed her like a jagged little pill. (ZING!)

Then another free course: a miso/corn soup.

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Those two flavors–miso and corn–worked really well together. And it was the perfect size and presentation.

Next up, yet ANOTHER free course. (See now you know how the other half lives. Who knew there were so many free courses to be had?) This was a heirloom tomato salad with some kind of cheese and basil:

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This course showcased the relationship between The Union Square Cafe and the farmer’s market right next door. And though these are all ingredients the average consumer/chef can assemble easily at home, there was still a bit of magic on the plate. Plus it was free! Did I mention that?

But alas, here’s an appetizer ordered from the menu. Yellowfin tuna tartare with horseradish-mustard vinaigrette, Vidalia onions & avocado salad:

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This is a great summer dish. Light, refreshing, and yet flavorful and punchy with the horseradish.

On Molly’s recommendation, mom tried a pasta dish because chef Michael Romano is famous for his pasta. Mom had the “Stringhetti con Astice e Fave” which is “housemade bowtie pasta with lobster, fava beans, basil and pecorino.”

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Naturally she loved it. What’s not to love? I picked at it and she fought my fork away.

For the entrees, Molly was enthusiastic in her praise for the lamb. “They’re the best lamb chops I’ve ever had,” she told us. “And they’re also our most popular dish.”

So mom ordered the lamb chops and I ordered the second most popular dish: the lemon pepper duck with rhubarb-cherry chutney, farro & swiss chard:

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Duck, as longtime readers may have noticed, is a favorite dish of mine because it has the sweet, the savory, the salty and the crisp. I like all those things.

And here’s mom’s lamb:

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“Mmm,” she said, pleasure written on her face.

Enacting the Mother Child Meal Sharing Statute of 1973, mom and I switched halfway through. And both of us ignored dad and his boring salmon. (In his defense, he wasn’t feeling well and wanted something simple.)

For dessert, dad found his match with a cookies and cream baked alaska (he loves cookies and cream ice cream and he loves baked alaska); mom fell in love with a banana tart with macadamias. And as if that weren’t enough, Molly brought us out a chocolate bread pudding. Check it:

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Don’t you wish you knew Molly too? But now I think she may have been trying to kill us because on the way out she gave us a box of cookies. And those cookies have been sitting in my kitchen and I’ve been snacking on them non-stop since Friday night. They’re cookie-riffic. And they’re giving me a muffin-top, defined by William Safire as a fold of fat encircling the top of your jeans.

Regardless, it pays to have friends in high places. Now I just need a friend who owns a gym.

Thanks Molly for a great night!

High Drama and Warm Bagels at Ess-A-Bagel

Back in my Chowhounding days, before I lived in New York, I had a list on the back page of a moleskin notebook of places Chowhounders revered in the city. I actually still have that moleskin in my desk somewhere. The summer before I moved to New York, I stayed with Lisa and used that Chowhounded moleskin as a guide, trying lots of quirky places like Gem Spa for great egg creams. One of those places was Ess-A-Bagel on 1st Ave. for “the best bagel in NY” (according to the Chowhounders.)

This morning I had the Sunday Times in my satchel bag and, it being beautiful outside, a desire to walk far for a bagel. So I walked five avenues over and two blocks down to Ess-A-Bagel, where I hadn’t been in two years:

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The walk was really pretty—I passed Gramercy Park which, apparently, you need a special key to enter. I also passed the Gramercy Tavern where I’d like to go some day.

Inside Ess-A-Bagel, there was a line. Here is a picture of that line:

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The high drama mentioned in the title of this post came when these women, at the front of the line, went to pay for their bagels. “Two bagels, everything on it,” said the man at the register. “We didn’t want everything on it,” said the woman. The man said, “I asked you if you wanted everything on it, you said yes.” “Well we don’t want everything on it. We never said that.”

I may be getting the details wrong, but that was the basic exchange. And it culminated with the man saying, “What do you want me to do with these bagels then? Throw them out?”

The women huffed. “You don’t talk to customers that way,” said one of them. “Don’t give me that,” said the man. “I’m leaving,” said one of the women. “Me too,” said another. “You’re very rude,” she said as a final thought on her way out. She was wearing rollerblades.

Now I was already a little turned off by this guy’s behavior. I mean, maybe these women did accidentally say everything when they didn’t want everything, but still “the customer is always right”…right? But then he did something gross. He disassembled the bagels they didn’t buy and scraped the cream cheese back into the bins and put everything else back. Gross!

(I guess not as gross as if he took a half eaten bagel and did the same thing.)

Eventually it was my turn to order and I was very careful to say: “Everything bagel, lox spread, tomato and onion.” I decided to get lox spread because, for me, it has the perfect ratio of lox to cream cheese and I don’t feel all oily and heavy like I do when I eat salty, briny slices of smoked salmon in the middle of the day. (Sure, once in a while, like at Russ and Daughters, but not every Sunday.)

Here’s the resulting bagel:

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The best part, right away, is that the bagel was warm. Probably fresh from the oven. This made it easier to chew, though it melted the cream cheese a bit. Was it fantabulous? No. But it was very good. Easier to chew than a Murray’s bagel but somehow not as hefty. And I like the lox spread better at Murray’s.

My ideal bagel, then, would be a Murray’s shaped bagel baked at Ess-A-Bagel and served with lox from Russ & Daughters. I will market these bagels under the name Murr-A-Bagel and Daughters. And if you order it with everything and change your mind, not only will I not yell at you, the bagel’s on the house. I’m a bagel business prodigy!

It’s a pretzel! It’s a croissant! It’s a pretzel It’s a croissant! It’s a pretzel croissant from The City Bakery!

David Lebovitz of the food blog Davidlebovitz.com told me recently that he told Clotilde, upon leaving for America, that she must try the salted croissant from The City Bakery. “That’s the thing from New York I crave the most,” wrote David.

Well being in the neighborhood today of The City Bakery, I found myself driven into the store in pursuit of a salted croissant. They were labelled “pretzel croissants” on the glass case and they cost $3. I purchased one along with a lemonade and I took it home. Here it is on my windowsill:

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What a strange concoction! It tastes like a croissant AND it tastes like a pretzel. It’s like that SNL sketch: “It’s a floor wax! It’s a dessert topping! It’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping!”

After several thoughtful bites, I concluded that the pretzel croissant functions more like a pretzel than it does a croissant. Meaning: I’d be more likely to eat a pretzel croissant in situations where I craved a pretzel than situations where I craved a croissant. It’s because of the saltiness.

But indeed, its peculiar flavors make this a truly unique noshing experience. I’ll have to ask Clotilde if she’s tried one yet when I see her tomorrow night. OH YES: Tomorrow, The Amateur Gourmet meets Chocolate & Zucchini for a landmark dinner of epic proportions that you’ll be hearing about very soon. Stay tuned!

United We Eat, Divided We Pay: The Union Square Cafe

On Amazon.com’s restaurant page, one may grow depressed to learn that The Outback Steakhouse, The Cheesecake Factory and Applebee’s rank significantly higher than The Gramercy Tavern and The Union Square Cafe in terms of menu-viewing popularity. On a practical front it makes sense—-when most American families go out, they want reliable, moderately priced and familiar food. Actually, reading those statistics kind of puts things in perspective: it puts one on the defensive. How do you justify a lunch for two at The Union Square Cafe that would pay for dinner for four at Applebee’s?

Let’s begin with atmosphere. The Union Square Cafe is quaint and beautiful. Big neon sign out front:

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Inside, there are lavish floral arrangements, friendly hosts/hostesses, a crowded bar, and white walls with abstractly painted designs. We–(Lauren and I; she’s visiting this weekend)–were seated in the back room in a banquette near much more distinguished-looking people. They sat us so we were both facing out. At first, I thought this was cute, but it got to be irritating after a while.

Service.

Have you seen the Applebee’s commercials where they show the waitress going to work, but first she visits a little old lady who invites her to dinner and the waitress says she can’t she has to work and the old lady crumples in disappointment, and at the end the waitress surprises the old bag with dinner from Applebee’s? Or the one where the football team loses the game just as Applebee’s is closing up in a rain storm and the van pulls up with the players and they get out and see it’s closed and begin to feel even more defeated when the manager opens it up for them?

What the fuck ARE these commercials? Lessons in morality from a corporate giant that excels at mediocrity? “Come eat at Applebee’s, we believe in your eternal salvation and our food only sucks a little!” I find it so depressing that corrupt institutions (Applebee’s, George W. Bush) can exploit religious devotion for their own gain. Halleluljah!

But I digress. The service at The Union Square Cafe was a bit phony. Here’s what I mean by that. I was telling Lauren that I had to watch five movies this weekend for school and that I’ve yet to find a local Blockbuster. Lauren said, “I think there’s one in Union Square.” Just then the waitress came over. She said, “Are you looking for something in Union Square?” “A blockbuster,” I replied. “I’ll find out for you right away,” she said and scampered off.

She was gone for 10 minutes and she came back and asked if we were ready to place our order. Either she forgot or she has short-term memory loss. In any case, she took our order and then disappeared for huge lengths of time. Our meal went incredibly slow. Where’s Jesus when you need him?

The Food.

But, of course, the food was delicious. The best thing was this calamari:

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Really tender, wonderfully seasoned batter. The sauce was this anchovy dipping sauce which may seem gross to some, but it was really among the best dipping sauces I’ve ever had for calamari. This dish was a winner on all fronts.

Lauren ordered the tuna burger:

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I’m not sure she was in love with it, but she really liked the presentation. She liked the pickled ginger that came on top. She also liked the garlic potato chips.

I ordered the halibut special:

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The seasoning that formed a crust on the top of the halibut was terrific. Everything else was slightly bland. Or maybe it was subtle? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

I enjoyed the mushrooms and the spinach mixed in the sauce beneath.

Interestingly…

As I took these pictures, two older gentlemen stared at me with fascination.

“Aren’t you going to take our picture?” they said when I was finished.

“Haha,” I laughed.

“No seriously, take our picture,” they said.

I’d already put my camera away.

“A little bit later,” I said.

Then later, when I’d gone to the bathroom and the check had been paid, I came back to find Lauren talking to these men. They had asked her why I was taking pictures; she told them about my website. The larger of the two men asked, “Are you a cook?”

I said, “Well I like to cook; I’m still an amateur…”

“Bah!” he said. “You have to develop your tastebuds, otherwise you’ll always be an amateur.”

Duly noted.

“Do you know Marcella Hazan?” he asked.

“Well yes,” I replied, “she was featured in Saveur Magazine last month.”

“I was at her 80th birthday party,” he bragged.

“Wow,” I said, “that must have been amazing.”

“Unbelievable,” he replied.

“She teaches at the French Culinary Institute,” I attempted.

“Yes,” he said, “the founder of the FCI was sitting next to me.”

I looked at my watch.

“Well it was nice to have met you both,” I said, and shook their hands. Lauren and I hurried off.

I forgot to take their picture.

We Built This City (Bakery)

I can be very tentative when it comes to spending money on lunch. I don’t shirk from an expensive sandwich if I’m confident I will enjoy it (see: ‘Wichcraft.) But I will shirk from an expensive salad bar that charges $10 a pound when I know that I have a tendency to load up my plate with 80 pounds worth of salad. Which is why three times, before today, I walked through City Bakery, sniffing along the salad bar, and deciding against it because I knew it’d be way too expensive.

However, today I spotted their chicken wings. I remembered reading the Best of New York issue of New York magazine that City Bakery’s chicken wings were the best in New York. So I grabbed a plate, got three wings and some salad and, on the way to the register, spotted the City Bakery tart book. The book was so beautiful, I threw that in for good measure. And then, since I was buying the book and since they’re famous for their tarts, I bought a tart too. I spent quite a bit of money on lunch.

But first things first. The salad, the wings. The wings were dark and grainy and, actually, not wings at all but legs. It didn’t matter: they were delicious. The seasoning was an Old Bay seasoning which, I believe, usually goes with crab and other sea food. Here it was mixed with what must have been cayenne pepper because there was definite heat to it. But I could see how the combination of flavors render these wings the best in New York. I’d love to have the recipe.

As for the tart, I went with “fruit tart.” It cost $5.50. But, people of the United States of Compassionate Blog Reading, how beautiful does this look?

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This goes into the pantheon of favorite pastries ever. The dough itself is the greatest achievement in the history of flour, butter and sugar. It was so delicate, I couldn’t even lift the tart without it seeming to fall apart. It simultaneously crumbles and melts in your mouth. It was tart-shattering.

And the filling—it was a lemon filling and it was a perfect combination of tanginess and creaminess. Plus the fruit itself was marvelous. I’m so glad I bought this book:

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The book is pricey ($25) (I told you I spent severe dinero today) but, in my mind, well worth it. To make the tarts you need flan rings. That’s the secret to their shape. Perhaps I’ll buy some after I file Chapter 11.

Flipping through the pages of the book, though, is already a feast for the eyes. My favorite picture is the Ricotta Cheese Tart with Summer Fruits and Flowers:

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Doesn’t look so hot in that picture, but trust me it’s a work of art. Fortunately, you can buy the book on Amazon.com. Follow this link and help a poor boy buy some flan rings:

Loving New York and Eating Sausage: Lunch at Mandler’s

People are asking me how I like New York so far. The answer is easy: I love it. I’m still giddy every morning when I wake up and peer out the window and feel the world of possibility before me. People tell me this will fade. But I think the likelihood of that happening has nothing to do with New York and everything to do with growing older, jaded, and world-weary. That’s what’s wonderful about New York: it’s like a giant mirror. It reflects back on to you whatever it is your soul projects. That’s why so many artists capture New York in so many different ways. Woody Allen. Martin Scorsese. The Olsen Twins.

However, another New York theory may be available. It focuses on the “New” and not the “York.” It is the “new” that makes this city so vibrant, that causes so many to flock here. Cultivating newness is difficult as a matter of practice. Failure to do so can spoil relationships, diets, vacations, magazine sales, hair styles, and so many other venerable institutions. Which is why newness is such a rare commodity.

New York has newness in spades. Newness in the sense that New York is always at the forefront of trends and fashions but also in the sense that New York is like a present in a package in a box in a bedroom in a mansion in a valley in a spaceship near a Denny’s. Let me start again.

I love New York because every day I discover something new; I could walk forever and still find mystery and magic in the city streets. In New York, newness flourishes because New York is a newness machine. Its settings, its characters, its climates, its smells, its sounds and its colors are always constantly changing. Today alone I saw puppies in a shop window, a strange church near Greenwich village, a lamp shop with lamps made from dental equipment, an old couple jaywalking and Jai Rodriguez. And that’s only a five-hour window.

Anyway (boy, I’m long-winded tonight), of course this newness applies to food. I love leaving my apartment hungry, not knowing where I’ll end up eating. Today I ended up at a place called Mandler’s, near Union Square.

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Mandler’s is a sausage place and I’m not much of a sausage eater, but I was feeling adventurous—so in I went. I’m glad I did!

The system works like this. You choose your type of sausage. I chose the most basic: bratwurst. Then you choose your topping: grilled onions and mushrooms or sauerkraut. I chose the former. Finally, you choose your bun: white, whole wheat, onion… I chose white. I’m pretty fly, for a white guy.

Here’s what came out:

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Tasty, not too pricey and filling. If you’d have told me when I’d woken up that I’d be eating sausage for lunch I’d say: “Girlfren, you crazy!” But that’s New York for you. I love it.

Feed Me Amadeus: Dinner at Wolfgang’s

It pains me to post these pictures, not because of incriminating content or the caddle prod I’m sitting on, but because the thought of food disgusts me right now. That is the effect of a visit from my parents: they suck my will to eat.

Ugh, food. I hate it. How do we eat so much of it? I never want to see it again, much less blog about it. From now on this blog will focus solely on obscure show tunes. Who prefers “Ah But Underneath” to “Lucy and Jessie” in Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies”?

Nevermind.

Ok ok, so last night we went with the R family to the new go-to steakhouse in Manhattan, Wolfgang’s. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of Wolfgang’s: the head waiter at Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn (one of the premiere steakhouses in the United States) deflected and opened his own place. That place is Wolfgang’s. We ate there.

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The R family brought along their sons, Andrew and Jeffrey, one of whom actually had eaten at Luger’s. So he had a frame of reference.

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(Guy in pink shirt is our frame of reference.)

Right away, Andrew pointed out the differneces. “Luger’s is a real steakhouse,” he said, “there’s sawdust on the floor.”

I dropped a fork to look for sawdust. No luck.

Instead, we were presented with a basket of bread:

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I love eggy onion rolls loaded with butter. No wonder I hate food right now.

Anyway, the acoustics in Wolfgang’s were awful. See, there was this tiled ceiling:

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It was indeed beautiful. But the effect was to carry strange conversations across the room without any evidence of their source. I overheard one girl say something along the lines of: “He doesn’t call me? Fuck him.” I immediately whipped out my cell phone and called her. She didn’t answer. Fuck her.

Now then, the real glue that binds our family and the R family together is the bond between mom and the R matriarch, Stephanie:

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Mom and Stephanie met when we lived in Oceanside, NY (where I grew up for 11 years). The Rs were our across the street neighbors. Mom used to watch Andrew ride his tricycle; and Stephanie used to marvel at how early mom put me to bed.

“It’s 6 pm,” she’d say, “and he’s already asleep?”

It is the stuff of legend.

You know how good writers can weave disparate elements into a solid piece?

The salad and appetizers arrived. I ordered the Wolfgang’s salad which consisted of shrimp and bacon (really thick, squares of bacon) on a wedge of iceberg lettuce:

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It was pretty tasty. Jeffrey got the raw oysters:

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I’d never had a raw oyster, so I tried one. “Let it slide down your throat,” offered Jeffrey. I did. It tasted like what it looked like, which wasn’t entirely bad. The cocktail sauce helped. (I couldn’t help but remember the Punky Brewster episode where she’s adopted by really rich people and, in an attempt to eat an oyster, it slips down her shirt. Is it any coincidence that years later, Soleil Moon Frye had breast reduction surgery? Oysters are like breast fertilizer. No wonder they’re an aphordisiac.)

No one goes to Peter Luger’s and/or Wolfgang’s for the oysters or the salads or the camraderie. They go for the meat. Big, heaping plates of meat. Apparently, the process is complex enough to launch its own Da Vinci code. Suffice it to say, there’s aging involved. And cows. Many, many cows.

The waiter urged us (forcefully so) to share the Porterhouse. Since everyone was fussy about how we liked it cook, only Jeffrey and I were sympatico enough to share and order it Medium:

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Look at that plate! So hot, in fact, that the waiter serving the steak would lift a piece and then press it on the plate’s edge causing it to sizzle and sear. He offered to pour some juice from the plate on top. I gave in.

The meat tasted terrific. Was this the placebo effect? Ya know—tell someone something is something and they’ll believe it. “This medicine will cure you” (and it’s a tic-tac.) “This beef is the best in the world” (and it’s nuclear cow). Maybe. But the flavor was complex and rich. The texture was tender and just chewy enough. And though it’s slightly sacrilege to pour steak sauce on the plate when eating world class steak, I thought I’d try Wolfgang’s signature sauce. Unfortuantely, the sauce thought it would try me and came pouring out with intense conviction. My plate was soon coated. No matter—I built a dam with potatoes and all was well.

So the steak gone what else was there?

“At Luger’s,” explained Andrew, “they have this dessert called Schlagg.”

“What’s Schlagg?” I pressed.

“It’s basically whipped cream,” he answered. “But better.”

Could my stomach hold any more? Why did it still feel like there was room? Was this a trick of the mind?

Didn’t matter because it’s mom’s birthday and we ordered a sundae with a candle.

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Then we ordered more sundaes. The sundaeshad Schlagg. The Schlagg was delicious. I felt like I might die:

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To say I was stuffed is like saying G. Gordan Liddy is bald. I was beyond bald. I mean stuffed. I insisted on walking home. (Granted, it was only 6 blocks).

And while my Wolfgang’s experience was incredibly delicious, there was discontent regarding the service. M, the R family dad, ordered several things that were never brought. Cappucino and cake, for example. And the waiter was pretty absent–our meal took three hours. Some of the dishes came out faster than others, so some were eating while others weren’t. And water glasses went frequently unfilled.

Some say that’s the legacy of Peter Luger’s too. Jaded world-weary waiters. Fair enough. Service is an area that a young restaurant can improve upon. The food’s where it counts, and the food was great. Too great, in fact. It’s forced me into retirement. Now on to mom’s birthday dinner…

It’s ‘Wichcraaaaaaaft!

I carry a pocket Moleskin notepook in, of all places, my pocket. Matisse and Hemingway did too. At least that’s what it said on the Moleskin advertising material.

I have had my Moleskin notebook for over a year now. This is rather disappointing since my Moleskin notebook is filled with my ideas. Since the book has only like 100 or so pages, that means I’ve only had 100 or so pages worth of ideas in the course of a year. And I write really really big. Inspiration, therefore, strikes only rarely.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I occasionally use my Moleskin–only occasionally!–for trivial, of-the-moment data. No, not shopping lists (necessarily). But last time I came to New York, I displaced my ideas for a page of famous New York dining spots for me to check out. Some of them I dug up on Chowhound.com and others are very well known. One of those places was Craft.

Craft is a very famous, rather challenging fine dining establishment on 19th street. I say challenging because my parents went to Craft with their friends and were so challenged that they left after their appetizers and went somewhere else.

I walked by there today and checked out the menu. It was challenging and expensive and I was only looking for lunch.

Then I peeked in next door at CraftBar. This is a more laid back little sister of Craft, but still it looked a little intimidating. I didn’t want to sit at a fancy bar for lunch.

Giving up, I set my heart on a bagel at Ess-A-Bagel on 1st–a far walk. And yet as I started my walk, I noticed a third Craft establishment: ‘Wichcraft.

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I stuck my head in. Pretentious? No. Challenging? No. Actually, it was rather welcoming.

They had a nice selection of fancy sandwiches, soups and breakfast foods. The prices were comparable to Alon’s Bakery in Atlanta which, admittedly, is a bit pricey but Alon’s is not Craft-affiliated. And seeing as Tom Collichio (the famous Craft chef) is such a well-respected food figure, I figured I’d give it a shot.

I went with the soup and sandwich combo. Soup choices were: tomato or lentil. I went with tomato. Sandwich choices were a bit more challenging: proscuttio, a weird tuna one and another weird one. I went with proscuttio

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The soup was tasty, though it had a certain Old World taste I couldn’t quite place. The festering finger of Christopher Columbus? The sandwich was good–it tasted of quality, though it wasn’t something I would pine for one day in a rocking chair in my nursing home. But, all in all, I’m glad I went.