My trip to New York started with a favorite brunch spot going down the tubes and ended with a brunch spot that I loved so much, I went twice. That spot is Lafayette and it’s located, as the name might suggest, on Lafayette Street just south of the Astor Place stop on the 6 train and north of the Broadway/Lafayette stop on every other train. My first visit was with my friend Alex who you can see above modeling a $14 basket of pastries so good, we pretty much devoured the whole thing. Going to Lafayette and not ordering the pastry basket is like going to Disneyland and not riding the rides. You just can’t avoid it.
About a year ago, a place opened up in SoHo/Nolita called “The Best Chocolate Cake in The World.” A tongue-in-cheek act of hubris, sort of like the novel “Winner of the National Book Award,” foodies were skeptical. Many who went there dismissed it as overrated. Me? I forgot about it. But last week, after having lunch with my friends Leland Scruby (of the French Culinary Institute) and Bao Ong (whose name you may recognize from the the New York Times Diner’s Journal blog) I asked if they wanted to check it out because it was right around the corner from where we were eating (Falai). They gladly assented.
When Fatemeh of Gastronomie e-mailed me on Monday night and informed me that she was taking the red eye in for business and wanted to take me to lunch the next day at Pastis, how could I say no? Well, I did say no: not to the lunch, but to Pastis. I had a class at 1 pm that I couldn’t miss and there’d be no way I could get from the meatpacking district to NYU unless we started lunch at 11. Fatemeh was accommodating: she offered to meet somewhere closer to NYU. I suggested Balthazar because it’s owned by the same people as Pastis and we could meet for breakfast with plenty of time for me to get to my class. She gave the virtual nod and we planned to meet there at 10:30, Tuesday morning.
My feelings about Balthazar are very mixed. At its worst, I feel like it’s a trendy, snobby French “it spot” that treats the guests with disdain serving hit-or-miss food for outrageous prices. At its best, I think it’s New York’s most authentic French bistro, and if you catch it at the right moment you can find yourself transported across the Atlantic. Depends when you go, why you go and who you go with. Going for breakfast with Fatemeh, it turns out, is the best possible configuration.
I arrived before her and secured us a table near the door. When she walked in, I recognized her from her site picture (though she looks much younger in real life). I waved her down and she joined me in the booth. She was a bit tired from her red eye flight (she practically came straight from the airport). But we quickly got to talking, filling each other in on our respective careers (she sells things, I write things), and our respective cities (hers: San Francisco; mine: The Big Apple.)
When it came time to ordering, I logically suggested that we each get eggy savory dishes (instead of the waffles) so we could justify an order of bread. The bread basket at Balthazar is unmissable and Fatemeh inevitably agreed when they brought it out:
“Wow,” she said.
“I know,” I said.
“God,” she said. “I have a meeting this afternoon, if I eat all these carbs I’ll fall asleep.”
“Shh,” I said, “No you won’t. Just eat them they’re delish.”
We democratically cut the caramelized pecan roll in two; we tore at the almond raisin foccaccia-like bread (which was amazing) and tore at the brioche, which you can see in that picture: it looks like a hat the Queen might wear in Alice in Wonderland.
As we waited for our breakfast entrees, Fatemeh and I continued to dish–we did food blogger gossip (most of it centering around San Francisco), I told her about my family, she told me about her family–and then our food arrived. I had the eggs benecict, which was perfect and sinful in every way:
Fatemeh had the quiche which she raved over.
“You have to try it,” she insisted. “Usually quiche is really firm, but this is so moist.”
Indeed it was. And we could guiltlessly return to the bread basket whenever wanted because our entrees were so carbless. (Well, except the crust of Fatemeh’s quiche.)
Meanwhile, the waiter refilled our coffee mugs and our water glasses and we continued to chat. Fatemeh and I clicked really well: it’s amazing how foodbloggers can connect so easily (the same is true of all the other foodbloggers I’ve met thus far). I think the secret is a shared passion: there’s plenty to talk about when you love food.
As for Balthazar, I’m pretty sure Fatemeh would agree, it’s wonderful at breakfast. Not crowded, not noisy, and bright with the morning sunlight, the food is terrific and the prices are way reasonable for such a trendy, hard-to-get-into-at-night sort of place. I hear Judith Miller breakfasts there, why shouldn’t you? The prices are not so different, I bet, than 90% of other sit-down breakfast places in the city. In fact–and this will blow your mind–the omelet I had this morning at the Waverly Diner was only a few dollars less than the eggs benedict at Balthazar. Is your mind blown? I hope it is.
Anyway, I’m glad Fatemeh e-mailed me at the last minute, I had a great time. I hope I get to visit her and all the other San Francisco food bloggers on their native turf someday. We can have eggs benedict at the Zuni Cafe and Judy Rogers can yell at me for not salting my chicken long enough. Then I’ll jump off the Golden Gate bridge and everyone will blog about it. Such is the life of a food blogger!
Patty and I haven’t seen each other in ages. We made a lunch date for Thursday and Diana tagged along. They were going to see a movie at the Sunshine that started at 3 and they asked me to suggest a restaurant close by. At first I was going to push Fatty Crab, but that wasn’t close by. After doing some research I discovered Dos Caminos on Houston and West Broadway. “That’ll work,” said Patty and off we went to meet.
It was freaky how warm things were last week, and I’m sort of grateful for the miserable cold weather we’re having now. It’s winter as winter should be. But on super warm Thursday, Patty arrived on her bicycle. Patty bicycles everywhere. Most notably from her home in Brooklyn to NYU on a regular basis.
Diana soon arrived and we all made our way inside…
Patty, my beloved classmate and friend, was very specific in our e-mail exchange regarding the lunch we were to have yesterday. “Someplace exciting and not too expensive,” she wrote.
Exciting and not too expensive? Where could we go?
Then an image popped into my head:
I’d been in SoHo the other day working on a film for another website (you’ll hear about that soon) and we stopped in front of Cendrillon to shoot some footage. While we were shooting, two things happened. (1) We saw Ed Koch leaving the restaurant; and (2) I read the menu. And I was shocked to see how cheap their lunch menu was. Suddenly I remembered that Frank Bruni reviewed this place only a few weeks ago, giving it two stars. That’s Cafe Gray level at much cheaper prices. Most entrees were in the $8 range.
So Cendrillon I suggested and Patty accepted.
Bruni starts off his review saying, “In a city full of inquisitive diners ever eager for a change of pace, the Filipino restaurant Cendrillon should be attracting many more fans and much more interest than it does. It certainly shouldn’t be only about one-sixth full, as it was during the first of the many recent times I dined there, or one-fifth full, as it was the third.”
Sure enough, the lunch crowd yesterday was nil—and that’s being generous. Patty and I and one other couple were the only two tables eating in this large restaurant at 1 pm. When we left there were a few more tables, but where were all the people? If Bruni can’t make them come, who can?
Well let me make a case. This appetizer, called Lumpia, isn’t the strongest piece of evidence:
That’s a purple yam crepe wrapped around sauteed vegetables. Two sauces on top (which we couldn’t identify) perked things up a bit and Patty and I enjoyed this, but we weren’t falling on the floor in ecstasy. (Also, I should say we only knew to order this because the one other couple there–a couple that looked like they’d been there many times–ordered the Lumpia, so we followed suit.)
Otherwise, I had “recommended dishes” from the NYT review written down on an index card in my pocket. I know that’s dorky but I was a bit apprehensive about the menu and wanted to order something I wouldn’t regret. And boy am I ever glad I had that, but first Patty and her Tilapia:
Patty’s a pescatarian so she was limited to just a few entree choices. On the menu, this is listed as “Tilapia with Mango” but that, we learned, is like advertising “Six Feet Under” as “Family with Death.” (Actually, that pretty much describes it.) Patty’s plate was festooned with the most unusual and elaborate condiments we’d ever encounter. She’d pick little seeds up and pods and taste them and hand me one and ask me to help her identify what it was. We had no clue. And that was so fun!
But Patty’s mystery box plate is not why I recommend Cendrillon. I recommend it for one main reason and that’s this Chicken Adobo:
I’ve never had chicken adobo and now I never want to stop. How to describe this? The most flavor you can imagine infused into a chicken happens here in this little pot. The first sign is the huge whiff of vinegar you get when they lift off the lid. That’s the major theme: tart vinegar, and then heat from peppers and then other exotic notes you can barely identify. But the chicken itself is perfect: meaty, crisp on the outside, and plenty there despite how boney it may look. After it’s gone, you’re so grateful for the white rice it comes with: now you get to soak up all that chickeny, vinegary sauce. I nominate this dish my #1 favorite chicken dish for 2005. I’ll let you know if that stands by the end of the year.
So go for the chicken and then stay for this dessert:
It’s called “Buko Pie (Young Coconut)” and it’s pretty divine. Inside are long thick strips of coconut, cut like you’d cut fennel, that are steamed in the pie so they’re really tender. The outer crust is awesome–“This crust is so good,” said Patty–and the ice cream ties it all together.
In conclusion, I’m so glad Patty and I went to Cendrillon yesterday. It’s the sort of place that’s somewhere in your brain and but for strange circumstances reminding you of it, you may never remember that it’s there. Now that I’ve reminded you, though, please go. They deserve your patronage!
And if you’re STILL not convinced, check out this place next door:
(That’s “Toys in Babeland” in case you can’t read it. Get it? It’s a reversal of “Babes in Toyland” but I’m sure you got that.)
Yes, it’s a sex toy shop and it’s right next to Cendrillon. So there’s a perfect evening right there: spicy, vinegary Filipino food and sex toys. Check out these food related products:
Can’t wait to make a boy butter chocolate nipple cake! I’ll save that for next week. Meanwhile, eat at Cendrillon! You won’t regret it.
Down in SoHo today, I decided to quit my job as a concierge at the Hotel Mercer because some asshole kept complaining about his phone “not being able to call Austrailia” and I made my way down Sullivan Street for some lunch. I’d already done Pepe Rosso (which I loved) and Peanut Butter & Co. (which I didn’t) so I kept walking–walking south, more south than I’d ever been.
Then I remembered the Sullivan Streeet Baking Company. I’d heard many things and now it was staring me in my telephone-smacked face:
Here’s Robert Sietsema on Sullivan Street–he can explain it better than I can: “When I want pizza like I get in Tuscany and Umbria, I go to Sullivan Street, where simple flatbreads with single toppings like mushrooms, zucchini and potatoes are cut into big rectangles and sold by weight. Nowhere in town is the relationship of dough to pie more apparent, with the possible exception of Rose & Joe’s.”
My choice for today’s lunch was “funghi” (that means mushrooms) and what I think was labelled “pate” featuring potatoes and rosemary. Take a look:
Far and away the “funghi” was my favorite. The mushrooms were skillfully flavored with thyme and salt such that in one bite you might get an earthy muted taste and in another bite it’d be packed with flavor. The potato slice was fine–the rosemary helped–but I don’t really like potatoes on pizza. If I had studied more carefully I’d have ordered the zucchini.
There were sandwiches in the case too which I’ll try next time. Plus pastries which I resisted: they all looked really wonderful. Next door is a yogurt shop with authentic yogurt that I’ll have to try once I get the money from the settlement. Before I eat yogurt, I have to eat Crowe!
(*Note: The humor in this piece is based on a current event involving a certain celebrity in a certain altercation. If you really don’t know, read ANY OTHER WEBSITE to learn more!)
Kirk recommended it. James Felder took the pictures. I contributed clout and prestige to the dining party. It was Monday night and the three of us went, after class, to Peep in SoHo.
Why is it called Peep?
Simple answer which Kirk explained. The bathroom has a one-way mirror so that while you pee (and/or do other bathroom like things) you can look out at all the people eating. You can peep at them, but they can’t peep at you! Hence the name: Peep.
With that out of the way, how was the food?
I ordered my favorite Thai beverage, Thai Iced Tea:
Thai Iced Tea always borders on the overly sweet and the overly tangy, but this was just right. I also enjoyed the tall generous glass it was served in.
The three of us shared ginger crusted calamari:
This was delicious with a knock-em-dead presentation. The three of us nibbled greedily. Squid never had it so good.
Then there were the entrees. For my entree, I chose garlic chicken (I would be doing no making out that evening):
I really enjoyed this. Not sure how I felt about the potato chip thingies you see in there, but the flavors were great, the textures great, and the presentation perfect.
The price at the end wasn’t outrageous. That’s how Kirk sold it: “It’s really not that expensive.” It’s not. And the place is fun. And did I mention the bathroom? You can’t know how pleasurable it is to pee with a wall of people eating behind you. Ok, maybe that’s not so pleasurable. But the food’s great! Check it out.
Across the street from the MOMA store in SOHO (see post below) is Balthazar, one of New York’s top restaurants—certainly one of its best bistros. I’ve been there before with my family and I accused it of being an emperor “with no clothes.” Maybe I got a little ahead of myself…
Anyway, tonight after the MOMA store, I peered into the Balthazar windows. It looked empty. I looked at the menu outside. Looked tasty. A maitre’d opened the front door. “You want to eat?” he said. “Party of one?”
I looked around me. Should I proceed? I did get that check from Google last week from the ads you so kindly click on my website. I wasn’t meeting my friends until later for the Halloween parade. And plus, I was hungry.
So in I went.
You know, one of the most beautiful shows I’ve ever scene is Cirque Du Soleil’s “O” in Las Vegas. The way it begins is gorgeous. A red curtain is on the stage. A white-gloved hand comes out and gestures a man forward. He comes (I may be getting some of this wrong, it’s been a long time–but the essence is correct) and the hand grabs him and sucks him in. Suddenly the curtain gets sucked in too and we’re transported into this fantastical mystical world.
That’s how I felt tonight at Balthazar.
I sat at a table near the bar. The waiter greeted me and treated me, throughout the meal, in such a wonderful way. It was is if he said to himself, “Why would this young man be eating here alone on a Sunday night? He must really like food. I like food! We have great food here! I must encourage this young man and steer him through the menu!”
So he recommended wine. I wasn’t planning on drinking wine. He pushed me. I said yes. I chose a white. I wrote down what it was: Graves Chateau Magnear ’03. It was delicious. It was really the first time I noticed the subtle understates in wine–here was definitely the presence of fruit. Apricot? Peach? Hard to tell.
Then, on with the menu. I was only going to order an entree. The waiter pushed me to order an appetizer. (Hey, maybe he wasn’t so kind after all–maybe he just wanted a big tip!) (Umm, duh, Adam). I ordered the beet salad and he looked pleased. “Excellent choice,” he said.
This salad was so perfect. The beets were like jewels. I’ve never had beets this good. And the cheese that went with it—“fourme d’ambert” according to the menu—was magnificent. (“Fourme d’Ambert is one of France’s oldest cheeses (dating from the Roman period)” according to fromages.com). There were also leeks and haricots vert. Everything in perfect harmony. Just excellent.
For my entree, the waiter urged me to try the special: Pork Belly.
I know the squeamish might go “ewww” “ugh” “groan,” but I wasn’t bothered by the prospect of eating belly. I was actually looking forward to the promise of the rich decadent flavor. When it was brought, it looked like heaven on a plate. (Well, if heaven is a belly in a pig):
Sadly, though, the texture bothered me. Here’s the thing. If I’m going to indulge, the indulgence must be worth the years said indulgence will scrape from my life. Here, basically, was just a big lump of expertly prepared fat. And, I’m afraid, that’s what it tasted like. Fat. It tasted like the part of the prime rib you cut around. Gelatinous and just, well, fatty. The outsides were terrific–as you can see from the picture, perfectly caramelized. And there was excellent flavor. But the essence of the belly was just, well, too belly-like.
The lentils, however, were terrific. I ate them greedily.
“Come,” said the waiter, “you must have dessert.”
Ugh. How could I? I just ate a BELLY for crying outloud.
But how many times do you eat at a French bistro by yourself on a Sunday night? Not many. So I said yes. He urged me to try the day’s fresh tart: pear poached in white wine with frangipane. Of course, it was delicious:
By the time the check came, I didn’t want to leave. I really truly felt like I was in Paris. And the best compliment I can pay my Balthazar experience is that I began to adopt a European sensibility. That idea of savoring your food, of lingering at the table. Of no GUILT when it comes to eating. Of not shaving your armpits.
But, alas, the bill came and I paid it. I walked out glowing.
The mark of a great film or play or book, in my opinion, is that it changes your worldview. You emerge transformed, seeing the world through a new filter. That’s how I felt about my Balthazar meal tonight. It was an education; edifying and soul-satisfying at the same time. And expensive. But well worth it!