The journey to the best bagel of my life was a journey of precisely three miles. It started on the Upper East Side, near 2nd Avenue in the 70s, and ended close to Columbia University, on Broadway near 108th Street. I told myself that I could treat myself to a decked-out bagel if I walked all the way to Absolute Bagels, home of what Ed Levine once called “the best bagel in New York.”
At the very tippy top of the New York restaurant pyramid sits Jean-Georges. It’s up there with Daniel, Per Se, Del Posto, Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin; the only restaurants that currently have four stars from The New York Times.
What separates Jean-Georges from the bunch, though, is that you can eat lunch there for $28. Let me say that again. You can eat lunch at one of New York’s only four-star restaurants for $28.
My friend Lisa recently moved to her own apartment on the Upper West Side and before I left for my trip, I went uptown to see the place, to give it my blessing (I smashed a bottle of Bartles & James on the door), and to join her for dinner.
“Where should we go?” asked Lisa, smartly deferring to me because of my strong opinions regarding food and restaurants.
“I don’t know,” I replied coyly, wanting to appear open-minded and non-domineering.
“We could go to–”
“FAIRWAY CAFE,” I shouted, creating an awkward moment that took a few minutes to dissipate.
“Regina Schrambling always writes about The Fairway Cafe on her blog,” I explained. “It’s upstairs at Fairway.”
“I know,” Lisa replied, a bit irritated at my know-it-all-ness. “I’ve been there for brunch.”
“How was it?”
“Awesome,” I said. “So let’s go there.”
The First Stage: Shock
The original plan was to take Craig to see the play “Speech & Debate,” which he’s been eager to see, and then to dinner at Soto–a Japanese place in the West Village, praised as the second best new restaurant of the year by Frank Bruni in The New York Times. And then Mika happened.
Mika, as you may or may not know, is the poppy, campy not-out-of-the-closet-but-clearly-gay singer/songwriter whose catchy tunes–including “Grace Kelly,” “Lollipop,” and “Love Today”–are taking Europe, and slowly America, by storm. I casually mentioned to Craig that I’d considered getting Mika tickets for his birthday but that I didn’t think he’d want to go (this after making reservations at Soto, but before buying tickets to “Speech and Debate”) and he said, “Awww–that’d be so much fun!” So I quickly shifted gears and was able to snatch last minute Mika tickets, rendering the Soto dinner plans a no-go and leaving a big gaping hole for the day part of Craig’s birthday.
Clearly, though, there needed to be a meal. Craig had initially responded “a nice meal” when I asked him what he wanted for his birthday. Where could we go for lunch on a Saturday that’d constitute “a nice meal” before I surprised him with Mika? The first thing that occurred to me was Le Bernardin: it’s one of the best-kept lunch secrets in New York (see this post) and so I quickly called there to see if they had anything for Saturday and the hostess politely told me that they don’t serve lunch on weekends, only on weekdays.
Le Bernardin is a four-star restaurant and since I was in a four-star frame of mind, I Googled my other options. It was then that I realized Per Se has a lunch it serves on weekends. I was well aware that a reservation at Per Se is astonishingly difficult to attain–this is, for those who don’t know, the sister restaurant to our nation’s most prized, celebrated restaurant, The French Laundry–and even if I did attain it, it’d be far outside my price range.
I dialed the number, put the phone on speaker phone, and listened to the Per Se recorded message for about 10 minutes before someone picked up.
“Hello, this is Per Se, how can I help you?”
“Hi,” I said, “I know this is crazy to ask, but I thought I’d take a chance: do you have anything for lunch this Saturday?”
My finger was poised over the phone’s “off” button, prepared for her to cackle and say, “SATURDAY? ARE YOU MAD? WE BOOK UP THREE MONTHS IN ADVANCE!”
But instead: “You’re very lucky sir. We just had a cancellation for this Saturday at noon.”
I almost leapt out of my chair. “Oh wow,” I said. “Ummmm… hmmm… how much is lunch anyway?”
She told me and even though that number was FAR outside anything I ever dreamed of paying, my inner demon said, “What the hell?” and my outer demon said, “Ok, I’ll take it.”
“Excellent,” she said. “I’ll just need your credit card number to hold the reservation.”
“My credit card number?”
“Yes,” she said. “You have until tomorrow to cancel and after that if you fail to make the reservation, we’ll have to charge you for two lunches.”
I got out the card, read her the number, and, once my shock subsided, entered the second stage of Dining at Per Se…
I knew I was going to love Kefi and I did.
After signing books at Best Cellars on the Upper West Side on Friday night, my dear pal Lisa (who lives up there now) joined me for the two block walk over to Kefi. “This is supposed to be great,” I told her. “Really good Greek food for not very much money.”
I recently finished reading Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock” (a fun, if challenging, Roth read) and discovered, upon reaching the book’s final chapter, that the last scene occurs at a place I knew lots about but never visited: Barney Greengrass. What follows is a brilliant section that perfectly describes the scene and the role it plays in Jewish lives:
“Smilesburger had chosen as the site for our editorial meeting a Jewish food store on Amsterdam Avenue, specializing in smoked fish, that served breakfast and lunch on a dozen Formica-topped tables in a room adjacent to the bagel and bialy counter and that looked as though, years back, when someone got the bright idea to “modernize,” the attempt at redecoration had been sensibly curtailed halfway through. The place reminded me of the humble street-level living quarters of some of my boyhood friends, whose parents would hurriedly eat their meals in a closet-sized storeroom just behind the shop to keep an eye on the register and the help. In Newark, back in the forties, we used to buy, for our household’s special Sunday breakfasts, silky slices of precious lox, shining fat little chubs, chunks of pale, meaty carp and paprikaed sable, all double-wrapped in heavy wax paper, at a family-run store around the corner that looked and smelled pretty much as this one did–the tiled floor sprinkled with sawdust, the shelves stacked with fish canned in sauces and oils, up by the cash register a prodigious loaf of halvah soon to be sawed into crumbly slabs, and, wafting up from behind the showcase running the length of the serving counter, the bitter fragrance of vinegar, of onions, of whitefish and red herring, of everything pickled, peppered, salted, smoked, soaked, stewed, marinated, and dried, smells with a lineage that, like these stores themselves, more than likely led straight back through the shtetl to the medieval ghetto and the nutrients of those who lived frugally and could not afford to dine a la mode, the diet of sailors and common folk, for whom the flavor of the ancient preservatives was life. And the neighborhood delicatessen restaurants where we extravagantly ate “out” as a treat once a month bore the same stamp of provisional homeliness, that hallmark look of something that hadn’t quite been transformed out of the eyesore it used to be into the eyesore it aspired to become. Nothing distracted the eye, the mind, or the ear from what was sitting on the plate. Satisfying folk cuisine eaten in simple surroundings, on tables, to be sure, and without people spitting in their plates, but otherwise earthy sustenance partaken in an environment just about as unsumptuous as a feasting place can get, gourmandizing at its most commonplace, the other end of the spectrum of Jewish culinary establishments from the commodiously chandeliered dining salon at Miami Beach’s Fountainbleau. Barley, eggs, onions, soups of cabbage, of beets, inexpensive everyday dishes prepared in the old style and devoured happily, without much fuss, off of bargain-basement crockery.
By now, of course, what was once the ordinary fare of the Jewish masses had become an exotic stimulant for Upper West Siders two and three generations removed from the great immigration and just getting by as professionals in Manhattan on annual salaries that, a century earlier, would have provided daily banquets all year long for every last Jew in Galicia. I’d see these people–among them, sometimes, lawyers, journalists, or editors I knew–taking pleasure, mouthful by mouthful, in their kasha varnishkas and their gefilte fish (and riveted, all the while they unstintingly ate, to the pages of one, two, or even three daily papers) on those occasions when I came down to Manhattan from Connecticut and took an hour off from whatever else I was doing to satisfy my own inextinguishable appetite for the chopped-herring salad as it was unceremoniously served up (that was the ceremony) at one of those very same tables, facing onto the trucks, taxis, and fire engines streaming north, where Smilesburger had suggested that we meet for breakfast at ten a.m. to discuss my book.”
Ok, that was a crazy long passage to quote but who would you rather hear on the subject: me or a Pulitzer-Prize winner? (He’d never use the phrase “crazy long,” for starters.)
That passage, though, helps explain why I spend so much time craving bagels and smoked fish and why my brother’s favorite two words are “whitefish salad.” We are generations away from the original culture that required the smoking of fish for survival—there’s plenty of fresh fish to be had here in New York and in Boca Raton. Why do we still crave the smoked stuff? Is it in our genes?
I know non-Jews enjoy their “smoked salmon” but would non-Jews enjoy the sandwich I ordered when I sat down at a table along Barney Greengrass’s back wall and asked for what Philip Roth asks for at the end of his book: “The chopped-cherring salad on a lightly toasted onion bagel. Tomato on the side. And bring me a glass of orange juice.”
Ok, that’s not exactly how I asked for it. I just said “with tomato” but you get the idea. And here it is:
I’ve never had chopped herring salad before. My family was a lox-spread/whitefish salad exclusive family. I saw my dad eat pickled herring once in my childhood: it came in a white cream sauce that made me gag just looking at it.
But as you can see in the sandwich above, chopped herring salad looks, on the surface, just like any other chopped fish salad–it could be tuna, it could be whitefish. But the taste! Wow the taste. How to describe? The shocking thing about it, at first, is that it’s sweet. There’s a real sweetness there and then a tanginess–a mix of sugar and vinegar that’s unusual to encounter with fish. The texture is smooth and the tomato gives a nice tart edge to the experience, all balanced by the softness of the bagel. It’s a cultural experience on a plate: Proust had his madeline, and we Jews have chopped herring. What are you gonna do? [Here I give a Jewish shrug and exit to “Anatevka” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”]
There are certain bloggers who are known for getting the scoop. They break big news stories, create political scandals, get interviewed on CNN. And then there’s me: Mr. Laggy. Let me be known as the blogger, specifically the food blogger, who comes very late to whatever phenomenon is at issue. In this case the phenomenon is The Levain Bakery and the cookies sold there.
[Pay no attention to the man on the bench. He’s Craig, aka Mr. “I insist on being in this picture but I’ll pretend otherwise if anyone asks!”]
I first learned of the Levain Bakery when that distinguished Parisian Clotilde came to New York and wrote about it on her site. A reader tipped her off that Levain’s would be “the best cookies of her life” and Clotilde confirms this in her assessment: “This was exactly my kind of cookie — crispy chunky chewy and all manner of adjectives rhyming with “-y”.
I catalogued this information in that vessel known as my brain and because Mr. Picture Hog and I, Mr. Laggy, planned a day uptown I’d jotted down the address just in case we were close by. And sure enough, by late afternoon, we found ourselves on 74th on the west side of the park.
“Let us journey down this street,” I commanded. “And enjoy cookies between Amsterdam and Columbus.”
“Ok, Mr. Bossy,” quipped Craig.
We descended the stairs of Levain and allowed the aroma of cookies and bread to wash over us. The man there was quite jovial and quite understanding as we took our time to make cookie decisions. We ultimately decided to share both a chocolate chip cookie and the one Clotilde raved about, the dark chocolate peanut butter. Here they are in that order:
Here’s our assessment.
Specifically, we found the chocolate chip cookie to embody all the joyous attributes that flour, sugar, and chocolate chips can bring. It was mounded in the middle, so it was super thick and super rich. Also: it was warm out of the oven, so we devoured it.
The chocolate peanut butter cookie was not warm, but we still devoured it.
In conclusion, though I may be late to the game I still stepped up to plate and having batted against Levain Bakery’s cookie I can say, with great integrity, it’s a ______.
[Please note. That last sentence ended with a blank space because if I’d written what I intended to write–“grand slam” or “home run”–I would have lost my writer’s card for writing the lamest sentence ever. I hope you understand.]
I seriously wonder how many people who walk past the newly opened Bouchon Bakery at the Time Warner Center think it’s a restaurant owned by Samsung. As you can see in the picture above, a giant Samsung sign hangs over the large and strangely situated seating area. If you arrive on the third floor from the central escalators, you might not immediately connect this free-standing ambiguous restaurant with the bakery stand a tiny distance away. That bakery stand is the stand of The Bouchon Bakery, the civilian-friendly populist enterprise engineered by that titan of the food world, Thomas Keller.
One walk past that beautiful display of pastries, tarts and breads is a cause for celebration. And as you can tell by the line of people in that picture, New Yorkers are quickly catching wind of the wonders that await them in the giant glass aquarium on Columbus Circle.