This post is a sensational post in three ways: (1) I will write about a secretive New York foodie sanctum, (2) I will praise a cupcake I formerly dismissed, and (3) I will remove from the shelf of my highest esteem a place that I fell in love with on my birthday.
Let’s start with (1) the secretive foodie sanctum.
Thursday was James Felder’s birthday and as I said, we took James out to brunch. (James took this picture so he is not pictured. If you’d like to see him in a kilt, you can do so here). James requested that we go to Shopsin’s and I was more than pleased to oblige. I’m a huge Calvin Trillin fan and Calvin Trillin’s essay on Shopsin’s–which you can read in his fantastic book “Feeding a Yen” (it was the first food book I ever read)–paints the place as a quirky, culinary anomaly. James Felder added to the mystique.
“They’re very strict in there,” he said as we stood outside with Diana, waiting for John to show. “No parties bigger than four.”
“Why?” asked Diana.
“Because they don’t want to have to deal with big tables,” he explained. “And they don’t allow cell phone use in the restaurant.”
I quickly turned my cell phone off.
“I once saw them call the police on this guy who was barking into his cell phone—he was a Wall Street type–and they took his food away and asked him to pay and leave. They don’t kid around.”
We went in and saw a large man sitting in the front booth. This was the owner and chef, Kenny, who said hi to James as we made our way to a table. Apparently, Kenny hates publicity—he and Calvin Trillin had a temporary falling out over the article he wrote in the New Yorker. I kept my camera in my pocket and proceeded with extreme caution.
That wasn’t really necessary. The place was pretty empty–it was a Thursday after all–and despite all the rules and regulations, I felt very much at home. The huge glass windows look out on Carmine and Bedford streets and on the windowsill is a collection of toys and Trivial Pursuit cards. Our waitress was, according to James, Kenny’s daughter and she talked to us so casually and calmly I felt like I was part of the family.
I have yet to mention the most extraordinary thing about Shopsin’s. It’s the menu. Let’s let Trillin explain it (although he’s explaning an older version): “[The] menu grew to include at least nine hundred items, some of them as unusual as Cotton Picker Gumbo Melt Soup or Hanoi Hoppin John with Shrimp or Bombay Turkey Cloud Sandwich or Bugaloo-Shrimp Tabbuleh & Corn Chips or Curried Rutabaga Cream Soup…” Jason Kottke posted a link a while back to the Shopsin’s menu which you can read here (it’s a PDF file).
[Having just skimmed through it, I love the Party of Five poem on the fourth page:
Part of Five by Robert Herson
you could put a chair at the end
or push the tables together
but don’t bother
This banged-up little restaurant
where you would expect no rules at all
has a firm policy against seating
parties of five
And you know who you are
a party of five
it doesn’t matter if one of you
offers to leave or if
you say you could split into
a party of three and a party of two
or if the five of you come back tomorrow
in Richard Nixon masks and try to pretend
that you don’t know each other
it won’t work: You’re a party of five
even if you’re a beloved regular
Even if the place is empty
Even if you bring logic to bear
Even if you’re a tackle for the Chicago Bears
it won’t work
You’re a party of five
You will always be a party of five
A hundred blocks from here
a hundred years from now
you will still be a party of five
and you will never savor the soup
or compare the coffee or
hear the wisdom of the cook
and the wit of the waitress or
get to hum the old-time tunes
among which you will find
As for the food, it was terrific and the portions were huge. James ordered a morir sonando for us to drink. No that’s not a fancy wine, it’s OJ, cream, lime juice and vanilla all blended together into a frothy citrusy mixture. Diana ordered the Blisters on my Sisters which are “corn tortillas, bean, rice/vegetable mixture, covered with 2 fried eggs, broiled with cheese until it bubbles and browns.” James ordered an egg dish that had fried spinach and John and I both had… I’m searching through the menu now to find what it is we had, and I can’t find it, but I know it was fried eggs on fried potatoes with greens and other stuff and it was delicious and plentiful and I could hardly finish it.
Needless to say, Shopsin’s is an experience everyone should have. (Though Kenny Shopsin would prefer you didn’t. He hates this kind of publicity.)
As we were leaving, a couple walked in and sat down. I barely noticed them. When we got outside, James said: “Was that Bjork who came in at the end?”
We walked past the large glass window. It sure looked like Bjork. And I know Bjork’s married to Matthew Barney, the guy who did the Cremaster movies, and the guy at the table sure looked like Matthew Barney. After mulling it over for a bit, it was confirmed: all four of us believe it was Bjork at that table.
And that concludes my account of our meal at Shopsin’s.
Now we’re up to (2) where I praise a cupcake I formerly dismissed.
I don’t think I ever really dismissed the Magnolia Bakery, I simply found it absurd the way people waited in line there (when I walked past it with my mom a few weeks ago, the line was wrapped around the block—for cupcakes!) and the faint memory I had of a cupcake there wasn’t spectacular. So I came into this most recent Magnolia experience with a jaded world-view, expecting very little by way of deliciousness.
How wrong I was. You will find out momentarily that this cupcake happened after our meal at The Spotted Pig. I am telling the story out of order, but it’s for dramatic effect. Here’s Lisa picking out a cupcake in the Magnolia window:
In the looks department, the Magnolia cupcakes are certainly behind those at the Cupcake Cafe which are like works of art, but they win big points in the hominess department. Those look like cupcakes a super duper awesome grandma would make for you and leave out for you and your friends.
Magnolia works on an honor system. You load up on cupcakes first, then you wait in line and then you pay. Lisa was buying three: one for me, one for her, and one for Liz who she was meeting later.
Outside on the street, we unpacked our cupcakes and bit into them cautiously. I, of course, chose vanilla on vanilla because I’m a vanilla kind of guy. Lisa chose vanilla on chocolate.
“Mmm,” I said, “This is really delicious.”
“I know,” said Lisa.
“No,” I said, “I mean it’s more delicious than I remembered. This is a really good cupcake.”
“It IS a really good cupcake,” she agreed.
Why did it taste so good? The cake was moist and flavorful and dense and rich and the icing was light and fluffy and sweet and gloppy. It was really a terrific cupcake eating experience. And this is coming from the guy who is #1 when it comes to Google search results for the term “cupcakes.”
We finished our cupcakes and went on our merry way, brightened after the negative experience we experienced at the meal I saved for last.
This is part (3) where I remove from the shelf of my highest esteem a place that I fell in love with on my birthday.
You may remember that on my birthday this year I went to The Spotted Pig. I wrote a post called “May My 26th Year Be Like Lunch at The Spotted Pig.” I was in love with the place and cherished that dining memory as one of the best I’d experienced since I moved to New York.
Since then, I’ve been harping on Lisa: “You have to go to The Spotted Pig! You’re going to die over the pumpkin salad I had there. And the gnuddi!”
It’s rare for me to share a passion for a dish that Lisa can also enjoy since Lisa is a vegetarian. So these were two dishes I felt like she had to try and on Thursday when she called me to go to dinner I said, “The time has come for us to go to the Spotted Pig!”
We made our way together to the 1/9 train and rode down to the Christopher Street station. We walked down Bleeker (though it would have been faster to go down one of those confusing West Village streets that connects everything. I think the West Village is the most confusing place in New York.) We arrived at The Spotted Pig and I should tell you here that I called ahead and asked if they were busy yet and they said “no” they don’t get busy ’til 7:30, and sure enough it was 7:05 and it wasn’t busy.
We were sat at a table in the front. This was the biggest factor that contributed to our downfall. There are only two tables in the front, then there’s the bar, and then there’s back where all the rest of the tables are. The problem is that as it gets crowded the space behind the bar fills and fills and suddenly the two tables in the front become invisible.
At the beginning, though, we were treated fairly well. Actually, no. The waiter came over–he looked like an extra from Melrose Place–and asked if we’d like anything to drink. We said, “Just water, please” and he asked “Sparkling or mineral?”‘ and we said “Just tap is fine” and he gave us a look that said: “Die.”
Then we met the busboy with an attitude who came with the water and a little cup of marinated olives. This was an exciting moment in the history of Lisa and I dining together because as you may or may not remember, Lisa hates olives. She even spawned her own category The Great Olive Campaign in which I tried to make a case for olives with little success. But this night at The Spotted Pig, Lisa tried not one but TWO olives. Here she is with that look that says, “All right, I know I said I won’t eat olives, but it looks like I’m gonna give them a try!”
I tried to pre-approve the olive before she ate an olive. I felt like this was too spontaneous to be a true edifying olive eating experience. In the cup were small little green olives and then large kalamata-like olives. I am of the belief that Lisa will like kalamatas before she will like any others. This belief was confirmed when she said the tiny green one “tasted like feet” and the kalamata-one tasted “better” but not to the point that she enjoyed it, but to the point where she felt like it “didn’t taste as much like feet.”
One small step for man, as they say.
Now, on to the food. The food is spectacular at The Spotted Pig. I am not recanting that notion by any means. I started with Eden Brook Smoked Trout with Beet Salad, Chives and Sour Cream:
It was truly delicious. All the flavors complimented each other in strange and exciting ways. Smoked trout and beets? Horseradish? Now that I think about it, it has a certain whiff of Judaica about it: beets are in borscht, horseradish is on the seder plate and Jews love smoked fish. And chives are ever-popular in cream cheese.
Because the pumpkin salad isn’t in season anymore (curses!), Lisa had the Jerusalem Artichoke Salad with Goat Cheese, Hazelnuts and Lemon (the picture came out blurry, so sorry that you can’t see it.) Lisa also loved her salad. I think she’ll agree that it was the strange combination of ingredients that made it great. “Plus,” she said, “I love nuts in salad.”
For our entrees we ordered more appetizers. I had this risotto that featured more smoked fish (haddock, I think) and a poached egg:
At first I was wary of the risotto because if you look at it, it looks a little separated out (moreso in life: the liquid layer and the solid layer parting). And if this risotto was a failure on a technical level, it surely made up for it in flavor. The pang of that smoked fish mixed in with the brightness of lemon and the greens and then the creaminess of the egg yolk was divine.
Lisa was less enthusiastic about the gnuddi, but fairly so, I suppose, because (a) I had built it up so much for her and (b) her plate of gnuddi wasn’t as pretty as the time I had it before. (If you follow the link to my birthday post, you’ll see how nice the gnuddi looked.)
Now if the service had been fantastic throughout the meal, I think we would have probably raved over our experience. Even if the service had been adequate. But the service sucked. We really felt like they hated us. Our water glasses were constantly empty and when we asked for more water the busboy with an attitude would walk away, take a long time, then return, fill our glasses, we’d say “thank you” and he’d walk away without responding. When we got our entrees we had no silverware so we waited thinking “they’ll bring silverware” but they didn’t bring it so we flagged down a waiter and asked for silverware and finally, after a long while, we were brought our silverware.
Even more hostile, when the busboy with an attitude did show up it would happen at inopportune times like when he took Lisa’s salad away while she was still finishing it. The worst part was at the end when we wanted a check and we sat there for what felt like 20 minutes trying to get the waiter’s attention while he commiserated at the other end of the bar and poured wine and tended to the tables in the “people we don’t hate” section.
You’ll notice in the title I use the word “imprisoned” because when I went to the bathroom, I used the door with the MAN icon on it and when I opened it there was a simple urinal inside. I did my business and when I went to push the door open, someone was blocking it. The sink was directly opposite this door and there was a big man at the sink. I couldn’t open the door more than a crack so after I hit the man with it I said, “Oh, sorry” expecting him to get out of the way. He didn’t. I stood there in this tiny urinal room. I pushed the door again and he didn’t budge. “Excuse me,” I said louder. Then I realized he was talking on his cell phone having a loud conversation. I felt like I was on Candid Camera. So, working up the courage and prepared for confrontation, I pushed the door really hard against the guy, squeezed my out way and gave him a death glare. He was too busy on the phone to notice.
Then I noticed the crowd by the bar, in the back. They were men just like him: men in suits on cell phones, a young Wall Street type crowd that probably threw lots of money around here. Were we treated like crap because we weren’t ordering drinks like these guys? Or was it my imagination?
It takes a lot for me not to want to dessert at a place where I love the food. And I love the food at The Spotted Pig, but both Lisa and I wanted to get out of there which is why we ended up at Magnolia, only a just a few streets away. At Magnolia, despite the crowds, there was warmth in the air and we felt welcome. At the Spotted Pig, we were treated like swine.