My birthday always begins with the Angel of Food hovering over my bed and handing me a pass that says, “EAT FREELY,” which is not so much a mild suggestion, but an absolute imperative. There’s no “maybe I shouldn’t”s on my birthday–the word “shouldn’t” is verbotten, as is “mustn’t” and “oughtn’t” (is oughtn’t a word?)–my mission is a clear one: devour the city in 24 hours or less.
My first stop? Pearl Oyster Bar, where I finally had a reason to splurge on the $27 lobster roll. $27 is a hefty price to pay for lobster mixed with mayo on a toasted buttery bun: but this is one of the best bites in all of New York City and it induces so much pleasure, you immediately forget how much it costs and savor every bite. When I ordered it, I mentioned to the woman behind the counter (whose name I forget!) that it was my birthday (because my usual order is the much cheaper clam chowder) and when she brought it out, it had a candle in it! Wasn’t that a nice touch? She even poured me a glass of Macon-Villages and sent me out the door with a petit four from a bakery in California that had white chocolate, passionfruit filling and a candied rose petal on top. This was a birthday lunch to shame all other birthday lunches.
By then, it was snowing something fierce, so I ducked into my favorite coffee shop–Joe on Waverly–and not only did they treat me to a birthday cappuccino, one of the barristas, Erin, told me she’d just finished reading my book and that she loved it. Did she say that because it was my birthday? Nope, she said it before I even told her it was my birthday. Which means I deserve a Pulitzer Prize.
After that I decided to do something I never feel like I have time for, but that I always mean to do: I journeyed up to 53rd street for a visit to the MoMA. This has nothing to do with food, so I’ll keep it short: (1) $20 is too much for adult admission to an art museum: if you want to encourage greater attendance, it should cost the same as a movie; (2) they should have two sets of hours there: 9 to 1 for kids dragged there by their parents, students on class trips, and anyway taking flash pictures of the paintings (which was a huge number of people) and 1 to 5 for people who actually want to be there and who prefer looking at the paintings with their eyes than through their camera’s viewfinders. Still, it was a nice way to spend the afternoon on my birthday.
“But Adam,” you say, “didn’t the Angel of Food tell you to Eat Freely? Why aren’t you eating more? Why are you looking at art? You can’t eat art.”
Well, dear reader, the truth is that I had a bit of knowledge in my brain that I haven’t shared yet: I knew that later on, Craig was going to take me out for a surprise birthday dinner. So how could I stuff myself with this dinner looming on the horizon? That would not only be cruel, it’d be ungrateful.
“Hmph,” says the Angel of Food.
Let’s fast forward then to the dinner hour. At 6:30, I met up with Craig and he revealed that my birthday dinner would take place in the East Village. Since the reservation wasn’t until 8:30, I suggested we grab a drink at Please Don’t Tell. Well, if they’d actually granted us a drink there, I’d probably honor their name and not tell you where/what it is. But since they turned us away (and I’ve been turned away twice before) I’m spilling the beans: Please Don’t Tell is a relatively secret bar that you enter through a telephone booth inside Crif Dogs in the East Village. You walk in and think you’re in an airport Nathan’s; and then you look to the left and there’s the booth. You enter, pick up a phone and click the button. A hostess asks how many in your party and then tells you if she has room or she doesn’t. In our case, she didn’t so we left. (We later learned you must make a reservation–even for a stool at the bar–the day of your visit: the line opens at 3 PM.)
[Note: it may seem like a lot of work just for a drink, but by many accounts they serve some of the best drinks in New York. In fact, Jean-Georges’ pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini apparently studied there to perfect the art of the cocktail.]
At this point, I’d pretty much sussed out where we were going. A few things gave it away: Craig said it was a place he knew I liked; we’d arrived by way of Broadway Lafayette so I knew it was close to Houston in the East Village. Which could mean only one thing: PRUNE!!
I love Prune: it’s one of my Top 3 Favorite New York restaurants. So we decided to get a drink at Prune at the bar; which ended up being perfect. The place wasn’t crowded at all (the hostess told us that weekday nights have been pretty quiet these days) so we sat there and I had an awesome drink, a drink I first learned about last year when Michael Ruhlman came to a taping of The F.N. Dish at Michael Symon’s restaurant, Lola. After the taping, Ruhlman ordered a Negroni and explained that it was an Italian drink, made with Campari, that was quite bitter but wonderfully complex. And that’s precisely why, when I saw it on the drink menu at Prune, I immediately went for it. Craig, on the other hand, went for a Sidecar:
The Negroni was terrific: despite its color, it wasn’t fruity or sweet. It was, instead, almost savory–like meat seasonings, only in drink form. (I know that’s a strange description, but I stand by it.)
As you can see, we ordered some bar snacks. Actually, we just ordered deviled eggs but they also sent over some shrimp toasts:
Now at this point, things got kind of strange. For starters, Craig said he saw Robert DeNiro outside.
“What?” I said.
“He was just walking down the street,” said Craig in a whisper. Why was he whispering? Did he think Robert DeNiro’s friends might hear?
But, it ends up, it wasn’t Robert DeNiro at all; it was Diana. I didn’t know it was Diana, but she was outside waiting for Mark. You see, there was a table set for four and I thought it was a mistake but that was the other surprise: Mark and Diana were joining us for dinner.
And so it was that they came in and surprised me and we all hugged and celebrated and sat at a table and ordered lots of food. Oh, did we order–the Angel of Food was quite happy with me–and there was wine, too, a lovely Spanish wine that went great with everything we ordered.
I started with white anchovies and a celery/parsley salad:
If you’ve never had a white anchovy, I insist that you must try them the next time you see them on a menu: they’re much milder than your typical anchovy. They’re also fresher tasting and they pair wonderfully with something acidic, like the lemony celery/parsley salad it came with.
Mark and Diana shared the bone marrow with toast and parsley salad:
Bone marrow is serious food–it’s Anthony Bourdain’s last meal, if I remember correctly–and as Diana and Mark dug in with their tiny spoons, one secretly hoped that they might share. And share they did: I had my marrow and ate it too.
Craig, of course, got the burrata (not pictured) because he loves cheese. And he shared that also.
For my entree, I had the lamb blade chop:
As a lifelong Prune fanatic, I have to say: this lamb chop left something to be desired. Maybe it was the seasoning–not aggressive enough?–or maybe it was the temperature: slightly less red than maybe it could’ve been? But by this point, we were so happy with wine and marrow and anchovies, I gladly dug in and enjoyed it nonetheless.
At this point, everyone was so full that ordering dessert would be an exercise in sadism. But the Angel of Food tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out that my “EAT FREELY” pass would expire in less than an hour. I had no choice, then; I had to order the ginger cake–a cake layered with almond cream and kirsch. I mean, seriously? How can you not have cake on your birthday?
It was a lovely cake–not at all what I pictured–and it came with redemptive orange segments that ensured, symbolically, that my 30s would be both decadent and wholesome; deeply pleasurable, but also admirable.
We escaped into the night air and as the Angel of Food snatched away my “Eat Freely” pass, I knew that I’d performed my birthday duties with flair. Thanks to everyone for such a great day: I enter my 30s gladly and very, very full.