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Aug 06

Dining in New York City: What we ate and where we ate it

This is the second part of our ‘what we ate in NYC’ series; see Part 1 here. We did try to keep it local-ish. Did we make mistakes? Yep. Did we get bad advice? Yep. Who do we trust? No-one, unfortunately.

I think it’s clear which spots we recommend – and of course we ate anonymously and paid for all our meals.

Tonda – Italian
Average Italian fare in a fabulous space.

Terence: The most exciting thing about this restaurant was that I later found out the owner directed the Beat It video by Michael Jackson! For someone who worked with chef Jean-George, there wasn’t really the air of a place that was well run. Staff spent most of their time standing around trying to look cool. They failed. My pizza was ok. Lara’s was horrible.

Lara: I really loved the big breezy New York brasserie feel of this place and the jazzy soundtrack. The fact there were plenty of locals at the pavement tables sipping drinks when we arrived was promising. Shame they didn’t stick around for dinner, but now we know why. This was what I’d call Italian-American, rather than Italian – pizzas too thick and way too much on everything for me.

Stand 4 – Burgers
Modern diner with an emphasis on burgers. Nothing special.

Terence: This burger joint came highly recommended, but really wasn’t that great. Burger was well-cooked – as in medium-rare, but there were soggy onion rings and string fries that, well, tasted like string. And no, I didn’t try the famed marshmallow milkshake, I don’t know how anyone can eat an American-sized burger and have a milkshake.

Lara: My ‘New Classic’ burger was just an over-sized cheeseburger. It was way too salty, and too saucy – the mayonnaise and tomato sauce drowned the rest of the flavours. Both burgers were way over-priced for what they were, and there was way too much food – impossible to eat it all. I would have preferred to eat half the food and pay half the price. The best thing about this place was that they offered wines by the glass in stemware.

Mogador – Moroccan Café
Decent café with great brunches but goes on late in the night.

Terence: Excellent Moroccan eggs with a spicy tomato sauce. Great coffee too. A fine local hangout. It’s the kind of neighbourhood spot that you’d keep coming back to.

Lara: Agree. This was a good old-fashioned café – no pretentions – doing delicious café food, good breakfasts, good coffee, friendly staff, and fun atmosphere.

Momofuku Noodle Bar – Korean American
Superstar chef David Chang’s cramped, noisy outpost that gilds the lily.

Terence: If you’re a fan of Asian food and actually been to Asia, you’re going to wonder what the fuss is about. I am, I have, and I’m still wondering. I’ve had better pork belly, better noodles, better ramen. A million times. And I’d rather have them in a dingy roadside stall than listen to sixty people having to yell to ask the person next to them “WHAT’S KIMCHEE, IS IT CHICKEN?”

Lara: This was a really disappointing experience, primarily because I’ve eaten Terence’s version of Momofuku’s ginger scallion noodles – and the ones Terence taught Desak to make in Bali – and both were better. My expectations were high based on the reviews, the style of the place, the long lines, and the prices – had we had eaten the same food at a roadside stand, I might not have been so disappointed. In New York, of course. Because I’ll take street noodles in Asia over these any day.

Crif Dogs – Hot Dogs
Hot hot dog spot. No, really.

Terence: How could we come to New York and not try a hot dog? I think the experience was aided by the countless beers we imbibed in the neighbourhood dive bars, but I really enjoyed the Chili Dog and ‘tater tots’. Put it this way, when they said they had a ‘spare’ dog, we jumped on it. Yes, we were a little drunk.

Lara: I’m a harsh critic of hot dogs, naturally, as my parents owned a superb hot dog joint when I was a teen, but I really enjoyed my Spicy Redneck (with bacon, chilli, coleslaw and jalapenos). The company was fun too.

The Spotted Pig – Gastro Pub
Comfort food a step above the usual.

Terence: Friendly service, some serious beer, no-holds-barred chicken liver and a Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese & Shoestrings were divine. Just a shame the lunch menu was a little limited. Would go back for dinner for sure.

Lara: Admittedly this is more of an English gastro-pub than American, but I loved this place – fabulous atmosphere, idiosyncratic décor, eclectic soundtrack that wasn’t too loud, and fantastic staff. The chicken live pate on toast was one of the most memorable dishes from our stay in New York, and the gnocchi-style pasta was as good as anything we’ve eaten in Northern Italy.

Bereket – Turkish
Turkish take-away for the night-shift crowd.

Terence: Just like Momofuku, this is ethnic food for those who have never visited the country of origin. I understand how cuisines get watered down to suit local tastes (although I loathe it), but to serve meat so dry and tasteless it’s a crime. Cops coming here after their shifts should be arresting these guys, not placing an order.

Lara: We’ve spent a lot of time in Turkey over the years and this was like no food we’ve ever tasted there. These guys need to take holidays to the Old Country more often.

Veselka – Ukrainian
Ukrainian, but not like your grandmother made it…

Terence: Ties with Bereket as the worst ethnic food we tasted in NYC and that is an achievement not to be proud of. My meatballs were so dry I could have swung at them with a golf club and they would have gone 300 yards and not broken up. Horrid.

Lara: My grandparents would be rolling in their graves. I’ve never tasted anything like the double-deep fried vareniki and pelmeni (which they call ‘pirogi’) before – not at my grandparents, nor in Russia, nor Poland, nor anywhere for that matter – a good example of how badly foods can evolve when they travel. Truly dreadful.

Zabb City – Thai
Traditional, authentic Thai in uninspired surrounds.

Terence: It didn’t start well. The restaurant had no liquor license when we visited so we ordered take-away only to be told we could BYO. That settled, the food was very authentic – took us right back to Thailand – and you can’t ask for more than that. Great heat level too!

Lara: It never ceases to amaze me how sometimes the best meals can be dished up in the most unpretentious surroundings. The setting is simple (I’d recommend people order take-out if they live nearby), but the food was tasty and truly authentic.

The Breslin Bar & Dining Room – Gastro pub and bar
Feeding New York’s newfound love of hearty pub food.

Terence: Great room and fine service. Loved the terrine board and the chargrilled lamb burger – one of my favourite comfort food fixes. And yes, we came here because we enjoyed The Spotted Pig so much…

Lara: It’s little more than an upmarket pub and in the UK or Australia, it wouldn’t be outstanding, but it was a welcome relief in New York. Loved every terrine on that board – guinea hen with morel, rustic pork, rabbit and prune – they were all delish! My seafood sausage with beurre blanc was sublime. Good wines by the glass too.

Devi – Modern Indian
Much-fancied fine dining Indian restaurant that doesn’t live up to the hype.

Terence: I guess we’ve been spoilt having an outpost of the fine Indian chef Vineet Bhatia in Dubai, which gives us a taste of how you can do Indian that transcends the stodge that passes as Indian food and doesn’t leave you feeling like you need to be wheeled home. In comparison, this restaurant falls short. Way short.

Lara: I liked the food here. It wasn’t extraordinary but it was a little above average. I just felt it was overpriced for what it was. We went hoping for something in the league of Vineet Bhatia but in hindsight we probably should have sought out the Indian equivalent of Zabb City.

Eleven Madison Park – Contemporary French
Impeccable modern French cuisine in a gorgeous Art Deco dining room.

Terence: Simply one of the best French-based fine dining meals I’ve had. Ever. It’s not that it’s wildly inventive, it’s not. French Laundry chef Thomas Keller probably packs more creativity in a couple of courses than the entire tasting menu we experienced, but damn, not a false flavour note the entire meal. Fine staff, too. Just wish they’d push the boat out a little past the shore.

Lara: Loved it! This was the most consistently high quality meal we had in New York. After eating here I wished we’d never vowed to try the full spectrum of New York foods and given the ethnic food and burgers a miss. Only downside was the price, easily double what a similar meal would cost in Barcelona, and more expensive than Paris and London. Shame. If I’d eaten at restaurants of this quality every day for two weeks my view of dining in New York would be completely different.

Prune – ‘New American’ Bistro
Small, cramped with uneven cooking and offhand staff.

Terence: “What did you expect from a place called ‘Prune’?” asked one writer when I told him how disappointed we were with our meal here. Perhaps we “ordered wrong” (as many people say when you diss a favourite restaurant), but if you’re going to play around with classic ethnic dishes such as pho, you’d better have a damn good reason. The octopus salad was laughably bad, with little flavour and little octopus. Great to see bone marrow so popular here, though. But really, just don’t get this one.

Lara: Prune came highly recommended by a lot of ‘in the know’ foodies, which made our experience all the more surprising. Admittedly, the Thai-style shrimp toast was authentic, but somehow I don’t think it was meant to be. This is ‘New American’ cuisine after all. What was most baffling was seeing the chef chatting to guests at the bar all night. She might want to think about spending more time in the kitchen.

Benny’s Burritos – Tex-Mex
Busy Tex-Mex place known for its margaritas and, you guessed it, burritos.

Terence: We’d walked past this place a million times and it was always packed. How could you go wrong, really? Well we were heading to Austin next and Mexico straight after so it took a night of fierce drinking for us to end up here. The tasty burrito did what it was supposed to do – fill your belly after a night of drinking. The next morning I couldn’t remember where I’d eaten – and it wasn’t a hangover.

Lara: This was tasty Tex-Mex, nothing more, nothing less. I enjoyed it for probably the same reasons I liked Zabb City. No hype, it was unpretentious, and it hit the spot. Sometimes those experiences can be more satisfying.

Esperanto – Brazilian and South American Bistro
Boisterous bistro with live music and plenty of local colour.

Terence: Lots of locals kept recommending this place, saying it was ‘fun’. Well, on our last night in NYC we decided to test out the fun factor. Good cocktails? Check. Decent wine list at uncrazy prices? Check. Served in actual glasses with stems? Check. Great service despite being packed to the rafters? Check. Fresh, flavoursome fare to wash down the cocktails with? Check.

Lara: Check.

Have you been to any of the places we tried? Keeping in mind we were staying local (Lower Manhattan), are there any alternatives you would have suggested? We’re also curious if you have any sources of information that you trust? As travel writers, we’re used to gathering research from a wide variety of places and quite literally triangulating data, but in New York we couldn’t find a single source we trusted. In New York, we also couldn’t fall back on some of the strategies we use in other cities when scouting restaurants, like long lines of locals. Momofuku being a case in point.

How did you find your NYC favourites the first time you tried them? The New York Times, food blogs, friends, word-of-mouth? We’ve love to hear your thoughts.

12 comments

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  1. jeannie

    I, too, have been disappointed with high profile restaurants and chefs. We’ve dined at Babbo and at Otto (Mario Battali’s restaurants) and I was very disappointed at the lack of everything. Food at Babbo was not memorable and the pasta was too al dente at Otto.

    The only person you can rely on is someone who shares the same taste as you. There’s only one person who shares my tastebud and food opinion and that’s my long time friend, Grace.

    However, when I was in London, an American local who’s live there for 13 years gave me some great restaurant tips.

    Other than that, I usually check Yelp.com and read both good and bad reviews. Uf there is just one bad review, I won’t eat there.

    I could have warned you against going to Stand. Their burgers are small and cost way too much! Oh, and yes, dry, too.

    The last burger I enjoyed is at Lillie,s on 17th Street. They serve it during weekend brunch with cheese and bacon at no extra charge plus complimentary cocktail or draft beer!

    1. Terence Carter

      Jeannie, thanks for your comment.
      Funnily enough, Babbo was personally recommended by a bunch of people that we met in NYC – we couldn’t get a booking and the big fella wasn’t in town anyway.
      With our work and this years project, we can’t have a friend in each destination whose taste we trust implicitly! We did get a lot of tips from waiters etc, but more about this in another post.
      You’re right about expats for sure, quite often they’ve been to places locals have not because locals often consider some restaurants too expensive for anything but a special event.
      With Yelp, there is nearly always a bad review of a place even if the rest of the reviews are very positive. We generally don’t use these kinds of sites, the same way we never used Trip Advisor – too much noise not enough authority – even if a ‘consensus’ comes through it’s often because of some underhanded work from one of the hotels or its PR firm.
      Didn’t really find Stand Burgers to be dry, just not very exciting – the New Yorker had it as the first burger in their Best Burger story…

  2. Anna

    Crif is an interesting choice when there are places like Bark and Grey’s nearby. Also, the Breslin. It’s a hot spot for startups and techies but as a restaurant for visitors, I don’t know that I’d recommend it.

    There are a bunch of spots in Chelsea that own my heart and I feel like it’s come around as the best place to grab a bite here… Madeline’s, Dickerson’s, Antique’s Cafe… wish I had sent some over to you!

    1. Terence Carter

      Thanks for your comment. Crif was an obvious choice. Everyone in the ‘hood has an opinion on it. And we were slightly drunk & hungry and with a food writer…
      Didn’t see anyone that looked remotely liked they were ‘techie’ or worked for a start-up at the Breslin, but we don’t go to look at the crowd!
      Once again, we did try to stay in our ‘hood or close to it, going to Chelsea for most meals would have defeated the purpose!

  3. Carlo Alcos

    Sorry you guys didn’t have good dining experiences in NY! For what it’s worth, two fallbacks for us while we were there (3 months):

    1. Banh Mi Saigon Bakery in Little Italy – http://nymag.com/listings/restaurant/Bahn-Mi-Saigon/ – for Vietnamese sandwiches. Dirt cheap (~$4), big sandwiches, great taste. (Plus, you can browse the jewelry case while you wait for your sandwiches)

    2. Song (Thai) in Park Slope, Brooklyn (yes, I know you were only in Manhattan…but still) – surprisingly reasonable prices…$6.99 and $7.99 for huge portions of pad thai and masaman curry, respectively. Here’s their menu: http://www.menupages.com/restaurants/song/menu. Very nice dining area with backyard patio, open kitchen so you can watch the cooks. Well worth the price and venture to Brooklyn.

    1. Terence Carter

      Hey Carlo, we did have some good meals in NYC and one outstanding one. It wasn’t all bad, but we do hate wasting meals and money on crap food.
      We’re not big on Vietnamese sandwiches, we don’t think that the baguette suits the fillings. We did see the stalls everywhere!
      We did have excellent Thai, but next time we’ll be travelling further afield than just the lower half of Manhattan! Your suggestion is now filed away.
      Thanks for your comment!

    2. Lara Dunston

      I will add an addendum here: having now had banh mi in Vietnam, we are hooked on the banh mi here. Banh mi post to come.

  4. Cherszy

    This is such an interesting post! Now I know where I’m supposed to grab dinner or lunch on my next trip to New York! Thank you so much for sharing this Lara and Terence! I’m particularly excited to visit Eleven Madison Park. I think it’s about time that I get to try some authentic French cuisine apart from what France itself offers. Yay! There aren’t any in my country, so I hope it’s gonna be a blast when I get to try the delicious French food from that restaurant you recommended. :)

    1. Lara Dunston

      Thanks, Cherszy! Eleven Madison Park has just received 3 Michelin stars, so I’m expecting the food to be even better than when we were there. Do come back and visit and let us know where you ate and what you liked/didn’t like, won’t you?

  5. Natalie T.

    Interesting post guys and I appreciate your honesty. I was surprised by your reviews of Prune and The Spotted Pig because your reviews are opposite of what I’ve heard from others. Everyone raves about Prune (and I hear they do a mean brunch), so it’s been on my list, especially after reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones and Butter.” But now I’m reconsidering. I’m surprised you guys even got into The Spotted Pig. I’ve heard they’re notorious for wait times and with the busy-ness the quality of food suffers.

    I think dining in NYC is a crapshoot. You have to know where to go; at the same time, it’s great to stumble upon a place. One such place is El Quinto Pino for tapas. It’s tiny and awesome. Plus, Billy’s Bakery is right around the corner and is so much better than any cupcake you’d find at Magnolia. Boquiera was also a great place in Soho to get tapas (and tasty sangria). Bunny Chow for African bunny chow was another great find with a very friendly staff. Nice Matin was a great brunch place in the UES and unassuming.

    I’m a notorious researcher. I find a reliable guide in the city is Time Out. I’ve been happy with the choices they’ve given me. Now I have my Luxe Guide so I’ll be using that too. LP is not my first choice for NYC because I find it to be a more upscale city and LP (for me) is more about finding great activities of a place than its dining options. Now I read blogs more often and Twitter as well as talk to bloggers living in NYC. Most of the time, I’ll see a tweet or something on blogger (I also look at Fashion bloggers in the know) and I jot down their recommendations on my list. Then there’s Anthony Bourdain who recommends the classics like Russ and Daughters or Katz’s.

    My list which is updated when I see something new is here:
    http://nearafar.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/the-new-york-restaurant-list-2011/

    Tops on that list would be: Tacombi Nolita, Cafe Habana, La Esquina (MANY a recommendation), Torrisi, and Doughnut Plant.

    Phew! Essay over. But as you said, if you trust no-one just go with your gut instinct. I had this issue in Vancouver when relying on bloggers for food information. I took one suggestion and the rest I found on my own and was very happy with my discoveries.

    And P.S. Lara, your dad owned a hot dog joint? Awesome.

    1. Lara Dunston

      We’d heard lots of good things about Prune too and it was packed the night we went, but we found it to be very average as we say above, and disappointingly the owner-chef was there at the time, but she wasn’t doing much cooking – she seemed to spend the whole night mingling with guests.

      We may have struck The Spotted Pig at a good time – they were busy without being run off their feet, staff were excellent, and, as we say, the food was terrific pub grub.

      Yep, New York, like Paris and London are definitely cities where you need to know where to go. We tend to rely mainly on chefs, restaurant owner/managers, sommeliers, and food producers, for advice when it comes to eating out. They always have the best advice because they know who is in the kitchen, they know where they’re sourcing their produce, and tend to be familiar with the machinations of the place, and the behind-the-scenes obviously has a huge impact on what’s served up on plates.

      We rarely use guide books for restaurants – in fact, we don’t really use guidebooks at all anymore – and would never use an LP guide for restaurants for reasons best discussed in a different post. With Time Out and other guides, it all depends on who the authors are and whether we trust their judgement. If there’s a Time Out in a place where staying at, we might flick through and compare to other sources, but we wouldn’t rely on the advice. I would go to a food blog if I knew and trusted that source. There are some wonderful food blogs out there. Maybe I should do a round-up of our favourites?

      We had eaten at Katz’s years ago and weren’t all that impressed, so we were eager to return again, but every time we walked by, it was full of tourists. The food at Russ and Daughters just didn’t appeal to us. The best experience was definitely 11 Madison Park and we’re so pleased it’s continuing to get accolades. We’d return there in a heartbeat.

      And, yes, my parents did have a hot dog place for a couple of years when I was in my teens – they did the best ever gourmet type of hot dog that I’ve ever tasted. They also had a seafood restaurant near in a seaside town in Australia when I was a child.

      Thanks so much for the link to your restaurant link – we will definitely check that out! And thanks for the helpful comment and for dropping by. Appreciated :)

  6. Spencer

    I ate so much food when I was in NYC. Some of the gastronomic offerings are outstanding. Its a good thing Manhattan is a walking city as otherwise I would have piled on the pounds!

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