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. Dining in New York City and making the right choices isn’t easy.
I think it’s clear which spots we recommend – and of course we ate anonymously and paid for all our meals.
Dining in New York City, the good, the bad, the ugly
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.
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.