Forty-five degrees, rainy and cold. Hello New York! An hour-and-a-half ride into the city in bumper to bumper traffic. Glad to be here!
Work prompted a recent trip back East and within three hours of landing at Newark International Airport, I had come to two new realizations. One, Los Angeles isn’t the only place with terrible traffic; in fact many people gripe about losing time, wasting money and being bored as they crawl to their destination. And two, rain really can be a downer. Out here, when it rains, it’s an excuse, a lovely excuse, to stay inside and binge guilt-free on my latest BBC obsession. In New York, I had things to do, places to go and people to see and the rain made everything such an effort.
The weather aside – and after Day 1, sunny skies prevailed – this trip inspired the launch of a new section on the blog, one about restaurant reviews. Every visit to New York is a chance to try some fantastic (and some near- and not-so-near-fantastic) restaurants. Every time, it’s more than a meal; it’s also an experience and an adventure to find some new place to eat. I always bring my appetite and can easily say many of my finest dining experiences have happened there.
Six-thirty rolls around and my girl Zeynep and I, an hour-and-a-half into our post-work power walk, are hungry, cold, miles from her apartment and even further from a decision about what to do for dinner.
We both want to make a lovely dinner at a choice restaurant happen, but indecision has set in. We waver between just ending our walk at a pizza joint in Nolita and holding out for Korean food in her midtown neighborhood. The line for pizza is too long, the hope of that lovely dinner, reminiscent of so many we have enjoyed before, lingers, and we grab a cab back to her place.
As we pitch and roll in the back of that car on our way uptown, we half-heartedly Google best restaurants and consult Yelp reviews. A steakhouse sounds good. So does Italian, and Mexican. I consider take-out and a movie, perhaps even dare to make the suggestion. I feign a headache, no longer able to focus on the task before us.
By some miracle, Zeynep rebounds from low-glycemia to make a decision. Mexican. Pompano. East 49th Street. Thank God some of us can pull through in tough times.
209 East 49th Street,
Between 2nd and 3rd Avenues
New York, NY 10017
The whitewashed walls and worn brick floors inside Pompano hint at the meal about to be enjoyed. Exotic but not entirely unfamiliar. Simple yet soulful.
As we make our way upstairs to the second-floor dining area, we leave the darkness of the downstairs bar. Up here, the room seems to glow. Giant ceiling fans are shaped like palm leaves.
To start off our meal, it’s margaritas with chips and guacamole. These aren’t any poolside cocktails you enjoyed on Spring Break, but carefully crafted drinks combining quality tequila with flavors reminiscent of the tropics – guava, hibiscus and tamarind. My Margarita de Tamarindo pairs La Pitaya Tequila Blanco with tamarind, lime and pequin pepper for a sip that’s sweet and a little spicy. The signature cocktail fell short on delivering the hibiscus flavor I was looking for but the night’s special, a guava margarita, was fantastic.
For our mains, Zeynep chose the Churrasco Pampano, grilled fillet with mole sauce and a farro salad with queso fresco, onion and cilantro. It was the first time I’d seen mole paired with red meat, but Zeynep liked it and the meat was delicious. I opted for the Mariscada, shrimp, calamari and the tiniest bay scallops served atop cilantro rice with an achiote-coconut sauce. The combination of colors, vibrant green and bright orange, may have been at odds but the dish itself came together beautifully. I thought it was spectacular and savored each bite.
And so it was another meal for the books, good food and great company. My only regret was the sweet fried plantains were sub-par; cut too sharply on the bias, a little dry and lacking the moist fleshiness I usually love in them so much. Even so, I would absolutely recommend Pompano to anyone looking to escape the bustle of the city for an evening on the Mexican Riviera.
Just before Christmas my senior year, my dad whisked me away to Paris for an unforgettable four days in the City of Lights. Before we left, my friend Louisa told me I had to go to Ladurée in the eighth arrondissement for they made the most amazing macaroons. At the time, I had no idea what a macaroon was.
My first time in Paris, we went to Notre-Dame and discovered Berthillon ice cream on the Île Saint-Louis. We visited the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa and stroll the Jardin des Tuileries. We ventured to Montmartre at the north end of the city where I stood staring at the Moulin Rogue, noting how much smaller it looked in real-life than it did in the movie. I still remember the wonderful dinner we had at La Ferme Saint Simon near our hotel after taking the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower to look out over Paris, lit up beneath the winter sky.
We squeezed as much as we could into those four days and nearly forgot to pay a visit to Ladurée which had come so highly recommended. On the way to the airport, pressed for time, we had our taxi pull up outside the shop at 16-18 rue Royal and I darted in to grab a box of those as of yet unheard of delights. I remember the luxuriant interior of the store, designed to mimic a 19th century teahouse and the sweets that filled the display cases. In practiced French, I placed my order and, package in hand, excitedly hurried back outside.
Those first macaroons were a treat and hard as I try, I can’t remember which flavors I chose and whether we ate all of them in the ride to the airport or managed to save a few for Mom. It was fun to hear about Ladurée’s planned expansion into the US and to then see its shops in New York. While I have often walked by the Madison Avenue shop, the long line has been a consistent deterrent. En route to the Frick Collection, my dad, sister Lila and I stopped in for coffee and sweets, and managed to get a table before the rush.
864 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021
You either have to be a wisp of person or move with a stunning amount of grace to squeeze into one of the four tables at Ladurée on Madison without knocking something over. I realize small seating arrangements, where multiple sets of cutlery compete with plates, cups, saucers, and an array of wine and water glasses for tabletop space, are de rigueur in New York, but the arrangements at Ladurée are truly miniature.
Seeking a sugar-and-caffeine high before our visit to the museum, we ordered a round of drinks and several pastries. I learned a macchiato is a shot of espresso with bit of foamed milk on top and the best hot chocolates are those made from melted chocolate and not much else. My dad’s chocolat chaud arrived in a small silver pitcher and before he had finished his first cup, the remaining hot chocolate had nearly hardened in the bottom of the pitcher.
He ordered a Millefeuille Vanille, the classic dessert of layered filo dough and pastry cream. Beautiful in its presentation, impossible to cut without making a mess – you almost need a fork for the flaky dough and a spoon for the cream, but I feel a spork would decidedly not be de rigueur at Ladurée – it was a solid, if safe, choice. Lila and I decided to try one of the seasonal desserts, a chocolate dacquoise with pear marmalade, given the award-winning (highly-praised might be a more accurate descriptor) chocolate-hazelnut dacquoise we made last Christmas. I don’t think she and I were being too full of ourselves when we concluded our version was better. We missed the definitive meringue layers that had been such an essential piece of our dessert.
The macaroons were, of course, delicious and for anyone who hasn’t tried a macaroon from Ladurée, you must; they really are the best.
One of the most memorable books I’ve read of late was Heat by Bill Buford. Buford, a well-established writer and editor for The New Yorker, decides to leave behind the stability and respect he worked decades to cement to become the “kitchen slave” in celebrity chef Mario Batali’s Babbo restaurant. The hysterical memoir follows him through the early days spent dicing carrots to his big nights on the line and on to his time in Italy where he learns the arts of pasta making and Italian butchery.
Buford may describe food in a way that makes you hungry but he also manages to infuse his story with insights into Italian cuisine, its ingredients, methods of preparation and traditions. We’re also privy to some pretty crazy stories about Mario Batali, the larger-than-life man himself. Ever since I finished Heat, I’ve been wanting to go to one of his restaurants.
170 Thompson Street
New York, NY 10012
I am so excited for lunch at Lupa, Mario Batali’s Roman trattoria just south of Washington Square. There’s a small terrace out front of the narrow building, green plants dangle into the street from window boxes at its edge.
As we step inside, I notice the wall to my left lined with small statues of a wolf suckling two small boys, an homage to the founding of Rome and its starring characters Romulus and Remus. Lupa means “she-wolf” in Italian.
I also register the dishes being served and devoured as we wait for our table. There are boards of charcuterie and plates of fluffy focaccia with greenish-colored olive oil – must be the real stuff. I’ve got my heart set on pasta and from the looks of the spaghetti, bucatini, tortelloni, and cavatelli coming out of the kitchen, I doubt I’ll be disappointed.
Lupa is cozy, but not oppressively so, with dark wood floors and furniture; light streams in through the front windows. A long communal table sits in the middle of this dining room and people seem to be enjoying their pasta, their meats and cheeses, and glasses of wine. Whitney Houston “How Will I Know” is playing in the background and at various points throughout the meal, Lila, my dad and I will wonder about the restaurant’s unconventional soundtrack.
To start, we order the marinated olives (all Lila, and we wonder where she came from), roasted cauliflower with thin slices of small red chili pepper and a sweet sauce drizzled on top, and a spinach and apple salad with pancetta that is brought to the table in a small saucepan to be sprinkled tantalizingly over your greens. To sip, the Lupa Negroni.
I was pleased to find the roasted cauliflower wasn’t crisp like roasted broccoli can be, but somewhat limp like the cauliflower I’ve been making in a salad with celery and pomegranate seeds. I thought I was getting something wrong because I couldn’t get those cauliflower bits to crisp up!
For our mains, Lila opts for spaghetti con pomodoro, Dad takes bavette cacio e pepe, and I can’t resist ricotta gnocchi with sausage and fennel. I am slightly devastated to find there is a glossary on the back of the menu; I had just spent 45 minutes googling menu items in the front seat of my dad’s car as we drove down the East River Drive on our way to Lupa. Scribbling translations on the small notecards my dad keeps in his car, I was hoping to dazzle them with my “intimate” knowledge of Italian cuisine…
The pasta arrives. Lila’s spaghetti is paired with light tomato sauce (pomodoro); it’s piled so delicately in the bowl. The portions were small, yet filling. The simplicity of her dish is matched by that of Dad’s bavette, similarly long and thin noodles but this time swirled with olive oil, cheese (cacio) and pepper (pepe). Must be a pepper head to like that one. I relish every bite of the gnocchi, those small dumplings that can often feel so heavy once eaten but which are like little doughy pillows here at Lupa, light and springy. The sauce was tomato-based and tasted like sausage, but there were no bits of meat as I had thought there would be. Not that more is always better, but eating at Lupa, given the simplicity of the dishes we enjoyed, was a reminder that often less is more.
For dessert, a torta di mele (apple tart) with cinnamon gelato. I only wish the tart had been warm and I could have had an á la mode moment, but maybe that’s just not how it’s done in Rome. It was a perfect way to end a perfect meal.