Despite Trump and talk of walls and restrictions on entering the US, NYC can has always been a welcoming city to both tourists and immigrants – home, in the real sense of the word to millions of immigrants and diverse communities who continue to make New York the magic melting pot it is. These communities manage to retain their ethnicity and even flaunt it. Then you have the obvious signs of wealthy New York reflected in its mansions and swanky apartment blocks on 5thAvenue, beautifully dressed Manhattan people and elegant French restaurants. It’s all straight out of Mad Men. The Upper East Side is said to be one of the most filmed locations in the world and families a century ago would have had private cooks. Along with New York’s famed restaurants these cooks and chefs created dishes which are today quintessential New York – Lobster Newburg, Eggs Benedict and Vichyssoise. At the same time, Italian, Jewish, Irish, Greek and Russian immigrants were settling in the city, bringing with them much more modest, salt of the earth cooking. African-American ex-slaves migrated to New York City after the Civil War. Later, Chinese and Koreans established themselves here, bringing the tastes of Asia to the metropolis. Puerto Rican immigrants arrived in the 1950s, and today among the newest residents are Spanish speaking Latin Americans and communities of the Middle East.
In addition to a vast number of plain old American luncheonettes, bars and steak houses that still serve old-fashioned ‘American’ food, all five of New York City’s boroughs have a surprisingly wide range of ethnic restaurants and markets. Little Italy in the Lower East Side for example is today more a tourist destination than anything else. The real Italian neighbourhood where real Italians live is in the Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Little Italy however, does remind you of the film ‘The Godfather’ with the checked tablecloth and Chianti bottle trattorias and roadside stalls selling cannolis (ricotta filled pastry horns). The New York pizza, a much fatter more-dense version of the original one from Naples is still available at Lombardy’s in Spring Street. You won’t be able to get through more than a slice of this gigantic Italian American offering. On another stratospheric level, you fill find genuine Italian food in Eataly, near Union Square (www.eatalyny.com). This is pure devotion to Italian produce – meats, cheeses, antipasti, pasta and so on started by celebrity chef Mario Batali.
Right next door to Little Italy is Chinatown. It is a good idea to experience both in one fell sweep. The restaurants here especially the institution of dim
sum on Sunday has become quite a New York Institution. Today New York’s China town is the largest in the area spreading over 35 city blocks. New York also has the largest Greek community in North America. Greek dishes such as donner kebab or gyro which is its proper name, falafel and baklava are now common street foods in the city. I was surprised to find a street full of Hispanic shops and markets near Delancey St in the Lower East side not far from Katz Deli, with everything written in Spanish (not English). Surprisingly Puerto Ricans are one of the largest immigrant communities in NYC. You will find many of them serving in Jewish delis but their food has remained more or less within their community and not been imbibed into the New York culinary scene.
Jewish food is still the privy of the Jewish Deli. The 19th century saw the first wave of German and later Eastern European and Russian Jews which really shaped the character of Jewish life and cooking in America. Most lived in the Lower East Side where the garment industry and sweat shops were located. The Deli emerged to cater to young Jewish men working in the sweatshops in search of quick kosher food. Delis offered smoked meats like pastrami (cured, smoked and steamed brisket of beef) salted and pickled fish, knishes (fried, stuffed savoury pastries) and pickles. Their great trade was sandwiches using rye bread and mustard and this pretty much continues today, only the clientele has changed from young Jewish males to just about anybody.
And if something becomes trendy and sought after in NYC, like cup cakes, frozen yoghurt or anything with a French sounding name, then there are no boundaries to the hype and the price. Take the famous DB burger that celebrity French chef Daniel Boulud serves in his DB Bistro Moderne on West 44 th Street. At $ 32 it is probably the most expensive burger you will find but it is made with minced short rib of beef, foie gras and a slice of black truffle!! There are however a few things that seem to scream “New York”, Liza Minelli style. In New York you must try the bagel – you may be disappointed by this round, seemingly bland looking disc with a hole in the middle – they can be plain, made with rye and pumpernickel and are classically served with smoked salmon and cream cheese. You will also find New York bagels flavoured with garlic, sesame seed or coarse salt and sometimes even with chocolate! The other New York street food which frankly like the bagel, left me a little cold is the pretzel. Clearly of Greek/Turkish origin and resemble the ‘simit’ which you find all over Istanbul…the New York version is soft and chewy. As a New Yorker friend of mine said, “I know I’m home when I eat a bagel, a pretzel or a hot dog from a cart”.
These are a few of my picks.
EAT DBGB Kitchen and Bar: (www.dbgb.com) Daniel Boulud represents the “frenchification” of New York…not just on the fashionable and conservative Upper East Side but now further down to the more modest but alternative chic Bowery. Along with other big French names like Eric Ripert and Jean Georges Vongerichten, there is simply no way you can avoid ‘French’ in some form or the other in chic NYC. One of the latest is the DBGB Kitchen and Bar which brings really good home style sausages, burgers and Lyonnais inspired Bistro cooking to New York. It is situated in the not so chic Bowery area of NY and is the best way to enjoy Daniel Boulud’s touch at very reasonable prices. If you do have a bigger budget then there are several other establishments that Daniel Boulud has in New York including his first fine dining restaurant Daniel and an amazing cocktail bar called Café Boulud and Bar Pleiades. As opposed to DBGB this one is set in the heart of the Upper East Side and is a fantastic place to people watch.
Katz (www.katzdeli.com) the famous and probably one of the oldest New York delis serves their famous pastrami on rye $15.95, matzo ball soup $5.95, and Reuben (pastrami with melted Swiss cheese, relish and sauerkraut) $16.95. The price reflects the fact that there is half a pound of pastrami in each sandwich! A word of warning, go before noon to avoid queuing. A few doors down, Russ and Daughters (www.russanddaughters.com )is the real deal. it’s an up market Deli which sells a staggering variety of smoked salmon, pickled fish, caviar of various kinds and so on in pristine surroundings and will make up the famous lox (smoked salmon), cream cheese and bagel breakfast ”to go”. It is not a restaurant but more a gourmet store. They will also pack in dry ice for long distance travel. Probably the best quality Jewish food in New York today. Baogette (www.baoguette.com). You must try Baogette, a chain serving sandwiches and Vietnamese rolls. It’s the pork Banh Mi you have to try – layers of spicy pork sausage and sweet barbecue pork, pickled vegetables and chillis all stuffed into half a crisp French baguette. If you don’t eat pork they are also available with chicken, fish, curried beef and vegetarian. At $6.50 it is a complete meal and satisfies any lust for spice. Noodle and rice combos and the salad and summer cold rice rolls (the latter are all vegetarian) are all worth trying. Shake Shack (www.shakeshack.com). Danny Meyer has made his mark in the city with up-market American food. This is his ode to the masses. Madison Square Park is the original one which was born from a hot dog cart. Shake Shack serves burgers ($4.55),including a very good vegetarian one with portabello mushroom, flat top dogs, fries, frozen custards (regular at $6.50) and drinks including beer and wine. The quality is decent and the famous ‘ShackSauce’ makes the burgers quite special. Prices are ludicrously reasonable and you sit in the open air in the centre of New York. You even have a couple of specials for dogs in case you bring your canine friend along: Pooch-ini is a chilli treat for those with four feet – it includes a Shack burger, dog biscuits with peanut butter sauce and vanilla custard ($3.75). No kidding. There’s even an allergy warning just in case your canine friend is intolerant to certain foods!!
Asiate Brunch at The Mandarin Oriental Hotel (www.mandarinoriental.com/newyork/dining/asiate ) For something very special and upmarket the brunch at Asiate, is quietly elegant ($54 + taxes). The Asiate is the fine dining Asian restaurant of the understated Mandarin Oriental Hotel at Columbus circle. It has an unparalleled view of Central Park and Manhattan. Their Brunch is unlike any other big brash and bold buffet. Everything is served at a pace that suits you. A gourmandise tasting arrives – a sort of fusion of East and West which works. It could be a cauliflower veloute with shaved truffles, Peking duck steamed bun, foie gras custard and tuna tatake, followed by two main courses which you choose from a list of about 7 or 8 – these include a couple of egg options, waffles, steak, fish, a salad and something more substantial like a risotto…culminating in dessert and petits fours. There is a good selection of wines and bubbly by the glass and non alcoholic beverages
As far as shopping for food is concerned there is little point hunting for the rare and unusual. You’ll find almost everything from both America and around the world in Trader Joe’s and the thinking man’s supermarket, Whole Foods. There are branches all over the city and in the five boroughs. Union Square is a particularly interesting area because it has both these shops next door to each other as well as great kitchen shops and restaurants. If you are looking for something a little special then the Dean and De Luca (www.deandeluca.com) store which is a gourmet paradise (go to the original store in SoHo) is a safe bet. It’s a beautiful store to wander around too. I love the Middle-Eastern grocery stores on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Sahadi (www.sahadifinefoods.com) is a Lebanese food shop, where you can buy every conceivable Middle-Eastern spice, a huge range of olives, mezze and packaged products. Next door you will find the Damascus bakery which is a smaller version specialising in a variety of breads and great bakhlava.
I found several very good Kitchen shops in New York. Williams Sonoma (www.williams-sonoma.com) at Columbus Circle has certainly come a long way in the last 25 years. The store has everything from pepper grinders to cookery books to glass ware… at a price. Much more reasonable are Sur La table (www.surlatable.com) and A Cooks Companion (www.acookscompanion.com) in Brooklyn.
Do buy a microplaner, an extremely sharp and effective grater which I can’t do without. FishsEddy (www.fishseddy.com) started out selling old Americana’ cookware: There isn’t much of the original stuff left so they are now replicating old designs. For something really special for the home, dining table or just a quirky but beautifully crafted gift – look no further than Michael Aram (www.michaelaram.com). Incidentally many of his creations start of life in India but are not available here. His trademark items include his wonderfully witty beaten steel bowls, his marble mouse cheese board and the quirky ice bucket with feet and with hand tongs.
Published as seen and written for Telegraph Kolkata.