We attempted to go to well-known brunch spot on a Saturday morning and we were greeted with about 25 people milling about outside. Waiting times can be up to 2 hours so we sacked it off and headed instead for Diner, over the river in Williamsburg. In what looked like a disused train carriage the place was packed to the rafters with cool kids sipping on bloody marys. Within 10 minutes we were seated and a delicious dish of scrambled eggs with a biscuit (aka. a savoury scone) topped with pork gravy (aka. white sauce with bits of sausage in it) ($12) kept me going till dinnertime.
We didn't give up on Clinton Street Baking Company though and came back on a weekday, as several people had proclaimed theirs to be The Best pancakes in New York. We patiently waited outside for half an hour, while my still-damp hair turned crispy with frost. We were seated snugly inside and a mountain of sugar-cured bacon, eggs with fried green tomatoes and cheesy grits ($13) warmed me up. The show stopper was indeed the wild Maine blueberry pancakes, served with a warm maple butter ($12). Sweet mother of God these were good, and worth the freezing wait we endured. Warm and fluffy inside, slightly crisp edges, punctuated with blueberries within and a mound of them on top, the maple butter drenching into the pancakes was... just... uuuunnngggg. I have no words. I need a moment alone with this memory.
Seemingly my beloved can exist on merely two meals a day - the horror - so one evening I went foraging for a snack on my own. Just a block away I came across a branch of Xi'an Famous Foods, heartily recommended by many. On St Marks Place, it was tiny; two benches faced the wall, which was plastered with the laminated menu and pictures of the dishes. As I was merely snacking, I went for Chang-an Spicy Tofu ($2) and Liang Pi Cold Skin Noodles ($4.50). Within 5 minutes I was out of there, clutching my takeaway bag.
It was pretty huge for my supposed snack and goddamn it was delicious. Slippery soft, delicate tofu was bathed in a savoury, sour broth tinged with ginger and garlic and with a slick of fiery red chilli oil. Cold skin noodles (here's an interesting Wikipedia article on how they're made) made your lips go numb with Sichuan peppercorns, while the soft pliable noodles stained all and sundry with the dressing they were doused in. I absolutely honked of garlic afterwards but I immediately wanted to go back to try everything else with another serving of tofu on the side. Alas, I ran out of time.
Later that evening, we hit Corner Bistro, reputedly New York's best burger. Famed for its queues, we arrived late and got lucky; seated in 5 minutes. The burger, loosely packed and cooked as requested, came with rashers of crispy bacon and perhaps a touch more raw onion in a huge hoop than I'd have liked, but was really very good. Pickles on the side and fries that were just like McDonalds' - which is a good thing - made me a fan. At $8-ish for the Bistro burger it was insanely good value. Value aside though, Minetta Tavern's effort pips it to the post for me.
Revelation of the trip goes to Otafuku, purveyors of takoyaki. Takoyaki are balls of batter studded with cooked octopus. I'll admit it doesn't sound particularly appealing, but when I went there to yet again another hole-in-the-wall place with barely standing room for more than 3 people and no seating, I was transfixed by a huge metal pan with spherical molds, takoyaki cooking merrily inside. You'll have the excuse the photo. I am resolutely right handed and trying to wield chopsticks and take a picture while supressing the urge to stuff them in my gob was just too much.
These reminded me of a Japanese version of Jose's ham croquetas. Crisp on the outside and light and moussey inside, these are drizzled with takoyaki sauce (whatever that might be), mayonnaise and topped with a dusting of seaweed and shavings of dried bonito. $5 for 5 I think, and after I'd finished, I only wanted more and more.
Often regarded as one of the best makers of ramen, Ippudo has a legendary reputation for enormous queues and long waiting times, all for a bowl of noodles in broth. People get seriously passionate about ramen, and while I'm only just delving into this world I am fully in love with the stuff. Which might explain why I was outside Ippudo on a Tuesday morning at 10:45am, 7th in the queue, waiting for the 11am opening time. Once inside, the space reminds me of a Busaba Eathai. Seated communally, the din is incredible. Every time someone walks in, all the staff shout a greeting in Japanese to the mostly young Asian crowd. I was in and out in 30 minutes and by the time I left, pop music was pumping and the poor hapless sod opposite me was still trying to shout business down his mobile phone, with laptop out.
The lunch deal includes any ramen plus a rice with topping and side salad for merely $3 extra. I chose the grilled eel with rice, a surprisingly generous portion. The fish was soft and tender, the rice well cooked.
The curious side of me wanted to choose their 'special' which included Parmesan cheese but I knew I'd cry if I didn't like it, so I stuck to Akamaru Modern ($14). The Tonkotsu broth is topped with miso paste, pork chashu (which is simmered pork belly, unlike the Chinese char siu), scallions and fragrant garlic oil. A soy marinated soft boiled egg (nitamago) as an extra ($2) completed the bowl. The broth was deeply porky with a hint of sweetness from the reddish miso being stirred in. This was a seriously satisfying bowl, though I'd have liked the ramen noodles a bit thicker, a bit springier. Can we have an Ippudo in London please?
New York is famous for their bagels and one morning - fine, fine, afternoon - we headed up to David's Bagels. As we joined the queue we were greeted with a stunning array of bagel types so it only made sense to go for the Everything bagel. Studded with poppy seeds, sesame, onion flavourings and the like, it was served warm filled with lox and cream cheese ($8.50). It was stunning, really, like no other bagel I've had. Soft but not pappy, it held the filling well and was a far cry from those hard dry things we get in London. Pastrami and pickle-filled bagel ($6) was equally good. I suspect it's not even the best ever, but then I don't know much about them; we were nearby, hungry and it made me happy.
273 First Avenue (1st Ave. between E 15th St. & E 16th St.)
Since my first visit when I went to Torrisi Italian Specialities, things have changed and they have opened Parm, a more casual sandwich shop next door, devoting the main place to a more restaurant-like environment. I propped myself up at the bar and had an eggplant parm, served in a sweet semolina roll. I was still reeling from my ramen brunch, otherwise I'd have gone fully for the hero, a far larger affair. With slices of soft, juicy aubergine coated in gooey cheese, tomatoey sauce and sandwiched with basil leaves, the roll was perhaps a little oversweet to my liking but otherwise it was excellent, particularly for an aubergine obsessive. The Boy, a New York resident, has been addicted to the meatball parm for many weeks now and expressed disbelief at my choice. I am beginning to wonder about it myself. At $8 its not a cheap every day lunch but it makes a happy lunch.
So there ends the cheap eats. Are you still with me?