I was lucky enough to spend 9 days in New York at the end of May/beginning of June. I’ve always very much wanted to visit the United States generally – this was my first trip there! – but also, specifically, have been desperate to see New York. It’s been a passion of mine that has, I think, slightly bemused my boyfriend. As he, not entirely unfairly, points out, I moved from one big global city (Singapore) to another (London); what could I possibly want from a third? (His idea of a great holiday involves the Splendour of Nature). But the main reason I’d been put off from pressing NYC as a holiday destination has been the cost/distance/effort factor. The United States is a much bigger commitment than Europe, and it involves flying for a really long time.
So it was a pretty amazing opportunity when one of my bosses at work asked me if I’d be able to attend a conference on our department’s behalf…in New York City. I have travelled for work before, but that was to Sheffield (great place, but not quite the Big Apple). New York was another kettle of fish. The frisson of excitement as I accepted, trying to look as cool and professional as possible, must have shown. “Maybe you could take a few days’ holiday around it, if you wanted to stay and see the city?” Well, maybe I could. Like any jobs, mine has its occasional downsides…but the people I work for are very, very nice indeed.
For the first few days of my stay in New York, I was in Midtown, along the Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue), not far from Central Park. This is movie-set New York: the skyscrapers which hurtle upwards like hungry steel and glass trees (see main photo); Museum Mile; Times Square not far away, with its massive blinking screens which shine bright even at mid-day. But compared to the more residential streets of the East Village, it is also, relatively speaking, a bit of a food desert. I mean yes, of course, there are heaps of restaurants in this area, a well-worn tourist path. But many of them are expensive and the food can be average.
The staple of my lunchtimes during this brief stay in Midtown (shortly before decamping to Tribeca, where David joined me for the holiday part of the trip) was Cafe 53 (1301 Avenue of the Americas, 10019 New York) just opposite the Midtown Hilton Hotel (I’ve not found a website but it replaces an establishment called the W 53 Gourmet Deli). It offered the principle advantages of a) not being an ubiquitous Pret A Manger – I like Pret and it’s nice to see a British export doing well, but…I can eat Pret anytime in London, and b) being close to the conference I was attending, enabling me to step outside briefly and catch some fresh air. Cafe 53’s chief attraction from a culinary perspective was an extensive salad and hot food bar/buffet. The concept is simple: you take a plastic or reinforced carton box and fill it up with whatever you want from the bar, and pay by weight at the counter (it was $8.99/LB). Obviously, the salad is very cheap, as the leaves are light, but you’d pay more if you piled the macaroni and cheese, spare ribs and meatballs into your box (they had a ‘non salad hot food’-type bar as well).
The salad items were, admittedly, sometimes on the bland side; a lot of the offerings had heavy, creamy dressings, and dried cranberries seemed to feature in almost everything, making it a little undistinguishable. Still, it was a useful place to have in the vicinity, and its presence was the main reason I was eating a good amount of fruit and vegetables every day, which can be hard to find when travelling. In the morning, there is a mini fruit bar, and a boxed fresh fruit salad to start the day was very welcome. I’d avoid the roasted carrots amongst the lunchtime offerings, however, as they were hard within and leathery on the outside. The meatballs in tomato sauce, however, were utterly delicious: light in texture, with a robust, savoury flavour. The quinoa salad was also good and I enjoyed the kale salad very much – it was creamily dressed, but lightly so, and the dressing had zesty punch. The quinoa salad was quite North American in character, featuring pecans and cranberries, like a traditional wild rice salad. It was excellent.
You could sit inside Cafe 53, but I ate outside on one of the public seating areas. It was intensely hot and sunny and sometimes a little humid, not always the best weather for someone dressed to attend a conference in an icy hotel room…
In the evenings, I ate dinner with two of my colleagues. The first night, I identified a nearby restaurant called La Bonne Soupe, a bistro my guidebook described as ‘popular with the thrifty’. We agreed that thrifty sounded good. The meal at La Bonne Soupe was easily the best I had in Midtown. Effectively, La Bonne Soupe offers decently-priced, well-rendered, very classic French bistro favourites. It is not a restaurant to go to be surprised, but seemed to me to be quite reliable. Possibly less than exciting if you live in Europe and have access to French food most of the time, but that doesn’t reflect on the overall decency of the offerings.
My colleagues between them ordered the boullabaise and a lamb burger with goat’s cheese. The boullabaise was classically rendered, with toasted bread rubbed with rouille on the side. Although served as one course, the idea was to pour the rich tomato and fish liquid into the plate and then eat the seafood separately, in the traditional manner. The seafood soup was rich and deeply flavoured; although too salty, it tasted strongly of fresh and briney seafood. The lamb burger was juicily cooked with a generous serving of goat’s cheese. There isn’t much to say about it: it was well-cooked, it tasted of lamb, it was not too cluttered with excess garnishes, there was enough good melting goat’s cheese to taste it.
I ordered the steak haché Paysan. Steak haché is effectively a refined hamburger patty, served without a bun. The waitress was at pains to explain this to me: “There’s no bun. You eat it with silverware.” (I mean, I will eat a burger with silverware, too…). I guess the term steak might mislead those diners unaware that ‘haché’ means ‘minced’ (I’m not bragging, my knowledge of French pretty much ends there). Indeed, dare I say that I had ordered it to reduce my refined carbohydrate intake, which was essential, as I had already torn through copious amounts of the contents of the complimentary bread basket. It was topped with a pat of richly green butter. For the steak haché Paysan, good things come to those who wait: as the butter melts into the meat, it bastes it and infuses each morsel with an intense hit of parsley, fresh, pungent, brightening garlic (I love garlic) and the perfect amount of salt to season the mince. Wait, don’t dive in immediately, and let the butter melt and pool on the hot surface of the patty: it is an amazing sensation, the liquid butter and firm, crumbly meat, only delicately seared. I had mine medium-rare and the tenderness of the centre echoed the softness of the butter.
We also ate dinner at a restaurant called Sangria 46, which is on, you guessed it, West 46th. It offers both tapas and mains; we shared a Spanish tortilla, spinach croquetas, empanadas and shrimp (plancha, grilled in garlic and olive oil) as starters. The tortilla was good, if a little dense, and I did enjoy the croquetas, which were appropriately crisp without and soft within. The shrimp were quite large, and not as firm and sweet as the ones we can buy in Europe. For my main, I had arroz criollo, rice with shrimp and Spanish sausage accompanied by plantains and avocado. I love the latter two ingredients. Overall the dish was average, characterised by a dull sweetness brought on by the slightly sugary tomato sauce which dressed the rice, the sweetish sausage and the starchy plantain. There was quite a lot of it; I couldn’t finish it. I also had a strawberry and peach sangria which had a similar industrial sweetness: the tinned peaches were soft and flavourless, as were the strawberries, still slightly out of season. Overall, undistinguished. We ate outside in the tiny terrace at the back of the restaurant, into which the aircon extractor roared and darkness descended with alarming finality, as there were only a few lights there.
Finally, we dined, dahlings, at the Rockefeller
Centre Center Cafe, down in the sunken Concourse level. There, you are guarded over by a massive golden statue of Prometheus which silently but no less explicitly proclaims that yes indeed, John D. sure was a rich man. Speakers boomed out Justin Bieber’s music at an ear-splitting volume and looking up at the skyscrapers from below ground level gave an eerie sense of reverse vertigo.
The food was average but you knew that already, didn’t you? Eating at the Rockefeller Center is about the ambiance, about being there, at the Rockefeller Center, surrounded by skycrapers and American flags, the pleasure of sitting outdoors. Pity about the loud pop music. Anyway, I ordered a burger. The meat was well-cooked. The bun was average (not even brioche!) and slightly dry, but not offensively so. The pickle was a standard pickle, thinly sliced and flabby. The tomato was thickly sliced and not at the peak of ripeness. The fries were fine, perhaps, if I’m being picky/honest, a shade too blonde for my liking.
The prosecco was very delicious and very expensive. We were slightly surprised that it was served in acrylic champagne flutes, which is really not quite the same as a proper glass, although it is of course an ever-so-practical choice. the hard flagstone floor mean that any glassware dropped would shatter pretty definitively.
Anyway, undistinguished in terms of food, but friendly service (as everywhere in New York). Quite on the expensive side for what you get, but I’ll say it again, you don’t go there for the food.
Moving on from the food ever so briefly, as you can see from the photo above, we were fantastically lucky with the weather. A few days after the conference had ended and I was unleashed from work for a few days, David and I spent an afternoon tramping around Central Park. We didn’t expect it, but we were there for the whole day in the cool green oasis, which really is a refuge from the city in a more significant way than any London park. Walking around Central Park made me realise how many pockets of greenery there actually are in London; New York lacks the tiny, briefly bucolic squares of the world’s second – or first – global city. Instead, it makes up for this absence with the sheer size of Central Park.
I did not eat at one of NYC’s ubiquitous food carts – around 53rd/6th, where I saw a lot of them, most of were from The Halal Guys. This wasn’t really a hygiene concern – although I’m much less sanguine about where I eat after a nasty bout of gastroenteritis in Paris in December 2015 – but simply because I don’t really like chicken, which their carts featured heavily. I did, however, eat a hot dog in Central Park. I think this is more or less essential. I’m not going to pretend it was a gourmet item by any means, but there’s something appealingly subversive about frankfurters, with their preternaturally smooth mystery meat and salty, hypertension-inducing filling. Anyway. It was good. It was a hot dog! The bun was dry and it needed a liberal dose of ketcup and sweet American mustard to liven it up, but who cares? Central Park was sunny and green and I ate it lounging on the grass with friends who, coincidentally, also had booked a trip to NYC. It was a lovely day and the processed food fuelled us for post-lunch boating on the lake.
Coming up: I eat the Momofuku empire and emerge a David Chang fangirl (but there are caveats!); eat a pizza topped with molten pork fat…and will I manage to get my hands on the much-hyped original Cronut?