hell’s kitchen


scrambled egg and merguez sausage

scrambled egg and merguez sausage

Colorful markets, vibrant streets, a multicultural population, its air steamy and pungent with the smells of fish and brine. This is my romanticized version of the city of Marseille, not the French brasserie in Hell’s Kitchen that adopts every Parisian brasserie interior design cliche known to man, include wooden panelling, cushy banquettes and mirrored walls. Thank goodness the menu is more varied than the decor and actually plays homage to its namesake. The dinner menu boasts a wonderful North African couscous served with fall-of-the-bone lamb and a spicy and gamey lamb sausage that is worth ordering even as a side, and the desserts have not disappointed thus far.

I find myself there most often at brunch though, because not only is it terribly convenient and fuss-free to walk in, Marseille also satisfy brunch disbelievers such as I with entrees with a twist. The merguez and egg scramble comes with a kick from the spicy sausage whereas the frittata verde, a golden eggy disc filled with raisins, pignoli nuts, bitter chard and pesto made me a believer of the Italian eggs-and-raisins combination. Who knew it would be that tasty? Traditionalists get to choose from a myriad of regular brunch items like eggs benedict and waffles, while lunchers get to pick their sandwiches and salads. So what if bouillabaise is only a special and not a staple? I’ll take this Marseille until I make it to the real one.

Marseille

630 9th Ave (Between 44th & 45th Sts)

www.marseillenyc.com

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Come June 15th, I will bid farewell to my current apartment and move into new digs downtown. While I can’t say I’m sorry to leave the Times Square area with its frenzied traffic, stifling crowds and random drunks screaming at the top of their lungs at 4 am, I’ve definitely not been hungry and have even cultivated certain favorites that I would undoubtedly miss.

Amy’s Bread: Part of a mini-chain, I claim this outlet my own. In general, I find their bread better than the pastries, but that doesn’t stop me from purchasing the thick slabs of almond-crusted brioche. Dawn’s the most fervent Amy Bread loyalist amongst my friends and family. Amy’s is her first stop whenever she visits as she walks from the train station on-route to my apartment, and amongst her last stop before she leaves, so that she can procure a few of her favorite dense, dark, mildly sweet applesauce donuts. One for the road and another for good measure. As for me, I can’t make up my mind between the toothsome raisin and fennel semolina roll and the explosion of chocolate in the sourdough chocolate twist. I guess I’ll just have to try them both more this week to find out which is my true love.

Chili Thai: There must be at least a dozen Thai restaurants within the 3 block radius of my apartment, but I’m partial to the home-cooked quality at Chili Thai as well as the sweet and accommodating service. The ladies to run the place have a sense of humor too. I won’t forget the time they say Uncle Sam resembled a more mature Roger Federer during last year’s US Open. Ruoying got me hooked on the stir fried Pad Woon Sen that’s fragrant and mercifully not too sweet. The Khao Soi is authentic and my next favorite thing to order.

Afghan Kebab House: The lighting at this hole-in-the-wall middle eastern eatery is comically dark, so much so that it is sometimes hard to tell what I am eating. Regardless, the barbecued meats are always well spiced and tender, and even better are the flavorful rice and addictive yogurt sauce that I douse liberally on the meats. So the bread could be fluffier and the service less nonchalant, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Amy’s Bread

672 9th Ave (Between 46th & 47th Sts)

www.amysbread.com

Chili Thai

712 9th Ave (Between 48th & 49th Sts)

Afghan Kebab House 

764 9th Ave (Between 51st & 52nd Sts)

menu

May is the rainiest month, and on Friday, I caught myself without an umbrella, not by design but because someone had stolen it while I was having dinner at the newly opened Hallo Berlin Express. But the proprietor showed me a little act of kindness and lent me his own, and I went back the next day with the umbrella and a hankering for more German sausages.

weisswurst

Hallo Berlin Express is an offshoot of a beer garden on 10th Ave and a very successful food cart up along 5th Ave. Besides 14 types of sausages served in buns, platters, all types of permutations, according to the menu, it also sells schinitzel and other German items. And beer of course. Sausages and a stein of beer seems like a good way to spend an evening. I honestly cannot remember my meal on Friday, but the weisswurst on a roll the next day was very good. The fat sausage was meaty, juicy and pretty mild tasting, with enough snap and a good sear as the boiled sausage is treated to a round of panfrying before hitting the better than average roll. Not too sour saurkraut, sweet grilled onions and tangy mustard completed the sandwich. And at $5.50 cheaper and tastier than my typical weekday lunches. Eaten outside on a good day, with lots of napkins to clean up the juicy mess afterwards, it was definitely a relaxed and satisfying meal.  

 Hallo Berlin Express

744 9th Ave (Bet 50th & 51st St)

 

2008’s Zagat Guide lists three and a half pages of Italian restaurants in the city, more than any other cuisine and testimony to Italian food’s popularity. But Esca, a pedigreed restaurant with a Batali connection stands out. There are no pizzas on the menu, no caprese salad, no eggplant parmigiana, no lasagne. There are no meat dishes and a solo vegeterian pasta. The menu is seafood focused, from raw crudo to pasta and grilled whole fish. Dessert is the one section with no mention of fish and crusteceans.

I crashed Gerrie’s family dinner and we shared some extra-virgin first pressed olive oil with grilled bread. “The olives were still on the trees 6 days ago”, our server assured us as he somewhat pushily sold us 2 plates. True to his word, the oil was vibrantly hued, and tasted very grassy and spicy. It was really good oil, but for $8 a dish, something I would skip the next visit.

I would not skip the pastas, for the spicy spaghetti neri I tried was brilliant, somewhat similar to the version I tried at Babbo, served with barely cooked cuttlefish that were chewy, then gluey as the cuttlefish come undone and dissolves in the mouth.

We also shared some whole fish and sides, and the seabass for two was presented dramatically tableside with a thick crust of pure white salt.  The fish, once removed from its salty coffin looked much less impressive, but was tender and very delicately flavored. The red snapper, grilled with some fennel had a nice crisp skin, but the fennel was way too salty. The sides, a bitter broccoli rabe mashed with beans, roasted potatoes and roasted squash with honey were fine, nothing more.

We ended the meal with 2 desserts, an ultra-dense cheesecake with poached fruit and a lovely plate of petite buckwheat crepes stuffed with barely sweet pumpkin puree, dusted with snowy sugar, a sprinkle of crunch walnuts and drops of ruby pomegranate seeds that added gorgeous color, texture and a bitter-sweet lift to dish, which would otherwise have been pleasant but unremarkable.

Esca is not cheap, and the prices online are stale. Also, the menu is uncompromising, and with a lot of big words, which unfortunately means the servers may seem like they are talking down to the customers. But Esca would be every pescetarian’s delight and for avowed meat eaters, a meal there might just change your mind about seafood.

 Esca

403 W43rd St (on 9th Ave)

www.esca-nyc.com