les


I took Thursday off, part of the plan to purge my 2008 vacation days before the unused ones are sacrificed to the strict “3-month rollover” rule. Food was my constant companion for most of the day, starting out with a strong cup of coffee from Simon Sips in the 1st Avenue park with heart-shaped foam on top.
 
Capuccino on 1st Ave

Capuccino on 1st Ave

After coffee, I cross the street and voila! Breakfast in the form of a sesame seed bagel with scallion cream cheese and the loveliest, fatty nova lox from Russ & Daughters. Weekdays are nice and quiet, with the countermen eager to serve you and only you, performing surgery on the fish to dole out perfectly thin slices of samples for the smoked fish fan.

Sesame Bagel, Nova, Cream Cheese

Sesame Bagel, Nova, Cream Cheese

Fish eaten, it was off to Brooklyn via foot, across the Brooklyn Bridge, amidst the rain and fog.
Brooklyn welcomes me!

Brooklyn welcomes me!

Yes walking on the bridge is touristy and sort-of cheesy , but it was one of those things I had wanted to do for a while, and since I was alone, there was no fear of recrimination by sophisticated friends.

Manhattan through rain and fog

Manhattan - a misty view

 I stepped off the bridge on the Brooklyn end, and landed in Dumbo, home to trendy design stores, art galleries and Jacque Torres

Jacques Torres in Dumbo

Jacques Torres in Dumbo

Home of floridly colored chocolates, tuxedoed marshmellow peeps, mountains of oversized chocolate chip cookies and wickedly thick hot chocolate. Restraint was definitely needed when it came time for decision making. In the end, it was 2 truffles for me, with good flavors, lovely designs but rather mediocre shells.
tuxedoed peeps

tuxedoed peeps

 The jaunt in Dumbo took longer than expected and by the time I got back to Manhattan, it was well past lunchtime. I foolishly thought I could check out Minetta Tavern, Keith McNally’s newest hot spot for some Gallic-inspired grub, but forgot to check the opening hours. Lunch, my dear is not served.

Too hungry by now to haul myself crosstown to Balthazar, I then substituted the French for the Italians at Lupa, Mario Batali’s Roman trattoria, where the wine is plentiful and food robust.

Bucatini and Brussel Sprouts

Bucatini and Brussel Sprouts

A bowl of Bucatini All’ Amatriciana really hit the spot on a damp, chilly day, the tomato sauce spicy and meaty, the chunks of guanciale (cured pork jowls) imparting an amazing smokiness. Soft grill onion slices were sweet as fruit, I could almost eat them as dessert.  A bowl of shaved brussel sprouts provided some fiber to the meal, the raw slaw tossed in a mixture of oil, pepper and sharp pecorino, something effortless yet tasty, and definitely one to replicate at home. For dessert, a bracingly sour cup of grapefruit sorbet, the initial reaction “Ooo! sour!” mellowing to a refreshing sweetness, characteristic of the fruit.
Nothing a carafe can't do to lift rainy spirits

Nothing a carafe can't do to lift rainy spirits

It took me a while to nurse my wine, so I hung out at the bar till 4-5, just marvelling at the number of people who drop in to eat at irregular hours (including people with babies. I thought baby schedules are like clockwork?). It is nice though to have functioning restaurants and good service during shift changes, and something I appreciate about Lupa.

Unfortunately, the fooding was cut short by the big bowl of pasta, and after that all I consumed was a pint at the bar with my coworkers and a handful of chocolate covered edamame I had lying at home. Was a nice day out, but I must say, I was expecting my appetite to be better than that!

Simon Sips (72 E 1st St)

Russ & Daughters Appetizing Store (179 E Houston St) www.russanddaughters.com

Jacque Torres (66 Water St, Brooklyn) www.mrchocolate.com

Lupa (170 Thompson St) www.luparestaurant.com

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Donut Plant

Donut Plant

Do you believe in serendipity? I do, since how else was it possible that the day I decide to randomly hop on a bus just to see where it goes, the bus winds up right in front of the Doughnut Plant? The Doughnut Plant is famed throughout the city (and apparently Japan) for innovative doughnut flavors and fillings, yet I have never actively sought it out, because fried sweet dough as we all know, are BAD. Tasty but sends you to calorific hell.

However, since the bus deposited me right in front of the store, there was no way I was not at leasting trying one. The tres leches cake doughnut it was, and wow was it worth the hype. The fried tube of cake dough was filled with a semi-viscous condensed milk that just oozes out. The firm cake and the warm filling milk collapses in my mouth and melds together into a sweet mush. Delicious.

Since the first trip, I’ve been making occasional sojourns back to the doughnut plant since I now know how to get there. I love their cake doughnuts, be it the pumpkin that’s packed with cinnamon and spice, and the ultra-indulgent chocolate blackout cake. I have been unimpressed with the yeast doughnuts however, finding them too leaden and greasy, but they too have their followers. And while you’ll find the doughnuts sold in many other locations such as Dean & Deluca, they are still best in the original store, where turnover is fast and the supplies always fresh.

The Doughnut Plant

379 Grand St (at Suffolk St)

http://www.doughnutplant.com/

paniniWe celebrated my housemate’s birthday last weekend at the LES hotspot. While it is usually a pain to have dinner at Inoteca, no thanks to its hyper-popularity and no-reservations policy, a big group of us managed to nab prime saturday night seating due to a peculiarity in its reservation policy. While Inoteca does not usually take reservations, it is happy to do so for groups larger than 8, with a credit card to secure the table of course. Which translate to good news for us, and too bad for the couples and groups that arrived in time for an hour long wait.

Inoteca provides a pre-fixe family style meal to facilitate speedy large group dinners. I’m not too sure if its compulsory, but we didn’t mind to have the freedom of choice inoteca affettatiwrested off our hands this time, and the appealing menu made for sharing meant I got to taste upwards of 10 dishes. Yay for family style meals.

By the time G and I got to the restaurant (I had to stall her so that everyone else was seated), olives and bread were sitting at the table, alongside bottles of wine. No one seemed to be touching the olives though. Well, more for me. Next came the salads and an assortment of mixed cold meats, none too memorable. The salads though were good/very good, including the de rigeur beet salad, a really lovely octopus, bean, celery and fennel salad, with the little twirl of octopus lightly grilled and smoky, as well as the meaty shredded duck salad, with the meat slightly rare and gamy, sitting on top of some greens, slighty crunchy lentils, and some sweet pickled onlasagnetteions to provide a little tang.

With salads accounted for, we kicked into full carbo gear with the entrees. 2 trays of panini found their way onto the table. Needless to say, I avoided the roasted vege one in favor of the sopressata and goat cheese filled meat sandwich. Unfortunately, while the bread is nice and chewy, the inclusion of goat cheese overwhelmed the sweet & spicy cured meat. Thankfully I like the other entrees more. The meatballs were juicy and swimming in a tomato sauce that included a lot of yummy citrus overtones. It smelt like I was taking a walk in an orchard.  The solid block eggplant lasagna oozed with melting cheese, and while heavy was comforting on a frigid night. In that plate of fried vegetables (unfortunately soggy after sitting out for a while), I found a new found appreciation for battered fennel, where the sweetness and anisey flavor seemed enhanced after an oil bath. And G could not stop digging into the plate of firm polenta dressed with a side a very fried cauliflower bits. If you have not noticed, the menu is very veggie-friendly, making it a good option for a carnivore/herbivore group outing destination. And even if all of the attendees are avowed meat eaters, we lapped the vegetable dishes up.

What is dinner without dessert? And so we downed shots of affogato (vanilla icecream drenched in espresso); grabbed warm panini oozing with thick smears of nutella, a cheese plate (the server went too fast for me to note anything down) and a rather unappetizing plate of cooked fruits which everyone avoided. Ice cream and fruits. No guesses for what we polished off and what got neglected.

The restaurant got busier and busier as the night went on, the long bar was 3 deep, and G was constantly accosted by servers with their hands full of hot plates and people waiting for tables. Given normal circumstances, I would probably not eat at Inoteca because I hate to wait. But for two hours that night I was oblivious to it all, the noise level, the crazy wait, the discomfort of sitting practically on top of my neighbor. I got caught up in our conversation (we must have been loud, but I didn’t notice), the happenings of my friends, the celebration of my housemate’s birthday and the spread on our table.

Inoteca

www.inotecanyc.com

98 Rivington St (at Ludlow St)


Clockwise from topleft: Yuzu custard, spruce yogurt, pistachio; Irish cream, chocolate, coconut, hazelnight icecream; Soft chocolate, avocado, chocolate soil, lime icecream; Beet, umeboshi, chocolate
For lovers of simple, traditional desserts like brownies and ice-cream, or pie ala mode, the dessert tasting at WD-50 is not for you. My experience Wednesday night was an exercise of mind calisthenics, as me and my girlfriends waded through 6 desserts, some more conventional than others but all containing no less than 3 different flavors. Each artistically plated dish, with a touch of beet foam, a dab of avocado puree or a sprinkling of licorice powder demanded our full attention as we tracked down each subtle flavor with the tenacity of bloodhounds and then try to guess the chef’s intentions behind creating each quirky dish.
Some dishes were straight forward enough. Our amuse bouche was a smart riff on breakfast spreads, with a grape jam injected in a disc of cream cheese. Sesame seeds and sauce on the side emulated peanut butter, rounding up the breakfast trinity. A deconstructed Irish coffee dish was a crowd pleaser, with hazelnut icecream paired with a cyclinder of coffee ice filled with extremely spiked whisky caramel.
Some flavor combinations made us pause and go hmmm, but the final presentation and taste worked pretty well and we cleared those plates. Shortbread crumbs with tea flavored ice cream and marshmallows, guava puree and peanut butter/brittle was an explosion of flavors and textures. A long swirl of soft chocolate was paired with avocado sauce, chocolate and licorice soil and a scoop of lime icecream. While the avocado was a surprisingly mild and good fit with the chocolate, the lime icecream didn’t fare so well. While it did cut down the richness of the chocolate, the aftertaste was overly bitter and the limey taste jarred disharmoniously with the sweet chocolate. The spruce flavored yogurt (as in the coniferous type) with yuzu custard and pistachio puree was medicinal when it tried it alone, and overwhelmed by the lime and pistachio when paired with the other ingredients on the plate. Still the yuzu custard was without repraoch and the dabs of yogurt thankfully insignificant enough that we too polished off this dessert.
And then there was the dish made us pause and go HMMM. Despite being a big fan of beets, I do not think beets should be dessert, even after having a go at the mildly sweet and very vege-tasting beet foam that came with some chocolate bits and umeboshi plum bits. We were however very impressed with how the kitchen could foam up beet and make thin glassy shards of sweet and very yummy beet chips. WD-50 with its signature method of molecular gastronomy has had a fair amount of hype, and it sure is entertaining and a visual treat if not always tasty.
While its easy to find a slice of pie or cheesecake anywhere, WD-50 offers something unique, even borderline strange to adventurous dessert lovers. And with so much fodder for discussion at reasonable ($35 for 5 courses, $25 for 3 courses) for New York prices and courteous and attentive service, WD-50 is a great alternative New York experience.

WD-50
50 Clinton St (Bet Rivington & Stanton St)

I find it hard that anyone would dislike Economy Candy. It is both a purveyor of kitsch and candy for serious chocolate connoisseurs, with the candy types ranging from wacky giant PEZ dispensers and anatomically correct chocolate babies (taste more like taffy), to hard to find imported Cadbury chocolate from the UK and chi-chi Scharffen Berger bars. You may go in with a certain item in mind, but you’ll never know what you’ll end up buying, because temptations are abound. If in case you’re just browsing, rest assured you’ll find something calling your name. And no matter what you end up buying, you are quite certain you are getting quite the bargain here. Case in point, a 1 oz bar of Scharffen Berger milk chocolate, retailing for $4.50 per bar on their website only costs $3.50 at Economy Candy.
I, for one, was highly distracted the moment I was let into the shop, literally on a sugar high by just inhaling the sweet scent of the hand-dipped chocolate and the huge slabs of halvah. I saw the colored candy buttons of my childhood (the ones my mum told me were toxic and would stain my stomach neon pink and yellow) ; really hard to find European items such as Kinder-Surprise eggs with a toy inside and those Mozart chocolate and marzipan balls that my choir friends and I raided the Germany supermarkets for; the Giant PEZ dispensers, gummy dentures; different types of dried fruit and old fashioned American candy bar, some that I’ve never seen.
Being rather ignorant of the history of candy in the U.S., I picked up the Sky Bar, an unconventional chocolate bar with 4 distinct fillings that was produced by Necco, only to go home and find out that it has been in production since the 1930s. And all I thought while getting it was “hmm.. tt’s a great bar for a commitment-phobe”!!
While I think everyone would like this funky sweet emporium, the economy candy store is truly highly recommended for those who are 1. nostalgic for some old school candy; 2. looking to experience the LES pre- the invasion of the bobo eateries and 3. in serious rebellion against their dental surgeon. In any case, eat up and have fun!

Economy Candy
108 Rivington St

Last weekend, while my usual dinner pal was out of commission due to an oral surgery, I had the good fortune to replace her with two friends who were visiting the city, both friends since Chicago, both students in the east coast, both with a hearty appetite and most importantly, both game enough or foolhardy to agree to a 5 destination within 1.5 hour whirlwind eating exercise.
While both Wellian and Walter have been to New York at least half a dozen times in the past year, both of them are relatively unfamiliar with East Village and the LES. Since that is also a great area for cheap chow and relatively close to the used book cafe, we selected to start of in the East Village and work our way down to Chinatown and back to Soho in one and a half hours. Ambitious? Definitely? But sometimes, its the effort that makes it even more satisfying.
Both Walter and I are certified sugar fiends, so it should not surprise anyone that our first stop is Beard Papa, the noted Japanese chain specializing in cream puffs. The cream puffs are made to order, pumping different flavors of thick, fresh cream into the empty puffs, yielding big puff balls of choux pastry that is full of yummy goodness. While the boys chomped down their cream puffs, we headed a few blocks east to Cafe Zaiya for my breakfast and some coffee. Zaiya happens to be a must-visit for me everytime I go to E. Village, or am in the vicinity of the Bryant Park Library, which is near a sister branch. What makes Cafe Zaiya a favorite of mine is the yakimochi, a traditional Japanese bean pastry that is best eaten when its freshly baked and still warm to the touch. The lotus seed paste is fragrant but not as cloyingly sweet as a Chinese bun filling, and the pastry is both flaky and chewy at the same time, a texture that really appeals to me. The other baked goods, deep fried croquettes and various bento sets are good as well, and Walter couldn’t resist buying a deep fried curry bun to eat along the way to our next stop.
Holding our coffee cups, half eaten buns and pastries, we meandered our way through St Marks Place. We peered into the neon pink automat shop that sold overpriced and non-too appetizing looking snacks, identified a few other prospective chow spots, walked down to Tompkins Square Park and reached Houston St, the border between E. Village and the LES. We wandered around for a bit, for I had lost my bearings, but we found our third spot of the day, Il Laboratorio del Gelato right next to the Tenement Musuem and for fear of not having consumed enough sugars, decided to share a cup of icecream. Il Laboratorio is quite the royalty of the New York icecream scene and dominates the freezers of many top notch restaurants in the city. Luckily, the retail store allows us to enjoy the same flavors at a much lower pricepoint (although still expensive when compared to mr. softee) and we happily dug our way through a cup of mint and fig icecream while taking in the sights and marvelling at the pace of gentrification in the still relatively grungy neighborhood.

While the LES had been the stronghold of an older Jewish generation, the influx of Chinese immigrants in the last century, and particularly the last few decades have changed the demographic make-up of the area quite significantly. We observed many signboards in Chinese and even more Fuzhou eateries popping up further north from Canal Street, where Chinatown is largely situated. Another type of eatery that is highly popular in the area are the northern Chinese dumpling houses that served up dirt cheap dumplings in tiny and cramped shop fronts. We visited one of the oldest dumpling shops, simply called Dumpling House to sample the wares. The dumplings, fresh out of the frying pan was crisp and hot to the point of scalding. They were also plump and filled with fresh meat and chives, making for a very greasy lunch. Walter even proclaimed that he could “stand there and eat this all day long.” The fact that the dumplings were $1 for an order of 5, or 20 cents each was icing on the cake. We also shared a sesame pancake stuffed with cold spiced beef. What’s not to like about fried dough? Better yet, fried dough served right off the griddle, sprinkled with fragrant sesame seeds and filled with slightly spicy and aromatic beef jerky? Just thinking about it makes me hungry =)
At this point, we were all feeling the effects of heartburn, plus had run out of time as my shift at the cafe was about to begin, so I bade my buddies goodbye and rushed to the cafe. I felt a little disappointed as I still had one more place I wanted the out-of-towners to visit to round up our mini snack expedition. Luckily Wellian came back to look for me after I was done for the day and we finally managed to hit Bahn Mi So 1 for a huge vietnamese sandwich ostensibly for some greens (it had cilantro and pickled vegetables) and iced vietnamese coffee. While the sandwich is a great grab-and-go type of food, we decided to rest our feet in a small playground in Nolita to refuel and watch the diverse group of kids, from chinese kids in the neighborhood, to well-dressed children of yuppie European parents who just spent hundreds of dollars in the boutiques on Elizabeth St, to tourists who are enjoying a slice of New York pizza, play in the background. Only in this great city can you simultaneously see people from all walks of life congregate in one spot, and only in this place can you enjoy foods from different ethnicities, price points and stature in the culinary scene within a short 20 block walk.