Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Half Baked Foodie Tour of New York City

For most of my life, I've lived within an hour of New York City, a cultural mecca of foodies everywhere. And yet, oddly enough, foodie that I am, I can probably count my yearly trips to the city on a single hand, and never have I gone simply to eat.

I do, however, have a long list of restaurants and bakeries I've wanted to visit there. The List (which really does deserve capital letters) is so long that some of the places on it have been on it for years. At times, I'd toyed with the idea of spending a day eating my way around New York. But the prospect of seemed so terribly decadent and unproductive (after all, there is always laundry to do, and email to answer, etc.) that I'd dismissed it. So you can imagine my surprise when I mentioned this to one of my friends, who is also a WOHM of a young child, responded, "that sounds amazing. When are we going?"

I should mention, here, my persistent guilt about going anywhere without my son on the weekends. It's the only time I have to spend a whole day with him, and, to borrow a metaphor from T.S. Eliot, sometimes I wind up measuring my life out in coffee spoons, counting the hours that I am or am not being a "present" parent. As it is, I worry that he is even cheated out of the time we're together, when, inevitably, I'm thinking about recommendations I have to write, or a conference call I have to make, or dinner I have to plan. This is ridiculous, I know; my son knows I love him, and the time I do spend with him tends to be high quality time (e.g., we're more likely sitting on the couch playing train than watching DVDs). Still, I needed external motivation to commit to an afternoon away. I work better when I'm feeling obligated.

So I started scheming. Where would we go? How much ground could we cover? The type A planner in me took over, we committed to a date, and the day began to take shape. By the time I was done, I'd google mapped a tour of over 15 eateries. Donning long johns and ear-flapped hats and toe warmers to shield us against the promised single digit temperatures, we set out to conquer as much as we could in a single afternoon.

On the train in, we wound up talking about Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, which my friend was happily devouring, having been unable to read any book in its entirety for some time. She expressed feeling a kinship with Gilbert that I remembered feeling myself when I was reading the book; not that I want to escape to Bali and ditch my husband, but that I have sometimes (okay, often) quieted the pleasure-seeking spirit-seeking love-seeking parts of me in favor of responsibilities I've invented for myself. In a way, we realized later, our adventure was in the spirit of Gilbert's book: we were allowing ourselves to indulge in pleasure, and not feel guilty about not being home, not doing the laundry, not doing the myriad of other things that we feel we need to be doing on the weekend as parents who work outside the home.

I was having such a wonderful time just traveling and talking that I started to worry that the food might not live up to our expectations. Our first stop was the minimialist Momofuku Ssäm Bar, whose pork buns are legendary. My mouth watered as we stepped into the restaurant, but we weren't prepared to sit down, so we ventured through the back corridor to the Milk Bar, where pork buns were also available at small standing-room only countertops, and where we ogled such things as crack pie and sampled their gingerbread soft serve as we waited for my name to be called. I also ordered one of their famous Compost Cookies (made with pretzels, potato chips, coffee grounds, oatmeal, chocolate chips, and butterscotch chips) for later, in case I got hungry. (It was, incidentally, amazing; I was able to restrain myself until the following morning, and shared half with my husband.) The buns weren't what I expected: they were more like small fluffy flatbreads, folded over taco-style to envelop melt-in-your-mouth pork fat (OK, there was some meat, but it was an afterthought), tamarind sauce, and a pickle. I was a little disappointed, but still, they were tasty, and I had been craving something savory.

My next planned stop was Chikalicious, which had just opened for the day. Though we stepped inside to get a feel for the place and inhale deeply to enjoy the heady aroma or caramel, we agreed that it was too early in the game for dessert and for a long-term commitment, given our ambitious plan. "For part two," N. reassured me.

We did sit down at the Caracas Arepa Bar (To Go), though, a cozy little place with chattering in Spanish and intoxicating smells, where there was barely room to move. Fondly remembering my many childhood visits to the Union City Cafeteria for black beans and plaintains, I squeezed myself into a chair behind a tiny table in the corner, and N. ordered us a "chupi chupi" (a smoothie-like berry drink) and an arepa with black beans, cheese, plantains, and peppers, appropriately titled "La Mulata." It was superb, once I discarded the jalapenos, which threatened to burn off my lips. Every bite revealed a new layer of flavor: sweet, salt, spicy, tangy. On our way out the door, N. asked the cashier for the ingredients in the bottled yellow sauce on the way out, and was told that it was a "secret." I grinned. Yes. Exactly. Perfect.

As we meandered down the street on our way to our next destination, we happened upon someone offering free sample size cafe mochas outside another bar. We accepted his kind offer (after all, how often do people offer you free anything in New York?), deciding that the mochas were decidedly mediocre, but warm was good, and being amused at the universe's obvious approval of our trip. A bit further down the street, I spotted the Black Hound Bakery (a favorite of mine from years ago, when I'd just begun to discover buttercream) and suggested we go take a look. To my pleasant surprise, there were more samples: moist bittersweet chocolate and rich vanilla Checker Cake, and snappy gingerbread people. By this time, I had decided that this was a wonderfully productive way to spend my afternoon.

Our next destination according to the plan was Sugar Sweet Sunshine, but as we were walking N. spotted a cupcake bakery called Butterlane, and we decided to poke our heads inside. As we stood just inside the door reading the chalkboard menu and smacking our lips, we listened with amusement to the conversation next to us, where four people on overstuffed plush chairs were sampling twelve cupcakes, debating the finer points of frosting and cake moisture. Turns out they were from Cupcakes Take the Cake, and though we were wary of indulging in too many cupcakes, they convinced us that we needed to sample the goodies here before heading to our other stops. After much debate, we ordered a banana cupcake with cinnamon honey frosting.

All I have to say about that experience is ... OH. MY. GOD. The best cupcake I think I have ever eaten. Moist, not cloyingly sweet, with just the right amount of fluffy frosting. I went to say something to N., who replied, "wait a minute. I'm having a moment. Let me just have my moment." She was right. It was meditative. I decided to meditate, too. I was disappointed that this place wasn't at the end of our tour, because I could easily have been convinced to bring home a dozen. I hope that some nice person who regularly travels from my neck of the woods to New York will be kind enough to read this and deliver me a dozen? 'Kthanx.

After that, Sugar Sweet Sunshine was a little disappointing. We waited on the long line, and were rewarded with drier cake, despite a lovely fluffy swiss buttercream. N. had an Ooey Gooey (chocolate almond buttercream, with chocolate cake), and I had a red velvet. I was nonplussed. The bar had been set pretty high.

Though Babycakes had also been on my original tour itinerary, we decided to skip it, concerned that no other cupcake would now live up to our high standards, holding out for Billy's Bakery, our last cupcake contender. We pressed on (stopping briefly in Essex Street Market, where we found samples of Roni-Sue's chocolates --the buttercrunch and caramel apple truffles were just lovely!) to Laboratorio di Gelato, where we sampled pumpkin, the maple walnut, and the hazelnut. N. was underwhelmed (of course, she had recently spent time in Rome, eating gelato every night, so she was bound to be a tough critic), andI didn't love it well enough to get a full serving. It could have had something to do with the fact that it was about 20 degrees outside, but the jury is out.

Rice to Riches was a much more successful foray; all told, we sampled about ten different flavors, including the cheesecake (too sweet), rum raisin (too much rum), almond (a good balance of salt and sweet), original (wonderfully creamy, and less sweet), and cinnamon raisin (perfect balance, and our final purchase for N's husband). I love the funky futurama vibe there. Next door, N. convinced me to sample Pinkberry, which I found pleasantly more tart than the one on offer at the tart-yogurt chain recently opened in New Brunswick. We managed to thank the friendly yogurt-pusher and escape before purchasing a cup; I'm sure I'll go back, but I wanted to pace myself.

Though we'd meant simply to cut through Spring St., before we knew it, we were shopping: sampling the fig apricot lotion at fresh, laughing at the cheerful array of brightly colored things that made us smile at Pylones (we both walked away with wind-up ladybugs), marveling at creme brulee ramekins in Sur La Table, where I found a small whisk and a fire truck cookie cutter for Ian. Part of me wanted to rush us through, but another part of me realized that this unplanned experiment was exactly right; that I should allow for the flow of the tour.

And Fortune smiled down on us: a bit further down the block, I realized that we were just about to pass Baked by Melissa, which, coincidentally, I'd heard about during my last visit to the city, standing in line behind a woman at Balthazar who was carefully protecting her tiny cupcake jewels from the jostling crowd. I was thrilled! What luck! I'd been thinking about that place at Sugar Sweet Sunshine, unable to remember its name. We gobbled up a bite-sized Peanut Butter and Jelly, Red Velvet and Chocolate Mint. (N. thought the chocolate mint was a bit dry, but the others were delightful).

We were headed for Kee's Chocolates, but by the time we got there, the selection seemed small, and neither one of us wanted chocolate, having just sampled Red Fire tortilla chips at Vosges, which was a pity. Evaluating the rest of the itinerary and deciding that it was entirely too ambitious, we decided to cut our tour short and head back uptown on the subway, making only one more stop before dinner. I was strangely hungry.

At Billy's, we picked up a banana cupcake for the ride home (to do important comparative research with Butterlane, of course), as well as a chocolate cupcake (special request from my son) and a carrot cake cupcake (for N.'s husband). We stuffed all of this into my now-bulging canvas bag, and walked one block west for savories.

Tia Pol was packed; one could hardly squeeze through the bar far in enough to leave one's name, never mind take a seat. But despite the promised half an hour wait, we managed to nab a seat at the bar in less than 15 minutes, and ordered lamb albondigas, an ensalada de alcachofa, mushroom and manchego croquetas, and guapiles. Then came patatas bravas and a lovely fava bean and beyos paste on toast. Having eaten ourselves silly, we staggered to the train station and began the long journey home.

The funny thing about all of this is that we didn't even actually eat all that much until dinner (except possibly the arepa), but it was such a wonderfully decadent day.

N. asked me what my hopes were for the new year, and, mulling it over, I decided that what I most wanted to do was take stock of my life and think about where I really want to be and what I want to be doing, whether my current job allows me to be the kind of parent and wife that I want to be, whether it's enough to get me out of bed in the mornings. I have struggled with my work life for a few years now, and it's time to be honest. One thing I know I will need to be mindful of, when I do finally engage in some serious reflection about this issue, is the question of pleasure. Besides eating cupcakes, what makes me happy? Can I permit myself to be happy? Another friend recently posted a quotation from a Mary Oliver poem to her Facebook status, which is perhaps appropriate here: "What," she asks, "will you do with your wild and precious life?" (Part of me hopes that the answer to that question doesn't involve quitting my job and moving clear across the country, as it did the last time I asked it, eleven years ago.)

Tonight, I will digest, literally and figuratively, thinking fondly of the bounty of sweets and savories. And I will revel in the experience of unadulterated pleasure, which is, after all, pretty damned productive.
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