New York City

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele – Eat, Pray, Love, Repeat

Opening a pizzeria in the heart of Manhattan these days requires some major Bombolone. From the West Village location of da Michele alone one can walk to a variety of pizzerias that are ranked with the best of them… Brunetti, Ribalta, Song’ E Napule, John’s of Bleecker Street, just to name a few. These few are mostly of the Neapolitan kind, the result of the new wave of Italian immigrants. Unlike their Sicilian and Neapolitan predecessors who worked with limited ingredients back in the day, the new wave has access to not only ingredients, but the proper pizza oven.

But all the ingredients in the world wont put you on the map if you are missing the main one, a capable Pizzaiolo. Thats always been the main difference between eating in NYC and Rome or Naples, for the most part. We are getting there, if not there already. L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is the brainchild of Francesco Zimone and Michele Rubini who are expending on the legacy of the original staple in Naples (since 1870). After two visits, needless to say, these two got pizza down to a science, mainly thanks to the all important Pizzaiolos they brought with them.

During my conversation with Michele after my first meal, I learned that these guys are no stranger to the ultra competitive NY pizza scene. More importantly perhaps they are well aware of what it takes to run a successful pizzerie in Naples, in accordance with Verace Pizza Napoletana Association which Michele Rubini is certified with. The Naples location is also famous for being featured in Julia Roberts’ Eat, Pray, Love. It has received so many accolades over the years, it has no more room on its door. Shame you wont see a “Ziggy Approved” sticker anytime soon.

Simply put, this is as good as pizza gets in NYC. The pies are larger than the typical Neapolitan found all over the city. I wrongly assumed they increase the size to please Americans, but Michele told me thats the size in Naples as well. The base is soft, light and perfectly charred. And the ingredients gel together beautifully. There’s a double cheese option for some reason, but not worth the risk of losing a perfectly balanced Fior Di Latte, Pecorino, tomato sauce combo.

Its important to keep it simple with the delicate Neapolitans, and always go with the Margherita, but I cant help but get the Diavola every time I see it. Here its superb, and the spicy salami is actually spicy. The Pesto is the only white one I tried, and its not too shabby either. Two pies can easily feed a hungry three, but not quite 4, unless you order other items. Its a fairly full menu for a pizza joint, and it will get fuller with burgers, fish and steak soon. The multi-room space is fairly spacious, with a long bar, and a third room downstairs that isnt quite ready. Its the most ambitious pizzeria that ever opened in NYC. So far so delicious.

L’antica Pizzeria da Michele
81 Greenwich Ave (West Village)

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Jeju Noodle Bar – Fortune Favors the Brave

2019 seems like centuries ago. Anything before Covid is now foggy, ancient memory. We often use “pre-pandemic” to describe certain trends and personal habits. For example before the pandemic I would only have Negronis in restaurants like Jeju Noodle Bar. Nowadays its just another Wednesday at Ziggy’s new and improved bar. We drink more at home, and spend more eating out. A full meal at a full service restaurant used to cost on average $150 for two not too long ago. These days its more like $180. Pre-Covid Jeju Noodle Bar was one of the best deals in town as I wrote in 2018. For $45 per person you got a 6 courser for the ages way back then. Then, a nasty virus struck. Michelin!

Michelin of course has its many pros. I just cant think of any at the moment ;). Oh ye, I reckon it’s a great achievement for the establishment, the ultimate accolade really. It often attracts more business, albeit a new, more demanding customer base. It definitely inspire those seeking stars, and keeps the starred chefs on guard. But the cons are too many to list here. One of which is that as a customer, you may pay dearly for the said inspiration and honor.

This is not so much a complaint, but a cool transformation story. As much as I would prefer the old Jeju, I’m genuinely happy for these guys. They reaped the rewards of smart and even brave moves early on, and created a formula that works for many. It was one of a kind back then, and even with the changes, one of a kind today. A Michelin starred semi fancy noodle joint. But its hard to ignore some of the changes, like the star dish Toro Ssam that was included in the original $45 tasting menu, is now a $55 caviar-ed triumph in itself. And the two piece fried chicken app that now includes caviar as well, comes with a $29 sticker shock.

These differences are mainly reflected in its smaller dishes. While its a “Noodle Bar” that specializes in Ramyun, Korean style Ramen, its smaller dishes are its strength and the main reason for the Michelin star. In fact it wouldnt be so wrong to only order appetizers at Jeju, and it would be a mistake to order a filling Ramyun for each person. And then you have the seemingly rotating two dry noodle dishes that are not shown on the main site menu. Last time there was an intense lobster pasta (Gajae-Myun) drenched with a fishy (in a good way) Sauce Americaine, and lobster emulsion. Its like a the pasta version of a sick lobster bisque.

The good news is that many of the small dishes are very shareable, even for four people. Take the half rack pork ribs. Plentiful, fall of the bone, and sauced to sweet and spicy perfection. But I wouldnt expect less for $30. I did expect less from the Gochujang Bokum with a comparably shocking tag of $13. But what I got was elevated comfort food in the form of beef ragu over rice topped with potato crisps, featuring flavors as explosive as the volcanos on Jeju island. The Amberjack, one of three raw fish dishes on the menu is probably the only skippable item we ever tasted here. The delicate Amberjack just got lost for me between all the sauces.

Articles, poems, and children books have been written about the Toro Ssam Bap over the years (eg “Ssam I am”, “Goodnight Toro Ssam”). I believe I even included it in one of my annual, not so anymore, Best Dishes of the year. I will probably resume it this year and pay more attention. The layers of rice, scrambled eggs, fatty tuna, and now Golden Osetra Caviar manufacture an umami filled spoonful. Or make it a freakishly good taco with the accompanied seaweed. Despite the price tag, its an absolute must signature, and such a great complement to the menu.

Its the only “Ramen” place where I would recommend to share one, or maybe even skip altogether. They are solid and worth trying, but just not as life changing as the smaller items. The often mentioned Wagyu Ramyun isnt as big of an upgrade as the price suggests ($45 vs mostly low $20’s). The high quality Wagyu brisket inside the delicious broth is good but not quite as outstanding as one would expect from Wagyu meat. The pork bone based Gochu, and the family Ramyun are well balanced, milky, and just rich enough. Sometimes Tonkotsu ramen can get too rich for my taste.

Wine list is fine. Beautiful decor, though less than ideal comfort levels if you get tables with benches instead of chairs. In the winter time, these benches dont work so well as there’s nowhere to put your coat or hang your man purse. Never sacrifice comfort for aesthetics, kids. Oddly no dessert, another change from the good ole days! Jeju is still a solid inclusion on the coveted Z-List, that some may argue more beneficial for consumers than Michelin stars. Go!

Jeju Noodle Bar
679 Greenwich St (West Village)
Recommended Dishes: Ribs, Gochujang Bokum, Toro Ssam, Gajae-Myun, Gochu Ramyun

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Chuan Tian Xia – ‘Twas the Night Before Szechuan

Unlike previous visits to CTX, we were not the only white people this time. Thats most likely because it was Christmas eve, the night when New York Jews indulge in Chinese food. Not terribly different than the monthly routine for many. The tradition started decades ago when places like CTX didnt exist much here. At least not as far as I know. Back then your main options were Cantonese American/Chinese palaces with big round tables spinning egg foo youngs and pepper steak, before the General Tso’s and chicken with broccolis took over. We still eat the latter stuff on occasion, though I secretly reheat them sometimes with chili oils and crisps to get some sort of resemblance to the flavors of a CTX.

Chuan Tian Xia is not only fun to say, but a lot of fun to experience. Its not your typical Chrismukkah Chinese establishment, but a fiery, numbing feast for all senses, especially the Jewish ones. Its located in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, home to arguably the most authentic and largest Chinatown in the US. CTX, along with Hot Space, another Sunset Park fave, stand out in a sea of Chinese establishments, perhaps since most Sunset Park immigrants came from Fujian which is known for milder fair. Even the dishes we experienced so far at Hot Space and CTX werent as fiery as Queens staples like Szechuan Mountain House and Legend of Taste.

Our last visit to CTX was more successful than prior. Maybe because this time I finally used the Szechuan magic word, “Medium”. Spice levels werent quite up to snuff before, but were more like it this time. We can handle more, but sometimes there’s that fine line between handle and joy. Mrs Z didnt even have one of her infamous coughing episodes. Usually at the beginning of a spicy BYOB (Bring your own Bounty) fest (eg Ugly Baby), she starts the meal with a prolonged cough attack where we both sort of expect it and ride it out while the staff looks in horror. After its over, its business as usual as she handles the heat like a champ.

I also love reviews that wildly rave about the spice levels, and at the same breath talk about how they couldnt finish the dish due to said spice levels. If its too spicy to eat, its too spicy to enjoy, even if you normally enjoy spicy food. I recently crossed that line at Rowdy Rooster in East Village where I opted for the next level on my fried chicken. What was wrong with the lower level I enjoyed previously? Absolutely nothing.

As soon as you sit down at CTX, delicious tea and dangerously addictive spicy peanuts arrive. Often its the little details that make a difference. The smart decor of murals of what looks like Lucha Libre masks is akin to something you find in Manhattan, not Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Service is usually friendly, efficient, and English is never an issue. In Sunset Park, particularly in the Dim Sum palaces, its often point and speak.

Cold appetizers, including cold Chengdu mung bean noodles are more popular here than hot appetizers like the Sichuan staple Dan Dan Noodles. Although there was nothing particularly wrong with the Dan Dan last time. The griddled simple veggies here are usually a must get for us. Over time we settled for the cauliflower and string beans. No matter how much I try to replicate them at home, it doesnt come close to these flavors. The string beans, unlike at other Sichuan places dont come topped with pork but quite flavor packed nonetheless. Its not on the menu but it should be.

One of my favorite Sichuan dishes is dry fried fish fillets, and the CTX version (“hot and spicy fish fillet” on the menu) didnt disappoint. The only miss last time was the Chongqing chicken, a classic I usually enjoy. The chicken was a bit overly diced, and so too small to balance the strong flavors, though the pineapple fried rice helped. The Kung Pao chicken was more like it, and a fitting dish for the occasion. Its like a nice bridge between American and Sichuan… sweet, sour, and just spicy enough to remind us where we are. Happy New Year!

Chuan Tian Xia
5502 7th Ave, Brooklyn
Recommended Dishes: Pineapple fried rice String Beans, Cauliflower, Hot and spicy fish fillet, Kung Pao chicken

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A Day in Brighton Beach

Well, hours really these days. In the winter, Brighton Beach and its Atlantic winds can feel like a Siberian beach resort. Especially on frozen tundra days that sneak up at you without warning. You know, the days when you open the door to leave the house and before you know it, you are sliding down the stairs on your bum, and the streets are flooded with people lying on their back. Dont bother calling 911 if the person is awake since that is the first question they ask. So a fun Brighton Beach day is cut to a couple of hours in the winter where we do some quick shopping and beg restaurants to turn on the heat and invest in vestibules. Yes, new word for me too.

Rain or shine, or Sharknedo, the “Russian” neighborhood of Brighton Beach, along with Sunset Park are probably my favorite Brooklyn neighborhoods to explore. The borough may not be as diverse as Queens, but it has a remarkable number of distinct neighborhoods, led by these two. I will write in more detail about Sunset Park in the future, but today I will focus on Brighton Beach. Though if you happen to be a long time follower (many thanks to both of you), there’s not a whole lot new here. Ok, maybe just enough.

A recent influx of Uzbek and Georgian immigrants helped put the quotes in “Russian”. Although Russian is still the common language, its no longer the dominant cuisine. Even the food store “Taste of Russia” changed its name but that’s another story. Its not your grandpa’s Brighton Beach, and not even your dad’s. My old favorite dollar slice, back when dollar slices was not a thing because that was the price, is now a Starbucks. Getting a Knish is pretty much impossible these days. I used to sell them at Volna on the Boardwalk which quite remarkably still exists, especially considering every other space on the Boardwalk is owned by Tatiana today.

Speaking of Tatiana, a long, lazy lunch on the Boardwalk is something we dont do enough. Or pick up an oversized Shawarma sandwich at Little Georgia around the corner on Brighton 6th, sit on the boardwalk and watch the world go by. Who knows, you may even get invited to join the Babushkas of Garden of Joy (adult daycare). Outside the winter months, we dont miss a chance to walk the boardwalk halfway to Coney Island and back. But as a tourist you may want to walk the length and end your day there (or vice versa). On many summer evenings and Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur, the boardwalk transforms into one heck of a Passeggiata.

Back to the Boulevard, just about every visit these days involves picking up frozen Pelmeni (Russian dumplings) at the Ukrainian long timer Ocean View Cafe. The pictures of Nicolas Cage on the walls are gone now, but long time patrons remember Lord of War. Over the years we switched from Siberian Pelmeni (veal, pork, beef) to chicken as the former started to taste too gamey for Mrs Z. You can obviously have them inside as well, along with a fine Borscht. Or at least as good as Borscht can get.

Ziggy’s Guide to cooking Pelmeni: The classic way: Boil for 8 minutes, add butter, a few splashes of red wine vinegar, black pepper. My way: Boil for 8 minutes, mix with a Chinese style dumpling sauce (I like this one along with Momofuku’s or better yet Fly By Jing Chili Crisp), top it with sauteed veggies like Cauliflower or Zucchini

Then its usually crossing the street for another long timer, Vintage Gourmet Specialty Food, or as we call it, “the chocolate store”. We pick up some Halvah, and chocolates that are either hard to find, or just cheaper than other gourmet markets. Back in the day the store was half the size today, although its not large by any means. My weakness is dark chocolate, preferably with pistachios, and the selection here is unmatched. But you also have a nice selection of Turkish delights (its Turkish owned after all), teas, spices, nuts, and much more.

The street crisscrossing here can be tiring as many drivers still confuse the boulevard for the French Connection chase location (It was actually filmed in Bensonhurst). That means its time for a snack. One of the things that hasnt changed much over the years is that you can still get street food off the street. The mini supermarket right next to Vintage, Gold Label sells meat and veggie filled Pirozhki from its window for as long as I remember. Its just a little tricky to time the freshness sometimes, as very few snacks are as satisfying (and cheap) as a fresh beef Pirazhok. For the similar but different Uzbek Cheburek, I would head to the corner on Brighton 5th, or better yet Kashkar Cafe on the “quiet side” of BB. More on this gem later. Golden Label is also the perfect size store to explore, especially the prepared items, and cakes. Say what you want about Russian food, they know how to make killer cakes.

From the old to the new, and a little detour. The Georgian bakeries and restaurants seem to be multiplying, not only in BB, but all over Brooklyn these days. 10 years ago, no one heard of Khatchapuri and Khinkali. These days you see these Khatchapuri love boats even in Manhattan. But the place that started it all is Tone Cofe on Neptune. Its one of the oldest if not the oldest Georgian restaurants in the city. And the first one to use a “Tone”, a Georgian oven where the dough is smacked inside by hand, and removed with a special stick. You can have a pleasant meal inside their adjacent restaurant, but these days we come to purchase their best in the hood Kharcho (Georgian beef soup), bread of course, and sometimes when we feel naughty, the regular pizza-like Khatchapuri, as opposed to Adjaruli Khatchapuri (cheese boat)

While less noticeable than Georgian and Uzbek, Brighton Beach also has a much bigger Turkish presence these days. If I have to name two things Russians love besides Russian food, its Sushi and Turkish. In some of the small supermarkets like Black Label you will often find a sushi chef doing his thing. And besides the delights of Vintage you also have the new Güllüoglu Baklava on Brighton 1st pl for more imported and homemade sweets. Vintage recently started importing artisanal Baklava from a top bakery in Turkey to intensify the BB Baklava wars. For kebabs or a more complete meal head to Beyti Turkish Kebab, one of the better lunch specials around.

Manhattan will soon get its first Tashkent Supermarket and the young professionals will soon learn about Plov, Samsa, Monti. and the consequences of going to an Uzbek super store hungry. In the original in Brighton Beach, I’ve had too many in and outs due to the crowds. On weekends they sometimes employ Japanese train pushers to move people by the Plov section. Hence I mostly shop at the less chaotic Ave Z location. They dont just have one kind of Plov (Pilaf), but a variety that covers every “Stan” kind. These days we lean toward the chicken plov, but the classic lamb and the rest are excellent.

Eater

Roughly half of my trips to Brighton involve a visit to Kashkar Cafe, one of my favorite restaurants in the entire city. Now that I no longer run food tours I can share all my secrets. One of which was a meal at Kashkar Cafe, the first Uyghur restaurant in NYC, maybe the US. Although its not much of a secret in NYC anymore, or even the world apparently. I ran into Fiona Shaw once on a tour here. Uyghur is essentially Uzbek on crack. In addition to Lagman soups (hand pulled noodles), expect a drier Geiro Lagman, and Juvova dumplings, the Uyghur answer to Pelmeni. Exceptionally fresh Cheburek (like a Pirazhok), Samsa, and really excellent kebabs. Homey, family operated places as such are increasingly hard to find in other parts of the city.

You are now in the “quiet side” of Brighton which has a much different feel since the subway is not hovering above, and businesses on only one side of the boulevard. But similar nut stores, buzzy bakeries like La Brioche, and gourmet supermarkets like Netcost are worth checking out. Or forget everything you read here, and just follow your nose and the crowds. You may bump into the same places, or maybe discover something I havent. At the end we’ll all agree that love it or not, there’s nothing like Brighton Beach in North America.

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Z-List Update – December 2022

First post pandemic update, and a complete overhaul really.  I reduced the number from 50 to 30, and now sorting by neighborhood.  30 is just easier for me to update and keep tabs on.  Still sticking to Brooklyn and Manhattan as these are the two boroughs tourists and I mostly frequent.  Only rule as usual is $10-100 per person.  Meaning nothing should cost over $100 or under $10 per person.  That eliminates cheap eats like pizza, and pretty much covers 99% of sit downs in NYC.  An affordable list for the people, by the people (Ok, by one person, but you get the idea). 

Additions: Dell’anima, Milu, Anton’s, Nish Nush

Removed: Too many to mention. Some closed, some lost their mojo, including sadly Momofuku Ssam. Yep, for the first time no Momofukus on the list. From three to zero.

The complete list

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Pecking House – Birds of Paradise

I feel like sharing with you something very few know about me. You may want to sit down for this one. In 36 years of living in NYC I’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty. Tried once off the NJ side, saw the line and turned around. I figured since I live here I have all the time in the world to do it and she and I are not going anywhere. For the same reason it took me three years to try the Cronut. I was just passing by one day, saw no line, popped in and just bought one.

The FOMO thing just doesnt really work for me in NYC. Hype is often just that, a product of a marketing collaboration very few can afford. Maybe if I had lived in Bologna, I could see myself getting anxious to try a new Sichuan joint, and maybe miss an intimate Tortellini in Brodo filled evening. But NYC is the city of a million options, no matter the Borough. Yes dear friends, even on the island of Staten, I can now have decent Thai, Ramen, Filipino, best Sri Lankan, and maybe even the best Taquerias in NYC.

Pecking House, yet another product from an Eleven Madison Park alumni (see Milu) has spent three years as a pop-up in three boroughs before finding a permanent home in Park Slope. By that point the chili coated fried chicken already reached legendary status in NYC. A pop-up in this case doesnt mean the traditional kind. You had to add your name on a waiting list that meant waiting weeks sometimes. At some point there were close to 10,000 waiting for a crack at the bird. When your turn came you were assigned a day and time where you could pick up your order.

Pecking House

After one too many “Best Fried Chicken in NYC” calls, I’ll be lying if there wasnt any FOMO at all in this rare case. After a few years of hearing about it, I finally put my name on the list. But when my lovebird was ready I didnt make the effort to cancel all my plans for this. Over time FOMO evaporated and I forgot all about it. Even when the news of a permanent brick and mortar opening in Park Slope, I figured I’ll wait a few months and let the lines subside. But since Winter is Coming I couldnt wait too long.

It was almost disappointing when there was no line at all last Sunday, and I was able to easily snatch a table for two. Like at Milu you order up front, take a number and wait a few minutes that feel like hours for your order. The best way I can describe the chicken is this. They offer it naked (lightly seasoned, not spicy at all), Salted egg, and Chili flavor. The Chili was so satisfying, I may never try the other two, ever. It matches my taste like your old Nike shoes you still wear even though they have holes in them. Crispy without being too crispy, spicy without being too spicy, and just juicy enough.

Pecking House essentially perfected what the former colleagues at Milu do best. But that’s not all. Take the sides of a fast food place like Popeyes and see what Eleven Madison Park cooks can do with them. Most order the Dirty Fried Rice (dirty due to the rich chicken liver bits), and Mashed Potatoes with Duck Heart Gravy, rightfully so. But dont underestimate the Butter Bean Salad with an addictive sesame vinaigrette. The perfect order here for two is two two piece orders (one side each) and an extra side. Even the drinks here are elevated like the Elderflower Soda. If you enjoy putting Elderflower liquor on anything (good with bud light lime) you will enjoy this.

Pecking House
244 Flatbush Ave (Park Slope, Brooklyn)

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House of the Red Pearl – A Hidden Dragon

I spend roughly 3% of my time at home looking for my glasses. Last time after an intense search I found them hanging on a shirt I was wearing. I spend more time looking for a particular item in the pantry or fridge. Half of the time I forget what the item was at some point, and sometimes the act is prompted by something totally unrelated. Like when I’m about to head out to rake the leaves, but open the fridge instead. You might as well take the eggs out and make a Shakshuka while you at it. “Why are you making Shakshuka, we just ate, and I asked you to rake the leaves”… “Remember when we talked about being more spontaneous?”.

Anywho, I didnt have to spend much time looking for the House of the Red Pearl because I knew exactly where it is. But unless you cheat, you can have an especially frustrating scavenger hunt looking for it in the new Tin Building by Jean-Georges. Since no one can pronounce or spell his last name, we simply refer to him as Jean-Georges, or JG. For the same reason it is easy to forget that Cedric of EWZ fave Wayan and Perry St. is JG’s son.

There used to be a time when a food hall would open in NYC, people paid attention. Nowadays, with more than 30 halls and food courts scattered all over town (Source: EWZ Research) you forget about it the day after opening. But Tin Building in South Street Seaport is worthy of a detour. I used to visit SSS when I was younger, but for the past 20 years or so, it has become a place we regrettably have to pass while biking to another place. But with the rejuvenated Pier 17, the openings of Momofuku Ssam, The Fulton (also by JG) and other notables, you may want to include SSS on your Brooklyn Bridge or Staten Island Ferry day. I wont go into detail describing Tin Building, except to say that the percentage of items I wanted to taste or purchase here is quite high. Its an elegant, and extremely thoughtful food hall.

If you thought that entering a Minetta Tavern takes you back to the Gilded Age, wait until you open the curtains of House of the Red Pearl. An old fashioned, yet modern Cantonese speakeasy. A movie set really, with some comparing to something you may see in a Bond flick, though for some reason Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon came to mind. No reservations can be made yet, and I hope it stays that way. The building just started opening on Wednesdays after a soft opening so closed on Mondays and Tuesdays for now.

Much of the motivation behind the menu came from Jean-George’s time spent in Hong Kong. Wontons or Dumplings in Chinese restaurants rarely excite (unless of the soup variety). The Pork & Shrimp Wontons here did. Perfectly balanced, with just enough heat. Eggplant, cooked down to the consistency of Enoki Mushrooms, with beautiful scallion-garlic notes to match. Currently not on the menu but most definitely should be. Flavors reminiscent of Danji’s sick tofu. On a return visit there was zero question whether I’ll order the Bacon Fried Rice again. In fact it was the main reason for the return visit. One of the more complex fried rice dishes you’ll find in the city.

The hope is that they dont dumb down the menu over time as it gets its share of tourists. And that the larger dishes improve just enough to be on par with the small. The Stir Fried Lamb, seasoned well, but not quite the best Cumin Lamb version in NYC as Eater’s Sietsema states. Not enough cowbell. Mala Chicken, the spiciest item on the menu, wont exactly “Mala” your mouth and will probably get some heat for that from the die-hards, but its agreeable nonetheless and I would still order it again. The roasted monkfish was perfectly fried, though the accompanied sauce was a bit too pungent for the fish. We devoured it of course.

The mains will satisfy most, but not as flawless as the smaller dishes, and one particular dessert. Mango Sago Pudding is an especially proper finisher, and quite the looker as well to match the space. The House of the Red Pearl is unique, fun, and features an ingredient driven menu full of hits. Go!

House of the Red Pearl
96 South St, South Street Seaport
Recommended Dishes: Wontons, Fried Rice, Eggplant, Mala Chicken, Mango Sago Pudding

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Milu – The New Age of NYC Fast Food

One block away from Milu, in Madison Square Park, you will find the original Shake Shack. Twenty years ago, Shake Shack transitioned from a hot dog cart to a kiosk selling burgers and shakes. And before you knew it, FOMO and long lines started to disrupt the local squirrel population. Today Shake Shack has 360 locations worldwide, including one 5 minutes away from my house. The chicken sandwich ranks up there, and the Smoke Shack, featuring the signature quality beef with applewood-smoked bacon, cherry peppers, and Shack Sauce is perhaps the finest fast food burger we have today.

But while Shake Shack revolutionized America’s burger culture, the original shack neighbor Milu may be in the early innings of reinventing American fast food as we know it. Its a tough task considering our obsession with the familiar. But if anyone can do it, its probably fine dining veterans and students of taste, Milu’s co-founders. The trio has an extensive combined resume, including stints at another famous neighbor, Eleven Madison Park.

We essentially have an Eleven Madison Park and Shake Sack love child. I dont have the slightest idea if the co-founders have any ambitions beyond this, although by all indication ambition isnt exactly lacking here. To open a Chinese fast food operation that is far from traditional Chinese food, and far from traditional fast food in an ultra competitive environment requires some major chutzpah. Even if they dont open another location, I’m rooting for these guys as there’s nothing quite like Milu out there.

Thats not to say you should expect big flavors that are in line with finer dining, and you can cancel your ressies at nearby Upland. Thats to say for $10-15 you can get a well crafted bowl of expertly cooked protein, rice and greens, usually Watercrest salad, or cucumber salad. Some may balk at the amount of protein, and abundance of veggies, but thats part of the idea. Make it tasty, cheap, and healthy(er). Another big benefit is the space. Fast food often involves rubbing elbows, noise, long lines, and pretending that you are comfortable eating in the park while telling every other stranger that the Hoisin sauce was on your shirt before. At Milu its as comfortable as it gets. Although at peak lunch time you may experience a full house, and a line.

After trying about half of the bowls, I settled on the Chili Crisp Chicken. Its not terribly spicy, and it helps to be familiar with Sichuan sodium levels. The Sichuan Cauliflower with the Seaweed salad is outstanding as well, and so is the Brisket. They used to offer a Sichuan fried chicken on Saturdays that was plenty hot, and ultra, dentist approved crispy, but I’m not sure if that’s still the case. You also have access to free water, a big indication that they value comfort/needs over $$$.

On occasion you do get a taste of Milu’s growing pains. Last time, my Mandarin Duck’s crispy skin was far from it, and while the meat was tender alright, there wasnt much of it underneath the skin. The terrific marinated cucumbers, and duck fat rice however helped curb the disappointment. Even at well oiled machine Shake Shack, you can get a bad burger sometimes.

But there’s more. Milu also offer products that will upgrade your pantry in a meaningful way. Chili oils, Soy, Hoisin, their own seasoning, and dumpling sauces. I probably purchased around half of them and pour their seasoning on just about everything I cook. Although they make their own Chili Crisp, perhaps the most notable (and expensive) item they sell is the Fly By Jing Chili Crisp. The added Umami with this Chili Crisp will transform your eggs and pastas into something as complex as figuring out Bronski Beat lyrics. I’m still trying after all those years.

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Upland – Make American Great Again

Notice the all important extra letter. This is not a political post. Quite the opposite actually. Its a celebration of our great uniter, American cuisine. Whatever that means. Since USA is relatively young compared to the rest of the world, its a bit complicated to define, even though you have enough examples of it (burgers, pastrami, bagels…). The label is often used more as a default when you cant call it anything else, except Italian in some cases. But we often categorize restaurants simply based on the origin of the owner/chef, as is the case with Upland.

Upland menu is as American or Italian as it gets in NYC, but it bills itself as Californian. Chef Justin Smillie who since left to Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, named it after his hometown in California. Maybe its my software engineering background, as I like things to be orderly for search purposes among other reasons in this case, but is it really necessary to break down the American tag into states? I can only imagine the poor Google or Yelp engineers trying to figure out the impact of adding a new category or subcategory. Upland is the only restaurant in NYC currently labeled as such. Does the signature burger, a creative riff on In-N-Out has something to do with it? Is it the grilled peaches?

Perhaps its the seasonality. Though we do have a label for upmarket seasonal American: “New American”. An Italian visiting NYC for the first time, will feel more at home at the pizza and pasta dominated Upland than a Californian. Sometimes restaurateurs try to be cute, and differentiate themselves in a crowded field, but more often than not, its best to keep it simple. Be bold, but be proud. Its American. This is not a rant by the way, but an observation. Its a celebration, remember?

Upland is a bright star in the Philly based Starr group’s huge portfolio that includes names like Buddakan, Pastis, and of course, the shiniest of the stars, Jackass Burrito. Upland got everything going for it. A prime Flatiron location. A deep American and Italian greatest hits menu. A striking, high ceiling, trendy looking space. And unlike many of its peers, it survived the pandemic. Its the type of place you can bring a date, new coworker, or host a 70th birthday celebration. On a recent visit, we witnessed suits, and gym attire.

Whether you come for Brunch, lunch or dinner you will face a very full menu. Though for some reason the much hyped Burger is not available for dinner. The Pizza is exactly what you’d expect from a place like this, except in the case of Breakfast pizza at least you get double the listed ingredients. In addition to bacon, cheddar, egg you get Broccoli, Sausage, Onions and more. It worked just fine for us, but could be misleading for others.

The Shakshuka-like “Eggs in Hell” had a nice flavor but missing something like sausages, or potatoes. The reason that shakshuka works on its own is that you usually get a nice fluffy pita and the eggs are more prevalent. While a dining companion was not looking I borrowed one of her breakfast sausages that made a big difference. Desperate times, desperate measures. This is the only miss from the two recent visits.

In some ways Upland reminds me of Via Carota. A jack of all trades, master of all. Solid pizzas, solid pastas, solid everything else. I couldnt fault anything with the Pappardelle with spicy sausages. And the Bucatini Cacio e Pepe were the best I’ve had in NYC since, well, Via Carota. Maybe even better since not quite as salty.

There are very few starters as satisfying as a nice Stracciatella with honey and grilled peaches. The combination here works so well, making the added Shishito peppers (both turned out spicy) unnecessary. The Duck Wings is a trend setter. I started seeing them more and more since Upland opened. The skin is crispy, well seasoned, while the dark flesh easily falls apart. You know its good as soon as you start operating.

But the best dish on the menu might be surprisingly the cod, and that may not have anything to do with the cod. The flaky fish, while mildly discolored, is expertly cooked. But the mixture of Fregula (Californian for Israeli Couscous), calamari and bits of chorizo really elevate the dish.

Extra brownie points for serving delicious fluffy bread with butter without charge. Refreshing to see these days. Solid drinks, nice atmosphere. In super competitive Flatiron, Upland is still a solid choice for American (with subtle Idaho hints). Its a Go!

Upland
345 Park Ave S (26th), Flatiron
Recommended Dishes: Pappardelle, Bucatini Cacio e Pepe, Duck Wings, Stracciatella, Cod, Budino

Categories: Gramercy, Flatiron, New York City | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

5 Underrated Italian

Dell’anima Tajarin

In NYC of course. This is not a Puglia blog yet as the last three posts suggest, although much more on Puglia coming soon. I’ve been living in NYC for 36 years now, and I dont remember a more exciting time for Italian dining. Even though The prices are moving in the opposite direction. A full meal at a mid price, full service restaurant now averages $175 for two (source: EWZ Stats), up from $150 not too long ago. But the competitive environment has never seen levels like these before. A glut of new Italian immigrants has turned the Italian scene upside down where Italian/Italian is the new American/Italian especially in Manhattan and north Brooklyn. Cacio e Pepe is the new Chicken Alfredo, and Neapolitan pizza joints are opening at faster pace than NY style it seems. Its a pizza revolution of sorts, although a complete pizza transition wont happen in my lifetime.

The title of this post is oxymoronic in a way since there are literally 100’s of underrated Italian in NYC today. But I’ll focus on five places that are much easier to reserve (unlike Don Angie, Lilia, Ci Siamo, Rezdora, and so many), and may bring you similar levels of joy.

Dell’anima (Hell’s Kitchen) – The easiest pick of the bunch. Best Italian in Hell’s Kitchen historically has been a mystery, just like the glut of Thai restaurants in HK. Mercato held that claim for some time IMO, but ever since Dell’anima moved to Gotham West Market (conquered really as there’s not much left there these days. Even Ivan Ramen is no more) it established itself as the one to beat. While tourists continue to flock to places like Becco for the quantity, locals line up chef Andrew’s counter for the quality. I dont recall ever having a less than stellar dish here. You cant go wrong with menu staples like Tajarin Alla Carbonara, and Pollo al Diavolo, but I wouldnt hesitate ordering new additions and specials. The location, and being inside a food hall of course has something to do with the underrated tag.

Pollo al Diavolo

Ulivo (NoMad) – Talking about Mercato, long time readers should not be surprised to see it’s little sister here. With that said, somehow Ulivo managed to outgrow it’s sister, and establish itself as a solid choice in an extremely competitive area. That’s partly due to the talents of Sardinian born Emanuel Concas who figured out the right formula after years at Mercato and six years now at Ulivo. What you get is top notch ingredients, solid pizza, and a plethora of fresh pasta dishes, their bread and butter. You’ll find some hard to find Sardinian and Sicilian autocorrect specialties like Malloreddus with sausage ragu, and the simple but outstanding Busiate with almonds, fresh tomato, basil and garlic. No Secondis here. Instead, order another drink from the award winning bartender.

Busiate

Faro (Bushwick) – This is another no brainer. A Michelin star recipient (yay Michelin!) only to lose it a few years later (oh who cares about Michelin!). Faro is being too modest when it bills itself as a simple neighborhood Italian. Neighborhood Italian dont do Cappelletti stuffed with sweet corn purée, topped with a slow cooked short rib ragu. I could have just ended the previous sentence after Cappelletti. This is one example of a rotating, masterfully executed seasonal pastas. I believe only the Bucatini with confit chicken has been on the menu longer than a year. And they ought to bring the sick Gnocchi Alla Romana back. Its more of a destination Italian. The problem with Faro is the most likely reason its on this list. Its kind of Faro, as in deep in the heart of Bushwick. But Bushwick, thanks to the growing list of mega clubs like Avant Gardner is slowly becoming a nightlife mecca.

Cappelletti

Popina (Columbia Street Waterfront District) – It was fun seeing Popina grow over the years, and somehow remain true to itself. On my first visit. I expected the short menu to change and expand at some point to accommodate the masses, but thankfully it never did. Chris Mcdade’s stints with places like Maialino and Marta, his southern roots, and unconditional love for anchovies help create a fun, concentrated menu. Items rotate frequently but if they ever remove the signature spicy Chicken Milanese, expect local strikes. On a recent visit one particular Monkfish dish really showcased the tiny kitchen’s range. The team is opening Gus’s Chop House in nearby Carroll Gardens, sort of a gastropub.

Monkfish

Song’E Napule (Greenwich Village) – You can skim through 120 best pizza in NYC lists and you wont find anyone singing the praises of Song’E Napule. You will need to look at an Italian publication like Gambero Rosso which we probably should be doing anyway when it comes to pizza. The name has nothing to do with singing. It just means “from Napoli” in Neapolitan dialect. But if you are a fan of the Neapolitan style you’ll be belting out romantic tunes to your neighbor, Napoli great Diego Maradona on the wall. Legit oven, proper ingredients, and a capable pizzaiolo results in light and airy awesomeness. As genuine as it gets in NYC.

Categories: Brooklyn, Gramercy, Flatiron, Midtown West, New York City, West Village | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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