Orechiette with brocolli rabe pesto, at Babbo
There he was, sitting behind us in all of his orange-croc wearing-glory. I trust Mario Batali to know a good spot to eat lunch. And if it just happens to be his own restaurant in the West Village, then I’m fine with that. Batali’s Babbo in December is a Christmas cliche brought to life. It’s carols and Bing Crosby, a towering pine in the centre of the surprisingly intimate dining room and twinkle lights a plenty.
The four course lunch tasting menu is a sound way to dissolve yourself of responsibility of plucking through the hearty Italian menu. Put yourself in Mario’s large hands. The antipasto of marinated eggplant with pickled chillies, pecorino and black garlic vinaigrette is a nippy schooling in the merits of heat as a third spike of seasoning, but to me, the real highlight is the pasta course. A modest portion of house made orecchiette; little ear shaped discs, glossed with a pleasantly bitter brocolli rabe pesto. It’s generous with pecorino, giving twinkles of texture and richness. The pesto hugs the pasta, splaying across the plate like a craggy coastline. While I’ll be sure to remember fondly the olive oil and rosemary cake with olive oil gelato which rounded out the meal, what sticks most is the texture of the pasta. A plate with proper heft and chew; not something to be mechanically scoffed, but thoughtfully picked up, consumed before spearing the next with the two tines of your fork. It takes a lot to make me lose track of conversation when celebrating the engagement of one of my oldest friends, but these little ears were deft enough to do it.
(Nb, Babbo has a pretty notorious reservation system- book on Opentable, 28 days prior to when you want to go. An early lunch or early dinner will probably be easiest to secure).
110 Waverly Place
New York, NY 10011
Black Bottom Butterscotch Pot de Creme with Coconut Chantilly at Beauty & Essex
There’s a great deal of novelty about Beauty & Essex in the Lower East Side. For one, there’s its entrance; through a pawn shop (important to see that written down, the first few times I heard about it, I thought it was a different sort of store entirely).
Through the back you’ll find a space that’s ornate and gilded, a cocktail bar and restaurant much more suited to getting dressed up for than tumbling in out of sub zero temperatures and squishing your puffy coat next to you in your circular booth.
‘Full of bridge and tunnel crowd’ was what one fellow we met sniffed in response to hearing of our evening’s plans. Perhaps- but if you’re going to come into Manhattan, whether from an outer borough, or another country entirely, there’s still a lot of pleasure to be found. From the flirtatious antics of the floor staff, to the over the top interiors, the speakeasy vibe, the slick cocktail list to their canny twists on American classics (lobster mac and cheese anyone?- actually, maybe no- a portion arrived next to us and smelled suspiciously of tuna casserole). While there are solid options in the starters, from whipped ricotta on toast to a nice take on Spanish tomato bread with spindles of burrata, but what you don’t want to miss are the desserts.
Most items here are for sharing and the butterscotch ‘pot de creme’ is one that fills that brief. It’s tooth aching richness in a twee mason jar. At the bottom is a stratum of brown sugar caramel. Above a smooth and steadying custard. And capping it off is chantilly cream with coconut. Just in case that isn’t sweet enough for you, there are edible spoons. Novelty value; achieved.
Beauty & Essex
146 Essex Street New York,
Egg en Cocotte with Roast Chicken at Prune
Brunch at Prune is not for the faint hearted. Ever since I finished Gabrielle Hamilton’s shining memoir ‘Blood, Bones and Butter‘ I knew it had a lock on our next New York itinerary.
The way she writes about food made me certain I’d like what I’d eat there. There’s an economy to it all, a confident sensibility. This is a woman who knows what goes with what- and more than anything- knows when to place a full stop. The trick was getting a table. I’d heard rumours of two hour waits for weekend brunches. So it seems the age old adage is true; the early bird gets the worm; or the corner table.
Arriving at 9.40 am on a Sunday morning with a copy of the New York Times tucked under our arms we snaffled the two spots on the wooden loveseat outside Prune. We sat and waited in the sun for twenty minutes, while the largely female team inside had their staff breakfast. Meanwhile behind us the line swelled.
At 10 am, we were first in. At 11.15 am when we left, there was a queue of 30 people snaking down the block.
So is it worth it? Yes. It’s worth it for the eggs en cocotte alone. ‘Chicken and egg?’ The Hungry One asked-‘isn’t that a bit much?’ No, not really. It’s a perfect lesson in richness and restraint. There are small nuggets of roasted chicken snuggled in the bottom of a ramekin. Over the top is a softly cooked egg in cream, with a downright aggressive amount of black pepper. It comes with tubby triangles of buttered white toast and a gentle pile of soft butter lettuce leaves. The yolk bleeds into oozing softness, while the crunch of the toast and spike of the pepper pull it back from the fringes of infantile. The dressed leaves are the clarity you need. It might not look like much and at the start you may question the portion of just one egg, but trust them and me; it’s perfectly complete, from beginning to end. And it’s the chicken that really makes it sing.
54 East 1st St New York, NY 10003
Cheeseburger with the works, Burger Joint
You can’t go to New York without indulging in a burger or two. There’s a lot to be said for Shake Shack, but if you’re wanting something a little different, consider Burger Joint.
Many locals will maintain the best burger in the city is infact hidden behind a red velvet curtain in the lobber of Le Parker Meridien Hotel, within dashing distance of Central Park.
If you are morally opposed to queueing for your food; this is not the place for you. If you don’t appreciate the juxtaposition of a sloppy burger being served surreptitiously inside a five star hotel, this might not be the place for you. If you hate having to hawk out a seat in a cramped restaurant, this might not be the place for you. If you need a crisp bun and need things to be visually appealing at all times, once again, move on.
I can confidently say it is virtually impossible to make this burger look good (and I had a long internal debate over the inclusion of that shot). But guess what? The proof is in the eating. There is a round richness to the patty and the cheese, while sloppy, gives a good gloss of flavour.
Inside Burger Joint the sountrack is Otis Redding and Aretha, it’s dark and the booths are a little cramped. It’s the kind of place where you sit, eat and leave, rather than linger over beers. There’s draft and some wine and sodas to sip, but if you’re going to indulge in a burger like this, it’s hard to go past a shake; so thick and cold that a straw stands completely to attention for long stretches on its own.
If there’s a queue that doubles back into the lobby you’re looking at about a one hour wait from when you arrive to when you wrap your hands around a steaming mass of meat, mustard and bread. Chat to people in the queue. Build up an appetite. And remember; good things come to those who wait.
119 West 56th Street New York, NY 10019
Pastrami on Rye (with mustard) at Katz’s
Ah, Katz’s. ‘Do you really need to go?’ Well, probably. You probably need to go at some point in your life of visiting New York. You need to go if you loved ‘When Harry Met Sally’ as much as the next breathing soul (a permanent inclusion on my top five films of all time list). You need to go if you feel like eating a little bit of history (Katz’s has been open since 1888). And you probably need to go so you can develop a proper reference point for what pastrami should taste like.
But be canny. Don’t go at 1 pm on a Saturday, or 7 pm on a Sunday. Don’t join in with all the tour buses, when you’ll get stroppy service from behind the counter and struggle to find a table in the cavernous cafeteria of a dining room.
If you can bring yourself to eat meat on bread first thing in the morning (any fans of a bacon buttie, I’m talking to you), then go first thing. There’s a charm and peace to the place there, with lively banter between the counter staff as they set up. Walk in, get two tickets (DO NOT LOSE YOUR TICKETS- you’ll be socked with a $50 charge when you leave if you do). Go to the counter. Order a pastrami on rye with pickle on the side. Smile nicely and you’ll probably be given a slice or two of still-warm brined, smoked and steamed beef to sample while they assemble your sandwich. It’s soft and pliant, lightly salted and surprisingly sweet.
The rye is more fawn than pumpernickel in hue and yes, the proportion of meat to bread is excessive, to say the least. The pickle on the side is necessary for cut through, as is the mustard.
It’s not the cheapest sandwich in town (with tax it’s around $17). It may not be orgasmic, but it is good.
Nb, if beef first thing is a bit much for you then Katz’s will also do a good toasted bagel with cream cheese and lox.
205 East Houston Street New York, NY 10002