Archive for June, 2009

Gosstronomy featured on Urban Spoon NYC

It’s nice to see that all the hard work with Gosstronomy of late is starting to pay off. I woke up today to see a bunch of traffic coming from Urban Spoon. I checked out the referral links and pleasantly discovered that Gosstronomy is being featured with two other NY blogs on the home page of Urban Spoon’s New York website. Not bad for a blog that was, until two months ago, based in Australia! (Don’t worry, my Aussie friends, I’m coming back for an eating binge in October.)

We’re already on a roll this month by enjoying our highest traffic numbers to date – more than 100 visitors in a day. That may not be much to TMZ on a Michael Jackson binge, but I’m pretty excited about my own little expanding fishbowl. Thanks to everyone who’s been visiting the site and hope you’re enjoying the more gluttonous eating schedule.

UrbanSpoon

Lunching above the Fairway

After weeks of back-and-forth emails and texts, I’d finally lined up lunch with Julia Baird, a deputy editor at Newsweek and an expat Aussie who made her mark as an op-ed editor for the Sydney Morning Herald. Despite being a native New Yorker, I’m in the strange position of being more comfortable networking with Australians through the friends and associated I’ve made over the past decade, and talking about life back in Sydney and Melbourne, and how it differs from being back in the US. My mother also gives me dirty looks each time I say “home” and I mean Sydney, not New York.

Fairway_street

Julia just had a baby a few months ago, so she’s currently on maternity leave, and we decided to meet to eat near her place on the Upper West Side (UWS). I love the UWS for its relaxed streets and crawling distance to Central Park, but it’s also a bit of a dining wasteland, save some notable exceptions that I can never remember. With the usual dilemma of where to eat around here, Julia suggested the café above Fairway.

I used to date a girl on 81st street – one of the nicest women I’ve ever dated, for that matter, but I was too career-driven and selfish back then – so I had been past Fairway numerous times, but never stopped in. People would always rave about it, but I could never get the inspiration to haul shopping bags of food on the PATH train back to my apartment in Hoboken.

For non-locals, Fairway is a haven of incredible produce, meats and dry goods on Broadway (the street, not the theatre district), and a top spot for sourcing local and quality goods. I asked Julia if Fairway was still relevant in an age when upmarket chain Wholefoods was taking over New York, and she said yes – it’s still the most conveniently located and has a better offering of quality, artisan products.

Julia described the café as a classic UWS experience, but somehow I never knew about the upstairs café (serves me right for being a downtown NY snob). I arrived first, and found the entrance through the middle of the outdoor fruit stands, into a door and up the stairs near the lengthy cash-register lines, I quickly passed the bustle to the relative peace of the café upstairs. The room is neither dowdy nor refined, but simply comfortable: cleanly set tables, some with fresh flowers, and light streaming in from a wall of windows.

Fairway_salad

I have to admit that I expected a menu a bit more focused on the seasonal produce on offer (Sydney’s Café Sopra this isn’t), but it was more of a simple menu for casual grazing. I was tempted by the half-pound burgers, but having one big meal too many, I opted for one of the salads, which Julia recommended. I order the “composed” salad, a mix of mesclun leaves, halved cherry tomatoes, shreds of poached chicken, boiled shrimp (prawns), chunks of avocado, pieces of hardboiled egg, blanched green beans and pine nuts. It was all in a nicely light mustard vinaigrette, which is always welcome amid a heavy-handed approach to food that’s abundant in NY. But as expected, the bowl of salad with massive. Portion control remains a big peeve of mine about food in the US in general.

The salad was hearty, fresh enough and filling, if kinda forgetful. Julia told me that the pancakes are terrific, so I’ll have to come back for those, and there’s a whole steakhouse selection for dinner at a not-unreasonable prix-fix of $29. Maybe getting the prosciutto with melon, a dry-aged NY strip steak and the tarte tatin would give me a better sense of the classic experience that the café is known for.

Of course, sometimes the meal is more about the banter at the table, and what’s on the plate is merely a supporting actor. That was the case today. Plus, I’m still ‘new’ at being back in my native city, so it was great to meet a, well, fellow Australian journalist and get a sense of what’s happening within the publishing scene here.

Fairway_setting

And with a sought-after table next to the window, it was a nice way to spend lunch with a new friend. If, like Julia, I lived within walking distance of Fairway, I would’ve made the most of the location, and wrapped up my meal by doing a bit of a perve and shop of all the inspiring produce just down the stairs. I’m still waiting for my own Fairway to open up in Hoboken.

Fairway Café Steakhouse, 2127 Broadway (btw 74th and 75th sts), NYC, www.fairwaymarket.com
Fairway Café on Urbanspoon

New York to Paris in less than an hour

I love being in New York, but like every city resident, there comes a time when you need to ditch the asphalt jungle for a bit of leafy serenity. So Sarah and I borrowed my aunt’s red Toyota convertible (wouldn’t you?) and we hightailed it with the top down from Hoboken up the Hudson River, across the Jersey state line to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Piermont in New York’s semi-rural Rockland County.

Piermont is like an oasis of calm within an easy 50-minute drive (give or take) from Manhattan, and sits comfortably on the eastern banks of the Hudson River. There’s not much to do here, save a scattering of restaurants, a café, some twee boutiques and a bike shop, but that’s the point. You just grab a copy of the New York Times, slurp on a cappuccino and watch as time slows down to its natural state. Road cyclists also have made Piermont a stop on their regular long-distance workouts from Manhattan, spinning over the George Washing Bridge stopping en route to Nyack – either as a caffeine stop, or as a piker’s early turnaround point.

Sidewalkcafe_onionsoup

I had gotten good feedback on an upscale eatery in Piermont, Freelance, but it was too dark inside for the rare sunlight of this ever-raining June in New York. So instead, we opted for the sprawling sidewalk tables of the – who’d have guessed? – Sidewalk Bistro, on the main drag through town, and were warmly greeted by the familiar, but not fawning, staff.

We weren’t starving, having enjoyed coffee and the newspaper at the nearby café, so we merely shared an order of onion soup gratin and the Kobe beef hamburger with frites. Yes, it wasn’t a gourmet meal – it could have been if we had ordered elsewhere on the menu – but we weren’t in for a grand dining experience. It was about simplicity today. And the food met the brief: no more, no less. The soup was topped with the requisite bubbling cheese (Swiss) without overdoing it, and the broth and soaked crusty bread were flavorsome without breaking any new bounds; just what I’d expected. The burger was maybe a touch beyond the medium I ordered (more medium-well, where I would have been happier with medium-rare), but it wasn’t a deal-breaker and the well-executed, thin frites kept things honest, even if I would have suggested more salt.

Sidewalkcafe_burger

It took a trip to the spacious, almost luxurious bathroom for me to discover that there’s another, even larger outdoor area in the back of the restaurant. It was closed for the day so that lights could be installed to allow for late-night outdoor dining. Next time, I’d be temped to hole myself up in the rear expanse, where it’s well-protected from the noise of the main street. Of course, there’s not a lot of noise in Piermont, save the occasional visits by passing motorbike posses, but I’ll take all the extra serenity I can get.

So, no, this isn’t a detailed review of the Sidewalk Bistro, but I found it an enjoyable low-frills getaway. It’s also worth noting that they’re hosting a large-scale Bastille Day bash held every years on July 11th, where the local stretch of Piermont Avenue will be closed to traffic and filled with even more festive tables. During our visit, the diners next to us described a recent celebration where the owners pulled out absinthe and were pouring the traditional method: flaming, over a sugar cube resting on a slotted spoon, into a glass. The owners, they said, are extremely generous people, and poured the alcohol without asking for a single penny.

Now, I can’t promise that they’ll bestow the same treatment on Bastille Day, but it might be worth finding out. It is also unlikely that it will be as serene as on a typical weekday, but the neighborhood atmosphere will probably make up for it while you knock back some absinthe with your new best friends at the table next to you, have a long yarn with the wait staff, shmooze with the French patrons who apparently go out of their way to come here, and soak it all up with some classic French comfort food.

Sidewalk Bistro, 482 Piermont Ave, Piermont, NY, http://www.sidewalkbistro.com

Sidewalk Cafe on Urbanspoon

Help Wanted: Save Mario Batali’s short ribs

I never came across short ribs during my nine years in Australia, but since I’ve been back in New York, I’ve seen them constantly – maybe not as much as sliders, those mini burgers that have spread across NYC faster than swine flu – but they’re up there.

So when I spotted the “Short ribs in Barolo” recipe in Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano cookbook, I was kinda excited to give them a go – besides, I’m reading Heat and Bill Buford just went through these babies in detail in the last chapter. It being Father’s Day on Sunday, I though it was a beaut of a recipe to cook up for Dad.

Batali_FathersDay

I’ve been away for most Father’s Days for the past decade, so I needed to do something special. Plus my mother will only eat her meat well-done, so rather than suffer the indignation of slaughtering beautiful beef to death, a braise seemed like the perfect compromise. But all would not go according to plan…

Shortribs_cooking

So I prepared a home-cooked tomato sauce the day before, then bought a couple of pounds of quality, boneless short ribs from Whole Foods in Chelsea (love these guys – just about every other decent butcher in the city is closed on Sundays), and shlepped it all to my parent’s house in Jersey where I would put it all together. Which was fun, considering I’ve got a crappy electric stove in Hoboken in a claustrophobic kitchen. The folks, in comparison, have a massive six-burner stove with a big granite island in the middle, double ovens and so much storage space I’m constantly exploring cabinets searching for simple things like graters and peelers.

Before I go on to bore you with details, here’s the ingredient list:

  • 6 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 lbs boneless beef short ribs, cut into 3-inch cubes
  • 2 Spanish (red) onions, 1 carrot and 2 celery stalks, each cut into 1/2 inch dice
  • 4 oz pancetta, cut into 1/4 inch dice
  • 2 cups Barolo
  • 2 cup basic tomato sauce

Batali_shortribs_pot

The execution was straightforward enough: I browned the meat in a Dutch oven and removed it, then chopped the veggies and sweated them in the pan with the pancetta cubes, added the tomato sauce and the wine (top-notch gamay instead of the overkill of Barolo), and slow-cooked it all for an hour and 45 minutes. The recipe didn’t say whether or not to cover the pot, so I left off the cover, figuring all that the alcohol from the wine had to evaporate somehow.

And the result? Well I’d love to say that it was the best Father’s Day meal ever, but what came out of the braise were fairly chewy short ribs: the meat was far from being fall-apart, and there was so much fat present, we had to perform surgery to get to the meat. I figured much of the fat on the short ribs would render during the long cooking time, but it just wouldn’t go away. Someone call Jenny Craig.

Batali_shortribs

So I’m asking any of you keen home chefs or culinary pros reading Gosstronomy: where did I go wrong? I followed the recipe verbatim, with the exception of the wine, which shouldn’t matter too much, as long as it was a quality red (besides, in Heat,  Buford says Babbo uses a cheap merlot anyway). What’s the best call for getting fall-apart, beautiful, non-lardy short ribs? If not for the beautiful crusty bread from Wholefoods, the can’t fail parmiggiano mash potatoes, sauteed spring asparagus, and a good bottle of Chianti, I would’ve been sunk.

One hunch may be the cooking method. I spotted a different version of the same dish from the Babbo cookbook, which puts the ribs in the oven for two hours instead of into the stovetop Dutch oven. Another difference is that the Babbo recipe also calls for ribs on the bone, and adds chicken stock for more liquid. That may make a different, but I’m curious if any Gosstronomy readers have tried similar long braises and have their own thoughts and advice.

So got erudite recommendations to share? Post it in the comments, let’s fix this recipe by community and enter yourself into the Gosstronomy Cunlinary Hall of Fame.

Possibly.

To Di Fara, With Love – NYC’s must-make pizza pilgrimage

How do I love thee, Dom DeMarco.? Let me count the ways. I love it how you tenderly shred your whole pieces of fresh buffalo mozzarella and scatter them with care around the pizza base. I love the way you unselfishly take out a whole, large bunch of fresh basil and scissor large leaf-cuts over the pie with the utmost generosity. I love how you manhandle your Grana Padano by freshly grating it and scattering over your bubbling masterpieces. And I love how you drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over your precious pies, and how you take your time to produce your genius, so that all around you wait in eager anticipation.

DiFara_basil

Yes, I have a man-crush on Domenico “Dom” DeMarco, the 72-year-old Italian-born owner and pizza-maestro of Di Fara, the no-frills pizzeria on Avenue J, a stone’s throw from the M train in the deep, dark Brooklyn neighborhood of Midwood – an Italian needle in a haystack of Orthodox Jewish enterprises.

DiFara_sauce

‘Real’ New York pizza is a dying breed in this pie-crazed city, and how much tradition we’ve lost is rarely apparent until you make a pilgrimage to the likes of this legendary NYC pizza joint, whose lore grows ever year. And as DeMarco widens an ever-growing gap from what should have been retirement age, his followers continually dread the day that he can no longer perform his solo act in front of his gas ovens.

DiFara_exterior

And yes, I said gas. As I discover over and over again, from Naples to Sydney to New York, you don’t have to have wood fires or coal ovens to make some of the world’s best pizza. As DeMarco illustrates, you just need a blazing hot heat source (reported to be 750F/400C), the willingness to use the freshest ingredients, and the know-how to make the most of both. And maybe a last ingredient – time – a rarity in today’s go-go-go culture.

According to plan, our car-full of six eataholics – foodie friend Alex, New York Slop blogger Laura, sommelier-in-training Mark, chauffeur Justine, and Aussie Mark, from music duo The Hipstones – got there on a Friday at 2.30pm with the hopes of avoiding the lunch crowds and being a day ahead of the weekend hordes that round the block. As anticipated, there was no line at Di Fara, but that still didn’t stop us from earnestly waiting an hour for our two pies (yes, this is New York, we call them pies, get over it): one round of New York thinnish-crust pizza, and the other a tray of square Sicilian. If we were here on a Saturday, we would likely be waiting up to three hours as Dom prepares his works, as he always does: one at a time. They take as long as they take.

DiFara_gang

There are toppings at Di Fara, but in my mind, they’re a waste of the experience. There is so much flavour in the mozzarella (Domenico combines buffalo mozzarella shreds with slices of cow’s milk mozzarella), the flame-singed crust, the parmesan, the housemade sauce with chunks from whole Salerno tomatoes, the olive oil, and especially the vibrant basil (from Israel, says Epicurious, but I’ve also read that he grows his own in window boxes), that anything else would distract from the pure expression of perfectionism. And to say that the thin-crust pizza is better than the Sicilian is true, but it’s a matter of degrees. The Sicilian is more unique – it’s harder find this style done right amid the over-thick, bready imitators. But why choose? The luxury of enjoying the flavors and textures of both pizza types makes for a better, more varied experience.

DiFara_sicilian

Dom wasn’t easy to engage, as he worked patiently but ever-diligently, but I finally managed to mention to him that some of us had come from Australia and that knew about him from the other side of the world. He flashed me a rare smile, pleased that his work was being appreciated from so very far.

Of course, the big question about Di Fara is obvious. Within hours I was already asked: Is Di Fara the best pizza in New York? (Or in the US, or the world?) Well I haven’t been to Totonno’s in Coney Island or the original Patsy’s in East Harlem. Or to all of the new breed of pizza-crazed makers that have popped up in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Or to every pizza-mad city on this planet.

DiFara_Michael_smelly

But I can say this: I’ve been to a disproportionate number of pizzerias in my time, from many edges of the world, and Dom DeMarco’s effort ranks among the very best, even if my recollections place him just a notch behind a mind-blowing pizza in Naples and my all-time favourites in New Haven, Connecticut. And Steven Shaw of eGullet might be right in saying the Di Fara’s may not be the best New York pizza, but rather the best example of what was once a common New York style that is now steadily becoming a lost art.

DiFara_sweeps

In the end, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve never come across anyone who seems to care about their product as deeply, gives so much to his craft and has been maintaining that level of perfectionism for so long. Di Fara opened in 1964, the same year the Beatles broke it big in the US, “Dr Strangelove” appeared on movie screens, and Jackie O made her first public appearance after JFK’s assassination. I also don’t know anyone who continually defies the health department so that he can continue to use his bare hands to create… and has been shut down briefly a number of times for doing so. He was told to wear a hat, and gloves, but I saw neither on the day. DeMarco seems to suggest, “My art is my art and I won’t compromise for anything less.” And for that, Domenico DeMarco is deserving of his legendary status.

“I don’t intend to retire. But I want my kids to take over the place,” DeMarco told the New York Times in an interview a few years back. “Pizza has become considered a fast food. This one is slow food. Anything you do, when you do it too fast, it’s no good.”

Di Fara, 1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn, NYC, +1 (718) 258-1367
DiFara Pizza on Urbanspoon

A walking tour of Chinatown’s best dumpling houses

Chinatown_NewWonton_cook

Despite being away from New York for nine years, I still know the city like the back of my hand, even if it’s sometimes behind my back. I always know where I’m going – until I don’t.

Anyway, I’ve got to admit that I’ve never had a strong handle on Chinatown, which has expanded most of the years of my birth and scoffed up all but a sliver of Little Italy. Even now, as its growth seems to have stalled, it’s morphing again at the edges, thanks to a minor insurgency of Lower East Side hipsters. Any way you chop it, my native New Yorker pedigree doesn’t stop me from feeling like a happy-snapping tourist in Chinatown.

So I decided to put a dent in my Sino-Manhattan naivety by signing up for one of Jeff Chin’s ever-present walking food tours of New York. I first found Jeff via one of his Meetup groups, Best Walking Food Tours, and later learned that he runs even more groups and a dizzying number of food events every week. His dumpling tour was exactly the kind of speed-tasting blitz that I needed to cover a wide swatch of Chinatown sidewalk.

The tour started at Jeff’s apartment on Water Street, not far from South Street Seaport. As I approached the non-descript building, I met a fellow walking tour attendee, unsure about where to go, and we walked up the single flight of stairs to Jeff’s apartment together. There we found a couple more food walkers waiting outside the door. I rang the bell and no one answered, so I turned the knob, and the door opened easily. I called out, but there was no answer. Not wanting to break-and-enter, we decided to wait outside. Minutes later, Jeff walked up the stairs and let us in, nonplussed that he had forgotten to lock his door.

And that was the first thing I found interesting about Jeff Chin’s tours. He readily welcomes strangers into his home, which is a strange sight in a city whose residents are often afraid to let the UPS man into their home out of fear of revealing a blueprint to burglary. But Jeff, a mad-keen foodie, cook and under-employed IT consultant, was more than content to entertain in his home. As 10 of us gathered, Jeff quickly whipped up and served small octagonal crackers topped with wasabi and cured salmon, then proceeded to (unexpectedly) dole our party favors in the form of boxes of jasmine tea and bottled tea drinks.

Moments later, we were off on foot, making the short commute to Chinatown. We were busy getting to know each other, so the stroll went by quickly and I couldn’t tell you how we got there. What I can tell you is that I discovered that Jeff is a bit of a Yelp food celebrity, having contributed 1,125 restaurant reviews, and growing by the day. This boy can eat, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more knowledgeable resource on New York dining, maybe save Frank Bruni.

Chinatown_SweetSpring_dumplings

Our first dumpling fix was at Sweet Spring Restaurant on 25 Catherine Street, a barebones corner shop pumping out a half-dozen dumplings for a measly $1.25. With some eight dumpling outposts on the walking tour, a few of us agreed to share orders and pace ourselves. We split one order of fried pork dumplings and another plate of steamed ones, and both were delicious, even if neither lacked the crispiness that would identify one as the fried variety. Seats were scarce, so we shared a table with a Chinese gentleman who was eating an oversized bun stuffed with bean sprouts and unknown vegetables. We hand-signed through the language barrier as he showed us the contents of his lunch.

Chinatown_SweetSpring_outside

Next was an even smaller shop, simply entitled Fried Dumplings, on 99 Allen Street, near the corner of Delancy. Their half-dozen were even cheaper, at $1 a plate, and a New York Times review at the window seemed to suggest it had a reputation as a go-to dumpling joint. But upon closer inspection of my photos post-walk, I realised the review was before the new millennium and it may have explained why these ghastly overcooked crescents and their accompanying dense-as-a-doorstop pork buns might no longer meet the Times‘ lofty standards. It also came with a watery soybean drink that could have been confused with drippings from a leaky roof. Fried Dumplings may have been good once, but that’s ancient history now.

Chinatown_FriedDumplings_dumplings

The Beijing-style dumplings at Tasty Dumplings, 54 Mulberry Street, got us back on track. We split servings of two types: shrimp and chive, and pork and cabbage. Both were tasty and with nicely crisped skins, and with a dumpling sauce that was flavourful but light enough in balance – not too much soy, not too much vinegar.

We were all getting a little dumpling’d out, so Jeff made a suggestion for an ice cream diversion, and we all resoundingly agreed. So it was off to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. Jeff kept raving about the pandan ice cream, but the shop had run out by the time we got there. Instead, we negotiated and agreed to share three flavours: black sesame, lychee and almond cookie. All were terrific. The lychee had small pieces of fresh fruit scattered throughout, the sesame a pleasing crunch and distinct sweet-savoury flavour, and the almond tasted like a vanilla scoop with a nutty edginess.

Chinatown_IceCreamFactory

We were all getting full, so some of the walkers began drifting off, and we made a pact with Jeff that we’d only hit the best two dumpling houses that remained on our list of eight. So we ventured to the New Wonton Garden, 56 Mott Street, a Chinese restaurant with an extensive menu. We were here only for the dumplings, and only sharing two plates, which the restaurant’s proprietor couldn’t seem to understand, given the large group. He negotiated with us to order a larger dish of dumplings, which we happily accommodated, and we added a bowl of dumpling soup for a little variety. The fried pork dumplings were the best of the day, perfectly crisp and with a heavier wonton wrapper (and at $6.95 a plate, by far the most expensive), whereas the soup came with silky money-bag dumplings.

Chinatown_Meetup_group

A longer walk was welcome to Vanessa’s Dumpling House, 118 Eldridge Street, at a site that’s really more Lower East Side than Chinatown. Vanessa was unique in that it had a monthly special, and this month’s was a combination of shrimp, pork and bok choy, and it was a nice change of flavour complexity. We also shared a slice of sesame pancake, taking turns at its crunchy exterior.

Just as we thought we couldn’t eat any more, and some of us couldn’t, Jeff led us to our final destination, Lam Zou – famed for its handmade noodles and dumplings – at 144 East Broadway. For once, we stuck with the noodles and watched as our dish began as a single wad of dough before being slammed down onto a table, repetitively stretched and pummeled thinner and thinner until it reached the desired circumference. The final product arrived in a bowl topped with minced pork and baby bok choy. It was a good example of northern Chinese noodles, even if I have to admit that I’m more partial to the thicker fresh noodles and less-densely sauced mince of my old regular haunts in Sydney: Chinatown Noodle Restaurant and the Chinese Dumpling & Noodle House in Kensington. Still, fresh noodles are always a delight, no matter how thick or thin you bang ‘em.

We sampled with interest but grudgingly, given the continual onslaught of food. In the end, I probably consumed about two dozen dumplings, plus ice-cream, plus fresh noodles. It will mandate a few trips to the gym, but it was worth it for the foundation for digging further into the ADD-inducing array of Chinatown nosheries. Next time, I need to explore further: maybe dim sim (New York speak for yum cha), more noodles or regional Chinese. Whatever – for $20 for a tour guide and another $15 for food, I can afford to splurge in this neighborhood more often.

Grand Central’s Yer Oyster

Oysterbar_Grandcentral2

I had a business pow-wow on 42nd Street today, so I took advantage of being a block away from New York’s Grand Central Station and went for a recon mission. The station, aside from being one of the most photogenic in the US, is one of those rare places where transit and gastronomy co-exist and even thrive – something you really appreciate if you spend a lot of time at airports or that other, crappier NYC train depot, Penn Station.

So where other stations would have a Pizza Hut, I walked through the glorious stretch of the Grand Central Markets: a hall of gourmet producers and providores supplying quality cheeses, meats, fish and more. I sampled a terrific sausage flavoured with black truffle shavings, tasted a killer duck paté and ogled lots of dry-aged steak.

After the food-perving was done, we walked down to the Oyster Bar, an institution in Grand Central’s lower depths that’s been on my hitlist for years. My dining companion and I stepped inside the glass frontage and entered into the sprawling room, with tiled, curvaceous ceilings that conjure a feel somewhere between a Moorish temple and a circus tent. And before me lay a long countertop in a continuous snake around old-school waiters and waitresses.

To say that the Oyster Bar’s menu is a single page is true, and at the same time, a vast understatement. The daily-updated menu packs in a dizzying array of oysters – 34 different varieties on the list today – plus an equally extensive offering of fresh fish, plus often-fried appetisers, a cold buffet selection, stews, cooked and uncooked shellfish, main dishes, soups and more. I don’t get overwhelmed easily, but I found I couldn’t digest it all.

The first thing I did was defer to the waitress, who nullified my pick of a Belon wild oyster from Maine (too big), and requested that I allow her to choose the oysters for us. We happily deferred, and then added a couple of more tastes to accompany, including a shared bowl of New England Clam Chowder and a starter of Dungeness crab cocktail.

Oysterbar_grandcentral

The good news is that the restaurant’s namesake more than does it justice: a choice of Blackberry Point oysters from Canada’s Prince Edward island were flavourful, lively and with the crispness of super-cold waters, and Totten Viginica’s from Washington State were also very satisfying, and would have been more so if I wasn’t pining for a few more of the Blackberries. Each oyster came accompanied with a lemon wedge, ketchup and a light vinegar, but I only sparingly used the latter to enhance the oysters. I thought the ketchup to be a strange condiment until I discovered that glasses filled with what looked like wet sugar were actually filled with horseradish. Add a dollop to the ketchup and voila – your own homemade cocktail sauce.

I’d go back to the Oyster Bar any day for its oysters, and there’s also a matter of a splendid wine list that’s nearly as long as the food menu, with an astonishing number by the glass – 77 on a rough count. What I wouldn’t return for, though, would be the clam chowder, which was overly creamy for my tastes, the too-dry biscuits that arrive pre-meal, and the Dungeness crab, which was so bereft of flavour (assumedly because it had been frozen for so long) that it may as well have been a faux Asian crabstick.

Yet I still have a yearning to return to the Oyster Bar, partly to sample more of its library of oysters and to visit more regions of its one-pager menu. There’s a whole “Today’s Catch” section to examine when I’m feeling hungrier, from pan-fried black cod to wild Columbia River red king salmon, and grilled surgeons steak with anchovy butter. Our waitress also recommended the oyster po’boy, oysters Rockefeller and fried Ipswich clams – none of which I heeded – and there’s also a matter of a $27.95 Maine lobster roll, which I’m still wondering whether it would be worth the lunchtime investment.

So the next time I’m close enough to hear the trains a’rollin’, I’m up for another round with the day’s catch. And it wouldn’t hurt to wade through those 77 glasses of wine. If I’m going to go off the rails, what better place to do it than at the station.

Oyster Bar & Restaurant, Grand Central Station, New York, www.oysterbarny.com

Grand Central Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

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