It’s been a whirlwind month-and-a-half, travelling from Melbourne to Sydney to Los Angeles, the California Coast (Ventura, St Ynez wine valley, Big Sur, Carmel, Monterey), San Francisco, New Orleans and finally to New York. Yes, it’s been a big quiet on the Gosstronomy front, but expect that to pick up now that I’m going to be based here for at least the next five months. The plan is to cook at some top NYC restaurants and work on my first food book. Wish me luck. I’ll share the details in due course, but I’m keeping things under wraps for the time being.
Food here in New York has been an eye-opener, something that didn’t register as much on my brief visits home every couple of years. I’ve always defended New York against Australians who were quick to slag off the size of meal portions, complain about the coffee and contend that the pizza was no good. I’d contend that they didn’t choose the right venues. Unlike Sydney or Melbourne, I’d tell the, you can’t just eat anywhere in New York; you have to know where you’re going. That’s still the case, but my God, it’s apparent more than ever that they’re right about the portion sizes. If I want a large Coke, I order a small. Sarah and I share as many meals as we can, and if we order separately, we often regret it with bloated bellies. And the food, on average, is surprisingly heavy. Even a couple of trips for Japanese food have revealed mammoth platters and sashimi pieces so large and thick, they may as well have just plopped an uncooked tuna steak onto my plate. And don’t get me started about the coffee. I know there’s a good cuppa out there, but it’s been a long, hard search to find it, and so far I’ve only found one obscure place – in Hoboken of all places – with Japanese barristas who’ve been (of course) trained by an Australian roaster.
There’s fantastic food in New York, if you can be selective enough and pay for it. After a string of ho-hum and downright artery-clogging meals, my first memorable dinner in the city came last week at the well-regarded Momofuku Ssam. Sarah and I were off to meet some friends for a drink at Terroir wine bar in the East Village when we wandered past Ssam and noticed that the usual long lines looked downright reasonable for a Friday night. We wanted more than wine bar nibbles, so we lined up for the 30-minute wait at Ssam, not a long time in this town for a weekend night.
For all the word-of-mouth I’d heard about Momofuku Ssam, the place was more casual than I’d expected… or maybe that should be casual-cool. It’s a narrow room that open-airs to Second Avenue (at least in the warmer months), crams a few small tables opposite an elongated bar and then opens to a small dining area that sits in front of a modest open kitchen. The staff is young and funky, both on the floor and in the kitchen, whereas neighbourhood residents compete for seats with what seem to be Midtown tourists and excitable pilgrims from the burbs. The fashionistas, I reckon, are either at house parties hiding from the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, or they’re moved on to Keith McNally’s oh-so-hot-right-now Minetta Tavern. Weekend dining can be hell for locals.
But the food, the FOOD, is like a breath of fresh air. We’re talking refined, restrained and inspired dishes that have so many influences, it’s hard to put together a cuisine type to define it, and I’m reticent to use the F word: fusion.
We were seated at the bar and started our meal off with cured hamachi (a.k.a. yellowtail or Japanese amberjack) from the raw bar, and tucked in to tender slices of sashimi with a drawbridge of edamame-and-horseradish puree spread across the plate, a scatting of pea leaves and topped with unidentified salty/crunchy granules for contrasting texture. It is as light yet lively a dish I’ve seen since I left Australia in early April.
Next up we tried the starter of steamed pork buns, which seem to be the signature dish of the restaurant and were highly recommended by the waiter, and by friends who popped in on their way to Terroir. Unlike the doughy balls that take down appetites with leaden accuracy at typical dim sum joints, these buns are crafted with a less-aggressive clamshell of a bun, giving the hoisin-flavoured pork more prominence. Next up, a grilled fillet of branzini with fried jicama matchsticks, tomatillos and pepitas (lightly roasted and salted pumpkin seeds) are tasty, but don’t provide much in the way of fireworks. More memorable is a mince of spicy pork sausage with Chinese broccoli and fried shallots (eschallots to you Aussies), which was dotted with cylindrical drums of rice cakes that provide a riveting popcorn-like texture that stands as a polar opposite to the saucy, spicy sausage. It’s a match made in gastro-heaven.
We wrap up with the Thai ice tea parfait, which we weren’t excited about, but chose it as none of the three desserts sound very appealing, but we needed to sate Sarah’s sweet tooth. Thankfully, we are mistaken. The butter-stick length of tea cream offers a smooth, sweet essence that is lifted by an adjoining, tart lemon mascarpone and the satisfying bite of an almond tea crunch, spread over like rubble from a rockfall.
On another night we visit the Momofuku Bakery and Milk Bar that sits just behind the restaurant and find ourselves exposed to a world of insanely decadent treats. There are sugar-cereal flavoured milks, ice creams with uncommon flavours like ‘donut’, ‘fireball’ and ‘Bavarian cream’ and outrageously caloried cookies, including a cornflake, marshmallow and chocolate chip cookie, which I barely finish. The Bakery is worth a stop on its own, although I’d advise a date of the gym the day before and after, lest you get one step closer to becoming a contestant on “The Biggest Loser”.