Posts Tagged ‘New York’

Blasphemy – What’s Your Favourite Fast Food Joint?


I’ve got a bit of a split personality when it comes to fast food. Most times, I hate the stuff. It’s processed, homogenised, downright bad for you, and I blame it (and I’m not alone) for causing my dual home countries – America and Australia – to be the two fattest countries in the world. I stay away from fast food whenever I can.

And then there are those times when I’m in a rush. Suddenly, only fast will do. We’re talking those 10 minutes I have at the airport between connecting flights (and on a plane that I know will cook me even worse food), when I need a quick bite on the way to a meeting, or those inevitable road trips where gas, food and a pitstop is on the cards. That’s when I drop my fast-food loathing and give in to the creature comforts of the Golden Arches and other near-instant delicacies.

I only started thinking about fast food this morning because Esquire magazine came out with a poll of top US chefs about their go-to fast food, and the largest percentage selected California’s In-N-Out Burger chain. It even got the nod from Thomas Keller, chef of the country’s top-rated restaurants, Per Se and The French Laundry. Iron Chef America’s Alton Brown and TV celeb chef Tyler Florence were also among the In-N-Out faithful. What makes it even more impressive is that the California-born burger chain is only located in four states in the American Southwest. That is some serious regional burger patriotism. I have friends from LA, so I’ve seen the loyalty first-hand, and the photo above is from my sole Inn-N-Out experience in San Fransisco in May. It was, well, a good burger: a step up from Mickey D’s, a step down from Shake Shack.

The Esquire poll did get me thinking about my own preferred fast food joint. Or joints, at it may be. As I’ve got dual residency, I thought it appropriate to pick one for each of my ‘hometowns’: New York and Sydney.

Benny Tudino's, home of the 26-inch pie

Benny Tudino's, home of the 26-inch pie

When I’m in New York, there’s no denying that my ultimate fast food is pizza, and it’s not fast unless you’re talking about by-the-slice operators, so we’ll leave the likes of Di Fara’s, Una Pizza Napoletana and Keste aside for slower-food mullings. As I live across the Hudson River in Hoboken, you’ll find me at Benny Tudino’s pizzeria (pictured above) more often than any other eatery in the metro area. I’ve been coming to Benny’s for 20 years now, and it’s always been a reliable spot for a quality, monster-sized slice (from a 26-inch pizza!) at a ridiculously low price – where else can I get a satisfying meal for $3.75? Even cheap Chinese costs more and takes longer. Benny’s is a veritable Hoboken instituion, and it gets my vote for being both a great product and for being geographically desirable. If you don’t know where it is, just ask the cops – they’re long-time regulars.


When I’m in Manhattan, I don’t have as much loyalty when it comes to pizza slices, but the venue that probably scores the highest frequency is Joe’s Pizza in the West Village, located on the corner of Carmine Street and Bleeker. It’s got a choice of plain cheese or Sicilian slices, uses good-quality cheese and has a nicely flavoured, sweet-yet-simple tomato sauce. I never plan to go to Joe’s, I just usually wander there as a last-minute, late-night decision. That means I never look at the website, but I did today to research this post and discovered that they have expanded to three other locations: one in Brooklyn, and two in Los Angeles. And even though I only know Joe’s as a local joint, it’s apparently gained a level of superstar status since it got a cameo in the Spiderman 2 movie, with Peter Parker (in the guise of Tobey Maguire) working a delivery job there. Who knew?

Other pizzerias used to get my patronage: Famous Famiglia before it went for world franchise domination, and Famous Ray’s of Greenwich Village – the true, original Ray’s on 6th Ave and 11th St that inspired all of the other imitators across Manhattan. I’ve been back to Famous Rays a couple of times, but I have to say I found the cheesy slices were pretty bland.

As for Australia, that’s an even easier choice. No fast food gets my cravings going more than a double Bondi Burger from the Sydney-born Portuguese chicken chain, Oporto. We’re talking two, thin, crispy-grilled chicken fillets with lettuce, tomato, mayo and just enough of a chilli hit make your cheeks go misty. I don’t know what’s in the “secret” chilli sauce, but Wikipedia says it’s a “piri-piri sauce made from chilli, ginger, lemon and garlic”. That’s probably close, but I reckon there’s also a dash of sugar in there and maybe something else to add that je ne sais quoi that makes it so damn good. Oporto’s thick-cut fries are also ever-pleasing and should be sent to Burger King (Hungry Jacks in Australia) so the latter can see where they went wrong.

Fast-food longings aside, let’s all do ourselves a favour. Let’s not make fast food a regular habit. Save it for those rare, cherished moments when we’re running from work to a party, or driving hours up the highway to get to a beautiful beach or ski mountain. Let’s support those seldom, even special breaks from our usual dining patterns. Life’s all about balance, right?

So what about you? Do you have a fast-food craving? Fess up in the comments section below, and together we can spread the guilty pleasures around.

Benny Tudino’s, 622 Washington St, Hoboken, NJ, +1 (201) 792-4132
Benny Tudino's on Urbanspoon

Joe’s Pizza, 7 Carmine St, West Village, Manhattan, NY, +1 (212) 255-3946
Famous Joe's Pizza on 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.


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.


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.


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,
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.


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.


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,

Sidewalk Cafe on Urbanspoon

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.


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.


‘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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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,

Grand Central Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Escape to New York – Momofuku Ssam


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”.

Momofuku Ssam, 207 2nd Ave (and 13th St), New York, NY, +1 (212) 254-3500
Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon

Do Chefs Hate Food Blogs?

Mario BataliHere’s an interesting story from ABC News about the impact food blogs are having on top restaurants and restaurateurs in the US. American celeb chef Mario Batali talks about how he despises them, while restaurateur Mauro Maccioni from Manhattan’s famed, and infamous, Le Cirque goes as far as flying a disgruntled blogger back to the restaurant for some improved front-of-house treatment.

“Sometimes [people] have this idea that a restaurant like Le Cirque doesn’t need the kind of person who looks at blogs. We do need those people,” Maccioni said. “You pay attention and you try to polish your service.”

Any Australian chefs have their own opinions on the subject?

To read more, go here:

Restaurants vs. Bloggers

Ninja dining in Manhattan

I never realised that we are so deprived in the Australian dining scene until I discovered that New York has taken the culinary world to a new level with the first Ninja Restaurant in the US. (What kind of ‘level’ is up to you.) Can Samurai sushi trains be far behind?

Yes, once again reality is wackier than fiction. Whatever you think, the production quality is impressive. Oh, and they don’t exactly adhere to the Australian practice of freezing crustaceans before preparation: