Some Gotham Taste Treats

Question: what defines delicious?

For you, is it an absolutely mouth-watering cheeseburger served up with perfect fries? Or maybe some memorable meal of your mom’s…or the lobster roll you once extolled in a roadside shack north of Boston. Emily Bowden insists that it is the tuna and bacon club sandwich served at Leo’s in Garden City, but for this discussion let’s restrict our consideration to the multi-ethnic wonderland which is Manhattan.

What I bet is that for most people, when the question is asked in regard to restaurant meals, the truthful answer would not be an exquisitely prepared, gorgeous to look at and very expensive entree found in some celebrated eatery. That kind of meal is something else again, but the food served in such establishments is not usually the first thing that comes to mind when simply considering the question of absolutely delicious.

Sometimes, when I read ecstatic reviews of grand restaurants, I feel rebellious. Certainly the meals in those places can be sublime, but there is all too often a comfort level which doesn’t really mesh with total enjoyment.

Le Bernardin, for example, is frequently reviewed as the best restaurant in New York and indeed it is beautiful and the food first rate. One episode, however, explains exactly what I feel is often missing from such places.

I was entertaining a group of five friends — in truth the group would be reviewing the restaurant. Despite having made the reservation weeks in advance, we were given what was probably the worst table in the place. All of a sudden, a busboy who had previously worked in another establishment recognized me as the Forbes critic. With much bowing and kowtowing our group was transplanted to a better location.

Not cool.

Certainly all deluxe restaurants are not guilty of this obvious and foolish snobbery (Per Se, for example, has always been gracious and welcoming despite some difficult guests), but let’s face it: you don’t go to a temple of culinary excellence for the kind of cozy and familiar fare that has your mouth watering. And that’s exactly the kind of meals I want to discuss here.

Food Piece

To begin with, another question: can there be anything more scrumptious than the Italian meatloaf and mashed potatoes at Caffe Grazie (26 East 84th Street)? This restaurant is a comfortable place in the neighborhood of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The prices are more or less standard for the neighborhood (not cheap, not blisteringly expensive), and the food is old-fashioned mouth-watering. That meatloaf really is memorable and just about everything else sampled there deserves a gold star.

I have also asked a cross-section of good pals what they considered the most delicious dish they’ve tasted in Manhattan and had some surprising answers.

Fred Blair a New Yorker from Thibodaux, Louisiana, with an ingrained appreciation of food came up with several suggestions. He tells me that his favorite taste treat of all is the “Asheh Reshteh,” a vegetarian noodle and bean soup served at the funky “Taste of Persia” (12 West 18th Street — a location shared with a pizzeria). He also claims that the dreamed-of best burger in the world can be found at either of the two New York Burger Company locations (678 First Avenue or 470 West 23rd Street). I didn’t question him about crowds or noise level, but he did suggest going at off-hours.

Fred’s other suggestions: Luke’s Lobster Joint (the branch at 93 East 7th Street) where the lobster rolls are “as good as any you’ve tasted anyplace”…the slow roasted pork shank at Zum Schneider (107 Avenue C)…the pork at Porchetta (110 East 7th Street, between Avenue A and First Avenue)…and Mighty Quinn’s (103 Second Avenue and other locations) for exquisite spare ribs.

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Buffalo-native Bob Reger beams at the very thought of the fried zucchini at Luke’s Bar and Grill (1394 Third Avenue), but he is equally enthusiastic about the parsnip soup at Smorgas Chef, the restaurant in Scandinavia House (58 Park Avenue between 37th and 38th Streets). His absolute favorites, however, are the brisket barbacoa with house pickles and salsas at Salvation Taco (139 East 39th Street) and the “Vitello Martini” (veal encrusted with parmesan and sautéed with white wine and lemon) at Lusardi’s (1494 Second Avenue at 78th Street).

Teck-tjuan Yap, who grew up in Singapore, waxes lyrical about the squid ink pasta at Bacaro (136 Division Street). “Most places use pre-made squid ink pasta,” he notes, “but here the squid ink is cooked into the sauce instead.” He also raves about the fried chicken at Pies-N-Thighs but that’s in Brooklyn and can be discussed at another time — perhaps along with Leo’s in Garden City.

Ruben Lubowski and Kitty Chan have offered a variety of exotic suggestions for this compendium of praise-worthy taste treats.  Top of their list was the ginseng chicken soup with delicious homemade noodles at Arirang in Korea Town (32 West 32nd Street, 3rd floor). Also worth noting: the Peruvian chicken at Flor de Mayo (the original location at 101st Street and Broadway is preferred); the Nyona House special jumbo prawns at Nyona Restaurant, 199 Grand Street between Mulberry and Mott; and the paper dosa at Saravana Bhavan (the branch on Amsterdam Avenue between 79th and 80th is preferred). Ruben also notes that the falafel sandwiches at Maoz Vegetarian restaurants (there are currently 7 locations in Manhattan)are quite tasty  but “probably deceptively healthy!”

Several people have mentioned the pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s deli (205 East Houston Street), but personally I prefer the corned beef. This is the restaurant where the famous scene in When Harry Met Sally was filmed so I suspect a lot of others will agree. And the born-British Richard Barker reports that the meatball sandwich he tasted at the Meatball Shop (200 Ninth Avenue at 22nd Street) was, indeed, memorably mouthwatering and worthy of a scream or two of unbridled joy.

Now, about my own personal favorites.

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First, I must mention the onion soup at Le Veau d’Or (129 East 60th Street), a restaurant I’ve frequently touted here. Could there be anything tastier this side of Paris? And speaking of soups, the wild mushroom beer soup at Brasserie Magritte (1463 Third Avenue between 82nd and 83rd) is sensational. I also love the light fixtures there with their dangling derbies, but that’s something else again.

Downtown, on the lower east side, you can find amazingly tasty vegetable dishes as well as a scrumptious hot dog with cheese at Westville (173 Avenue A). There are other branches of this homey haven, but I can only vouch for this one on 11th Street.

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A recent discovery, Regional at 2607 Broadway (between 98th and 99th Streets), is a pleasant and very reasonable restaurant.  It also has a particularly tasty assortment of pastas — most especially the fusilli with pesto.

And I would be remiss in chronicling my personal favorites without a mention of a dear old friend, Turkish Kitchen (386 Third Avenue between 27th and 28th) and their  Mantarli Tavuk Sis — charcoal grilled pieces of skewered chicken breast and mushrooms served over bulgar wheat pilaf and with sautéed vegetables.

Onto dessert.

Personally, I find the coconut cake at the Plenty Cafe (1457 Third Avenue between 82nd and 83rd) outstanding. I just wish the staff were less surly.

Martha Bograd, who is something of an expert on desserts, rates the lemon cake with meringue at Eli’s (1411 Third Avenue at 80th Street) about the best there is anyplace. And you are lucky indeed if you find yourself at Pinocchio Ristorante (1748 First Avenue between 90th and 91st) on a night on which the homemade cheese cake is available.

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Issue Twenty Two