BEST COFFEE REFILL
841 B’way, (13th St.), 212-614-8544
God says this one’s on the house. Some people need peace and quiet
to work. They rent cabins to write their novels; they hole up in their tiny studios; they close their
bedroom doors and emerge only to take in food and discharge waste.
We need stimulus. A fresh-water flow of strangers does more to inspire
us than anything we could expect to dig out of our psyches in inner-turmoil isolation. When the stale
office air stifles us and the idea of heading home makes us shudder, we take the afternoon off and
pick a public work spot. Sometimes it’s the Union Square Barnes & Noble, sometimes a tiny cafe
where we know the owners and menu inside and out; other times it’s Cosi, just across the park at 13th
We know Cosi’s a chain, but at least it’s New York-based and we do like
the bread. The 13th St. location boasts an attractive clientele: students between classes, daytripping
tourists preparing to run the Broadway shopping gauntlet, other laptoppers. We bring the external
drive that houses our music collection and a good pair of headphones, and settle in for a few hours.
One crisp spring afternoon, our work was interrupted by a visiting German
who wanted to talk about the city, about politics, about us. We were deep in the middle of a deadline
jag, not really in the mood for the curious-tourist routine. But having been on the flipside of the
conversation many times, we hit “pause” and made nice.
When Fraulein Chitchat finally left, we went to the counter for a refill,
visibly burdened by the lost half hour and drain on our social reserves. An attractive young lady
filled our cup, looked down at the dollars in our hand and turned away, her sly smile giving us more
kick than the caffeine would.
If there’s a more elegant proof of karma, we’d like to see it.
BEST VEGGIE BURGER MADE BY A CULT
SMILE OF THE BEYOND
86-14A Parsons Blvd. (Normal Rd.), Jamaica 718-739-7453
Cult of the undead cow. If you walk up the hill at Parsons Boulevard
and Hillside Ave. on the northern edge of Jamaica, you will see a lot of houses and businesses painted
light, pastel colors, particularly a powdery baby blue. These are the homes and businesses of people
in the orbit of Sri Chinmoy.
Chinmoy is an enigmatic character, a guru from Bangladesh who settled
in the rough-and-tumble Queens neighborhood back in the 1960s. A spiritual guru to his devoted
followers in the neighborhood and around the world (whose ranks included, at one time, Carlos Santana),
Chinmoy been called a cult leader by the Rick Ross Institute, an anti-cult group in New Jersey.
What in the hell, you might ask, does this have to do with veggie burgers?
Well, one of the businesses Chinmoy is involved with is Smile of the Beyond, a coffee shop that serves
up vegetarian versions of all your favorite all-American dishes, from chili to BLTs to turkey clubs.
The veggie burger in question is actually a grilled soy patty covered
with melted Swiss in a pita crammed with lettuce, cabbage, sprouts, carrots and tomatoes, so much
that the pita usually breaks and you end up eating the leftover greens with a fork. The “steak” burger
is topped with a sauce that, at first slightly off-putting for some unknown reason, later becomes
essential to the sandwich, tasting like mayonnaise with a hint of soy sauce.
Smile of the Beyond’s décor is modern American coffeeshop meets
Eastern spiritualism, with more pastel baby blue inside and pictures of Chinmoy with celebrities,
diplomats and musicians (as well as photos of him lifting all manner of large, heavy objects; this
is one of the things he is known for, apparently). There’s always Eastern music playing and little
handwritten proverbs from Chinmoy’s writings on each table next to the salt and pepper.
Throughout the day, locals and regulars wander in and out, chatting
with the friendly staff, until the late-afternoon closing time. Even rap mogul Irv Gotti, head
of the Murder, Inc., label, has been spotted getting his grub on in Smile. But that was in happier
days, before his artist Ja Rule and 50 Cent started a rap war down on the Avenue. Disappointingly,
however, there’s no photo of Sri Chinmoy with Ja, 50 or Irv.
BEST PLACE TO PRETEND IT’S TOKYO, 1960
25 St. Marks Pl. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.) 212-254-6363
Have a ball. In awe, and not just a little confused, we stand in front
of an ebony behemoth with red devil eyes, clad only in what looks like a rice-paddy hat.
“That is a raccoon,” explains Yuka, a young woman waiting for a table.
“And those big round things in front of him—those are his testicles.”
“And that big bag…I mean, the one he is carrying—in his
hand!—that is full of sake,” interjects her twin sister, Lika.
Our friend Jun Nakayama informs us that Kenka means “fight” or “competition.”
“There are many Japanese restaurants and sushi bars in the East Village,”
she says, “and in order to be competitive they must stand out.”
Many of the places around the neighborhood are indeed boring, and this
place manages to put up a good fight against pedestrian Japanese fare. The wonders don’t cease with
the penis-proud statue: The restaurant exudes a truly authentic aura. It might even be accused
of being too Japanese. The walls are plastered with retro posters advertising everything from
cola drinks to the latest aphrodisiac remedy from Yokohama. The back room sports scores of old-school
(but unfortunately non-functional) pinball machines, while the sound system plays out melodies
that could belong to the soundtrack of Kurosawa’s early noir-films. Even the bathroom signs are
written only in Kanji; after all, the majority of Kenka’s patrons are from Japan.
Of course, this led us to a more than embarrassing situation. “It sucks
to have a roomful of Japanese people laughing at you,” we noted to our friends afterward.
The menu features a mixture of unique and ordinary options. Items such
as bull penis, turkey testicles and fried frogs find themselves side by side with the more common
sushi, tempura and even corn on the cob marinated in the deliciously sweet house sauce. Best of all,
the liquor and the food are cheap as…well, balls.
Other stuff to note: The waitstaff wears cool t-shirts, there is a courtyard
in the back where you can smoke, and you can make your own cotton candy at the end of your meal. The uniqueness
of this place cannot be underscored.
BEST TINY WORKSPACE
403 W. 24th St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.)
West-side hideaway. Recently, while discussing the mall-ification
of Manhattan with a coworker, we noted that when it comes to anti-globalization activism on a local
level, we pick and choose our battles. The new Home Depot? Bring it on. Kmart? Always
buy our paint there.
Starbucks? Not if they had the last coffee bean on Earth.
He countered that with lots of power outlets and a constant flow of people—often
attractive, fashionable and willing to smile at an earnest young writer slaving away on a PowerBook—Starbucks
is a great place to work. To which we suggested Barnes & Noble, where the Starbucks can be enjoyed
yet not patronized, or even Cosi at 13th St. (see “Best Coffee Refill”).
Of course, we have our smaller work spots all around the city—places
where the flow of people is less intense but the atmosphere more relaxing. When we’re in the Chelsea
area, we head over to Matchbox Cafe, a nook so cozy and friendly that we even forgave them the Blues
Traveler playing on the stereo one afternoon.
A space appropriately named, Matchbox is tucked away just off the corner
of 9th Ave. We’ve spent hours there, both inside and at one of their five outside tables, nibbling
on chocolate walnut or oatmeal raisin cookies, sipping mugs of fresh coffee or tea. Though we’ve
had lunch at Matchbox several times, we recommend sticking to snacks. (The smoked turkey and cranberry-sauce
sandwich is filling and fresh, just a bit bland; the chicken salad is tasty, but without flair.)
On hotter days, the ginger lemonade has a nice kick, reminiscent of a good ginger beer, and the frozen
hot chocolate is delicious.
As for getting work done, there’s at least one electrical outlet in the
corner, and the wireless internet is free if you can hook up without bothering anyone. They’ve also
been known to make their laptop available to those in need—free of charge.
There may not be as many people coming and going at Matchbox, but sometimes
you just need to lock down and get to work. Pretty people can be so distracting.
49 Clinton St. (betw. Stanton &
Rivington Sts.), 212-979-6096
Pitchers of you. We once went for drinks on a first date to aKa. Our
date’s best friend worked the bar, so we were likely being put on display. We were poor and thirsty,
thus very willing to trade a bit of performative dating for a few strong gins and tonic.
Though aKa operates as a restaurant, when we arrived at 10, the bar was
more inviting than the tables. The entire place has a blue glow, loungier than a bistro but not painfully
hip. It usually closes around midnight, so we had two hours to enjoy a calm, post-dinner vibe, rather
than a pre-party mania. We were instantly sold, and perhaps a bit more enamored of the bartender
than our companion, one of the many reasons it was to be our first and only date. Of course, we lost
the bar in the settlement, and so began the requisite avoidance period, hoping aKa wouldn’t change
too much in the meantime.
Recently, we needed a place where we could catch up with an old friend
who was passing through. We wanted a nice atmosphere without too much noise, and suddenly we were
standing in front of the aKa doorway. The cute waitress saw us hesitate. “The sangria is really good,”
The last time our friend was in town was just after that failed first date.
We grabbed seats at the bar, both waxing a bit nostalgic, both quietly wondering how to catch up on
so much time without boring each other. And then the sangria arrived: light, sweet, even subtle,
without that cloying, cheap-wine aftertaste so common to other recipes.
“It’s like strawberry rhubarb pie,” our pal whispered, smiling.
The sangria at aKa is worth giggling over. And soon we were reminiscing
through glasses of it, while a very cute, very attentive bartender silently refilled our cups.
UNCLE NICK’S OUZARIA
747 9th Ave. (betw. 50th & 51st Sts.)
Opa! Opa! Everyone who’s been to Greece has a favorite drunk-on-ouzo
story. We’ll spare you ours. And anyway, our drunk-in-Greece stories have more to do with
the local wine served at tiny tavernas.
We’ve always liked anise-flavored liqueur—sambuca, pastis—but
we love ouzo, if only for the ritual of drinking it. As Zen master teaches, ritual and form are the
keys to understanding our existence, and there are both ritual and form to ouzo. We take ours neat
with a cup of ice on the side. Such is how master taught us; so it is that we drink it. Sometimes, it’s
our aperitif, but often it accompanies a light meal of mezedes: saganaki (fried cheese), keftedakia
(meatballs), tzatziki, taramosalata (fluffy fish roe dip), loukanika (sausage) and the like.
We add two cubes—no more, no less—into the glass of clear,
thick liqueur; the mixture becomes cloudy. We sip slowly, savoring the bite of the anise, the layers
of spices, then add more ice. We continue sipping and adding ice until the cold liquid has just a whisper
of the original ouzo. Then, we order another.
We prefer Uncle Nick’s Ouzaria to its left-hand-side neighbor, the
proper Uncle Nick’s restaurant. The casual companion lends itself to lengthy, light dinners with
friends. Even at the bar, alone with a book, we’ve worked our way through two or three mezedes and
a like number of ouzos. The local Greek channel is usually playing, and though the service can be
a bit gruff, it’s never been enough to put us off. Some might call it charming.
Until we can get back to the Greek islands and conduct a proper survey
of the country’s national liqueur, Uncle Nick’s selection of 12 different brands of ouzo is a solid
Not for long. “We would prefer if at the moment we didn’t receive any
media coverage,” said a cold, steely, German-accented voice at the other end of the line. We half
expected him to end our conversation with “otherwise accidents may happen,” then to break off in
maniacal laughter. And of course, being the reckless rogues that we are, we decided to write about
the restaurant anyway.
The location of Freeman’s contributes to its shroud of secrecy; it can
be found at the end of an alleyway reminiscent of Eastern Europe or Harry Lime’s Vienna. The restaurant
attracts a hip crowd, with downtown personalities such as design collective As Four, Norman Reedus
and Larry Clark star Tiffany Limos spotted among the hunting-lodge/tavern décor.
The menu offers a rich assortment of appetizers, including the succulent
“Devils on Horseback” (plums stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon) and the deliciously creamy
(and vegetarian) artichoke dip. Yet the strength of the restaurant lies in the array of comfort
foods offered as main courses and in the extensive wine list. The poached chicken, the grilled trout
and the lamb sausage are particular stand-outs.
Why the mystery? “We want to keep the uptown and bridge-and-tunnel crowd
away,” a connected friend confesses. “We get enough people as it is and we just want a cool place to
hang out without any hassle.”
Shame that by the time this issue hits the street, the Freeman’s spot
will no doubt have been blown up by New York or Gawker.
399 Grand St. (betw. Clinton & Suffolk Sts.) 212-674-2200
Two of everything, with everything. The disadvantages of keeping
kosher are manifold, but among them is this: Most kosher hamburgers are rather tasteless glops
of mystery meat slapped onto an unappetizing bun. Faced with the pictures of delectable-looking
burgers in magazines, and the raves of free-eating friends, kosher eaters know there is a better
world out there, but remain stuck in the ghettoized land of cafeteria-style grossness.
Enter Noah’s Ark, the year-old kosher deli on the Lower East Side’s Grand
St. The first kosher deli in the neighborhood since the much-lamented closing of Bornstein’s some
years back, Noah’s Ark is many things that a traditional kosher deli is not: clean, well-lit, polite
and decently priced. And the burgers are unparalleled—juicy, thick and tender, with fresh
tomatoes and onions, on a tasty roll, surrounded by superb fries. With this offering, Noah’s Ark
has unseated the traditional king of Manhattan kosher burgers—Dougies’ on the Upper West
Side. Much respect to Noah’s Ark for getting the job done right for all of us kosher kats.
NO RESERVATIONS NEEDED FOR GRAMERCY TAVERN’S FRONT ROOM
42 E. 20th St. (betw. Park Ave. S. & B’way)
Gra-merci! Since the death of the original Bouley, we’re often convinced
that Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern is the best restaurant in New York. Food, service and atmosphere
are always superb, and the simple elegance without the snoot can make even us slobs feel like proper
adults. The staff knows the menu inside and out: Ask a question about the wine and you’ll get a decent,
respectful response, not some opaque explanation larded through and through with bogosity. Gramercy
features American food; the cooking is aristocratic, but the atmosphere is democratic. Nowhere
is that more evident than in the Tavern Room, the relaxed and informal dining area next to the bar
where a reduced version of the stellar menu is available.
That a restaurant of this caliber offers to seat anyone who wants to eat
there, spontaneously, without a one-month advance reservation, makes us like Gramercy even more,
if that were possible. Meyer is a master restaurateur. His other places are superb as well. (We can’t
stay out of Blue Smoke, despite the fratboy, Young Republican feel; the food is great and the beer
list is vast.) But it’s Meyer’s ability to make people feel welcome and comfortable, and not like
he’s done you a big favor by allowing you to spend money in his place, that puts the sublime Gramercy
Tavern at the top of the list. Next time Grandma slips a hundred in your birthday card, spend it here.
BEST CHICKEN ROLL
173 Orchard St. (Stanton St.)
And the ball rolls fowl. Everyone knows Sal, the manager of Rosario’s.
His avuncular face, framed in a sturdy chin and orange baseball cap, is a permanent fixture at his
famed pizza joint, where he greets the late-night LES denizens, explaining the contents of the
joint’s half-dozen-plus “rollinis.” A rollini, says Sal, is just a fancy way of saying “roll.”
No matter: At $2.50 a pop, it’s the best deal in town, the perfect chaser
to a night of debauchery. Its Italian bread comes infused with stringy cheese and chunks of chicken,
a perfect combo for dipping sauce. If chicken isn’t your thing, try the spinach or sausage rollinis.
Throw in the no-frills, casual atmosphere of Rosario’s, with its windows made for people-watching
and pictures of Italian hit-men on its walls, and you have the perfect late-night hangout. Lines
are always out the door, and customers are of the rowdy variety. Don’t bring a date. Bring a bevy of
your drunkest friends.
MUSTANG SALLY’S SAVES THE PARTY
324 7th Ave. (betw. 28th & 29th Sts.)
Quick thinking for more drinking. We’re not sure who miscalculated
the crowd’s thirst, but the two kegs ran out within seconds of being tapped. We were at the People’s
Improv Theater for a Saturday-night benefit performance of Neutrino, an astonishingly good comedy
troupe that’s twisted the standard improv model into something new. Rather than just riffing on
audience suggestions or using song titles or CDs as inspiration, Neutrino hits the street, camcorders
in hand. Within minutes, a runner returns with a short film, produced downstairs on the fly. As the
first is screened, more arrive. The troupe’s talents transcend the gimmick, making Neutrino our
favorite improv group working right now.
Back at the party, with a play-dough roulette and blackjack tables,
a $10 cover charge and a dollar-a-ticket raffle, there were plenty of ways for us to lend our financial
support. There wasn’t, however, enough beer. By midnight, the party looked doomed.
Off we went to Mustang Sally’s, a bar across from the New York Press
offices that’s long been on the receiving end of our patronage. We’ve always liked Sally’s, even
when it’s filled with happy-hour commuters and pre-game sports fans; the service is prompt and
courteous, the bartenders are generous and the food is far superior to the other pub grub in the neighborhood.
The manager was hesitant to sell us a keg, and with good cause—it’s
not exactly common practice, nor is it a good precedent. Once we made the urgency of the situation
clear, and promised everything from our first-born to a “date” with our girlfriend, he relented.
We hauled up the lifesaver Budweiser from the cooler, and off we went.
The party rolled into the wee hours, and everyone had plenty to drink.
Neutrino went to Scotland and improv’ed their asses off, and Mustang Sally’s will forever be known
as the bar that saved the day. Thanks, guys.
BEST BUDGET TAGINE
101 St. Marks Pl. (betw. Ave. A & 1st Ave.) 212-677-2226
Just like Fadoua used to make. Our mother judges a restaurant by its
breadbasket. Bread rates a B+ just for arriving warm, though the right combination of crispy-chewy
is necessary for the restaurant to rank high. While we love bread, we love poultry even more. And
beyond both of these is our true passion: bread and poultry, at a “weekday special” price. Pita,
salad and our choice of chicken tagine for $7.95? Count us in.
We were salivating while waiting for mom to meet us at Cafe Mogador, where
the pita arrives—yes—perfectly warm, delicately crispy on the outside and chewy
inside. Then comes the salad, as basic as one will find, with mesclun, shredded carrot and a mild
vinaigrette. The freshness of the greens and perfect amount of dressing makes this otherwise bland
course a standout: just right for preparing the palate.
Then comes the tagine, a deceptively simple stew that we learned to love
while traveling through Morocco. At Mogador, the tagine is served over a heap of rice or bowl of couscous
accompanied by a plateful of tender chicken cooked in your choice of subtle sauce. There’s the “Casablanca”
(chickpeas, raisins, onions); apricot and prune; lemon and olives and a few others. Each is warm
and filling, a lighter version of the classic American stew.
Mom, who rates the breadbasket highly, mops up the last of her potato,
turnip and saffron tagine, then throws back a glass of Moroccan mint tea.
“This place has it down,” she says. And she isn’t just talking about the
BEST BOERUM HILL BAR
175 Smith St. (betw. Warren & Wyckoff Sts.) Boerum Hill, 718-254-0607
Rock the boat. Redoubtable and workmanlike, the Smith St. corridor
neither cloys like Park Slope’s 7th Ave. nor annoys like Williamsburg’s hipster-oppressed Bedford.
It follows that the Boat is the perfect bar for Smith St. We’ve spent several evenings quaffing draft
lager amid a mix of local chin beards, mooks and Manhattan imports and loving it. Sure, the place
leans hip, but never too much so. The bartenders are consistently friendly (a recent request to
lower the AC from its frigid setting was immediately and cheerfully heeded) and only too happy to
pour from the extensive beer list. The jukebox selections are first-rate, the thrift-store furniture
not too flea-bitten, and c’mon, can you beat the fireplace?
BEST WING SPECIAL
MONDAYS & WEDNESDAYS
AT CROXLEY ALE HOUSE
28 Ave. B (betw. 2nd & 3rd Sts.)
The new Riverrun. Take your pick: sales vs. editorial, thirtysomething
vs. twentysomething, Jew vs. goyim. The challenge had been issued, the battle lines were set: New
York Press advertising director Alex Schweitzer would face research editor Lionel Beehner
in a wing-off. The man who ate the most 10-cent chicken wings in one hour—without vomiting—would
take home the crown.
Okay, so a boxing match it ain’t, but as far as diversions go, the Schweitzer-Beehner
wing-off wasn’t the worst after-work gathering we’ve attended. And the fact that it was to be held
at Croxley Ale House helped. The bar itself is as good as any—quick pours, friendly service—but
it’s their outdoor area that makes this neu East Village joint worth visiting.
With a full bar and seating for about 100 people, the side patio is among our favorite outdoor drinking
spots. You can even smoke in the open-air section in the back.
That fateful Wednesday evening, the New York Press crew descended
upon the street-side patio. When the first plate of 30 wings arrived, Schweitzer hit hard, assuming
a 15-wing lead. But Beehner, the clear underdog, looked promising; some in the crowd suggested
that he would be the tortoise to his opponent’s hare.
Sadly, it was not to happen. When the final buzzer went off, bones were
counted and a winner was declared. Schweitzer: 54, Beehner 42. Both were on the verge of puking.
But cry not for Beehner. There’s always one lady who admires a plucky
underdog, and this was no exception.
BEST REPLY BY A
WAITER TO A VARIANT
OF AN OLD CHESTNUT
ONE AFTERNOON AT
A WEST VILLAGE DINER
Waiter, there’s a… There was something in our soup. Not a fly,
but something. Actually, we never even saw it in our soup, a tomato-y, not-too-thick bowl of lentil,
one of the two soups du jour on this Wednesday. Our eyes were bent on the sports section of the Times
when suddenly something was sharing the space inside our mouth with the rest of our spoonful
of soup. It felt like a curly stem, but was so fibrous it sprang back to life after each chomp. Working
it forward, we plucked it out and held it up to our baffled eyes: a curly stem indeed, and decidedly
No more than curious, we signaled to our waiter, dressed in white shirt,
black vest and black pants. How many times is a waiter called on to account for some foreign body in
the fare? Our waiter was a seasoned professional in his forties. Given that fact, we expected a patently
stylized performance in the role now given him to play in our drama: when shown the curly stem, a look
of shocked surprise; when asked what it was, a look of consternation.
On the contrary, our man gave a performance all his own. When shown the
curly stem, he didn’t bat an eye. When asked what it was, he didn’t miss a beat.
“That’s from a Brillo pad,” he remarked matter-of-factly, adding that
the person in charge of washing the soup pot hadn’t done a very good job rinsing it out.
The lack of fuss in his manner was so commendable, we would have been satisfied
even if he hadn’t then discreetly reported our scare to the Greek proprietor, who begged our forgiveness
and comped our meal.
BEST SPICY MEATBALL
217 Eldridge St. (betw. Stanton
& Rivington Sts.), 212-253-9199
Old Smoky never had it so good. The grotto-like ápizz is such
a consistently pleasing establishment, we wish we could recommend more than just the meatballs.
Problem is, since being turned on to the dish last winter, it’s all we ever seem to order. Why mess
with a good thing, right? Polpete pomidori, as they’re called—the creation of chef/owner
John LaFemina—are copiously sized pork, veal and beef meatballs stuffed with fresh ricotta
and served in simmering, slow-cooked tomato gravy. Like all of the main courses here, this one is
done up in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven. Savory and with just a hint of smokiness, it’s the
ricotta that lends the dish an unlikely kick, adding a creamy texture to every bite. Accompanied
with sliced sourdough and marinara—dispatched to our table as soon as we’re seated (another
plus)—and a glass of Primitivo, the meatball experience at ápizz is pure gustatory
BEST VEGAN MILKSHAKE
295 Grand St. (betw. Roebling &
Havemeyer Sts.), Williamsburg , 718-388-1919
Don’t got milk? When vegan fast-food joint Foodswings moved in around
the corner from our apartment, we quickly settled into a pattern. On sandwich days, we eat the no-chicken
caesar club, dripping with luscious homemade dressing and fabulous black olives. On healthy days,
we eat the chili con soya and a side of sautéed spinach, with its huge slices of fresh garlic.
Most days, we eat one of baker Jake’s fresh chocolate chip cookies.
Then there came a day when we were lazily perusing the list of vegan milkshakes
taped to the counter.
“What’s good?” we asked.
Whoever was at the counter stared in disbelief. “You mean, you’ve never
We shrugged, mentioned our pesky routines and admitted that no, we had
not. So we tried one: pistachio cookies ‘n’ cream. And it was the most fetching concoction of crunch
and cool creaminess to pass our lips since we said adieu to dairy a decade ago.
Convinced the recipe must be complex and top-secret, we approached
Freedom, Foodswings’ Bronx-born proprietor, with caution. “What can you tell us about the milkshake
recipe? What would you consider releasing to the public?”
He didn’t laugh at us; his mom, copilot in the kitchen, raised him too
well for that sort of behavior. But he clearly found the graveness of our tone perplexing. According
to Freedom, the Foodswings milkshake is a simple affair consisting of soymilk, Klein’s vegan ice
cream and either peanut butter or cookies. The flavor combinations come mainly from the flavors
of ice cream: strawberry, pistachio, vanilla and chocolate.
The most popular shakes are the Tank, made of chocolate ice cream, peanut
butter and cookies; Crunchberries, made of strawberry ice cream and cookies; and Bella Vegan,
which is vanilla ice cream, cookies and peanut butter. We’re still head over heels for the pistachio/chocolate
combination, made even more decadent when Jake treats us to chocolate soymilk instead of vanilla.
BEST NEW FINE-DINING IDEA FOR SHUT-INS
1807 2nd Ave. (betw. 93rd & 94th Sts.) 212-996-1089
Fine dining, to go. Until we achieve Star Trek-level technology,
Artiko may be the best option we have for instant gourmet cuisine. Think navratan korma with rice
by way of the Jetsons. Ariane Kemper, a one-time marketing exec at Pfizer and single mom
with two kids, first came up with the idea of a place that sells single frozen portions of gourmet
food for busy moms and other shut-ins. Her Westchester location—the first of its kind—has
been open since October 2003, and her Manhattan location has been here for two months.
Choose among Mexican, Italian and Euro entrees and soups. Artiko’s
most expensive dish is the shrimp ravioli with coconut curry sauce at $13.99, its cheapest the mac
and cheese at $4.99. Try also the salmon with basil walnut pesto, poached tilapia in a white wine
sauce, chile lime salmon satay, ostrich steak and the ravioli Magdalene. Parties cry out for Artiko’s
hors d’oeuvres trays filled with spanakopita, scallops in bacon, potato pancakes and veggie samosas.
Artiko also offers organic meats, sushi-grade fish and amazingly satanic
desserts—including chocolate or Grand Marnier “lava,” ultimate tiramisu, milk chocolate
mousse cake, hazelnut craquant, pear tartlets, Chocolate Madness, Mosaic Bande—and of
course the Ice Cream Puck, which children are fond of, along with fishies, frozen potato animals
and Puff Doggies.
BEST RED HOOK DIVE
253 Conover St. (betw. Beard & Reed Sts.) Red Hook, 718-625-8211
A good place to kill or be killed. A pissy old salt once told us he judged
a dive based on whether he felt like it was a good place to plot a murder. On that account Sonny’s measures
up beautifully. Yeah, this old fisherman’s haunt has been around since the Koch administration,
and it shows. The ventilation sucks, the red-leather booths are beat to shit and a layer of grime
coats all surfaces.
Still, certain touches are to be appreciated. Like the irregular hours
of operation: We’re pretty sure the place is open only on Friday nights, but don’t hold us to that.
Or the fact that you don’t pay for your drinks until you leave. (You make hash marks on a piece of paper
and then bring it to the bartender at the end of your night.) Or the, ahem, casual adherence to smoking
laws (proprietor Sonny is more than likely to bum cigarettes from you if you smoke).
If you read the New York Times, then you’ll know this was the year
that Red Hook was discovered. Celebrated additions to the streetscape have included the gourmet
eatery 360 and the self-aggrandizingly named Old Pioneer Beer Hall, to name a few. High time then,
that Sonny’s gets props for being the true pioneer.
BEST MARIO BATALI RESTAURANT
52 Irving Pl. (17th St.), 212-253-2773
Now that’s Italian. His restaurants are
like a Murderer’s Row lineup—Babbo, Lupa, Otto, Esca, Bar Jamon and Casa Mono (and soon adding
some French pop at the bottom of his lineup with Rue du Vent on 42nd St.).
We decided to go with the least-known, for a Batali restaurant at least:
Casa Mono, also known as tapas heaven. We didn’t have a reservation, but took a chance on getting
a stool facing either the wine bar or the wide-open kitchen. Surprisingly there was a stool at both.
We went with the kitchen view.
This Gramercy hot spot might be loud, but that’s because the place is
always packed. Despite the tight spaces between the tables, Casa Mono has a very romantic air to
it, with even the kitchen view and wine- bar stools being great spots to bring a date (or start a conversation
with other diners).
While we perused the menu and snacked on a mixture of olives with bread,
our very lovely server, Andrea, suggested a quartina of delicious, fruity wine. With a 2001 Enrique
Mendoza Shiraz from Alicante, our journey began. The first round: pumpkin and goat cheese croquetas,
grilled artichokes and scallops with cava and chorizo. The second: chipirones (small octopi sautéed
with white beans) and Andrea’s favorite, quail with figs. For dessert, the Mono sundae: three scoops
of plum-brandy ice cream topped with arrope syrup, chopped almonds that looked like paprika and
pumpkin sticks that were somehow candied. We ended the meal with a double espresso and glass of port.
The menu offers equal amounts of seafood, meat and vegetable tapas,
and the other dishes looked delicious in their presentation. On our next visit, we’ll feast on the
lamb chops, skirt steak, grilled squid and Mario’s staple, tripe. We also intend to try the corn
with braised butter.
It could have been the quail, figs and ice cream talking (or the shiraz
and port, we suppose), but we informed Andrea that, should this be our last meal, we would die happy.
Mario, we don’t know how you did it, but keep it up.
BEST SOUL FOOD
2331 8th Ave. (125th St.), 212-749-9084; 486 Lenox Ave. (134th St.), 212-234-4488; 51 E. 125th
St. (Madison Ave.), 212-360-4975; 829 B’way (betw. Park Ave. & Ellery St.), Bklyn, 718-218-8575;
478 Rockaway Ave. (betw. Pitkin & Belmont Sts.), Bklyn, 718-922-2744
Manna from heaven. Something as delicious as soul food should be
shared, which is why endless plates of fried chicken, corn bread and macaroni and cheese are perfect
for family gatherings. Finish everything off with a bowl of banana pudding, and even the most hostile
familial relations are soothed.
On the surface, Manna’s may look like another salad bar, but with its
close, cafeteria-style seating it creates a neighborly feel often missing from more expensive
places such as Sylvia’s or Copeland’s. At its best, the food at Manna’s is just as good (if not better)
than what’s offered at those famous tourist eateries: crispy fried chicken, crab cakes, tangy
collard greens and candied yams so rich they’re essentially a dessert. And then there’s the banana
pudding—made the old-fashioned Southern way, with plenty of vanilla wafers and lots of
ripe, soft bananas. For the adventurous, Manna’s even offers hog chitterlings, a soul-food delicacy.
The driving force behind Manna’s is Mrs. Betty Park, a Korean-American
who opened the first location (125th St. and 8th Ave.) with her family in 1984. Mrs. Park has given
to the community (donating to various local causes), and it has responded in kind, allowing her
to open four more locations in Harlem and Brooklyn. Our favorite is the branch at 134th and Lenox,
near Schomburg Library and Harlem Hospital. In a clean, comfortable space, patrons stack food
onto Day-Glo plastic trays and chat amiably while the latest Alicia Keys song plays in the background.
Prices are reasonable (usually $4.49 a pound), so there’s no reason not to go back for seconds.
While often maligned for its dietary content (high fat, cholesterol,
etc.) soul food is a surprisingly good energy source, and lunch at Manna’s is the perfect way to begin
a walking tour through Harlem’s many attractions.
BEST REASON TO
SHOP ON 5TH AVE.
5 E. 51st St. (betw. 5th & Madison Aves.)
Saks Beef Avenue. We often find shopping frustrating, depressing,
sometimes humiliating. Yet every season, we repeat the act that is necessary in order to replenish
our sagging wardrobes. This brings about unwanted ego challenges, like the fitting-room rituals
of trying to convince yourself that it’s not you but the cut of the garment, or squinting so as to prevent
seeing any new imperfections in the mirror.
Then there’s the added discomfort of traveling to certain parts of town
usually best avoided. The strip of 5th Ave. around Rockefeller Center, for instance. True, many
neighborhoods now feature the same cluster of these generic shops—5th Ave. in the teens;
Broadway in Soho—and these neighborhoods are slightly more tolerable than the St. Patrick’s
nexus, but we’ve found the carrot that draws us here, time and again.
Prime Burger is around the corner from Saks and has been there since 1938.
The interior is deliciously unpretentious, complete with wood-paneled everything from the last
re-decorative effort in the 1960s, and a varied and authentic clientele—from neatly dressed
older ladies who drink tea with tuna sandwiches, to regulars of a less-refined ilk. Every time we
run the gauntlet through Banana Republic and its brethren, we indulge in a hot, juicy cheeseburger
on a crispy bun and a simple dessert of cherry pie. Not only does it alleviate some of the shopping
stress, but our visits remind us that sometimes one must eat heartily—without fretting
over an increasing waistline and decreasing fashion options.
62 Thomas St. (betw. W. B’way & Church St.)
Tokyo quality, Tokyo prices. Japanese-cuisine guru du jour Koji
Imai’s string of 30 highly acclaimed restaurants laces his homeland. Megu (“blessing”) is his
first U.S. eatery, and it’s a showcase for Imai’s remarkable talents and dedication—and
for classy clientele who dine there.
Megu’s success is all about exquisite detail, with equal attention
paid to food and environment. Interior designer Yasumichi Morita’s setting is stage-like: The
huge boxy room with its enormously high ceiling and muted golden walls features a huge hanging temple
bell under which sits an almost man-sized ice sculpture of the Buddha on a dais over a square pool
filled with rose petals floating on clear water. As you walk down a grand central staircase, the
maitre d’s shout of Irasshoi (“welcome”) reverberates through the room, signaling a resounding
echo of Irasshoi from the waitstaff. In other words, it’s impossible to not make
an entrance at Megu.
Once seated, you’re presented with a four-page food menu with offerings
ranging from Tebasaki (salt or sweet soy-sauce-flavored free-range chicken wings, $5 each) to
Omakase (“From the Heart” tasting set, $80, $120 or $150 per person), with a wide range of choices
in between, including soups, sushi, sashimi, skewered meats and fish, and specialties categorized
as “gems,” “crown gems,” “jewels” and “crown jewels.” The menu’s last page provides a glossary.
A second menu, devoted to sake, lists 50 rice wines in 10 pages.
Selections are pricey, but Imai’s purism about top-quality, organic,
fresh ingredients is priceless. For instance, Megu guarantees that mackerel served as sushi ($6
per piece) was swimming in the waters off Hokkaido fewer than 27 hours ago, and sprinkles 250-million-year-old
salt over your Bincho tan charred morsels of prized Kobe beef filet mignon that’s skewered and flavored
with wasabi-soy, gempie miso, rikyu sesame-soy and garlic chips ($60 for four skewers). Fresh
edamame ($15) is served still attached to branches, which stand in a mound of ice that’s shaved over
tiny green and blue lights—the presentation looks like a snow scene in miniature.
Madai sashimi salad with sizzling sesame oil ($28) is a medley of tender
Japanese snapper with fresh sprouts and other vegetables, nuts and piquant sauce, and sampling
it will convince you that you must return to Megu—if not on a regular basis, then every once
in a while. After that year-end bonus comes in, for instance.
BEST CHEAP BEER
378 8th Ave. (29th St.), 212-736-7376
Cheap suds, normal duds. Chelsea isn’t known for the big drink discounts,
and it’s not so much difficult, as taboo, to order a beer in most bars, guaranteeing bartenders with
patronizing faces and pitying eyes. Most diners in Chelsea start their beers at $4.40, and ordering
in a restaurant means paying at least $5 for a bottle of Bud. There are a few rare exceptions, and Salumeria
Biellese is our favorite of the bunch.
A regular in our lunchtime-restaurant rotation, we visit the small
corner store weekly. We typically order the chicken parmesan or the baked ziti, choosing from the
warmer’s metal cafeteria trays, and a water or seltzer from the drink selection filling the wall
of refrigerators running the length of the counter. But, one day at lunch, we noticed the beverage
list for the first time. The prices shocked us. While Snapple and Cokes cost a slightly more than
reasonable 95¢, an impressive selection of beers could be had for as low as $1.25 for domestic,
or $1.75 for imported, topping out at a whopping $1.90 for Italian brews. The collection consists
of Stella, Becks, Amstel, Sam Adams, Michelob, Peroni, Heineken Dark, Corona and even non-alcoholic
O’Douls, instead of the cans of PBR we expected. Also, 12- and 16 oz. cans of Bud are listed as $1.25
and $1.50 respectively, but we recommend these only for the seasoned drinker, already familiar
with its fancy red and white tin.
Not much for ambiance, and consistently offering service that depends
on your rapport, Salumeria Biellese may not be as fancy as the rest of the bars in Chelsea, but with
beers this cheap, you’ll know you’ve discovered an alcohol holy grail in this ‘hood of velvet-rope
excess. We’re inspired to start drinking at lunch—and save!
BEST EASY-ON-THE-EYES FISH MONGER
UPTOWN: JAMES BYNUM AT ZABAR’S
2245 B’way (80th St.), 212-787-2000
DOWNTOWN: JOSHUA RUSS TUPPER AT RUSS AND DAUGHTERS
179 E. Houston St. (betw. Allen &
Orchard Sts.), 212-475-4880
Scaling up. When we make our infrequent but cherished outings to Zabar’s and Russ and
Daughters, two of the crown jewels in Manhattan’s smoked-fish trade, we’re usually looking for
a salmon fix, not hot guys. “Fish monger”—not the sexiest of job titles, is it? Not like, say,
“meat man” or “corrections officer.”
So how surprised were we when we found ourselves doe-eyed before two exceptional
men in uniform, doling out goodies from behind our favorite fish counters? Beating the vocational
if not the geographic odds, we were thrilled to find not only one hot fish guy uptown, but one downtown
too. They may not know our name, but we sure know theirs.
Behind the smoked-fish counter at Zabar’s, among the alluring delicacies—pickled
herring, smoked sturgeon, belly lox—stands James Bynum. When we first saw him more than
five years ago, we were stunned. Still a minion at the Zabar’s deli counter at the time, Bynum struck
us not only with his good looks, but with a certain air of danger that hung about him. Barking out numbers,
moving the line along with aggressive skill, he mesmerized us. We’ve seen him graduate from salami
to sable, and he seems to have mellowed with the Zen-like activity of fish slicing.
Downtown at a rival store, we were shocked to find a rival hottie. In many
ways, the contrast between Russ and Daughters and Zabar’s is stark. When we go to Zabar’s on a Saturday
afternoon, we’re poised to scrap. Customers are hostile and pushy, so aggressive you’d think they
were stocking a bomb shelter. Russ and Daughters, with its narrow storefront, white tiled floors,
carefully laid display windows with old-world delicacies like caviar and a rainbow of dried fruit,
inspires a bit more calm—if not decorum. What sent our adrenaline pumping wasn’t a pushy
old lady cutting us off at the cheese counter, but a certain Joshua Russ Tupper. It turns out that
this fourth-generation Russ left a career in chemical engineering to join the family business.
That’s heartwarming and all, but what gets us warm is his olive skin, lupine eyes, spanking-clean
white coat and the appealing swagger of a guy who knows his trade.
If Bynum’s the one we’d sneak out of our bedroom window to drink in the
woods with, Tupper’s the guy we’d bring home to mom. Though we’re embarrassed to admit it, when we
first saw him, we res