DINING IN NEW YORK CITY: MORE THAN JUST A MEAL
by Jill Koenig, PassPorter Guest Columnist
For the past several years, I have been meeting two friends from England in New York City for a girls' weekend. We spend our days shopping and sightseeing, but the main reason that we choose New York City as our meeting spot is to relish in the unique and varied food offerings of this great city.
After a quick subway ride, we strolled down a practically empty West Village street anticipating a long and leisurely lunch. The only other people sharing the street with us were two men who were slightly ahead of us. In our quest for lunch, we soon passed them. At that point, one of my British friends recognized the men as Sir Paul McCartney and his driver. She lives in a village nearby to Sir Paul, and has friends who know his driver, so the two Brits felt comfortable introducing themselves. The three of us from South Carolina stood politely to the side not wanting to rush him with fans, but we were close enough to feel his Beatles aura.
When they had said their goodbyes, they rejoined us. At first we were all speechless, but then we turned into five giggling and chattering teenage girls. By the time that we were seated in Florent, we were practically giddy. A bottle of white wine was immediately ordered to toast our greatest celebrity sighting ever soon followed by a delicious lunch of mussels and pommes frites (French fries). What a fantastic way to start our trip!
That evening, we stopped for a drink at one of our favorite places -- The View atop the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. The View is a rotating restaurant and lounge that gives you the most amazing nighttime view of the city (and the elevator ride to the top is an event in itself). You are literally in the midst of Manhattan's skyscrapers and you almost feel as if you could reach out and touch one of the buildings sparkling with lights. One of my friends from South Carolina had never been to New York City, so we wanted to give her the full effect of this dazzling city at night. The drinks are expensive at The View, but they are also strong so one drink should carry you through one full rotation of the lounge. The cocktail napkins are even imprinted with the names and locations of the skyscrapers that you pass, so you have a wonderful souvenir to take with you.
The same friend who had never been to New York City also wanted a real deli pastrami sandwich so our choice for dinner was Carnegie Deli. We were seated in a back room where the walls were covered with photos of celebrities (some more famous than others) and the tables were adorned with bowls of complimentary whole dill pickles. Our server was a most engaging gentleman who told us that he was also studying to be a chiropractic assistant. Throughout the meal, he went around to each of us and cracked our necks. It may have been one of the oddest dining experiences of my life. After eating a gigantic and delicious egg salad sandwich with fried onions, I left Carnegie Deli with a full stomach and a relaxed neck.
We pride ourselves on going to "out of the ordinary" spots that may not be on every tourist's itinerary. On this cold and blustery March morning, we took a train through Brooklyn to Coney Island. All of the rides and attractions were closed for the winter, but we had fun just walking on the beach and down the boardwalk taking in what this place must be like in the heat of summer. One of the few places that were open was Nathan's, the original hot dog stand that hosts the hot dog eating contest every July 4th. We stood in line with businessmen and construction workers to order from the vast menu. Coney Island may have been dead at this time of year, but Nathan's was hopping. Hot dogs are not one of my favorite foods, so I ordered a shrimp basket instead. Everyone else in my party gave the hot dogs two thumbs up.
Before heading back into Manhattan, we made a stop in Brooklyn for a mid-afternoon snack at the original Junior's (386 Flatbush Avenue Extension at Dekalb Avenue). We were escorted to our table past a delectable dessert case and through what seemed like half a city block of tables. Everything about this restaurant was huge; the menu, the portions and the restaurant itself! After perusing the list of cheesecakes, I finally decided on the carrot cake cheesecake and literally gasped when it was placed it front of me. It consisted of a layer of carrot cake topped by a layer of cheesecake and then topped off with another layer of carrot cake. This creation was then frosted with a delicious cream cheese icing. Junior's knows its cheesecakes!
One of our guilty pleasures in New York City is known simply as "the place with the chili pepper lights" among our group. Since we had newbies with us, we knew that we had to initiate them into the surreal world of Milon (93 1st Ave., between 5th and 6th Streets). The cuisine is Indian, but the experience is out of this world. The restaurant itself is tiny. I am pretty certain that I would come close to touching both sides of the restaurant if I stood in the middle with my arms outstretched. Tables are lined up on either side of the restaurant and patrons are packed in like sardines, so it's not a place for someone with claustrophobia. The real magic of this restaurant is the hundreds of chili pepper lights and Christmas ornaments that hang from the ceiling and wrap you in a warm red cocoon throughout your meal.
In the past, I have enjoyed several wonderful meals, but this year my selection was not my best. I love cauliflower, so when I spotted a dish on the menu highlighting this vegetable I was sold. It was just okay, but I certainly didn't go hungry after our appetizers of vegetable samosas and naan bread served with chutney. My table mates also were more than willing to share dishes such as tikka masala with chicken in a tomato cream sauce and a red snapper that was marinated in a perfect blend of spices.
The piece de resistance of our evening is when we designate one person among our party to be the birthday girl. The birthday girl this year was the person who volunteered to run down to the wine store to buy two bottles of wine for us (they do not sell alcohol at Milon but will happily open it and serve it for you). At the end of our meal, she knew something was amiss when everyone at the table could not stop smiling. When the lights started flashing, the Indian music began playing and everyone in the room began clapping, she knew something was up. When a dish of mango ice cream with a candle in it was placed in front of her, we had to confess to her that she was our honorary birthday girl of the evening. You just cannot go to Milon without hearing the birthday song -- even if you do have to tell a white lie. When you receive you check at the end of your meal, you almost have to question if you are still in New York City. It is one of the more inexpensive meals that you will find in this pricey city.
Another repeat destination for us every year is Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill (102 Fifth Ave.). We all have a slight crush on the redhead from Food Network fame, so it's fun to visit one of his restaurants. The atmosphere immediately puts you in a festive frame of mind. The large and airy dining room features a beautiful wooden bar on one side and warm, southwestern colors on the walls. Our favorite meal here is brunch, so we were seated at our round table in the middle of the restaurant at high noon. As you would imagine at a Southwestern-themed restaurant, the margaritas are a must. They combine the perfect marriage of sweet and tart with that extra kick of tequila. After we placed our obligatory margarita order, a bread basket filled with blue cornbread and pastries was placed in the middle of our table. I could have made a meal on these alone, but I knew what awaited me with an appetizer and an entree. I started with a barbecue pork quesadilla that combined the smoky sweetness of barbecue with a smooth Oaxaca cheese and crispy tortillas. For my entree, I had grilled mahi mahi with a roasted pineapple chile sauce. The food simply bursts with flavor. Every mouthful is a different experience. Mesa Grill is a bright and bold experience - - from the decor to the fresh flavors of the food, you will not be disappointed.
Believe it or not, the Mesa Grill was not our only fine dining experience that day. The South Carolina contingent had a special evening planned at the James Beard House (167 W. 12th St.). Coincidentally, one of our local chefs from Columbia, South Carolina was experiencing what must have been the highlight of his career that evening. He had been selected to cook a southern extravaganza at the James Beard House. James Beard was a renowned food writer and chef who left his home as a showplace to cultivate new chefs. Preparing a meal for members of the society is a great honor, so we called it fate and made reservations. The evening was a culinary tribute to the South. We were wined and dined with wines for each course and a menu that consisted of fried green tomatoes, she crab soup, shrimp and grits, quail, and a pecan tart to finish. Half of the fun that evening was hearing the comments from our New York City table mates as they tasted shrimp and grits and collards. They were truly impressed and we were proud to call ourselves South Carolinians that night.
Pastis (9 9th Avenue) was our destination for brunch the next day. This restaurant is set in the style of a French cafe - it's loud, busy, bursting with people, and full of energy. Pastis is also great for people watching because it is also a hangout for celebrities. In the past, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Hillary Swank had been spotted. Today, however, the food and drink were the only stars that we managed to see. Since it was brunch, we all started with a champagne cocktail. We ordered a basket of breads and pastries to start and then we each ordered an entree. I chose a baked pasta dish which served as the perfect comfort food on a cold and blustery day while the rest of my companions ordered egg dishes. As soon as we stepped back outside into the cold day, we spotted our celebrity. Danny Aiello (of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Cher's Moonstruck fame) was shooting a commercial across the street. We stood for a while watching take after take before we continued on satisfied that we got to see at least one celebrity!
Dining for us in New York City is not just about the food - - it's about the entire experience. Nothing makes me happier than to sit around a table with friends talking and laughing over good food and drink. Those are the memories that keep us coming back to New York City year and year.
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