Thursday, August 9, 2007

A Food Tour of New York

I just got back from New York City, a place I visit first largely for the food. I don't have hundreds of dollars to spend at Per Se or Nobu, mind you. I just love that whatever you're in the mood for, you can find a restaurant that makes it, and makes it well. Sushi, Italian, sandwiches, hot dogs, cupcakes...the list is endless.

Vanessa, my willing dining partner, and I made it our mission to find cheap eats that deserve high marks for value (meaning the restaurant could charge more, but it doesn't.) We did quite well on our mission. Following is a peek at our love affair with inexpensive New York dining.

thursday night
Republic in Union Square is a place I discovered when I lived in the city for a summer. I try to go back every time I visit for the fresh, inexpensive Asian food. We shared some small dishes — salmon sashimi salad (my all-time favorite...raw salmon, cucumbers in a spicy mustard dressing), fried wontons (perfectly crisp), and veggie dumplings (full of a delicious assortment of Asian veggies). We also washed them down with Republic's delcious summery cocktails (a tequila mojito for me, Asian sangria for Vanessa). Delcious and under $20 a person. Not bad!

For lunch, we had a hankering for good Cuban, so we braved the close quarters of Cafe Habana in the west village. Small and tight, Vanessa tells me the space is where they filmed the Lenny Kravitz video for Again. It's tiny, but the food was incredibly good. Grilled corn on the cob with lime, chili powder and creamy cheese and a hot, crisp Cuban sandwich, stuffed with tender roast pork, ham and melty Swiss cheese. About $10 a person.

As a snack, we just had to try the California-based celeb-favorite, Pinkberry. Frozen yogurt (actual yogurt, frozen, not at all ice cream like) with fresh fruit (I got raspberries) is a great snack on 100-degree days. It was fresh and delicious, and yes, total swirly goodness.

Our dinner spot was also housed in a teensy space, but the food was worth every elbow bump. 'Ino, a charming neighborhood place also in the west village, serves a dizzying array of panini, tramezzini (small, cold sandwiches) and seasonal bruschetta. I went a little crazy for all the options, and ordered two pieces of bruschetta (they were only $2) — one with pea puree and pecorino, and one with white anchovies topped with arugula oil. Heavenly. Followed by a panini with bresaola (like prosciutto, but beef), asparagus and pecorino, and a glass of dry Italian rosato, it was a great meal. And it only set me back about $22.

It's only just begun...

For a great burger, look no farther than the super-casual, shoebox-sized (I'm just now noticing the trend of tiny spaces and great food) Burger Joint inside the otherwise very fancy-shmance Le Parker Meridien Hotel in midtown. With just 3 food items on the menu (hamburger, cheeseburger, fries), it's simple and fabulous. The burgers are perfectly cooked to order and the fries were crisp and hot. Yum.

After our carnivorous lunch, we stopped by th Union Square Greenmarket, which is one of my favorite things to do in New York. We stopped and sampled peaches, fresh currants, sweet cherry tomatoes and the most incredible blueberries I've ever tasted. The samples, of course, were free. I also got a cup of ice-cold mint tea sweetened with maple syrup for $2. Fabulous.

Dinner brought us back to the west village for some thai food at Galanga. While good and inexpensive, it was nothing to write home about. (Or to blog about, for that matter.)

Any New Yorker will tell you that Sunday brunch is as much a part of New York culture as taking the subway. We Southern girls were craving a good bowl of grits and some cornbread, so we ambled over to Great Jones street downtown to the (also tiny) Great Jones Cafe. The brunch menu features simple, straightforward breakfast classics like huevos rancheros (what I got), pancakes and biscuits and gravy. The Southern-style side items were actually delicious, even though were were made in Yankee territory. $12 for brunch is a steal in this city.

Snacktime rolled around, and after a long day of train riding and a visit to Brooklyn, I knew just the place. I have an unnatural obsession with buttercream frosting, and only one place in the world makes it exactly how I like it. Made famous by an appearance in Sex and the City, the Magnolia Bakery in the west village makes the best cupcakes in the world. The crumbly yet moist cake and mounds of buttercream frosting are otherworldly, in my opinion. The confections couldn't be simpler, and yet people wait in half-hour-long lines just to grab a few. At $2 a piece, it's simply ridiculous to get only one. It's also ridiculous to consider eating more than one at a time, so save the second (and third...and fourth...) for later.

Dinner was at a delightful, cozy spot on the upper west side called Kefi. This place serves authentic Greek cuisine at fabulous prices (think under $20 for a fish entree — and on the UWS no less). Vanessa, who recently visited Greece with her family, and I decided to share some of the mezze (small plates), because they just looked too good to pass up. I am a salt fiend, so the warm feta with olives, capers and anchovies seemed like it was made just for me. Served with warm pita, it was a perfect, salty start. Vanessa's Greek salad was piled high with fresh veggies, tons of olives and big caper berries. Big, tender meatballs in a spiced tomato sauce and grilled octopus were the main event for us. Vanessa said the octopus was better than that she had in Greece, and I was inclined to believe her. It was tender, seasoned perfectly and just delicious. I could have eaten all eight tentacles, but had to settle for one. Even with a glass of crisp Greek white wine, tax and tip, I still made it out spending less than $30.

After a long, humid walk in Central Park (and a Beyonce sighting...), I headed straight for one of my very favorite New York spots — Gray's Papaya. If you're of the 'if I've had one hot dog, I've had them all' school of thought, you've obviously never been to Gray's Papaya. Now, these aren't fancy or gourmet. In fact, they're just the opposite. The place is small, kitschy and bright and you have to stand to eat, but the skinny dogs are cooked on a super-hot griddle so that the skins snap when you bite into them. The buns are warm and crisp and the whole package is sublime. The tropical drinks are housed in aluminum coolers, and I always get the namesake Papaya. It's frothy and sweet and faintly reminiscent of fresh Papaya, but it's just the "so-bad-it's-good" way to complete the meal. Two dogs and a drink sets you back only $3.50. I can't think of a more perfect New York lunch.

Back on the upper west side for dinner, my friend and UWS summer resident, Davey took me to Josie's, which serves healthy food like organic produce, eco-friendly seafood and free-range meat, poultry and eggs. We both got fish, and my organically raised, hand-farmed salmon was prepared perfectly with sweet potatoes and mango salsa.

I heart New York.

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