Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tonight, We Dine!

Like most starving artists, I am not privy to the beauty of dining out every evening…except when TM and TF come to town. They enjoy good food, the experience of dining out, and having me along for the ride. So once every couple of months my nights are filled with sumptuous foods from all over New York. This trip, these are the places we’ve had the pleasure (and not-so-pleasure) of taking in.

Nancy Lee’s Pig Heaven
1540 2nd Avenue, Upper East Side

Nancy Lee’s is a Chinese restaurant on the Upper East Side, decorated on the outside with a sprinkling of alfresco seating and red paper lanterns. On the inside, it is pink pink pink and decorated with pigs pigs pigs, in reverence of the menu item for which it is best known—pig. In fact, it appears on the menu in the form of “Hot Pig,” “Cold Pig,” “Hot No Pig,” and “Cold No Pig,” among others. Of the most famous items for which Nancy Lee’s is known, however, are the spareribs, featured on the Travel Channel’s Food Paradise series in their Ribs episode. A connoisseur of spareribs, TF had written down Nancy Lee’s on his to-do list after TM saw it on television. I am not an active sparerib worshipper myself, mostly because I don’t like to get my hands dirty (how bourgeois, I know), but I am certainly open-minded when it comes to food. Away to Nancy Lee’s we went.

The spareribs arrived, thick strips of meaty bones reddish black and crispy, almost candied, with barbeque sauce. So far they were better than the standard sparerib fare I had seen, mere bones with a scrape or two of meat that must be gently gnawed loose with the front teeth. But these you could really bite, and bite we did. Each mouthful was sweet but not too sweet and perfectly savory. I don’t remember ever enjoying spareribs before. And TF, the rib connoisseur, was floating away on a rib-flavored cloud. After one bite, he looked at TM and I as if to say “My goose is cooked. These ribs have my heart and they’re never giving it back.” Though married to TF for 25 years, TM was quite a fan of the ribs herself and happily agreed to share him. Thankfully, though, I am not married and won’t have to split my love between the ribs and anyone else. I will doubtless be returning to Nancy Lee’s in the future.

Ed’s Lobster Bar
222 Lafayette Street, SoHo

Because the SoHo/NoLita overlap is one of my favorite places in the city, I was always walking past Ed’s Lobster Bar, a small white and yellow storefront with a bright red lobster logo, never really able to go in. At the behest of TF and TM, though, I was finally able to go this week. Done up nautically but intelligently, with white wood-paneled walls, booths and porthole-like mirrors, we made our way through the narrow restaurant and took our seats. As there are only lobster and seafood items on the menu, I plied myself with the aforementioned crustacean in the form of a lobster bisque appetizer and a lobster roll entrĂ©e. The bisque arrived, thick but not too thick, with just the perfect balance of lobster and sherry. It was accompanied by two small but mighty lobster ravioli floating in the soup, packed with shredded lobster. I swore to myself if I didn’t walk out with claws it would be a miracle. I happily made my way through the soup, leaving only the bowl, the dish, and the spoon behind. The lobster rolls were next, filled with thick chunks of tender lobster that practically overflowed from their sweet, butter-lined hot dog roll nest. The meat was dense but the roll was soft and somehow the combination melted in my mouth. Each bite of the roll was fresh, sweet magic. Though my budget does not often permit such dining, perhaps on a day when I am celebrating something wonderful or just on a day when I want to eat a fabulous lobster roll, I will be back.

Beauty and Essex
146 Essex Street, Lower East Side

I originally wanted to eat here because I thought it was cool that the restaurant had a pawn shop front, but I soon realized that would be one of the few things I liked about it. I thought the cool, grungy pawn shop vibe would be reflected in the restaurant, but I was mistaken. Filled with people who go to be seen, not necessarily to eat, the restaurant had a pretentious atmosphere that was just not for me. I had delicious merguez rigatoni, but wouldn’t eat there again unless I could get take out.

80 Spring Street, SoHo

I remember always hearing wonderful things about Balthazar until I was talking about the restaurant with MA as we walked through the East Village. I wondered aloud what it was like and a grumpy man walked past us and said, “Overrated.” I was disappointed to hear it, and I wondered how that could be true—it’s been so well-reviewed over and over. I finally got a chance to see for myself, though.

A well-crafted French Bistro in the heart of SoHo, upon first glance Balthazar conjures visions of an aged French brasserie, with splotchy, darkened mirrors, red leather booths, and white tablecloths. Tables are packed tightly together but still intimate. A wait without a reservation runs about an hour and a half on weeknights, probably even more on the weekends. I booked our reservation about a week in advance, just for good measure.

The food could have easily been traditional French, but what’s nice about the menu is that it takes a thoughtful spin on the classics, sometimes by adding global influences (chorizo, grits!) to their offerings. Highlights from our dinner in particular include French Onion Soup, Duck Shepherd’s Pie, and Profiteroles. Most French Onion Soups I’ve had are savory, but this soup was slightly sweet, and had a Vidalia onion flavor amplified by a creamy gruyere. TF ordered Duck Shepherd’s Pie which I decided upon tasting I would very much like to take intravenously. Tender, savory shredded duck mingled with creamy, almost puree-like potatoes, a single forkful of it melting in my mouth. Out of sheer politeness I had to stop myself from licking the plate. And then the profiteroles. Because Balthazar makes all of their own pastries (in fact, many restaurants across New York feature breads and pastries from Balthazar), I knew they would be even more delicious than they might have been normally. The profiteroles arrived, vanilla ice cream sandwiched by flaky pastry. The waiter poured warm chocolate over them. I sliced into them with the side of my fork, mashing the ice cream into the pastry a little bit more, and tasted the concoction. It was spongy and flaky, sweetly cooled by the vanilla ice cream. After each bite I felt the need to close my eyes and chew, turning my attention only to the chocolaty, pastry-y, creamy, vanilla-y parade happening in my mouth. That is what dining is supposed to be like.