Thursday, October 18, 2012

Borscht Friends

On the days when I can think of nothing to do and despise the idea of sitting in my apartment, I walk around. Sometimes all the way across Central Park, sometimes all across lower Manhattan, but always with no one particular venue in mind. It's days and nights like these when I make some of the best discoveries, too.

This past Sunday, I found myself frequenting some of my regular haunts (McNally Jackson on Prince Street, where I sat and drank a steamed milk with honey while perusing a stack of magazines I had previously never heard of) and began itch with sameness. You know, that itch where you simply cannot bear to do the things you always do and must do something different now.

So I wound my way from SoHo up through the East Village--which, granted, is not at all out of the box for me, but I was looking for something in particular. This something was food, but it had to cost less than ten dollars, and it had to be yummy, and it had to be open after 9pm on a Sunday. Come to think of it, the last part shouldn't have been too difficult because, come on, it's New York! But I'm on 2nd Avenue because 3rd turns into that "there's no possible good food in this area" no-man's land near Cooper Square/the Astor Place stop for the 6 train (there's a McDonald's nearby). I considered Pommes Frites, but decided it was too heavy for right now, and I wasn't in a junk food mood. And then I saw a little green awning floundering in the light Autumn breeze, and I remembered: ohhhhh, that place!

B&H is a tiny little nothing of a restaurant, as some of my favorite places are. I had remembered reading about it in New York magazine when I was looking for cheap but yummy (or at least consistent) restaurants to take friends who were visiting. For whatever reason, I never actually got in the door. But it was perfect for right now. The little, seafoam green space may have been a hallway for something at some point, it's so slim. It has a lunch counter, the wonderful old kind with the leather-topped, chrome stools stuck right into the floor; next to it are some two-person tables with one four-person table in the back. I sidle up to the counter and peer around at the laminated signs printed on neon paper: SPECIAL MACARONI AND CHEESE WITH SOUP $10 and KNISH: SPINACH, KASHA, POTATO. Near the ceiling, a black slate with those tack-on letters tells me some more of the restaurant's offerings. It is all vegetarian and kosher, two things I do not actively seek in a restaurant but am also not one to dismiss. The place serves Jewish soul food, and on that oddly warm-ish fall night, my Jew(ish) soul was craving a cold soup, preferably a borscht. For my goyim friends, this is a beet soup served with sour cream. And maybe a knish. "How much for a knish?" I asked the clearly not-Jewish gentleman behind the counter in a white apron. "Eh, if you get the borscht I give you knish and borscht for only $8 since you don't want the bread," he responds with a Spanish accent. But I wasn't that hungry, so I just stuck with the soup.

My bowl arrived, a plain white porcelain one with the fuchsia soup dripping over the side onto a plate. It was plonked down in front of me with a spoon. This particular borscht featured beet slivers, cream, dill and probably even some sugar since it was rather sweet. Each little spoonful was accompanied by a swipe of sour cream and made for a perfect little dinner on the go, for only $5. Wonderfully enough, everything on the menu is under $10, from blintzes to bagels to omelets. Sure, B&H may not look like much when you first walk in, but it's been there over 60 years so it's certainly doing something right. As I sat and ate my soup, I felt for a moment I was locked in the 1950s: a single gal at a lunch counter in the big city, the world at her feet. I could easily overdose on nostalgia, or I could just be excited by the fact that it's actually 50 years later and everything else is still true.

127 Second Ave., near St. Mark's Place
(no website)