Culinary Journeys Scott MacMillan goes on a gastronomic adventure in one of the world's great dining cities.
New York City, where the world meets to eat
Some time ago my friend Cia Bernales, a Philippine-born naturalised New Yorker who blogs about food at WritingWithMyMouthFull.com, posted a photo of something that looked like an oversized naan suffused with veins of blood. It was raw beaver tail, destined for the kitchen of the Gastronauts, the mobile club of New York adventure eaters to which she belongs. A six-course Gastronauts menu started with beaver flapper cracklings served with avocado and hot pickles, followed by rabbit terrine, frog leg fricassee, grilled elk steak and, finally, braised beaver tail - evidence that if it can't be found and consumed in New York, it probably shouldn't be.
I settled in New York in August following a two-year round-the-world journey, only to find that discovering the world's most interesting food - and we're not always talking about Michelin stars here - requires nothing more than a subway pass. Beaver tail is an example of what Curtiss Calleo, a Gastronauts co-founder, calls "eating off the deeper end of the menu".
I met Calleo at a US$70 (Dh257) prix fixe Gastronauts street food splurge where the club had convinced several of the city's more eclectic food trucks to serve experimental dishes like tongue tacos, sea snail and kimchi salads, chicken gizzard skewers and - yes, there's still hope for vegetarians - Bing Dang Taiwanese Truck's century egg and silken tofu.
"I think there has been and continues to be a food revival in New York that's been going on for the last 10 years," says Calleo. "It's a bit like what happened with coffee. Fifteen years ago, coffee was 'brown water', as the Europeans would call it. Now there's something of a coffee scene, and I think in the last few years, food has gone through something similar."
Call it a convergence of trends: straight-out "I dare you" adventure eating; a return to comfort foods and old recipes, with items like bone marrow or pane con milza, the Sicilian spleen sandwich; the organic and locavore craze; and the "nose-to-tail" movement that values the consumption of things that, as Calleo says, "taste good, they just sound awful, to make an unintentional pun".
Dining in New York, perhaps more so than elsewhere, is a social experience, the table a place for stories, in a city where nearly everybody has a good one - tales of love, requited or not, or exile, or who saw who where. Eating late-night Cantonese in Chinatown, there's former mayor Ed Koch, the only living man in New York with a major bridge named after him, unnoticed by the Chinese immigrants and 20-something residents around him. "I think we might be the only ones here that recognise him," my friend says. "Everybody else is either foreign or too young."
A favourite is Al Di La, a northern Italian trattoria in Park Slope, Brooklyn, known for its classy reintroduction of dishes once associated with Ellis Island immigrants and peasant fare from the old country. Based on Calleo's recommendation, I lunched here with a friend from Beirut who'd been visiting family in New York when a dressing room door fell upon her in a department store, causing a mild concussion. A paramedic advised her against boarding her flight the next day, then promptly asked her out; they are now dating.
Animal parts feature heavily on the menu at Al Di La - think tripe, liver, saltimbocca and hanger steaks. But meat-free options are more than just a token gesture, including, like so many places in New York, a profusion of beets, which are to the 2010s what sun-dried tomatoes were to the 1980s. I ordered sautéed wild mushrooms over braised greens and creamy polenta with a poached egg - and cleaned the bowl out. Mains here range from $12 (Dh44) to $24 (Dh88).
You don't have to follow the Brooklyn hipster circuit to eat well and affordably in New York, for there's hardly a neighbourhood without colourful eateries. Far uptown, I found El Presidente, a Dominican diner on Broadway and 165th Street, with red plastic tables, old-lady drapes and a reputation for cheap, solid fare. I came here to reconnect with a friend I'd met first in Lomé, Togo; again in Lusaka, Zambia and again in London. A veterinary student, she was attending meetings at Columbia University Medical Center related to her research, which consists largely of collecting the droppings of African chickens and testing them for various poultry diseases.
The speciality at El Presidente is, appropriately, chicken, with the waiter recommending the lunch special, half a roasted bird served with yellow rice. The "yellow" rice came as orange as, well, an orange - far too garish for tumeric or saffron. "It was good," I told the waiter. "But why is the rice so orange? It's called yellow rice, not orange rice."
"Yes, yellow rice," the waiter replied.
"No, seriously, what makes the rice so orange? I'd like to know."
He continued clearing the dishes without answering. "You want the check?" he asked.
"Yes, the check please, but can you do me a favour, and ask the chef what makes the rice so orange?"
He brought the check and laughed nervously when I asked the question a fourth time, as though I couldn't possibly be serious. I persisted. Finally he returned from the kitchen and proudly announced, "The chef says it is seasoning."
"Seasoning," I repeated.
"Yes, seasoning is what gives the rice its colour!" At least the Gastronauts know what they're eating. For what it's worth, I've since discovered that Latin American arroz con pollo often uses annatto, a yellow-orange extract of the achiote tree. The meal was good, in any case, and cost only $5.95 (Dh22).
Going further off-the-grid, I recalled Kyle Foster, a long-time expat in Yemen, and evenings spent in smoky dens in old Sanaa, his home. "You'll be close to one of my favourite restaurants in North America," he wrote after he'd found I'd moved to Brooklyn, naming an Atlantic Avenue taxi driver haunt that now goes by the name of Hadramout.
Yemeni food has long been a favourite, with its mix of Arab, African and Indian influences and flavours like fenugreek. Stepping into Hadramout is like entering a wormhole to a cheap eatery in the deepest part of the Arab world. There's no music, just a TV showing an Arabic serial to an all-male clientele; paint peels from the walls and a moth flutters around the light blubs as sweet tea arrives in Styrofoam cups. But the less-than-magical atmosphere belies a feast that includes haneeth ($13.95, Dh51) - slow-cooked, seasoned lamb, falling from the bone, served with flatbread and Yemen's all-purpose garlic-chilli relish called zhug or sahawig, depending on how you Anglicise it.
This was getting fun. Georgian, anyone? I wanted to avoid having to eat snouts and things, and the food of the former Soviet republic is famously vegetarian-friendly. New York's Georgian restaurants lie at the far end of Brooklyn's subway lines, in the Russian enclaves in and around Brighton Beach and Coney Island, the latter with its fabled roller-coaster and circus sideshows.
Before I could get out there, I found myself with a Soviet-born doctor whose parents fled a disintegrating USSR in the final months before the 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup. I began rattling off the names of Georgian restaurants I'd researched online, but she dismissed these with a shake of the head. "This might sound strange," she said. "New York doesn't actually have any really good Georgian restaurants. If you want good Georgian food, though, there's a bakery I know about."
Later, she took me to Brighton Beach's Georgian Bread, a hole in the wall where a clay-oven turns out khachapuri, Caucasia's answer to the cheese manakeesh - hand-held bliss, in other words. It also serves delectable dips like lobio, a hearty bean stew, or espanakhi, a salad of cooked spinach, walnuts and garlic. I'd never have found it on my own.
It sank in that exploring the city's food options would be a joyously never-ending task. Street food aficionados rave about the ball parks in Red Hook, Brooklyn, known for food trucks serving papusas, a Salvadoran street dish consisting of stuffed corn tortillas. Filled with meat or cheese and loroco, the edible bud of the vine Fernaldia pandurata, smothered with red chilli sauce and pink pickled cabbage, these land in the stomach like baseballs coming down from a pop fly.
Meanwhile, the best shawarmas are supposedly found farther south in Bay Ridge; the best collection of South Asian restaurants (including one Nepali joint, Mustang Thakali, serving better food than anything I found in Kathmandu) up in Jackson Heights, Queens, a neighbourhood with all the bangles and incense of India herself. For proper Senegalese thieboudienne, "rice and fish"in the Wolof language, head up to Le Petit Senegal around West 116th Street in Harlem. In my own neighbourhood of Crown Heights, they do it like they do in Ouagadougou, grilling meat on the street in oil drums split lengthwise, selling powdered fufu, the starchy mush of West Africa, in corner shops.
I found myself going back to known places, justifying it with the paradoxical reasoning that the way to truly eat adventurously in New York City is to content oneself with being unadventurous. Al Di La has yet to disappoint, though it might help that I order the same dishes every time, or close to it: the lemon-drenched kale salad, for instance, and Swiss chard gnocchi; or ravioli stuffed with either squash, corn or ricotta or - you guessed it - beets.