Breaking bread

I was lying in my DC hotel room last week, eating cold Whole Foods macaroni and cheese (it is my firm opinion that mac and cheese is good in any format, at any time of day) when an ad came on the TV commanding me to, ”Put down that phone! Order take out without ever having to talk to another human being.” I was taken aback. Since when has the ability to obtain and consume food without having to speak to another soul become the goal? It struck me how far we have come from food’s roots as a community binder, as a way to share meal and connect with friends and family. In a world of selfie sticks, google maps, and food delivery apps, we seems to have all but done away with the need to talk to anyone else, to ask them to take our picture, give directions, or share a meal.

I took the train from DC to New York for the weekend to see friends and wander the city. Rather than pack our day with sightseeing, we ate our way through Manhattan (and Queens!). 

Chul and I headed out in the morning and wandered through the Inwood farmers market, marveling at frozen heads of kale, overpriced sunchokes, and built-in January refrigeration. I bought a crisp heirloom apple, well, crisp on the outside because its skin was nearly frozen, but almost mushy on the inside. We stopped in at Darling Coffee to start the day of eating with savory pastries and hot coffee (for Chul, I ordered steamed milk to more than a little heckling). Chul’s wife Claire joined us and we ordered a New York bagel. There’s really nothing even remotely like it on the West coast. Assuring her I was full (not the first time I would erroneously make this claim over the course of the day) I’d just try a bite, I said. She generously encouraged me to keep eating until I’d polished off half the everything bagel covered in melty cream cheese. 

We took the A line down to Chelsea Market, a foodie mecca geared at the tourist crowd who is increasingly developing a taste for all things gustatory. Throngs of people noshed on whole lobster tails, selected over-priced bulk spices, ogled at fresh donuts, flavored olive oils, and local dairy stalls serving ice cream in January. We joined the pack, making our way past restaurant stalls, grocery stores, and spending an extended period of time in an independent kitchen store where we debated which piece of kitchen specialty equipment is the most useless (Votes were cast for crank-operated cheese graters and metal artichoke steamers).

Wandering back out onto the sun-soaked sub-freezing streets, we headed south and passed Magnolia Bakery - made famous by Sex and the City episodes and widely considered to be the epicenter of the recent cupcake craze. Surprisingly there was no line, so we picked up a snack of red velvet and vanilla cupcakes, each topped with a perfect swirl of frosting. This whole cupcake thing is wearing on me - too sweet and too boring. What will be the next dessert craze, Claire and I wondered aloud. Donuts?

As we walked, we continued forecasting 2015's coming food trends: continued fascination with fermentation? Hybrid foods and hybrid vegetables - the next Cronut? Kalettes? The popularity of broth (we tried to go to Brodo but it was closed) and the next hot chef restaurant (we tried to go to Prune but it was packed). The rise of single theme restaurants (pudding, meat balls, biscuits, potatoes, you get the idea).

As if on cue, we walked past Oatmeals and stopped in just to look at the menu. I’m not sure any other city has the foodie bandwidth to support restaurants that sell only one item, but if they did oatmeal for all times of the day is a great idea: savory bowls like Truffle RisOATto with shaved parmesan, truffle oil, sea salt & cracked black pepper lined the menu.

Claire led the way to Bleecker Street Pizza. I was nowhere close to hungry, but it’s “the best pizza in New York” so we split a slice. The walls are lined with poorly-lit photos of all the famous customers who have crammed into the 3-table corner restaurant to try the city's best pie. 

Next was Murray’s Cheese Shop, a New York institution and homage to fromage. If only I lived in Manhattan, this would be my go-to stop for host’s hors d'oeuvres or picnic supplies. Since triple cream brie doesn’t travel very well, I opted to spend $40 on artisan chocolate bars, included Brooklyn-based Mast Brother’s Sea Salt and Madagascar 72%.

At a final afternoon pitstop, Claire and I shared a vegan salted chocolate chip cookie made by Ovenly but sold by Stumptown Coffee - a little piece of Portland in the middle of Greenwich Village. The blonde, chocolate-laden cookie was heavy with sweet chips and so chewy that there was no time to miss the butter or eggs.  Armed with a macchiato in a mini-hand-stamped cup, it was time to catch the subway and journey out to Flushing. 

Flushing main street is the end of the line, and as we crept closer, the train rising out of the underground to reveal the almost-setting sun and miles of flat housing rooftops, more and more people stepped off until the almost-empty train came to its final stop. Just a 30 minute train ride from Manhattan but a world away, Flushing is a predominately Korean neighborhood with a heavy Chinese presence. Claire and I were notably white, and Chul was spoken to in languages he didn’t understand.  We ate lamb dumplings with green squash in a tiny basement food court packed with stalls. Claire and I discussed how one even begins to eat chicken feet. Do you crunch the bones and toe nails? Chew on the fat? Suck on the whole thing? It will remain a mystery as we couldn’t muster up the guts to order any. The dumplings were steaming hot, 50 cents a piece sold by the dozen, and drowned in the combination of minced garlic, chili oil, soy sauce and puckery vinegar. 

We moved on to another basement food court - this one much fancier - that bustled with weekend shoppers warming up from the cold on a bowl of ramen noodles, giant vats of hot pot, and steamed bao and dumplings. After wandering the perimeter reading every menu (my favorite: Beautiful Memory Desserts) Chul finally located a scallion pancake that we pulled doughy bites off of and soaked them in more vinegar before popping them in our mouths, just barely cool enough to swallow. 

Finally, it was on to Biang!, “the place white people go” my friend Joe later informed me. It stands out of place, exposed brick walls and bare light bulbs with smooth tables, trendy decor, and a pulsing R&B soundtrack. It’s the American son’s answer to his traditional father’s long-standing food stall. I had barely any room left, but persevered to slurp up cold hand pulled noodles (biang is the sound noodles make when they hit the table before being stretched long and thin and tossed into boiling water). The lamb burgers were pungent of cumin and just spicy enough while the cold skin noodles started to clear my sinuses. 

At the end of our final food foray, I glanced across the Biang! dining room to spot four teenage boys sharing a table and big white bowls of noodles. One sported a grey sweatshirt with a life-sized print of a Rottweiler face attacking passersby from the front of his shirt. They all sat sound the table, sharing a meal, faces buried deep in the glowing lights of their smartphones. Even when surrounded by friends, I guess some people have just grown too accustomed to eating alone. 

Addresses of places mentioned:

Darling Coffee (Inwood)
4961 Broadway
New York, NY 10034

Chelsea Market (Chelsea)
75 9th Avenue
New York, NY 10011
(212) 652-2110

Magnolia Bakery (West Village)
401 Bleecker Street
New York, NY 10014
(212) 462-2572

Bleecker Street Pizza (West Village)
69 7th Avenue South
New York, NY 10014
(212) 924-4466

Oatmeals (Greenwich Village)
120 West 3rd Street
New York, NY 10012
(646) 360-3570

Murray’s Cheese Shop (Greenwich Village)
254 Bleeker St.
New York, NY 10014

Stumptown Coffee (Greenwich Village)
30 West 8th Street
New York, NY
(347) 414-7802

Tianjin Dumpings (Flushing)
(in Golden Shopping Mall)
1-18 Main St
Flushing, NY 11355

New World Mall Food Court (Flushing)
136-20 Roosevelt Ave
Flushing, NY 11354

Biang! (Flushing)
41-10 Main Street
Flushing, NY 11355
(718) 888-7713

Places we tried to go but were closed/full:

Brodo (East Village)
200 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10009

Prune (East Village)
54 East 1st Street 
New York, NY 10003
(212) 677-6221

*Please excuse the crappy iPhone photos - this post was an afterthought to a fabulous day of eating.