The annual James Beard Awards in New York typically extend over a long weekend, starting with a journalism and book awards dinner on Friday night and culminating with the gala chef and restaurant awards on Monday.
That time frame gives the visiting hordes of food obsessives time to check out the latest and greatest in New York dining. My friend Bill Addison secured hard-to-get reservations, went up early and undertook an ambitious dining schedule, lunch and dinner, including an epic 5-hour meal at Del Posto — the city’s grandest Italian restaurant.
Me, I basically chilled and spent a lot of time wandering around with family and friends and seeing where fate and hunger deposited me. One night that meant a crappy-delicious slice of pizza around the corner from my hotel.
I did make one food pilgrimage that I’ve always wanted to do — a trip to Flushing, Queens, to explore the farthest-flung of the city’s three Chinatowns. It’s an easy subway ride on the 7 train that you can pick up at Grand Central Station and ride to the last stop, about 30-40 minutes away, just past the new Mets stadium.
If you don’t have a guide book, the overground ride gives you time to pull up information on your cellphone. There are a lot of walking tours and nuggets of “don’t miss” advice on the internet. They’re useful, but that also means that you’ll be following a well-worn path and your food exploration will feel like a treasure hunt for dumplings and noodles. The whole thing seems akin to a foodie “Amazing Race.” Every time you arrive at a food stall the vendors know exactly what dish you’ll order from a menu listing 100 or more items and seem to be waiting for you.
While walking along Main Street I saw a sign for a food court and ducked down a short flight of stairs to an underground warren of stalls with precious little English signage. Imagine a cramped, underground setting of counters and card tables, with cooks sitting cheek to jowl with patrons and stuffing dumplings. It is noisy with slurping, dishes clinking, and the thwack-thwack-thwack of people hand pulling noodles and slapping the dough mass on the tabletops.
I espy this particularly appetizing plate of liang pi (”cold skin”) noodles above, and so I duck into Xi’an Famous Foods, a stall that is much beloved by Anthony Bourdain and explorers. In fact, this Northern Chinese food stall has enjoyed such success that it has opened three satellite branches, including one in Manhattan’s East Village.
The noodles (which I remember fondly from a trip to Xi’an 25 years ago) are made from wheat and come plain or (as above) green with unnamed vegetable. They’re chewy, springy and come with the most amazingly balanced spicy/tart/just slightly sweet/not too salty sauce and cubes of wheat gluten that soak it up. I also tried the famous lamb burger — a crusty bun split and stuffed with heady-with-cumin braised lamb.
I also poked my nose into a small dumpling shop called White Bear that was away from busy Main St. I tried to order some dumplings, but the woman in behind the counter told me in very halting English that I was ordering the wrong dumplings, and that what I really wanted were the red oil wontons — handmade, slippery, tender — pictured above. Google White Bear, and you will find scores of pictures of this dish. Not a discovery, but great.
I also had a really nice dinner at Sakagura, one of my favorite Japanese restaurants in New York. Just a couple blocks from Grand Central Station, this great sake-drinking venue is in the basement of an office building. The entrance is so unprepossessing, that the elegance of the interior comes as a surprise. You choose from scores of sakes by the glass, carafe, bottle or masu (traditional overflowing wooden box, served in a bowl) and choose small plates. I really loved a bowl of iced raw vegetable sticks served with a “fermented bonito intestine” sauce that was not as freaky as it sounds but rather a creamy umami bomb that was so good we asked to keep it to season other dishes after the veggies were gone. This marinated cod gindara (above) was a highlight.
I did do a little trendy eating. My sister and I wandered around the Flatiron District for a while and got hungry, right as we were passing by ABC Kitchen — the Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant inside the ABC Carpet & Home store that was just named best new restaurant in American at the James Beard Awards. It’s a really beautiful restaurant that just perfectly expresses that organic/industrial/natural/washed-out-colors aesthetic, and the menu gives off a righteous, health-food vibe. Our brunch was a mixed bag. Loved our fresh juices but balked at the $12 price tag. Loved this salad (above) with hot roasted carrots, cool avocado, seeds, greens, sprouts and an ingenious blop of creamy cheese, and a loved a slab of toast thickly spread with ramp butter. But we didn’t much care for cured salmon over a cold, leathery potato cake nor an upscale riff on kasha varnishkes with handmade pasta, meatballs, buckwheat and a sticky sauce of caramelized onions and meat stock.
Another day I stopped in Kin Shop in the West Village, the Thai-ish restaurant from chefs Harold Dieterle and Alicia Nosenzo — the team behind Perilla nearby. I was curious about it because as much I love Thai flavors, I’m not a fan of overly decorous Thai restaurants. Here, Thai flavors provide the flavor engine for a thoughtful bistro that I’d like to get to know better. I very much enjoyed the duck larb (above), a fun upgrade from the usual chicken, though I did miss the raw cabbage that usually accompanies this dish. I think the grassy flavor and angular texture of a raw cabbage wedge adds a lot of dimension. I liked it better than a noodle soup with mushrooms and a rubbery poached duck egg served to the brim of a way-stylin’ bowl that afforded none of the steamy slurpiness of a more typical Asian noodle soup.
Also had a little gotcha moment from sitting by the kitchen counter. I noticed a cook unwrapping frozen roti flatbreads from a package, though the restaurant insists they’re homemade. But still, it’s an intriguing spot.