Thursday, May 12, 2011

Where to eat in New York right now

Whenever I head to New York, I always have more places on my wanna-eat list than I have meals in my day (or dollars in my wallet). After the James Beard Awards last weekend, my list of places I didn't get to include The Dutch, Annisa and Balthazar. But over a five-day visit, I managed to try several others:

Torrisi Italian Specialties, 250 Mulberry St. btw Prince and Spring streets, Little Italy; 212-965-0995. The first time I saw "Moonstruck," I thought, "That movie SMELLS good." You could practically taste the fried eggs with the red peppers and red wine being sloshed into glasses. It feels like that at Torrisi, where chefs Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbonne have created an homage to Italian grandmothers. During the day, it's a takeout food shop. At night, it morphs into a homey little restaurant with lace curtains, pressed-tin ceiling and Detroit soul cranking out of the sound system.

It's extra small, with only 18 seats and no reservations. The trick to getting in: Stop by when they open the list at 5:30 and put your name down, then go wander around and window shop.

That was my plan, anyway. But I got stuck circling JFK for an hour on Thursday afternoon because Air Force 1 was taking off. Then I got stuck on delayed trains during rush hour on the No. 6. I puffed up to the door at 5:45, ready to activate Plan B (Balthazar, just around the corner). I was in luck: There was one seat left for the 6 p.m. seating.

Torrisi at night features four courses for $50, plus wine or beer. The courses change nightly, according to whim, but they always follow the basic Italian lineup: Several antipasti, a pasta, an entree choice (Deviled Chicken or Skate Francese the night I was there) and a plate of cookies. By New York pricing, that's a very good deal.

Antipasti started with a ball of freshly made, warm mozzarella in olive oil with a little cream, squeaky fresh and tasting like spring grass. "Lombardi clam slice" brought a piece of charred pizza dough in an herbed broth with succulent, tiny clams; Cucumbers New Yorkese was a slices of sweet and sour cucumbers in various stages of pickling, like a homemade batch where you add more cucumbers every time you take some out. Pork fried rice was rice, peas and chunks of sausage topped with proscuitto -- the ultimate clean-the-refrigerator dish with the rice fried so it had crispy, caramelized bits.

The pasta was baby shells the size of your pinky with long strips of calamari and shaved pepperoni, cooked in a deeply flavored, rich marinara.

All of it was playful until we got to the skate Francese and it turned soulful: Crispy and brown on the outside, moaningly tender on the inside, in a lemon butter sauce that made me want to lick the plate.

After lingering over that plate of cookies, from the rainbow-colored almond cookies to the edgier celery sugar cookie (yes, celery, and yes, delicious), it was the kind of meal where you just want to wander the streets for a while and hum Italian arias.

Prune, 54 E. 1st St. btw 1st and 2nd avenues; 212-677-6221.
The only way to describe Gabrielle Hamilton's food is "personal." This a woman who put Triscuits and Sardines on her menu just because she likes them. I'd been once before, and was intrigued enough that I wanted to go again. And this is certainly the time to go: Hamilton's memoir, "Blood, Bones & Butter," is on the best-seller lists and she won Best Chef NYC on Monday night at the James Beard Awards.

Hamilton's restaurant also is tiny; call a couple of weeks in advance for a reservation or prepare to be out of luck. It's a well-worn place, with the feel of one of those French bistros that have been there forever. Prices are about standard -- most of the appetizers are in the $10 range, most of the entrees are in the $25 to $30 range.

The food is sort of French and sort of Italian and sort of just Hamilton. I was with my friends Debbie Moose and Andrea Weigl, so we started by splitting the Roasted Marrow Bones, three large bones served with parsley salad, a bowl of crispy salt and not enough toast -- we were reduced to eating the silky, fatty marrow by the spoon (not exactly a hardship).

Debbie's pork chop was massive and juicy, Andrea's roast chicken was herby and juicy, and my lamb blade chop was meltingly tender. But what we really loved were the side dishes, a lineup of fresh and seasonal: Dandelion greens, artichoke and fava beans, broccoli raab with trumpet mushrooms, and my favorite, a cold dish of Leeks in Vinaigrette topped with long, tender white shreds that turned out to be sieved hard-cooked egg.

We skipped dessert because . . .

Momofuku's Milk Bar, 251 E. 13th St., at 13th and 2nd Ave. (also Midtown at 15 W. 56th St. btw 5th and 6th Avenues). It was within walking distance of Prune and I've made a hobby of collecting Momofuku experiences. Noodle Bar's ramen rocked my world back before David Chang began his march toward restaurant-world domination, and I've been to Ssam a couple of times.

Milk Bar, across from Ssam, is desserts-only. Takeout desserts, in fact: You cram into the tiny space and make your pick from odd things like Cereal Milk (think Froot Loops covered with milk), cookies like Compost (chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, potato chips, pretzels and ground coffee -- seriously) and several kinds of pie, then scurry away with a serious amount of sugar in your bag.

What you really go for is Crack Pie, at $5.25 a slice. (Pricey, but like pushers every where, they can charge what they want). I've wanted to play with making Crack Pie for a while, and hopefully that will be a future blog post. But I wanted the real thing to have a base for comparison.

What is Crack Pie? For the crust, you bake oatmeal cookies, grind them up, press the crumbs in a pan and bake them. The filling is sort of like chess pie and sort of like buttermilk pie. The whole experience is what would happen if butter married sugar and went on a honeymoon.

Let me introduce you to a concept I call "food-drunk." That's when you eat something that's so overwhelming, your head spins and you feel like you need to lay down and put one foot on the floor. I've had it from a cheese tasting, and it always happens to me after barbecue contests, when all that fat floods my brain and glues the synapses shut.

Crack Pie made me sugar-drunk. Eat it where you have a place to lay down. And make sure you have a glass of milk.