Kenji's NYC Bucket List: What I'll Miss Most
In case you didn't know it, I'm leaving New York at the end of this month, quite possibly for good. I've lived here for nearly my entire life. After finishing high school in the city, I shipped off to Boston for a decade of schooling and working before heading back here four and a half years ago. It's been a great run, and frankly, I'm not sure what I'm going to do when I head out west. What if I realize that the sun setting over the other side of the ocean screws with my circadian rhythms? How will I ever trade in my beloved briny Atlantic oysters for those oddly creamy metallic-tasting Pacific ones? What will I do when a late night hot dog from Gray's gets replaced with a late night taco?
Frankly, I think I'll manage. I may even enjoy myself in San Francisco.
But before I leave, I need to get a few bites in. These picks aren't my take on the best restaurants in the city. They aren't my picks for the best things I've eaten this year or even the best things I've visited in my life. What they are, however, is a good representation of the restaurants I'll miss most. Some have offered mind-blowing and mind-expanding eating experiences. Others are my go-tos for specific needs. Still others have just been good friends over the years. These are the places that have been about more than just the food for me.
It's a short list, because I felt I'd rather write a bit more about the most important ones than shorter entires about every place I wanted to include. Restaurants that didn't quite make the cut? Oh, there are too many to count. Gray's Papaya will always hold a special place in my gut. Columbia Bagels up on 110th street closed years ago, but Absolute Bagels is a fine replacement. I love that the sushi master at Shabu Shabu 70 gets dressed up in a bunny suit for my birthday and I can't get enough of the sea urchin and crab pasta at Marea. I've had some excellent slices of pizza at Patsy's over the years (the original Harlem location, not the knockoffs that pepper the rest of the city), and... yeah. Too many more to think about here.
I'm not even sure that those places don't deserve a spot on this list, but here we go, for what it's worth.
#1: Cantonese-Style Seafood from Phoenix Garden
I can't say that Phoenix Garden, with its slightly-too-gloppy sauces, dingy tables, and mildly rude waitstaff serves the best or even the most authentic Cantonese cuisine in New York, but my oh my, how it's fed me and my family over the years. When we first moved to New York in 1983 it was located in the Elizabeth Street mall. We'd wait on line for an hour or more under the glow of greenish-blue fluorescent lights shining through a dim, greasy haze just to get a taste of its crisp and juicy salt and pepper shrimp, served in their crunchy shells, piled high with fresh garlic and chilies. There is still no shrimp in the world that can touch Phoenix Garden's in its heyday.
That haze, incidentally, is no doubt due to years of poorly maintained ventilation hoods, which eventually led to the fire that forced them to close. For years we resorted to driving across the George Washington to hit their New Jersey counterpart, Phoenix Garden II. I'm still clear on whether the man who ran the Jersey branch was really the identical twin of the New York branch operator or if it was all just a prank, but either way, their dry-fried chow fun and clams in black bean sauce had just as much wok hei as ever.
They're now in their third location on 40th and 2nd. Not exactly where you'd expect to find great Chinese food, and indeed, they've had their shares of ups and downs. For a good half decade, those shrimp I love were coming out greasy and flaccid, the crispy roasted squab not as crispy as it once was. But I'm happy to report that they're back in the swing of things now. It's hard to find better Chinese seafood at this price point (the BYOB element also helps cushion the blow to your wallet).
Soft shell crabs, deep fried until crisp are a staple during the summer. Order the hot peppers stuffed with shrimp paste, but be careful: most of the peppers are mild, though every once in a while you hit a real scorcher. Eating them is like a game of Russian roulette. Their lobster with ginger & scallions is what my recipe aspires to be, they know how to steam a whole flounder until it is custard-tender, and they do some pretty great stuff with simple stir-fried snow pea leaves.
My wife, who loves dumplings of all kinds, once ordered pan-fried guo tie. My family turned to her, a little surprised. "I don't think they serve dumplings here," said my sister. It turns out they do (though not very good ones), but the kind of stuff that Phoenix specializes in is so far removed from the typical New York takeout menu that it never even occurred to us. There are 231 items on the menu, and not a single one of them has the words "General Tso's" in the title. And no, they don't serve fortune cookies.
#2: A Square Slice from Prince Street Pizza
There are certain questions that every New Yorker should be ready to answer. "Which way is Times Square?" It's that way, and I'd consider taking a walk through Central Park to calm your nerves after. "Is my Metrocard broken?" No, you just need to swipe it at precisely .236 meters per second for it to work, let me show you. "Can I get my bagel toasted?" Only if you want to ruin one of the greatest foods known to man. And of course, "What's your favorite slice of pizza in the city?"
That question used to be pretty easy for me to answer. I grew up eating pizza in one of three places. The first was Pizza Town on Broadway up near Columbia. It doesn't exist anymore, but it was a typical New York slice joint that served regular pies, garlic knots (five for a dollar), and had a big Wings poster on the wall (that's the band, not chicken). Greasy, with a nice, well-charred crust.
The second was V&T Pizzeria in Morningside Heights. It's a full-pie, sit-down, red-sauce Italian joint, complete with plastic checked tablecloth and chicken parm. It was great for kids (OMG CHEESE), but it falls squarely into the good-bad pizza category.
The third was Sacco pizza over on 54th and 9th, perhaps the most formative pizzeria of my pizza-obsessed life. It wasn't because the pizza is particularly great, though the pies are slung with high quality ingredients and care, but it's more about the time I spent there, shooting the shit with the pie-men, playing a bit (or a lot) of Street Fighter II, burning my arm on the oven, and washing down slices with the bright red fruit punch dispensed by the bubblers up front—a hallmark of a good classic New York slice joint.
Ask me that same question today, and you get my answer before the last word has even left your lips: Prince Street Pizza's Spicy Spring.
When Ralph Cuomo, owner of the very first Ray's Pizza in New York* passed away in 2008, there was worry that the original Prince Street location would either drop in quality or close entirely. Luckily, the new owners have not just kept up the tradition, they've improved on it. The Spicy Spring is a Sicilian-style slice topped with a spicy tomato sauce, house-made fresh mozzarella, and natural casing pepperoni, the kind that curls up into crisp grease chalices. But it's the dough that seals it. Light and pliant, with a crisp crust that fries in its pan like the world's best focaccia.
The triangle might be the classic New York look, but this square is the only pizza I've had here that I wake up in the middle of the night dreaming about.
#3: Pizza from Motorino and Paulie Gee's
Please don't make me pick. Being forced to pick between Paulie Gee's and Motorino is some serious Sophie's Choice-level torture. The crisply charred, nutty brown Brussels sprouts leaves with smoked pancetta at Motorino was an instant classic; the first pie that ever made me think that there could be a flavor combination as pure and delicious as mozzarella, tomato, and basil.
Motorino is where I go when I have friends in town and I want to show them how good pizza can be. It's an inexpensive meal with a rowdy, New York vibe, and easy entertaining options once dinner is done.
But then Paulie Gee comes around and shows me that pizza doesn't have to be strictly New York or strictly Neapolitan to be delicious. Paulie's pies are a style unto themselves. It's a bold move for a first-time restaurant owner and pie-man who left a corporate job to follow his dream, bringing his whole family along with him. Everyone who dines at Paulie's feels like a member of the family, but it's especially meaningful to me, having watched his journey from the backyard to the big-time. These are pizzas with heart and soul.
#4: Gnudi and a Burger from The Spotted Pig
How many times in your life do you put something in your mouth and go literally speechless not because your mouth is now full of something and it's rude to talk with your mouth full, but because your brain goes into such a sensory overload of OH-MY-GOD-WHAT-IS-THIS-IN-MY-MOUTH-AND-HOW-CAN-IT-TASTE-SO-GOOD-THE-UNIVERSE-IS-UNRAVELING-AND-HAVE-I-GONE-CRAZY that it can't possibly process any other information?
Yeah, that doesn't happen to me too often either, but it did happen the first time I bit into one of April Bloomfield's ricotta gnudi at her West Village institution The Spotted Pig, and felt the warm, tender, sheep's milk ricotta burst out of its paper-thin pasta shell, a drizzle of browned butter, sage, and mounted butter the only other ingredients that share the plate.
I often stop into the Spotted Pig for a quick Sazerac on a quiet weeknight, or perhaps a pint of beer on a Sunday afternoon (the only time of the week that there are empty seats downstairs!), and inevitably, I end up ordering a plate of the gnudi. Sometimes I'll throw a deviled egg in there too, and if I'm feeling really flush, I'll sneak one of their incredible char-grilled burgers topped with Roquefort with a massive pile of rosemary garlic shoestrings in there as well.
#5: A Shack Burger from the Original Shake Shack
Sure, you can get a Shake Shack burger in an ever-increasing number of cities these days (I even saw one in Istanbul!), but there's something about waiting on that outdoor line at their original Madison Square Park when the weather is nice, you're chatting with your line-neighbors, and watching the dogs play that makes the 20 minute wait for that juicy, smashed burger completely enjoyable.
It's also the nicest place in the city to eat a burger: In the open air with a cold beer as you toss some
crinkle cut soon-to-be fresh-cut fries to the fat squirrels who hang around the 'Shack begging like a panhandler who's found his golden street corner.
That the burger happens to be the platonic ideal of a fast food burger—high quality beef, balanced toppings, and a Martin's potato roll—is just the icing on the cake.
This is the burger that inspired me to start my experiments in ultra-smashed burgers, and made me want to open the restaurant that eventually became Harlem Shake. Incidentally, you can also make your own Shack Burger with this recipe.
#6: Cocktails and Appetizers from the Lounge at Le Bernardin
I'm not really a fancy-pants kinda guy, but when me and my lady get dressed up (which for her means actually dressed up and for me means putting my belt on one notch tighter and wearing shoes that require socks), it's a safe bet to assume we're headed to the lounge at Le Bernardin.
There's no knocking the main dining room, mind you, with their impeccably fresh and "barely touched" seafood menu, but I vastly prefer the casualness of the lounge where you're free to graze on a good selection of small plates (like this kampachi tartare with wasabi tobikko and ginger-coriander emulsion), the cocktails are great (and pricy), and you get free popcorn and Japanese crackers to boot. Added bonus: if you want, you can order off the regular dining room menu without the need for a reservation (or a jacket!).
Any time my wife and I have something to celebrate, you'll find us here.
#7: A Full Meal at Perilla
Perilla isn't the fanciest or showiest restaurant in town, but it's the epitome of a great neighborhood restaurant. Everyone's gotta have their date night spot. The kind of place where the food is reliably excellent (but not heavy), refined but not snooty, and the glasses and bottles of wine are reasonable enough to order on a weeknight.
Full disclosure: over the years I've gotten pretty tight with Chef Harold Dieterle, so when I head there now, I really am stepping into my friend's joint, but this is the kind of place where you feel welcome even when it's your first time walking through the door, and that's a special feeling, especially in New York.
That and the duck meatballs are fantastic.