Why Come Here? Some of NYC’s best ramen
Continuing on my high-end ramen pilgrimage, my third stop was Totto Ramen. After Ippudo, Totto is probably the next most well known of the city’s ramen dens. Naturally this means you can expect to wait. I have heard two hours is the standard at dinner and the process is, well, unpleasant. Unlike Ippudo, they will not call you or text you when your table. They also will not provide you with anywhere to wait. Instead you are to write your name on a notepad mounted to the wall and wait outside until your name is called. I view it as a test to ensure that only true ramen lovers get their fill. Or those who go alone for a weekday lunch and wait ten minutes as I did.
In addition to the popularity, there’s another reason the waits are so long: the place is essentially a rabbit hole. We’re talking about an underground bunker with a counter seating 8 and maybe 10 tables for two. This is not where you bring a bunch of your buddies to chow down. You pick one lucky one and go. I sat at the counter which gives you a great view of the magic happening. Expect to see a lady blow-torching pork bellies and some giant bubbling caldrons containing noodles and stock.
As for the ramen itself, Totto uses a broth known as paitan. Paitan is a chicken bone broth that has some heft to it, but less so than the tonkotsu pork broth featured at Ippudo. The paitan broth is available in normal, spicy or extra spicy (with the addition of hot sesame oil) or with miso and ground pork. There’s a long list of toppings you can add ranging from additional meats to mushrooms to spicy bamboo shoots. The remainder of the limited menu consists of vegetarian and cold versions of the ramen and a handful of meaty sides. With all ramens under $12, it’s definitely the best value I’ve seen in the upper ramen echelon. Here’s what I had:
Totto Spicy Ramen The milky broth was salty with hints of chicken and a strong pepper flavor. The sesame oil added a bit of kick, but definitely didn’t overpower with spice. I like the heavy presence of scallions and that my mushroom topping was sliced lengthwise such that it could almost be confused with the noodles. The double helping of pork was an unexpected plus, especially at this price point. The noodles were on the slippery side but could have been a touch more al dente. If you’re into ramen, this needs to be on your hitlist.
366 West 52nd Street (8th & 9th Aves)
New York, NY
Note: If the wait is outrageous, there is a second location nearby at 464 West 51st Street.
Why Come Here? French classics rarely still seen in NYC, perfect for a meal with the family or a date
This June, Sel et Poivre will mark it’s 25th anniversary. It certainly doesn’t feel old, but it does represent something that’s become much more of an anomaly since it first opened it’s doors. It’s a traditional French bistro with a warmth that make you feel as if you eating a friend’s house in the countryside.
The entrance looks like something straight out of Paris with chestnut panels and large windows that open onto the street in warmer months. In the dining area, you’ll find walls adorned with dark wooden beams, antique sconces and black & white photos from family trips to Europe. There’s no funky lighting or music playing, just the sound of conversation. Classic and classy.
Now you may be concerned given this traditional setup and the fact they’re serving the food of the most pretentious country in the city’s most pretentious neighborhood that this is the type of place where people under sixty are made to feel unwelcome. While the crowd does skew older than most places downtown, Sel et Poivre is anything but stuffy. This is due in no small part to owner Christian Schienle, who charismatically works the tables and make everyone feel like a regular. His charm has clearly been a success not just in creating a loyal customer base (many of whom eat there at least once a week, including his landlord) but a loyal staff with such low turnover that the most recent hire was seven years ago.
As for the food, well there’s a reason the French are synonymous with fancy dining and these are guys are damn good at making it. My father, who lived in New York during the golden age of French dining, often bemoans the lack of places doing the classics well today. For those like him, Sel et Poivre serves up the likes of Frogs Legs a la Provencal, Duck l’orange and weekly specials like Coq au Vin. You find can find the whole list of specials here.
Those looking for something more modern (or less rich) will find the food is part of the “updated” bistro as well. I had some outstanding dishes including a celery root remoulade and wild striped bass with artichokes. The menu is sizeable and includes everything from fish to meat to offal ensuring everyone can find something to enjoy. In the fall, they also feature a wild game menu for several weeks. My calendar is already marked. Entrees are generally in the mid- to high- $20s with a three course prix-fixe available for lunch for $14 or $18 and dinner for $28.
So think of Sel et Poivre as somewhere between modern casual dining and the places your parents like. In fact it may be the perfect place to take them next time they’re in town. No need to wait though – it’s also great for a date or casual meal.
As I was here for a press dinner, I got to sample a number of items on the menu. My thoughts are below:
Celery Root Remoulade w/ Beets Prepared like a tart with curry flavored strips of celery topping fresh, tender chopped beets. The spice is nicely balanced by the refreshing slight sweetness of the beets. A great start to the meal.
Wild Striped Bass A meaty hunk of bass perfectly cooked with crisped skin under Mediterranean accents of olives, tomato and basil. As good as the fish was, the tender artichokes actually stole the show for me and I’m going to go on the record saying they were the best rendition I’ve had.
Aged New York Sirloin Sirloin is not usually the cut I go for, but this was a beautiful piece meat. Cooked medium rare, it was surprisingly tender with a great almost sweet flavor. Sauce options include a creamy au poivre with a nice fresh pepper taste and an equally rich Roquefort sauce that’s milder and not too heavy on the blue cheese flavor.
Veal Kidneys w/ Mustard Sauce I’m admittedly not generally a consumer of offal and this was my first foray into this particular organ so I don’t have much basis for comparison. These were firm without being tough and only a hint of that bite you often find in offal. While I’m not sure kidneys are my thing, I can tell you that the creamy slightly spicy mustard sauce was fantastic.
Sel et Poivre
853 Lexington Avenue (64th & 65th Sts.)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? Trendy neighborhood sushi spot, inventive dishes
Right Amount for 2: 2 apps, sushi tasting or 3-4 rolls
New York City teems with literally thousands of sushi restaurants, yet they can all be placed into three basic categories: your straight up delivery operation, the $100+-per-head-fish-flown-in-daily-from-Tokyo temple of fish, and the in-between spot you would actually go to with friends on a Thursday night (yes, there are also the sake bomb places but I’m not sure those qualify as “restaurants”). Momoya fills the top end of the middle tier serving fresh, affordable sushi in a setting cool enough to take a group of friends. If you’re in Chelsea or the Upper West, it’s the perfect neighborhood sushi spot.
The space feels like someone took a typical high-end sushi bar setup and decided to make it cool. The expected mix of white and teak wood walls remains, but the lights have been turned down to the “mood” setting, the floor plan is unusually open and floor-to-ceiling windows have been installed offering picturesque views of… Seventh Avenue. The staff is friendly and able to walk you through the various unusual menu options and sake list. On a recent Wednesday night, Momoya was pretty lively with a 30 minute wait for a table (they don’t accept reservations).
The menu has a good selection of fresh fish and some unique appetizers and rolls. You don’t see it online, but there is an entire page of specials with weirdly intriguing dishes such as edamame ricotta dumplings and eel with mashed potatoes. I could probably go back and fill up just on that page. But it would a shame to miss out on the fish, which is very high quality if not quite in the upper echelons. Below are my thoughts on what I’ve had:
Sushi Tasting A nice, diverse selection of 10 types of fish. The melt-in-your mouth toro belly, yellowtail with jalapeno and amber jack were personal favorites on our platter and warrant 3 stars. The slightly fishy mackerel and inclusion of shrimp take it down by a half. Overall a solid tasting and worth trying if you’re in an adventurous mood.
Nakamura Roll You get one signature roll with the tasting and we went with this. Between the yellowtail, tuna, salmon and spicy scallop it sounds like it has a lot going on (each piece is actually topped with either tuna or salmon, as you can see to the left). It all comes together nicely though, helped by the freshness of the fish and perfectly cooked rice.
Edamame Ricotta Dumplings Served in a white truffle oil, we found this too intriguing to resist. The dumpling skin is very delicate, allowing you to enjoy the flavor of the edamame and of course truffle oil.
185 Seventh Avenue (@ 21st St.)
New York, NY
427 Amsterdam Avenue (80th & 81st Sts.)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? A great bowl of ramen on the lighter side
Following my life-altering ramen experience at Ippudo, I have set out on a quest to explore the world of these high-end Japanese soup noodles. For my sophomore bowl I decided upon newcomer Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop. Why you may ask? Well let’s just say it’s gotten some impressive accolades. The Tokyo flagship – started by Long Island native Ivan Orkin – has taken the world’s ramen capital by storm. A that storm has blown across the Pacific with Ivan recently named one of the top 25 new US restaurants by GQ and best ramen in the city by New York Magazine. So yeah, that pretty much sums it up.
Before I get to the ramen – a little about the rest of the place. The space itself is more eating counter than restaurant and as such there’s not much to speak of in the way of decor. It’s basically an open commercial kitchen with a large metal dining counter. Sitting at one of the wooden communal tables throughout the the market is your other option. There is no waiter service or anything fancy like that, just a cashier to take your order and call out your name when it’s ready.
The menu is not actually limited to ramen, although it’s by no means expansive. Other options are basically a side salad, Mazeman – a thick brothed noodle dish – and a pair of rice bowls. There are no real appetizers to speak of. Combine that with the eating counter feel, and you realize it’s called a “slurp shop” for a reason. You sit, you slurp, you say sayonora. But hey, at least it means no 2 hour waits.
Okay on to the ramen. Comparing Ivan’s to my standard bearer Ippudo I would say they are… quite different. The major reason is the broth, which is significantly lighter due to the use of chicken and dashi instead of Ippudo’s pork. Ivan also uses rye noodles which are chewier and perhaps a little more flavorful. Overall it’s a more delicate and intricately flavored dish that’s very enjoyable but lacks the punch of the heartier Ippudo style. So while I highly recommend you give it a try, I think the “best ramen in the city” accolades have had more to do with the ingenuity than the taste. Ippudo remains my king, but I’ll certainly keep Ivan in the rotation for when I want something on the lighter side.
Tokyo Shio Ramen As I said, it lacks the punch of Ippudo, but still manages an enjoyable garlicky-salty flavor. I really enjoyed the chewy rye noodles, although while the pork belly was melt in your mouth good, I expected more than 2 square inches of it (you can get more for $2). Go in knowing you’re getting a bowl of lighter soup rather than a rich, hangover curing gut bomb and you won’t be disappointed.
Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop
Gotham West Market
600 Eleventh Avenue (44th & 45th Sts)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? NYC’s best mole sauces, authentic Mexican small town feel
Right Amount for 2: 1 App, 2 Entrees
Mexican restaurants in NYC tend to fall into two categories: the hole-in-the-wall taqueria and the upcale “Modern Mexican.” While I certainly enjoy frequenting both of these concepts, what’s missing is the neighborhood place that does the traditional dishes right. Or so I thought until I was invited to a press dinner at El Maguey y La Tuna. Although it’s been open for over 20 years (many of those in Williamsburg before it was cool), it somehow has managed to remain under the food world’s radar. With its collection of incredible mole sauces and small town Mexico vibe, it’s time for that to change.
El Maguey is a Cortez family affair with mama and papa in the kitchen and daughter Maria working the front of the house and doing her best to make you feel like you’re part of the family as well. They’ve created an ambiance that has everything you need to feel transported to their hometown of Puebla including tiled walls and tables, old family photos and terra cotta plates. Combine that with some fantastic salsa music and you’ve got a great spot for eating and drinking the night away.
When it comes to the food, the mole sauces are the star. If you’ve never been impressed with the moles you’ve eaten in NYC, I can understand your lack of enthusiasm. But these are the real deal. Manuela (Maria’s mother) learned to make these sauces from her mother and is the only person I know of in NYC using the labor intensive traditional methods. This includes her mole poblano, a “celebration mole” usually only seen at a wedding or quincinera (been to many recently?) which literally takes days to make properly. The complex flavors that result are well worth the wait, but fortunately you can have yours in a matter of minutes. There are several simpler moles on the menu as well that may take less time to make but still manage to pack grande flavor. If you ask nicely, you may even get to sample a few. A similar care goes into the sangria, which uses fermented fruits (and other secret ingredients Maria wouldn’t share) for a unique and delicious taste. Below is a rundown of what we ate:
Mole Poblano I pity the fool who has only eaten this at Americanized restaurants. The real mole poblano here contains over 20 spices, takes 2 days to make and the combination of sweet and spice is as rich and complex as any sauce I’ve eaten. Do yourself a favor and try the real thing here.
Banana Pinata A banana empanada with freshly mashed sweet bananas, chocolate sauce and a creamy neapolitan ice cream with pistachio replacing the usual chocolate. It’s cool and refreshing without being too sweet and makes a great palate cleanser after the rich and spicy moles.
El Maguey y La Tuna
321 East Houston Street (Attorney & Ridge Sts.)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? You’ve got a hankering for a solid grilled cheese sandwich
Living in Chelsea, the options for good delivery/take out comfort food are limited and the Melt Shop has become one my staples. The space is best described as farmhouse meets old meets 1970s kitchen with one half wood-paneled and the other painted bright yellow with a blackboard on it. If you think about it hard enough, they both evoke cheese in their own way. Maybe. There are a few tables inside and a few more in an adjacent plaza outside, but for the most part this is a takeout / delivery operation.
Tired, sick, or hungover I’ve now made my way through most of the menu. And overall I have to say Melt Shop is a very good grilled cheese sandwich spot. All of the ingredients are high quality, especially the cheeses and the bread which is perfectly grilled without being burned. However most of their sandwiches are an element a way from being great. Some are a little skimpy on the fillings while others could use a sauce or vegetable to add some freshness or tanginess. Until then feel free to hit it up when you’re in the mood for some good comfort food, just don’t expect to have your mind blown. I have generally preferred the non-meat sandwiches over the meat ones and below are my top picks:
The Dirty For the spicy lover, you get jalapenos and pepper jack cheese with the always appreciated addition of potato chips. Unfortunatley the pressing of the sandwiches takes some of the crunch out of the chips, but it’s kick makes it enjoyable nevertheless.
Truffle Melt I’m surprised they don’t call it the one-percenter, as the combo of arugula, truffle oil and havarti seems completely out of place on what is otherwise an everyman’s menu. It feels more like something you would eat on a flatbread than a grilled cheese sandwich, but that’s not an insult. It’s a good sandwich.
Smokehouse Turkey The combination of gruyere, smoked bacon, turkey and bbq sauce is an intriguing one. Yet while the gruyere and sweet/tangy bbq sauce were winners, there should be at least three times as much turkey on this thing.
55 West 26th Street (6th Ave & B’way)
New York, NY
Note: The Melt Shop also has locations at 135 West 50th Street and 601 Lexington Avenue with some variation in the menu. I have not been to either of these locations.
Why Come Here? NYC’s best thin crust pizza, BYOB
When you read reviews of Lucali, they are often half about how the author killed their hour and a half wait at a local bar or drinking on the quiet streets of Carroll Gardens. In that sense, I feel un-entitled to properly review the Lucali experience. Coming on an icy Monday evening, there was no wait and the restaurant wasn’t even full. The quiet atmosphere, rustic decor and fact it was heated to about 80 degrees made us feel as if we were dining in someone’s Italian farmhouse instead of what is normally a teeming pizzeria. And we really wished it has been a farmhouse where we could have retired upstairs, because making the trip back to Manhattan stuffed and freezing was the only way to put a damper on the evening.
Also contrary to some reviews, we found the service to be friendly and generally phenomenal. When I hadn’t finished all of my crust (some pieces had about half an inch worth), our waitress brought over some marinara sauce with parmigiana cheese to dip it in. Naturally, those remaining end morsels didn’t last long. Bonus: it’s BYOB. Un-bonus: it’s cash only.
The menu at Lucali consists of exactly two options: pizza and calzone. Naturally, we tried both. Here are my thoughts:
Pizza Pie The pizza lives up to it’s billing as one of New York’s best. If thin crust is your game, it may be your favorite. It’s cracker thin, with the perfect crisp and char. Other toppings (including fresh basil and garlic) are appropriately applied to make sure you can taste everything on it’s own. It’s the type of pizza where once you take a bite you realize you’re four pieces deep with no memory of how you got there. Yup, blackout inducingly good.
Calzone It’s a good calzone and I would order marinara sauce that you dip it in as a drink if it weren’t for “society.” But I’m not a huge ricotta fan and this puppy is loaded with it. If you’re a ricotta-holic, this may be your jam. For me, I’ll be sticking to the ‘za.
Why Come Here? See how good ramen can be
Ramen might be the hottest dish in NYC right now, and I don’t just mean when it comes fresh out of the kitchen. Authentic Japanese imports and late night bowls are popping up all over town with waits in the hours to slurp a bowl of broth noodles. I have to admit, until recently I couldn’t understand what all the commotion was about. I had nothing against ramen per se, but for me it was still a 59 cent college penny saver meal and the few versions I has tried around the city did little to allay that feeling. Therefore the multi hour wait for a $14 bowl at ramen flagbearer Ippudo long had not appealed to me. But as a food blogger in New York, I felt an obligation to check it out. And now that I have, the mystery of Ramenmania has been revealed.
Ippudo, a popular ramen chain in Japan, ignited the current ramen craze when it first opened its doors in New York five years ago. Despite it’s age and the arrival of numerous competitors, the restaurant has only gotten more popular. Whereas one hour hour waits were once the norm, you can now expect to have 2.5 hours to kill between arrival and seating. Fortunately, the staff will take your number and text you when your time has come, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the East Village’s numerous drinking establishments (Continental – home of the infamous 5 shots for $10 – is just around the corner…)
Once you are seated you’ll see that the back dining area is not as large as the bar area up front may have led you to believe, which is part of the reason you waited so long. That said, they do a great job of packing in the slurpophiles with most seating at either communal tables or a counter. While sharing a table with four strangers can be a recipe for an awkward meal of flying elbows and TMI, the careful spacing of seats generally makes this a non-issue at Ippudo. The decor is so perfect I can’t imagine a ramen shop any other way: moderately lit with Japanese characters and empty ramen bowls perched on the walls, trees flowing from the middle of tables, an open kitchen and dried noodles inside the bar.
When it comes to the food, your first decision upon reaching a table will of course be which ramen to order. If you’re a ramen rookie as I was, I suggest opting for one of the two most popular: the Askamaru Modern and the Shiromaru Hakata (and get the extra pork option). Keep in mind they have a system called “kae-dama” where if you eat all your noodles, you can get a whole new ball dropped in for a mere $2. So plan accordingly when slurping your broth. Yet despite the fact the ramen is what brought you here, don’t forget to start out with some of their killer apps (you’re probably starving by now anyway). Some of the city’s best pork buns and sishitos await and would be a shame to miss out. My rundown of what I’ve tried is below:
Pork Buns Because pork is the one thing you can’t have too much of at any given meal, these meaty, tender buns in soft, semi-sweet buns are a must order. They are serious contenders for the city’s best and if you’ve only had them at Momofuku, you definitely need to give these a try.
65 Fourth Avenue (9th & 10th Sts.)
New York, NY
Note: There is another larger location at 321 West 51st Street that purportedly has the same food and shorter waits.
Why Come Here? Tantalizing “New Creole” creations, a tasty and affordable meal in an area severely lacking both, long happy hour, great private party space
Located on a side street in the foodie dead zone between the UN and Irish Pub District of Second Avenue in the 40s/50s, it’s easy to see how Masq has flown under the food world’s radar since opening early last year. However, this New Orleans themed restaurant/lounge has a lot going for it. With innovative Creole inspired dishes, friendly service, and a design that evokes New Orleans without being over-the-top Mardi Gras, this place deserves a lot more buzz than it’s getting.
Occupying the first floor of a town home, Masq is divided into four medium sized rooms each of which is perfect for a different type of occasion. First up are your “grab a drink and a bite areas.” Upon entering into the bar area, you’re greeted by a white oak, horseshoe-shaped bar topped with Christmas lights, big screen TVs and a Happy Hour that goes until 8. Adjacent but maintaining the casual feel is the white wood-walled lounge, which is filled with Mardi Gras masks, Persian rugs and paintings you’d expect to find in the French Quarter like the Mona Lisa in a Venetian mask. For a more intimate meal, the main dining area evokes a dinner party at a Garden District mansion complete with mood lighting, vintage tables and chairs and a mural that looks straight out of The Garden of Good and Evil. There’s also a small stage where that hosts live music on Thursday nights. The final is room is a curtained off private party area known as the “Red Room” and resembles the parlor of a grand Victorian home complete with plush reddish-purple furniture and antique mirrors.
When it comes to food, the words “lounge” and “New Orleans inspired” generally evoke images of good times more than good eats. But Masq breaks the mold here as well, serving what I’m dubbing “New Creole” cuisine that is worthy of a try by both lovers of NOLA style cooking and good food in general. Think Mac ‘n Cheese croquettes in a spicy remoulade, “Cajun” dumplings with andouille sausage and the chef’s signature jambalaya tempered with a helping of goat cheese. They have some solid non-Creole options as well should you have some friends that can’t take the heat. Prices are very reasonable with most entrees under $20, wines under $40 and a $10.95 lunch prix-fixe that includes a 1/2 sandwich, soup or salad and alcoholic beverage. I was invited for a press tasting and got to sample quite a few items. Below are my top picks.
Jambalaya It’s tough to find a good jambalaya in New York, but this is actually the best I’ve had anywhere. Everything is fresh and the cajun chicken and andouille sausage add a great kick that is tempered by the addition of goat cheese. A definite must try if you’re a jambalaya or spicy food fan.
Mac ‘N Cheese Croquettes As if the the name doesn’t sound intriguing enough, these bad boys are also filled with bacon and jalapenos and come in a spicy remoulade. These belong on your table whether you’re here for a full meal or just a drink at the bar.
Asian Marinated Salmon Cooked salmon can be hit-or-miss, but this is a solid piece of fish well balanced by the tangy-sweet honey soy marinade. It’s not a creole dish in any way, but if you’re looking for something lighter after overloading on croquettes, this’ll do the trick.
Sabayon [not tried] I was unable to try this due to the egg yolk, but the rest of the table swooned over this custardy French-Italian classic served with fresh berries in a martini glass.
Masq Restaurant & Lounge
306 East 49th Street (1st & 2nd Aves)
New York, NY
Why Come Here? Unique, healthy Indian spiced sandwiches that are vegan friendly
If the term “vegan sandwiches” conjures up images tofurkey and meatless “meatballs” and sends you running in the opposite direction, you’re not alone. As a carnivore, I have 0.0% interest in replacing perfectly delicious meats with lesser soy-based versions with kitchy names. I do however love me some good, fresh veggies. Fortunately, the folks at Bombay Sandwich Co appear to feel the same.
After a successful run at Smorgasburg, Bombay Sandwich Co. recently opened a brick-and-mortar location, with about as little brick-and-mortar as I’ve ever seen. The customer space is seven feet wide by about 25 feet long in which they’ve managed to jam a small counter for about ten people to eat. Not surprisingly, things get pretty tight at the lunch rush, but fortunately it’s connected to a plaza where you’ll be able to sit in warmer months. In the meantime, the cozy confines will at least keep you warm, as will the friendliness of owner and cashier Shiv who seems to be on a mission to learn all his customers names. Good luck to you sir.
As I mentioned, the food is primarily vegan although two dishes do contain actual milk-of-a-cow mozzarella cheese. And as the name implies, there in an Indian bent to the food. But don’t come here expecting anything you’ve seen on the streets of Mumbai. The sandwiches here for the most part contain chutneys and some Indian spices, but are otherwise unique creations using local and seasonal ingredients like squash, kale and fennel. The menu is also not limited to sandwiches, but also offers wraps, bowls and salads for those watching their carb intake. So far I’ve tried several of their sandwiches and found them all tasty and satisfying. My recommendations are below and I’ll update the page as I continue to work my way through the menu.
Honey-Fennel Grilled Cheese One of two non-vegan options it’s also probably the heartiest sandwich on the menu, making it perfect for these chilly days. It’s a nice combination of sweet, spicy and tangy.
Smorgasburg Sweet Potato The sandwich that started it all has a smorgasbord of toppings including including dried cranberries, cilantro, ginger and chutney. Needless to say, it’s an explosion of different flavors that airs a little on the sweeter side.
Bombay Sandwich Co.
48 West 27th Street (6th Ave & B’way)
New York, NY