The Weekend that Was
May 5, 2014
James Beard Award weekend in New York is always exhilarating and exhausting. Endless parties lasting late into the night. Chefs filling up every restaurant. Too much food. Too much wine. I love it.
But the highlight of my weekend was a stroll around the lower east side, visiting my favorite food places with a group of new friends. We began at Katz's – of course – and some of their tender, spicy, irresistible pastrami. Just walking into that enormous room packed with raucous people makes me insanely happy. The walls throb with that intense scent of smoke, salt, pepper, garlic, spices and then, somewhere, like a reverberating backnote, the richness of beef.
Afterward we went down the street to Russ and Daughters, where we ate – what else? – some herring, while Niki Russ Federman told great stories about growing up in the shop she now runs.
Then it was on to Deluxe Foods, a fantastic Chinese market where we feasted on
roast duck and the most delicious roasted pork belly. Not to mention tendon, with its wonderful texture, and scallion chicken so soft and silky it literally melted in our mouths. We ended with their spectacular just-made char shiu.
where we drank wine and ate spectacular cheeses for a very long time. A new discovery for me: Camembert di Bufala – a rich, runny cheese that seemed less like its namesake and much more like the infinitely more delicious Epoisses.
By then it was late, and dark, and I said good-bye to the group and walked up the street to Estella, where almost every table was occupied by someone who'd come to town for the Beard awards. (Restaurant people included Nick Kokonas (Alinea), Daniel Patterson (Coi), and Sean Brock (Husk, etc).
We were all there because the food is so impressive. Fascinating flavor combinations and very precise and careful cooking. My pictures, I'm sorry to say, are terrible: this mussel escabeche is the best of the lot, which tells you something. This seemed more like a panzanella made with mussels than a true escabeche, but it was wonderful.
So was beef tartare, studded with crisp little bits of pungent sunchoke, and kampachi tartare popping with tart tiny squares of apple and singing with yuzu. There was a wonderfully musky aroz negro, dense with squid ink, and this celery salad, dotted with mint and cave-aged cheese:
and these lamb ribs scented with charmoula:
Lovely food. Lovely evening.
On Sunday, more food people gathered for a friends and family brunch at the new Russ and Daughters Cafe. It's a lovely place, respectful of its origins, lovingly put together (note the marble floors, the poppyseed wallpaper in the bathroom, the comfortable stools). The counter in front looks a innocent as an old-fashioned soda fountain, but it actually functions more like a bar where elaborate drinks are carefully concocted. This cherry shrub was shot through with hints of pepper:
The food is also very respectful of history. Lots of smoked salmon and herring. Some chopped liver. Matzo brei. Eggs. Not to mention the best rye bread I've ever eaten: dense with a deeply fermented flavor, this is bread that makes you understand why it's called the staff of life. Made from an 80 year old starter, it is, literally, the taste of tradition.
The bread is perfect with this rich, smoky, delicous whitefish chowder:
Leaving, we walked across the island in sunshine. Then, in the middle of Chinatown, sun still shining bright in the sky, it suddenly started to rain. Everyone looked up, startled, and laughed. We were wet by the time we arrived at Barbuto, where chefs drank endless glasses of rose, ate lovely little tidbits – and talked about where they were going to eat dinner.
Me? I ended up at The Breslin with these people – and 20 or so other friends – eating this crisp little roast piglet.
And just because I like this picture, here I am a week ago at the Time 100 Gala, toasting honoree Alice Waters.
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