Let me do this one a little differently by starting with the one out-and-out hit of the trip, the new king of gelaterias, one apparently already well-known to Manhattanites but new to me: Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Founded by Jon Snyder – also the founder of Ciao Bella, which he sold in 1989 for $100K – Il Laboratorio is his new venture and beats the pants off of what Ciao Bella is producing, which is high praise. Il Laboratorio’s primary revenue source is in creating customized flavors for the city’s top chefs, but they run a tiny retail outlet at 95 Orchard St on the Lower East Side, selling about a dozen flavors of gelato and four or six of sorbet (I don’t remember, but who cares about sorbet when there is gelato in sight?). Although they make a ton of unusual flavors for restaurants, and the wall is papered with reviews that recommend some odd ones for the retail customer (sesame and hazelnut were the flavors getting the most mentions), the flavors on the day I was there were fairly straightforward. I went with the dark chocolate and the coconut. The coconut tasted more like coconut than an actual coconut does, if that makes sense – rich, creamy, sweet but not sugary, ultra-smooth. The dark chocolate was about as dark as any chocolate ice cream or gelato I’ve ever had; Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy might be darker, but that’s a much higher-fat product. Which brings me to my only question – gelato is typically a low-fat, low-overrun (which refers to the air content of ice cream) product that gets its smoothness from egg yolks and the fact that there’s only about 10% air by volume. This gelato was the thickest and smoothest I can remember having on either side of the Atlantic, and I’m wondering if they ticked the fat content up a bit to boost the smoothness. That wouldn’t make me like it any less, but if they’re using a lot of butterfat, it’s not real gelato. (Speaking of which, one of the reviews on the wall said that they use a lot of “buttermilk” in their gelatos, saying this was traditional. One, it’s not traditional, and two, it would make the gelato sour. I’m thinking this was a non-food writer writing a food article. Bad idea.)
Since I started with the best food of the trip, let me follow with the dud, Dinosaur BBQ in Morningside Heights or whatever they’re calling that part of Harlem these days so that white people are willing to go there. Profiled on the Hungry Detective show on Food Network, which hadn’t let me astray before, Dinosaur’s Q is just not good. I had the pulled pork, which had too many hunks of fat left in it and virtually no smoke flavor. I went with Joe Sheehan (of Baseball Prospectus), who got a combo plate with the pork and with the brisket; the brisket was tender, but also had zero smoke flavor. I got the baked beans, which were soupy and overcooked, and apparently were cooked with Italian sausage in the pot. The cole slaw was the only good part of the meal, as the cabbage was fresh and it was pretty lightly dressed. Joe swears that Virgil’s, which is right near the hotel where I stay when I’m in Manhattan, is a thousand times better.
I hit two breakfast spots, both okay, neither great. The Comfort Diner, on East 45th between 3rd and 2nd, does a daily pancake special, and I think that’s the best bet. The day I tried it, the special was blueberry and pear pancakes, which I ordered with a side of sausage links. The pancakes were very light and had plenty of fresh fruit in them, but there’s one hitch. I usually taste any pancake or waffle without syrup first, just spreading a fine layer of butter on and taking a few bites. I like syrup, but it tends to overwhelm the flavor of anything it’s on. Usually, it’s not a big deal because the pancake or waffle has some sweetness in it, but the cakes at the Comfort Diner tasted like they had almost no sugar in them. I guess that’s fine, but you could give a brother a warning, too. The sausage links were very good, not straight out of a box from the freezer, although they were a little overcooked. The second day I went to the Comfort Diner I went with the standard two eggs-meat-potatoes-toast option. The bacon was greasy and the potatoes were deep-fried and a little dry (but very, very crispy, so it wasn’t all bad), while the eggs were nothing special. They do get points for offering a selection of Harney’s teabags.
The other breakfast spot was the Red Flame, a really popular diner on East 44th just east of 5th Avenue. Their eggs-meat-potatoes-toast plate – I’ll just call it the EMPT from now on – was much better. It’s the first place I’ve been to in a long time where I ordered two eggs scrambled and got two eggs scrambled, clearly cooked in their own skillet to order. They were very good, and the bacon was cooked just right to that point where it’s crispy but not like balsa. The potatoes were nothing special, and I’m trying to figure out if I’ve ever been to a place where I’d compliment the toast. Second visit was a Belgian waffle, which was solid-average, maybe a tick above, pretty light inside, a bit crispy on the outside. On the downside, order hot tea at the Red Flame and you get Lipton.
I also made a trip to Flushing, having lunch at a place called Spicy Taste, a block away from the last stop on the 7 (Flushing Main Street). I ordered a lunch special: shredded pork with bamboo shoots, which comes with rice and hot and sour soup. The soup was fine, but generic, and not all that hot or sour. The pork was very good, perfectly cooked, and the bamboo shoots still had good crunch. One of my dining companions warns that the chicken with garlic sauce was a “bad call,” as the chicken wasn’t trimmed and was still on the bone – which I realize is somewhat traditional, but I find it’s really hard to eat.
I couldn’t leave Flushing without a trip to the Tai Pan Bakery, which has amazing Chinese pastries, some savory and some sweet, at ridiculously low prices. I’ve had their barbecued pork bun before, which is excellent, but since this trip was about dessert, I got a coconut bun (filled with a coconut-sugar paste) and a cream-custard bun (sort of like pastry cream inside, but not as smooth), plus a sago or “bubble” tea. The buns are big, five or six inches long, and are made of a sweet dough that’s somewhere between a Parker House roll and a brioche. If you’ve ever had tsoureki, a Greek Easter bread that usually has citrus in it, it’s like that without the citrus flavor. Best part: total cost was $4.65.