The highlight meal of the trip, and the one big splurge, was a recommendation by Sother Teague at Amor y Amargo, whose establishment I’ll discuss in a moment. Sother directed me to the tasting menu at Hearth, which is only* $86 for a seven-course meal that showed incredible skill and breadth within the farm-to-table genre.
* I say “only” because this kind of meal can easily cost you north of $100, and I think the only thing Hearth’s tasting menu lacked was flash.
The meal started with an amuse-bouche, a chilled carrot soup with blackberry-balsamic drizzle on top, served in a tall narrow glass to allow you to drink the soup in one or two shots. The first proper course was also a chilled soup, this one a zucchini soup with pistachios, sun gold tomato, basil, and chunks of Parmiggiano-Reggiano. The zucchini was pureed and slightly aerated; I assume there was cream added given the soup’s tremendous body, but that much fat would have muted the flavor, and in this case there was no dampening of the taste of the squash itself at all. The nuts and small chunks of cheese are sprinkled throughout the soup, emphasizing the textural contrast – and I can’t say I ever realized what a great combination pistachios and zucchini would make until I had this soup. I was hoping I could get a gallon of this to go as a parting gift, but no such luck.
Second course was my favorite of all seven savory courses: a warm summer vegetable salad with a red wine vinegar/shallot dressing that reminded me in flavor of a buerre blanc, but in fact was made by simmering potatoes and then using some of them to thicken the dressing and coat the remaining vegetables, which included green beans, more zucchini, and cauliflower. People who think they don’t like vegetables should go eat this dish. I’ve never had a vegetable dish with this much flavor that didn’t involve cooking the vegetables to the point where they brown.
The next three courses involved proteins, and each was very good to great. The swordfish dish with eggplant, tomatoes, shelling beans, and black bean puree had two issues for me, although the fish itself was perfectly cooked – by far the most important part. I personally like swordfish served very simply: grilled, topped with sea salt, fresh black pepper, a little olive oil, and citrus juice. The way steak lovers want a fine steak is how I want my swordfish – don’t get in the way of the star ingredient. The other issue was that the eggplant was very soft, too much so, and I ended up setting it aside. The restaurant was dark enough that when the dish arrived, one strip of eggplant with a little of the skin and cap still on the end … well, I’ll just say it didn’t look very appetizing, because this isn’t Top Chef.
The lamb dish involved two different cuts, including a small piece of lamb rib meat that had been rubbed with Middle Eastern spices, smoked off the bone, and seared on both sides, giving it the look and texture of Texas BBQ but with the flavor profile of Turkish or Arabic cuisine. The remaining lamb pieces were slices of loin, served very rare, with roasted carrots and a smear of labneh (Lebanese strained yogurt) underneath. I wouldn’t have ordered this because lamb is my least favorite protein, but as it turned out the dish was fantastic and my only complaint is that I wanted more of the smoked rib (even if it meant less of the loin meat). The carrots were coated in some amaranth kernels, giving the dish a little more crunch – kind of like quinoa but without the bitterness.
Their “iconic” (that was my server’s word for it) meatball dish was very good, but I’m a tough critic on meatballs and I think I’ve had better, including Coppa in Boston … and in my own kitchen. The meatball comprises veal and ricotta, served in a traditional southern Italian tomato sauce (don’t call it “gravy,” please) with cannelloni filled with “market greens.” I prefer meatballs that have been browned more, to max out that Maillard reaction, and like a mixture of meats that isn’t so veal-heavy because veal is so lean that the proteins in it can tighten up when cooked through, as a meatball has to be, and there’s always a slightly dry mouthfeel because of that lack of fat.
The first dessert course was more like a palate cleanser, a watermelon granita with a tiny quenelle of creme fraiche and some toasted pine nuts. It looks like pink rock salt, so the fact that it’s subtle and sweet and cold is a big surprise – and, as with the pistachios and zucchinis, the pine nuts and watermelon worked shockingly well together.
The second dessert was the memorable one, as in I’ll remember eating this for the next twenty years. It was a chocolate-peanut butter sundae, without ice cream: Chocolate sorbet on soft whipped cream on a peanut-butter sauce, surrounded by a crumbled peanut butter cookie. Sure, you could make the whipped cream and cookie at home, and the sauce is probably doable (it was smooth like caramel), but that sorbet – I don’t know how you get something that dark and cocoa-intense without dairy or eggs. Grom in the west Village does a chocolate sorbet with egg yolks, but I think Hearth’s is just sorbet, based on what two staff members told me. Speaking of which, everyone I spoke to there was wonderful – I ended up chatting with a few of them up front before leaving and they’ve clearly done a good job assembling a team full of good people.
I visited two cocktail bars while in the city, one of which was the aforementioned Amor y Amargo, Sother Teague’s 240 square foot place in the East Village where he stocks no juices or other mixers. It’s all spirits and bitters – liquors, liqueurs, potable bitters (like Campari or Aperol), and the little flavoring agents you probably think of when you hear “bitters” (like Angostura or Peychaud’s). Sother’s good people, so if you go and you see him behind the bar, mention I sent you. I tried two of his drinks, one his own suggestion – a mixture of three varieties of whiskeys, finished with a habanero bitters, so the result was like standing over a grill on which you’re smoking a pork shoulder over hickory. It’s a really cool space too, and most of the bitters are out on display – I’d never heard of more than half of the brands, and Sother told me he’s got a dozen or so bottles of stuff that’s no longer made or otherwise very difficult to procure. If you’re also a fan of Amor y Amargo, you can vote for Sother in Edible Manhattan’s Cocktail Contest, which runs through August 31st. The winner gets a $5000 prize.
After recommending Hearth, Sother also recommended Pouring Ribbons, a hidden bar on Avenue B just off 14th, in Alphabet City, so well disguised it might as well be a speakeasy. (The password is to be very nice to the guy at the door.) I got one drink, because when I’d finished that I couldn’t feel the tip of my nose, generally a sign that the libation has done its job. The Trouble in Paradise cocktail starts with Appleton V/X rum, probably my favorite rum for mixing, and adds a charred pineapple-infused rum, sweet vermouth, and campari – a small upgrade on a Kingston Negroni. For a drink that was all alcohol, it was surprisingly subtle, even understated – the booze doesn’t overpower the rest of the drink. It’s rich, well-rounded, a little smoky, a little sweet (I find rum in general is a little sweet, as if it has memories of whence it came), better than any true Negroni I’ve ever had – and I do like true Negronis, which are made with gin rather than rum.
While in the neighborhood one of those nights, I stopped into the renowned Big Gay Ice Cream shop to see what the fuss was about … and I was underwhelmed. It’s decent soft serve ice cream, served with lots of crappy toppings. You can’t make premium ice cream and then coat it in stale grocery-store marshmallows – but that’s just what I ended up with when I ordered the Rocky Roadhouse cone. You can build your own cone or sundae, but the use of subpar ingredients is a big negative for me.
Whenever I’m at Citi Field and can sneak away long enough for lunch, I take the 7 train one more stop to its end in Flushing’s Chinatown, which seems to get bigger and busier every time I go there. I usually go for a dish of steamed dumplings (xiao long baozi), which is a popular item in that neighborhood and the kind of thing that can serve as a meal in itself. The serious eats blog had a few posts extolling the virtues of a small basement food stall called Tianjin Dumpling House in the Golden Mall, located down Main Street towards 41st Ave, which serves an absolute bargain of a dozen dumplings for $3-6 total. The pork, shrimp, and chive version didn’t seem to have much shrimp, but the pork and chives were well seasoned and juicy without any grease. The dough wrappers were just thick enough to retain a little tooth and didn’t tear or leak, but not so much so that they came out gummy or undercooked.
Their dumplings were much better than those at the very popular table-service restaurant Nan Xiang Dumpling House on Prince Street, which took much longer to get (even for take-out). Theirs are soup dumplings, so inside the wrapper is a tablespoon or so of broth that bursts (or slops) out when you bite into it – on to your shirt if you’re not careful. The tradeoff is you get less filling, and since their servings are only a half-dozen to an order, I added an order of vegetable dumplings, which were filled mostly with spinach. Unfortunately, I found a hair in the container of the latter – not actually in the dumplings, but still a hit to the confidence even though the place has an A rating from the board of health.
I almost never go into NYC without hitting up at least one pizzeria, and tried two from that old Food and Wine list of the country’s best pizzerias … neither of which was all that special. Don Antonio by Starita, which is partly owned by the co-owner of my favorite pizzeria in the city, Keste, is VPN certified for authenticity, but I thought the crust was too thick in the center for that. The dough was otherwise the strength of the pizza, though, with good texture and just a little charring around the outside. I went with one of their signature combinations, a pistachio pesto and sausage pizza with mozzarella but no tomatoes or sauce; the pesto itself was kind of heavy and gave the pizza a nut butter-like flavor that just didn’t seem to belong on a pizza. I’d like to try this place again with a more traditional set of toppings to see if the dough holds up better under a lighter load.
Nicoletta, also in the east village area, was a big disappointment – their pizza is a hybrid of New York-style and Italian-style but doesn’t grab the best traits of either of them. The crust was crispier and held its shape when pulled off the plate, with very little lift at the edges. The tomato sauce tasted overcooked and acidic, and there was grease on the top like you’d expect at a mediocre pizza shop. I can’t imagine why it was on Food and Wine‘s list.