Wednesday, September 3, 2014

NYC Day #2 - Prince Street Pizza/Banh Mi Saigon/Del Posto

I woke up on Day #2 of our NYC food adventure feeling not nearly as bad as I could have given the excessive consumption of the prior evening. In any case, I was perfectly content to nibble on a handful of Eleven Madison Park granola and one of the little cookies our hotel staff had left in the room last night; that is, until Mrs. Hackknife expressed her desire to get some lox and bagel for breakfast. Luckily, this being New York, we were able to wander into the nearest deli and find exactly that, with half of a poppyseed bagel setting down a nice foundation for the day's snacking yet to come. Our plan was to meet Adam down on the Lower East Side for lunch at a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich place that he raved about, followed by some general exploring of the Village before an early 5:15 dinner reservation at Del Posto. Stepping out of the subway tunnel into bustling Chinatown, the missus and I quickly discovered that this part of Manhattan was chock full of small food shops featuring Chinese, Italian (the touristy remnants of Little Italy are close by), Jewish, and other ethnic delicacies hard to pass up.  After some token resistance, I succumbed to the siren call and ducked into Alleva Dairy at the corner of Grand and Mulberry (188 Grand St., to be precise).

Alleva bills itself as the oldest Italian cheese shop in America (established 1892) and offers a full range of Italian products and tasty-looking food to go (a mini-Eataly long before the concept came into being).  Although the pizzas appeared to be most attractive, I opted for a single arancini (rice ball) instead and was surprisingly disappointed by how dry and bland it was.  Next time, I'll stick with the pies.

There was not one iota of regret at our second unscheduled stop, Prince Street Pizza (26 Prince Street), which just happened to be around the corner from St. Patrick's Old Cathedral (a monument that the missus wanted to visit) and just happened to be on my list of pizza stands to try while in town.

A small stand in the space once occupied by the Original Ray's Pizza (which was operated by a member of the infamous Luchese mafia, according to their bio), Prince Street sells the platonic ideal of New York style pizza - an ethereal blend of zesty homemade tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella on top of a chewy (somewhere between thin and thick) crust that's a touch crisp on the bottom from the ancient pans used to bake it (all for only $3.75 a slice). The cook was even kind enough to split our slice in half once we explained to him that we had lunch plans elsewhere in just a few minutes.

I could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying slice after slice of kicka$% pizza (and maybe a calzone) at Prince Street, but then I would have tragically missed out on Adam's banh mi experience.  We only had to backtrack a couple of blocks to Chinatown to find the entrance for Banh Mi Saigon, slinging up Vietnamese sandwiches to hungry patrons at 198 Grand Street since 1989.

Adam explained to us that part of BMS's allure is that they used to be located at the back of a jewelry store, giving the patron a sense that they'd uncovered some sort of hidden culinary gem. Nowadays, the jewelry selection has been marginalized to a single counter in the middle of the dining room, but the sandwiches are still top shelf.

For those of you unfamiliar, banh mi sandwiches represent a fusion of French and Vietnamese cultures, featuring cured or fresh meats garnished with pickled vegetables (daikon radish, carrots, cilantro, hot peppers, and cucumbers), a dash of hot sauce, and mayonnaise, all on a crunchy baguette.  The barbecue pork (first photo below) came highly recommended and I also tried out the version stuffed with sardines, each one costing only about $4 (another great value).  Although I have to admit a slight preference for my favorite banh mi in Chicago (from Ba Le - the bread is a little bit better), BMS clearly gets points for ambiance.

Just up the street at 206 Grand, we passed a little cart vending $3 packages of Dragon Beard Candy. When I had been doing research for the dragon beard dessert course we had been served as part of the Next: Modern Chinese menu a few months back, I came across a description of this very cart on Yelp (listed under "Yao's Dragon Beard Candy") and, realizing that this was one of a handful of places in the Western Hemisphere where you can find it, I had to buy some (for dessert, you know).

The candy was sold in packs of 6 and resembled little caterpillar cocoons in shape and color. Each sweet bite consisted of delicate strands of spun sugar wrapped around a dense core of honey, coconut, chopped peanuts, and sesame seeds. I popped one whole into my mouth and immediately became aware that it was one of the stickiest things I'd ever attempted to eat, with 2/3 of it adhering to my back molars for later consumption.

After much snacking thus far, the three of us felt the need for a nice long cleansing stroll from one end of the Village to the other, passing through Chelsea and SoHo on our way to the Lower West Side.  After a brief detour for a midday drink, Mrs. Hackknife took leave of us and headed back to the hotel for a rest, while Adam and I pressed onward until we reached our next destination, the West Village location of Big Gay Ice Cream at 61 Grove Street. The folks who founded BGIC (Douglas Quint and Bryan Petroff) started with a food truck in 2009 and eventually parlayed the whimsical ice cream business into two New York City stores, a third in LA, and a fourth in Philly. I first became aware of their existence via Anthony Bourdain (who frequently retweets BGIC posts) and was curious to give their creations a try.

Besides the evident fascination with all things Golden Girls (several menu items were named in the show's honor), BGIC offers a number of unique treat combos, including a chocolate ice cream cone studded with toasted nuts and toasted marshmallow chunks that you see above. Although good, I liked Adam's selection better, a gourmet sandwich of bourbon ice cream between two praline pecan cookies (the "Rue McClanahan"). I'm not certain that this stop was worth a special trip, but if nothing else it gave me an excuse to encounter first-hand some of the colorful daily life in the Village (which, at least on this day, included a lady with a pet pigeon on a leash).

After a very long walk back to our Midtown hotel (I figured the extra calories burned in the process was essential to my well-being for the remainder of the trip) and a brief recharge, Mrs. H. and I hopped in a cab back down to Chelsea for our dinner at Del Posto (85 10th Avenue), a meal nearly as anticipated as the one at Eleven Madison Park last night. The Michelin-starred Del Posto is the flagship location of the Mario Batali/Lidia & Joe Bastianich NYC restaurant empire and certainly looks the part of the stately and formal dining palace, with low lighting, heavy drapes, white linen, and dark wood throughout (in my mind, Spiaggia in Chicago is the only other high-end Italian place we've been to that offers an apt comparison).  This setting seemed like the perfect place to try out my first Negroni, a traditional Italian bitter cocktail (and bitter it was) containing barrel-aged gin, vermouth, and Campari.

In addition to a la carte dining, Del Posto offers a set five-course menu that includes antipasto, choice of two different primi (pasta) courses, a secondo (meat) course, and a dessert. After getting reassurance from our server that this menu could be had in 2 hours or less (the amount of time we had before needing to depart for our show later), this is what we selected. First up was a set of 3 amuse bouches (or assiagi, the Italian equivalent), a tasty polenta croquette, a small cup of warm tomato broth (to be swallowed like a shot of liquor), and some sort of crisp noodle-pesto-parmesan creation that resembled a pair of raw scallions in reverse, with the white on top and green on the bottom (Ed. disclaimer - given the dim lighting in this place, my photos of our dishes are lousier than usual).

Now adequately primed, we moved on to our first menu course - Mrs. Hackknife chose a wonderful fin fish crudo prepared with citrus juices, olive oil, and seasoned salts, while I went for something on the lighter side, the house "Insalata Estiva Della Terra", featuring fresh ricotta cheese, assorted summer herbs/greens, and crumbs of crushed almond cookies known as brutti ma buoni.

For the two pastas, I picked a dynamite pumpkin cappellacci (large dough pillows almost like dumplings) in a brown butter sauce with slivered almonds and the wife (who is always a fan of gnocchi) selected the soft potato gnocchi with piennolo tomato salsa and Thai basil, which we found to be surprisingly flat and uninspired, especially given the caliber of the kitchen.

Much better was my secondo course, a celebrated dish from Mario's Po days (his first NYC restaurant) of pan-roasted halibut in a piccata sauce with Roman vignarola (a vegetable stew of fava beans, peas, and artichoke).  Mrs. H. also greatly enjoyed her dish of Livorno-style cacciucco (or fish stew) containing cured cod and a side of garlic bread crostini for dipping.

My dessert was also spectacular, a butterscotch semifreddo with melon agrumata (i.e., marinated in citrus juice), blueberries, and crumbled sbrisolona (a crunchy tart from the Lombardi region of Italy), a plethora of great flavors and textures. The meal ended with the arrival of an old-fashioned box grater at the table filled with a collection of mignardises, including chocolate-covered olive oil pops, small bomboloni (like doughnut holes), some dried fruits, chocolate truffles, and mini-tartlets.

All this, and we still managed to arrive at our show well in time for the opening curtain at 8pm.  I commend the folks at Del Posto for exemplary service and a terrific meal; however, if I had to choose, I'd say my favorite bite of the day was that heavenly slice at Prince Street Pizza (mmmm)....

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