Wednesday, September 10, 2014

NYC Day #4 - Russ & Daughters Cafe/Shake Shack

On the final day of my trip to New York City, I deliberately scheduled my return flight to Tampa for later in the afternoon so that I'd have time work in two meals (ok, three maybe) before heading to the airport. With Mrs. Hackknife now attending to work obligations, I was free to wander the city on my own a bit in the hopes of crossing a few more food items off my hit list. My plan was to leave our hotel early and take the subway over to Brooklyn for breakfast at Pok Pok, Chef Andy Richer's interpretation of Thai street cuisine that's taken both coasts of America by storm. I'd read that Pok Pok had begun serving light breakfast items in May of this year, however, I'd somehow missed the subsequent news that this morning service was discontinued shortly thereafter (presumably due to insufficient customer traffic), a fact I didn't discover until I'd hauled myself all the way over to Brooklyn and found the shop locked up tight, chairs on tables and sous chefs moving product from the curb into the basement storeroom. Disappointed yet undaunted, I headed back past the quiet brownstones to the subway stop and returned to the lower east side of Manhattan, where my original second stop (now my first) awaited - Russ & Daughters Cafe, located at 127 Orchard Street smack in the middle of the historic former tenement community that housed so many Jewish immigrants back around the turn of the 20th Century.  When I swung down Orchard, most of the storefronts were still dark and closed (did I screw up again?), but I soon found the cafe's inviting blue awning and headed inside.

The famous Russ & Daughters deli opened in 1914 and is still in operation a few blocks away from here, but while the deli is usually barely controlled chaos of order shouters and takers, the newly-open cafe is a calm oasis where diners can leisurely sample R&D's finest smoked fish. Given that I'd missed my first breakfast, I compensated by ordering two dishes, namely the Shtetl (smoked sable, goat cream cheese, fresh bagel, sliced tomato, red onion, and capers) and a side of their famous whitefish salad (topped with dill, celery, and capers), all of which was phenomenal and making me pine for any kind of Jewish immigrant food in west-central Florida (now if we lived in Miami...).

Feeling re-energized, I mulled over a possible visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum before settling instead on a side trip to the new Four Freedoms Memorial on Roosevelt Island (which, I determined, is largely devoid of any kind of distinctive food). By this time, I needed to start making my way back towards Midtown to meet Mrs. Hackknife for lunch at the one remaining NYC fast food joint I'd been itching to try, Shake Shack. Started by restaurant impresario Danny Meyer, SS is a high-quality take on the casual cheeseburger, created with love and paired with things like crinkle cut fries (my personal favorite) and homemade frozen custard. The lines at the original Madison Square Park location became legendarily long; since then, Mr. Meyer has expanded SS across Manhattan, into other states (we recently got one as close as Orlando), and even internationally with no apparent end in sight to the demand. I can now speak from experience that the line at noon on a Monday in the Theater District (8th and 44th) is pretty bad, but the restaurant staff moves everyone along quickly and I had my order within 15 minutes. I decided to dispense with the fancy options and kept it very simple: the single ShackBurger (cheese, bright green leaf lettuce, tomato, and Shake Sauce, a blend of mayo, ketchup, mustard, chopped pickles, and a few unnamed spices), plain fries, and traditional chocolate shake.

Immediately after Bite #1, I realized this was not your average fast food burger - the beef was the perfect mix of lean and fat, the toppings all fresh, and the bun (a Martin's Potato Roll, I later found out, the very same as we eat here in the Canteen) nicely toasted. With the possible exception of In N' Out Burger on the West Coast, I can safely say that you'll have a hard time identifying a better cheeseburger out there (in case you're wondering, both the fries and the shake were also tough to beat). I'm now strategizing my campaign to get a Shake Shack to open in the greater Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater region and am seeking volunteers to help stuff envelopes.

One last item of note before I wrap up this 4-day posting extravaganza - after our Sunday dessert stop at Momofuku Milk Bar, our local friends brought us by Zabar's, one of NYC's most famous gourmet grocery stores that just happened to be in their neighborhood at Broadway and 80th. Zabar's has been supplying the masses on the upper west side since 1934 and is known for many things, including this wall of cheese that confronts you as soon as you walk in the front door (and nearly made me break out in tears):

Our primary interest in stopping by was to find some traditional black and white cookies for the progeny - according to Adam, Zabar's makes some of the best.  They were a little pricey at $7.98 a dozen, but we found them to be quite worth it.  These cookies (which are actually more like little frosted cakes, soft instead of crunchy) are unique to NYC (they even figure prominently in an episode of Seinfeld) and have something of an unknown provenance; however, all I know is that when my kids actually like a food item we bring home from a trip, it has to be pretty special...

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