Wednesday, June 24, 2015

NYC Trip - Day 2 (Katz's Delicatessen, Brooklyn Food Tour)

As I get older, I've realized that marathon eating weekends like this more frequently wreak havoc on my digestive system, sometimes for days after the fact (it's hard to be cavalier about overconsumption with your posterior almost permanently fixed to a porcelain throne). I've also realized that a little orange pill consisting of acid reducer (ranitidine, 150 mg dose) taken before a meal that I know is going to be especially egregious can be my best friend. I firmly believe it was said pill that allowed me to rise from bed the next morning with little to no ill effects from the previous day's gastro-sins and continue onward with my dining plans. My first destination was Battery Park at the foot of Manhattan for a quick walkthrough of historic Castle Clinton, followed by a pass of the old Fraunces Tavern (used for, among other things, a temporary headquarters for George Washington during the Revolutionary War) a few blocks away, then a hop on the subway back to the Lower East Side for my morning snack (I needed sustenance to help get me to my food tour in Brooklyn at 11 o'clock).

I had missed out on visiting Katz's Delicatessen on all of my previous trips to NYC and I was determined to rectify that oversight this time. Open since 1888 (in more or less the same location at the intersection of Ludlow and Houston Streets), Katz's is known for their legendary pastrami (cured for up to 30 days) and other Jewish delicacies, not to mention an infamous, um, risque scene from the movie "When Harry Met Sally".

Given the number of tourists that pass through its doors, I was pleasantly surprised to find the place mostly empty at 9:45 am, the perfect time apparently to snag that pastrami sandwich. When you enter, a host gives you a paper ticket on which each waitperson records your order as you pass from station to station.

Instead of Yiddish, Spanish now appears to be the language most spoken behind the counter. Regardless of national origin, however, in keeping with that great New York tradition of mediocre customer service, I practically had to do a striptease to draw the attention of a server to take my order, most of whom were engaged in casual conversation and not much else. A bit later on, I gave up in frustration while trying to get a Dr. Brown's Celery Soda since I guess that only the drink station server, who was AWOL, is allowed to take drink orders (not the other 3 guys in white smocks standing around nearby doing nothing).

I tell you all of this to emphasize that it's worth whatever minor hardships you have to endure to get the pastrami (it's absolutely fantastic). Sliced warm in front of my eyes and piled high between slices of rye bread with a slathering of brown mustard, the meat is fatty, peppery, juicy, and messy in all the right ways. I saved a couple of bucks by opting for the half sandwich served with a bowl of matzo ball soup (still, all told it was close to 20 bucks) and also received a complimentary bowl of pickles two ways (both the bright green Jewish sour variety and the vinegar-laden Gentile kind) so I could get some vegetables in my diet.

By the time I was finished, my sandwich had degenerated into its primal components, but I certainly paid no mind. I can't ever recall eating pastrami this good, with the possible exception of Fumare in Chicago (and even that's a distant second). While well worth the stop, I definitely wouldn't want to see what the line was like here at lunchtime.

Feeling all toasty and good on the inside, I made my way over to 215 Smith Street in Brooklyn for the start of my food tour with Joe, a tour guide who moonlights as a writer, actor, and part-time waiter at Barbuto (Chef Jonathan Waxman's flagship restaurant in Manhattan's West Village). The company he works for is called Local Flavors of Brooklyn (or at least that's the name of the specific tour that I was on), which specializes in matching up enthusiastic tourists (in this case, intrepid foodies) with local small businesses (in this case, mom and pop joints pushing artisanal grub in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn). Our little group of 7 began the proceedings at a small shop selling cheeses, meats, and other gourmet goodies called Stinky Bklyn (no, I have no idea what happened to the rest of the letters).

The kind owner of Stinky Bklyn briefly spoke with us about the history of her business (she and her husband also run a nearby wine store) and passed out small sandwiches of the tasty house pimento cheese spread. The spread reminded me of some of the better versions of pimento cheese I'd sampled in the South, except this one had a solid kick owing to the addition of sriracha, jalapenos, and piquillo peppers to the mix. The bread was also really exceptional and fresh (as it turns out, we'd be visiting the bakery that turned it out very soon).

After a quick stop at a tavern/restaurant that provided beer samples and a couple of paltry snacks (I tried a housemade spicy pickle and decided I'd had enough spice and pickles at that point for the rest of my day), we made our way over to Bien Cuit (120 Smith Street), a modern bakery using old world techniques to turn out amazingly flavorful bread loaves. We were able to sample some of the traditional baguette, as well as the miche, which features blended flours of rye and wheat and a 68-hour fermentation. I think this was about the point I was beginning to regret not bringing an extra suitcase with me to tote some of this great stuff back home.

We had now reached the first dessert break of our tour. The place providing the sweets was One Girl Cookies (68 Dean Street), a shop awash in baby blue and sinful-looking creations. I had an eye on a certain decadent chocolate layer cake displayed under glass, but was perfectly satisfied with 3 cookies - one chocolate and two butter shortbread.

Getting back to bakeries, we proceeded towards the heart of downtown Brooklyn (who knew there was a downtown Brooklyn? I sure didn't...) to a longtime Middle Eastern favorite, Damascus Bakery, open since 1930 and alleged birthplace of the American-style pita bread, which they now churn out in mass quantities at a factory in New Jersey. I really wanted to like this place more than I did - the spinach pie we received for our food sample was mediocre at best and I was a little put off by the layer of dust atop some plastic containers of sweets on the deli counter (apparently, they're not selling too many of these).

Our next destination was a small, hipster-heavy breakfast and lunch diner called Ted & Honey (264 Clinton Street), started by a brother and sister team and located adjacent to leafy Cobble Hill Park. Given the tight confines inside the restaurant, our tour group took our tasty ham and cheese sample sandwiches over to the park to chow down.

Time for Dessert #2. We arrived at another longtime borough stalwart (since 1948), Court Pastry (298 Court Street) to try out a smattering of traditional Italian goodies. I again had higher hopes for this place that remained unfulfilled. The house specialty is the sfogliatella, a shell-shaped pastry filled with ricotta and candied orange peel - it took me 2 tries of flagging down some waitstaff to get one (regular customers clearly receive preferential treatment here) and, in the end, I wasn't particularly impressed with the product. I wonder if both Damascus and Court suffer from a bit of the same affliction; that is, institutional calcification (i.e., we've been here for so long that we don't need to change anything we do, even if it's not entirely working anymore).

After one more side trip for coffee (I politely declined), Joe brought us over to our final taste of the tour, a chocolate egg cream soda at the whimsical and fascinating Brooklyn Farmacy (513 Henry Street). The owners of this place bought the old Longo's Pharmacy (which had occupied the building since the 1920s) with the intention of turning it into a soda fountain and, with a substantial amount of assistance from the Discovery Channel's "Construction Intervention" reality show, managed to restore it to its original glory, tin ceiling and all.

As for the egg cream (I'm pretty sure it was my first), I found it to be a bit like a diet version of a milkshake, with seltzer water taking the place of the ice cream (chocolate syrup and a splash of milk are the other ingredients). Refreshing, for sure, but I usually crave a little more substance (and calories) in my sweet drinks.

By this time, I was happy to drag my stuffed innards back towards the subway and my comfortable hotel room back in Manhattan. I might have had delusions of a snack at the nearby Shake Shack or a wander through the Eataly-like French market in the building across the street from the hotel, but this was not meant to be...

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