new york – you looked after us well

after boston, we spent a few days in new york with a very unformed plan about where to go and what to do. knowing that this meant we’d just spend our time walking around and exploring, i drew up a huge list of places to eat which were scattered all over the city so that, wherever we ended up we could rely on a tip or a recommendation for good food. sources of info were the new york times’ best budget eats and top 10 newcomers in 2008 lists, jennifer’s guide and the advice of angela, a friend who has left her native new york for the greenness of kent.

so, where did we end up?

gazala place – this casual restaurant specialises in druze cookery (the druze are a middle eastern community) and was a great place for lunch. our very charming and helpful waitress helped us navigate the menu, suggesting that i choose her favourite hommus mosabaha (a fresh and flavoursome hummus topped with whole chickpeas and tahini sauce) to accompany cegar – rolled pita (which we saw being made in one corner of the restaurant) stuffed with a meat filling which was lightly spiced with cloves. david had a delicious and filling chargrilled smokey lamb kabab served in a pita shell. the new york times had recommended their osh al-saria – an alliance of yoghurt and sponge cake soaked with rosewater and honey – which was very delicious and, with a portion of baklava, finished the meal very nicely.

mia dona was one of frank bruni’s top 10 openings in 2008 and he described it as providing “big flavours and big portions at accessible prices”, particularly recommending some of the pasta dishes. this lively and buzzy restaurant (the rear rooms are slightly more formal) lived up to the hype. my starter was absolutely fabulous and one of my favourite dishes of the holiday – roasted octopus with fingerling potatoes, feta, olives, caper berries and anchovy vinaigrette. the flavours were incredibly bold – the octopus was a single fat tentacle which was beautifully tender and had the sweet taste of the sea. contrasting with this was the punchiness of the capers berries (some tiny and others almost an inch across) and black olives plus the rich saltiness of the slightly warm feta and the anchovy dressing. it was a meal in a dish and i would love to recreate it. david had a much lighter and more delicately flavoured house salad. we both went for pasta mains – spaghetti with meatballs for davidand a rich and creamy tarragon-scented white ragu (veal and speck) with pappardelle for me. both pasta dishes were excellent but the richness of my ragu was bit of a struggle after my starter so we swapped part way through. we shared a very delicious pudding – maple panna cotta with honey crisp apple compote and aniseed pizzelle (an italian wafer biscuit) – and were glad we had time to walk off the meal before heading to bed.

i really wanted to eat some japanese food and took up another new york times cheap eat recommendation – soba totto. we went at lunchtime and it was packed. after a 20 minute wait we ordered a couple of their lunch sets, both of which featured their much-praised buckwheat noodles which are made daily. to start, we were served a portion of their appetiser salad – rocket, radish, crispy onions/garlic and a piquant dressing – which was delicious and really did get our appetites and taste buds ready for more. the rest of the food arrived, beautifully set out on a small tray – the aforementioned noodles in a flavoursome broth, pickles and sauces plus the main dish, pork in a ginger sauce for me and chicken with egg for david, both served with rice. the food was all delicious and set us up for an afternoon exploring more of manhattan.

our afternoon was punctuated by cake at amy’s bread in the village (bleecker street has lots of lovely foodie places on it which are worth checking out) - monkey cake for david which was a huge slab of dense, moist and cream-cheese coated banana and pineapple cake, and a devil’s food chocolate cupcake for me. both were decadent and delicious. if we hadn’t already got our sights set on supper we’d probably also have bought some of the lovely looking breads that were for sale.

terroir was recommended by jennifer – her description of it as “a 24-seater rock n roll wine bar with graffiti covered menus and ‘reign of terroir’ slogan is a fantastic place to experience small plates dining” sums it up fabulously and we both loved terroir (it is the funky new world version of london’s terroirs which has a similar approach but relies on a gentler old world gallic charm). we arrived at just the right time, getting a spot on one of the two long tables which are surrounded by bar stools on which you perch as you eat, drink and put the world to rights. we kept the food simple, just ordering some hot sausage with sage, plus a selection of charcuterie and cheese, and focussed on working our way through various sections of the extensive wine list. ordering wine by the glass was one of our indulgences throughout the holiday and we got to try some lovely wine. we did struggle to find american wine though, which was a real surprise and made it difficult to drink local.

katz’s deli is an institution and often recommended as the best place to experience a new york deli. we went for lunch and it was chaos! the deli is huge with a counter for self-service down one side, tables for self-service diners in the middle and waiter-service tables along the other edge. having been given tickets upon entry, on which all our purchases were marked and which you have to surrender as you leave and pay your bill, we queued up. i say queued, in reality we just stood behind a mass of people and gradually moved towards one of the 20 or so servers. we ordered clichéd food – pastrami on rye with pickles for david (not as enormous a sandwich as i’d been led to expect) and chicken noodle soup for me. drinks were collected from another counter. the soup was very mediocre and the sandwich nice enough but nothing more. i don’t know if people eat here for the food but if i was local i’d make everyone who visited me try it out as the experience is very unique (it’s not cheap though – the pastrami on rye was $15 with pickles extra).

once again we followed lunch with some snacking. we started with some very delicious gluten and dairy free cupcakes from babycakes – lemon for me and banana & blueberry for david – before popping round the corner to investigate a hole in the wall gelateria outside which we had seen large queues. il laboratoria del gelato mostly provides unusual ice cream and sorbets (ranging from cheddar cheese to wasabi and avocado and cactus) to high end restaurants and caterers but it also has this retail window just off their kitchen. david had a couple of scoops of ice cream – pistachio and amaretto crunch, both of which were decreed delicious – while i tried their sorbets – lemon (a mouth-puckering zesty delight) and braeburn apple (beautiful with tiny flecks of red apple skin).

our final evening in new york was spent at dovetail, another of frank bruni’s top 10 openings. here, he promised, we would find adventurous, albeit slightly fussy, food in a warm and friendly setting. this was definitely the most formal place we ate and the clientele reflected this being older and looking more monied. while we were waiting for our table, i kicked off with a pomegranate dove which was a lovely combination of vodka, kaffir lime, pomegranate, almond liqueur and prosecco. the food was good but not outstanding – two weeks on and i’m struggling to remember the detail of the dishes which is the complete opposite of my recollection of the mia dona food. to start david had crab ravioli (which was incredibly light and cloud-like) with chorizo, sweet potato and brown butter whereas i chose a more robust dish of sardine with broccoli rabe, chilli oil and squid. this dish was made so much more interesting by the addition of intensely flavoured squares of an orange “marmalade.” david’s main course was meltingly tender buffalo with fava (broad) beans, artichokes and a ginger béarnaise. i chose a dish off the tasting menu – roasted sirloin with beefcheek lasagne, asparagus and endive. the lasagne was the attraction and was delicious – meltingly tender beef flavoured with rich spices (cloves and nutmeg i think) layered between paper-thin slices of potato. we finished by ordering two puddings which david fancied trying (i had my eye on a dessert wine instead) – a trio of ice-creams, blood orange, black sesame and doughnut (which, amazingly, had the texture of doughnuts! i didn’t like this at all but admire the skill it must have taken to create it); and carrot cake with mascarpone ice cream and milk jam (aka dulce de leche) which was beautifully presented with a vivid orange smear of carrot puree and candied pineapple. as we left we were given two little pots of dovetail peanut butter granola.

our final meal in new york was at a branch of moonstruck diner. friends had said we needed to experience a diner and this was our opportunity. david had the lox deluxe - a jumbo toasted bagel with creamed cheese and lox (aka smoked salmon) which was served with fries and salad. i had a cheeseburger which was really good, with flavoursome and nicely textured meat.

knowing we had a few hours to kill at the airport we stopped off at the branch of magnolia bakery by our hotel where we picked up some overly rich and over-the-top cupcakes, my favourite being a lemon cupcake which had a lemon curd filling and a lemon buttercream topping. i was less keen on the cakes topped with a meringue icing. these were our least favourite cupcakes of the trip.

and that’s it. we’re back at home and focussing on lighter vegetable and salad-based meals to try and counter 10 days of overindulgence. it was a very wonderful holiday though and we ate well in both boston and new york.

gazala place, 709 9th ave

mia dona, 206 east 58th street

soba totto, 211 east 43rd street

amy’s bread, 250 bleecker street

terroir, 413 east 12th street

katz’s deli, 205 east houston

babycakes, 248 broome street

il laboratoria del gelato, 95 orchard street

dovetail, 103 west 77th street

moonstruck diner, 400 west 23rd street

magnolia bakery, various addresses