The music throbbed incessantly. Hip New Yorkers chatted loudly, their tables chock-full of half eaten plates. It was quite hard to hear my dining companions (my family), despite the fact they sat a few feet away from me. Waitresses walked to and fro carrying large platters of ingeniously inventive food. The room is full, and then some.
The scene described is at Mission Chinese Food, Danny Bowien’s much-hyped redux of his now-shuttered Orchard street restaurant that was named the best restaurant of the year by the NY Times. While it was lauded for its incredible food, it was also criticized for its cramped, underground atmosphere and absurd wait times. At the new outpost, the small space has been replaced by a spacious, boisterous dining room that holds 130 people. The wait, meanwhile, is nowhere near gone. On a recent Friday night, we waited over 2 1/2 hours for a table (fortunately, not in the restaurant the whole time). When we finally sat down at 10:30 or so, incredibly tired as well as more than a little hungry, the 50 item menu got us excited. The breadth of the dishes, from a Whole Smoked Pork Jowl to Hot Cheese Pizza, is quite incredible. Almost all of the dishes we sampled—notably the Steamed Oat Noodles with charred eggplant and a savory granola as well as the Koji Fried Chicken with an intensely lemony dipping sauce—were phenomenal. The chicken’s exterior tasted more roasted than fried, with an added level of depth from the lemony sauce that cut through the richness with its fermented aftertaste. The noodles had a tangy acidity that similarly cut through the richness of the oats and sweetness of the eggplant.
When our meal was almost over, chef Danny Bowien came over to our table with the aforementioned Hot Cheese Pizza, explaining the process behind it. It was quite surprising, as well as amazing to get to chat with him. He was incredibly kind to take such a generous amount of time out of his busy schedule just to speak with us. He even came back to our table with recommendations for where to dine in New York. Thanks, chef!
The next day began with breakfast at Egg Shop, a new eatery serving, that’s right, eggs. They specialize in serving this breakfast ingredient in all sorts of ways: it’s combined with miso quinoa for the Spandex, a very healthy but also not so tasty dish, though my mom would beg to disagree; it’s cooked sunny side up and layered onto a French hero with chipotle bourbon ketchup and pulled pork carnitas for the massively indulgent, The Beast. Most of the combinations end up working as tasty breakfast bowls and sandwiches that could easily start off any Lower East Sider’s morning. I opted for the French Toast which was sinfully topped with chocolate cream and maple syrup. Some fresh apples and blueberries perked up the overt sweetness of it all.
For a mid-day snack, we found it hard to resist Dominique Ansel Bakery, the deliriously trendy SoHo hotspot from the self-titled wunderkind. There was seemingly no line, but it wasn’t until we got inside that we realized it had simply been moved indoors away from the rain (it stretched through the entire bakery and lasted roughly 45 minutes). The day we visited the bakery was the one year anniversary of the Cookie Shot: a genius turning-on-its-head of a chocolate chip cookie meets shot glass. Molding the cookie dough into the shape of mini shot glasses, Ansel then bakes them off before filling them with lightly sweetened milk to order. When I sampled them a few months ago, the result was a wonder of a pastry: soft, sweet, and thoroughly delicious. This time, though, I was going for something different. I chose the flame-torched marshmallow which is essentially the following: marshmallow batter concealing a sinful scoop of Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream with chocolate wafers, all frozen together and then flame-torched to order. It is truly marvelous, though it would have been even more so if it hadn’t sat on the counter for a minute or two.
With no time for lunch, we more than made up for it with dinner. We started off at Alder, Wylie Dufresne’s fairly new restaurant that has survived the late WD-50. The atmosphere of the place seemed fun at first, but the dinner ended up being more than a little disappointing. Alder is really geared for business-people and other New Yorkers willing to spend a whole lot of cash on ridiculously small plates. I mean so small you could eat one of them, which you’ve payed somewhere near $13 to $15 for, and not even be vaguely full. Needless to say, we ordered three plates. The first, the French Onion Soup Rings, were a riff on the fast food dish of onion rings meets the French bistro dish of very rich beef stock mixed with deeply caramelized onions (French Onion Soup). The dish presented here tasted more like fried onions topped with a relatively mild gravy. Next, the Shrimp on Chips was also fairly mild with its chopped Ruby Red Shrimp, dry peanuts, and tasteless green papaya salad. A little spice came in the way of thin hot pepper slices, but the shrimp cracker it was all served atop was very bland and not nearly crisp enough to have any substance or pac any substantial punch. The Pigs in a Blanket were Chinese sausage wrapped in rolled out Martin’s potato rolls and garnished with Japanese mustard and a surprisingly kicking hot sweet chili sauce. The sausage and bread was very dry and, this being the last dish we sampled, I was left on a sourly off-putting note.
Still hungry, we rushed over to the tried and true Momofuku Noodle Bar for some late-night noodles. We waited an hour or more and sat down very, very, vey late (really, it was about midnight). The classic Momofuku Ramen, was good though not quite as good as I recalled. The porky broth still clings to the noodles and it all has a meaty, silky mouthfeel to it. The pork was a little rare in some parts, tough in others, and at Momofuku I do expect the single slice of pork belly to be perfect, its fat rendered beyond perfection. We retired to our hotel, exhausted and full.
Sunday morning called for bagels, which a trip to the city is incomplete without. Black Seed Bagels, the hip and happening bagel shop, only a few blocks away from Russ and Daughters and their sister cafe, Russ and Daughters Cafe. Black Seed is doing a collaboration with local chefs through early April. While we were there, chef Ivan Orkin (the Jewish noodle-king) was doing his decidedly Japanese interpretation of the everything bagel. His creation was schmeared with aonori cream cheese and an ikura-spread. It was incredibly fishy as well as very egg salad-y (a.k.a not really my thing). I was jealous of my brother’s classic “#1” sandwich with lox, red onion, tomato, and capers. But I was even more jealous of my mom’s delicious medium-cooked egg with thick bacon and luscious avocado which all melted together on an everything bagel.
A mid-day snack came from Momofuku Milk Bar’s outpost in the Chambers Hotel, conveniently located next to the MOMA. I enjoyed the Ceral Milk soft serve topped with cornflake crunch, but would look forward to visiting Má Peche, located in the same building, during a future city visit.
We ended the day at another of Mr. Bowien’s restaurants, the cuisine-breaking, mostly Mexican Mission Cantina. Having eaten there last September and being somewhat impressed, I was expecting it to be good, but not crazy good. And yet it was, crazy good. The meal started, like many meals at this great restaurant will, with freshly made guacamole topped with nutty sunflower seeds and served with crunchy chips made from Anson Mills’ grains. My brother and mom shared the plate of Spring Vegetable Mole. For anyone looking for a lighter, fresher option, I would recommend this very delicious mix of vegetables tossed in mole. The mole lacked some spice and assertive depth which can be found at Providence’s own Viva Mexico, but it was still fantastic. My Whole Fried Fish, however, was revelatory. I split it with my father, but it easily could have fed four. The tortillas served with it, which I attempted to make tacos out of, were completely unnecessary. The fish itself is fried, but it’s not breaded at all which makes for the most tender, fall-apart creature of the sea you’ve ever put in your mouth. So good, so good. (The following poorly-lit photo of the half-eaten carcass doesn’t do it justice.)
While my family might not have enough money to support as illustrious a trip as this for a second time, I can’t wait to go back to New York. The city is literally bursting with great food; it’s the kind of place where you eat one meal thinking of the next. Every restaurant I tried was thriving for something creative and original, even if they didn’t all achieve it. And that’s not always the point: the point is that they’re trying to be different than the next place and that’s what makes them special. New York, I love you.