WE ALL HAVE our early memories of New York City -- for some the spring rain in the Village, for others the horse-drawn carriages in front of the Plaza -- but for the reporter, one of her sweetest memories of Manhattan will be what happened to the chicken at The Russian Tea Room.
It was the summer of '66, the summer that the reporter first came to live in Manhattan from upstate New York, but she still felt herself, culinarilly, to be a sophisticate. She had frequented the Chinese restaurants in the cultural capitals of Albany, Schenectedy and Troy, nibbling ribs and chicken chow mein. She had had her first cocktail, a Seven & Seven. She was familiar, growing up in a Jewish resort town, with a variety of Eastern European cuisines, in their infinite shadings from overcooked brown to boiled beige.
And then, in the heady excitement of her first summer in New York, of revival theaters and Shakespeare in Central Park, she encountered The Russian Tea Room and chicken as she had never known chicken before. Chicken that had not been thrown in a pot to spend an entire day with vegetables to whom it had never been introduced. Chicken that did not have the taste and texture of cardboard. Chicken kiev. Try it, the date said. The best thing here, the date said. Sure enough, it arrived looking fine. The outside brown and crisp. The accompanying rice, nice. The reporter prepared to pounce, but the date asked her to wait just a moment--there was something to come. The table was hushed. The waiter, pausing just one dramatic beat, plunged a knife into the chicken. To the great astonishment of the reporter, it bled melted butter, in a small pool.
"Son of a gun," she thought purely to herself, "How'd they get the butter into that bird?"
Then she bit into it. And she knew that she had made the right move coming to Manhattan. And that the foods she would find there would be as rich and as varied as the faces on the sunway. And that she would never chow mein again.
Wadaya, uh tourist? Okay, okay, we know what you are thinking. The Russian Tea Room is an expensive joint. You saw it in "Tootsie," it was where Dustin Hoffman went with his agent. Agents don't care what they pay for a piece of chicken. That's New York City, an overpriced town.
And it is true; the Russian Tea Room is not a budget restaurant. And if you want, in New York you can spend
00 a night for supper for two for an infinite amount of time. You can also pay a cabbie
00 to take you from JFK into the city. Or you can eat like a New Yorker eats: cheap and well, with an occasional splurge, in which you get your money's worth. Food in great variety. Dinner for $8 to $12 a head. Raspberry tarts and pain chocolate for breakfast at a little patisseries. Chinese, for supper, at seven or eight. Chicken-fried steak, Texas home-cooking style and a slice of pecan pie afterward and a beer or two, for 10 bucks.
Following then, a guide, for the out-of-towner, about eating New Yawk. It is in no way a comprehensive list, for the reporter is a Village person and prefers to spend most of her time downtown. It is also a fairly short list, comprised not of everyone's choices, but the reporter's particular favorites. Most are comfortable, one or two are elegant, one or two are so squalid the report is forced--by the insistence of friends--to attend alone. But you will eat very well at all of them. And you will be eating New Yawk.
Somethin ta get started: There are those persons who like to start off the day with steak and eggs, but that is not something to do in New York: You can, after all, get that anywhere, and besides, it tends to interfere with lunch.
For breakfast, for maximum pleasure of eating New York, the reporter prefers a patisserie. The best one, she thinks, is the Patisserie Lanciani at 275 W. Fourth St. in Greenwich Village. It's a sunny place, on a very pretty residential street, and the pastry is the best in New York. Consider: raspberry tarts on a puff pastry, with an exceptionally light cream. Pain chocolate with a slightly bittersweet edge. Gran Marnier cake, if you can do Gran Marnier cake this early, by the slice. Croissants with thin slices of ham and swiss, popped in the oven. Capuccino, American coffee, orange juice.
Get your papers at Sheridan Square, stand in line with your tray, sit and look out on the Village and relax. Closed Mondays and open weekends till midnight, so it's a nice late night spot, too.
If that's too sweet, and you crave something more exotic, go to Chinatown, and do a breakfast-brunch of dim sum: assorted platters of dumplings, boiled or fried, with an assortment of meat fillings, or appetizer-sized portions of spare-ribs. The reporter's preferred place is the Namwah Tea Parlor, on Bayard Street, probably for the street itself: Bayard is a little dog's leg of a street, a bit off the main drags of Chinatown. There is a contingent which favors the Hong Kung, at 30 Pell, as well. One of the nicest things about brunch in Chinatown, is, of course, Chinatown. You can browse in a Chinese apothecary, pick up an herbal cure for a headache, and stop in a coffee shop for one of those huge pastries with sweet diced pork inside--one of which, itself, is perfect for lunch.
Uh bagel with uh shmear: Then there is, of course, that fine New York staple--uh bagel, sometimes uh bagel with a shmear, or, on Sunday mornings, or for lunch, uh bagel, creamcheese and lox. The shmear is a good three inches of cream cheese, the bagel is available at just about any coffee shop in town. But is it a really fine authentic New York bagel? And is the lox any good? There's the rub.
Your authentic New York bagel, as a friend has noted, is a tough, resilient piece of work: You bite into it, it fights back. It shouldn't be soft, like a sponge. The density should be such, that if you dip it, toasted, into your coffee, the coffee is absorbed no more than half an inch. Afterward, as with most Eastern European cooking, it should lay in your stomach as a discernable presence for at least three hours, a little friend, reminding you how much good food there is to eat in America.
One very excellent place, for both sitting down to a bagel, or getting a bag to go, is Barney Greenbrass, a.k.a., Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King. You don't go to Greengrass just for the bagel, however--you go for the brunch. It's a charming place Greengrass: half a food store in the style of the l920s, with etched glass and sawdust on the floors; downstairs a small restaurant with perhaps l5 tables. They're extremely proud of their smoked fish platters, but the specialty of the place, for which they claim a secret recipe, is their Scrambled Eggs Nova Scotia and fried onions, the onions--here's where the secret recipe comes in--very sweet, and browned till they are carmelized. The difference between lox and nova, as one is obligated to remind people who have not spent much of their lives with salmon, is that lox is salmon thathas been soaked in brine, very salty; nova is smoked salmon, with a more delicate taste. The eggs and nova at Barney Greengrass is $7.50; with their fresh orange juice and coffee, the brunch tab is about
A more traditional place, for bagel and lox, is Ratner's, a kosher dairy restaurant, on the Lower East Side. Their fame is not based on the bagel, however, but on the baskets of onion rolls they slam on the table the moment you arrive. Bulk is the name of the game. At Ratner's, the waiters all look like the man in the sour cream commercials, and sour cream, in fact, is on the menu as an a la carte dish.
They don't think thin is beautiful at Ratner's. In the old days, they would stand over you, insistent and aggressively insulted, if you didn't finish your soup. The specialty is blintzes, cherry or cheese, a dish which, like everything at Ratner's, is more to be appreciated for its heft than its subtlety. The outsides are browned and nearly crisp, the innards are hot and steaming, and on top you heap a mound of sour cream. For after, the cheesecake is gargantuan, with or without the mammoth strawberries. No human being alive, however, is known to have consumed an entire portion of both in one sitting.
Uh frank: New Yorkers are very fond of fast food, and street food, and unlike other places, you do not have to worry about the etiquette of eating in the street. During warm weather, in the parks or around Sixth Avenue in the fifties, people buy lunch from the carts--some of the foods lately quite fussy--and find a fountain and have a picnic. Even when it's cold, however, the vendors are out, and you can get a quick fast lunch from a stand.
The traditional fast food is the Sabrette frank from a vendor, boiled until tasteless, served with mustard or sauerkraut. It's a nasty bit of food, but one which, as tourist or native, you are required to purchase and eat at least once a year. Uh Frank is uh part of life here, that's why, and anyway they have a unique quality: Take a bite with your back turned to the Rockefeller skating rink and the frank tastes lousy; turn l80 degrees and take a bite of the same frank and a voice will come out of your mouth saying, "Who needs Lutece?"
That obligation dispatched, you can move on to truly delicious franks: the grilled jobs served at Nathan's Famous, at lower Times Square, or at Nedick's, one of which is conveniently rooted outside Macy's at Sixth Avenue.
Uh slice: There are those who insist that the best pizza in the Village is served at John's on Bleeker Street, noting that Woody Allen goes there.
They are wrong.
The best pizza in the Village, and perhaps the world, is served at Famous Ray's, the flagship of which is at Sixth Avenue and 10th Street. The Sicilian has layers of moist onions, the tomato sauce has bite, and it is the only pizza shop at which the patrons have been heard to complain of too much cheese.
Uh burger: The excellent New York burger should have more than magnificent taste--it should come with a view. For a fine view of Greenwich Village, in any season, try The Riviera Cafe on Seventh Avenue, just north of Sheridan Square.
In good weather, there are cafe tables on the sidewalk; during winter, you can survey the neighborhood from behind glass. The juke box is loud, the clientele--which includes students from nearby NYU as well as neighborhood people--casual and friendly.
It's basically a burger joint, but it would be a shame to go home without trying their fried onion rings. A cafe table on an August afternoon, a gin and tonic, a plate of fried onion rings, and you know what life is. The bar is also a nice place to pick up men.
Delicatessen: As the Caribbean is to the sun, New York is to delicatessen, so let's not hear any garbage about finding a decent kosher pickle in D.C. You wouldn't know a decent pickle in D.C. if it walked into Congress and introduced a piece of legislation. New York is the Mother Ship for Delicatessen. The Ancestral Home. The Source. If you come to New York and you don't have a hot pastrami you don't deserve to breathe. And for God's sake, don't order it on white bread and embarrass us all.
Great deli: The Stage in the theater district at 837 Seventh Ave., which offers a sandwich that no one mouth can wrap itself about; The Carnegie, where Henny Youngman likes to grab his corned beef, a few blocks up the street at 854 Seventh St; the Second Avenue Deli at about l2th Street and Second Avenue, where the steaks are colossal and they claim to serve the best chopped liver in town.
A historic deli, on the Lower East Side, is Katz's. "Send a salami to your boy in the Army" is their slogan, dating back to World War II, and they've never had any desire to change. They're kosher, so you cannot get a slice of cheesecake after, but they are, deli-wise, absolutely correct: They carry Dr. Brown's cream soda, the french fries are overweight and undercooked, the sandwiches are mammoth. In spirit and age, this place is a cousin to Ratner's; it has a homey and down-at-the-heels style, the set-up is cafeteria style, the celebrity pictures go back 30 or 40 years. A good Sunday lunch place, if you're planning to do the lower East Side bargain crawl. Don't embarrass us by asking if there are bargains on the lower East Side.
Uh slice uh cheesecake: Brooklyn is a great place to have been from. The only reason the reporter has ever found to go to Brooklyn is Junior's. It's the cheesecake. A New York Magazine competition several years ago held it to be the best in New York, and though many competitions have since come and gone, the cheesecake is still fine. Don't order it if you have to use your body much for the rest of the evening, however.
Uh great little French joint: There are times in life, of course, when one is feeling upscale. When one wants to put on a little silk dress (generally if one is a girl) and go to a place where the sandwiches will not dribble on one's self. Where there are no sandwiches, in fact.
For this, the reporter's favorite neighborhood restaurant is La Ripaille, at 605 Hudson St. It's a tiny place, not even 20 tables, with an old French country grandfather clock and white lace curtains and pots of flowers, and the food is exquisite. A broccoli mousse, or snails in a thick sauce of cream and chestnuts, to begin. Fresh trout in puff pastry, or a steak au poive with a side of whipped sweet potatoes and a few barely cooked, bright greens. A white chocolate mousse in a raspberry sauce. A chocolate mousse so dense and rich it is cut like a cake, served in just a half inch of a yellow custard. Espresso for as long as you care to sit. Price to come. And worth it.
And if you have some timw. . .: New York is an all-night city. For after the theater, or a late movie, try the Peacock Cafe, an old-fashioned Greenwich Village cafe on Greenwich Avenue off Sixth Avenue. Both full-course meals and snacks and desserts. For all night long, a burger or an omelette, try David's Pot Belly on Christopher Street: The burgers come with tiny potato pancakes, there are nearly l00 varieties of omelettes, they serve Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
For all-night and all-day soul food, go to The Pink Tea Cup, on Bleeker Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues--a pink-walled greasy spoon which is so funky that the reporter must eat there alone, though she understands that Jessica Lange, recently moved to the Village, also loves the joint. Ribs, grits, greens and that great southern cinnamon deep-dish apple pie with 10-inch crust.
For normal late suppers, good Mex food, La Cascada on Ninth Avenue near l9th Street. For good--and heavy and cheap--Tex-Mex food, The Cotton-Wood Cafe on Bleeker, near Bank. Chicken-fried steak, enchiladas, pork chops, ribs cooked over mesquite. Crowded, very casual, noisy.
Bizarre, but cheap and delicious, the Cuban-Chinese restaurants that line Eighth Avenue from l4th Street to 20th. Operated by Chinese who settled in Cuba then moved on, specializing in both cuisines. A must if you've never done fried bananas and rice and black beans. And where else can you get an entire meal for $6 or $7?
Friendly neighborhood bar, The Lion's Head on Christopher Street, just east of Sheridan Square. Good burgers, good drinks, good cat, large and black, named for James Joyce. Walk downstairs, order a drink, pet the cat, say, "Hello, James," and you'll feel you've been going there for years.