Bright Lights, Bigger City

Thank you, Cee Lo Green, for the inspiration behind this blog title. Love me some Cee Lo.

We are back from the Big Apple. I’m still smiling at all the fun we had, and my body is aching from the killer workout I endured as penance for the stellar meals and heavy pours we found along the way. Of course with my foodie friend, the Fabulous Miss Y, we placed a bit of emphasis on finding good meals, and NYC did not disappoint. The crazy cold weather hindered my sightseeing a bit. I was well prepared for battle against the elements, with sweaters, long-sleeve shirts, wool coat, scarves, and a new hat and pair of gloves from my valentine, but alas the low, low, low windchill and gusts of frigid air prevailed. I became quite adept at seeing a few sights and then racing back to the hotel to warm up before setting out again. I also took advice from BA, a beloved member of my tribe and a life-long New Englander who suggested I stop often for hot toddies. Alternating between Starbucks and restorative glasses of wine helped keep me afloat.

A brief recap: we began our culinary tour with a stop at Ca Va, one of Todd English’s fine restaurants. We nabbed a small table by the windows and near the huge roaring fire, which was perfect for people-watching while we stated toasty warm. cava-loungeWe lingered over champagne and a mezze plate before heading to see Scarlett Johansson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Yes, fellas, she is as gorgeous in person as she is on the big screen. The Broadway play was full of dysfunction and angst, with stellar acting from every cast member.

After the show we trekked over to a fantastic wine & cheese bar called Casellula, in Hell’s Kitchen. Because it was Valentine’s Day, the place was packed — all 10 tiny tables. number-086-contextWhile this place may be itty-bitty, the wine list and the cheese pairings are unbelievable. I’m so sad I was in a cheese coma and didn’t have the faculties to remember to take a picture of our cheese flight, but it looked a bit like this one

with a trio of Italian cheeses: a soft mild beauty paired with pine-nut brittle, a soft & funky offering alongside a mango jam, and a parmesan with roasted, herbed sundried tomatoes. With a half bottle of Chateneuf du Pape, we were happy girls. Until the half bottle ran dry, that is. We lingered for three hours in this charming little place, and most of the time was spent laughing over the descriptions of the cheese characteristics on the menu. A few highlights: “Triple-creamy, fluffy & luxurious.” “Wooly & dense.” “Bright, citrusy & pudgy.” “Earthy, chalky & a little musty.” Now there’s some truth in advertising. We reluctantly closed down Casellula and walked back to our hotel, full of yummy things and still laughing about the menu descriptions.

Next day we were up and out the door to get started on our next meal: breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien, a charming eatery between our hotel and Central Park that seemed lifted straight out of France. From the individual ceramic pots of coffee served in handle-less mugs to the mixed green salad alongside our goat-cheese frittata to the scratch-made breads and chunky mixed-fruit jams, this place was flat-out amazing. Full and happy, we hit the streets and wandered around the city. My traveling companion left me to go to work (boo!) and I soldiered on alone in the shops in the Time Warner building and meandered through Central Park. The snow from superstorm Nemo remained, which was fun for this Texas girl to see, from a distance, of course. IMG_0862

We had time for a bit more shopping once Y finished up her work, and we hit UniQlo first. This Japanese-based company entered the U.S .in a big way, with a 90,000-square-foot store on Fifth Avenue that costs a reported $20 million a year in rent. Fun and vibrant, the store was worth a stop during our too-short stay. The colorful and super-cheap clothes were great, and we saw some beautiful people shopping right alongside us.

Finally, it was time for perhaps the most-anticipated part of our trip: dinner at Balthazar. I’ve heard Y speak reverently of this fabulous restaurant, and I’ve eaten a bowl of the bouillabaisse prepared from the Balthazar cookbook. It. Was. Incredible. Delicious wine, superb service, and out-of-this world bouillabaisse chock-full of cod, mussels, clams, potatoes, and a lobster tail. The photo just doesn’t do this dish justice. IMG_0921We savored every last drop of it, but still managed to save room for an incredible dessert: the banana tarte Tatin. The New York Times raved about this yummy creation: “In SoHo, Andy Gomez, the pastry chef at Balthazar, creates individual banana tarte Tatins by lining Teflon molds with burnt sugar, shingling medium-ripe banana slices across the bottom, and tucking a round of puff pastry on top. The oven heat intensifies the sweetness of the fruit in the dessert, which he serves with a cool banana sabayon.” Just when we thought our dining experience couldn’t get any better, we were treated to a short tour of the kitchen. As Y is known to say, “You never know what you might get if you just ask.” Well, we just asked our server how big the pot is that they use to cook the bouillabaisse, and she offered to show us. So cool.

Saturday started bright and early for Y, with more work, while I psyched myself up for braving the cold — and I do mean cold — to visit the 9/11 Memorial. I walked most of the way from our Times Square hotel to the Financial District, and even at a brisk pace, it was freezing cold. There were lots of fun things to see along the way, including this, my favorite of all the window displays I saw. This one beats even the fancy-pants ones along Fifth Avenue. IMG_0873

I passed the iconoclastic Macy’s and had to snap a picture for my favorite girl. IMG_0871

IMG_0870Just across the street was a billboard of sorts that caught my eye:IMG_0872

David Beckham in his underwear was just the ticket on a cold New York day. The warm-up was brief, however, and I pried my eyes away from Beck to keep moving. The temperature hovered in the mid-20s but the 30-mph winds made it feel a lot colder. Once I got down among the tall buildings, that wind ripped through even more ruthlessly. As I’d mentioned, this Texas girl was freaked out about those low temps, and with good reason. Even with a wool coat atop 3 layers and a hat and scarf and gloves, it was miserably cold. I only hope I was as fashionable as this woman sporting a chicken hat. IMG_0891I’m still digesting the gravitas of the memorial itself, and will save the images for a later post in hopes that the words to describe the somber scene will come. For now, you must be content with the lady in the chicken hat.

I would have liked to have stayed at the memorial site a bit longer, but without the warmth of a chicken hat, I grabbed a cab and headed back uptown. I’d just about thawed out when we hit Times Square, so I hopped out and popped into a little grocer for a snack and a beverage, which I took back to my hotel and devoured from under the down comforter in the hotel.

Dinner that night was at Eataly, the super fun Italian marketplace/restaurant. Part gourmet market, part wine bar, part bakery, part restaurant, Eataly adds up to a lot of fun. We shared a stand-up table with two young Indian couples on a double-date and enjoyed a bottle of wine and house-made mozzarella. (Don’t ask me about the prosciutto; that was Y’s department.)IMG_0894

Our view from the stand-up table was nice, very nice:IMG_0895

That’s my kind of table.

Equally delicious-looking was the fresh pasta on displayIMG_0893

and the selection of fresh greens. Our little piggie would be in hog heaven, literally, with the latter.IMG_0896

After exploring the market and checking out the nightly specials in the various sections of the restaurant, we settled on two items from the vegetarian section: a polenta topped with chick peas and sautéed swiss chard, and a spinach & ricotta canneloni. News flash: yum. IMG_0898



And because we were feeling decadent after that meal, we indulged in a little gelato. Coconut for me, mint-chocolate chip for Y. Emphasis on the yum.

More work for Y on Sunday, while I braved the wind and cold to stand in line for tickets to a show. My first choice, Nice Work if You Can Get It, was sold out, so I settled on Chicago. While I wasn’t familiar with any names on the cast list, the production did not disappoint. The singing was great, and the dancing was even better. And I was happy to be in a warm theater away from the winter weather.

We had time for one last outstanding dinner, this time at Ma Peche. The last stop on our culinary tour of NYC was a lot of fun. IMG_0903I wasn’t sure what to expect from the menu, which is rather sparse on the descriptions, but we dove right in and were blown away by the flavor combinations. While we’d heard much about the famous Momofuku restaurants created by chef David Chang, we weren’t sure what to make of the Ma Peche menu. IMG_0902

I really like that Ma Peche’s menu lists the sources for its meat and fish. While I’d rather claw my eyes out than eat a pork chop, I like that the restaurant cares enough to mention its sources and it leads me to believe that the people at Ma Pesche respect the animals they serve. If you’re going to eat them, I’d hope it’s with an attitude of respect. They did give their lives for your meal, after all.

Exiting soapbox now.

We started with the squash, which consisted of thick julienned slices of squash cooked tender-crisp with an interesting sauce that tasted neither limey nor of bitters, but rather a delicious amalgam of those two ingredients. The pepitas were toasted and pulverized to create a bread-crumb-like topping. Very interesting and very yummy.

Not sure where to go from there, we eyeballed a dish on the table next to us. IMG_0900From the distance across our tables, it looked a lot like fried mozzarella sticks, but we knew those didn’t exactly fit into the Ma Peche concept.  The guys eating that dish were kind enough to introduce themselves–Rugby players from Newcastle visiting the States for a rugby tour–and tell us what it was.


Lo and behold, it was the carrots, which had caught my eye upon my first pass through the menu. Who knew that small, whole carrots spiced with curry and chiles then topped with fresh coconut and cilantro could be so delicious? We decided the masterminds behind the flavor combinations at Ma Peche must drink heavily, although our server claims that much research and testing goes into each dish. I like our theory best.

We capped this meal off with a piece of Crack Pie. I’d had this delicacy before, when friends and fellow foodies Jill & Keith either brought a piece back from the Momofuku Bakery & Milk Bar or made one themselves. I can’t remember because I was on crack after one bite. Seriously. Supposedly there’s no actual crack in the pie, but it tastes so damn good it’s as addictive as the hard stuff. IMG_0904

Rumor has it that some guy visiting NYC bought a Crack Pie to take home to his family to try after he became addicted from one slice consumed in the city. He accidentally dropped his pie as he was checking out of his hotel, and proceeded to eat the splatted pie off the hotel lobby floor. Whether that story is true is irrelevant because the pie is that good. It’s that good. Although the idea of eating anything off any floor — much less the floor of a busy NYC hotel — gives this little germophobe the vapors, big time.

Upon first glance, Crack Pie doesn’t look like all that, but there’s a reason the Milk Bar sells this baby for $44 per pie. It’s sorta like a pecan pie without the pecans, but the filling is more dense than gooey, and instead of a regular pie crust it has an oatmeal cookie crust. Purists insist on serving the pie cold and sprinkled with powdered sugar. I’m not one to mess with tradition.

The trusty folks at WebMD provide an exhaustive list of effects from crack, including:

  • an increasing sense of energy and alertness
  • an extremely elevated mood
  • a feeling of supremacy

Now I’m starting to see the similarities. As soon as the Crack Pie was placed on our table by our server, both Y and I experienced increased energy and alertness. I’m almost certain our heart rates increased noticeably. After one bite, we felt the extremely elevated mood, as well as the feeling of supremacy over anyone at Ma Peche who was foolish enough not to order this little slice of wonder. I pity the fool who skips dessert at Ma Peche.

According to WebMD, some people also experience these feelings while on crack:

  • irritability
  • paranoia
  • restlessness
  • anxiety

Ahhhh, yes. Now I really see the similarities. With each bite taken, we became irritable that the goodness was disappearing. We became paranoid, restless, and anxious about it disappearing, and before the euphoria even wore off, we wondered when we might score another piece of pie.

I think we’re going to need to plan another trip to NYC soon. Very soon.

10 Comments on “Bright Lights, Bigger City”

  1. Nancy!!
    I LOVE how you wound us through the streets, familiar to me, but not to many others! You went to some GREAT places and you gave me a few to try. I can’t wait to read your thoughts about the memorial. So glad you had a great time… And yes, it’s been bitterly cold. We got spoiled around here as the past few winters were not like this. I hate the cold!


  2. jbaird says:

    What a great trip you had! I love the pictorials. xox

  3. Amy H. says:

    Success! A great time was had by all! Even if we travelled vicariously. I want some of that spinach cannelloni!

  4. Eddie says:

    In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “Mmmm, floor pie!”

  5. Wendy Langley says:

    “Brief” warm-up. Sometimes puns just make me giggle. Especially when there is a photo attached. Glad you had a wonderful adventure!

  6. mmr says:

    I just had mojitos at Hugo’s and now I’m totally jonesing for some crack pie.

  7. I almost can’t handle this post, that food looks SOOOOOOO good! It’s great to hear you braved the weather and had a fantastic time. Wow, that food . . . that cheese platter . . . those soups and eggs and desserts. Wow. Wow. Wow. 🙂 ~Catherine

  8. Great post Nancy! Reminds me how much I am missing New York lately… it’s been 4 years since I’ve been back… and what better to do it as a food tour? Simply divine. New York is my #1 food city in the world. (Followed closely by Singapore…)

  9. […] afternoon, my girl’s unbridled enthusiasm made up for the fact that I felt like I was back in NYC with the crush of humanity all around us. No matter; my girl soaked it all in and enjoyed every […]

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