Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A hungry man's love letter to Shake Shack and Chelsea Market

All images courtesy of Stephen Wilson and Marcia Wilson

I left a bit of a cliffhanger with my last post (read it here). There was a reason for that and you'll soon find out as you read on.

You see, I was left heartbroken and bereft when I left New York, and that's because I fell in love. Hard. This was a love that shook me to the core of my appetite and stomach. It was out of the blue that this thunderbolt of love hit me, and I’m still reverberates a week later. I am still trying to catch my breath in disbelief that it happened so fast, so quickly. It is for this reason, that I've dedicated an entire post to the amazing, delicious, so worth the forty-minute wait and huge lineups. Yes Shake Shack, I'm writing a message of love to you.

The story of a 'Shack' love begins now.

It was on my last day in the city, and it could be described as an ordinary New York day. We planned a visit to Chelsea Market and then we were to head back to the hotel, pack up and leave for Toronto. I should make a quick diversion here and describe Chelsea Market and The High Line, as both are fantastic 'must-sees' when you're in New York. Take a note wussy councillors in Toronto. Want to do something about the hideous Gardiner expressway? Turn it into a pedestrian friendly, gorgeous tree and plant-covered walkway for residents and tourists and they will eat it up.

The High line has been a huge success since it opened to the public in 2009. A former elevated rail line running along the west side of Manhattan, and now converted to a pedestrian walkway, it was absolutely rammed with people when my sister and I arrived. The landscaping and work that went into the redesign of this once polluted highway, is indeed an impressive feat. It is also testament to the dedication of civic-minded people, all of whom were determined to turn something that was strictly meant for trains, into something actually useful and healthy for the city. Now, New York has completely survived without this once important transportation route, and Toronto would too if something radical is achieved with the Gardiner. But I digress.

The High Line takes you to Chelsea Market, and what else is there to add that hasn't already been said about a fantastic food hall, shopping mall, office building, television production facility and the home of the Food Network? It is a gorgeous, reclaimed industrial building with an impressive array of specialty food, wine and desserts. You can spend hours in there, or maybe just hang around to see if you catch a glimpse of a favourite Food Network personality. I'm sure that's a rarity, but while you stalk - I mean search, take the time to browse, partake in the free food samples or do the next best thing: people watch.

But the visit was over, and it was time to head back to the hotel. I thought to myself that maybe I should have grabbed lunch at the market, but honestly, I knew that a market meal wasn't going to happen. My mind was set. It was definitely time to take look at Shake Shack. After all, it was right around the corner from the hotel. Why not grab a burger to go and eat as I pack up. But more importantly, it was just time to find out what was all the fuss about. I was about to be given a thorough, delicious reason as to why there was such a fuss about the place.

I was fascinated the minute I set eyes on it. Prior to my visit and just walking past it, I recall being stunned at the lineups that began at lunchtime, and lasted until closing time. Tourists and residents alike stood -patiently I might add, for hours. People took pictures. People, whom I'm sure will never set eyes on each other again were instantly 'friends-in-a-queue', as they waited patiently for their turn to order. It was fascinating to watch.

Look, I know that we all need to curb our calories. Fried foods are a huge reason why a majority of citizens on this planet are suffering a myriad of our most serious health issues. But I'm sorry to have to make a slight digression in regards to that particular health issue. Shake Shack burger and fries are sublime. Sublime I tell you. Particularly since this is fast food. I'd eat this over any of the burger chains if I was forced to choose. The fries stay crispy for much longer than I thought, and it's crinkle cut(!). I repeat, it's crinkle cut! That means nothing to a lot of you, but to me? I love crinkle cut fries.

But what about the burger you may ask? According to the 'dinersjournal' blog, the burger is a blend of mostly brisket, with chuck and short rib mixed in. It would explain the incredible moistness of the burger. The cheeseburger I ordered had a tasty, squishy bun, lettuce, sliced Roma tomatoes, a Kraft Cheese slice - yes, not artisanal cheese here folks, but the slices you'd find in any grocery dairy aisle. It also came with a rather tasty 'special sauce', which had a tangy, sweet and sour taste. I'd definitely compare it to a tartar sauce mixed with Thousand Island dressing - not a great picture I know, but regardless of the ingredients, it hit the right flavour spot. Obviously, that's not really what the sauce is made of as it is a ahem 'secret', but it was an interesting enough flavour that really did lend itself beautifully to the burger.

I ate it in five minutes. I yelled at my sister that she must try a bite of it, but I secretly hoped she wouldn't. She declined. She knows better than to get in the way when I'm on the hunger train.

In the ongoing burger wars brewing in the States, the hamburger chain contenders revolve around In'N'Out, Five Guys and Shake Shack. I have yet to try the other two versions, but so far for me it is all about Shake Shack. It is in the forefront of my mind. It is the one I wish to write songs and poetry for. It is whom I would get down on my knees and offer a proposal. Did I not mention earlier that it was hard love?

Oh, if there was a way to bring back with me to Canada, I'd never let you go. Would you say that a hungry man has lost it? Maybe. But I'm telling you, this place is worth the ode to love.I even have a great location where it would almost guarantee some serious crowds.

Give it some thought Shake Shack. Please. Please, don't let the image of the empty Shake Shack bag below be my last thought and impression of you. I know that the city - ok, maybe just me, would be ever so happy/grateful/forever in love with your presence. Think about it.

In the meantime, I shall cherish the burger memories and the picture below, as a reminder of good things to potentially come.

Monday, June 22, 2015

J'ai Fini: A Gotham Odyssey: Food tripping in New York

images courtesy of Marcia Wilson

New York is, in general, a crazy cornucopia of vehicles, pedestrians, noise, hustle and bustle during the day. But the city truly comes alive at night. And so, on our last night in the city, my sister and I set out to enjoy a final evening meal in the greatest city on earth.

Dinner on Saturday night was a pre-planned birthday celebration for my sister. Bookings were made at Balthazar, and we were scheduled to head off to the iconic restaurant for an early dinner. But then Saturday afternoon happened in SoHo.

It really was a beautiful afternoon - not too hot, lovely breeze to cool off from the beating sun. It was a perfect day to wander around Manhattan. And as the time progressed, I knew we'd never make that dinner. The reservation was for 6 pm. I called and cancelled.

My sister thought that I'd be disappointed about missing Balthazar, but truth be told, it was fine, mostly because it's New York, and I've mentioned before there are so many places you can stumble upon. Which is how we ended up at Doppio Artisan Bistro in the West Village.

image courtesy of www.doppionyc.com

We had walked by the restaurant on our way to The Spotted Pig the previous evening, and it just looked comfortable, non-pretentious and the best part? There was plenty of outdoor seating. Our Saturday night dining adventure began as one of those quintessential warm, breezy New York evenings that require al fresco dining. Doppio fit the bill. No reservations were needed, but that policy may not be true for people who wish to dine earlier than we did (we didn't arrive until around 9:30).

In my research afterwards, I found out that Doppio is a chain, with additional locations in Sag Harbour and Greenwich, Connecticut. Sometimes when you hear the word ‘chain’ in the restaurant business, certain negative connotations about the food, quality and service may pop up - not to mention, in some minds, perhaps a whiff of elitism? Growth, particularly when you have developed a food service concept successfully, is a very good thing within the restaurant trade. I personally do not believe a chain is necessarily a bad thing, but it does depend on the chain itself. I usually ask myself before I visit what has the chain created and is it providing a valuable service to hungry patrons? Which brings us back to Doppio. It is renowned for its pizza. That almost satisfied a craving in me as I had hoped to partake in a giant New York slice while in the city. As it turned out, I ended up checking out the pasta instead.

I loved the look of the bistro. It was a simple design - stark, with plain wood tables and candles. It also featured exposed brick and a small, open kitchen - which was quite efficient considering how busy it was in the restaurant and how cramped it looked. But then again, the efficiency wouldn't and doesn't surprise me. I had learned, after my travels in In Viet Nam, just how amazing chefs and cooks can be with limited space and equipment. The restaurant crowd was young and fashionable, with a relaxed vibe, but that could be a result of the plethora of empty wine bottles and glasses found on a variety of tables.

Upon arrival, the host greeted us immediately. Since the patio was extremely busy, he secured us a table near the window. Inside, the restaurant was slowly winding down, but there were still plenty of patrons buzzing around, enjoying wine and what looked like very good Italian fare. As previously mentioned, the bistro is known for its pizza, but the pasta was beckoning and I somehow knew I wouldn't be disappointed with that choice.

Having reading that, I have a feeling people would wonder why I would expect to be disappointed. It comes across as rather self-defeating before I even start n'est-ce pas? The answer to that is pretty simple. Cooking pasta should be easy, and for the most part it is - after some experience and instruction on how to cook it properly. But often, in many restaurants that do not have a serious dedication to correctly cooking pasta, it isn't easy and ends up tasting like crap.

Pasta can be fickle if you don't know what you're doing. How it's made and how it's cooked is going to be different for everyone. Some people like their pasta overcooked(!) - bordering on mushy. I don't ask why, but that's just a preference for some. For me, I prefer it al dente. I like a bit of chew to the pasta, but therein lies the rub. There is a fine line between undercooked and al dente, and few restaurants manage that well. As it turned out, Doppio did manage it, and managed it very, very well.

My sister had the Pappardelle dish, with wild mushroom, fontina and truffle cream. I ordered the Linguine 'aglio olio, with shrimp and Calabrian chile. The pasta for both dishes was perfectly cooked. Perfect. My only complaint was the slight grittiness of the sauce. I wondered if the shrimp wasn't deveined?

Espresso cheesecake was shared for dessert - a nice, not too sweet note to end a long, lingering meal. As I paid the bill, I noticed I was comped on my old fashion drink. Sometimes being flirty with cute waiters can pay off. Sometimes. Regardless, Doppio is yet another spot that I would quietly recommend. Simple, yet flavourful eating, friendly staff and incredible service, combined with a warm night and prime viewing pleasure - if you manage to get a seat outside, warrants a visit should you happen to be wandering around the village.

And with the ending to that meal, it was just about time to say farewell - but not goodbye, to an amazing culinary odyssey in New York. I know I'll be back. The love for the city was quietly buried for a few years, but now it's back with a vengeance and I'll return to enjoy another New York state of mind.

Although the post says 'fini', the story is not quite over yet. Something else happened before we headed back to Toronto. Something so unexpectedly delicious, something so tasty, it immediately made me think, "Yes, so this explains why it's so incredibly popular" followed by, "Is there a way to bring this to Toronto?"

The reveal and explanations are to come in an upcoming post.

Doppio Artisan Bistro, 581 Hudson St at Bank St, New York, NY 10014 (212) 206-1444

Friday, June 19, 2015

Part 2 - A Gotham Odyssey: Food tripping in New York

images courtesy of Stephen Wilson and Marcia Wilson

Although it has been eight years since I last set foot on the streets of New York, I have not forgotten just how much the city effects me. Back in the days of my semi-annual trips to the city, I always felt invigorated the minute I was within reach of the city limits.

Eight years later, that feeling is back with a vengeance. I missed it.

Although with trip I flew Porter, Toronto to Newark Airport, I recall flying in from Toronto to La Guardia. The airplane would sometimes fly over Manhattan, and you'd get a bird eye view of Central Park. I would get so excited every time the plane would 'surprise' the passengers with that view. It just never got old. Upon landing and leaving La Guardia, from the back seat of the taxi you'd watch that incredible Manhattan skyline get ever so close. The spectacular skyline was made even more dramatic, if you happen to arrive after a sunset hits the buildings and provides this incredible backdrop to an already impressive view. You can't help but gasp and stare in awe as you drink in the sights.

There is an energy that just blankets this city, and you'd suck up every drop of it. It's what keeps you going after seven straight hours of shopping. It's what gets you moving as dawn turns to dusk, and you start to head home only to get ready for an evening out again. It's what makes New York the greatest city on the planet.

Now I have previously babbled incessantly about Tokyo, how it also crackles with energy. But no other city makes me smile with pleasure like New York. If it ever happens - in some way, shape or form, the possibility of moving here would never be turned down. Of course, reality tells me that would really mean living in Yonkers, or Staten Island, because there is no way that I'd be able to afford Manhattan. But one can dream.

And speaking of dreams, a hungry man woke up from a rather comfy rest, to fulfill his waking dream of eating his way through Manhattan. The second day of the food odyssey continues.

New York is capital 'C', crazy when it comes to food. Too many choices plus not enough time can equal head spinning confusion. That is why I usually like to pre-plan visiting certain places, just to make sure I don't get distracted or worse, stuck in "where do I eat?" decision hell. Of course, it's totally recommended by a hungry man to take a stroll and stumble upon a place if you don't like to plan ahead. I try to do a combination of both, and since we had skipped breakfast, by the time lunchtime rolled around, we were hungry and ready for a mid afternoon meal.

We were in SoHo, the famed neighbourhood named after the term 'South of Houston (pronounced 'house-stun')' street. There were so many quaint little bistros and cafes to stop off, but quite a few were full, with many watching the FIFA World Cup. So we settled on - surprise, surprise, a pub.

images courtesy of Stephen Wilson

Ken's Bromme Street Bar is as local as you can get when it comes to neighbourhood pubs. My sister and I were given an awesome window seat, which is absolute prime viewing real estate in any restaurant or bar/pub in SoHo. We watched (and took the occasional picture) the crowds walking by the pub, while noshing on BLT sandwiches - the old school, née 'bad' version. You know what I'm talking about. No artisanal cheese here, this was the processed cheese version(!), tomato and very crisp bacon on fresh rye bread with chips. Trust me, this is as non pretentious as you can possibly get but the beer is cold, the food is pretty good and it will give you that extra energy you need as you continue to shop and explore the city.

As the odyssey continues, I do have a fun NYC story to share.

As the shopping day continued, my sister was battling crowds in a department store and I decided I'd wait outside for her. I grabbed a bottle of water from a food truck outside the store and waited for her. All of sudden I hear "Hey, Mister". My first thought, was "Oh God, should I even bother to look?" Turns out it was the same food truck vendor I bought the water from. He was leaning outside his truck window and calling for me. So I went over to him, and he asks if I'd mind watching his truck while he pops down the street to run an errand. Honestly, what can you do. I took it as a badge of honour that this total stranger trusts a total stranger to watch his livelihood. So I said yes, and that's how this picture came about.

image courtesy of Marcia Wilson

My sister just happened to catch me in the process of giving information to a potential customer, and pointing to the missing vendor (whom just happened to be right down the street). Next thing you know, there's the shot and history is made. Ah New York and it's people. That's what I love the most about the city - you will always come away with a unique New York story. It's never, ever boring.
Kenn's Broome Street Bar 363 W Broadway New York, NY 10013

Next: The Finale - A Gotham Odyssey.

Read Part 1 of a Gotham Odyssey here

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The demise of THG

At various times over the past few months, a hungry man has referred to an acronym entitled 'THG'. I won't reveal what it really stands for, but I will state that from this point forward, THG will no longer be a part of this blog.

It's always a strange thing when relationships end. A great deal of questions come up, including what role you yourself played in its untimely demise. But, I will say this. The lessons I have learned from these past few months with THG, has definitely shaped me for whatever decisions - be it good or bad, I will need to make regarding relationships going forward. It doesn't matter whether it's professional or personal. I needed a shake, and I got one.

As the reigning lifestyle doyenne and former felon Martha Stewart often says, 'It's a good thing."

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Gotham Odyssey: Food tripping in New York. Part 1

images courtesy of Marcia Wilson and Stephen Wilson

The time is now.

I kept repeating that sentence/song by Moloko (for a refresher, listen to it here) to myself as I made the booking to visit a city that's always been close to my heart and mind, yet the farthest from my current travel destinations.

It has been eight long years since I last set foot in New York. It was the prime holiday destination for my deceased partner and I, and after he passed, the desire to return waned considerably. But here's the thing about New York - it just gets under your skin, and like a chocolate addiction, you can never really stay away from it for long.

So after finally realizing that this city waits for no man, I gave in, bought two tickets and sped off to spend a birthday holiday weekend with my sister.

Now it may have only been eight years for me, but can you imagine the shock of not visiting the city since the late 80s? Yes, that's where my sister comes in. I know. I was shocked too. And to be honest, it was much easier on the heart and mind - not to mention much more potential for fun, to go with someone who didn't have sharp memories of familiar places and landmarks.

Of course, a hungry man went to New York not just to celebrate birthdays, but also to eat. It's always a great privilege to revisit what is truly the greatest culinary mecca in the world.

The culinary odyssey begins.

After a quick and painless flight from Toronto via Porter Airlines, we arrived in sunny, hot Manhattan sometime after 6pm. We checked into the Intercontinental Times Square, grabbed my personally written, hand dandy New York subway instructions and headed off to The Spotted Pig.

The Spotted Pig or 'the piggy’ was a personal must-visit food destination. It has often been mentioned in numerous magazines and websites for being the top pub in the city, and I wanted to know why. Located in the West Village, the pig has been around for about ten years, and has gained a reputation not just for its unpretentious decor and attitude, but also for its incredible food.

I suppose it's only fair to mention that it is also a perennial favourite of celebrities and power players, but frankly - and I've said this before on the blog, I could care less that Taylor Swift or Jay Z hang out there. I came to the piggy to eat what has been consistently voted as the best burger in town.

images courtesy of Stephen Wilson

Now it must be said that I'm not known for my patience, and despite my own directions, I was having trouble finding the place. Thankfully I had a patient person with me, and my sister was the one who wouldn't give up. So after calming me down, we finally, after a sweaty walk, located the place and I'm so glad we did.

When we arrived, we were told it would be about a two-hour wait. Fifteen minutes later, we were sitting down at a table in a quiet corner of the packed pub. Why were we singled out for preferential treatment? Who knows, luck and circumstance maybe? I didn't question it. Perhaps it was because the hostess was a fun, funny, awesome woman who took a shine to us. Either way, her generosity was definitely returned when we left the pub later that evening.

I had previously mentioned the decor of the pub being unpretentious, and it is. There are lots of little hidden nooks and crannies, and I can see why certain public figures would like the privacy of the place. I will again point out the casual atmosphere of the place, but the clientele is from all walks of life. Students, businessmen and women, ladies who lunch, romantic couples gay and straight, all pile in here. It is a perfectly democratic place in which no one would ever feel uncomfortable hanging in a suit, a vintage dress or a simple pair of shorts.

But back to the food, which was the point of the visit. The menu at the piggy is not complicated. My sister ordered the cheese dumplings with a dollop of garlic pesto sauce. I ordered the chargrilled burger with Roquefort cheese, which came with shoestring fries. And the best part about the order? You can have your burger grilled exactly the way you like it - which immediately made me think the meat is ground right in the kitchen.

I ordered my burger medium rare. The result was an incredibly juicy, cheesy delicious burger that pretty much justified it's status as a iconic New York burger, and it was one of the best I've tasted in a long, long time. My dinner companion’s cheese dumplings were soft, almost pillow-like in texture, and the flavour of the pesto-garlic sauce was so subtle, it just added a natural rustic flavour to the dish. My sister has an aversion to garlic, and is very quick to notice it in dishes. But she couldn't with this dish and I concurred. Fantastic.

A hungry man has also noted his appetite for desserts numerous times on this blog, so I wasn't about to pass up on the crème caramel on offer at the pig. This is a classic French dessert, and is also tricky when it comes to making this dessert en masse. Why? Because it's often reliant on the right room and oven temperature, making sure the creamy custard flan isn't too thick or thin, it should ‘wobble’ when it’s shaken. The caramel should be saucy but not runny, and especially not burnt which can obviously ruin the flavour. None of these worries were a consideration. The dessert was light, 'eggy' , fluffy, and yes, ‘wobbly’ – basically, the perfect consistency. The caramel was not too sweet or too runny, and more importantly, not burnt.

We could have stayed all night. It was lovely sitting at our table, enjoying drinks and watching the crowds as the late afternoon light turned to dark and the staff began to light candles in the very busy pub. The meal and service at the piggy was just the perfect start to a New York culinary journey.

Although we were very lucky to snag a table so quickly, it is probably best to try to reserve a spot should you decide you wish to check out the piggy. It's definitely worth the trek and who knows, maybe you'll run into someone on your way in and think "Hey, was that Bill Clinton?"
The Spotted Pig, West Village› 314 W 11th St, New York, NY 10014

The odyssey continues with Part 2 - coming up next.