Food and the City: Only in NY

The Shake Shack

When I left for NYC armed with a highly enthusing list of suggestions, recommendations and must-eats, I was determined to make the culinary most of my stay. But in a city such as this, it can certainly be an overwhelming mission statement: where do you start, what do you choose, where do you go? As often in the trickier situations of life, forethought and discernment are key. A mental list was drawn in which I gathered my priorities, and among them, high up in the list, those food items that most distinctly say “New York City” to me.

Bagels @ Murray’s

Rising early on Sunday morning (a happy effect of the jetlag), we skipped the uninteresting hotel breakfast and walked out into the sunshine to begin the day’s adventures — the savvy food-traveler knows that every meal is a precious opportunity, and he can’t let low blood sugar get in the way of proper fulfillment. Thankfully in this instance, breakfast was right around the corner, in the form of Murray’s Bagels. The shop was small and dim, and one could sense a bustling activity going on behind the counter and out of view — the staff surely kneading, poaching and baking frantically to satisfy the bagel needs of the good people of New York.

For anyone who has yet to visit this type of bagel spot, what you do is choose the kind of bagel you want (plain, poppyseed, sesame, rye, onion, garlic, but also cinnamon, raisin, etc.). They will slice the bagel horizontally, optionally toast it (but many a New Yorker claims that this is heresy for a good bagel), spread it thickly with the spread of your choice (sometimes referred to as “schmear” and usually cream-cheese based), reassemble the bagel, cut it in two half-moons for easier handling, wrap it up in paper and place the whole thing in a brown paper bag.

Maxence ordered a poppyseed bagel with cream cheese while I, ever the indecisive, got an everything bagel (that’s a bagel with all the available savory seasonings) with cream cheese. At Murray’s they don’t toast the bagels (oh god no), but if you’re lucky and/or an early riser, your bagel will be just coming out of the oven. We sat outside on the wooden bench (those welcoming benches being one of my favorite features of New York) and munched on our bagels, still wonderfully warm and oozing with cream cheese. After eating half of mine I had to give up the fight and reflected that we could easily have shared one, but Maxence didn’t seem to agree, though with his mouth full I couldn’t tell for sure what he was saying.

Diner fare @ Eisenberg’s

The next morning, we decided to have a real, protein-rich, American diner breakfast, and headed towards Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop on 5th Avenue, an old-fashioned luncheonette that dates back from 1929 and has stayed pretty much the same ever since. We sat at the bar (where else could you possibly want to sit?) and ordered some coffee, poached eggs with pastrami for me, poached eggs with bacon for Maxence, a bialy each and a tiny tub of cream cheese.

“And what would a bialy be?”, the non-New-Yorker asks. The bialy could be described as the lesser-known brother of the bagel: it is also a chewy and round yeast roll and an Eastern-European Jewish specialty, but it is flatter, lighter in texture (it is simply baked, not poached) and instead of a hole in the center, it has a slight depression that is usually sprinkled with chopped onions (and sometimes poppyseeds) before baking. I had read about them, but this was my first actual encounter with one: ours were plain (no onion or poppyseed) and we thought them good, somewhat similar to English muffins.

My dish came with home fries, which I expected would be homemade French fries, but discovered are in fact a dish of boiled and diced potatoes, fried in a skillet with onions. Maxence went for the other choice of side, grits — something I never would have ordered for myself because I abhor porridge, but was nonetheless happy to taste. (But bleh. Horribly porridgy.) To be truthful the food was just okay and definitely greasy (my sweater smelled like home fries all day!), but the overall experience — the decor and the kind staff and the fact that an authentic NYPD officer came to sit right next to us for his daily paper and pancakes — made it worth every cent.

Bialys @ Kossar’s

One more word about bialys: just a few days later, I was out on the Lower East Side and I made it a point to go to Kossar’s Bialystoker Kuchen Bakery, conveniently located right next door to Doughnut Plant. Although it is more often referred to as “Kossar’s”, the full name of this bakery — considered by many as the best purveyor of bialys in NYC — is a reminder of the origin of the word “bialy”, as introduced by immigrants from the town of Bialystok in Poland. I purchased a simple garlic bialy (browner and much more fragrant than the ones at Eisenberg’s), which travelled with me in its brown bag all the way back to Paris the next day, for a delicious oh-how-good-it-feels-to-be-off-that-plane-and-home-again snack.

Pizza @ John’s of Bleecker St.

I’m sure everyone will agree that I just couldn’t spend a week in the city and not have me some New York pizza, thin-crusted, light on the toppings and coal-oven baked. While everyone in New York seems to have one single and absolute favorite pizzeria that he would take up arms for any day, we chose to remain safely out of the debate and simply went to the recommended pizza place that was most convenient for us, John’s of Bleecker Street. It was semi-late on a Sunday evening and when we got there the place was nice and quiet, with just a handful of customers and none of the usual line out front. We sat in a booth (our preferred choice when there is no bar to sit at) and ordered a large #44: cheese, tomato sauce, anchovies, sausage, onions and peppers. It quickly made its appearance in its tin platter, already cut in six huge pieces that we vultured upon with delight and, of course, our fingers. Yum.

Burgers @ the Shake Shack

A trip to the US could not, would not, be complete without a good burger ‘n fries. In my personal hall of fame, In-N-Out Burger has held the first place for a while and I still lay awake at night sometimes, wishing I could drive out to their Mountain View location off 101, be greeted by the impossibly cheerful staff, order from the menu because that’s the new cool, and watch the fresh potatoes go through the hand-operated slicer, wishing I had one of those, while I wait for the thin cardboard box that snugly holds my meal.

In-N-Out Burger is sadly a West Coast thing, but I had read and heard enough good things about The Shake Shack to be confident that it would deliver. The Shake Shack is a fast-food stand that opened about a year ago in a great setting beneath the trees of Madison Square Park, serving hot-dogs, burgers and ice-cream desserts. It has been much buzzed about and seems to benefit from a great popularity, hence the incredibly long lines during the mealtime rush hours. (But as someone recently joked to me: “New Yorkers love to stand in line. It doesn’t matter what it’s for — they see a line, they get in it and wait with the others.”) With that knowledge we tried to go at an odd hour, around 3pm on a Monday afternoon, and indeed the line was just long enough to give you time to decide what you wanted.

I ordered a Shack Burger (American cheese, tomato, lettuce and the special Shack sauce) and fries, while Maxence tried the same burger plus a Chicago Dog (all-beef dog, lettuce, tomato, peppers, pickles, onion, relish, cucumber, celery salt and mustard on a poppy seed bun). We took our platters out to a nice table in the half-shade, and dug in. Is it possible to just nibble on a burger? I think not. Something in the very nature of it brings out your inner lion. The sun was shining, the hot-dog was delicious, the crinkle-cut fries golden and crunchy, the meat in the burger extremely tasty and moist, and although In-N-Out still holds my heart for the buns (I like them a bit more toasted) and the slender fries, this definitely scratched the itch.

Murray’s
500 6th Ave (Btwn 12th & 13th St)
(212) 462-2830

Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop
174 5th Ave (Btwn 22nd & 23rd St)
(212) 675-5096

Kossar’s Bialys
367 Grand St (Btwn Norfolk & Essex St)
(212) 473-4810

John’s of Bleecker Street
278 Bleecker St (Btwn 6th Ave & 7th Ave)
(212) 243-1680

The Shake Shack
Madison Square Park (At 23rd St & Madison Ave)
(212) 889-6600

  • Harlan

    Re bagels.

    The history of bagels is really quite interesting. They first started being mass-marketed in the US in the 1970s, by Lenders, who figured out how to stuff them with so many preservatives that they could sit in refrigerators for weeks before going stale. (Otherwise, bagels stale in a couple of days.) Of course, they were chewy, tasteless, and gigantic. Historically, bagels were quite small, maybe half the amount of dough of what you probably got at Murray’s. As a result, the ratio of crust to insides was much different, and much better, according to many people. (As a baguette fan, I’m sure you understand this argument!) Sometime in the 80s, I think, bagels got “supersized”. Although good (if not great) bagels are now available throughout the US at local bakeries, they do tend to be ridiculously large. Oddly enough, they grew in New York too. In some bagel stores (such as the one that I go to to read the Sunday New York Times at), you can get “mini-bagels”, which are actually the size they used to be 20 years ago…

    Also, regarding flavors, “everything” is only about 15 or 20 years old, I think, and “cinnamon-raisin” is horrifying to traditionalists. The most traditional bagel would probably be a plain bagel, with cream cheese, and lox, which is a Jewish smoked salmon. Mmm, lox.

    And finally, a plug for the bagels I grew up on, a remarkably authentic bagel shop in Madison, WI, Bagels Forever, http://www.bagelsforever.com/ .

  • Christy

    I love, love, love your writing. (You must be sick of the adulation by now!)
    I think I spend hours of my day when I should be laundering or cleaning reading through the archives. But, my husband and daughter appreciate it – our dining has definitely become more inspired as of late!

  • http://hanging-fire.net Karin

    I always enjoy your blog; the NYC essays have been particularly enjoyable, being a fascinating view of a city I love well.

    Regarding grits: as much as I love New York, I’d never get grits there. Much better to have them Low Country style, with cooked shrimp (and possibly cheese, depending on who you ask); much more interesting and flavorful.

  • x

    H&H Bagels is really the only place to get bagels in NYC. I’ve never even heard of Murray’s!

  • Dnash

    Re: “cinnamon-raisin is horrifying to traditionalists.”

    Yeah, the cafe next to my apartment in Chicago gets yummy bagels from a bakery in nearby Skokie. One day a couple months ago I asked for a blueberry one, and the guy gave me a mock-haranguing about how utterly “wrong” blueberry bagels are. I had never encountered this concept before. I still get blueberry or cinnamon-raisin bagels, though.

  • Robert

    Re: In-n-Out (You brought it up!)

    Having read your blog entry for today shortly after returning home from lunching alfresco at In-n-Out, I thought I’d send you this link. To reinforce your memories, Clotilde, check out this website:

    http://www.badmouth.net/archives/000153.php

    with its plenteous passel of pulchritudinous product portraits. Note the “Flying Dutchman” and “Protein Style” burgers – both darlings of the Atkins Diet set. One off-menu item not included is the newly minted “16 x 16″ which extends from one end of the to-go box to the other. It consists of a single bun, a single standard “garnish” and 16 meat patties each topped with a slice of cheese. A real civilization-toppler. I hope your next trip to America brings you “way out west.”

  • http://richardab.typepad.com/iheartnyc/ Richard AB

    I highly agree with you about the In and Out burger. I have never had one anywhere that compares. It’s one of the things I miss most about California.

    I love your comment about New Yorkers and lines. I could never figure that out. I think they like to be abused or maybe they have to eat there becauce “everyone else” is eating there. You wouldn’t want to be left out would you?

    Well, this weekend was the holiday weekend so many of the most popular places in NYC didn’t have a line. I tried a place called “Tartine” in the Village. Tartine always has a crowd out front so I always pass it by. This weekend it didn’t so I decided to try it. WOW! It was great and I see that the lines were there for a reason! Now, some say it is a Psudo-French bistro but who cares? The food was French “style” but delicious and a great deal. I have some pics and description of what we ate on my blog.

    http://richardab.typepad.com/iheartnyc/2005/07/tartine.html

    I have one other question, if New Yorkers love to wait in line for the best food, why aren’t there long lines at Grays Papaya? Certainly they habe the worlds best hot dog…

  • Patsy

    Heart, be still! Of all the pizza joints in this crazy world, you happened to go to my all-time favorite. At one time many years ago I lived just around the corner from John’s — imagine having it as your neighborhood joint! — and didn’t even realize, as perfetto as it was, that this was quintessential pizza. Only after I moved to the West Coast and had to put up with years of ersatz pies could I fully appreciate John’s high quality.

    I agree about In n Out in California. In Marin County where I live the corporation was not allowed to have a drive-through, so we have to go inside to order, but it’s worth the inconvenience.

    Glad you had such a taste adventure trip to my former home.

  • nbm

    New Yorkers actually stand ON line. This is a local locution that got me mocked in college.

    Next time you’re in NY try one of Danny Meyer (the Shake Shack guy)’s real restaurants, like Gramercy Tavern. They have a style of decor and service that strikes me as a kind of pinnacle of American attitude, the friendly and the professional in perfect balance.

  • john

    Re “waiting on line:” several years ago on a New York visit (I grew up there but moved away long ago) I made my usual pilgrimage to Barney Greengrass. As I was paying for my sublime breakfast–scrambled eggs with *salty* lox and caramelized onions, onion bagel with cream cheese, coffee–I asked the cashier if it was possible to order online. “You’ll come Sunday morning, you’ll wait on line, then you’ll order,” he answered.

    Happily Greengrass has a web site now:
    https://www.barneygreengrass.com/
    Besides the salty lox, I especially recommend the smoked sable (black cod.)

  • Vicky Go

    Re “bialy” – The former NYT restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton wrote a wonderful little book “The Bialy Eaters” that traced the origin of bialy and the people who made them.

    As for “dim sum” you should have just stuck w HSF – Hee Sheung Fung – on broadway, just off Canal.

    There are some great ones – they don’t even have English names – across Broadway, almost under the Manhattan Bridge. Nobody speaks English & they’re brusque and nearly always “rude” but the food is wonderful and for that you can forgive them all their shortcomings.

    VG

  • Rainey

    Arggggggh! I live on the West Coast so I am in CONSTANT conflict with everyone about In n Out burgers. I think they’re utterly pedestrian (except that you can get grilled onions on them)! And they have yet to discover that a fry needs to be twice fried to get properly crispy…

    Little did I ever think I’d read my all-time favorite foodie — from Paris no less! — to be subjected to the same frustration!

    Oh well. We were bound to disagree sometime or other. =o That said, it was fun to read about your NYC adventures and I look forward to, one day, seeing you write about a trip to LA (where I’d even show up at an In n Out to meet you ;> ).

  • Monica

    I’m from Southern California and I LOVE In N Out Burgers. I’m hoping they keep creeping thier way east and one will eventually open up here in Colorado.

  • Kelly

    Lettuce on a Chicago-style dog???!! only in NY is right, that’s heresy to a Chicagoan.

  • sifi

    Clotilde-
    Haven’t been on here for a while so thought I’d add a word or two. I live in SF and thorougly enjoy seeing Cal and now NYC through your eyes. The home fry story is perfect. I lived in NY 20 years ago, for 15 minutes, and ate a lot of pizza. You picked a good one. Did you go to coffee shops? I am Greek and we live and die by our coffee places. I like Joe’s on Waverly Place, not just because that is my name in English but for lots of reasons, including the restroom, which is quite clean and nice! To conclude, I love sesame bagels, they remind me of the koulourakia you can buy on the streets of Athens. Let me know if you decide to take a culinary tour there! Best regards, and keep up the good work.

  • j

    Your NYC posts are superb.. capturing the heart of the city.. through its meals.

  • http://www.conceptbooks.com Don

    Two minor comments:
    1. A “schmear” is a light spreading of cream cheese on your bagel, much less than the thick, regular spread.

    2. You needn’t show up early for fresh bagels at most good bagel shops, as they’re baked throughout the day – at least until early afternoon. I usually just watch the guy with the filled baskets coming out of the back and select whatever type of bagel he’s carrying.

    Also, re Kelly’s posting, there is no lettuce on a New York dog, ever. I love both Chicago and New York dogs, but the classic NY’er is mustard and sauerkraut, on a plain (no poppy seed), steamed bun.

    Thanks for the good writing!

  • Shelli

    Well, I guess Rainey and I are in the minority, but In-N-Out burgers, really! They may be better than your average fast food burger, but compared to a *real* burger like one from the Apple Pan in LA? Never!

    As for bialys, my aunt used to bake incomparable ones when I was a child, just thin enough to have some crunch on the bottom and fresh out of the oven so the butter would melt onto the minced onion and poppyseed topping…mmmm…

  • Jenji

    As luck would have it, I’ve just returned from the Shake Shack before reading this post, Clotilde! The Shack at twilight is especially lovely because the fireflies hover around the tables. (They must be fans too.) Today I deviated from the burger standby and had the bratwurst—quite good, and I’m hoping they’ll have the special sausage week they had at the end of last season…

  • http://guitar.about.com Dan in LIC

    Gotta say… I’m guessing your rec’s for NY pizza were from an old source. Consensus seems to be they’ve given up on making quality pies. A quick peek into their kitchen often reveals teenage “chefs”. I’m not a fan.

    Re: the comment about H&H being the only good bagel place in NYC… of course that’s silly. H&H make great bagels, but so do a bunch of other places in the city.

  • http://www.sistahcraft.typepad.com Sahara

    Clotilde, I love your blog for really getting me into cooking French food. It’s a DAMN SHAME however, that you didn’t experience the Uptown Juice Bar on 125th st in Harlem, when you were in New York. Vegetarian SOUL FOOD. No, it is not just collard greens and string beans, side order fare. Nothing is fried either, another common myth. This is Vegan Beef Stew, Curried Chicken, and Gluten Spare Ribs, Homeade Ravioli (no dairy), etc. Girl, the line is CONSTANTLY out the door from opening until closing. When they premiered the Barbequed Chicken, a days worth sold out in 2 hours. They’ve been around for about 25 years, with no end in sight.

    The next time you come to New York, look me up and I’ll personally take you to lunch there.

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/republicofcandy/ Candy

    Hi, Clotilde, I share the same esteem for In-N-Out, and was lucky to have just returned from CA to satisfy that craving. But yes, while back in NY, the Shake Shack’s burger will have to do.

  • http://www.womenscyclingmagazine.com Liz

    Heard your interview on NPR yesterday! How exciting for you and what a great site.

    I enjoyed your entry, being an NYC foodie myself (although a DC native), but I must insist on a reevaluation of your burger choice!

    For an evening meal, there is nothing better than a Corner Bistro burger! There are no shakes, and the beer is cheap but good.

    Next time you are in town I hope you will give it a try as I would love to hear what you think of one of my favorite places. It is also a NYC institution and one of the last real bar/burger joints in the area.

    Cheers!

  • JJ

    As a NYer, I am not a fan of bagels or bialys. They are just okay to me and so I am surprised you visited so many purveyors. Do you have them on your must list of recommendations after tasting them?
    I still long for, however, freshly-made soft pretzels with large salt crystals that I used to be able to buy fresh and hot. Now the street carts sell ones that are cold and taste day old. But the memory of the good clean softness inside and thin crisp exterior and pop of the salt keeps me a lifelong fan of the NYC pretzel.

  • sam

    The “list” link is wrong, it points to http://chocolateandzucchini.com/newyork/html,
    it needs to be .html.

    Cheers

  • http://www.thepinkpeppercorn.blogspot.com gail

    I can’t agree more to take in whatever is unique and special to wherever you are visiting. Thanks for the great post Clotilde!

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