Food Trips: Gotham Does it Best

I love New York. I’ve been coming to Gotham regularly my entire adult life. I love it so much, I ran the NYC Marathon in 2011 (I won’t be doing that again). Of course one of the reasons I love it is the food.
From pizza and hot dogs on the street to some of the world’s best restaurants, you can find it all—any hour of the day—in the Big Apple. Here is a roundup of our restaurant experiences during a recent holiday trip I took with my husband, Jay. We had a mix of tried-and-true restaurants we love, recommendations and one or two “wild cards” necessitated by timing and convenience.
I’ll be clear: There were no clunkers in the mix. If I mention it here, it’s a recommendation. We were nothing but pleased. Another note worth mentioning is that my husband, for medical reasons, must eat low-fat foods, so his options will always be some of the healthiest on the menu. While I try to eat plant-based or pescatarian in my day-to-day life, I eat anything and everything when traveling—as you’ll see.
Gigino Trattoria, 323 Greenwich Street, 212-431-1112. This is my favorite NYC restaurant. I bring friends here. I recommend it to friends. After the NYC Marathon, when my stomach was upset from Gu and Chomps and I was exhausted and could think only of a hot bath and then a soft bed, I uttered one word when my family finally caught up with me in Columbus Circle: “Gigino.” Downtown we subwayed to the Chambers Street station and found a table two down from Mo Rocca. But this isn’t necessarily a see-and-be-seen place, marathon medal or not. This truly neighborhood eatery plates delicious Italian food, that’s not too spendy, in a beautiful setting in a great part of the city, Tribeca. (It’s just a few blocks from the 911 Memorial and Museum if you’re planning your own trip.) This time we found ourselves downtown with a few hours before dinner on a cold day, so we fell into a table here. I had the burrata and a glass of wine, and Jay had beet salad. Both excellent. Gigino is always everything I think it will be. If you want to check the place out, watch the movie Dinner Rush (2000, Danny Aiello and John Corbett). Almost the entire film is shot inside the restaurant.

Babbo Ristorante and Enoteca, 110 Waverly Place, New York, 212-777-0303. A few restaurants on my list warranted setting alarms in my Gmail calendar for the very minute I would be allowed to make a reservation; they are also those recommended to me by my foodie brother, Chuck. This is one of them. Babbo takes reservations up to one calendar month in advance. We dined here on January 1; I made my reservation December 1. This is one of the restaurants of celebrity chef Mario Batali—Celebuchef? Cheflebrity?—and dining here will demonstrate to patrons why Batali is famous and they are not. The haute Italian cuisine was exquisite. I chose the Mussels “alla Tarantina” for my first course, and it was delicious, a kind of mussels salad. This was something very new for me, as I don’t normally order them, but I accepted the waiter’s suggestion and was pleased. My husband’s first course was the beautiful (and reportedly delicious beet tartare). For entrées, I chose the goose liver ravioli, a specialty of the house, tasty in its dark beauty, and my husband selected the whole grilled branzino, with saffron braised fennel and lemon oregano jam and gave it five stars. A little bit of flare here: the tea comes with a sugar selection that includes honeycombs, brown and white sugar. I didn’t love a trend I saw in NYC restaurants: Not offering wine by the glass, only by the half-bottle. One of the least expensive half-bottles I found was $26, and it looked a lot like a glass of wine to me. We will keep this on our list of places to return to though. Food, service, ambience and neighborhood (just down the street from Washington Square) were perfect.
Norma’s, 119 W 56th Street (inside Le Parker Meridien hotel, 212-708-7460. We had breakfast reservations here (made in August for January 2) for 7:45 a.m. in advance of my Drybar blowout on the lower level of the same hotel, and when we arrived, the not-too-big space wasn’t at all full, but by the time we left at 9:25, there was a line of hungry brunchers waiting. I made my decision to eat here after scanning the “Mom Can’t Make This” section of the brunch menu. While there is a $1,000 lobster frittata with Beluga caviar on the menu, I skipped that in favor of a fabulous looking and tasting Very Berry Brioche French Toast, stuffed with cheese and berries. My husband enjoyed his “light and healthy egg white primavera omelet” that was so stuffed with veggies it was like a chunky salad inside, and the breakfast potatoes were enviable enough that I stole some. Norma’s is expensive. My French toast was $31, and it was one of the lesser items on the menu. Coffee is $7 per person. I loved every bite, though, and the service was divine. If you want to splurge for brunch, this is your place!

Russian Tea Room, 150 W 57th Street, 212-581-7100. My foodie brother rolled his eyes so hard he hurt his head when he found out we were dining here on the night we had tickets for The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center (a Russian-themed evening!) because this is such a touristic thing to do. But you know why people do it? Because it’s awesome! As I like to say, I enjoy enjoyable things, and a meal here is definitely that. The restaurant itself is sumptuous with its deep green walls lined with red banquettes, prints of Russian art and gilded samovars punctuating every corner and divider. Delightfully, RTR also has a pre- and post-theater prix fixe three-course dinner for $65 per person, which is not cheap, but makes life easier when you’re trying to make a curtain time in the area (it’s a 10-15 minute walk to Lincoln Center). And, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles (see what I did there? With my Russian theme?), the choices on the prix fixe included things my husband could eat. I had a goat cheese and wild mushroom blinchik (little crepe) for my first course and, again, I asked the waiter’s advice between the fish of the day or the
Côtelette à la Kiev, and he encouraged the latter, as it is a specialty of the house. It did not disappoint, buttery, plentiful, beautifully golden. And with mashed potatoes! Jay’s salad had many pecans he had to give to me, but the rest was delightful, and he, of course, had the sea bass special. We chose chocolate mouse and tiramisu for dessert. The little touches of the tea cups (glasses held with metal frames), the music, the Russian-accented waiters, were all perfection. We’ll be back, especially when Tchaikovsky is on the “menu” at the New York City Ballet. It’s easy to book a table on the restaurant’s Website, which they allow you to do well ahead of time (as in months). I requested a romantic table, and we got a luxurious banquette along the wall, not a two-top in the middle of the room, full of other two-tops.
Brasserie Les Halles, 411 Park Avenue (at 29th Street), 212-679-4111. I discovered this restaurant, featured prominently in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, when I was trying to make brunch reservations for twelve several years ago, and found that NYC restaurants expect two pay stubs, a credit check and a letter of reference from the royal family to hold a table that size. Chuck suggested this place, and easy-as-frites, we had our table… and a delicious brunch for a reasonable price in Manhattan. We love the neighborhood, as we can stroll by the Flat Iron building and Madison Square Park before or after, or shop at Macy’s Herald Square after a bit of a stroll. (There is a downtown location, as well, but I’ve never been.) Now, Les Halles is one of my husband’s favorite NYC brunch destinations. I always have the eggs Benedict and frites (for which they are justly renowned). Careful! We dined here at 10 a.m. on a Sunday, so no mimosas or bloody Marys until after noon that day of the week. My husband had an egg-white omelet and sampled a few of the fries (they are irresistible!). The interior of this place is gorgeous, with its deep-dark wood walls, booths and bar that make you feel as if you are stepping into a Parisian café of the best kind. This is another restaurant we visit on each trip. You might want to, as well. I made our reservations the night before on Open Table.

Gog’gan, 364 W 46th Street (Restaurant Row), 212-315-2969. This Korean restaurant in the theater district is probably my favorite new find of the trip. We were meeting a high school friend of mine (South Dakotans living large!) and his boyfriend for dinner, and they chose the venue after having a great experience here once before. What a treasure! The service was amazing, professional, attentive but not hovering, the food was imaginative but still delicious and appealing, and we lingered and talked without feeling rushed. This was the place it was most difficult for me to choose my courses as practically half the menu looked like I needed to try it. I was still full from brunch, however, so I only had two things, sharing my first course, the Japchae (sweet-potato noodles stir-fried with sesame oil, wild mushrooms, carrots, spinach and onions) with Jay—I loved it; he thought it was “fine.” Mat ordered the Seafood Scallion Jeon, and I had appetizer envy, though the dish was huge: a Korean pancake made with fresh local seafood. Each plate was beautifully—even dramatically—arranged, and the tastes and smells just increased my appetite. I still only had room for a small entrée, so I chose the house’s version of steak tartare from the appetizer menu, which was served with pear, chives and a quail egg. It was a little on the hot side of the spicy scale, so while I enjoyed it, I would probably sample something milder next time. I don’t remember what everyone else ordered, even with pictures to remind me, but the images are beautiful: whole fish (probably brook trout), beef with marrow bones…and the pork belly. This is going on my Every-Time-I’m-In-NYC list. Hopefully, our friends can join us again.
The Flame Diner, 893 9th Avenue (at 58th Street), 212-765-7962. Everyone needs a local diner, even if you’re staying in the city for just a few days. We found this wonderful place with the Yelp app by searching for open restaurants at 8 a.m. The Flame is open 24 hours, and we found it perfect for avoiding our over-priced hotel breakfast, as it was just across the street from us. We sat in a window booth both times we went, and the two of us dined (I even had a mimosa, which raised questions for my waitress… it was a Tuesday) for about the same price as one of our Norma’s selections. I had berry French toast, and while it wasn’t as decadent as my previous sampling of this dish just days before, it was thoroughly delightful, along with two perfectly over-easy fried eggs. The coffee was hot and strong, and the service was friendly and welcoming. As we lingered in the warm, poinsettia-lined diner, we could see so many neighborhood people coming and going, calling their servers and hosts by name and being greeted in kind. The day we left I had the eggs benedict for the road. It stuck to my ribs for sure! Jay was also able to get egg-white omelets here; the breakfast menu alone is huge. We thought we might try another place for breakfast one day, but… we just couldn’t make ourselves. If you can’t get to The Flame next time you’re in the city, find your own neighborhood diner somewhere in the five boroughs to read the morning paper and plan your day along with other New Yorkers.
Café 2, on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art, accessible to museum visitors only, 11 W 53rd Street (between Fifth and Sixth avenues). We have gotten in the habit of avoiding museum eateries, as we generally find them crowded, over-priced and not up to par with area restaurants, wherever we are in the world, but we should have known MoMA would be an exception. Our friend Kim is on staff at the museum, and so after a quick peek into a special Jackson Pollock exhibition, we met her here. The café has a small outer coffee area, and we found a long line for seating (and table service). The line moves quickly, as café staffers are dedicated to monitoring space and moving people through, but employees go to the head of the line, so no worries for us! We hadn’t yet decided if we were just going to have tea/coffee here or eat a meal, as we had theater tickets downtown that night at 7 and were trying to hold off, but once we saw the menu, neither of us could resist trying just one dish. I selected the cavatelli pasta with butternut squash, broccoli and light ricotta cheese. It was so tasty, fresh and light; I was thrilled. Jay can never resist salmon, and he was delighted with his, which came with greens and Brussels sprouts, a favorite. Our friend had tea, but you can also have beer, wine and cocktails here. What a great spot for a mild repast to fortify your forays into Van Gogh-land or the most recent Picasso sculpture exhibition. After our time with Kim ended, we slipped back into the museum’s permanent collection for some Duchamp and Rothko before carrying on with our day. Jay has since declared this was the best salmon he’d had in a long time.
Masseria dei Vini, 887 9th Avenue (between 57th and 58th), 202-315-2888. We still felt like we wanted some supper before we headed downtown to see Sleep No More at the McKittrick Hotel, so I Yelped our neighborhood and found this Italian restaurant, also just across the street. The wine its name refers to is well represented: An entire wall of the beautiful, sleek, white-table restaurant is covered in glittering glass wine racks boasting an array of pristine bottles. Our check-in time for the play was 7 p.m., and we still had to get downtown from Midtown, so we showed up at the restaurant promptly at 5 p.m. and were the first ones seated. As we weren’t famished due to the movable feast that was our afternoon, I skipped the appetizer and noshed on the tasty fresh bread our server delivered. The menu looked amazing, but I was craving some Italian pizza like I had last summer in the Cinque Terre in Italy, so I chose the Tartufo Nero pizza, with mozzarella, fontina, parmigiano, robiola and black truffle. Jay again went for the branzino, which was served with Brussels sprouts and mashed potatoes (a bite or two of which I availed myself). We were both incredibly pleased by our Yelp luck. When it became clear to me I could not finish the pizza (“individual” on the Italian food scale is a bit much for me), I felt no shame in picking off the remaining mushrooms. They were wonderful about our need for speed, and we had no trouble arriving on time for the evening’s entertainment.
Landmarc, two locations, ours was 10 Columbus Circle (on the third floor of the Time Warner Center), 212-823-6123. This was a big night for us, the night we would see Hamilton on Broadway, and also the last night of our trip. My brother Chuck suggested this Marc Murphy restaurant as a great pre-theater dinner place, and so I booked it one month ahead. Our table was near the windows, overlooking the beautiful, dark-already-at-5-p.m. cityscape, and our server was friendly and helpful when I asked questions about his recommendations. In the end, I chose the foie gras terrine for my first coarse and spaghetti carbonara, which I was told is a fan favorite, for my entrée. Both were delicious, tasty and satisfying dishes, and both somewhat surprisingly light—or at least not too heavy. My husband surprised me by ordering the French onion soup (he had to eat around the formidable layer of cheese on the top), and then didn’t surprise me by ordering salmon, which was served on a bed of Beluga lentils. Although Landmarc also follows the “no wines by the glass, only half-bottles” trend, the half bottle brought to the table was actually a small bottle of wine instead of what looked at Babbo like a single glass. While I was completely pleased, my husband, a connoisseur of salmon (he has a Top Five Salmon Entrees of My Life list), didn’t find this restaurant remarkable. I would go back, though, for the spaghetti alone.
I thought I would end by choosing a favorite and asking my husband for his, but once we started talking about our respective No. 1 choices, we quickly saw we couldn’t make them, for each meal was special and memorable in some way, and each restaurant topped by another we tried in an endless loop.
In the end, it’s hard to go wrong in New York City, and yet, again, the Big Apple didn’t let us down at all.

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