Roberta's Pizza is but one unique eatery in New York. (Photo courtesy of Roberta's Pizza)
By no means am I an expert on New York. However, before each visit I do a lot of research and planning to find things that interest me. Frequent visits in the last few years have built up a list of places I really enjoyed, both with family and Miss Wright. This list is for people who enjoy getting a little off the beaten track and donʼt want to get dressed up to do it. Iʼll throw in a treat for the fancy people at the end.
I guess I should start at my first stop a few visits ago. Off the plane, onto a shuttle dropped my bags and hustled right over to Otafuku in the East Village. Hole in the wall hardly did the place justice, I felt cramped and I was the only one there ordering at the time (a rarity). They have since moved down the street to a larger space. The takoyaki (grilled octopus bites) was the reason for my visit. I love octopus and getting a serving of crispy coated goodness surrounding octopus and a slightly creamy, doughy middle might be enough but they top it with sauce and paper-thin bonito flakes. The wind stole a few of my flakes that day but I got smart after that and protected my snack better. The bonito was a lovely addition and tasted salty and slightly smoky. Otafuku (now Otafuku x Medetai) sells more food that may interest others but I only ate takoyaki, and when Iʼm there next week that will be my order again.
Photo by Geoff Worden
Miss Wright and I happened across this place and wandered in, fortuitously, during “Happy Giddy Silly Time,” which most bars call happy hour. PBR and Schaefer beer are a mere $3 and in Manhattan that is a sweet deal. There are also margarita specials, $5 on the rocks or $6 frozen. The decor alone is worth the stop, I cannot even begin to describe the overwhelming amount of fantastically kitschy clutter that adorns nearly every square inch of the place. The music was great and the bartender friendly and amusing; it all made me feel like I had been transported somewhere far far away from Chelsea. We did not eat here but made a note to return, especially between 4 and 6 p.m.
This place is hardly a best-kept secret but itʼs worth some effort, maybe not as much as Miss Wright and I invested on the last trip. We took the subway, but it was a weekend and maintenance work closed all the stops anywhere near where we wanted to be. Buses were available but we thought we could hail a cab faster ... we were wrong. Long story short, eventually a group of guys, all Polish as it turned out, offered us a ride and we made friends. Both of our mothers told us never to get in a car with strangers but they seemed nervous about us so what the heck?
Robertaʼs is a hipster paradise but I felt right at home, too. The pizzas are fantastic and they have plenty of specials making the lengthy wait for a table worth it, especially if you can wait in the back at the tiki bar which is open when itʼs not freezing cold. The wine list is short but reasonably priced and they completely won me over when I saw the way they listed domestic whites and reds (go ahead, check it out online). There are also plenty of reds that pair fabulously with the selection of cured meats.
There are plenty of reviews out there for those wanting to drill down into food specifics so I wonʼt burden you. Suffice it to say if I had a good meal and a great time while seated facing a painting that appeared to be from a zombie version of "Brokeback Mountain," youʼll enjoy it too. Is it worth the trek from Manhattan? Probably, but if youʼre in Brooklyn already itʼs well worth the effort. You will want a souvenir shirt from your visit.
ROBERTA'S MARGHERITA PIZZA
Photo courtesy of Roberta's Pizza
In case you thought I only do the low-brow thing, this fancy stop drew me in before a meal at Per Se (that Miss Wright so thoughtfully arranged for my birthday), located around the corner. Donʼt bother stopping at Per Se unless you made reservations long ago, but feel free to visit here for a glass of Champagne or one of the fancy cocktails. I am being tempted while I write this by the Gin Gusset (not for the name) made from gin, rosemary syrup, blueberry and lemon juices and elderflower liqueur. The drinks are pricy, even by New York standards, but the view is worth it if youʼre dining near Columbus Circle and want an elegant place to relax beforehand. The lounge does offer food, but with the menu at Per Se awaiting us we decided to stick with glasses of champagne only.
This appealed to me because 1) I spent two glorious weeks in South Africa a handful of years ago and 2) Miss Wright and I enjoy brunches with bubbly flowing. Despite the chatter about doing away with unlimited cocktail brunches, in the city that tradition survives and Braai offers bottomless exotic fruit “mimosas” for a mere $12.
Braai is the Afrikaans word for grill and it implies grilled meat over an open flame. South Africa celebrates a national holiday, Braai Day, dedicated to grilling, and I was lucky enough to be in Bloomfontein, South Africa on that day during my visit. Fond memories helped me decide to visit Braii for brunch.
The restaurant was empty when we arrived right as brunch service began but was much busier when we left. The ambiance is fine but the service was very friendly and the food mostly delicious. Much of the brunch food is pretty standard fare with a twist. My ostrich benedict was unique ... and tasty. Biltong, essentially beef jerky (but better), dressed up the Mac 'n Cheese and made it almost feel like it should be a dish served in South Africa. There are plenty of other options to choose from and I would welcome a return trip to continue my culinary reminiscing.
My brother and his wife had dinner there around the same time and spoke well of their meal, but I cannot yet vouch for anything beyond the bottomless brunch experience.
AMBIANCE AT BRAAI
Photo courtesy of Braai
This will not be a revelation to locals but if youʼre not from here and have a craving for macaroni and cheese, this is the place to go in Manhattan. I have visited their East Village location and found it to be a little crazy and in need of a face lift, but their Murray Hill spot was much nicer. The food was good and consistent in both.
Everything is served in iron skillets and it is hot and cheesy and comforting. The Alpine, featuring Gruyere and slab bacon, blew me away, but I think the way to go is The Sampler (Alpine included!). Served in an iron skillet with eight compartments you get to try a little of nearly everything. It comes with a laminated map of the dish so you know what youʼre about to eat and my brother and I devoured every bite.
There are some good beers available on tap (more at Murray Hill) and I recommend that over the very limited wine options.
Note: They offer gluten free options but not for The Sampler.
MEDITERRANEAN MAC FROM S'MAC
Photo courtesy of S'Mac
My next post will be about experimentation with Belmont cocktails, the official drink (two versions), the previous official drink (two versions) and two named Belmont you might not know at all.