Eat, Bicker, Love – Now with eating!

I know, I know. The blog is called Eat, Bicker, Love and I haven’t really talked about any of those things. I’m not sure I’m planning to chronicle the differences of opinion that my loving wife and I have, at least not in any particular detail. I have often said that we always agree on the destination and we never agree on the route. On the other hand, if you can find someone who will join you in quitting your job, selling your house, and traipsing around the world for the better part of a year, you should be willing to permit your lovely spouse to offer the occasional helpful suggestion. My wonderful wife is a very, very helpful woman, always eager to provide her guidance and wisdom about how a process might be improved.

We are now back in Brooklyn after our lovely weekend in (or on) Nantucket. Gone are the topsiders, the tomato pants, the yachts, the whale-themed everything, and the clams. (Actually, we still have clams. I’m not sure whose bright idea it was, but we carried the clams in a little cooler on the plane back to New York. I would think that carrying clams on a plane so close to 9/11 would have troubled the authorities, but apparently there have been no clam-based acts of terrorism to date, and we always seem to be fighting the last war.)

We have swapped the gentle tradewinds of Nantucket for the gritty clamor of Brooklyn, a borough that has seen its good times and its not so good times. When I was a kid, I was never very fond of Brooklyn, which I saw as a little full of itself. Between Welcome Back, Kotter and Moonstruck, Brooklyn struck me as a bit precious about its Brooklyn-ness. Living in Queens, (now THERE’S an unpretentious borough!) there were many years that I stayed out of Brooklyn on principle. What I knew about Brooklyn you could put on the head of a pin. I didn’t know Bay Ridge from bay rum. And yet times change and people grow. Now, I am not just a Brooklynite, I’m a Bushwicker. We’re staying in Bushwick with our dear friend John. This isn’t Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope or some other hoity toity part of Brooklyn, its Bushwick, where people sit on the stoop, without really moving, for weeks at a time. Seriously, there are these two guys on our block who just sit there all day long and, well, I don’t actually know what they do. They have big, bushy, un-ironic mustaches and everything. Bushwick is still a solidly working class neighborhood, although it is now seeing its share of tattooed, ironically mustashioed, multiply-pierced pioneers who have been priced out of Williamsburg.

The upside is that you can get beer brewed by blind albino monks and bacon that was cured with nun’s tears from pigs that were sung to sleep each night by Audra McDonald. Life is actually pretty good in Brooklyn. I’m beginning to get into the rhythms of Brooklyn, which are just a little slower and a little more sane than the throbbing scrum that is Manhattan. Don’t get me wrong, I love Manhattan, but like a big boy, I’m learning to appreciate other stuff.

Speaking of food, I thought I would use this time to finally get to the “Eat” part of this blog’s title.

We have done our share of eating, and I figured I’d give a rundown of the culinary highlights to date.

First off, let me extoll the wonders of Raffetto’s, this ancient little pasta shop on Houston Street in Greenwich Village. They sell fresh pasta by the pound. When you order it, they take out the dough and cut in on a machine that is over a hundred years old. I’d pay just to watch them cut the pasta.

It’s also really, really good stuff.

A few words about Wylie Dufresne’s two restaurants. I had been dying to try WD-50, Dufresne’s place on the Lower East Side. He’s one of the country’s better-known purveyors of what has come to be known as “molecular gastronomy” or “modernist cuisine.” Rather than try to define it, a good example of this sometimes whimsical approach to cooking was the hangar steak tartare, which actually wasn’t raw at all. It was cooked sous vide (basically boiled in a bag at a temperature that keeps the steak really rare), then chopped fine like steak tartare and served with a bearnaise ice cream. Bearnaise ice cream, for heaven’s sake! You don’t eat that every day. That was by far the most inventive of the dishes we tried. Dufresne is closing his restaurant rather than give in to a rent increase, and I was expecting him to pull out all the mad scientist stops, but I found the menu surprisingly restrained. Everything was terrific, but it wasn’t all cooked steak tartare with bearnaise ice cream either.

We then went to his other, somewhat less expensive place, Alder which turned out to be more inventive than WD-50. We had a lamb shepherd’s pie tartare that was indeed raw lamb served with the other components of shepherd’s pie. My favorite dish was  rye pasta with pastrami shavings on top. Get it? Pastrami on rye! How about that! There was also a really out there dish of pickled beets with coconut ricotta and thai basil. The basil had been turned into dehydrated crunchy balls of some kind. Really kooky and delicious.

Now, a word about service. I’m no snob, but hoo boy do these kids need to learn a thing or two about how to wait a table. Janine and I both waited our fair share of tables once, so it’s not like the profession is beneath us. Damn, it’s hard to find a decent waitperson these days. If you are shelling out a couple hundred bucks for dinner, at the very least you want the person bringing the food not to act like they hate you. My pet peeve? Your waiter drops the check and you say “Thank you!” in your chipper-est, happiest voice and they say “No problem” in that disaffected, eye-rolling way, like the world’s crankiest teenager. Really? No problem? Why would taking my money be a problem? I would settle for a simple “you’re welcome.” We don’t have to become besties, I just want a little human kindness. Is that so hard, youth of today, or is it a problem?

Okay, just a few more and I’ll take up more restaurant reviews later.

Russ and Daughters Café. Russ and Daughters delicatessen is a smoked fish emporium on Houston Street that has been there since 1914. No fish cured in nun’s tears for Russ and his daughters. Well, certainly no nuns. When I was a kid in Queens, the local supermarket also sold smoked fish. I remember piles of these brown, desiccated things called chubs that looked absolutely inedible. Well, it turns out they’re edible. And Russ and his Daughters finally got smart, just this year opening up a café on Orchard Street to so people can sit down and eat their shmabulous smoked fish and other delicacies. And they know what they’re doing, too. Your bubbe and Uncle Morty are not coming to the café to eat a hundred bucks worth of caviar. Who’s going to do that? All together now…hipsters. Yes, there are cocktails and seats and lots of subway tile at the café, but who are they hurting? Hipsters have to eat too. We went for breakfast and I had kasha varnishkes, which is bow tie pasta with salty, chicken-y buckwheat groats topped with an egg.

Kasha Varniskas

This is just the world’s best damn breakfast ever.

And oh my sweet jesus was it delicious. I could eat that every morning of my life and be very happy. Everything else is good, too. We watched the counterman slice the lox so thin you could read the newspaper through it. This guy clearly moonlights as a mohel (although one is happy that he practices first on the fish). Oh, and our waiter, Larry, was a saint (well, in the Jewish deli sense). He was a lovely little man in one of those elegant white coats who looked like Bob Balaban only happier and who not only seemed thrilled to see us, but he seemed happy for us that we were eating such delicious food. “That’s going to make a wonderful snack later!” he said with barely contained delight when we asked for a little to-go container. I wanted to take him home with us just to have him around to make us feel good about our decisions in life. “Excellent choice of bathroom tissue!” I’m sure he’d exclaim to us at the supermarket. “Nice job brushing your teeth!” “Where DID you learn to tie your shoes so well?”

I miss Larry. That kid at Alder should go to Russ and Daughters, order the kasha varnishkes, and watch Larry do the job the right way. Punk kid. Get off my lawn.

I think that should do for now. While I’ve got you, my friends, do you have any recommendations for restaurants we should try in New York? I’m getting hungry.


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