Day 107: Words To Drool By – New York Cuisine

originally published April 16, 2012

Once again I’m punishing myself.

I wrote a heart-felt ode to bacon earlier this week, and today I find my stomach and fingers aimed squarely at the cuisine of New York City. Fortunately, this is not a topic that can be consumed in one article, so I’ll tuck some of the more delicious items into a doggy-bag for another day.

My journey began at the Levain Bakery, located on West 74th street, a couple blocks from the park. Their signature snack is a mammoth creature called the 6-ounce chocolate-chip-walnut cookie.

This cookie has a surprisingly practical purpose. Constance McDonald and Pamela Weekes, the bakery’s owners, developed this treat while they were training for an Ironman triathlon, as a means of delivering a bucket-full of calories in a tasty vessel. I’ve read a couple reviews on this cookie, and it makes me want to visit our bland local bakeries and threaten them with arson unless they bring this delight to my taste buds.

If you want something a little more traditionally New York, there’s always the classic black & white.

Famously cited as racial harmony in cookie form by Jerry Seinfeld, the black & white is a tasty shortbread cookie topped with equal parts vanilla and dark chocolate fondant. You can find these cookies in all five boroughs, in bakeries, markets, and even as a Starbucks snack.

The black and white is often confused with the very similar half-moon cookie, which is one of the star baked goods of upstate New York and New England. Like any New York – New England rivalry, I’m sure this one inspires passion, riots, bloodshed in the streets. The half moons are usually a little bit smaller though, and their base is a lemony-based shortbread.

I don’t want to enter too deep into the black and white vs. half-moon fight, as I prefer to let the people of the northeast fight these things out in more civilized ways.

After our amuse-bouche cookies we should try out something that will pack a little weight to our New York feast. I’m thinking it’s time for a bialy.

Descended from a resident recipe of Bialystok, Poland, this tasty baked roll features a depression in the middle – a valley of flavors, a divot of scrumptiousness, an indentation of indispensible goodness. That little region is festooned with diced onions, garlic, poppy seeds, black olives, or whatever the baker sees fit to cram in there.

I don’t know if I can get a bialy here in Edmonton. I’ve been told that Kossar’s on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is the place to get them in NYC. The order form didn’t kick me to the curb when I selected ‘Canada’ as my country, so maybe there’s hope in getting this stuff across the border.

The problem is, I’ve looked into this before and had my heart broken. Canadian customs officials, fearful that we’ll import food laced with Dutch Elm Disease, or even worse, food products not adequately labeled in both French and the metric system, make bringing in American treats prohibitive. It’s cruel, having to survive amid the smattering of gustatory delights that this city offers. But I digress. Let’s have a bagel.

Late one night during my first visit to New York, I found myself crippled by a poorly-timed illness, alone in midtown and desperate for food that would not only stay rooted in my digestive system for the appropriate number of hours, but would also make me glad to be alive. I came upon H&H Bagels.

Maybe H&H doesn’t make the best bagels in the city, I don’t know. Some would argue it has to be a Murray’s bagel, others swear by Ess-A-Bagel. Just don’t ask them to toast it – that’s a sin on par with ordering a pastrami on white bread with mayo at Carnegie Deli. The best bagels are warm, not crispy, and they’re warm because they’re fresh, young, and eager for that little shmear of cream cheese before hopping joyfully past your lips.

A bagel and a bialy are different animals. The bagel is boiled before it’s baked, giving it a unique flavor and a distinct chewiness. Of course, you can find bagels anywhere now; they’re so commonplace it’s easy to forget how central they are to New York food culture. Those passable bread-rings from the grocery store are not worthy of sharing a breadbasket with a hand-made bagel from a real craftsman. A real bagel should stand on its own, no butter, no cream cheese, yet still chock full o’ flavor.

Speaking of which…

The above sandwich comes from another New York institution, Chock Full O’ Nuts. It’s called the nutted cheese, featuring cream cheese and nuts on a dark raisin bread. The restaurant started as a lunch counter on Broadway in 1926, expanded to over 80 locations, then dwindled down to nearly nothing, staking the company on their popular coffee being sold in supermarkets.

In 2010, it was announced that Chock Full O’ Nuts was going back into the lunch counter business. An interesting piece of trivia – baseball star Jackie Robinson became vice president and head of personnel for the company after he retired from baseball. Cool shit like that just happens in New York.

Time for one last delicacy. And while I would love to slather my keyboard in drool as I pontificate on genuine New York pizza, real deli pastrami (an entire meat substance unavailable in this town), or even the bubbly bliss of a chocolate egg cream, each of those subjects deserve their own kilograph. Luckily, I still have 893 to write.

No, I’ll be finishing off at Junior’s Restaurant.

With locations in Brooklyn, Times Square, and inside Grand Central Station, Junior’s is a haven for fabulous deli food. As you may have guessed, their cheesecake is their proudest achievement. I haven’t sampled the goods from Junior’s, but I’ve enjoyed cheesecake from Lindy’s, and while it pains me to dwell on the refrain of my hometown’s culinary inadequacies, the ‘New York Cheesecake’ you find around here just ain’t the same. Real New York cheesecake has a creaminess to it, and a flavor that kicks you in the jaw and leaves you begging for another. It’s a fluffy dream of fluffiness, and the crumbly garbage in the cooler at Safeway deserves to be spat upon for having the words ‘New York’ scribbled upon it. In fact, I implore everyone in my audience to head to your nearest grocery store and spit on their cheesecake.

We need to make a stand.

Also, I’m thinking we need a vacation. We need some real food.

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