Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A Quick Trip to New York: Day One

A couple of weeks ago now, I took a much needed day off and jumped on the Northeastern Corridor train from 30th Street Station (Philly) to Penn Station (New York). Ostensibly, the mission was to hang out with my friends Peter and Sarah with whom I get to spend quality time far too infrequently. Not surprisingly, our itinerary for my Wednesday/Thursday visit was heavily laden with food and wine exploration, both on the home front and around town.

Destination number one, after a rest stop and a wonderful coffee Chez Pete, was the splurge of the trip -- lunch in the café at Aquavit (65 E. 55th Street, between Park & Madison). The walk from the East Village to Midtown got our appetites revving and gave us the time to work out a game plan for the meal, deciding to focus our first visit on the simple, traditional aspects of the menu. We figured this would give us solid insight into the quality and core of the restaurant... and give us a reason to go back again to check out the more creative side, perhaps in the main dining room.

Herring and gravlax seemed appropriate starting points. The herring sampler was a trio comprised of the traditional pickled herring; curry with apple and chives; and vodka lime with salmon roe and dill. The pickled version took the day for its clear focus on well selected fish and a perfectly balanced, penetrating brine. Though both were quite appealing in flavor, the curry version lacked textural snap and the vodka lime was a bit too heavily sauced. As for the gravlax, straight up, the dish gets kudos for just the right level of cure and dill influence. Here though, the accoutrements brought the dish to another level. Used sparingly, the espresso mustard dipping sauce added an intoxicating richness and spark without overwhelming or muddying the core flavors of the gravlax itself.

For mains, Peter opted for Swedish meatballs and I for the daily Swedish homecooking special, Kokt Torsk. Suffice it to say that the meatballs were deliciously addictive, accompanied nicely with a sprinkling of lingonberries and some of the creamiest, most buttery mashed potatoes either of us had come across. Kokt Torsk, quite simply, is poached cod with egg sauce. Definitely comfort food à la Sweden, the cod was tender and flavorful and the egg sauce rich, warming and redolent of dill. I'd love to try to replicate it at home. The dessert included with the Wednesday special, Vanilj Hjärta, may have been the biggest surprise of the meal. While the visual artistry of Aquavit's signature dessert, the Arctic Circle, was impressive, simplicity took the day again. Essentially a heart-shaped pastry filled with a light, subtle cream, the Vanilj Hjärta (vanilla heart) appealed immediately to the senses, emitting an intense aroma of vanilla. Its plain appearance belied its sublime depth of flavor and couldn't have been a more appropriate finale to a first venture into Aquavit's menu.

After lunch, we continued our walk uptown to Rosenthal Wine Merchant (318 E. 84th Street at 2nd Ave.). While I had a pretty solid idea of what to expect there, I was still a bit surprised at, well, the surprise with which we were greeted after buzzing in at the front door of their brownstone. Rosenthal is essentially a one-line shop, a retail outlet for the direct importing business of Neal Rosenthal. Though the ground floor is stacked high with deliveries and shipments waiting to go out to customers in NY and elsewhere, it quickly became clear that walk-in visitors, especially new faces, are a bit of a rarity. Will, who was working the office upstairs, announced our arrival to Hannah, who was tending the shop downstairs. Here again it was apparent that the shop makes few accommodations to the casual shopper or to the uninitiated. Though there's a respectable selection here, with particular depth in Burgundy and the Loire, the shop's wares are laid out in a fashion that makes browsing difficult and finding what you're seeking a wee bit challenging. Once over those hurdles, though, there are some treasures -- not necessarily much in the way of pure bargains but many clearly excellent wines, some of which do represent good value in terms of quality-to-price (QPR) ratio. After a bit of digging around and some consultation with Hannah, I left with a few promising bottles, including a Chinon blanc from Olek-Mery, a Chassagne-Montrachet rouge from Pillot and a Valle d'Aosta Fumin -- a wine I've never before encountered -- from Grosjean Frères. Needless to say, I'm looking forward to trying them all.

There were two quick stops remaining before heading home to prepare dinner. The first was Peter's favorite German market. Conveniently enough, Schaller & Weber (1654 2nd Avenue, just below 86th Street) is located just a couple of blocks up the road from Rosenthal's wine shop. Though I'm not sure it will vie for the title of one of New York's best all-round butchers, the quality of the german sausages alone is more than worth the visit. I took home a selection of some quite fabulous bauernwurst, weisswurst and pinkelwurst. Our last stop of the day is a perennial favorite and frequent stop of mine, Payard Pâtisserie (1032 Lexington Avenue, between 73rd and 74th Streets). Decision making is always tough at Payard but simplicity again took the day. Based on the plans for dinner and wine, we opted for four portions of tarte tâtin, perhaps the most straightforward offering of what was left in the pastry case by late afternoon. Good stuff all around.

Finally, back home for dinner. Sarah, who had worked all day and wasn't able to join us for lunch, came through with a nice array of snacks to get things started. Cheeses, pâté, cornichons and Serrano ham were all selected from her workplace -- Murray's Cheese (254 Bleecker Street between 6th & 7th Avenues). Not a bad start, especially when paired with a citrusy, refreshing bottle of Hirsch Kamptal Riesling "Zobing" 2005. Peter prepared one of his specialties next, a pork roast wrapped in bacon and finished with a Riesling cream sauce. Paired with Sarah's Brussels sprouts and a bottle of Nikolaihof Wachau Grüner Veltliner "Vinothek" 1991, which I'd brought back from a September trip to Vienna, it was pretty rockin'. Finishing touches were supplied by the tartes from Payard, accompanied by a bottle of Weingut Johann Peter Reinert Kanzemer Sonnenberg Riesling Auslese 1999.

Not a bad day, I must say. Details -- fewer, I promise -- of day two to come.

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Brooklynguy said...

good lord. i think i have to be done now for the day with your site. i'm starting to hate my own life and that's just not healthy.

David McDuff said...

Don't even think that way, BG. This wasn't exactly a "normal" day. I don't get up the NYC nearly as often as I'd like, so it was a serious excursion day. Good friends just helped to make it all sound easy.

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