Rockaway Taco (Rockaway Beach, N.Y.): A Delicious Reprise

It isn’t truly summer until you’ve had your first fried fish taco. (So I believe, anyway.)

Going by this policy, summer still hadn’t hit for me in early August. This late in the game, that certainly had to be fixed.

So on a recent morning, even though I had only just been to Rockaway Taco in New York‘s Rockaway Beach a few days before, I decided it was time to return …

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The Wharf (Rockaway Beach, N.Y.): A View — With Food on the Side

Remember how I mentioned that people love to tell me where I must eat when I travel?

Well, The Wharf in New York‘s Rockaway Beach is certainly not one of those places.

Check it out, yes — I definitely heard that. With its outdoor dining deck with sweeping views of the water and Manhattan’s skyline in the distance, The Wharf’s vista for a sunset cocktail can’t be beat. But eat? We had read and heard enough about the food to know there were probably better restaurants in Rockaway Beach.

Even so, on a recent evening, as our cocktails on that famous deck were disappearing, the vaunted view was nudging us to stay.

How bad could the food truly be? We decided to find out …

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The Shop at Andaz Fifth Avenue: Style, With Some Substance


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As hotel restaurants go, the shop at Andaz Fifth Avenue tries pretty hard.

Determined to cast itself as a New York restaurant, it likes to broadcast just how local it is. Its Web site rattles off a litany of New York purveyors — eggs hail from Feather Ridge Farm in the Hudson Valley; lox comes from Russ & Daughters on Manhattan's Lower East Side, which has been providing New Yorkers with smoked fish since 1914. And there's even a self-conscious little area that sells snacks made by small, lesser-known brands in New York.

This is all in line with the in-the-know feel that the hotel, part of Hyatt Hotels & Resorts' chain of boutique properties, tries to give off. It's a pretentiousness you can already sense from the fact that it is the shop — spelled all lowercase, the hotel insists — and not, well, The Shop. (You'll have to check out my review of the hotel in the New York Times Travel section for more on this Andaz.)

How would the food stack up against all this posing? We decided to find out …

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Eataly (Il Pesce): A Mixed Bag Of Fish


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Eataly can be a hard place for the hungry.

For starters, chaos rules the moment you set foot in the door of this cavernous Whole Foods-meets-tony-food-court Italian emporium in New York City that opened at the end of summer. Believe me, you’ll need all the strength you can muster to bulldoze your way past the bodies before you can get at any food.

And while you’re pressed up, body against body, there are the displays of cheeses, desserts, milk and coffee you’ll be breezing past. You’ll want to stop, of course — but the mosh pit all around owns you. All you can do is cast longing glances, hoping for some private time with that fetching taleggio later in the evening perhaps, as the crowd carries you helplessly along.

Our destination on this particularly mobbed Saturday evening is Il Pesce, the fish restaurant within this 50,000 square foot-place that partner Mario Batali has famously billed as a “temple,” where “food is more sacred than commerce.”

Amid the sections where you can buy pasta, bread, cookbooks or stand around tall tables in a “tasting piazza” and nibble on cured meats, there are a few eateries devoted to specific categories — vegetables, pasta, fish, meat. Our dining companion for the evening, the insatiable Gael Greene, has already eaten her way through a few of those places. “I was curious to try the fish restaurant …” she says.

So, Il Pesce it is …

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International Food Stall: A Nasi Lemak Breakfast


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It was at Nyonya, a Malaysian restaurant in New York City, that I recently found myself with the legendary and insatiable Gael Greene, trying to explain the wonder that is nasi lemak, a Malay dish of coconut rice topped with a fried egg, fried chicken, crispy anchovies, cucumber slices and fiery sambal chili sauce.

“We eat it for breakfast — or lunch,” I said, explaining that some Singapore hawkers will have packets of the rice tightly wrapped up in banana leaves set out in the morning, ready for the harried to buy and eat on the run.

“Breakfast?” she said, looking intrigued.

Granted, it’s hard to appreciate nasi lemak as one of the best ways to start the day when the New York version set before you is a mound of flavorless rice paired with a mushy mess of sodden chicken and anchovies that are limp and cold instead of crunchy and tongue-searingly hot.

But if you’ve had the real thing for breakfast while sitting in a humid hawker center in sweltering tropical heat, trust me, you’ll be a convert. Oatmeal and French Toast will be all but a distant, lesser memory.

In Singapore, one of my favorite places for the stuff is a little stall in Changi Village, a somewhat sleepy nook by the sea. It’d been many years since I’d been there — but I’d heard its lines remained as impossibly long. (Always a good sign.)

Clearly, it was time for a revisit …

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The Loading Dock: “Worthy” Fish Tacos


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This might be what they call a classic New York food fairytale.

Boy moves to New York. Boy starts selling fish tacos at out of a little stand at the Brooklyn Flea in Dumbo. Boy’s tacos develop a hungry following. Boy opens restaurant.

And to add to the cool factor, he opens it in the loading dock of a former garment factory in downtown Brooklyn — talk about economical use of space in this land-starved city.

The Boy in this case would be Forrest Cole, who explains on his Web site that he first started selling fish tacos at the flea after fruitlessly trying to find a “worthy example” of a Baja-style fish taco in the city.

Now, that’s talking quite a bit of smack about New York’s many pre-existing taco joints.

We had to see just how “worthy” these fish tacos were …

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Obao: Panned Asian


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New York is filled with so many “pan-Asian” restaurants that it can be difficult to get excited about yet another one setting up shop.

Vietnamese pork chops? Been there. Summer rolls? So, so done that.

And Obao, Michael Huynh’s newest addition to his rapidly expanding string of Manhattan restaurants, hits these and all the other usual notes that you’ll find at many other similarly billed places in the city.

What’s different? Not much, compared with your run-of-the-mill multi-ethnic Asian restaurant.

There are some hits — anything meaty and/or grilled. And, of course, some misses, namely a “spicy” Singapore laksa (pictured above) that’s so watered down that its broth tastes like hot water with some curry powder tossed in toward the end.

But here’s the thing: Even at Obao’s recession-friendly prices (which put entrees between $9 and $18), for those who enjoy a hearty bowl of noodle soup or a crisp papaya salad now and then, there are just so many other places in the city to go for better versions.

So, why eat here?

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Joseph Leonard: A Salty Start


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Joseph Leonard is one of those restaurants that might have you thinking, “Recession? What recession?”

On the first night that the little West Village restaurant started serving dinner, it was so packed that finding a spot to perch for a drink was a challenge, much less a table for four. And this was well after 9 p.m. on a weeknight.

But this level of interest in a place so new it had a dessert menu to tempt diners but weren’t actually equipped to serve dessert yet is unsurprising.

New York food folks have been working themselves up into a big froth over Joseph Leonard, after all, since Gabriel Stulman, a former owner of the much-beloved Little Owl and Market Table in the West Village, announced he was opening a new restaurant. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that Vogue.com did a “People Are Talking About” item about the carefully planned grandma’s garage sale meets farmhouse rustic decor of the place more than a month before it opened.

While I’m generally skeptical of this level of pre-opening hype, I have a great deal of respect and fondness for Little Owl and Market Table.

And, Joseph Leonard (named for Stulman’s two grandfathers), with its cozy setting and equally comforting lineup of dishes, is likely to please many — especially those who love salt, which chef Jim McDuffee (formerly of Bouchon Bakery) seems to be rather fond of.

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Xie Xie: A Little Lost In Translation


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Working my way through the Vietnamese fish sandwich at Xie Xie, the newest addition to the New York Asian sandwich scene, a phrase kept ringing through my head: “I’m not seeing the forest for the trees.”

In this case, it was the fact that two thick layers of dill, paired with a slender portion of turmeric-seasoned fish, ended up being so overwhelming that it was hard to get a sense of the sandwich as a whole.

All you truly noticed was that you had a mouth full of dill. (And a lot of bread.)

As for the fish — which is the star of chaca la vong, the heady dill- and turmeric-scented Hanoi dish that this $8.75 sandwich was modeled and named after — that can be a little hard to detect after wading through all that dill and starch.

Which is not to say that Xie Xie isn’t worth checking out. 

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