The streets of Manhattan just ooze food. The smell of freshly baked bread mixed with sausage cooking mixed with the sweet smell of candied roasted nuts, for instance. The ethnic hole-in-the-wall dives share the sidewalk with more upscale sushi restaurants, French bistros and Italian trattorias. And then there are the incredible food markets and delis.
We stopped in at Zabar’s for the first time this trip. The bottom floor has more kinds of international cheeses, cured meats and preserved olives than I’ve ever seen anywhere. Not to mention the array of prepared foods that fill walls of refrigerated shelving units and the maze of shelves filled with jars and cans of specialty beans, vegetables, sauces, jams and other delectables.
If that isn’t overwhelming enough, the upper floor is packed with every kind of kitchen gadget imaginable. And not just one or two of each thing, but ten different brands of garlic presses or a rainbow of silicon strainers hanging above. Leaving Zabar’s with our senses saturated we continued down Broadway, noticing that while Zabar’s might be the biggest deli it certainly is not the only one. We passed market after market filled with intriguing delicacies.
Kitchen Arts and Letters
With access to great ethnic ingredients it’s only fitting that Manhattan is home to bookstores entirely dedicated to cookbooks. We stopped at Kitchen Arts and Letters to find a Vietnamese cookbook for my next blog project. (We will be going to Vietnam this winter.)
As we pored over the shelves of all the different types of cookbooks imagining all the things we could try, we overheard the owner on the phone discussing a new Indian cookbook he had in the store. He said that he was an aficionado of Indian cooking and although this particular cookbook had its merits, it wasn’t his favorite. What was his favorite? Don has dabbled with Indian cooking and we were looking for a new cookbook to play with. The owner recommended Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni as a good resource book, without a lot of fancy pictures, that teaches cooking methods and techniques.
This trip we went back to two favorite restaurants. Sushi Zen (now closed) is an upscale midtown restaurant with exquisite food. The interior is clean and modern, decorated in soft shades of ivory and dark wood. We like to sit and the bar and watch the sushi masters create their art. This time we started with a special fall appetizer, five kinds of tempura mushrooms -delectable woody mushrooms in a delicate tempura batter.
We then shared one of the sushi and sashimi assortments accompanied by a couple of sushi rolls, sea eel with cucumbers and toro with pickled vegetable along with a couple of pieces of our favorites, mackerel for Don and uni for me. This isn’t your Sicilian sea urchin – creamy soft in the mouth with a delicate fresh flavor. Like so many great sushi restaurants in Manhattan everything is super fresh and expertly prepared and presented.
We have a little history with the second restaurant, Aquagrill, as the location of our second Leonardo DiCaprio sighting. Living in DC we never see anyone famous other than an occasional politician or political pundit, but we have seen Leonardo twice – or least Don has. The first time we were sitting on a plane leaving Hong Kong for Bangkok and Don casually remarks, “I think that was Leonardo DiCaprio sitting across from us at the bar last night.” Made perfect sense since Leonardo was filming the movie The Beach at the time, but it would have been nice if he had mentioned it when I could confirm the sighting. The second time, years later at Aguagrill, it was perfectly clear it was him sitting at the table across from us looking discreet in a baseball cap and dining with three young beauties.
But we return for the great fish and the casual setting. A smallish restaurant decorated in warm colors with white table cloths but more business causal than formal. Tables are close together but not the typical packed room that you often find in NYC. On this busy Monday night many people were feasting on The Seafood Plateau. The two tier presentation of shellfish at the table next to us looked bigger than the young Chinese couple it was served to. The eclectic cross section of patrons included a young family, an older gentleman sitting alone eating a healthy dinner of steamed salmon and vegetables and an over-caffeinated young man with his date, both in formal dress. Service is friendly, casual and attentive.
We started with the octopus salad, great for fall, served warm with roasted peppers and caramelized onions garnished with fresh peppercress. The octopus was super tender; you would hardly know you were eating octopus. Personally, I miss a little chew in my octopus. And for Don a fishy Manhattan Clam Chowder with just a touch of heat. For our second courses we had the Miso Glazed Chilean Sea Bass, a thick generous cut of rich fish in a caramelized glaze that contrasted beautifully with the edgy flavors of the wasabi and the acidity of the kimchi; and the Bouillabaisse, an intense fish reduction served with crunchy crostini slathered in a rich aioli. Heavenly dipped in the broth.
The poached cod and shellfish were perfect, just barely cooked. One of sweetest scallops I’ve ever tasted. To go with the fish, we had the Emeritus Pinot noir. Not the most complex wine but with nice acidity and bright fruit. It was great with food and opened up nicely tasting the fullest and most complex at the end of the meal. While Aquagrill is not an inexpensive restaurant it is not a NYC wallet buster either. It has great quality food, nice sized portions at a fair price in a formal but friendly setting. One of our favs.