As I mentioned, I just returned home after three whirlwind days in New York. I was there to attend the BlogHer conference, which took place at the giant New York Hilton in midtown Manhattan. As in, right near Times Square. As in, the most touristy, schlocky part of the whole island. Yay!
Here is where I confess that I don’t really like New York. This makes me something of a pariah in my family. My parents are from Long Island originally and spent a lot of time in New York City in the course of their lives. My brother has lived in New York for the past twelve years. My husband went to college in New York City and worked there for two years before going to law school. I have many, many friends who live in and around New York. But I have never lived in New York and never spent more than a few days there at a time. As a result, I don’t feel like I know the city at all. And frankly, New York intimidates me. (I know this makes me sound like a hayseed, by the way.) It’s too big; it’s too crowded; I have no idea how to find my way around, which makes me look like a hayseed. As my husband pointed out, I am ten times more comfortable in Paris than I am in New York.
(If you are a friend of mine who lives in New York and whom I did not look up while I was in town, please forgive me. I was pretty much booked from morning to night with my conference and related events. I saw my brother’s family and one friend who traveled out of her way to meet me, but truly that was it. And there is another reason I don’t like coming to New York: so many wonderful people to see and not enough time.)
If you aren’t fond of New York, three days in Times Square is not going to change your opinion. I felt assaulted every time I walked out my hotel by street vendors selling counterfeit junk, cheesy tourist trap restaurants and guys trying to get me to join their hop-on, hop-off bus tour. Uh, no thanks. All that being said, what I discovered in my brief stay in Midtown, is that if you walk a few blocks in some direction (maybe west?) towards Hell’s Kitchen, there are some cute neighborhood places to eat. I only had time for a handful of non-conference meals, but I tried to make them count.
One night, after a somewhat hot and grueling evening, my friend Rowena of the stellar fashion and lifestyle blog She She Shoppers and I treated ourselves to dinner at the absolutely charming cheese and wine bar Casellula. I found this place on the website Find.Eat.Drink, which offers recommendations on where to eat and drink in various cities from local chefs. At the conference, I showed my Find.Eat.Drink list for Midtown Manhattan to a food writer I ran into — who just happened to have been on my study abroad program in 1994 — and she drew a little smiley face next to the entry for Casellula.
Well, Christina did not steer me wrong. Casellula is a tiny little jewel box of a restaurant and I felt like a savvy food traveler for finding it. Rowena and I shared a crisp green salad with goat cheese; a sinfully rich chicken liver pâté topped with crême fraîche and a tangy peach marmalade on the side; and the prettiest cheese plate I have ever seen. We both died for the Sweet Grass Dairy Green Hill Brie (from Georgia!) presented with a perfect purple pansy and sweet-and-spicy popcorn. After the sweaty and somewhat degrading evening we had had, the crisp white wine and the small plates at this elegant restaurant restored us. This little spot that takes its cheese and its wine very seriously is worth seeking out.
One night, I even left the uncomfortable confines of Midtown — by subway no less, but only because I had extremely specific instructions. Even with those instructions, buying a Metro card was an exercise in humiliation. I went downtown to have dinner with my brother, sister-in-law and my nephews at the family-friendly BLT Burger. There are a whole fleet of BLT restaurants in New York and several other cities from fancy (BLT Prime) to casual (BLT Fish Shack). This was my first experience with the chain and I was very pleased. I had the Turkey Burger on the waiter’s recommendation and it was without a doubt the best turkey burger I have ever had. It was moist and very flavorful, with lots of fresh herbs. I don’t love ground turkey, although I eat it for health reasons, so I was very pleased to find this turkey burger so well-seasoned.
My nephews knew just what to get at a place like BLT Burger: sliders, fries and milkshakes. Oh to be 7 and 5! I was intrigued by the menu’s spiked milkshakes, such as the Grandma’s Treat made with Maker’s Mark, caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. But, honestly: how fattening is that? So I went with one of the beer cocktails because I loved the idea of using beer as a base for a drink. The Fox, made with amber ale, rum, pineapple juice and sugar was also probably really fattening but at least less so than a milkshake. I am definitely going to research beer cocktails more because that drink was delicious. I would recommend the BLT restaurants, especially the more casual ones, to travelers with kids in a heartbeat.
On our last morning in New York, Rowena and I finished our packing and decided to reward ourselves with brunch. We were actually headed to a different place, but when we passed the lively scene at Eatery NYC, we changed our plans and went in. As when we ate at Casellula, I felt like we had wandered into a real neighborhood place. Once Ro got her coffee and I had some fresh-squeezed orange juice, we began to visibly relax. Our adorably rumpled waiter, who looked like he had just rolled out of bed, had lots of opinions. On his recommendation, we shared a plate of the house-made chicken-apple sausage, which was flavorful and moist but not at all greasy. Ro went sweet with the cornflake-crusted French toast but I went savory with the grits topped with smoked ham and poached eggs. I was charmed by the addition of fresh corn kernels in the grits. In fact, I liked this dish so much that I tried to recreate it at home with my Anson Mills blue corn grits and chorizo-flavored chicken sausage — not quite as good as the original. It was a great start to a day that ended with a long-delayed flight and six hungry hours sitting on the Tarmac at LaGuardia. I really not regretted not ordering more at brunch!
The rest of the trip, I ate my meals at the conference or cobbled together dinner from hors d’oeuvres at cocktail parties. Not exactly a food-focused trip to one of the world’s best food cities. But at least with these three meals, I felt that I had snatched a small victory from the jaws of defeat.