I love America. I really do. This sweeping generalization may come as something of a surprise to anyone who has seen my stand up over the past decade, but when you’re there the enthusiasm and energy of the place is mind blowing. As is the choice. America is all that is wrong with capitalism and everything that is so, so right.
Speaking of things being so, so right, I was lucky enough to marry someone pretty spectacular in December last year, and after a brief hiatus (because nothing says romance like putting your honeymoon on hold to perform at Jongleurs’ Christmas parties) we headed to New York, a city I have visited a few times, but never fallen for quite as hard as I did this time. We did the museums, Central Park, the Highline, the 9/11 memorial and I even got to gig with Louis CK, whose ringing endorsement of “Good job” after my set at The Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village will stay with me, even if it’s unlikely to form the basis of a long overdue critical re-appraisal of my work. And yes, you are right, I am the kind of dick who gigs on his honeymoon. And then blogs about it.
Where to begin? The first thing to get out of the way is the simple quantity of everything on offer, from options, to portion size to gratuity expectations to, inevitably, waistbands. Having slimmed and gymed down to ‘these photos are forever’ proportions for my wedding, I threw caution to the wind on honeymoon and as a result came back a stone heavier. A stone. I’m not going to make cheap jokes about American obesity, but what I will say is that it must take an iron will to live there permanently and not get fat. The hardest job in America is almost definitely being a bench, as evidenced by the photo at the top of the page, taken outside the Bronx Zoo.
I simply haven’t the time, and nor do I expect you have the inclination, to cover everything we ate, so this is in many ways a selection of highlights, and hopefully a couple of tips should you find yourself peckish in Manhattan*. We were staying in Chelsea for the first few nights, by which I mean the happily boho area on the West Side, not somewhere French people get racially abused on the subway. A useful recommendation to kick things off is Chelsea Market – home to a bewildering array of delis, bakeries, coffee shops and perhaps the best fishmonger I have ever been to in my life (‘The Lobster Place’ – what’s not to love?) where we got lobster (obvs) and herb crusted salmon for our Christmas lunch, because we could. Overall, it’s like a slightly smaller Borough Market, but with more on offer and a mildly less smug attitude – it feels like it’s there to sell amazing food rather than appear in Sunday supplements.
Our first real meal out was across the road from the market at the Old Homestead Steakhouse, which proved the adage that no one does steak like Americans. This was one of those classic dark wood paneled rooms where service was attentive and efficient and then someone brought you some oysters and then a beautifully cooked Porterhouse the size of your own head, the outside charred to perfection, the inside carnivorously crimson. As the meal progressed you could chat to the table next to you about how massive their portion of cow was while agreeing the scallops resting on top of it were possibly a protein too far. We had broccoli and spinach too – and although I’m sure Mr Atkins would have been proud of us, the arrival of their ‘World Famous’ (everything is ‘World Famous’ in NY) cheesecake meant that any pretence of ‘diet’ went straight out of the window. My wife reviewed dessert:
“This is the best cheesecake I have ever eaten.”
So I don’t think any more needs to be said on the subject. Not a cheap eat, but a definite recommendation.
As is this, albeit an obvious one: go to a diner. You will find one, almost immediately. Like all US restaurants, the one we breakfasted at on day two had a big sign informing you of what to do in the event of someone choking. Surely customers regularly choking in your restaurants is an indication that you are overfeeding them, but that didn’t stop us having pancakes, eggs, bacon, syrup, etc etc etc. I also had a hazelnut seltzer before my blood sugar could contemplate dipping below raging-child-on-Haribo-binge levels.
Crispo’s was a smart, arty and very popular Italian on the helpful list of local eateries our landlord left us. (Another tip – airbnb – stay in an apartment that is nicer than a hotel for less than staying in a hotel room that is smaller than an apartment.) The food was good but not exceptional – shishito/padron peppers were a little meh, scallops were great, pasta was pasta and crème brulee and chocolate pot simply fed the monster I was becoming. A great atmosphere, but, hey! This is New York – atmosphere is what they do.
By this stage we had developed an ordering system in a vain attempt at self-preservation – ordering one starter, two main courses and then attempting (and failing) to order one dessert. Of course we could just get the food ‘to go’ – at The Blue Note, the enormous man next to us took his wife’s barely nibbled cheeseburger with him. From a jazz club. Sometimes Americans are so massively uncool they become cool all over again. Although to me the restaurant plate remains a challenge to be defeated, not smuggled home via styrofoam.
Anyway, we failed hugely to stick to our ordering guidelines at our next destination, the achingly hip ABC Kitchen. We’d heard wonderful things, repeatedly, from my sister-in-law, and the difficulty we had getting a table seemed as good a thing as an irritation can be. We did manage to pick one starter – superb crab toast with lemon aioli (as it should be at $16) but then shamelessly ordered two more as part of the prix fixe menu. In mitigation the food here was noticeably healthier than elsewhere – I even had one of those green smoothies that taste like happy rust. Tuna sashimi was as exquisite as we’d been told it would be, bashing the taste buds around with ginger and mint, while a cauliflower soup was wholesome in the very best sense of the word. A Portobello mushroom will always make a good alternative burger and my chicken paillard was about as exciting as any chicken salad has the right to be. There is a slightly Stepford Wives arrangement whereby all the waiters wear their own checked shirts which I think was meant to be homely but I found creepy, not helped by the fact they topped up our water glasses after very sip. This is one of my pet hates, although apparently I should ‘just fucking get over it and let them do their job’ but then if you haven’t had at least one row it’s not a proper honeymoon, is it?
Anyway, all was forgiven with the arrival of her cookie plate and my salted caramel ice cream sundae with candied peanuts and popcorn, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I’m not even going to bother telling you what that tasted like – just read it back and loosen your belt slightly as you do so. The bill came in at £75 excluding service, which almost made me want to strap on a lumberjack shirt myself, especially when the ‘suggested gratuity’ creeps up to 22% in some places, a sentence that obviously causes all right thinking English people to come out in hives.
If you really wanted poor service, you could always nip into Ping’s in Chinatown for Dim sum on Christmas Day, but I’m sure there are other places that will forget your order, bring half of it and then present you with a dumpling garnished with human hair. To be fair, the place was full of people who looked like they were having a good time, but that goes for most of Chinatown, and unless you have any special requirements or knowledge, I’d say pot luck is as good a way to go as any, and on another night Ping’s might be perfectly acceptable. Where else would a bald man get given hair for Christmas?
Every time I’m in New York my friend Brian and his wife take me and my wife (there was a different one last time, but this joke has been officially sanctioned by the present incumbent) to The Mercer Kitchen. This is owned by the same chap who brought the Chiltern Firehouse to London for all those of you who care less about food and much more about who’s eating it. I’m as celeb-idiotic as the next ‘Hello’ reader, but I can’t say going through the rigmarole of getting a table there has ever particularly appealed, especially when I have been looked after so fabulously at the NY outpost and can hardly wait to take my third wife there in a few years time, presumably quite soon after the second one has read this sentence.
The quality on offer in what is a high turnover operation remains exceptionally high. We were given plentiful space in the (almost) painfully stylish downstairs dining room and they catered superbly for Brian’s ten-year-old son Cooper without us even noticing. I ordered the same lime and seabass carpaccio I’d had a few years ago, and while it wasn’t quite as epochal as I remember, I have always described it as the best starter I’ve ever eaten, and memory has a nasty habit of building up expectations to unreasonable levels, which were thankfully met by my astonishing lobster main course. This was everything opulence should be whilst remaining strangely comforting and I may well consider making all my sauces with a chilli almond emulsion from now on. Further bells and whistles were reserved for my green apple pavlova with basil seed vinaigrette which looked every bit as exotic as it tasted. I think everyone else ordered food – gleaming tuna spring roll with a slick of soy bean puree, a burger for Cooper, a huge hunk of pork chop with some marvelous cheesy cereal going by the name of parmesan grits. There was perfectly cooked salmon steak with Brussel sprouts given ideas above their station by a truffle vinaigrette, skate, a sorbet or two – but I wasn’t really paying much attention from lobster pavlova heaven. A high point among high points, even if I have no idea how much it all cost as I was, delightfully, not allowed to pay for it.
You know when people say you must do something somewhere and you make a mental note to spend that portion of your holiday stabbing yourself in the eyes with a fork instead? Well, apologies for this, but you simply must go to Grand Central Station. The architecture is worth a look on its own, but the subterranean and rightly world famous oyster bar is better than any other I’ve been to. A manic flurry of activity offering everything from a simple plate of oysters on a marble bar top to the full sit down and stuff your face experience, this was perhaps my favourite place we visited. America often worries about its lack of history, indeed it is often noticeable how they try and establish traditions for the very reason they don’t feel they have enough of their own. But here, downstairs from a deli that would give the Harrods Food Hall a fair fight, is a tradition and a piece of history all rolled into one. There is a vast array of seafood on offer, much of it cooked in front of you and served by bustling staff of all ages, working in beautiful concert to produce an eating experience that is pure theatre. And if that sounds like hyperbole, don’t worry, as you can see, at least the logo is appalling. It looks like it was rejected as too garish by 1975’s least tasteful gay bar – my only thought is they’re trying to put people off but it hasn’t worked. My only disappointment was that we just popped in mid-afternoon for a plate of oysters. Next time I will be clearing most of the day.
If you want manic, of course, you are spoiled for choice in the Big Apple, and another destination that lived up to the hype was Katz’s Deli, home of the famous Meg Ryan orgasm and some of the most expensive sandwiches ($20 each) known to man. You’d think any place that gave you a ticket as you crowded in and then herded you like sheep towards one of twenty-odd sandwich cutters barking at you and each other could, quite frankly, sod off. And then they give you a piece of pastrami to nibble as they’re cutting some more pastrami for your pastrami on rye and you think, ‘This wouldn’t happen in M&S’. Then you fight another couple for a table that has been vacated approximately 0.02 seconds previously and then it’s a bit of a blur until you’re paying an exorbitant amount at a booth and suddenly you’re out on the street before you realize you have just had one of the quintessential New York experiences, and, far more importantly, one of the greatest sandwiches you have ever eaten. Next time I’m in Selfridges I’m going to head for their salt beef bar, The Brass Rail, order a large Reuben and laugh at how ridiculously civilized it is, all the while wishing it was Katz’s. I mean, you can’t even buy a proper pretzel on Oxford Street.
I would of course like to offer some contrast. The irate man godamming at the short-order cook messing up his eggs at an open kitchen where we ate breakfast by Battery Park one morning, a frankly crap hotdog on Broadway, but I would be clutching at straws. We did have one meal that was hilariously awful, but even that wasn’t actually bad. Next to our hotel (the highly recommended Soho Grand where we spoilt ourselves for the last couple of days) was a sushi restaurant where we thought we’d go and fill up on raw fish and edamame to do ourselves a little good. It was only once inside we realized it was, um…Mexican sushi, and, having been shown to a booth were far too British to recognize this for the stunningly awful idea it was and run away. There was a tuna sashimi guacamole thing, and some prawns in a batter clearly designed by the team behind Alien, but individually, they tasted fine. It was just the combination that was so achingly wrong, and as I found myself dipping mango nigri in soy sauce I realized I’d found that elusive dining experience – something so bad it’s good. I won’t be back for the food, but I may well be back for the comedy.
Of course, I may well be back for The Comedy if the Cellar will have me, and I never did get that selfie with Louis. Mexican sushi was final proof, if proof were needed, that if you offer this much choice, occasionally you will get it spectacularly wrong. But you are going to have a lot of fun finding out, because most of the time New York gets it so very right. If you’re ever asked if you want to be a part of it, there can be only one reply.
*You should never find yourself peckish in Manhattan. There isn’t time.