Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Hourglass Tavern: Time Sifts When You're Having Fun

Dining in New York at the Hourglass Tavern is a unique experience.
By Mitch Broder

In Times Square, you can watch a ball drop until your year is gone.

Just blocks away, you can watch sand drop until your seat is gone.

Either way, something is gone. But in Times Square you could be cold and hungry, while just blocks away you could be warm and fed. Personally, I’d take warm and fed, meaning the Hourglass Tavern, the most hospitable place you can find in Manhattan to throw you out.

You're on the clock when dining in New York at the Hourglass Tavern
Beth setting the clock.
The Hourglass opened three decades ago on a reasonable premise: They had just a little space, so you had just a little time. There was an hourglass nearby at every table. When you sat down, it got flipped; when it ran out, you got flipped. If you couldn’t eat dinner in an hour, you didn’t belong in New York City.

Theoretically, the metered meals aided the patrons as much as the restaurant, since the Hourglass is on Restaurant Row, in the Theater District. People dining close to curtain time wanted to know when they should leave. With the moments passing before their eyes, they were hard-pressed not to know.

The Hourglass was run for about twenty-five years by Christo and Tina Sideris. They retired and sold it three years ago to Beth Sheinis and Josh Toth. The new owners have, naturally, renovated, refurbished, and reimagined. The good news is, they’ve kept the tradition of giving you the bum’s rush.

Actually, they don’t do it that often, since the Hourglass has grown. It began with a few tables on one floor and now has tables on three. But it’s still small, and, Beth says, “a lot of people will make reservations for four o’clock and want to sit till their eight o’clock show.” Those are the people who are just asking for it.

Still, Beth is more inclined to welcome than to eject. She loves her job and believes that part of it is making people feel at home. I met her at the bar at rush hour, and she introduced me to the crowd by announcing: “Everybody, this is Mitch.” I expected everybody to hurl olives.

The bar is new. It’s named Bettibar and is fittingly cozy. The third-floor décor is new. The walls are festooned with musical instruments. But the rooms still feel like 1894, which is when the brownstone they’re in was built. And most of the tables still have hourglasses. And the ones that don’t still can.

“We have all their original hourglasses,” Beth says. “We have hourglasses that can go to the tables.”

“But don’t be afraid to come in,” she adds. “We are flexible. And if we do ask people for their table, it’s part of the experience of the restaurant.”

Step inside the Hourglass Tavern for a unique experience when dining in New York.

Savor the minutes at The Hourglass Tavern, 373 West 46th Street, between Eighth and Ninth avenues, New York City.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks: The Little Shop With a Lot to Digest

Julia Child would be proud of the collection of cookbooks at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks
By Mitch Broder

Your festive entrée at home is most likely turkey, roast beef, or ham.

But it could be Rabbit Loaf, Pizza Pot Pie, or Coca-Cola Chicken.

There are 46 ways to make meatloaf in this cookbook that is found at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks.
Or not. Still it’s always good to have unconventional options, and you have them — at least for dinner — if you visit Bonnie Slotnick.

Bonnie’s bookshop is a treasure house of lost culinary possibilities, because it sells only out-of-print and antiquarian cookbooks. They include the books with the recipes for the above — respectively, “Meatloaf” by Sharon Moore, “Pot Pies” by Beatrice Ojakangas, and “The Kitchen Sink Cookbook” by Carolyn Wyman, which also has the recipe for Chocolate Cricket Torte.

The store has fruit-based books like “The Apple Cookbook,” nut-based books like “The Walnut Cookbook,” flavoring-based books like “The Vanilla Cookbook,” and condiment-based books like “The Plain & Fancy Mustard Cookbook.” It also has boat-based books like “The Cruising Cookbook,” dwelling-based books like “The Commune Cookbook,” restaurant-based books like “Lüchow’s German Cookbook,” and 99-cent-store-based books like “The 99¢ Only Stores Cookbook.”

It has every kind of cookbook you could imagine and many kinds you couldn’t, from the past couple of centuries, at reasonable cost. They are standing on shelves, lying on tables, and reposing on the carpet. They tempt you to grab an armful and repose on the carpet.

Search through the stacks at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks for a unique New York shopping experience.

Indeed, walk into Bonnie’s store and you feel like you’re in Bonnie’s apartment, not that I’ve been in her apartment, but I picture it as comparably cozy. The old books are accented by old kitchen utensils like The Acme Rotary Mincer and by old kitchen products like Betty Brite Bake Cups. I thought I might meet Betty Brite.

A close up look at some of the selections available at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks.I also thought I might meet Betty Crocker, though she, too, does not exist, but try telling that to many of Bonnie’s most determined customers. Betty’s books are the number-one seller, due to her apparent immortality and to her parent company’s referrals of lost-book-hunters to Bonnie.

It’s a shame, in a way, since there are so many real people to choose from. If you had a recipe and a name, you probably have a book for sale at Bonnie’s.

She has “The James Beard Cook Book,” “The Maurice Moore-Betty Cookbook,” “Helen Corbitt’s Cook-book,” and “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook.” She has “The Emily Post Cook Book,” “Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Cookbook,” “The Dinah Shore Cook Book,” and “The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book.”

Naturally, she has all these books because she’s not a fashion illustrator. She studied to be one at Parsons but was happier working at the Parsons library. She began collecting old books and found herself especially fond of old cookbooks. Meanwhile, she worked as a writer and editor at a company that published new cookbooks.

Get lost in the cookbooks you'll find at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks.She became a partner at the uptown store Kitchen Arts & Letters, where she was in charge of the out-of-print books. Eventually she was selling books on her own from a Greenwich Village office. Soon after, she opened her store. It’s twelve years old. It seems like forty.

This is the only store I know that has no negative comments online, unless you count the occasional complaint that it’s not open around the clock. Bonnie loves her books and wants to find each one a happy home. She has a Web site on which she encourages patrons to call rather than to e-mail.

She has filled all sorts of requests, from a single Betty Crocker to a complete collection of strictly first-edition James Beard. “But the really challenging request,” she says, “is the call from the person who doesn’t know the name of the book they’re looking for, but their mother had it and it was gray, but the cover fell off in 1962, and it has a recipe for cooking turtle, with the ingredients printed in red.”

When she finds it — as she will — she doesn’t require lavish praise. Instead, she may request just a small souvenir.

“If someone gets a long-lost book for their grandmother, I sometimes ask them to take a picture of her opening the package,” she says. “I have some of those hanging behind the desk.”

Step inside Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks for a uniquely New York experience.

Savor Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, 163 West 10th Street, near Seventh Avenue South, New York City.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Donut Pub: Come See What It Takes to Make Dunkin' Run

Just looking in the window of The Donut Pub is a wonderful dining in New York experience
By Mitch Broder

In the new year, The Donut Pub will surely get new neighbors, but they won’t be Munchkins.

The Munchkins are gone till 2020.

Dunkin Donuts didn't survive down the street from The Donut Pub
Those would be the Munchkins of Dunkin’ Donuts, the chain that has 9,700 more stores than The Donut Pub, which has one. A Dunkin’ store moved in near The Donut Pub in 2007. It moved out months ago. All that’s left are Dunkin’ Doorknobs.

Dunkin’ technically had seniority. The chain began in 1950; The Donut Pub didn’t open till 1964. But by 2007, The Donut Pub had already knocked off one Dunkin’ Donuts. The neighborhood had cast its vote for a place that calls Munchkins “Donut Holes.”

That was in the late nineties. Yet Dunkin’ tried again a decade later, at 215 West 14th Street, just a few doors away. So it should be returning in about nine years, and gone again in four. America may run on Dunkin’, but New York stops at The Pub.

It stops there because The Pub has better doughnuts and better service, not to mention a better sign. But better isn’t always enough. I think The Pub wins because Dunkin’ Donuts feels like a place to get out of, while The Donut Pub feels like a place to come into.

Hot coffee and delicious donuts await New York diners at The Donut Pub

It has a counter where people nestle with a newspaper and two pastries, since they usually have two favorites and get both rather than choose. And it has counter people who want to please you, like Sam, who’s been there for twenty-six years, and Gus Markatos, who’s the manager but doesn’t let that stop him.

“I like interacting with people,” he told me. “When someone’s not in, I cover for them. I drink coffee, I eat doughnuts, I do everything.” Still, it’s the pastries that keep The Pub popular, he said. “We have the best black-and-white in the city,” he added. I still don’t know how he knew I would care.

Freshly made donuts are a staple of dining in New York at The Donut Pub
But he knew or guessed, and he brought me one. It seemed free at the time. But Gus is a businessman. He knew what he was doing. I’ve been back twice. The second time the cookies were just out of the oven and Sam had one frosted for me in all chocolate. That doesn’t happen at Dunkin’ Donuts.

But The Pub has always had doughnut competitors, at least till they’ve run out of dough. In the sixties doughnuts were everywhere, since back then they were good for you. There were shops all over the neighborhood, Gus said, including across the street. They were good for The Donut Pub. They provided target practice.

Decades later, the exalted Krispy Kreme arrived in the city. It opened its first store nine blocks away, in 1996. The company called itself “the biggest thing to hit New York since Nathan’s sold its first hot dog at Times Square.” The Pub would cream Krispy just the way it had sunk Dunkin’.

The Pub’s just plain inspirational, especially when you learn that one of its founders was a man named Buzzy Geduld. Buzzy went on to become a Wall Street trader who managed Herzog Heine Geduld until Merrill Lynch bought it in 2000 for about a billion dollars.

In short, you don’t mess with The Pub, even if you do have 9,700 stores. Sure, nearby stores display doughnuts — but only a couple of doughnuts.

As a Pub counter man said to me one night: “Why would you try to compete with a place that’s been here since ’64? Have some respect for the place.”

Night and day the Donut Pub serves all New York city diners.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Off-Broadway: Jesse Eisenberg Triumphs Because I'm His Cousin

Jesse Eisenberg stars in the off-broadway production of Asuncion
By Mitch  Broder

Jesse Eisenberg, the Oscar-nominated star of “The Social Network,” has triumphed in his New York playwriting debut because I am his cousin.

He is captivating audiences nightly with his delightful new play, “Asuncion,” because my grandmother was the sister of his great-grandfather.

Teamed with an excellent cast, he is irresistible in the lead role of Edgar because my mother is the first cousin of his grandmother.

The show is a hit and had barely opened before its run was extended because I am the second cousin of his mother.

Needless to say, applause is in order.

Also some for Jesse.

On second thought, give it to me, since he gets it every night, not that he doesn’t deserve it, but fair is fair. “Asuncion” is entertaining and Jesse is entertaining in it, but would he be where he is without me?

Actually, I wasn’t sure. So I called him to double-check.

Oscar nominated Jesse Eisenberg wrote and stars in Asuncion off-Broadway in New York City
Jesse and Camille Mana.
Personally, I trace his success to the day when our families gathered at the home of my cousin Judy, who is also Jesse’s aunt. I had just written about my cousin Hallie Eisenberg, who is also Jesse’s sister, and who was appearing in “The Women” on Broadway because my great-grandparents were her great-great-grandparents.

On that day, Jesse told me that he was pursuing a career in acting, though he had yet to receive a single Oscar nomination. Instead of suggesting that he give up, I assured him that I was all for it. He has since been in a couple of dozen movies. There was really no need to call him.

But I called anyway, and he called back, which I appreciated, because he could just as well have called, say, Justin Timberlake, who also blogs. We talked mostly about family. He told me that Judy wanted to hear from me. I assumed that it was because she wanted to thank me for her success.

I told him how much I had enjoyed “Asuncion,” for which I had been grateful, since his parents were with me in the audience that night. I told him that he was a pleasure to watch onstage, for which he was grateful and possibly even more likely to thank me for his success.

I asked him what it was like to star in a play that he had written. He said: “I have the same kind of stresses that I have from being in plays that I haven’t written. But there’s nothing more exhilarating. There’s nothing like the thrill of doing live theater.” Except maybe for being the one who has made the thrill possible.

Still, I proceeded subtly. I asked him whether he could think of any family members who had played a major role in his career. “I take a lot of comfort in having a close relationship with my parents,” he said.

Fine. I could live with that. For some people, parents outrank cousins.

He continued: “One of the byproducts of being in movies is that you feel a little less ownership over yourself. You see people on the street, and they act as if they know you. It helps me feel grounded, having a close relationship with my parents.”

OK; I couldn’t compete with his parents. And I really didn’t want to, after confiding to him that I felt the same way about my parents. So I switched strategies. I asked him if any previously unknown relatives had tried to profit from his success. Maybe I’d float to the top.

“No,” he said, “no one’s come out of the woodwork to ask me to invest in their lumberyard. Luckily, we come from a normal, healthy family, so no. Now that you mention it, I can only imagine what’s possible. But no, so far there’s been nothing uncomfortable.”

Jesse Eisenberg is starring in Asuncion in New York City
Jesse and Remy Auberjonois.
I had to get tough. I reminded him of the day at Judy’s. He didn’t remember our conversation. All right, then: In “Asuncion,” his character is a naïve journalist and blogger who makes shallow assumptions. Could he deny that I was the inspiration for that?

He could. He claimed that he based Edgar on his shallowness rather than mine. But he made a concession: The inspiration for his career may have come from his grandmother. “She’s a natural performer, and she was always outgoing,” he said. “If it came from anywhere, it came from her — and we share her.”

We do share her, or rather I share her with him, since she was my cousin before she was his grandmother. But that wasn’t quite what I was after, and time was running out. Jesse had to go to a voice-over session because my great-aunts were his great-great aunts, so I more or less asked for credit, and he finally gave it his best shot.

“Your father is in the entertainment industry,” he said thoughtfully. “I can’t say he’s done much for me, but I suppose he would have if I’d asked.

“As for you, I can’t think of anything — unless it’s one of those butterfly-flaps-its-wings-in-China things. But if it was something like that, I appreciate it. Thank you.”

You’re welcome, Jesse.

I’m always here for you.

Jesse Eisenberg's off-broadway debut at the Cherry Lane Theatre

“Asuncion,” from Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, runs through December 18th. It's at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, in Manhattan. If you like it, you can thank me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Signing Off: In Memory of Those That Didn't Make It to December

Nail One is one of the New York City businesses that closed in December
By Mitch Broder

Among the obsessions of Vintage New York are the city's departed businesses that seem to have hastened their departure with the names they gave themselves.

So while others take the easy route of frequenting stores that are open, I stand alone outside the ones that are closed and ruminate on their signs.

"Nail One," for example, may be a popular goal, but maybe not the most inviting phrase to a woman in search of a manicure. Below are a few more places that went black before Black December, not that surviving would necessarily have done them any good...

Fusion was for those dining in New York until it closed in December
Signage Rule No. 1: Customers should be able to figure out what your name is...

The Big Cheese is no more in New York
Everybody knows that you can't be The Big Cheese forever...

Butler's was great with the service but diners in New York didn't care to keep it around
Even now, people don't want to dine with the butler...

eShave has closed in December as a fine New York shop
Maybe this will be the last task that people don't do online...

Signage has a way of closing down establishments in New York City
See Signage Rule No. 1, above...

Vintage New York wishes everyone better luck next time.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Strangely New York: Delphinium Home Combines Its Curiosities

Variety is the spice of life for New York shoppers at Delphinium
By Mitch Broder

The good news for shoppers is that they can now purchase their Animal Sound Alarm Clocks and their Disgusting Sounds Keychains under one roof.

They should just be aware that the disgusting sounds are sincerely disgusting.

The Solar Queen is among the unique assortment of goods at Delphinium that await shoppers in New York
This unprecedented opportunity is made possible by Delphinium Home, which is now conveniently consolidated if still improbably located. The owners have blended their gift store with their home store to create a new store that, like the old stores, butts the stylishly tasteful against the cheerily tasteless.

Now, in one stop, you can get, say, a stylishly tasteful soap dish and a cheerily tasteless solar-powered hand-waving queen. And you can get all the things that somehow fall somewhere in between, like Pac-Man Potholders, Manhole Drain Covers, and Michelle Obama Tote Bags.

Since these are all no doubt on your list, you may want to stop by, for stores that carry this kind of stuff have been steadily dwindling. Somber has displaced silly, and functional has eclipsed funny. But not at Delphinium. Maybe because it’s so hard to find.

Shoppers in New York will sleep like a log on this log pilloiw found at Delphinium
You can find it on West 47th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, blithely out of the way of the hubs of Times Square and Hell’s Kitchen. To its left are apartments. To its right are apartments. Across the street are apartments. The residents never want for Animal Butt Magnets.

The rest of us have to walk a bit out of our way. But that mystique may be one reason that Delphinium has survived.

It all began with flowers, of which the delphinium is one, and with Broadway singer-dancers, of which the owners were three. Gary Alaimo, Michael Quinn, and John Soroka were roommates who were getting tired of singing and dancing. Michael and John stepped into flower-arranging.

They started at home, moved to a store, then added some other things, which sold so well that they soon had little time for the flowers. In 1996, the alleged flower shop became the Delphinium Card & Gift shop. It was across the street. It’s still vacant. It might make a good flower shop.

Maybe you're in the market for a Lickety Spoon from DelphiniumIn 1999, the three men opened Delphinium Home, around the corner on Ninth Avenue. In 2001, they opened Wear Me Out, a men’s clothing store, in their current space. In 2011, their leases were up, and their Ninth Avenue rent was rising. They gave up the gift store and the home store, dumped the clothes, and launched the combined store.

The odd mix of stuff suits the neighbors and delights tourists from around the world, though it’s not clear which country most embraces the Lickety Spoon. John, who’s the gift buyer, says: “There’s a certain aesthetic to the way I buy. There’s a certain cleverness to the way I buy. There’s a certain city mind that you tap into.”

That mind must favor animals, because they’re a dominant theme. You can get them on useful items for any room in the house. Along with the Animal Sound Alarm Clocks and the Animal Butt Magnets, there are the Fish Shower Curtain, the Walrus Ice Cream Scoop, the Rubber Duck Scrubber, and the Hand-Crank Piggy LED Flashlight.

As for those Animal Sound Alarm Clocks, they come in cat, monkey, and frog.

As for the sounds in the Disgusting Sounds Keychains, you’re on your own.

Cool Cats abound at Delphinium for shoppers in New York.

Step up to the plate at Delphinium Home, 353 West 47th Street, New York City.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

House of Oldies: Selling Last Century's Hits For Half a Century

New York City music lovers find a haven at the House of Oldies
That's Bob.

By Mitch Broder

The House of Oldies stocks around 700,000 records, yet the only thing that’s likely to do any skipping is the store.

It has skipped cassettes. It has skipped CDs. It has skipped downloads. It has skipped catalogs. It has skipped — musically speaking — the past couple of decades. Nevertheless, in at least one way it’s more relevant than almost all the record stores that have come along in the fifty years since it opened:

It’s still in business.

It has outlived Tower and Virgin and HMV and Sam Goody, and (in Manhattan) FYE, the chain that ate chains like Sam Goody. It has outlived mostly forgotten names like Record Hunter and King Karol, and scores of other record shops, record chains, and record departments.

At one point the House of Oldies had outlived it's New York music counterpart Strider Records
It has just outlived Strider Records, the store that most resembled it, probably because it was run by a man who once worked at the House of Oldies. When I heard that Strider, a couple of blocks over, had closed after 32 years, I got worried and went to check on the House.

I had nothing to worry about.

Still wedged into the 700,000 records was Bob Abramson, who has owned the store since 1968. He still runs it alone. He still sells only records. He still sells the records he sold in 1968. And he still plans to keep selling them. “I love being here,” he said. “It’s either a sickness or a passion. I think it’s a passion.”

He likes customers with a passion — meaning customers who know what they want. His is not a store for hours of browsing, since its one aisle gets blocked by one browser. This is paradoxical, since the store has dozens of tempting bins and a wall of tempting album covers and 45-rpm picture sleeves.

But you can spend a little time admiring wall occupants like the Everly Brothers, Bobby Darin, Little Richard, Dion, Ruth Brown, and the Eldorados. And that may help you to know what you want — which may lead you to sticker shock. But Bob says that his prices shock only the people who don’t understand what he sells.

From Madonna to the Best of Joe Turner New York music lovers will find it all at the House of OldiesHe pulls out a copy of the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” It’s marked $90. He slips the disk from its sleeve. It’s shiny and flawless. “Show me where you’re gonna find a first pressing of ‘Let It Be’ that looks like that, from 35 years ago. It’s a first edition. You’re gonna pay for it.” (And actually, it was 41 years ago.)

Nevertheless, he has bargain bins, with LPs for $10. These are generally albums that are in more abundance or less demand. But like the ninety-dollar “Let It Be,” they are guaranteed not to skip. If you prefer the Motels to the Beatles, you go home an all-around winner.

The Motels notwithstanding, prime time here is the fifties and sixties, and most albums cost between $25 and $40. Those prices, too, can elicit comments like “Forty bucks for this? Are you serious?” Bob’s stock reply: “Let me bring that to the attention of my buyer. It probably is too high.”

New York music lovers can spend all day thumbing through record stacks at the House of Oldies
The House of Oldies’ record run started in 1962, when Richard Clothier opened it around the corner, on Bleecker Street. Bob became a customer. Then he became an employee. And at 24, he became the owner. Richard didn’t have the passion.

Bob moved the store in 1980, when his landlord said that the fish store next door was taking over the space, which in fact it never did. If not for that, he probably would never have moved, just as he hasn’t moved since. “I don’t need to be the richest guy in the cemetery,” he says.

Truly vintage as House of Oldies sells only vinyl records
As cassettes and CDs eclipsed vinyl, Bob put his famous sign in the window: “NO CD’s/ NO  TAPES/ JUST RECORDS.” Back then, I saw it as defiance. Decades later, I’ve been corrected. “It was not to be elite,” Bob said, “not to say ‘F-U with your CDs and tapes.’ I did it ’cause the store was small, and I didn’t want 9,000 people coming in here for CDs and tapes.”

The fidelity to high fidelity cost some fidelity in the nineties. The masses abandoned records for the alleged miracle discs. People commonly bought CDs of records they already had. Bob waited for them to come back and buy records of CDs they already had.

Now, with CDs dead and tapes deader, business is good. The customers span generations; Bob calls his teen clientele “huge.” “They’ll come in and say, ‘Got any Zeppelin on wax?’ They love the sound of vinyl on a decent system. It doesn’t have to be a $10,000 system. It can be a $500 system.”

As for his own system, Bob plays the classics — Dylan, Baez, Presley, the Stones. “The greats are the greats because they’re great,” he says. “Everybody thinks I have, like, secret albums that no one ever heard of. I don’t. I don’t have one album that you never heard of.”

But he sells just about every album you ever heard of, especially if it’s midcentury rock ’n’ roll, doo-wop, rhythm & blues, blues, soul, or pop.

And if he keeps on outliving record stores, that copy of “Let It Be” for $90 may just end up being the biggest bargain in New York.

The sign out front says it all House of Oldies Rare Records

Take a spin at House of Oldies, 35 Carmine Street, New York City.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Strangely New York: Stepping Out at B-Bap, Chickpea, and Nooi

Looking for chick peas when dining in New York, you'll find them at B-Bap
B-Bap. It means rice. Sort of.

By Mitch Broder

If I took Step 1 at Chickpea, and Step 2 at My Maki, and Step 3 at Nooi, and Step 4 at B-Bap, I could have the Hummus with Tahini and Eel in Tomato Diablo Sauce topped with Organic Bacon Bits, plus Parmesan and Green Olives, since Nooi has a Step 5.

The My Maki menu offers many options for those dining in New York
My Maki. Before.
But I can’t, since My Maki has just gone out of business, leaving me eelless, so for Step 2 at My Maki I’ll substitute Step 3 at B-Bap, because what could be better in Tomato Diablo Sauce than Julienned Eggs, unless it’s Bean Sprouts, which are 23 cents less?

The point here is not only that I can design a disgusting lunch. It is also that My Maki has just gone out of business. While this doesn’t delight me, it does suggest to me that people may have had their fill of places that require you to write the recipe for your food before you eat it.

The late My Maki (“Sushi How You Like it”) was one of the latest. It opened just last March, on 43rd Street between Third and Lexington. It was proud of your work. In its window it posted a quote from UrbanDaddy exclaiming that “you’ll brainstorm, micromanage, and give birth.” And where better to do those things than a sushi bar?

My Maki has closed because thise dining in New York weren't open to making their own meal
My Maki. After.
In its Step 1, you chose from two Wraps. In Step 2, you chose from 10 Main Ingredients. In Step 3, you chose from 18 Other Ingredients, which included Craisins and Doritos. In Step 4, you chose from eight External Toppings, which included seven Dipping Sauces, which, perhaps for variety, were listed on the store’s menu board as Step 5.

After brainstorming and micromanaging, you could give birth to a soy-wrap eel roll with jalapeño, mango, sundried tomato, cream cheese, and Doritos, topped with crab mix and crunchy tempura, and dipped in citrus ponzu sauce. A few months after the opening I saw a guy at the corner holding up a My Maki sign. I was not surprised.

But for now, other four-step (or five-step) restaurants seem to be flourishing, no matter how much of their job they get you to do. The steps vary, sometimes at the same place, but all the spots give you the same chance to create something so vile that you’ll want to come back and try again.

Dining in New York has another experience at Nooi
Nooi. It means noodles. Sort of.
Nooi (“Pasta-to-Go”) is on Lex between 40th and 41st.  The experience here begins with the appetizing slogan “Simply pick your.” Step 1 is Size. You pick 26 or 32 ounces. Step 2 is Pasta. You pick regular or multigrain. Step 3 is Sauce; you pick from 11. Step 4 is Extras; you pick from six. Step 5 is 2 Free Toppings; you pick from another six. But at Nooi you can also pick different steps.

On its Web site, Step 1 is Step 2, and Step 2 is Step 1, and Step 4 is Customize Your Pasta, though Step 3 is still Sauce. And Step 5 is Add Salads, Drinks or Dessert, since Step 4 combines Steps 4 and 5, which doesn’t explain why only the sign in the store window refers to dessert  —though not to salads and drinks — as Step 6.

Chickpea (“Always baked. Never fried.”) has several stores besides the one I visited, which is on 45th Street between Madison and Vanderbilt. Here you choose your format (pocket, wrap, platter, plate, or salad), and then you Select Your Hummus (original, basil & toasted pine nuts, roasted red pepper, jalapeño & scallions).

Chickpea is another choose your own adventure dining in New York experience
Chickpea. It means chickpea.
If you’re not yet fried, you Add Your Essentials, which include Falafel, Shawarma, Shawafel, Chicken Kebab, Chicken Breast, Chickplant, Lamb Turkey Kebab, and Chicken Cutlet. Then you can choose from Extras, including eggplant, avocado, and fries, except that Extras don’t count as a step, leaving Chickpea with just three.

B-Bap (“Fusion Rice Bar”) is on Ninth Avenue between 54th and 55th. Here “customers can design their own b-bap bowl.” Step 1 is Select Your Base. Step 2 is Select Your Protein. Step 3 is Select Your Toppings. Step 4 is Select Your Sauce/Garnish. Mostly, you’re mixing rice with meat, vegetables, and sauce/garnish, making B-Bap the place with the least room for bad judgment, and the only place I know with Julienned Eggs.

Frozen Yogurt Your Way is the way at 16 Handles for once you're done dining in New York
16 Handles. I assume they did the math.
If you’ve taken steps at one of these places but still want to step out for dessert, the logical next step is 16 Handles (“Frozen Yogurt Your Way”). The chain, which has several stores in the city, invites you to Select Your Cup Size, Fill with Yogurt, Add Toppings, Weigh and Pay. It claims “trillions of possibilities.”

I don’t want trillions of possibilities. I want a cup of chocolate.

Or a bowl of rice. Or a stack of falafel. Or a plate of noodles. OK, with sauce.

I am not alone, for New York has clearly rejected cream-cheese-Dorito sushi.

Though it may have been only because the Doritos didn’t work with the teriyaki.

16 Handles lets those dining in New York have frozen yogurt your way
Getting a handle.

Have it your way at B-Bap, Chickpea, Nooi, and 16 Handles, but not at My Maki.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Smith & Wollensky: I May Be a Mirage, But Then, So is Smith

Broder and Wollensky was not the name of this steakhouse that you can visit when dining in New York
By Mitch Broder

I am a professional journalist, and I do not fake photographs.

When I need a photograph faked, I get someone else to do it.

So I got someone else to fake this photograph, which I wouldn't have had to do if I had triumphed in the Smith & Wollensky "Take the Pledge" contest, which I did not.

The faker did a masterly job. But it's a hollow victory. On the day the sign above should have been real, the real sign said "Kilkelly & Wollensky." Supposedly, I didn't win because my name wasn't randomly chosen. But I think it was personal. Maybe the management knew I've been sneaking steaks at Keens.

Bienstock and Wollensky is one of the names that graced this establishment for dining in New York
As I reported, Smith & Wollensky deleted Smith for a month and promised to replace his name with that of a different patron every day. To be randomly chosen, you had to make reservations and pledge never to eat at other steakhouses. It probably wasn't worth it if your name was Smith.

The contest mirrored tradition: When Alan Stillman founded the restaurant thirty-four years ago he randomly chose its two namesakes from a phone book. Stillman also founded T.G.I. Friday's, in 1965, and it is said that he randomly chose that name from a calendar.

The contest winners were treated to an elaborate fantasy; the sign and awning makeovers were just the beginning. Their names also appeared on the business cards, cocktail napkins, matchbooks, and waiters' jackets. They virtually owned the place, though not enough to rate free cheesecake.

The name changed each day for a month at Smith and Wollensky in New York
On various days this month, the steakhouse has been Gunn & Wollensky, Wilt & Wollensky, Butwin & Wollensky, Lipsky & Wollensky, Hu & Wollensky, Pi & Wollensky, Pompliano & Wollensky, and Mugavero & Wollensky. My favorite, based strictly on cadence, is Lewkowicz & Wollensky. But none has quite the magic of Broder & Wollensky, though Pi & Wollensky comes close.

Allison Good, the restaurant's spokeswoman, told me that the winners were very happy. They came to eat with their friends and families, and some came for both lunch and dinner. She also told me that some people were even more desperate to win than I was. "There's been lots of money offered," she said. "We did not take anyone up on it."

Still, she offered no condolences, and little hope of a second chance. "I would have to say this was a once in a lifetime opportunity," she said. After all, it was a lot of work changing those signs and that other stuff daily, not to mention making sure that all traces of Pompliano were gone before Mugavero arrived.

That's why I got the picture faked. A hollow victory is better than none. And outside of my name on the signs, I have everything else that matters. My name is already on business cards. I can write it on matchbooks, napkins, and jackets. And I prefer to see my name standing alone anyway, because, frankly, Wollensky has never pulled his weight.

Smith and Wollensky became Pi and Wollensky for another name change when dining in New York

Just be yourself at Smith & Wollensky, Third Avenue at 49th Street, New York City.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Marchi's Restaurant: Where You Get It All Without Asking For It

Dining in New York is a wonderful experience at Marchi's Restaurant
By Mitch Broder

I sat in Francesca and Lorenzo’s bedroom and ate for two hours straight.

I wish that Francesca and Lorenzo could have been there with me, not that I would have shared.

But though they are gone, it was their food that I ate — all five courses of it — at one of the great forgotten meals of Manhattan: dinner at Marchi’s Restaurant.

The key word here is “one,” because that’s what Marchi’s serves — one meal, the same meal, every night, six nights a week. Like many buildings in the city, its building has a sign that says “No Menus.” But here the sign has double meaning. There’ve always been no menus at Marchi’s.

The inside of an old apartment has now become the spot for dining in New York
No, that's not us.
I’ve posted the tale of how  Francesca and Lorenzo Marchi’s apartment got turned into a restaurant in the thirties and a one-meal restaurant in the forties. But I didn’t try the meal. That was wrong. I suffered deep regret. I returned to make amends. My selflessness is self-serving.

I was seated in the part of the main dining room that was indeed once the bedroom and now feels like a living room where you can settle in, which you do. My hosts were the Marchis’ son Mario and his wife Christine, who run the restaurant with Mario’s brothers and treat you like guests in their home, which it still is.

My own guest was Patricia, who unlike me can cook and whose culinary observations transcend my customary “Um” and “Ick.” Our waiter welcomed us. I had the dinner. Patricia, too, had the dinner. There were no questions and no answers — only certainty in an uncertain world.

Monogramed plates await you when you're dining in New York at Marchi's Restaurant
The meal began with warm bread. Um. Then came the first course, with an artful centerpiece of honeydew, radishes, celery, tomatoes, and fennel. This was accompanied by a platter of salami and a platter of Lorenzo Salad, featuring red cabbage and tuna. Patricia wanted the recipe. She didn’t get it.

The signature dish of Lasagna at Marchi's Restaurant in New York
The second course was the one that I was most excited about: the Lorenzo Lasagna. Christine calls it their signature dish. The bowls arrived. I rose to photograph them. “It smells so good,” Patricia said. “Hurry up and take your picture.” I decided to hear that as supportive.

At a five-course meal you need to make choices, and I made mine: I chose to have all of my lasagna, no matter what lay ahead. Patricia said: “It’s a very delicate lasagna.” I said: “Um. Pass the bread.” We had now both had enough dinner. We had three courses to go.

A fried piece of catfish for those dining in New York at March's Restaurant

The next was fried fish, which the waiter said was cod but which Mario said was catfish. Either way, it was skillfully done. “It’s creamy, with a light crunchy topping,” Patricia said. It came with green beans and beets, most of which I left for her. I’m famously generous with my green beans and beets.

The main course when dining in New York was roast chicken and roast veal at March's Restaurant
Soon we were served roast chicken and sliced roast veal, along with a platter of sautéed mushrooms and a bowl of tossed salad. The chicken was as tasty as any I’ve had, yet Patricia didn’t say a word. It turned out she was in poultry paradise: “I was too busy eating it to speak.”

The dessert course was delicious for anyone dining in New York at Marchi's RestaurantAt last we came to dessert, which had no chocolate and yet was perfect. It comprised fresh fruit, provolone, warm lemon fritters, and crackly crostoli. I had a perfect orange and a perfect banana and the crostoli and the fritter, which was like warm pudding with a crispy coating, and which I thus forgot to shoot.

Patricia and I had a wonderful, charming, old-fashioned homemade meal, and we marveled that people weren’t still lining up outside to get it, the way they used to.

“Back in the sixties you had a full meal,” Mario said. “If you were Italian you sat down for three hours. With people today, it’s ‘Gimme a sandwich, gimme a beer, I’m on my way.’”

Too bad for people. But not for all of them. Marchi’s still has its clientele, and its absence of menu choices appears to be an asset.

It allows you to savor the meal again and again, like a good book, Mario said: “By the fourth or fifth time, you really enjoy what’s being put in front of you.”

Marchi's restaurant offers those dining in New York few selections buyt a chance to savor their meal

Take your time at Marchis, 251 East 31st Street, at Second Avenue, New York City.