En route to New York I was a little reserved with what awaits me in the big apple. Though my friends have tried their best to convince me I wasn’t totally sold to their raving. If not because of the highly popular French Culinary Institute I wouldn’t consider going to the USA at all. Honestly, I even wanted to cancel my trip and instead lull in the sun in some romantic place in Asia.
Well, all those hesitations melted away as we headed off to New York from Newark Airport. I was so exuberant upon the glimpse of iconic places and landmarks especially the glimmering view of Manhattan.
It was like treading into the movie screen. I could make out most of the places while we were driving uptown along the streets of Manhattan.
Having said that, what really caught my fancy was the assortment of dining establishments.
The Gastronomic Encounters
I had my first taste of New York on the same day that I arrived in a diner just a block away from 29th Street in Queens where I lived. At first, I was sceptical about the quality of the food there. I looked into the menu and saw some decent offerings. My confidence mostly lay in the hands of my friends who chose the place. I ordered quesadilla.
For only US$ 3.0 I had a big plate of crisp and savory quesadilla. I was happy with my food. I also tried their dessert plate-sized blueberry pancake one morning and I enjoyed it, too. Anyhow, I can only manage a quarter portion of the fluffy fare. It was too big a serving but it didn’t come as a surprise.
I also went to this burger joint near the Metropolitan Museum and I had a fantastic blue cheese burger! One of the Mexican waitresses was so friendly chatting up with me until I finished my meal. That sealed the deal.
Before watching Phantom of the Opera, I ordered a quick meal at a nearby diner in Times Square - a crisp and freshly grilled panini. I was so tempted to try their as they carry the traditional American desserts: big, full of cream and sugar and sinful.
Although not a big fan, one of the most important things that I must mention is bagel. New York is famous for its artisan breads and bagels and I can only wish for it now that I am in Maldives. It’s not like any other bagel I have tried elsewhere. One of the probable reasons is the availability of good quality flour (the range is wider). New York is dotted with bagel stores in every corner. On our way to Pennsylvania for a day of fun in the icy mountains, I grabbed a delicious cinnamon-raisin with Philadelphia cream cheese. I was relishing it like a ten-year old kid.
I firmly say that you never go wrong whichever eatery you go to. There is always something in store for everyone. Of course, some may have a sloppy service but good food is not hard to come by.
Hershey’s, Dale & Thomas and Peanut Butter Store
New York is teeming with delicatessen and pastry shops. In Times Square alone you can see floors and floors of Hershey’s goodies and a multitude of dessert bars. There is also the popular Dale & Thomas Popcorn Bar close to the TKTS office along 48th street. I brought home a bag of the gourmet popcorn twice after the movies! One was white chocolate and peanut butter and the other the classic caramel and walnut. It was a real treat!
I missed to try the cakes at the Roxy Delicatessen but I thought I will save it for my future trip. They displayed a good variety of cakes from cheesecake to chocolate cake. However, my stomach can’t take it anymore. I know for sure that a slice would be thrice of what I can normally consume.
Despite my self-imposed abstinence after several days of binging in sweets, there is only one café that I don’t fail to visit when my sugar cravings are at its peak: Bouchon! It’s worth the fuss.
In the Time-Warner building close to the Central Park is the Bouchon Café. I was there three times ordering the same dessert: three pieces of rich chocolate friands with sour cherry ice cream. I make delectable friands, too, but Bouchon’s version has a more loose texture and served warm. I was surprised though that the Bouchon in Beijing was not as good as this one.
Balthazar’s, Payard and Financier
I also checked out Balthazar Bakery close to my school in SOHO. They serve classical French pastries and there is nothing exquisite as the old charms of a Parisian patisserie. I also ended up having my dinner there of grilled lamb (I am a sucker for lamb). It was delish!
And, perhaps, one of the most notable of them is Payard’s. It was a long walk from Lexington Avenue but worth the fuss. Chef Payard is famous for his chocolate creations and I asked the waiter to choose for me something that has berries. I enjoyed it to the last bite! And mind you, the two courses I had were exceptional. I specially liked the fish main course – cooked just right. Another patisserie that is quintessentially French is Financier located close to the buzzing Wall Street. It is owned by Eric Bedouche who I met so briefly as he was caught up in a meeting frenzy (thanks to Kathryn Gordon of ICE for her efforts). His shop was small but packed with people. I so wanted to try his tempting array of desserts but time wasn’t on my side. Well, there is another time. I shall return!
I am a certified chocoholic and my trip would be a failure if I wouldn’t check out the chocolate boutiques in New York.
My mother and I were big fans of Jacques Torres in my teenage days and he is one of the deans of the French Culinary Institute (FCI) where I took my bread and chocolate classes. Chef Jacques has a large chocolate factory near the Hudson River. I was always looking forward to meeting him in person when I planned my trip to New York. And my wish was finally granted when the school, with the help of Philip Guthenson, included me in the volunteer list for a book launching at Jacques chocolaterie.
Jacques Torres’ Chocolate Haven
I almost got late because I was confused with the directions on my google map. I was so thankful that I have bought an I phone because it worked really great in the US.
I reached the factory in the nick of time and I was whisked to the kitchen right away.
I saw all sorts of chocolates and the machineries that make them. It was like a trip to chocolate wonderland. Jacques was there and he was busy on his computer. My FCI colleagues wanted to approach him but were reticent because they heard Jacques is not very congenial. So, I waited for the right time to catch up with him.
While people were pouring in to witness the book launching of one of America’s emerging and top pastry chefs, Johnny Iuzzini, Jacques went to our station to taste the desserts. I confidently called out to him “Hey, Chef! I and my mum are a big fan of yours and it is such an honour to be here tonight”. Jacques smiled back and acknowledged me. He turned out to be nice and not at all aloof. I felt more comfortable. I saw him kidding around with the service staff at the back of the house and we were all laughing at his jokes. He was even mopping the floor at the end of the event - such a very modest man.
Ron Ben Israel
In the same evening, Ron Ben Israel was one of the guests. My FCI colleague, Christine, knew Ron even before in one of her classes and Ron came up to her for a chat. At first I couldn’t be sure but his unique character affirmed my thoughts that he was the cake magician. He was very talkative and casual. I didn’t manage to drop by his shop. I actually asked if I could watch him do cakes or decorations at his convenience but it seemed he had so many appointments at that time.
A few blocks away from the school in Broome Street is MarieBelle. She is an alumna of FCI. It had an Arabian feel from the striking blue tones to the Arabic piped-in music. I tasted some of her creations. What I really liked was her classy and artsy touch apart from the interesting flavour combinations. Chocolates bore imprints of caricatures in pastel colours. Because of the subdued tone of her shop, I asked the sales attendant if the owner was of Middle Eastern decent. She assured me it was just for the ambiance. I wanted to linger longer and maybe sit in the café for a hot chocolate. Anyhow, I was guarding my stomach against unnecessary trouble or else I won’t make it in my class that night.
Chef Roberta of our chocolate class was so kind enough to hand me a torn page of a magazine featuring a distinct chocolate movement in a small spot in New York. It sounded very exciting. I love everything different and novel. I had no class or appointments the next day so I went to this esteemed chocolate store in the middle of a very freezing day for a tasting.
Vere Chocolates promotes organic-farming and supports local farmers to sustain their industry. They balance business and social responsibility. They believe in harmonious blending of elements. The result is a mild-flavoured and pure tasting chocolate. I was so bemused at the melange of flavours. None of the components is overlapping the other or pulling one flavour down. It was a good blend not overwhelming. You could keep eating and eating without feeling satiated opposed to the more striking concoctions we have become accustomed to.
If they were easily available, I would want to carry their product in a delicatessen.
Johnny Iuzzini & Jean George’s at the Trump Building
Johnny Iuzzini’s first book, Dessert Fourplay, was launched at Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven. I felt proud when he recognized me while he was obviously busy readying for the party. He affirmed my presence by saying that I was the chef from Beijing of the Westin Chaoyang. I was tasked to do his Chocolate Soup with chipotle. It was a hit!
When the party was dying down, Johnny called us into the kitchen as he was going to give each of us a signed copy of his book. We were all very happy.
What I really liked among his desserts that night was the peanut-chocolate combination. I love peanuts! Back in the Philippines I would snack on Chocnut – a native delicacy made of ground peanuts, milk and chocolate. Reese’s comes second to Chocnut.
A few days after the event, I got an email from Johnny thanking everyone who took part in the book launching. I took the chance to ask him if I could visit his restaurant. And he said YES.
I didn’t know I would be there to make my hands dirty. All I had in mind was to check out the place and talk to Johnny (sort of an interview) about his passion.
John, Johnny’s Sous Chef, asked one of the chefs to get me a set of uniform. I was surprised but welcomed it. Certainly, Johnny has already told them I was coming and may have shared some professional information. John was very friendly and accommodating and offered me a choice of mise en place I am interested to learn. Of course, I chose the molecular things. Had I only gone there earlier I would have been able to make more and discover the eccentricities of Johnny’s dessert foreplay.
I learned about how agar-agar was used to create a stable sauce and how certain compounds were combined in the thermo-mixer to create airy, flaky, flexible or hard substances. I don’t want to go into details as it is going to be very technical. But my experience there was absolutely fantastic.
The French Culinary Institute
Artisan Breads & Chocolate Classes
Institute of Culinary Education & Kathryn Gordon
Sur La Table
Dean & Deluca
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Posted by Nouel C. Omamalin at 4:12 AM