Real Thoughts On Momofuku + Scandinavian, Venezuelan & Malaysian NYC Favorites

The glow of the Chrysler by Grand Central Station

My beloved New York. The city that awakened me, at the sensitive age of 14, to cities… and the world. I put my hand over my heart upon first glimpse of the radiance of Manhattan at night from Jersey’s banks, where I lived during high school (and my family lived for years beyond).

There’s always dear friends, family, and such an ease and familiarity with city, it’s like second nature roaming its neighborhoods via the metro, wandering “the villages”, Flatiron or Lower East Side, endlessly hunting for a proper coffee (I finally found some on my last visit – see Imbiber). I always feel at home (my second home, it is), with a lifetime of memories all over Manhattan and the other four boroughs.

As I come close to wrapping up my recent NY series, here are my other NY articles.


Coconut Chicken

Double Crown, Noho One of the better dinner deals I’ve seen in New York is at Double Crown, an airy, open space with modern Asian decor, an intriguing basement, sidewalk patio and cooking influenced by various regions of Asia (see their intelligent, visually gorgeous blog cataloging the owners’ Asian travels, gathering culinary influences for their menu).

Coconut Laksa

Nonya Nights happen Sundays, inspired by family-style dining of Singapore and Malaysia with Chinese and Southeast Asian influences, and are $35 per person for eight courses. Friends, for NY, this is a steal and though portions are small, they are not minuscule – you will be quite full by the end of eight dishes.

Yellowtail Sashimi

Though every dish is not a stand-out, the whole forms a pleasing meal, from Coconut Laksa soup with crab, rice noodles and bean sprouts, to Yellowtail Sashimi with cucumber, hijiki and citrus-truffle dressing. I savored lobster chunks in Lobster Lo Mein Noodles with mussels, scallions and cilantro, as well as Crispy Brussels Sprouts in chili caramel.

Sweet & Sour Eggplant

Over a long dinner with dear friends, it’s a fine communal meal, while the candlelit glow of the dining room inspires conversation, with friendly but unobtrusive service.

Finish with Chocolate Thai Iced Coffee Cake, satisfied by the thoughtfully created feast you’ve devoured for a mere $35. Don’t forget to head next door to their gin bar, Madam Geneva for preserve and jam gin cocktails after or pre-dinner.

CHEAP EATS: East Village duo

Caracas in the East Village

Caracas Arepas Bar, East VillageCaracas Arepa Bar is a cheap, utterly satisfying NY meal: Venezuelan homemade arepas stuffed with all kinds of goodness. The tiny, charming East Village spot became so popular, there’s a to-go side and now a second Brooklyn location. Everything is under $7.50 and waits are long unless you arrive early, but you can order Camburada ($4.75 – banana cinnamon milkshake) and Guasacaca & Chips ($6.25 – Venezuelan-style guacamole with plaintain and sweet potato chips) while you wait. I love the La de Pernil Arepa ($7) stuffed with tender pork shoulder, tomato and spicy mango sauce. But I was equally pleased with the vegetarian La Mulata Arepa ($6.25) filled with white cheese, jalapenos, sauteed red peppers, fried sweet plantains and black beans.

Luke’s, East VillageHead right next door from Caracas and you’ll find Luke’s Lobster Shack, a humble hole-in-the-wall with a couple stools, take-out Maine seafood and a second location on the Upper East Side. Operating on principles of sustainability and New England authenticity, the prices are “cheap” for NY and for lobster rolls: get a whole Lobster Roll for $14 or an ideal “snack size” for $8. Loaded with buttery lobster from Maine and a light coating of mayo, it may not be my beloved Pearl’s in the Village, but it’s up there and a steal. For an extra $2, get the roll with Maine Root Soda, Miss Vickie’s chips and a pickle.

GOING UPSCALE… at the right price

Aquavit Bistro, East 50’s I’ve been trying to get to Aquavit for years, certainly having long heard about the mark chef Marcus Samuelsson left on modern Scandinavian cooking via this restaurant. It’s also sadly difficult to find Scandinavian cuisine. I adore the region’s focus on fresh fish, salmon, caviar, herring and, of course, the namesake spirit, aquavit.

Aquavits are a highlight at Aquavit

Again looking for deals, I dined in the spare, upscale IKEA bistro versus the more stuffy, pricey dining room (though I love the chairs in the bar area of the dining room). Quality does not suffer in the bistro, while service is gracious and well-orchestrated.

Despite a thoughtfully chosen drink menu, I had to go for a $17 flight of three (or $7 each) of the house-infused aquavits, though narrowing down flavors was problematic. I suspect I’d love most of these since the three I chose were all lovely, from a crisp cucumber, to hot mango/lime/chili, to my favorite: horseradish. There could not have been a better accompaniment to the food.

Artful Matjes Herring

Each dish delighted and portions were generous – The Renaissance Man and I left positively (emphasis on the positive) stuffed. Gravlax ($11) is heaping slices of bright, cured salmon in hovmastar (a mustard/white vinegar based sauce) with dill and lemon. I equally fell for Matjes Herring ($10): thin slices of herring with finely diced yellow beets, red onions and sour cream. Chilled Green Tomato Soup ($11) was almost tart with green tomato skins and pulpy juice, given finesse with apple, horseradish and crunchy croutons.

Swedish Meatballs

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I longed to try dessert (Stuffed Swedish Pancake with goat cheese cream?), but had not an inch of space to spare in my stomach, though it was happy with me for feeding it ultra-fresh fish. This is now a New York favorite and I’m more than a little sad not to have a place like it here in SF.

Sho Shaun Hergatt, Wall Street/Financial District Sho Shaun Hergatt is a newer fine dining kid-on-the-block getting rave reviews for it’s “Asian-accented French cuisine” from chef Shaun Hergatt.

Sho Shaun Hergatt’s Lobster Bisque

I was pleased to enjoy this expensive destination at lunch for a $30 Prix Fixe. Normally, lunch prix fixe menus offer throwaway menu items but as our waiter explained, theirs features some of Hergatt’s most popular dishes. The Renaissance Man and I ordered one prix fixe plus a la carte dishes for a fine cross section of dishes also on the dinner menu (note: prices reflect lunch menu costs). For lunch, it’s a Zen-like atmosphere with Asian-influenced decor, white linens and refined service, while convivial diners and staff glow in the expansive room.

Japanese Escolar

With wine, lunch ended up being around $100 for two, but would have cost double at dinner. A deal for fine dining in NY. Wines reflected a welcome range of locals, like an ’07 Rkatsiteli from Dr. Konstantin Frank in Finger Lakes, NY ($11 a glass), or far-reaching, like a Spanish ’09 Albarino, Lagar de Costa from Rias Baixas ($14).

For my Prix Fixe ($30), I ordered a delicate Chilled Lobster Bisque with peach and basil, succulent Seared Soft Shell Crab with cilantro and Florence fennel, and for dessert, Banana Millefeuille, elegantly bright with passion fruit, lime mousse, coconut milk ice cream. Each dish flowed into the next with grace.

Surprising Frog Legs presentation

Possibly my favorite dish was Florida Frog Legs ($22) with spring garlic puree and silky onion espuma under a pasta blanket… a confident, unusual presentation, tender and full of flavor. I also loved Thai basil froth and basil seeds dotting the artful Japanese Escolar dish ($30) with Hon Shemiji (edible mushrooms).

I’m not sure I would have been happy paying dinner prices, but for lunch, Sho Shaun Hergatt is an unpretentious fine dining addition to Manhattan.


Cured Hamachi ($16) w/ horseradish edamame beans, pea leaves

Momofuku Ssam, East VillageWho continues to remain hotter than hot in NY? David Chang, that’s who. I started to pray I wouldn’t hear any more about him as the constant Momofuku raves were getting tiresome all the way from this coast. Sure, I always meant to go to one of his restaurants, and even after his ignorant but truly no-big-deal SF comment and his fun and funky cookbook, I was going more because I finally should rather than because I was excited to.


Kimchi Bloody Mary

I decided on Ssam as his mid-range venture between fine dining and noodle bar, but also one with consistently high accolades. I can’t say I was blown away. But I had a festive meal with The Renaissance Man and my dear NY cousin, one where tripe and pork belly happily played prominent.

Spicy Rice Cakes, my top dish

We started off right with the Bloody Mary special, given a unique slant with kimchi. Hell, yes. We had to chow down on those now ubiquitous Steamed Pork Belly Buns ($9) which were certainly good, but I’ve had versions at least as good elsewhere, though granted, they were copying his. Kudos to Chang for taking pork buns the gourmet pork belly route. Spicy Honeycomb Tripe ($13) may not be the best tripe dish I’ve tasted (Oakland’s Oliveto is in the running for that one), but it was palatable for those who fear the stomach lining, with ginger, scallion, celery, pickled tomatoes.

Those oft-copied Pork Belly Buns

There’s nice platters of country hams, Corned Beef Terrine and the like, but my top dish may have been chewy, dense cubes of Spicy Rice Cakes ($18), accented by pork sausage, Chinese broccoli and crispy shallots. The dish managed just the right balance of heat in it’s red, chili-soaked rice bites, but it is, first and foremost, Asian comfort food.

Dessert was a refreshing, tart Grapefruit Cream Pie. It’s one fault was being a little too frozen, but the taste profile was just what you wanted to end this sort of meal with.

Momofuku Ssam is worth a visit, even if I couldn’t see putting it on my favorites list.

Momofuku Milk Bar’s soft serve ice cream

Momofuku Milk Bar, East Village Next door to Ssam is Milk Bar, a charming little storefront serving flavored milks, pastries, cookies and ice cream. While none of it is the best I’ve ever had, it’s a playful shop (with a Midtown location as well) offering fun soft serve flavors ($4.15) like Carrot Cake or Cereal Milk, or Compost Cookies ($1.85) loaded with pretzels, coffee, potato chips, chocolate chips, butterscotch and oats. Or how about a Kimchi & Blue Cheese Croissant ($6)? They also serve Stumptown coffee so you can’t steer too wrong.