Jun 10, 2012

The New York City Culinary Experience

Digging into delicious.  Dinner at Sylvia's in Harlem, Monday, May 21, 2012

When we first arrived in New York City on Sunday afternoon, every one was hungry and we debated where to eat.  The adults wanted a classic (some might say cliche) New York culinary Experience.  The kids were set on McDonalds.  In the end, speed and convenience won out, and we ended up at the jam-packed two-story McDonald's on Times Square.  Surprisingly, that turned out to be an Experience in it's own right.  The place was a madhouse and the Mickey D's crew did not play around.  They were cheerful and friendly, but loud and all about business.  You needed to have your order ready when you finally got to the front of line, you needed to speak UP when you placed your order, and then you needed to get OUT OF THE WAY quickly so the next customer could order.  Most of our students (and few of us adults) were a little flummoxed by the high pressure atmosphere and arrived at the counter mumbling, asking all kinds of questions about the menu and what substitutes for this or that item might be made, and hovering uncertainly by the counter after the order had been made.  Needless to say a few things we ordered didn't materialize and I had to go back and get them.

The McDonald's at Times Square that we ate at on Sunday, May 20, 2012.  I didn't take this photo, but snagged it off the web.

Still it was an Experience, and if we were going to go some place is ordinary as McDonald's while in New York, that was the way to do it.  Still I was determined that would be the end of our chain-restaurant dining at least for a few meals, and indeed we had a number of great dining Experiences afterward.

Sunday evening we found ourselves in Chinatown and had a late supper at decent but unremarkable Chinese/Thai place down a neighborhood side street.  The food was good, and the kids had the chance to experiment with family style dining.

On Monday, after a reflective morning at the 9/11 Memorial we met up with my old friend Dan Shor.  You'll have to go back to some of my oldest blogs--five years or more--to find the last time this great guy and good friend made an appearance on these pages (Dan left Saipan in the spring of 2007--I wrote about his departure in my Springtime in Saipan entry.  My tribute to his influence in my life can be found here).  Fortunately, though we haven't seen each other in a long while, our friendship has remained intact, and he was excited to meet up with us and take us around his city for a little while.  He and his lovely wife Jie Hua met us outside the 9/11 memorial and we set off to explore the city, doing a half a decade worth of catching up as we walked.  It wasn't long into our walking tour that we all agreed that lunch should be on the agenda, and Dan guided us to the best pizza in New York (and thus, he says, the best pizza in the world.  Having eaten there now, I can't say I'd argue with him).

The gang ready to chow down at Johns on Bleeker Street. Lunch, Monday, May 21, 2012.   I  stood blocking the  path to the entrance to take this photo, while Dan and Jie Hua, seated on the right at the end of the table, were next to the entrance.  Great pizza, like many good things, can come in small packages.  You can see the outstanding staff huddled in the back ready to serve us.

John's Pizzeria of Bleeker Street is an unassuming little place.  The dining space is small--we took up virtually the entire center of the restaurant with our group of 16--and the names of previous patrons have been carved into every square inch of wall and furniture place.  But this is a place, like all restaurants that feature flat-out unparalleled food,  that doesn't need to put on airs.  The pizza speaks for itself: a thin, crispy crust baked to perfection in their brick oven, delicious sauce, and melted mozzerella.  The toppings we got were all good--the fresh garlic was my favorite, but I could have been happy with just plain cheese.  The staff was patient with our massive group, and they met our many demands quickly.  As I was looking for a good link for this blog, I came to discover that Johns has got a massive location near Times Square in a renovated old church complete with a grand staircase and seating for what looks like thousands at tables clad in white linen and candlelight.   The pizza is surely worthy of such fancy trappings, but it doesn't need them.  The pies are just as good at the scratched-up walls, hard-luck furniture, cash-only, no reservations, no "by the slice" orders (whole pies only), straight-up, no-nonsense Bleeker St. property.

One of our students added his mark to the myriad others scratched into the chairs , tabletops and walls of Johns.  When we came in the first thing I saw was the first name of one our students' who was not able to come standing out among the scrawls on the wall.  It was poignant moment for me.  She was just the sort who would not have missed a chance to leave her mark.  I wished she could have been there.

After having Experienced the best pizza in New York, we bid farewell to Dan and set out to explore Central Park for awhile.  More on that adventure later--for now let's fast forward to dinner time.

The famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, as photographed from our bus during a short hop on our  way into  Harlem, ultimately to Sylvia's. 

Harlem hadn't been on our original itinerary but our principal insisted that no historically black school was going to go to New York and not go to Harlem.  I had to admit she had a point, and so we took the subway uptown to 125th street and the heart of Black America.  We arrived late, and there wasn't much to do beyond walk past the Apollo Theater and some other landmarks of the neighborhood.   We were all getting hungry and a discussion ensued about where we should eat.  While we deliberated, we found ourselves walking towards and eventually into Sylvia's, the famed soul food kitchen of Sylvia Woods.   Benin Lee advocated a buffet joint further on that allowed us to pay by weight, ostensibly saving us some money.  Sylvia's was on the pricey side and would eat into our food budget a little. But in the end, I decided to stick with Sylvia's.  After all, we were already there and besides how could we miss a chance to eat where everyone from Barack Obama to Oprah Winfrey had dined.  This was the pinnacle of soul food cooking to be found outside the kitchens of mom and grandmothers across the land.  We couldn't pass it up.

My meal at Sylvia's in Harlem.   As you can see I'd already started gnawing on that chicken when it occurred to me to take the picture.

It was a good call if I do say so myself.  The food was unbelievable.  They began with round after round of cornbread.  I don't even like cornbread, ordinarily, but I scarfed this cornbread down with abandon.  It was moist, just the right amount of sweet--rich with flavor, even without pats of butter.  My main course was the fried chicken with a side of collard greens and buttered corn.   The chicken was crispy perfection, the corn a culinary delight, and the collard greens--well, I'd never had collard greens until that night (I know, I know, what kind of black person has never had collard greens--long story), but I am definitely a fan now--at least as long as they taste like Sylvia's.  The principal, Mrs. Arthurs, offered me some of her sweet potatoes and she didn't have to ask twice.  By the time the dessert menu was passed around, I was too stuffed to eat another bite.  So, I ordered some peach cobbler to go and ate it back at the hotel late that night.  It did not disappoint.

Granted, Sylvia's was about all we got to experience of Harlem, but Syliva's cooking proved to be an Experience all by itself.

The next two days our schedules were so hectic that we never really had the chance to sit down and eat together as a group again.  On Tuesday we had a late lunch/early supper at a food court in the Pier 17 mall at the South St. Seaport, just a stones throw from the famed Brooklyn Bridge.  On Wednesday, we ate on the run as we hustled through one last pass of Times Square before rushing back to New Jersey to catch our flight.  The boys grabbed Subway with Mr. Lee and the girls were so consumed with shopping that they didn't eat until we were in the airport waiting for our flight.  But in the midst of all this, I found time for one more New York Culinary Experience, just for me.  While Benin was with the boys doing the chain-fast food thing again, I ducked into a little delicatessen off Times Square and ordered a Reuben sandwich.  It was heaven in paper wrapping, just like you'd imagine getting at a New York deli.

I know we didn't even begin to touch all that New York City has to offer in terms of culinary delights--how can you, really, with thousands of great restaurants to choose from?  But I'm glad that, at least for a few meals, we were able to eat like we could nowhere else in the world.

Just had to throw this photo in here though it's not food related.  When we got off the subway at the 125th St. station in Harlem, they had large map featuring all the sites of note to be found in Harlem.  Among them was this--the original Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church.  We never did get to see our sister church in Harlem, but I did get this photo of it's place on the map.

No comments: