naomi kooker

I'll taste Manhattan

A weekend trip to New York becomes a culinary adventure

Rooms at Hotel 41 at Times Square (206 West 41st St.) are as clean, small, and condensed as a bento box. No matter, as it is only a place to sleep and is centrally located for a food-seeking mission.

Once checked in, I step out into the thick soup of pretzels burning, subway steam, and exhaust.

I am ready for something edible -- and air conditioning.

I head east toward Pampano, a new Mexican restaurant. White swirls lap at the white stucco walls of Pampano (a fish indigenous to the South and the Gulf of Mexico). The place feels more Miami than Mexico with its palm plants and salsa music. But there is no trace of gringo in the food.

This is the fourth restaurant by Richard Sandoval, an Acapulco native and chef who co-owns Pampano with world-class tenor Placido Domingo. That explains the framed clarinets, flutes, and other instruments in the downstairs dining room, aglow with candles.

The upstairs dining room, where my guest and I sit, is white and airy. The people to my left order their second round of margaritas. The man to my right recommends the lobster tacos.

"It's the best thing I've put in my mouth in a long time," he says, an elbow away. I order them. He watches as I take a bite. Their small flour tortillas cradle a smoky chipotle sauce, enough to make the lobster dance. I taste the sun gods and confirm his opinion.

For a late-night jaunt I head down to the Ear Inn on Spring Street. Captain Richard "Rip" Perry Hayman

is the homesteader above the legendary watering hole, in an 1817 home that lists like an old ship. (Ask him about the neon bar sign.) Along with its low ceilings and salty conversation, the Ear Inn has a reputation for a perfect Guinness pour. It was a longshoremen's bar for more than a century until the late '70s, when Hayman and his roommates injected some TLC to keep the bar afloat. Tom Waits beat an old piano to death in here. "Back when his voice was not quite so gravelly," Hayman says.

A late-night snack of shrimp and crab cakes (they are fresh and fabulous) and a Boddingtons could have been dinner.

Bands jam after 11. "By 3 in the morning, it's really cookin' here," says Hayman. By 3 a.m. this Beantown girl is asleep in the bosom of the Big Apple.

Coffee in the morning, in Manhattan, is as much a given as breathing. I travel to 'Wichcraft, a vaulted-ceiling daylong hangout on 19th Street. A man in blue jeans and a black T orders a "red eye" iced with soymilk. I have what he's having (regular coffee with a shot of espresso), with whole milk instead.

'Wichcraft, which opened a few months ago, is part of Tom Colicchio's casual culinary hat trick. Next door is Craftbar, and next to that his famed Craft restaurant. (Colicchio is also known for the more upscale Gramercy Tavern.)

A fried egg, bacon, gorgonzola, and frisee sandwich on ciabatta makes me forget that I wasted three hours finding a much media-hyped breakfast joint only to be acutely disappointed by the food.

"Falling into stuff is the best way to find things," says David Cerequas, the "red-eye" guy who turns out to be a bartender at Craftbar as well as a lead guitarist for Silvercord, a band that has opened for Bruce Springsteen.

I wander around the neighborhood "falling into stuff" and notice picnic baskets in a window on 22d Street. Inside the Carole Stupell store of "fine gifts," a menagerie of crystal and mini salt-and-pepper shakers -- pine cones, fish -- awakens the domestic goddess within. A little farther west, Reminiscence stocks foodie toys such as windup sushi and rubber chickens.

If the city gets to be too much (and for many Bostonians it is not "if" but "when"), the five-course tea at Lady Mendl's Tea Salon near gated Gramercy Park replenishes the soul. It is also the place where I rediscover the utter beauty and silken sweetness of clotted cream and raspberry jam with seeds.

Jazz, fringed lamps, roses, and single lighted white candles on lacy tabletops sweeten the brownstone's Victorian parlor setting. A chessboard beckons. My jasmine tea washes away the city grit just enough to see me through to dinner at Ouest (French for "west").

Two side trips, one to the Whitney Museum on the Upper East Side and the other to the "Chocolate" exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side, feed later dinner conversation.

By early evening a friend and I meet at Kitchen 82 on the Upper West Side, a Charlie Palmer (Aureole) concept with lots of wood and chic design, and affordable prices. The $7.50 K-22 vodka martini is a pucker-inducing cocktail of lime and lemonade crowned with Hawaiian sea salt, a perfect aperitif before walking through the double-stroller family neighborhood to Ouest.

Open nearly two years, Ouest (co-owned by chef Tom Valenti of Alison on Dominick Street fame) still buzzes like a newcomer. It is a suspenders-and-bowtie kind of place, a Paris bistro with a shot of testosterone. Balcony seating overlooks a carnival of round red banquettes and dark oak.

Our dinners are outstanding, the food comfortable in itself. The roasted chicken and mashed potatoes are divine. The parsley puree with the skate recalls a summer garden.

Sunday, the day of departure, becomes a day of digestion. I contemplate brunch at Sarabeth's at the Whitney Museum but instead do something I hardly ever do on an adventure-seeking mission: I return to a place I've already been.

I head back to 'Wichcraft, where I find myself reading about James Beard in the coolness from a ceiling fan and eyeing the pastries. A friend and I buy lunch and, for dessert, ice cream sandwiches to go. With the mint ice cream melting between two chocolate sandwiches, we eat them first, concluding that the best way to experience New York is to taste it.

Naomi R. Kooker is a Boston-area freelance writer.

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