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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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So Sky and I did a little eating tour of lower Manhattan Sunday. I ran out of stomach capacity long before we ran out of intended food joints, which was a shame, but had the upside of being a lot cheaper.

Out of Grand Central, we took the 4 express to Union Square and hit our first target, Murray’s Bagels. I still like H&H better, but these were pretty nice. They were definitely better fresh though, didn’t seem to age too well. Near-perfect balance of flavors. Not much else to say; they were good bagels.

Then we hit Jon Vie Pastries. Sky quickly accosted the baker, noting that his pies were better than the baker’s, by default. Not one to pass up a challenge (nevermind that we had no pie to compare in our bags), this started a bit of a gastronomic excercise which probably caused my inability to hit Kenka for turkey testicles and bull penis later. First was a prune hamantaschen, which was exceptional. Very clean flavor, fresh, tasted like prunes and pastry; there was nothing artificial, nothing extra, it just was. Perfect texture. This was my first hamantaschen, and I was assured that I would never have a better one. Later we had a more traditional poppyseed hamantaschen, which was also quite nice, though more muted (alternatively, my taste buds were long since destroyed).

Next up was the pie competition, which had us eating a small peach with marzipan pie. The flavor again was terribly fresh, and tasted like peaches. I know that sounds silly, but it’s really hard to do. The almond paste, though seemingly superfluous from the description, actually came together quite nicely, and was not overdone or overbearing. The crust was excellent, and it was not a double crust (thank god), and as fruit pies go, it’s hard to beat.

Next up was a cheese streudel. Again, the flavors were simple but perfect; this pastry did not leave you wanting anything else, and was perfectly satisfying in itself, without being terribly heavy (who am I kidding; it was terribly heavy, but it didn’t feel that way). Just enough pastry, just enough filling, I’d be hard-pressed to find a better cheese streudel. Nothing will ever compare to the cheese danish I had in Champaign one fine morning at Mirabelle, but this was a close second.

By this time, things were in full swing; the baker had gone back to work, and Sky had started an extensive discourse with the shoplady. She assured us that we could not go wrong with the chocolate danish. We were skeptical, but, dear reader, it was excellent. The chocolate was good (nothing particularly fancy, but it worked just right), the pastry was excellent — it was what a chocolate danish should be. After this was when we stopped paying, I think, and things just started showing up. I won’t keep carrying on, as the whole dialogue was rather extensive, but it got to the point where two shopladies were saying “oh, you have to try this, and this, and this…” The rugelach was some of the best I’ve had.

The only disappointment, in fact, was the chocolate chip cookie. This is a common problem, I find, and chocolate chip cookies that are downright good are hard to find. I should try Zingerman’s again sometime and see if they do chocolate chip cookies as well as they do brownies. The moral of the story is that if you like pastries, I implore you to visit Jon Vie. You are doing yourself a great disservice otherwise.

Alas, having finished enough pastries to feed a small family for a week (and there were no leftovers, mind you), it was time to move on. We started heading for John’s pizza, but after peeking in decided we didn’t really feel like it. Along the way we came to Cones on Bleeker Street. If Jon Vie is the mecca for pastries this side of France, then Cones is something special for Gelato. The 27 Zagat rating is not without reason. We had six scoops, starting with the classic benchmarks — vanilla (clean, nice, subtle, not overdone, fresh), chocolate (nice cocoa flavor, not too complex), and mocha (good coffee flavor, but tasted mildly artificial). But, the real experience is in the other flavors, we quickly found. The Dulce de Leche was unbelievable. Salty, sweet, tangy, as complex as the best real Dulce de Leche I’ve ever tasted, and better than most of them, even though it’s ice cream. Zabayone was very nice, very rich, and incredibly complex. While the caramel was my favorite, the most amazing was the pistachio — it tasted like eating real pistachios; not even a remotely artificial flavor was present. I can’t speak highly enough of the quality of the flavored trio of scoops. If you’re in New York and you like Gelato, you owe it to yourself…

The good news (or the bad news) is that nothing else lived up to these heightened expectations for the rest of the trip. By this time I was horribly full, and it wasn’t even noon yet. We decided to walk around and recharge for a while, and then headed to Lombardi’s pizza. If you believe Zagat, NYPress, etc., this is the best pizza in New York. I’ll cut to the chase: it is not; the pizza I had at Totonno on Coney Island was worlds better. The more detailed version is that we went to the “best pizza on the planet” to have some pizza in their coal-fired oven, established in 1905 as the “first pizzeria in America” producing the “#1 pizza in Manhattan.” After a 20-minute wait, we were seated in front of the oven, in what have to be the worst seats in the entire place. It is obvious they have expanded to use every crevice of the building for additional seating. That said, it was probably the best seats for Sky and I, as we got to watch the whole ritual and process of the pizza making (what we saw was mostly organized chaos). We had the classic pie, with fresh mozarella (about two teaspoons of it), sam merenzo tomato sauce (meh), romano (a few sprinkles), and fresh basil (perhaps one leaf, shredded into twelve pieces). I’m not necessarily complaining about the amount of toppings — it wasn’t a bad mix, but I want to give you some perspective.

Should of taken a picture. C’est. As a digression, the service was nonexistent, which was a bit discouraging. The crust was lackluster, it didn’t have that really nice oven flavor that was picked up at Totonno’s, Sally’s or Pepe’s. Wood fired is better than coal fired, based on this entirely unscientific unrepeated test. The toppings were good, but nothing exceptional. There was a very nice fresh tomato flavor, but otherwise it was nothing to write home about. Sky started chatting with the couple next to us, and agreed to trade two of our slices for two of their clam pizza slices when they arrived; alas, we ate our entire pie, figuring that that wasn’t going to actually work out. Then, out of the blue, two large clam pizza slices showed up, with a lady a little disappointed she wasn’t receiving anything in return. Sky bribed her with three fresh sesame bagels and all was well. The clam pizza was also unimpressive flavor-wise, through the clams were not as terribly overcooked as was the case in New Haven. Overall, not worth it unless you are in it for the experience, and to say you’ve done it. If you are in New York, there are far more interesting places to eat.

By this point I was way past my food comfort level, which caused us to scrap the remaining 20 or so stops on the list. It all worked out. After walking around for a few miles, we came back to Ciao for Now, where we received the worst service I’ve ever had at a coffee place. Got one double espresso after five minutes, and the other one twelve minutes later. WTF? Both were pretty decent, but nothing exceptional. There was a lot of drama behind the counter because one of the guys tried to make the double espresso by letting the machine run for about three minutes straight. I was glad the lady in charge stopped him from serving that to us, as I would not have taken it. Also had three cookies, one with currants, another a ginger snap, and chocolate chip, none of which were impressive. Should have gone with cupcakes .. shame I don’t like them hat much. That said, it was all worth it, as we sat on an old metal rocking couch outside the shop for about an hour and a half, watching people go by and talking about life. It was really nice, so maybe there is something magic about this little coffee shop. Felt a lot better than Starbucks, and that counts for something.

In any event, those were the highlights. There were a few other gastronomic detours on the way back, but nothing notable. On the train back, a lady, obviously frustrated that she had to share a seat with somebody, accosted the conductor, yelling “why can’t you open the back cars when it’s obvious that you need more capacity?” The conductor tried to politely explain that there were plenty of seats in the cars ahead of this one, and that there was nobody standing in this car, so things didn’t look too bad. He also said he would be happy to escort her into a car further up in the train so she could find a private seat, if she so preferred. The woman obviously was not satisfied, and continued to tell the poor guy off. I just don’t get this sense of entitlement when riding a train. I figure if you can find two seats for two people, and they’re next to each other, you’re doing pretty well. If you want more than that, you probably shouldn’t be taking public transport … but who am I?