Imagine a future without Momofuku pork buns, say, or Crack Pie, or cupcakes. It could happen. Well, maybe not the cupcakes; like cockroaches, those things are here to stay. Still, trendy dishes come and trendy dishes go. Todays Cronut could be tomorrows Charlotte Russe. Even non-trendy, seemingly Teflon stalwarts arent safe. Theres no more poignant reminder of that fact than the September fire that shut down the Gabila factory out in Copiague. Who knew that one Long Island operator had a virtual monopoly on fried, square knishes? Shouldnt there be a knish-disaster-preparedness plan in place?
We leave it to you, Mayor-elect De Blasio. Which is why weve decided to take stock of some of New Yorks old-time iconic foodstuffs like bagels, bialys, pike quenelles, and baked Alaskas, then assign them an Endangered Culinary Species rating, and also tell you where you can still get a delicious rendition of each. Some things, weve discovered, have gone the way of the Carolina parakeet and the woolly mammoth. (Rest in peace, Nesselrode pie.) The good news is we found many authentic versions of old classics going strong or at least hanging on, as well as some loose or newfangled interpretations of dishes that, although they might rankle purists, are nevertheless a step in the right preservationist direction. Whats more, at press time, the Gabila factorysupplier to Katzs, 2nd Ave Deli, and everyone elsewas almost up and running and ready to start cranking out the square knishes again.
This article originally appeared in the December 23, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.
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Those soft and squishy overgrown dough balls you see everywhere are not bagels. True bagels are shaped by hand, boiled in alkalized water, then baked into a dense and smallish puck. Labor intensive. Practically no one makes a proper bagel anymore. One exception is former Per Se and Roberta’s baker Melissa Weller, who will open a brick-and-mortar shop early next year in partnership with Major Food Group, the parent company of Torrisi Italian Specialties and Carbone.
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This superrich dish of lobster cooked with butter, cream, Madeira, egg yolks, and a dash of cayenne was invented in 1876 by a gourmet sea captain named Ben Wenberg. One night, Wenberg swanked into Delmonico’s and gave an impromptu cooking demo on how to make the concoction. Charles Delmonico liked it so much he put it on the menu, christening it lobster à la Wenberg. But the restaurateur and the sea captain fell out, and the dish was renamed lobster Newburg. You’ll find it at the current incarnation of Delmonico’s but practically nowhere else ($49; 56 Beaver St., at S. William St.; 212-509-1144). Status: Critically endangered
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Before there was SodaStream, there was seltzer—New York’s original fizzy water. With 60 pounds of pressure hitting your palate, “good seltzer should hurt,” says Kenny Gomberg, who runs Brooklyn’s last remaining bottling plant, Gomberg Seltzer Works, founded by his grandfather in Canarsie 60 years ago. The invigorating effect comes from the siphon bottle’s valve, which preserves the fizz, unlike the twist-off caps of its supermarket rivals. Gomberg’s son, Alex, saw a niche in the retro-artisanal market and now delivers to old-timey bars and restaurants like Tooker Alley, Dutch Kills, and Martha, in addition to private homes ($35 for ten bottles; brooklynseltzerboys.com; 718-649-0800).
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The small round rolls native to Bialystok, Poland, are baked but not boiled, floury and chewy and redolent of the bits of onion or garlic that occupy a central depression. The most famous bialy bakery is Kossar’s, a Lower East Side landmark that claims to be New York’s first. (Coney Island Bialys and Bagels, founded in 1920 by Bialystoker Morris Rosenzweig, would disagree.) The realm of the bialy is small and insular compared with the bagel, which makes one worry for its future. But reassurance comes in the familiar puffy-ridged form of the relatively new bialy from Hot Bread Kitchen, an East Harlem bakery dedicated to multiethnic breads from as far off as Poland or even the Lower East Side ($2 each or $10 for a half-dozen; for retail locations, see hotbreadkitchen.org).
Status: Critically endangered
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Vastedda is a calf’s-spleen-and-cheese sandwich, and a specialty of Sicilian focaccerias. By our count, there are three existent Sicilian-style focaccerias in New York. Our favorite is the wonderfully atmospheric 109-year-old Ferdinando’s, where the vastedda is made with fresh ricotta and sharp Pecorino and served on a soft and toasty house-baked roll ($6; 151 Union St., nr. Hicks St., Carroll Gardens; 718-855-1545).
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This poached pike dumpling, often slathered with lobster cream sauce, just might be the delicate yet calorific embodiment of haute French cuisine, and as such—judging by the accelerated mortality rate of the extant Le’s and La’s—its days are likely numbered. But happily, there are holdouts: La Grenouille, L’Absinthe, Benoit, and Millesime all proudly continue to perform the time-consuming ritual. If they didn’t, a small but fierce band of loyalists might revolt. “We tried to take it off the menu last summer,” says Millesime chef-owner Laurent Manrique, “but we had a lot of complaints” ($16 at Millesime; 92 Madison Ave., at 29th St.; 212-889-7100).
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The thick-casinged, relentlessly garlicky, griddle-cooked all-beef sausage known as knoblewurst (old men call it stukel) is a rare treat even among New York’s ancient delicatessens. Katz’s does it best, slapped on rye with kraut and mustard. Besides garlic, what gives it such oomph? “Some more garlic,” says Katz partner Jake Dell ($13.95; 205 E. Houston St., at Ludlow St.; 212-254-2246). Status: Vulnerable
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It’s beefsteak sautéed in butter and flambéed tableside in a tangy-creamy, cognac-laced sauce. If you were a debonair mid-century man-about-town who liked his martinis in an eleven-to-one gin-to-vermouth ratio, this is what you ate. It can still be had at ‘21’ Club, if you call in advance, or at Commerce in the West Village, where—and sticklers should stop reading now—the meat is cooked sous-vide ($39 at Commerce; 50 Commerce St., at Barrow St.; 212-524-2301).
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Not the molded-dessert extravaganza reputedly created in the nineteenth century for the Russian czar Alexander but an old, interpretive candy-shop treat whose mere mention sends Proustian shivers down the spines of certain folks who grew up in thirties and forties Brooklyn. It was typically a simple round of sponge cake shoved into a paper cup fitted with a push-up bottom, then topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. Sightings are extremely rare today, but Holtermann’s Bakery on Staten Island still makes them, and Leske’s has recently begun selling a version that swaps a plastic mold for the virtually extinct paper cups ($2.50 at Leske’s; 7612 Fifth Ave., nr. 76th St., Bay Ridge; 718-680-2323; and 588 Fifth Ave., nr. Prospect Ave., Park Slope; 718-369-0404). Status: Critically endangered
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Brooklyn Blackout Cake
Essentially a triple-layer devil’s-food cake, filled and frosted with chocolate pudding and coated in additional cake crumbs, Ebinger’s mid-century blockbuster has been widely imitated but never equaled (or so say native Brooklynites). But it’s hard to find fault with the more or less faithful renditions from Park Slope’s Ladybird Bakery and Yorkville’s Two Little Red Hens (unless you take issue with their cupcake versions). And then there’s Ovenly, which spikes its contemporized riff with Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Chocolate Stout—either utter blasphemy or the beginning of a proud new borough tradition ($40 for a six-inch cake at Ovenly; 31 Greenpoint Ave., at West St., Greenpoint; 347-689-3608).
Status: Safe for now
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Oyster Pan Roast
Everyone knows the thing to get at the Grand Central Oyster Bar is this seafood stew whose whole far exceeds the sum of its parts: six Blue Point oysters, half-and-half, butter, clam juice, sweet chile sauce, Worcestershire, a dash of paprika, and a slice of white bread. For years, the underbelly of the midtown terminal was the only place to partake. But when April Bloomfield opened the John Dory Oyster Bar, she paid tribute with her own terrific pan roast. And now that the original Oyster Bar has started franchising its name, a new branch will bring oyster stew to Park Slope any day now ($11.95 at Grand Central Oyster Bar; Grand Central Terminal; 212-490-6650).
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The New York street pretzel isn’t what it used to be—unless it used to be invariably stale, or dry, or cold, or burnt, or somehow all of the above. A great street pretzel can be found in New York, just not on the street. Instead, look to some of the city’s better bread baskets, and especially to the burgeoning field of pretzel specialists. The excellent Sigmund’s sparked the trend and has since been joined by Bronx Baking Co. on City Island and Pelzer’s Pretzels, a former market vendor that recently opened a Crown Heights storefront. Pelzer’s is a mom-and-pop shop with a distinct advantage: Pop is a native of Philadelphia, a city even more pretzel-obsessed than New York ($3 at Pelzer’s Pretzels; 724 Sterling Pl., nr. Bedford Ave., Crown Heights; 718-552-2998).
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With latterias like Joe’s Dairy dropping like flies, one starts to wonder whether there will come a day when one is forced to clump to Hoboken for a first-rate ball of mutz. Thankfully, we still have Di Palo’s, where the curd is stretched by fourth-generation partner Lou Di Palo ($7.69 a pound; 200 Grand St., at Mott St.; 212-226-1033).Status: Vulnerable
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Black-and-white cookies are everywhere, including Starbucks. What’s harder to find is one that tastes fresh, with a tender crumb and icing that’s flavorful but not cloyingly sweet. Glaser’s Bake Shop, owned by the same family since 1902, has a high enough turnover and small enough production that its cookies—drop cakes, technically—stand out ($2.25; 1670 First Ave., nr. 87th St.; 212-289-2562). Status: Vulnerable
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Plopping ice cream onto a disc of cake, spackling it with meringue, then baking it in the oven without having the thing turn into a horrible mess seems positively Wylie Dufresne–esque. Yet this is an old eighteenth-century recipe that went by many names but never caught on in New York until the late 1800s, when, according to Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food, Delmonico’s dubbed it baked Alaska. The seasonally changing version that Saul Bolton whips up using semifreddo instead of ice cream is the one to beat today ($12 at Saul at the Brooklyn Museum; 200 Eastern Pkwy., nr. Washington Ave., Prospect Heights; 718-935-9842).
Status: Safe for now
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As Frank Bruni uncovered in his Times Muttongate review, the signature dish at Keens Steakhouse is actually a lamb saddle—still delicious but less gamy. Mutton, or lamb that’s two years old, has become commercially elusive. The rare beast has recently been spotted at Roman’s in Fort Greene, which gets its supply from affiliated butcher shop Marlow & Daughters and makes a terrific chop. The menu changes nightly, though, so Keens’ pseudo-mutton’s a surer bet ($48.50 at Keens; 72 W. 36th St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-947-3636).
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The seemingly simple concoction, most likely invented at Louis Auster’s Lower East Side candy store circa 1910, is rarely made well today. The trick is to use freezing-cold milk, good chocolate syrup (Fox’s U-bet is standard), an advanced stirring technique, and seltzer blasted through antique soda-fountain heads fitted with special leather washers. That, anyway, is how an egg-cream fanatic named Craig Bero does it down at the Cosmopolitan Café in Tribeca ($2.50; 125 Chambers St., nr. W. Broadway; 212-766-3787). Status: Vulnerable
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Before the Great Cholesterol Scare of the last century, generations of hearty New Yorkers grew up spreading schmaltz on bread and snacking on gribenes, the “scraps” of fried chicken skin and fat that were the by-product of rendering chicken fat. The Jewish-food revival has made this relic newly hip, but it was never otherwise at Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House, where they toss it into chopped liver, and will happily give you extra if you so desire ($11.95 with chopped liver; 157 Chrystie St., nr. Delancey St.; 212-673-0330). Status: Vulnerable
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If anything has been demonized more than fat in recent years, it’s carbs, which makes the survival of this salami-and-cheese-studded loaf a bit of a miracle. You can still find it in the Italian bakeries dotting neighborhoods like Bensonhurst, Belmont, and Carroll Gardens, where Mazzola turns out a particularly worthy specimen ($6 for a loaf; 192 Union St., at Henry St., Carroll Gardens; 718-643-1719).
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This snappy green apple has a rich and complex flavor, not to mention a lot of history: It was first cultivated in what’s now Elmhurst and is the oldest commercially grown native variety in the country. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were big fans. Over the years, it has fallen out of favor, but thanks to the efforts of the volunteer Gotham Orchards project, which has planted hundreds of saplings around town since 2008, as well as Slow Food NYC, it’s making a comeback ($1.50 a pound at Greenmarket’s Samascott Orchards; through December).
Status: Safe for now