the grub street diet

Ecco’s Daniel Halpern Loves a Solo Dinner

“Eating alone is one of life’s greatest pleasures, time to consider the life-imitating-life issues.”

Daniel Halpern at Wu’s Wonton King in Chinatown. Photo: Christian Rodriguez
Daniel Halpern at Wu’s Wonton King in Chinatown. Photo: Christian Rodriguez

In the preface to the new edition of their recently republished cookbook The Good Food, Daniel Halpern and Julie Strand write, “We have unapologetically left in every tablespoon of heavy cream. There are worse things that we consume.” This can be seen as a mantra for Halpern, an accomplished poet and the founding publisher of Ecco — where, in 2000, he bought the paperback rights to a then-little-known Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential — and has since turned it into one of the premiere food-publishing brands in America. It should come as no surprise, then, that Halpern spends a lot of time thinking about what and where he’ll eat: engaging in an office “Shake Shack Shuffle,” trying out Kopitiam’s Malasyian eats, and making a Thai omelette for a Saturday breakfast. Read all about it in this week’s Grub Street Diet.

Thursday, January 10
I awoke from a dream this morning in which I was at the Breslin for one of their ten-person whole-pig dinners, except I was the only guest — it was sad, it was just the two of us, with sides. So began the first day of eating.

I don’t really eat breakfast during the week, but walk to work instead. My route today took me past Augustine, where I imagined ordering their egg-in a-hole, which I had once, but continued along Nassau Street, past Pisillo Italian Café, famous for its Panini #26. At the corner I had a change of heart and turned back. I returned to snag that Pisillo pistachio croissant in the window and walked it to work.

I don’t eat lunch either, if I can avoid it. It depletes energy and dulls the edge required for late-afternoon business. Today, a box arrived from our august chef Wylie Dufresne, a misto of Du’s Donuts. I grabbed two (the brown butter key lime and the chocolate caramel brownie) and returned to my office to eat in peace. Wylie has evidently turned to donuts because of his waning knife skills.

The sun went down and I headed uptown to meet my friend and artist Jennifer for a quick touch-base (pre-and post-mortem) at April Bloomfield’s the John Dory Oyster Bar. There’s a great table toward the back that’s private but still allows an excellent view of the street traffic on 29th Street. The right table is always a critical part of eating out. We ordered a dozen west coast oysters and a couple glasses of wine: one barbera, one muscadet. I think these are the best oysters in the city, especially in the cold months. Did I mention that I am not one of those abstaining for the month of January?

At 7 p.m., I jumped in a cab and headed for dinner — I wanted to try Intersect, Danny Meyer’s new collaboration with Lexus on 14th Street. A restaurant set up to accommodate an ever-changing rotation of chefs, starting out with Gregory Marchand of Frenchie in Paris. I was in good company, but I can say only that two of them were friends from the magazine world. One was our larger than life author, who’s writing a memoir. And the lone woman at the table, an avid eater with strong opinions. It’s definitely the only NYC restaurant with an actual Lexus LF-1 in the bar area (I was informed that one could not take that “to go,” since the engine had been removed).

The meal was various, good-looking dishes such as the baby leeks with Parmesan sabayon, smoked egg yolk, and puffed barley, followed by the pork, prepared en croute and served out of the shell. There was a nicely colored duck across from me, as well as an attractive hunk of monkfish. For me, the winning dish was the tagliatelle with black truffles. Our wine, a sympathetic Cornas.

The dinner conversation went from the inevitable question of current favorite restaurants, to the affect of Ivanka Trump, to Killing Eve, the TV series that has my all-time favorite psychopath — a Russian hit woman with a seriously complicated past and a very cool, if brutal, demeanor.

Dessert, since I’m on this mock, public Diet: the yuzu Mont Blanc and the Banoffee (banana, dulce de leche, and pecans).

Friday, January 11
Up early to read, return emails, and prepare for author meetings. As a base for the day, I had a large glass of Siggi’s plain filmjölk with a nicely carved Bosc pear. Walked to work and successfully avoided the pastry products along the way.

At 11 a.m., I decided that today was the right day for a “Shake Shack Shuffle.” This is how it works: I ask around the office to see if anyone would like a free Shack lunch, with the proviso that they will pick up the food. Then I go on the app and order for us. A wonderful Ecco tradition. I got the standard ShackBurger and today Ashlyn, a true vegetarian, ordered the ‘Shroom Burger and Gabriella the Chick’n Shack. A mutually beneficial negotiation.

If you go to a place often enough, and you’re a creature of habit (I love clichés), the staff gets to know your quirks — the habits of regulars. Nobu is in our building, so it has become the local watering hole, to coin another phrase. It’s always, “A glass of Tempranillo, and can you please open a fresh bottle.” Today the chef threw in an order of octopus a la plancha with a jalapeño yuzu salsa. I was meeting my friend Susan, a standup comic. She wanted to run a new routine by me and see if I laughed. I was in a good mood. It was a new year — and I don’t celebrate Dry January.

Dinnertime, at last. I headed over to Ignacio Mattos’s Café Altro Paradiso to meet Michelle, a friend and very fine book designer, for some pasta and a piece of LaFrieda meat. We started with two salads: fennel and citrus — two of the best versions I can remember. Then sausage and lentils, a spaghetti al limone, and the steak, one of LaFrieda’s finest — there is no better meat to be had. And then someone sent over a bottle of 2012 Brunello, which took us comfortably through dessert, a shared chocolate torta.

Saturday, January 12
I make breakfast at home on the weekends. I like to fry, but it’s so difficult in city apartments — and it seems unsportsmanlike to disconnect the smoke detector. This morning I was in the mood for my favorite Thai omelet (kai jiew), inspired by Pailin Chongchitnant’s Hot Thai Kitchen. An inch of very hot oil, three eggs well whisked with a little fish sauce — and I added a squeeze of lime and some chopped chives and cilantro. The eggs billow up into light layers, simple and unexpectedly good.

Around 1 p.m. I headed up to Loring Place for lunch with my daughter Lily, who’s in the city between semesters at Yale Law School. She needs to be fed properly — that’s where I come in. She had a Bloody Mary and I had a Virgin Mary. We started with an order of truly amazing apple fritters with green apple glaze. Then Lily ordered a cheeseburger and the “tater tots” (quotes because “Tater Tots” is evidently trademarked) and I ordered baked eggs in spicy tomato sauce, chef Dan Kluger’s shakshuka. It was too cold for this delicate organism to walk, so I took a cab back to my apartment to read and drink pamplemousse La Croix and pop in the occasional jelly bean from sister Ellen.

Time for dinner. I was meeting my friend Aurelia, a French actress and performer, at Una Pizza Napoletana. The newest of Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske’s NYC outposts, I come here for three things: pizzaiolo Anthony Mangieri’s 12-inch, wood-fired Neapolitan pies; whatever apps are on the menu; and the intense desserts. I like to sit in the far back right, near the kitchen window, so I can watch Anthony working the dough. We ordered glasses of the 2016 Aglianico from Cantina Giardino Rosso, poured from a magnum. And then a set of dishes, starting with marinated white anchovies and grilled red peppers, the little gem salad with radicchio, pine nuts, and Parmesan, pizza Apollonia (the Sabato special), and a pizza Margherita. And for dessert, it had to be the peach-pit ice cream and tiramisu.

Sunday, January 13
For breakfast, I made a classic version of scrambled eggs. There are a number of videos of this method online, by a chef I’m not going to mention for no good reason. But the eggs come out so nicely, light and simultaneously rich. A simple method. In a cold, non-stick frying pan you put in a tablespoon of butter and then crack in three eggs. No seasoning. Turn on to medium heat, whisking constantly (as in risotto) to break the eggs into small curds. The trick is to take the pan on and off the heat so nothing cooks too quickly or browns. I grated on some Rote Teufel (red devil) cheese from Fairway and garnished with chopped dill. Add a few thin slices of smoked salmon, a perfect breakfast.

As mentioned before, I don’t typically eat much during the day, but wanted to try brunch at Kopitiam, a Malaysian spot run by Moonlynn Tsai and Kyo Pang. The place was pulsing in the late morning when I got there. One of the owners gave me a little round table with a triangular, multicolored plastic stool the size and shape of a hamantaschen. And I ordered much of the menu — a menu unlike any in the city, which includes nasi lemak, the Malaysian national dish; spicy stir-fried duck tongue; lobak, a five-spice pork roll wrapped in bean curd sheet; and oh chien, a fried oyster omelet.

Moving to a different continent, I was feeling a South American breeze that night, so I headed to Balvanera, my go-to place for good Argentinian food and a dinner with Jessica, a writer I don’t actually publish at Ecco, but like spending time with. Balvanera is not that well-known, so it’s probably a mistake mentioning it here, but we live in an imperfect world. We arrived early, when the place is usually empty (and quiet). I ordered a glass of the Aguijón de Abeja Bonarda and a couple of appetizers. The empanadas Caseras, one of each: beef, sweet corn, and red peppers, ham and mozzarella. I added the boquerones and pulpo de playa (octopus a la plancha), then ordered the skirt steak and finished with membrillo en almibar (saffron-poached quince, queso blanco gelato, and toasted pistachios).

I’m adding a P.S.: to my “Dear Diary” Sunday food entry.

P.S. No one loves restaurants more than I do, which gives me license to register a few things that I don’t love about restaurants. So, on the way home tonight I allowed myself to register seven minor resto peeves.

1. Menus in faint, 8-point type.
2. Menus that never change.
3. Smartphone flashlights.
4. Tasting a wine: a pour that’s so small it evaporates before the wine reaches your palate.
5. On the first bite, the waiter: “How are you enjoying it so far?” Me: “Go away, I can’t answer with my mouth full.”
6. The obsession with filling wine and water glasses — the passion to pour.
7. Waiters without peripheral vision.
8. The habit of patrons clapping when cheered by something. A table of clapping people is an audience.

P.P.S.: Ramps and fiddlehead ferns are out of season. Yay.

Monday, January 14
I survived a glance at the Dunkin’ Donut crullers and cinnamon rolls on my walk to work, knowing I had an author breakfast for Damon Young this morning. He’s writing a memoir in essays about the absurdities and anxieties of living while black in America. The food served at breakfast? The standard: Meeting Fruit and Meeting Pastries.

I met my friends Elizabeth and Clyde — that rare lunch. He’s a tech guy with a social conscience, she’s a well-known Korean-American concert pianist. La Mercerie has a calming and pleasing vibe, convivial and inviting, which isn’t surprising, given the chef is the hospitable and talented Marie-Aude Rose. It’s a small, focused menu, perfect for breakfast, lunch and a lightish dinner. I ordered the Cantabric anchovies and the salmon — a healthy respite from the rigors of this “Diet,” but ended with the calorically challenging tarte tropézienne (cream-filled brioche allegedly named by Bridget Bardot). It’s always a gentle experience at La Mercerie. People seem to understand the benefits of talking in a restrained way — which is to say, at a volume appropriate to their table size. A midday of good, thoughtful food.

Around 4 p.m., because I was feeling deserving, I bought a black-and-white cookie from the company café — my father called them “half-moons” in ’50s LA. Obama called them “unity cookies.”

On the way to dinner at the Dutch — I was going to meet with my author Padma Lakshmi — I stopped to meet a friend for a glass of wine and an order of fries at Augustine, my home away from home. I could have ordered the gougères or the cheese soufflé, but kept it simple.

Alas, my dinner companion cancelled. A sick daughter … Is there anything worse than a sick child? Not if you have a child, even if she’s 25. But it was a Monday night, coming off the weekend and a lot of time spent unaccompanied in the apartment, so I felt I needed to avoid call-in pizza for one. I kept my reservation at the Dutch, ended up at a table in a far corner, and began my dinner alone among others, which is kind of the point. I asked for a sequence of small dishes, perfect for a solo two-hour meal. Eating alone is one of life’s greatest pleasures, time to consider the life-imitating-life issues, the quandaries, the single entendres, the pre-nightmare subject matter. I loved the little oyster sandwich, a sticky pork rib, the fried chicken, and the scallops with black truffles in brown butter. At the end, post-dessert and still alone, a line of poetry came to me: “Raise your glass in honor of yourself. The company is the best you’ll ever have.”

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