We drooled over meals served at 25 long-gone restaurants that William Grimes profiles in Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York, so it’s not surprising that the idea for the book sprang from descriptions on old menus. In 2002, the former Times restaurant critic curated an exhibition called New York Eats Out based on a collection at the New York Public Library, then culled primary sources for five more years to produce the narrative he deems ripe for a Ken Burns documentary. While Grimes devours restaurants of the past, in the present he often cooks at home in Astoria, a reoccurring scene in this week’s New York Diet.
Saturday, December 12
I’m a tea drinker, not a coffee drinker. I use Harney & Sons. My wife puts together what we call a “cuvée.” We buy a bunch of black teas from them in bulk and blend our own version of a version of an English Breakfast Tea; we make a couple of pounds worth in a big tin. Then I’m kind of a maniac about coffee cakes. I make them myself because mine are better than what you buy. On Saturday, I happened to be toward the end of this date-nut coffee cake that I made. I have a rotation of about five of them.
For lunch, I was pressed for time. I had nothing more than a ham sandwich. And I ate these awful Terra Chips. They’re like potato chips made from taro, parsnip, sweet potato, and yucca. They’re really good but they came out with this new line called Mediterranean with oil, garlic, and oregano and it just does not work. You can just tell from saying it, but I gave it a try and found it wanting.
I was running errands and I bought a couple Christmas stollens from Schaller & Weber. Then I drove past this Butterfield place where Payard has started selling some of his stuff, so I was curious about that. I’d never been in this place. And I wound up buying this raspberry-peach crumb pie. I had a slice when I got home.
For dinner, I went and got a medium pizza with mushroom and sausage from this place called Sac’s on Broadway in Astoria. They do coal-oven pizza. I wouldn’t call it a destination pizza place, but it’s convenient to me and it’s better than decent quality. To drink, Dr. Pepper.
Sunday, December 13
Sunday. This is like a pre-Christmas breakfast in a way: grapefruit juice, Canadian bacon, stollen that I had bought the day before, with butter, and tea.
Lunch. I had made this big project earlier in the week, where I wanted to make the full-fledged Vietnamese sandwich, bánh mì sandwiches, which involves making pâté, your own pickles out of daikon radish and carrot, and this marinated roasted pork dish involving five spice, hoisin, and garlic. I had this pâté on hand. (You end up with this three-pound loaf of pâté, which is ridiculous; there’s only two of us.) So we had pâté sandwiches with pickle and mustard, and I got rid of those other chips and we just had some sweet-potato chips from the North Fork of Long Island.
For dinner on Sunday, we had a roast chicken and something needed to be done with it or else it was going to be thrown out. So I minced the chicken and made a pasta sauce using a bunch of leftover kalamata olives. I sautéed some onion and garlic and added crushed tomatoes, chicken, and olives and made a bunch of pasta sauce with fettuccine. And then came the brilliant part. We had a bunch of monster Tuscan kale growing in the yard this past summer. You’re supposed to wait until the first frost to harvest it, and we’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for a frost. I don’t know why you have to wait for the frost, but my wife kept telling me that. And they’re giant. I mean these things are about three-feet tall. I went out and harvested, and I chopped the kale and started sautéing it with olive oil, and I put salt on it. It was just great. A bunch of the leaves were much thinner than others and I thought I was burning them almost, but those were the best parts. It’s almost like it came out like an incredibly delicate potato chip but made out of kale. It was definitely the best part of the meal.
Crunch, you know, is one of those universal human irresistible things. In fact, if it is a universal I’d love to know why. Is it some ancestral memory? Crunching the bones of your enemy? I don’t know why crunch would be pleasurable. After that, I had these cheeses I was working through that I had gotten at Costco. Costco has gotten kind of inspired on cheese lately. They used to have very standard-issue Cheddar and Swiss cheeses in unappetizing blocks, but they’ve been getting French cheeses. They had this Chaource cheese — it’s kind of a runny, mildly pungent cheese — and they had a Stilton that was not half bad. So I had those with some whole-wheat crackers from Carr’s.
I almost always have dessert. This is a legacy from being a food critic. I became a complete addict to dessert. I think I might have had yet another slice of that pie.
Monday, December 14
In the morning I created a new coffee cake: orange cranberry nut. It takes twenty minutes to throw it together and then an hour to bake it. I have these little books that have been hanging around forever. One of the best coffee cakes is this Marion Cunningham recipe for dried-fruit coffee cake with layers of a mixture of brown sugar and cinnamon and a layer of crushed walnuts. That’s reliable. And excellent.
Lunch was at the cafeteria at the Times, which has an international station; they do a different country every day. I always gravitate to see what’s going on there. And they did a kind of unusual one on Monday: Greek, which they don’t normally do. So I got sliced lamb with Tzatziki sauce, orzo pasta, and braised escarole. I think I had a Coke with that. The best things they do is Latin Caribbean. They’ll do Dominican one day, Puerto Rican one day. Italian has got a little wary. Sometimes they’ll do Korean, or American.
Dinner. I went to this local diner called Sanford on Broadway in Astoria. It’s this diner that suddenly got aspirations and it’s worked for them; they’re constantly packed. They do one thing really brilliantly: the bistro burger. It’s a high-falutin bacon cheeseburger because of its applewood smoked bacon; it’s on a kaiser roll; it’s enormous. They get this beautiful charcoal-broiled flavor to the beef and they understand what medium rare is, so it really is a tremendous hamburger. Dr. Pepper once again.
Then a former student of my wife’s — my wife teaches painting and drawing at Pratt — wanted to come over and do Christmas baking, so we ate her coconut macaroons dipped in chocolate, pecan tarts, and double chocolate chip cookies. There’s a real synergy between visual art and baking. I’ve found over the years that lots of painters are also energetic cooks and have ambitious projects they want to do. We had a tasting and argued over the merits. There was serious debate. I went for the pecan tart, because the crust on it was very well done. It was the kind of crust that kind of falls apart in your mouth.
Tuesday, December 15
For breakfast, that cranberry-orange-nut coffee cake.
Lunch, back to the cafeteria. It was French Day. Now normally I wouldn’t test them on French food, but they had sliced flank steak in green peppercorn sauce and they happen to be good on not overcooking sliced beef. So in this case, it was actually pretty good. It came with gratin potatoes and sautéed vegetables. They have a little package deal where you get the main course, two sides, and a beverage for $8.25. If I had discipline I would make my own food and bring it. When you multiply $8.25 times every day that you’re there it adds up. But I get so hungry that I end up gravitating toward there anyway.
Dinner, we had the Vietnamese sandwiches on toasted sourdough bread. You should do it on a crusty french loaf, but we didn’t have that. I started cooking in penniless student days when there wasn’t much eating out, and then maybe once a week you’d splurge and go out to eat someplace. As I got into journalism as a freelancer, I started to write a lot of travel articles and travel articles seem to end up always being about food. It’s the only real legitimate reason for traveling, in a way.
Wednesday, December 16
I had slices of the stollen, orange juice, and tea.
For lunch, I met somebody at Bar Breton and I had a galette with braised lamb shoulder and tiny glazed turnips and mushroom, followed by a really good bread pudding with huckleberries and a scoop of passion-fruit ice cream on top.
Oddly enough, this is the restaurant that’s last in my book, as a matter of fact. I had ended with Fleur de Sel, which was my favorite romantic, intimate restaurant that was not pretentious, just really good. But no sooner that I had finished the book and went into galleys, he had closed that restaurant and focused all his attention on Bar Breton. The reason I wrote about Fleur de Sel is because I was trying to get at what makes New York a great restaurant city. People mistakenly, when they assess the restaurant culture wherever they go, they tend to focus on these three-to-four star restaurants and to me that’s not really the sign of vitality and underlying health. It’s kind of the one-star restaurants — how many of those do you have and what level are they? And Fleur de Sel always struck me as the kind of restaurant that would be like the best restaurant in town automatically in a medium-size city. And in New York it passes. There are tons of restaurants you can go to that can offer a similar level of quality. You just can’t say that about any other city in the United States.