The New York Diet

Frank Bruni Succumbs to Heat-Induced Shame Spiral

Bruni sips his Peanut Butter Split and Red Bull at the gym.
Bruni sips his Peanut Butter Split and Red Bull at the gym. Photo: Melissa Hom

Nearly a year after leaving his critical post at the Times behind and a month after his memoir, Born Round, came out in paperback, Frank Bruni is enjoying the freewheeling life of a civilian eater. “One of the pleasures of not reviewing anymore is that, while I key in by nature on a lot of details of the meal, I don’t feel this compulsion to make encyclopedic note of everything,” he says. “Sometimes I just enjoy things and don’t let the provenance and pedigree bother me.” See how lowbrow he ate in this week’s New York Diet.

Friday, July 16
I woke up Friday in Boston — I was there for less than 24 hours for a book event at the Brookline Booksmith, one of those revered, great independent bookstores. When I woke up I had a big pot of coffee from room service and got on the Acela. I don’t really believe in eating much on trains; the food, even at its best, is so transcendently mediocre, and I really don’t want to waste my calories on a bad sandwich — no offense to Amtrak. So I tried to hold out. I did have a bag of Utz pretzels; I figured it’d quiet the growling of my stomach without making me feel like I’d wasted too many calories.

I knew I was having a big dinner that night, so when I got home I was trying to keep myself just sated enough that I wasn’t really unhappy. I practically live in Levain Bakery on my street — they’re famous for their gigantic, 10,000-calorie, enough-to-feed-a-family cookies — and on my way from the train to my apartment I went in and got two individual sourdough rolls and two individual walnut-raisin rolls. And I just had myself a little carbfest of those at about three o’clock.

For dinner, I had made a reservation at Aldea. Because of various travel things my boyfriend, Tom, and I hadn’t had a weekend together in more than three weeks, so we wanted to do a nice dinner at a nice restaurant, and we’d been wanting to go to Aldea because we went to Portugal back in April. What Aldea does is a very New York–ified, Manhattanized, upscale-refined treatment of Portuguese, and I thought it’d be really neat, having eaten there many times when I reviewed it, going there after eating in Portugal. I could see in a much more direct sense how it was taking the most popular foods of the country and putting them through the multiple-components-on-a-plate sous-vide filter of Modern American cooking. We didn’t want to overload, so we kept our order kind of simple. I’m a fiend for Marcona almonds; I could literally sleep on a bed of them — I could snort them up my nose and I’d probably be happy. So from the snack category we got Marcona almonds and Iberian olives, and an order of jamón serrano. We cheaped out and did not get the jamón ibérico.

We ordered the two entrées I remember most fondly from when I reviewed the restaurant. A baby-goat entrée that’s like baby goat three ways, a tiny rack, a little brick of belly — three different iterations of baby goat on a very colorful plate with a lot of other vegetable elements. And their dish that sort of calls to mind paella, sort of risotto; it’s a rice dish with duck cracklings and olives. It’s all got a very funky, fatty charge to it, but the grain base of the rice keeps it from getting too intense. Truth be told, full disclosure, we were sitting at the chef’s counter, and [Aldea chef George Mendes] recognized me — we’ve met before — and he sent out some salt-cod croquetas, which were fantastic, and a small appetizer of the octopus, which has a squid-ink purée under it. We skipped dessert.

Saturday, July 17
I woke up late and skipped breakfast. Because it was going to be a big night out at a restaurant again, I was trying not to eat a lot during the day. One of the other neighborhood stations of the cross for me is Juice Generation — they do really, really good juices and smoothies; it’s several leagues beyond Jamba Juice, which I guess is to be expected. That day I was thinking it would be cool if I could make this a quasi-breakfast, quasi-lunch hybrid, so I got a Peanut Butter Split. It’s peanut butter, banana, and then I get the vegan version which is soy milk instead of nonfat frozen yogurt. And I got an enormously tall sugar-free Red Bull because that’s one of my workout talismans: I walk in to the exercise studio where I have a trainer and I have one of those juice drinks and the tallest-size sugar-free Red Bull. There’s something about having a Red Bull during the first five minutes of my workout that motivates me. I drink so much coffee that I don’t think it’s the caffeine — I think some of it is psychosomatic.

I was hoping to hold off until dinner, but I got a little hungry, and at about 4 or 5 p.m. I scrambled three eggs in my apartment. I was dumb, because I make really, really good scrambled eggs — I usually put some shaved cheese into the mix, just enough that it’ll melt, and I also add heavy cream. But I had neither cheese nor cream, so I made them plain.

Tom and I met with his friends at 230 Fifth, this gargantuan rooftop bar, because I was gathering strings for a long essay on rooftop bars in this weekend’s Times. We had some ridiculous cocktails — by ridiculous I mean colorful, weak, and sweet. We were on our wood benches, looking at a big topiary thing, listening to the most amazing concentration of eighties music. It was like some sort of tribute to the infancy of MTV: Duran Duran, Berlin. I was absolutely certain that if we stayed another half-hour we would hear Scritti Politti. Bananarama had to be right round the corner.

For dinner, we checked out a place I’ve been dying to go, which is Torrisi. We had the real Torrisi experience: that predetermined $50 meal. They basically bring you, in rapid succession, a sequence of six antipasti, none in large measure. There was a sort of Italianate fried-rice dish called “Pork Fried Rice,” but instead of pork it was prosciutto on top — beautiful, thin, fantastic. There was a savory cantaloupe salad that was quite wonderful, a cucumber salad, there was some homemade mozzarella. The pasta that night was definitely a housemade fresh pasta; I think they were calling it spaghetti, but it was much, much thicker than the usual spaghetti. It was a seafood pasta — there were razor clams in it, and it had a sort of briny shellfish emphasis. And then for an entrée we chose between slices of barbecued lamb and a black bass fillet. Two of us got one and two had the other so we could all try it all. Dessert began with a tiny adorable little paper cup of Italian ice, and then they brought out a platter of classic, almost hokey Italian cookies — but better, non-mass-market versions of them.

It’s a really fun restaurant, but they had a music mix going that, too, was unbelievably the poppiest of pop, which was a lot of fun until to my horror — and I actually registered a mock complaint about it — we heard the Jefferson Starship single “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” which if memory serves is the theme to the movie Mannequin. As fabulous a time as I had at Torrisi and as happy as I am to go back, I think one has to really pause and think about the implications of a restaurant that plays Jefferson Starship. Grace Slick in Airplane is one thing, but this was not an example of a distinguished era for the Jefferson Starship–Airplane group.

Sunday, July 18
Tom and I went to brunch at Café Luxembourg. We always sit at the bar, and we had a whole leg of the bar to ourselves — no one seems to want to sit at the bar during brunch. We probably go there once a month; his order varies, mine never does. I’m a huge, huge fan of the Café Luxembourg chicken-salad sandwich, which is similar — but not identical — to the Odeon chicken-salad sandwich. They serve it on a pretty crunchy baguette, which I like, and there’s one slice of smoked Gouda at the bottom and it’s very mayonnaisey, which I love. Not in a rich way, but more in a kind of wet and luscious way. It comes with a watercress salad, which this time was not so nice, but I’m not getting it for the watercress salad. Tom had a burger, which he did not give me a bite of, which I think is really mean. I did not ask for one, but by the time I thought it’d be nice to have one it was completely gone. He eats very quickly, which is a very inconsiderate characteristic for a boyfriend to have.

I was having people over for dinner that night. My Times colleagues Julia Moskin and Kim Severson are working on a book called Cookfight, which stems from a budget-dining competition they did, and they’ve been wanting to come over and cook me a couple recipes that will appear in the book, kind of in honor of the fact that I was there at its inception. I also wanted to have them over because I redid my kitchen that year, and I wanted them to see it. I was going to try to cook something to contribute, but I got lazy, busy, and distracted, so I ran to Citarella and got some chopped chicken liver, some salmon spread, and a bunch of pita chips. Truth be told, I munched a little bit on them while I was waiting for Kim and Julia to arrive.

When they came over, Kim made some crostini with chopped Marcona almonds — she had no idea I was such a Marcona almond fiend, and I was like, “Oh my God, almonds twice in three days, this is my lucky, lucky month” — and preserved zucchini and homemade ricotta. She also made this great, great drink which one could alcoholize or not. It was muddled mint, agave nectar, cucumbers, and lime juice — we all knew it needed a clear liquor, and there was debate about whether it should be vodka, gin, or sake. I voted for gin because I had Bluecoat gin around the house, so those who wanted it had some, though some drank it virgin. Kim also made a farro salad with taleggio cheese, red onion, and kalamata olives — they were making recipes from the vegetarian chapter of the book, that’s why there’s no meat in anything. Julia served a very straightforward, but delicious Caesar salad, and she also served this amazing pasta fagiole soupy thing. There was Parmesan, some fresh egg pasta which she made, mashed potato to thicken it, carrots, celery, onions and garlic, and what was really cool is she put some chile oil in it so it had these flickers of heat. And of course, there were beans.

For dessert, Kim made some maple-syrup cookies with some butter and vanilla in them. Even though she could’ve put eggs in them, she was trying to make it as vegan as possible. Well, there was butter but no eggs, so I guess she was trying to keep the protein element down low. Julia made a kind of flourless chocolate cake called a chocolate nemesis. It is so fudgily intense, and it was out of this friggin’ world. It had the intensity of fudge and the airiness of a mousse cake, but it was neither. It was really remarkable. And I, not knowing they were going to make dessert, had bought a huge batch of regular and chocolate-covered cannoli at Citarella, and we did a pretty good job on that.

Monday, July 19
I basically didn’t have any breakfast. I was doing a bunch of writing around the house and I couldn’t help but finish off the chopped chicken liver with pita chips.

I went to work out in the mid-afternoon and got a Peanut Butter Split at Juice Generation and a very tall sugar-free Red Bull, as is my ritual.

For dinner, I met two friends who had both had birthdays in the last few days, Marysue and Kerry. I took them to drinks at Anfora, where we had a couple of glasses of wine. We started out with a rosé from one of my favorite Spanish winemakers, Lopez de Heredia. They’re very famous for their white riojas that have a lot of age on them — so much age on them that they end of having a slightly oxidized, sherrylike flavor. This was an aged rosé from like 2000, so it didn’t have as much of an oxidized taste as the whites, which go back another decade, but it had a little bit of that quality and it was delicious. I was really, really tired and I was going to try to go to bed early and leave it at the wine and the nuts and Chex Mix–type thing we’d been nibbling on, but when I got home I noticed that there were two leftover cannoli, and so I ate those. Okay I lied, I ate three leftover cannoli. But that was my dinner, so it was okay.

Tuesday, July 20
I was rushing around like a frigging madman all day, so it was a day of absolute food disgrace. I just ate such unremarkable and disappointing food, it was really criminal. No breakfast, and then for lunch I had time to do nothing more than to grab a chicken-salad sandwich from the Dean & Deluca in the basement of the Times building. I ate it at my desk. It was not a particularly memorable chicken-salad sandwich, but it tided me over until dinner time.

My boyfriend lives in Brooklyn, and we were both in the mood for barbecue. Logistically and geographically, what made the most sense was a place called Smoke Joint. We met there — it was the umpteenth horrible hot day here in New York — and I walked in and they only had two tables available, both in the middle of traffic, the least inviting in the place. And I don’t know if the whole place was having AC problems or what, but it was hot. I was like, “I am not sitting in 80-degree heat at a terrible table.” I thought, I care way more about air-conditioning than food at this point in time. So we stepped outside, it was already 9:05 p.m., we were famished, we really wanted a drink of some kind. We ascertained that the place that looked darkest and coldest was this sports-bar-y restaurant across the street called Mullane’s Bar and Grill. It was such a nothing place and made such a nothing impression. It’s interesting — I think those of us who swim in the food world, we often don’t cop to admit or recognize that a lot of the eating out that’s done happens just like that. You’re hungry; you need something within twenty steps at a certain lighting level and a certain climate. It’s not like, hmmm, Batali or Vongerichten tonight? So we went to Mullane’s.

Tom got fish and chips and I got a burger. It was called the BBB: buffalo sauce, bacon, and blue cheese. I figured with so much fat and flavor going on, it could only be so disappointing. I mean, it could be a total shame spiral — it could be bad in a certain way — but it couldn’t be actively upsetting. The bun was a little stale, and when you load up a burger like that the ground beef tends to disappear, but the fries were actually quite good. We both wanted something cool to drink and didn’t want mixed drinks for sheer alcohol-consumption-pacing reasons, so we sucked it up and got a bottle of white wine, even though that’s not what you do in a place like that. We ordered some unbelievably nondescript Washington state Chardonnay, and in just kind of a sad, sad little echo of not being able to eat at Smoke Joint because it was too warm, the only bottles they had of this wine were not chilled. So we had to drink our white wine on ice, which normally would really offend me, but when you’re going downscale to the tune of this particular Chardonnay, you might as well. You might as well make a Slurpee out of it, it doesn’t matter.

Wednesday, July 21
I went in really early to work because I was closing a magazine piece, and I was really hungry, so I went up to the Times cafeteria and got a sesame bagel. They charge you for a bagel with topping without regard to whether it’s butter, cream cheese, whatever, so on one half I slathered a whole bunch of butter, and on the other half I slathered peanut butter, on the theory that I should put protein into myself.

I kind of didn’t really have lunch, but after working out I went into Levain. They make these individual-size rectangular pizzas that really aren’t quite pizzas, they’re more of a flatbread, but they have one I quite like that has a bevy of caramelized onions and very nice Parmigiano Reggiano. The sweetness of the onions with the real saltiness and umami of the Parmesan, it’s a really nice treat. One of them is not a full lunch or a big lunch, but it definitely will do.

I was at the airport at dinnertime, and was left with too little time to sit down in one of the terminal’s restaurants. So, even knowing it wouldn’t be such a lovely dinner, I grabbed a sandwich to go from one of those Cibo places. I took a leap of faith on something chickeny with supposedly “creamy hummus” dressing. I ate only half of it later, on the plane — which, by the way, sat for four hours on the tarmac or at the gate before taking off. For me to abandon a sandwich — or any relatively modest dinner — midstream tells you there’s something seriously wrong with it. It was a miserable way to end a miserable day.

Frank Bruni Succumbs to Heat-Induced Shame Spiral