the year i ate new york

The Last Supper(s)

Our diner-at-large concludes his tenure with khachapuri, nostalgic kimchee biji, and a conciliatory strip steak at the Grill.

A final feast at Wu’s Wonton King. Photo: Alex Jung
A final feast at Wu’s Wonton King. Photo: Alex Jung

As my job of writing The Year I Ate New York came to its natural conclusion, I asked my friends the same question: Where would you go if you were leaving New York? I wanted them to decide where they would go for their last drink and to make hard choices between Keens or Gallaghers (Keens) and the Grand Central Oyster Bar or Grand Army (the Oyster Bar). One friend said he would go to the Russian Baths, recently renamed Bath Club, in Homecrest and drink vodka around the pool. Another craved oysters and martinis followed by khachapuri, so we went to the quietly sumptuous Deux Chats before a lactic bomb at Cheeseboat. So began my week of last suppers, in which every meal carried the weight of finality — not as a death-row meal exactly but as a farewell to the column.

I first went to Barney Greengrass in college when my friend Brett and I had a standing Sunday brunch date to review the week. It’s a place that welcomes the specificity of desires: bialys (always bialys) lightly toasted with a square slab of scallion cream cheese; scrambled eggs with caramelized onions and lox — half salty, half not; a side of capers; endless pours of perfectly functional coffee. I hadn’t been back in over a decade, but it would be where I would want to go for breakfast. There’s an outdoor shed now, but the line of weekend diners, the waiters yelling in New Yawkese, the too-small tables, and the lighting that makes everything look as though it were dipped in tallow were exactly as I remembered them.

For lunch, Cho Dang Gol, one of the few places at which I ever regularly ate by myself. It used to be one of those if-you-know-you-know Korean restaurants because it’s off-center from the strip on 32nd Street. Now everyone knows. I had been introduced to it 20 years ago through a relative who lived in New York. You knew it was good because the banchan, an afterthought at some other places, was always impressive: warm, fresh curds of tofu; braised mackerel; radish kimchee. When I used to see a therapist in midtown, I would leave the sessions ravenous. (Was the link between psychological distress and comfort food ever clearer?) Our appointments ended in that caesura between lunch and dinner, which meant I could safely get a table for one and eat in happy silence.

So I went by myself again one morning before it opened at noon to a line already out the door. Then, as now, I would get the kimchee biji — a stew made of ground soybeans — as well as bugeo gui: dried pollack that has been rehydrated and slathered with gochujang and set to sizzle on a cast-iron platter. Everything arrives at volcanic temperatures; the stew sputtering right off the stove entered my body like molten lava. It was a cold day, but soon I was thawing from the inside out, my pores radiating heat. By the end, I’d taken off my sweater and felt as though I had experienced some small resurrection — parts of me fortified and ready to go back into the world.

I would like a final drink, too. So I consulted martini connoisseur and Succession and New York theater actor J. Smith-Cameron, who, like me, has been mourning the loss of Café Loup, where she had been a regular with her husband, Kenneth Lonergan. After my first column about martinis and French fries — what I called the New York Happy Meal — we made a plan to go to Cecchi’s, the restaurant built on Loup’s bones. That phrase has followed me around all year, popping up on feeds and menus, including Cecchi’s, on which a $25 happy-hour “NY Happy Meal” is offered (no credit attributed).

A solo meal at Cho Dang Gol.

Saki at Gallaghers.

Martinis at Cecchi’s.

Dessert at the Grill.

Friends at Wu’s Wonton King.

Wu’s Wonton King.

Photograhs Courtesy Alex Jung

A solo meal at Cho Dang Gol.

Saki at Gallaghers.

Martinis at Cecchi’s.

Dessert at the Grill.

Friends at Wu’s Wonton King.

Wu’s Wonton King.

Photograhs Courtesy Alex Jung

“Some people talk the talk but don’t walk the walk,” Smith-Cameron said as we sat down when the doors opened at 5 p.m. We sized each other up with that crucial question: Gin or vodka? She used to be a vodka woman but has since switched, so we both got gin martinis — hers with olives, mine with a twist. Everything about Cecchi’s looked right — the mahogany-colored ambience, the wisecracking Welsh bartender — but still felt too new, like leather shoes that have yet to be broken in. Afterward, we walked over to Gotham, where one of her favorite bartenders, Billy, makes a mean vesper. She mentioned that after Keith McNally took over Minetta Tavern, he threw a party for all the old habitués as a way to maintain a sense of continuity.

Of course, I wanted an excuse to get dressed up for dinner and a show. I got tickets for a performance of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play Appropriate, starring Sarah Paulson, and followed that with a very necessary drink at Joe Allen, my preferred post-theater watering hole. We had enough time for a drink at the bar before setting back out to an 11 p.m. dinner at the Grill, a restaurant with a severe, cinematic sense of grandeur. We got the usual (martinis, oysters, tartare) and the crudités, with which I am unapologetically obsessed. I wanted the prime-rib trolley cart but made the mistake of failing to reserve it beforehand and had to settle for the strip steak. (Poor me.)

Fortunately, I’m not going anywhere. Because the reality is that if I were actually leaving the city, the only thing I would really want is dinner with friends. The year has been inadvertently one of learning more about them — their allergies and preferences and passions. I wanted a banger with as many people as possible and as much food and drink a table could bear. Where? The answer was self-evident, like an apple thunking me on the head: Wu’s Wonton King, the Chinatown restaurant that opened in 2016 and yet feels like it’s been part of our lives forever. The vitality of a place like Wu’s can’t be replicated: the pleasant clatter, the bring-your-own-wine policy, the massive lazy Susans whose size is matched by a prodigious menu, on which, improbably, everything is good.

So my boyfriend and I gathered 21 of our friends for dinner on Sunday night with simple instructions: Look hot; bring wine. This was it. Our numbers ballooned in the area near the register, between the tanks of crustaceans and the window of bronzed ducks, as we waited for a birthday party to wrap up. (Sorry!) Then we commandeered two large tables: one in the center and another along the wall. Friends from separate circles collided and bubbled together, all while spinning the turntable to get another bite: the eponymous wontons fat with shrimp and pork in a milky bone broth, Peking duck tucked into soft bao, expertly fried grouper fillets, golden-hued mounds of roasted chicken, and heaps of garlicky snow-pea shoots. We ordered the whole suckling pig in advance, which they presented with appropriate fanfare on a large platter before carving it up between tables. We popped magnums of pét-nats, prosecco, and rosé, eating and drinking until they kicked us out.

The author, and dining companions. Photo: Courtesy Alex Jung

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