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November 14, 2007

New York, Day I

Dominic Armato
Three and a half years is really longer than any red-blooded American food nerd should go without dropping by New York, and my list of places to hit has been steadily growing during that time. But one of the benefits of relocating to the Eastern seaboard is that one of the best eatin' burgs in the union is now just a quick jaunt away. So when my folks said they'd be in Manhattan for an extended weekend and asked if we'd like to join them, my ladylove and I packed up the little fella along with approximately 437 pounds of little fella accoutrements and hopped on a train heading north. Traveling with family and infant makes it a little more difficult to maintain the kind of breakneck pace I'd ordinarily maintain while cruising a food town, but my family lovingly humored my ambitions and we managed to hit a number of good spots over our three days in Gotham.

Dominic Armato
Our first order of business on day one was to stop by the Bergdorf-Goodman men's store to drop in on an old friend. Social calls aside, however, I had an ulterior motive for this particular location. Tucked away in a corner of the top floor of the men's store is what I've always considered to be a little gem of a lunchtime spot, Cafe 745. Decked out in black and white marble with room for about 20 well-heeled lunchers, Cafe 745 doesn't do anything revolutionary. It's an upscale salad, soup and sandwich shop (a weakness, I confess) that isn't especially long on creativity, but excels when it comes to execution. Everything is crisp, fresh, meticulously assembled and beautifully presented. It probably costs a few more bucks than it should -- the beautiful people tax, no doubt -- but it's still a reasonably priced spot that I have a very hard time staying away from.

Dominic Armato
For starters, you have to love a place that offers perfect traditional deviled eggs as an appetizer. I'm a sucker for deviled eggs, and Cafe 745's are as straight-up traditional as they come, tart and mustardy and perfectly fresh. There are more interesting starters to be had, but this is one of my faves. Another is an excellent pea soup that's notable for its potency. Though I believe both stock and cream are present, they're used very sparingly and the soup is only lightly blended so as to maintain some texture. The result comes across more like a bowlful of fresh green peas than a soup. Though the salads are many and varied, on this particular afternoon I went the frisée, crab and lobster route. Finely chopped and dressed with both a sherry vinaigrette and a touch of thousand island, it's light and refreshing and doesn't bury the shellfish. My vague memories tell me that the Gotham Salad is also fantastic, but confirmation on this will have to wait until the next trip, I suppose.

Dominic Armato
After lunch we shopped Fifth Avenue (browsed may be more accurate) and spent a couple of hours walking around the Museum of Modern Art, thereby earning ourselves a mid-afternoon snack. My recent obsession with xiao long bao led me to the uptown outpost of XLB specialists Joe's Shanghai. While I'd very much like to return to Joe's for a more comprehensive review of the menu, this particular visit was a surgical strike. We got a double order of the XLB (listed simply as "pork dumplings" on the menu) and went to town. Comparing these to the specimens I recently sampled in China probably isn't fair, but I'm going to do it anyway. I thought Joe's buns were enjoyable even if there were a few annoyances that detracted from my enjoyment. For starters, they were freaking volcanic which, on top of making them exceptionally difficult to eat, also meant that much of the flavor didn't come through. Like many foods, the flavor of xiao long bao shines at a certain temperature, and apparently that temperature isn't "scalding". Once they'd cooled somewhat, they were much better. Second, the skins weren't as strong as some others I've tried and, unlike their Chinese brethren, they were served on chopped cabbage rather than a flat surface, which meant that half of them broke and disgorged their contents upon removal from the steamer. Lastly, the flavor itself, while quite bold, was kind of grungy and not as clean as I would have liked. To be clear, however, these are still great XLB -- probably the best I've had in the States. They're just suffering a bit at the hands of stiff recent competition.

Dominic Armato
With such a substantial afternoon snack under our belts, I was the only one with an appetite when 9:00 rolled around, and I found myself looking for a late night spot near the hotel. When I discovered that DB Bistro Moderne was a mere two blocks away, that pretty much sealed it -- I was going for a DB Burger. Not that I was just itching to spend $32 on a burger, but how do you pass up the perfect opportunity to sample Daniel Boulud's ode to beefy decadence? The answer is that you don't, of course, so I made a late reservation to sit at the "bar" and set out for what would probably be the most expensive hamburger I'd ever consume. "Bar" was perhaps a little misleading. The restaurant is divided into a front and a back room, and the busy corridor that connects the two is where I was seated. There were no libations of any kind, just two small high tops, two large communal high tops, a constant stream of servers and very little light (so forgive the photos). Unexpected, perhaps, but not all bad. It's a pretty boisterous place, so aside from the elevation and the added foot traffic it wasn't significantly different from the regular seats.

Dominic Armato
Despite being a solo diner, I thought it nice that they opted to start me off with a bread basket and not one but two amuses, both of which I rather enjoyed. As I've found is typical of Boulud in my limited experience with the man, these were no nonsense dishes. Boulud's food is firmly rooted in his French background and doesn't get too cute. The first amuse consisted of diced, roasted root vegetables suspended in a beef gelée and topped with a mild horseradish cream. Cold and refreshing, yet undeniably beefy, it was a lovely way to start. The other amuse was even more conventional. I received two small cannelles, one of olive tapenade and one of eggplant caviar, served with small garlic toasts the size of a quarter. In another context, you might get a bowlful of the same and a loaf of bread and dunk away, barely giving them a second thought. But the delicacy of the presentation here forces you to really focus in, savor and appreciate the dish.

Dominic Armato
You'd think I would have started with a light salad, or perhaps a small sampling of pâté, so as to better leave myself unencumbered for the entree ahead. But no, only an idiot such as myself would choose a thick, rich, creamy soup as a lead-in to the most famously decadent burger in the world. But what can I say, the artichoke velouté just hit me in the right place. At least it did on the menu. It was, as any good velouté should be, a wonderfully pure expression of creamy artichoke, with just a touch of basil oil as an accent and a small toast with tomato confit as a refresher. But I found it, oddly enough, wanting for salt. Personal preference perhaps, and excellent nonetheless, but it fell just short for me because of it. No matter. My primary objective was hot on its heels.

Dominic Armato
First, allow me to apologize, both to you and to Daniel Boulud, for what may be the least appetizing photo in the history of Skillet Doux. Trust me when I say this doesn't do the sandwich justice by a longshot. The infamous DB Burger arrived, accompanied by a cone of pommes frites. Notably, it also came with three small pots of condiments -- ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise -- immediately indicating that despite its lofty pedigree, this is still a burger. In case you've missed it, the DB Burger is a sirloin burger that's stuffed with braised short ribs, foie gras and truffles, and served on a parmesan bun. I expected a decadent gut bomb. The DB Burger was not what I expected.

For starters, it's small. Well, not small, but by burger standards it's by no means oversized. The patty is extremely thick, as you can see, but it's about the size of a baseball, and the bun was barely four inches across. More notably, the flavor was not at all what I expected. Yes, the short ribs lend a moist, succulent core. Yes, the foie gras adds an unusual level of richness. Yes, the truffles and parmesan serve to accent the beef. But what surprised me was how subtly they were used. I didn't get the sense that I was eating a crazy rich mishmash of a burger variant, but rather that I was simply enjoying one of the most succulent, juicy, supremely beefy hamburgers I'd ever tasted. Despite its high-falutin' components, the DB Burger is one that I'm convinced even the most staunchly traditional burger lover could get into. The description may be fancy, but its spirit is not. As for the price... well, let's just say that while I think the setting and components mean the $32 is justified, that doesn't necessarily mean I think it's worth it. I enjoyed it a lot. I'm glad I had it. But when I return to DB Bistro Moderne, I'll be trying something else.

745 Cafe
Bergdorf-Goodman Men's Store
745 5th Ave.
New York, NY 10151
212-753-7300
Mon - Sat11:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Joe's Shanghai
24 W. 56th St.
New York, NY 10019
212-333-3868
Mon - Sat11:30 AM - 10:30 PM
Sun1:00 PM - 10:30 PM
db Bistro Moderne
55 W. 44th St.
New York, NY 10036
212-391-2400
Hours vary absurdly every day
Check their website

Comments

Awesome, awesome post. As usual, your food photography is amazing and just makes me want to eat everything. I immediately caught onto the deviled eggs (an appetizer I've always enjoyed but rarely have; save the occasional family party or time I will make them myself). Man, those look fantastic. I was also duly fascinated by the db burger --- after having the monstrously-sized burger at Sweets and Savories back in the day (pre foie-ban), I would have assumed this burger would be similarly huge, but it appears that this would actually be feasible to eat and enjoy. Yes, $32 seems a little over-priced, but gimmick food (and drinks) often are. I'm pleased that you found the taste to be appealing. That's what really makes me want to try it.

Can't wait to see the rest of your NY eating adventures.

How was traveling with the child? My husband and I are expecting our first, and I admit; I'm already anticipating claustrophobia from being stuck in the house too much! I'm sure we'll be able to work something out, especially since my husband's more of a homebody. ;)

Hey, GreenFish!

Yeah, trying to get out to eat with the little guy is definitely a challenge :-)

It was easier when he was younger. He'd usually be content to sit quietly in his carrier for up to an hour, or even sleep right through a meal. But these days he's too interested in participating, often loudly, so we're pretty limited in the types of places we can take him. So it was a big treat to have my folks around for a couple of nights in New York. It freed us up for a pair of really nice dinners. I've gotten into the habit of occasionally sneaking out after he and my ladylove have conked out for the night to try new places, but unfortunately Baltimore's a little shy on late night eats. I might be focusing more on cooking for a while :-)

I do not think the db burger was worth $32, not by a longshot. The dearth of short ribs and foie gras in my burger was criminal, for the price, and I could make as good or better a burger at home.

But curiosity got the better of me. I just wish I had tried it a couple of years ago when it was still $25. :)

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