The Dinner Party is Alive & Well on the LES

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

As 2012 drew to a close, I was amused by the number of articles I came across regarding the dinner party. Gourmet waxed nostalgic over dinner parties past, questioning whether the institution could be saved. The Times lamented its passing as a society mainstay. The Post disagreed, celebrating Brooklyn’s young and trendy for recasting the middle class institution. Brooklyn’s the L Magazine saw fit to take a swipe at the Times, reiterating the Post’s stance on the matter. Meanwhile Time reported on SupperKing, a mobile phone app that makes it easy for ambitious hosts in LA and SF to invite complete strangers to their dinner parties.

JP’s Food Adventures: Talking Turkey

Heritage breed turkeys include the Bourbon Red. Photo courtesy of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the November issue of our print magazine.

Thanksgiving is a uniquely Anglo-American holiday. We celebrate the early English colonists’ accumulation of enough food to make it through a Yankee winter by gathering the family and overeating, often while watching our homespun bastardization of rugby on television. Mythology surrounding the day even suggests a chummy relationship between the heathen savages and the witch-burning fundamentalists bringing civilization to them. Rule, Britannia!

Of course the specifics of what we’re eating while counting our blessings are pure New World: cranberries, yams, winter squash and of course, turkey – the bird Ben Franklin unsuccessfully proposed for our national symbol. Franklin would hardly recognize the birds that end up on our Thanksgiving tables. They bear little resemblance to their gunmetal-blue cousins running around our Northeast woods.

JP’s Food Adventures: It’s Picnic Time!

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the July issue of The Lo-Down’s print magazine.

For some, summer means the time-honored escape to the Catskills. Others will run their air-conditioners nonstop until September, hiding out in their apartments’ relative cool. For me, part of the pleasure of warm weather is taking meals outside. Our neighborhood may have limited choices for al fresco dining, but there are a number of good picnic spots.

Where do I go for a neighborhood picnic?

JP’s Food Adventures: Orchard Street’s Restaurant Rows

Orchard Street photos by Cynthia Lamb.

For a while, Clinton Street above Delancey has been the Lower East Side’s Restaurant Row. WD50 showed that adventurous diners would spend money here, and many upscale establishments followed their lead. Tapas, posh pancakes, and high end Chinese can be found there as easily as pizza by the slice, Cuban sandwiches and four-for-a-dollar fried dumplings. A variety of tastes and budgets are accommodated on a few blocks that can legitimately claim to have some of the best restaurants in town.

Over the seven years we’ve lived here, Orchard Street has emerged as another equally vital Restaurant Row. I’ve had as many enjoyable nights out there as on Clinton. And I’ve found just as much, if not more, variety on Orchard. It seems neighborhood curmudgeons can’t maintain any credibility without a knock or two on the nightlife there, so you know it’s good.

JP’s Food Adventures: On Coming Back to the LES

JP, hunting and gathering in Chinatown. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

After seven wonderful years living below Delancey, and seven before that in the East Village, it’s time for me to do what many musicians have been done over the past decade: move to Brooklyn. While the Lower East side is where it’s at, as far as the Manhattan music scene is concerned, Brooklyn is simply a more musician friendly borough. There’s more going on, and more of my own kind there. And it’s hella cheap, if you choose the right place to land.

Cynthia and I are setting sail for Sunset Park. We have no illusions about whether our dear friends here will come visit us in our new home. Most will not. Fair enough. For years I haven’t gone much above 14th Street unless I was getting paid to do so. So we’ll be back often, both for friends and food. The food scene here has gotten more interesting over the last decade. We have an abundance of everything from super cheap to luxurious, the two often side by side. You can cover more culinary ground in a fifteen minute stroll through the LES than some cities offer in an entire day.

Sunset Park is great for Mexican and Chinese food, but it doesn’t have the breadth of the scene here on the LES. Here are some of the food related establishments that help assure we’ll be taking the eighteen minute ride back on the D train regularly.

JP’s Food Adventures: Mixing Bargains With A Mission

Heritage Meats, Essex Street Market. Photo by Cynthia Lamb

Heritage Meats is on a mission in the Essex Street Market: to sell meat like your great-grandmother ate, from animals raised on humane, small farms, who were bred for flavor and texture, not just to plump up quickly without getting sick in a feedlot. The folks who run Heritage Meats partner with more than 40 small farms dedicated to bringing healthier meat to market while also preserving breeds endangered by a lack of compatibility with modern agribusiness. The staff can tell you the provenance of everything in the store, down to who raised the animals.

My wife Cynthia has seen one too many documentaries on how most meat is raised, and no longer wants to eat meat from the supermarket. As a result, Heritage has become a regular stop for me. When I’m feeling like a splurge, it offers excellent choices of artisan cured meats and charcuterie. It’s high-end stuff at high-end prices, but I can’t resist a little lamb prosciutto every now and then.

JP’s Food Adventures: Clams in Garlic and Wine, An Ideal Warm Weather Dish

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Plenty of us go out for shellfish, whether it’s moules- frites at a French joint, Chinese clams in black bean sauce or oysters on the half shell offered at several neighborhood happy hours. But many do not cook shellfish at home. This strikes me as weird, since we live on the coast – shellfish are relatively cheap and plentiful. In the case of clams and mussels, they’re really inexpensive and easy to cook. By most metrics they’re considered “healthy” foods as well, being big on nutrients and low in fat.

I think a big reason most folks do not cook shellfish at home is because we shop for food at the supermarket. A supermarket favors foods with long shelf lives. Most of the food for sale in a supermarket is capable of sitting for weeks, months, even years without spoiling. This makes it easier for managers to pay attention to the smaller percentage of foods with shorter shelf lives, such as meat, fresh vegetables and dairy. There are greater losses, and thus less profit in selling these things, so a smart manager must choose carefully among them. Fresh fish, particularly shellfish, doesn’t stand much of a chance in this environment, as it’s extremely perishable. It’s simply not worth the risk, and thus uncommon in most supermarkets.

JP’s Food Adventures: Yunnan Kitchen is a Worthy Splurge

Photos by Cynrhia Lamb.

With the opening of Yunnan Kitchen, our neighborhood now boasts one of only two Yunnan restaurants in Manhattan. Until recently, the only Yunnan place in the city was is a tiny noodle shop in Brooklyn, where Cynthia and I have eaten.

We were struck by the similarities to Vietnamese food: the use of fresh herbs, crunchy veggies, chopped peanuts as a garnish and just a little bit of sugar added to play against the hot pepper. This is not surprising, as Yunnan Provence shares a border with Vietnam. They also use vinegar to balance out spicy, sweet and salty flavors. The result is food that’s often simple and fresh tasting, yet nuanced.

I had some trepidation about Yunnan Kitchen — a “small plates” joint on Clinton Street.  Like many New Yorkers, I consider the ability to get delicious Chinese food for cheap practically a God-given right. If I must sacrifice some of the bourgeois niceties in my dining out experience to that end, so be it. I’d rather eat good food in a dive than pay top dollar for okay food in a place with great service and décor.

Bulldozing the Essex Street Market Would Not Be Cool

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Consider me shallow if you like, but I do actually think about coolness. I know it’s generally more of a teenage concern than a middle age one, but I can’t help myself. Coolness is like beauty: it has a short shelf life. This transience is part of its appeal. Today’s shock of the “new” quickly becomes tomorrow’s rehash. Either catch the moment or miss out entirely. That’s how it works.

When it comes to neighborhoods, coolness is a function of transition. The early stages of gentrification are cool, the end result is not.  If you doubt this, spend a Saturday night in the East Village or a Sunday brunch in Park Slope. Our Lower East Side food scene has been in what I consider a perfect balance for the last five years or so. There’s just enough upscale stuff to make the old schoolers shake their heads in dismay, yet no dearth of cheap, lowbrow deliciousness. Such a balance is a delicate, fleeting thing, and I’m a big advocate of enjoying it while it lasts. Because change is inevitable.

I make no secret of the fact that I think the Essex Street Market is the coolest place to shop for food (and grab a quick bite) in the neighborhood. Why? Balance. In a neighborhood as diverse as ours, it’s easy to feel the cultural and socioeconomic differences between you and your neighbors. Yet we all walk the same sidewalks. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Essex Street Market. Upscale and down to earth businesses are side by side in an historic space originally designed to get pushcart vendors off the streets. They are all small independent businesses – the kind I prefer to patronize. Every one of them is somebody’s dream, and there’s a good chance that person is behind the counter.

JP’s Food Adventures: A Little Bit of L.A. at Taqueria LES

Taqueria Les, 198 Orchard Street. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Manhattan has become a much better place for a taco fix in recent years. Gone are the days when your friends from LA burst into laughter at the offerings here.  Now they just make the inevitable comparisons to their favorite spots on the Left Coast.

My current “go to” spot has been Brooklyn Taco in the Essex Street Market (also at the Hester Street Fair). Their tacos are indisputably good, but the hours of the market and the fair may not suit everyone. And their style is more Brooklyn than Los Angeles.  If you’re pining for an LA style bar/taqueria, the obvious neighborhood choice is Taqueria Lower East Side (198 Orchard Street).

JP’s Food Adventures: Top Hops is Top Notch

Top Hops, 94 Orchard Street. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

I like Top Hops. The name sounds like a play on London’s Topshop, which took fashion cues from my buddies in the Strokes a number of times. Their music was playing when I walked into the shop, at 94 Orchard Street, making me feel at home. Beyond that I like Top Hop’s nerdiness. Before I was a food and wine nerd I was a beer nerd. I brewed my own beer, learning the nuances of roasted grains and “bittering” verses “finishing hops.” The difficult part back then was tasting examples of wide-ranging beer styles.

JP’s Food Adventures: Interesting Twists on Bistro Classics at Antibes

Antibes Bistro, 112 Suffolk Street.

When home cooking is your hobby it’s easy to become jaded about restaurants. Some high-end places are exciting, but this excitement is not part of my everyday life. Crazy dishes from hole in the wall places manned by immigrants are fun to seek out, but every now and then I want to “up my game.”

And it’s the middlebrow restaurants ($30-$60 per person for an entree, wine, an appetizer and/or dessert) that tend to make me hyper-critical. I don’t expect a trained chef to cook my supper, but I assume the menu was put together by one. The food has to be better than what I bang out in my own kitchen most nights or I’m leaving dissatisfied. I don’t expect a sommelier, white tablecloths or uniformed servers, but I want a pleasant vibe, proper service and decent wine choices. I want a place where the dining experience is lovely, and the food impressive. Antibes bistro is such a place.

JP’s Food Adventures: Unconventional Sushi at Ni Japanese Deli

Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

I generally take a conservative approach to sushi. I don’t have much interest in fast food sushi or novelty rolls. Supposedly sushi is an art it takes a lifetime to master, and I’ve been lucky enough to have tasted some great examples of it here, on the West Coast and in Japan. That’s made me a little bit of a purist – I’d rather forgo the stuff entirely than shell out my hard-earned dough for lackluster examples. This orthodoxy allowed me to be caught off guard when I came across the most compelling thing I’ve eaten in a while at Ni Japanese Deli in the Essex Street Market.

JP’s Food Adventures: Where to Go For a Torta

Puebla, 47 1st Avenue. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

When it comes to Mexican fast food some folks are crazy for California style burritos. Others enthuse over tacos, which have practically become a fetish item over the last few years. I’m down with both, but my particular weakness is for the torta sandwich. The premise of a Kaiser roll smeared with refried beans, stuffed with taco filling, then some avocado, lettuce and onion? Maybe a little tomato, too? Great. Add some queso to make it a cemita? Even better. That’s what I want to eat.

My neighborhood go to for a torta sandwich was Roots and Vines, on Grand Street. . Theirs wasn’t the best I’ve had, but it was flavorful, generous and very close to home. I got a roast pork torta there at least once a month. Unfortunately Roots and Vines stopped making sandwiches a couple weeks ago, leaving me in need of a new local source. This proved a difficult search. Tacos and burritos are all over the place, but tortas, ubiquitous in many Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods, are hard to find on the Lower East Side. The best I’ve found yet is an unorthodox example just above Houston Street.

JP’s Food Adventures: Vic’s, a Classic Slice & Pac-Man

Vic's Pizza, 51 Essex Street. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

I don’t eat pizza like I used to. A younger me had it several times a week. But that younger me usually biked 70 miles or so in that week. Current me is a bit more restrained, saving my pizza indulgence for the end of a busy day when a proper supper is just not going to happen. Usually I go for an upscale pie and a glass or two of red wine, so I can convince myself I’m not having junk food for dinner.

But I haven’t forgotten the pizza I grew up with. Like many in my generation, I have fond memories of hanging around my local slice joint, pumping quarters into Pac-Man. While my initials rarely made the high score screen, I did develop a lifelong fondness for a classic New York slice, dusted with garlic salt and crushed red pepper. If you grew up in this neighborhood chances are you got that slice at Vic’s (51 Essex Street). You may have played Pac-Man there, too.