Crunchy Bottoms

Striking the caloric balance. Barely.

Category Archives: Travel

New York City 2012: Dominique Ansel Bakery

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The sidewalks of Soho are seasoned by the pounding footsteps of thousands of tourists and locals alike, filtering into fashion boutiques like the tributaries of a constant river. Soho is, first and foremost, a shopping district, and the Broadway strip is a haven for lazy shoppers who needn’t so much as think as to forge forward in a Zombie March under the sheer influence of brands the likes of Zara, Aldo, H&M, and more. It’s too easy to ping-pong straight along the avenue, completely missing the quieter streets to the left and right – and overlooking Dominique Ansel Bakery at the end of Spring Street. Balthazar, Dean & Deluca, and other big-named (unfortunately over-hyped) dining establishments usually manage to suck in the strays that wander from the main shopping belt. Needless to say, famished and bleary-eyed shoppers don’t wander very much, and certainly not far enough.

That suits me just fine. While every other bistro, restaurant, and chichi café is packed, the five blocks of walking distance from Broadway means that Dominique Ansel usually ends up being relatively quiet no matter the time of the day. The best pastries would still be sitting in their displays.

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It’s a little ludicrous that I’ve even been there thrice, at every opportunity that I had found myself in Soho – reliable food does that to me. Its consistency may have something (or everything) to do with how Pastry Chef Dominique Ansel used to work for Daniel Boulud at his 3-Michelin-starred restaurant, Daniel. You can be assured that the quality is strict, and the pastries no less stunning than his star-studded background.

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The DKA, which sounds like a cross between an underground criminal syndicate and a weapon of mass destruction, was at the top of my list. Dominique’s Kouign Amann ($5.25) looks like an actual explosion of liquid gold happened in the tiny confines of a muffin cup, got flash-frozen in the nick of time, and was tipped over unto a plate and served.

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New York City 2012: Four & Twenty Blackbirds

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I was just talking to a friend about pies the other day, about how there seems to be a dearth in places selling traditional hand-made pies – pies the kind your grandmother would make (if she was American). Good ol’ crusty, buttery, rustic pies, crimped unevenly at the edges with quick fingers and filled to the brim with filling. Grandma would roll out supple pastry sheets speckled with butter, tuck the edges into a snug pie pan, layer yet another sheet on top to sandwich it all, and then slip everything into a toasty oven to brown and to perfume the home with the heady scent of Pie.

I think it’s about time we all got American grandmothers of our own.

DSC_0558Of course, I thought of Four & Twenty Blackbirds, a cafe in the Gowanus neighbourhood of Brooklyn that specialises in double-crusted, wholesome pies that I popped into during one of my rare Me-times. I’d heard about it, and about the two-sister team that courageously decided to move their tiny pie-baking business out of their apartment and into a proper bustling cafe. They have been selling out their pies faster than they could make them ever since.

I remember taking a step inside the cafe and getting cocooned by a gentle commingling of warm aromas. It smelt like home.

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New York City 2012: Bánh Mì Zòn – Wicked Vietnamese Sandwiches

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I’m in the midst of hammering out a proper article. I’m experiencing full-blown Hamster Complex (you know, the one where you want to destroy something you’ve created?), and should stop before I trash it in rage and regret it after. There are only so many words that I can beat out of my brain into something that – hopefully – doesn’t sound nauseatingly contrived considering the…genre…of material I’ve been forced to read and re-read this past week, as some of you may know. I am giving up on that for the moment and resuming my usual food-psychobabble.

What a relief. Urgh.

I’m continuing with my chain of sandwich posts, and have saved the best for last.

I had long since given up hope of finding the perfect Bánh Mì in Singapore. I may not have tried hard enough, but no matter. There’s no point anymore. Bánh Mì Zòn has got it. This small eatery in East Village NYC will send all other imitation Vietnamese sandwich stalls running back home, tails between their legs.

A Vietnamese friend, of unusually small appetite (it’s true isn’t it Linh?) had remarked that the sandwich at Bánh Mì Zòn is better than what she could find in Vietnam, and had thereafter proceeded to polish off the entire thing on her own. So if my unrestrained rambling has made everyone skeptics by now, that should add some credibility.

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This is a Bánh Mì (pronounced ‘bang-mee’ – for real), a Vietnamese-style sandwich. The Zon Sandwich ($6.50) has made me realise how my palate has been asleep all my life, and has never readied itself enough for so much sensation. Some part of me feels guilty for sharing this experience on such a public space, to be gloating about having eaten something that most of everyone else has not. I would apologise in advance, except that I truly feel smug about this. I hope you understand.

I know I said that Taïm‘s Falafel Sandwich is the epitome of an awesome sandwich, but I have to retract my words. I have gone back to that post and edited that line out. I am serious. This is the perfect sandwich. Does it not look like The Perfect Sandwich? What obscene filling-to-bread ratio is that?! Nine to one, or something.

Packed into the cavity of a warm, crackly footlong baguette is a dizzying mix of freshly sliced Vietnamese bologna and pork head cheese, a generous schmear of sweet pork pâté, fragrant pork floss, cool and crunchy shreds of vegetables just lightly pickled and tangy, and a chockful of shockingly green cilantro. It’s a riot of flavour and texture, an Adult-Only party in the mouth. The bread itself remains unrivaled, fluffy and crisp, yielding easily with each bite. And I never eat cilantro raw, in any amount, but to much of my bewilderment, the bed of cilantro worked. I ate them all. With mighty squirts of Sriracha sauce.

The second time I returned, I ordered the same footlong sandwich and demolished it. Heck, anyone can finish this on their own. This is a sarnie that will surprise you in more ways than one.

Bánh Mì Zòn

Address: 443 E.6th St. New York, NY 10009

Opening Hours: 

Tue-Sat: Noon-9pm

Sun: Noon-8pm. 

Closed Monday.

New York City 2012: Taïm – Best Falafel Sandwich

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The pair of degenerates featured in this picture of Taïm’s shopfront refused to step out of my camera frame. They also happen to be my accomplices – or, well, ‘friends’ if I must be so kind as to admit – for a falafel getaway in West Village. My friends clearly get treated to a healthy dose of my special blend of humour, and fortunately for them, my affection takes the form of sarcastic, deadpan remarks, with the occasional tongue-in-cheek comeback. I only give my friends the best.

Now, on to the point of this post: Falafel. Deep-fried rounds of ground chickpeas or fava beans of Middle Eastern origins. It’s hard to directly attribute any one country for this marvelous creation, so let’s just skip the historical commentary.

The last time I had falafel so good that I was convinced that I could give up meat was in Paris, at L’As du Fallafel (I do plan to write about my European foodscapades before the turn of the next millenia). The falafel sandwich I had was messy and wholesome. Skills in serviette management were crucial. The falafels themselves were amazing. Those were the best I had had in my life up until then. The operative words being ‘until then’, because I have found the best since then.

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These are the best falafels in New York, as voted by countless reliable food snobs, the NY Times, Serious Eats, and me. Not to promote Bobby Flay any further, but I also happened to watch how these chickpea fritters bowled him flat on his back in yet another staged Throwdown on the telly.

I run the risk of gushing, and no one likes digital diarrhoea, so I’ll keep this short.

The falafels are freshly fried, deliciously nutty and fluffy. If you order the Green Falafels, split them open and you’ll be stunned to see a vibrantly green core, bright and dewy with flecks of parsley, cilantro, and mint. I don’t have a picture. I spent only a second admiring them before I stuffed my face.

The Falafel Sandwich ($6.25) is Taïm’s ultimate crowd-pleaser from their extensive menu of other crowd-pleasers. The pitas (wholewheat or white) are unbelievably fresh, made in-house perhaps, warm and soft, yet reliable enough to support the weight of copious amounts of hummus, israeli salad, pickled cabbage, and creamy tahini. This sandwich is warm and cool, luxurious yet light, crunchy, smooth, and so darn tasty. Almost every possible component of a great sandwich is embodied in this one. I’m not ashamed to say that I ordered a second.

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What’s interesting is that Taïm’s falafels come in three flavours: Green, Harissa (with Tunisian spices), Red (with roasted peppers). Think of the Green as a classic falafel, the Harissa as fragrant one, and the Red as the sweet one. I had friends ordering the Mixed Falafel Platter ($12), which comes with all three types of falafel, israeli and tabouli salads, and sauces.

I had to skim through Taïm’s menu again for this post, and let’s just say that I’m beyond frustrated right now. If I wasn’t limited by stomach capacity and time back then, I’d have tried their babaganoush, their French Fries with Saffron Aioli (I know!), Fried Eggplant, all their salads and smoothies, and the falafels, and falafels, and more falafels.

I did get a bite of the Baklava ($3), but I wasn’t sure what I was comparing it against since I don’t think I’ve had good baklava, ever.

Everything is freshly made. You can taste it, smell it, see it. This outlet at West Village is small, a hole-in-the-wall. There’s another outlet at Nolita, and – if social media is on your side – there’s their food truck, cruising through NYC every day feeding its lucky, lucky people. Follow them on Twitter…

…while I unfollow them, to spare myself the agony of receiving updates on something I can’t have, three oceans away.

Taïm

Address: 222 Waverly Place, New York 10014

Phone: 212-691-1287

Hours: 11am-10pm Daily

Twitter: TaimMobile

New York City 2012: Wafels & Dinges – Belgian Waffles

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This honking yellow beauty was the stuff of my dreams ever since I watched an episode on the Food Network about the best food trucks in NYC. Just the idea of buying food from a food truck seemed abstract and magical, like getting sprinkled with fairy dust. I wanted to be sprinkled with fairy dust.

I saw the waffles again kicking Bobby Flay’s ass when he tried doing a surprise Throwdown on Thomas DeGeest, owner and founder of what was eventually to become NYC’s waffle salvation – Wafels & Dinges. To be precise, Bobby got nailed by a flying, golden slab of a liège wafel slathered in Spekuloos spread. That’s like a 30-hit maximum combo on Marvel Vs Street Fighter that he saw coming, but chose to feebly execute a Low-Block instead of doing a Retreating Dash for Samurai Hill. No prizes for guessing who won that round (then again we all know everything’s staged. You know that. Right?).

Then again, it seems that as long as W&D’s Big Ol’ Momma Truck continues serving its good citizens piping hot, fresh Belgium wafels for many more years to come, everyone remains a winner. Just…you know…don’t ever try to go up against it.

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There’s no waffling about this issue: the Liège Wafels from any of Wafel & Dinges wafel trucks are better than those in their country of origin, Belgium. I’ve had doughy, crispy, delicious waffles drizzled in melted chocolate when I was in Brussels years ago and I remember how devilishly good they were, so I have a basis of comparison, unlike my inadequacy with Porchetta.

The only way to hunt down this elusive wafel truck is if you’re following W&D on every possible social media newsfeed that they have. Even then, my attempts and wild proclamations at hunting it down were abject failures at best, the stars never having aligned themselves to have the Momma Truck anywhere in my vicinity. I promise I was checking Facebook and Twitter daily.

When I stumbled across one of their small kiosks at Union Square, I obviously got myself a Liege Wafel ($5), and level-ed it up to a Wafel of Massive Deliciousness (WMD) by adding $2 for the option of having as many toppings as I wanted. This is dangerous stuff. Giving people free reign over any number of additional toppings they can have is like giving a child a stick of dynamite. I chose the explosive combination of Spekuloos, banana slices, and whipped cream.

And I chanced upon another stand at Bryant Park, and had another Liège WMD with Nutella, Strawberries, and Bananas.

Yet this was still different. This was from a stand in a holiday market. I’d gotten my taste of W&D’s wafel, but the Momma Truck hadn’t made my wafel. I needed to buy my wafel from the Momma Truck.

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Then during one serendipitous day (the only day that I hadn’t checked any social media platform for the whereabouts of the Momma Truck), I found her. She was parked at the curb in SoHo, windows wide open and beckoning, as peppy yellow as The Magic School Bus – wafel version. I went ballistic. My friend went ballistic for me.

We shared a non-WMD, still a liège though, and stood to the side in the nipping cold to chomp away at a Spekuloos (a spread made from Spekuloos biscuits – spiced biscuits that taste like glorious gingerbread) wafel. Liège wafels are dense and burnished a golden-brown. They’re crispy and caramelised on the outside and chewy on the inside. My kind of wafels, and hard to find in Singapore too. W&D has the other sort as well, what they call their Brussels Wafel ($5), the light and fluffy sort that I didn’t bother trying. Liège is all I need in my life. Also, W&D’s savoury wafels are only available from the Momma truck. Think Bacon & Syrup, or Pulled Pork, or Chilli Con Carne. I wished I had the opportunity for those, but I didn’t.

DSC_0380It’s hard not to see this as a staple for anyone visiting the Big Apple. Who doesn’t want fairy dust? These wafels are mad good. They have ruined me for all other wafels. It hurts that they are currently half-way around the world from me.

The New Yorkers truly have the best food truck.

Wafels & Dinges

Website: http://www.wafelsanddinges.com/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/wafelsanddinges?fref=ts

Twitter: @waffletruck

New York City 2012: Porchetta

DSC_1616Porchetta – the single, most carnal name ever allowed to grace a meat dish.

So if you happen to name your establishment after the hallowed Italian Roast Pork Of The Gods, I’m going to expect choirs of angels trumpeting my entrance into the shop till kingdom come.

Needless to say, my divine encounter didn’t happen, but I had this greet me, which was pretty darn close:

DSC_1615A bronzed, crackling Belly of The Beast.

I didn’t manage to sink my teeth into any while I was on real Italian soil (remember my shame for not asking for some while at Dario’s?), so this was the nearest thing to redemption, or perhaps the closest thing to self-pity. Either way, I’d rather not ponder further on that.

Pork belly, with boned-out pork loins stuffed in its core, rolled up in alternating layers of fat, meat, herbs, salt, and skin, is tied up with string and roasted till the moist meat yields to the slightest pressure of a butcher knife, here, in an oven here at Porchetta. I know, I know, I can’t help but feel that I’m still short-changing myself at the end of the day, having never tasted Italian Porchetta the Italian way (rhyme!), roasted over wood and hauled up to a wooden chopping board for a feast. But still, this is salty, salty meat, of the most primeval kind. I’m having it.

DSC_1613The star in all this is, of course, the meat. It doesn’t quite matter what else you have with it, or what vehicle you require to get it into your mouth. I went wild for the crackly chunks of skin, like salty nuggets of treasure among fantastically seasoned and flavourful meat. The herbs used were suitably earthy, presumably a mixture of some thyme, sage, rosemary, and garlic. Perfect.  I would have liked more skin. A lot more skin, and a lot more meat. Perhaps a larger sandwich.

Oh just give me the whole hog.

We shared a Porchetta Sandwich ($12), yet given the choice again, I’d pass on the dry ciabatta (which was unfortunate, really) and order up a Porchetta Plate ($15) instead. I also didn’t quite hear a choir of angels, not even a squeak, but I was somewhat pleased nevertheless. I would be content with a healthy serving of porchetta and garlic sautéed greens, which I’m assuming are broccoli rabe or some kind of chard or chicory, of the slightly bitter variety, perfect as an accompaniment to savoury meat.

Porchetta doesn’t have much seating since most locals do take-aways, but there are about eight seats inside. All things considered, this is still a rather pricey sandwich, but it’s probably the closest to Italy that I’ll be.

And if I had the chance to head to New York City again, I’d just live in the Lower East Side. That’s where all the food that you’ll ever need to care about reside. That was an unintended rhyme.

Porchetta

Address: 

110 E 7th St
(between 1st Ave & Avenue A)

New York City 2012: Shake Shack

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This probably needs no further elaboration from me. Even if it does, a quick Google search should suffice. I’m lazy, and weaving together repeated bits of information into a paragraph free from plagiarism is utterly banal.

I just want to get right in to the meat of things, right here, right now. Chop chop. It’s like I’ve got a ticking-time bomb counting down the seconds before I self-implode or start gnawing at my keyboard in desperation for a Shack Burger. I need to get this out of the way because just the memory of the taste of the beef patty can induce seizures and hallucinations in me.

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Gourmet burgers need to get out of the way, for the same reason that souped-up hawker food and deconstructed table staples need to stop since the simple things done right will always, always take the limelight. I’m not carelessly waving aside the time and effort it takes to craft a molecularly-gastronomic xiao long bao (there is much to be respected and admired in such endeavours), but all I’m saying is when I want a burger, I want a burger in the truest sense of the word – beefy, cheesy, unctuous, eyes-rolling-to-the-back-of-your-head-till-you-see-your-brain good.

My first encounter with a Shake Shack burger was the Shack Stack ($8.85USD) – a burger with a single beef patty, a battered and deep-fried portobello mushroom stuffed with melty cheese, a couple of slices of juicy tomatoes, and crisp lettuce. This was after waiting in line for 15 minutes and waiting 10 minutes for a table. Shake Shack is popular, and with good reason. I shared the burger with a friend, and if there was one lesson that I learnt, it was that I was going to get a double burger with the works, fries and all to myself the next time round. And those Yukon crinkle-cut fries were confoundingly crisp, fluffy, yet slightly springy. I don’t even eat fries, but these were criminal.

DSC_1515Behold, the Double Smoke Shack ($8.80USD), a double-beef-patty wonder with melted American cheese, Niman Ranch all-natural applewood smoked bacon, chopped cherry pepper, and Shack Sauce. See, when I make promises to myself, I keep them. Under other circumstances, I’m probably not as resolute.

So here’s why Shake Shack burgers are maddeningly good: it’s all in the beef. For the nutrition diehards, this is 100% all-Angus beef, with no hormones or antibiotics. To be honest, that doesn’t explain its taste, but to some people, that description gives the burger a little extra shine. I’m usually particular about details like that, but now I’m just concerned with the fact that, without a doubt, the beef was grain-fed (that could only explain its richness), freshly ground, moist, chunky, pink, and griddled till crisp on the outside. I’ve heard things from friends about there being bits of liver in the patties, therefore explaining its superior beefy taste, but I haven’t found any information on that. If Shake Shack had the option of just ordering beef patties, I’d do just that, because words cannot completely describe how good they are.

Then there’s the potato bun, vibrantly yellow and softer than brioche. It’s the perfect vessel for drinking up all the delicious beef fat that trickles out of the patties. Things still get messy anyway, so grab a handful of serviettes just in case.

I’m also tiring of spamming adjectives at this point, so if you’re ever at Shake Shack, just order this sterling burger combination. Truth be told, I’m just getting hungry now, and I want to get away from the laptop. The glistening cheesy patties are driving my digestive enzymes crazy.

DSC_1893According to friends, the milk shakes are fantastic. Don’t listen to me, because I’d never order a milkshake in this lifetime, or in any other. I’d rather drink melted ice cream.

As a general rule (both for myself and for anyone reading), if an establishment manages to get me to return more than once, it’s got my golden stamp of approval. I had Shake Shack three times, because if I’m ever going to eat fast food, I’m only going for the best and will go all out.

So if you’re ever in New York, or some of the other neighbouring states, you need to hit up Shake Shack. That’s an order, under oath of reading this post.

I need to clean up the drool now.

Locations and Menu can be found at www.shakeshack.com

New York City 2012: Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company

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Since I started on bagels, I might as well go the whole nine yards.  I’m aware that my less-than-qualified commentary on New York’s bagels is like dancing across a field of land-mines. Naked.

But in my defense, I’m a bread-snob, so it follows that I should know a thing or two about bagels. I have tried making bagels a couple of times since I got back. Let’s just say that I will try again.

Bagels may or may not have salt and malt added into the dough, but they are almost always boiled in water (sometimes containing baking soda, the science of which I will leave for another time) before baking. The New York bagel is almost always salted and malted, giving it its characteristic chew.

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My first and proper New York bagel was at Brooklyn Bagel. To be precise, my first half bagel was at Brooklyn Bagel. I had to share. A bagel here is the diameter of a three-month old child’s head. If I threw a bagel at you (I’ve got a sexy right lob), it would at least stun you, if it didn’t bruise. These are traditionally dense New York bagels, and –  just to put things into perspective – the equivalent of six bowls of rice, or so the rumour goes. That said, I’ve been to a number of bagel shops and can assure you that the Bagel of Massive Proportions is only found here, at Brooklyn Bagel. They sell mini bagels too, which I assume are regular-sized ones, and still about two bowls of rice I’m sure.

But these bagels pack a crunch and chew that blew my mind, and the maddeningly generous fillings almost landed me in a near-catatonic state.

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They have some of the freshest and most flavourful cream cheese spreads around – sweet, savoury, tofu spreads, flavoured butters, low-fat cream cheese, hummus, peanut butter…

Go wild. But don’t hold up the line. I don’t have any particular bagel and cream cheese combinations to recommend, but sweet bagels go with sweet cream cheese, and so on. This above is a Wholewheat Bagel with White Fish spread and Sun-dried Tomato cream cheese.

Personally, toasted bagels are the way to go, but some purists insist that if you’re in a bagel shop early enough, the freshest bagels needn’t ever be toasted. The buns stay warm enough to still give the cream cheese that semi-melty gorgeous texture.

Speaking of going early, I’ll be forthright and say that no one should ever have a bagel past noon. I’m not saying this for puritanical reasons, but for practical and scientific ones.

DSC_9829Studies have shown (actually, just one, and not even rigidly scientific at that), that a bagel’s half-life is no more than half an hour. The freshness of a bagel deteriorates exponentially from the moment it leaves the warm embrace of the oven. It is aptly coined the Heisen-Bagel Uncertainty Principle by the Serious Eats team in their search for New York’s best bagel, in which “The act of transporting a bagel to a second location produces fundamental uncertainties in its inherent qualities, such that determining a true “best bagel,” in a head-to-head face-off, becomes impossible.”

Or, in simple English, that merely means that the best tasting bagel is one in which you get up early for. I can vouch for it.

Pseudo-scientific principles aside, oddly enough, this doesn’t apply as strictly to other bread products, but I’ll hypothesize outside of this post.

Oh, and one last word of warning: Stick to two filling combinations at the very most, unless you’re willing to fork out more than USD$10 for breakfast. These are delicious, but pricey, bagels.


Address: 

286 8th Ave
(between 24th St & 25th St)
New York, NY 10001
Neighborhood: Chelsea

Hours:

Mon-Sun 7 am – 10 pm

Website: http://bkbagel.com/

New York City 2012: Absolute Bagels

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I hadn’t physically spoken to anyone in two days. Not even after settling into Morningside Heights. In fact, especially after settling into Morningside Heights. It’s quiet here in the evenings. I also have a bad throat. On a normal day – when the stars are aligned – I’m a sociable, chatty person with a wicked sense of humour (pfft), that hopefully translates into my writing.

Anyway, this morning, I popped into Absolute Bagels, joined the snaking queue that went out the door, and uttered my first words of the day: “Everything bagel, toasted, smoked salmon and cream cheese. Oh, and coffee please. With milk. No sugar.” I happened to forget that if what you’re ordering isn’t listed on the menu, it’ll probably bump up the price, and it did. Mine was apparently a Nova Bagel (price listed beside the cash register, only when you’re about to pay up), and as with all cosmic, cataclysmic explosions, my wallet got nuked with $8.50 thereabouts. I did see some stars in my vision.

Absolute Bagels is probably the cheapest and best bagel joint in the Morningside Heights borough – if you stick to the cream cheeses and tofu spreads. Those go for around $3.80. Coffee is $1.00 or so.

Most people do a quick grab and go, some buying as many as a dozen bagels at a time with a tub of cream cheese spread. Bagels over the Christmas lull perhaps? I was settled into my corner table, facing the kitchen, noticing only vaguely that the line that had spilled outside had started twisting around the store.  It moves fast, even if it never really shortens. The kitchen is a well-oiled production line, with batches of fresh bagels being hauled out of a steaming metal cauldron and into the oven every fifteen minutes or so. The total time it takes for a kitchen staff to deftly slice a bagel in two quick cuts, schlop a dollop of cream cheese on, and wrap it all up averages at one minute. I would know. I was seated there pretty long in my early morning haze.

My bagel itself was perfect, lighter and smaller than the mammoth ones at Brooklyn Bagels, crisp on the outside with a slight chew. This is, on a very fundamental level, an awesome bagel. The fillings, on the other hand, were sparse to say the least. I’ll probably get a cheaper cinnamon raisin bagel with strawberry cream cheese next time. Nova Bagel aside, the length and persistance of Absolute Bagel’s queue speaks for itself.

For now, all I can say is that the stars are aligning, and if my throat is willing, I’ll be speaking more too.

Absolute Bagels 

Address: 2788 Broadway, New York NY 10025

Dario Cecchini – The Dante-reciting, Rock-star Butcher of Italy

One step into Antica Macelleria Cecchini and I’m already gaping.

It’s all marble, oaken butcher blocks, hanging meat hooks, crackling rolls of porchetta, links of aged salami suspended over platters of Tuscan bread, mounds of creamy lardo, and – behind the glass display – a staggering amount of meat, meat, meat.

This clearly is no ordinary butcher.

This macelleria (butcher shop) awes with its idyllic Italian charm, and I remain rooted in the doorway. I don’t quite care if I’m blocking the entrance because I’m having a moment here, where I’m processing that I’m standing where the shoes of people the likes of Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Springsteen, and Jamie Oliver have tread.

I am, of course, rendered useless as I spy Dario Cecchini, famed owner of the macelleria, striding towards me. I don’t even have time to gasp.

“Vino?” he offers, a bottle in one hand already tipping the mouth towards an empty glass.

Startled, I shake my head sharply in slight panic, partly because I was aware of the time of the day (morning), and partly because I had already been acquainted with the potency of Chianti wine. “No, no. Grazie.”

“No vino?!” is the incredulous reply, Dario’s voice booming within the small confines.

I cringe, feeling curious stares turn on me, and I offer a sheepish smile in return, “No.”

His eyes dart to the bottle of water I have in my hand, “No acqua! Si, si, vino!”

And he proceeds to pour a healthy amount of deep, dark liquid into the glass, piercing blue eyes fixing firmly on me till I finally take it.

Dario smirks as I sip the heady wine in embarrassment, and I make a quick mental note-to-self to never, ever decline a proffered invitation to wine – especially from an Italian, and especially if it’s Dario.

Dario Cecchini is the 5th generation owner of the Antica Macelleria Cecchini, a butcher shop in the humble Tuscan town of Panzano. His macelleria draws droves of tourists, all clambering for a taste of his quality meats, or just to see the man himself in his culinary Mecca. He is best known for holding a ‘funeral’ for the bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine-style T-bone steak) in 2001, back during the mad cow scare when a ban was imposed on eating meat served on the bone. To serve the bistecca without its bone was sacrilege.

The name Dario goes beyond the person itself. It’s immediately clear that the bold strips of red and white paint on the shop’s façade, the bottles of olive oil and Chianti wine emblazoned with stickers of his side-profile, the jars of salts and marinades stamped with the name of his shop, are all Dario.

The man is a brand.

Standing next to me, he is decked out in a white long-sleeved shirt, with a bright red vest thrown over and a matching pair of red pants. He has a white ‘Antica Macelleria Cecchini’ apron on top of it all. In his left arm he cradles a bottle of wine in a straw basket, and it is with no small amount of amusement that I learnt that it is traditionally called a fiasco – probably attributed to the very merry-making the wine induces. I know that for a fact, because I am starting to feel a little too happy from my first sip of Chianti.

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