NEW YORK CITY: KATZ, YASUDA, ALI & CATHY
It is not going to be much of a surprise to you, given that I have quit my real life in pursuit of it, that good food is one of the things that makes me most happy.
Today in NYC was a day that made me very happy indeed with three experiences of eating in this amazing city that were as different from each other as it is possible to get but still tapped into that well of honest food that separates good dining experiences from the rip off to which we are all becoming far too accustomed.
First up a spot of breakfast at the famous Katz Deli. There is of course, a vast menu but, there is also, of course, only one thing to order, The Pastrami sandwich.
It comes thinly sliced in between slices of non descript white bread and I topped it off with a side order of pickles which comprised “half sour” and pickled.
I did not think, after last week’s visit to Texas BBQ land that any meat could ever taste that good again. But, I have to say that the pastrami at Katz comes pretty damn close. A mound of it, with a little sweet mustard and a bite of sour pickle in between chomps, was as good a taste as I have had on the trip. A trip, in the US at least, which seems to be all about the sandwich with BBQ, Po’ Boys, Cheese Steaks, Hoagies and today’s offering
Much has been written about Katz so, there is little I can add to it but to say, it is all true. If you come to NYC and you don’t go there, then I suspect it can be said that you have not really been to NYC.
Next door (more or less) to Katz is Russ & Daughters, famous and much lauded for its selection of smoked fish. I have to admit that, despite its reputation, this was the weak note of the day and I found it particularly underwhelming. The people were kind and let me try samples of some smoked whitefish and sturgeon, but I had, from people’s rapturous discussions about it, expected a lot more. The taste of the smoked fish merely reminded me of the oily, hot fabulosity of the smoked Omul and Sig I bought in the market on the shores of Lake Baikal, which, I am afraid, has spoiled me for other smoked fish.
I needed a walk after this, before my planned lunch at Sushi Yasuda, so pottered up from the Lower East Side to 2nd Ave and 43rd in time for my 1.30pm reservation.
I had specifically requested Yasuda’s station and they had been very definite in telling me to turn up on time as they would only hold the place for five minutes. I was, as ever bang on the dot and sat in front of Yasuda as he worked his, what I can only describe as, Magic.
Before I went to Japan, I thought Yasuda was the best sushi I had ever tasted. Despite the amazing food in Tokyo and Kyoto, I am not sure I need to change my mind.
It is one of those great experiences as Yasuda’s hands move at lightening pace as he prepares piece after piece for the five or so people at his station. You cannot help but marvel at his skill, at cutting, at rolling at wrapping and at holding five different conversations at the same time.
I particularly requested Uni (sea urchin) Unagi (fresh water eel) and Onargo (salt water eel) but was also presented with fatty tuna, scallop, salmon roe and numerous others. The mundane is often the way to test a good sushi chef and Yasuda has, to now, seldom been found failing.
The quality if the fish, it goes without saying in an establishment like this, is exemplary, but it is the house preparations which raise Yasuda from the great to the sublime. Salmon Roe, for example, is marinated in a blend of soy which leads to a mouthful of popping, mildly salty, fish eggs which is hard to describe.
A small spoonful of uni, piled on top of vinegared rice was so good I had to order another piece immediately. I would say it is better than sex but my memory is not that good.
It is a testament to his preparations that only a bite of pickled ginger is needed between mouthfuls to cleanse the palate with wasabi and further soy becoming redundant.
I racked up a small bill of around $60 before heading off into the afternoon sunlight for a good long walk to prepare for what I knew was going to be a major supper.
About six years ago a friend introduced me to The Kabab Café on Steinway St in Queens.
Despite its unpromising name, it and its owner, Ali, have become amongst my favourites in the whole city. He was recently the star of an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No reservations” and finally got the recognition he deserves.
In a kitchen the size of a small soap dish, Ali, with the help of one assistant, turns out innumerable dishes for his guests all the while given vent to his opinions and knowledge of food history.
He is particularly spectacular when it comes to the preparation of offal dishes and my good friend, Cathy had planned a supper for the two of us so Ali could show off his chops, or rather his spleen, liver, hearts and bollocks.
It had been a couple of years at least since I was last there, but he greeted me like a long lost pal with a hug and a cry of “come here Indian boy” and then handed me a piece of veal brain which he had just breaded. My kind of guy.
I had forgotten just how much I liked this place and as we drank the wine Cathy brought, Ali presented about 10 dishes including roasted aubergine, roasted beets with apple, veal brains, sweetbreads, hearts and livers pureed and cooked in caul fat, tripe soup, calf’s foot stew, dumplings of tongue and heart and, best of all, some unctuous marrow bone. The calf balls were good too.
To finish, we polished off slices of custard cake, honey cake and baklava that he had made that afternoon
It is hard to describe just how good Ali’s food tastes. Although limited in the styles of preparation by the space the food is not limited in flavours. He deserves all the recognition he gets and I was delighted to see that his small place was packed, as always, to the rafters.
Often, in New York, I accuse the locals of hyperbole. Restaurants are not just “good” or even “ the best in NYC” they are “The best X restaurant in the world” even if the diners have seldom been outside the five boroughs.
In the case of these three places, everything you hear about them or will hear about them is true and, if you don’t try at least one of them on your visit to NYC then, I would dare to argue that you will not have experienced what makes this town a very special place to eat indeed.
Oh, and my friend, Cathy, an almost lifetime resident of NYC, put us on the wrong train to Astoria so we had to front up for a Yellow Cab. But, she asked me not to mention it, so I won’t. I am that kind of guy.