I first visited New York City 17 years ago, for one day. I saw Times Square, the United Nations building, stayed in a ratty hotel, ate at a TGI Friday's and had my pocket cut, my wallet and camera stolen from out of it. Until this past week, it was my only visit to the city.
My second visit was a bit more optimistic from the start: I was going as a James Beard Foundation Award nominee and with higher culinary aspirations in mind.
The James Beard Foundation Media and Book Awards dinner on Friday night wasn't exactly all I expected it would be and more -- I ran into a plate of steak with my head and was chagrined to see that Andrew Zimmern was wearing a watch that cost as much as all of the cars I've ever owned put together -- but it was still a great time with some great people. My dinner "date," Robb Walsh, won his third Beard award for a collaborative article in Garden & Gun on oysters, and although I lost, it was to a very worthy team from the Chicago Reader, whose moving acceptance speeches made my cast-iron eyes well up a bit with tears.
But for all the huffle puffle of the dinner (which is the food equivalent to the Oscars' Scientific and Technical Awards), I was more excited to get out into the big, bad city and try some food I couldn't get at home.
My favorite meal -- and one that will stick with me for years -- was at Yakitori Totto, a tiny walkup restaurant next door to (what else?) the Soup Nazi on West 55th. It seats maybe 25 people, and the dinner line starts forming at 5 p.m., as it doesn't take reservations and those seats fill up fast. All of the typical yakitori dishes were listed on the short menu -- the many chicken parts, along with items like bacon-wrapped asparagus and thinly sliced beef tongue -- as well as a short assortment of smaller dishes like spicy-sweet karaage (fried chicken) and an avocado salad with fresh chunks of raw tuna and tobiko.
At roughly $30 a person for our meal of freshly cooked chicken oysters, beef tongue, amakara age, avocado salad, nigorizake, ume shu with soda and a hearty bowl of tokusen oyako don, it refutes the notion that delicious, authentic food in New York -- that isn't from a street cart -- has to be expensive. The soft little oysters wrapped in chicken skin and only barely seasoned with salt, hot and barely greasy from the grill, will stay with me as one of the best things I've ever eaten. Ditto the unctuous beef tongue, each silky, rich bite tempered with a bright crunch of grilled white onion.
Roberta's, too, is knocking them dead across the East River in Brooklyn. And although it suffers from a painfully hip location in what is becoming "East Williamsburg" -- feel free to roll your eyes here -- the vibe is anything but pretentious. How can it be when everyone around you looks like Robert Ellis? The pizza and the composed dishes that Roberta's is turning out are honest and eager American interpretations of classic European food, classed up but not priced to match.
The simple White & Green pizza with its blistered edges and yeasty tug in the crust was far superior to any pizza being turned out in Houston on a regular basis; it was a painful truth. Even the short beer selection was a reminder that we could be elevating menus -- yes, drink menus too -- so easily, yet most restaurants don't. How much more did I enjoy my meal on Roberta's charmingly raggedy-ass patio with a mug of cloudy, golden Six Point Sehr Crisp? Exponentially more.
And yet there are areas in which Houston matches New York pound for pound. Walking down the streets and hearing eight different languages within 20 minutes? Stumbling across one ethnic eatery sandwiched between two others of completely unrelated ethnicities on a random side street which offers very little else in the way of aesthetics? Friendly faces and smiles at every turn? Houston and New York aren't always all that different.
For every freshly made, rabbi-supervised bagel like the one I enjoyed over breakfast at Milk 'N Honey in the Diamond District, there were soup dumplings just as good as I can get at home. For every tempting street cart selling halal lunches next to fresh fruit stands, there was a swanky see-and-be-seen brunch easily rivaled by Houston's own upper-crusty destinations. For every Mexican restaurant that also sells to-go sushi, Houston has pupuserías that also serve banh mi and bubble tea.
And in that regard, I have a potentially contentious theory about Houston and New York: In many ways, Houston is a flattened-out version of New York City, as if someone had taken the 23 square miles of Manhattan and smushed it with their hand until it became the vast 600-square-mile plain that is the Bayou City. A few skyscrapers escaped here and there through the giant fingers -- Williams Tower, downtown, the Medical Center -- but the spirit, energy and the joyous diversity remained along with much of the wealth (if not as much of the culture -- we don't exactly have Broadway here).
But there is still that side of New York that no city, anywhere, can ever touch. It's in places like Becco in Hell's Kitchen, where celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich has maintained a standard of quality in the restaurant's Italian cuisine that is unparalleled in Houston, and has remained so since 1993. And she's done so without any of the fuss or pomp seen at so many other celebrity setups: The wine list is dominated by excellent choices for under $25 and the sunlit "garden" inside the cellar of a simple brownstone is the perfect setting for enjoying the $18 prix-fixe lunch menu with unlimited refills on your pasta.
It just might be one of the best lunch deals in the city, but this is no Olive Garden deal we're talking about here: rigatoni under a meat sauce gently warmed by nutmeg and brightened with sweet peas or fat strands of homemade spaghetti tossed with sprightly basil leaves, huge as your palm and intensely green. It pained me to think that I couldn't eat there again the next day for lunch; there was simply too much else to see and do and taste.
Five days simply wasn't enough time in New York, not enough time to even begin to scratch the surface of the extraordinary dining scene there. But that's a given. What I hope for in the years to come is that visitors to Houston will be saying the very same thing about our city, too.