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How I Ate the Big Apple

While Washingtonians were wading through muddy water these past few days, I ate my way through New York. It was undoubtedly a soggy weekend there, but the rainfall didn't even come close to what was coming out of the sky over the Beltway. Wow, more than seven inches of rain in 24 hours!

If it makes you feel any better, I got soaked yesterday morning on my way to Bryant Park for some free Wi-Fi at the New York Public Library, but my umbrella-less self was turned away because Warren Buffet was announcing his decision to sign over some of his billions to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Sigh.

But let's skip the weather and get to the good part. My favorite thing about eating in New York is not so much the abundance of celebrity chef-studded restaurants but the constant flow of new eateries, new ideas, new ways to dine. The equation is never the same, and I love that.

For a few days, the Upper West Side was my home, which doubled as an opportunity to try neighborhood eats and drinks.

Before sitting down to eat, though, I strolled through Zabar's, one of the big city's classic food emporiums. How to describe Zabar's for the uninitiated? Imagine a wall of cheese, a counter just for smoked fish, a sea of cured meats. Should the visuals not work up an appetite (although hard to imagine), head upstairs to the cookware section - a store unto itself - with everything from basic toasters to fancy mandoline slicers.

On Saturday, I took refuge from a sudden downpour at Le Pain Quotidien, a quaint shoebox of a place on Amsterdam Avenue offering salads and sandwiches.
Belgian chef Alain Coumont, who got his start in Brussels, brought his organic bread to New York City in 1997 and now bakes rolls for heavy-hitting chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Alfred Portale. The sandwiches are open-faced, the café au lait comes in a bowl, and most of the seats are situated around a large communal table that dominates the dining room.

Sunday night's objective was a "walking-distance" dinner, so I gave neighboring Monsoon (435 Amsterdam Ave., 212-580-8686) a try. Vietnamese is the theme of this modest little dining room that is bustling with energy, and as it turns out, flavor. A few delightful surprises on the menu are the dim-sum-style selection of steamed dumplings (chive and seafood are sublime) and the vegetarian-friendly dishes worthy of carnivore attention. The grilled lemongrass tofu is outrageous!

For dessert, I walked 10 blocks to Café Mozart, an old-style European café serving up traditional sweets. Think Italian tiramisu and cannolis, Austrian linzer and sacher tortes and big hunks of mousse-y cakes.
The dining room piano gets put to use every night, by neighboring Juilliard students studying jazz or classical music. A most appropriate spot to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the birth of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Saturday night took me downtown. I started out at Hearth Restaurant, which serves up seasonal, new American fare that leans toward Italy. Chef Marco Canora has worked for big names such as Danny Meyer (Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke) and Tom Colicchio (Craft). Wines are unusual and described as "seasonal"; my extremely knowledgeable server helped paved the way for a bottle of brachetto, a lesser-known grape from Italy's Piedmont region, and took on the challenge of pairing a dessert wine to go with my tricky lime tart and papaya sorbet.

The only antidote to a soggy Monday was a hot lunch, preferably in soup or noodle form. I headed to Momofuku, a Lower East Side noodle bar garnering lots of attention for chef David Chang's (a Food and Wine "Best New Chef" of 2006) elevated, noodle-y ways. Pork fat is one of his secrets, and you can taste it in the smoked chicken, a mind-blowing rice bowl topped with a poached egg. "Simple pickles" are anything but - the plate is a delightful mixture of green beans, cucumbers, mushrooms (who would have thought?) and scallions. Seating is high-boy bar style facing the open kitchen as well as a communal style table.

I washed it all down with a Hitachino red rice ale, a Japanese microbrew with sake qualities that I'm dying to get my hands on in Washington. Anyone know where I can find it in the area? Share your thoughts in the comment area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 27, 2006; 1:23 PM ET  | Category:  Travel
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Hey, thanks for this article. I'm taking my wife to NYC for the first time in 25 years, and it's great to get tips on places to eat there. More, please!

Posted by: CT | June 27, 2006 04:46 PM

I was at Hearth on Saturday night and at Zabar's Sunday morning. Small world!

I went to Hearth at the recommendation of a colleague, and was not disappointed in the least. To start, I had the raw snapper, followed by the skate. My wife had the soft shell crab followed by the monkfish wrapped in speck. Both entrees and appetizers were delicious. For dessert, goat's milk pannacota and a chocolate tarte. The meal was great, and the service excellent. Regarding wine, the server actually pointed me towards the cheapest glass - whcih made up for the expensive martini - and it nicely complemented the fish.

Posted by: Paul from Annandale | June 28, 2006 01:50 PM

I believe you can get the Hitachino (which I also love) at Chevy Chase Liquors on Connecticut.

Posted by: Leah from DC | June 28, 2006 02:14 PM

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