NYC… or how I ate the Lower East Side

This weekend, I dined at Del Posto, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Michelin-rated Italian restaurant in Chelsea. This is not about that luxurious feast.

This is about my head first dive into the Lower East Side — starting with a donut run (natch!).

Doughnut Plant on Grand Street is taking these little deep-fried delights to new heights with flavors like these that we sampled: panettone (a holiday concoction studded with candied orange), the seasonal cranberry glazed, and the ever popular creme brûlée, which somehow perfectly captures the flavors and textures of that dessert.


The BLACKOUT — a chocolate cake doughnut… filled with chocolate pudding… dipped in chocolate glaze… and sprinkled with chocolate cake crumbs.

Next up was one of my favorite spots in the city, Cafe Habana in NoLita. Despite the name, and the presence of a mighty fine Cubano sandwich, this little diner is best known for serving the best Mexican street corn north of the Rio Grande. (It’s nearly impossible to visit without ordering a side of it.) This weekend, it was time to try another Mexican classic: huevos rancheros. There’s something iconic about breaking the silky egg yolk into the runny red salsa — no?


Huevos rancheros and cafe con leche

With first and second breakfast out of the way, it was time to move onto first and second lunch. Xi’an Famous Foods is a tiny noodle shop with several locations in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. I found one on St. Mark’s Place and promptly ordered the spicy cumin lamb noodles. The cuisine in Xi’an, which I visited briefly in 2003, blends central Asian and Middle East influences thanks to the city’s historic location as the starting point of the Silk Road. The noodles were heavy on chili oil, which had turned crimson thanks to copious amounts of cumin.


Spicy cumin lamb noodles with chrysanthemum tea

A block away is arguably the best hot dog in New York City (though I admit to also being partial to the simplicity of Gray’s Papaya). My “go to” at Crif Dogs — which I can say with a straight face because it was my second visit — is the Jon Jon Deragon. It’s topped with a schmear of cream cheese, scallions, and all the seeds from an everything bagel. Pure genius. Oh yeah, and when the gal behind the counter asks if you want bacon and hot sauce on it, you man up and say “duh.”


That’s a dog with cream cheese, scallions, everything bagel seeds, bacon, and hot sauce. The Dale’s was a perfect pairing.

Ok, so it was quite a day, and I concluded it by drinking herbal tea and eating dried cherries as I dreaded the workout I’d have to do the next day (and the next day after that).

But before I wrap up, there’s one more LES stop that bears mentioning: a superb Friday night dinner at Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton’s teeny tiny restaurant in the East Village (seriously, I counted 22 seats, though my math skills may have been off after a couple of bottles of Bordeaux). Chef Hamilton loves to feature off cuts, and few do it better. The sweetbreads with bacon and capers were divine, the roasted bone marrow was rich yet subtle, but the dish that stood out for me was the monkfish liver (which Peter ordered with a simple “yeah, I’m gonna need that”). Lots of great eats this weekend — but none better than Prune.


Snacking on radishes with fresh butter and sea salt at the Prune bar, drinking an Italian greyhound.

Charleston, SC: the nitty gritty

Charleston, South Carolina is my kinda town. Dating back to 1670, it’s quintessentially southern, gentle and welcoming, and oozing with rich history, great architecture and its own brand of low country cuisine. Yet so many years after it became one of North America’s earliest settlements, and long since the end of the Antebellum era and the plantations that dotted the countryside (bringing with them great wealth — and the slaves on which it was built), Charleston remains a vibrant city and university town, home to the well-dressed cadets of the Citadel and the decidedly less so undergrads of the College of Charleston.


Now I must confess something up front. Some poor planning on my part kept me out of Husk and Fig, two of Charleston’s premier dining establishments. A bit of a disappointment, for sure, but also an excuse to go back. But lest you think we starved for two whole days, perish that thought right now.

Our first stop in Charleston was SNOB — that’s Slightly North of Broad, as in Broad Street, for the unindoctrinated. And what better way to kick things off than some pimento cheese, the “caviar of the South,” followed by shrimp and grits. This classic South Carolinian dish achieves much of its richness from a healthy double dose of sausage and country ham, which are sautéed with fresh shrimp and  poured over perfectly creamy yellow grits. Well meaning people can (and do!) disagree on proper shrimp and grits and SNOB’s may not be completely traditional, but they were completely delicious and a perfect introduction to this southern city and its unique kitchen.


Now, I never thought a donut shop would make my list, but I’m a man who believes that first and second breakfast are two of the most important meals of the day. And on my final morning, serendipity would bring me to Glazed. A word to the wise: get here early! My friends Meredith and Amy would arrive at 11… only to find it sold out! I got there a tad earlier and, while tempted by some unconventional flavors like maple bacon and yogurt parfait, opted for the simplicity of raspberry glaze.


The donut was light and fluffy and the glaze was bursting with fresh raspberries. For a moment, I almost thought it was health food. Which is more than I can say for…

…second breakfast! That came in the form of a “Big Nasty Biscuit” from Hominy Grill, an establishment popular with locals and tourists alike. Perfectly fried chicken, topped with a rich sausage gravy and cheddar cheese, sandwiched between a freshly baked biscuit. After finishing my last bite, I knew it was time to go home.


Charleston, I’ll be back soon!