Sunday, June 22, 2008

While at St John The Divine

I happened to stay at the Morningside Heights district in Manhattan while I visited NYC and my place of lodging is near the St. John The Divine, which is also one of the stops along the sightseeing routes of the tourist Citybus.

Just to share some interesting facts about St. John The Divine:

*St. John the Divine is the largest church in the U.S.A. and the largest cathedral in the world. (Not to be confused with the largest church in the world, which is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast.) Apparently, the cathedral stretches the length of two football fields.
*There's always construction going on, as the church has been a work in progress since 1892.
* In December 2001, there was a fire that destroyed part of the church, exacerbating the restoration process.
*The church has many chapels, each dedicated to a different national, ethnic, or social group. Other chapels are dedicated to contemporary issues such as sports, poetry, and AIDS.
*The Saint Savior Chapel contains a three-panel bronze altar in white-gold leaf with religious scenes by artist Keith Haring (his last sculptural piece before he succumbed to AIDS in 1990).

While you're at St. John, don't miss the gorgeous Peace Fountain and the park. This charming lil' park makes for a great picnic spot in Spring or Summer and looks especially pretty when flowers are in bloom.

And what do you pack for your picnic at the Peace Fountain Park? Not to worry. For just a couple of minutes stroll down the main thoroughfare, Amsterdam Avenue, brings you to the 24-hour Appletree mini mart. This handy convenience store is a boon with the surrounding students of Columbia University. While at Appletree, you can pick up the usual snacks, groceries and amenities. But to make your picnic complete, order a sandwich from Appletree's astounding Deli corner.

A veritable smorgasbord of sandwich offerings.
And say you're still a little peckish after the picnic, or you chucked the picnic plans 'cuz you just ain't one for sitting on grounds (Hey, it happens!), then pop over to Artopolis (unmissable with its cheery, bright yellow awning) which is just across the road from St. John and while the afternoon away with tea offerings of crepe, pastries, cookies and other sweet whatnots (baklava anyone?).

More NYC dining

For me, travel is all about experiencing the local culture - be it through enjoying the local arts, befriending the locals, understanding the social customs, partaking in festivities, to the mundane, such as traveling via mass public transport to savoring local fare. Especially the "savoring local fare" part.

For someone who stems from a nation of serious eaters, I strongly advocate that "you haven't been to a place, till you have eaten what the locals eat". Earlier, I had posted an entry on some popular local snacks. But NYC, being a gastronomic capital, has so much more beyond junk food and it wouldn't be representative of my travel experiences if I didn't include some of the fantastic restaurants I've come across there.


OK, I fess up. Basically, the above rambling preamble is just another thinly veiled excuse for me to share more of my food pictures. Ha!

Below are some of the awesome restaurants that I have tried and highly recommend to anyone looking for a great dining experience in NYC. Some of the food (mostly Japanese) shown here are not exactly indigenous NY fare, but they are pretty popular dining choices with the cosmopolitan NYC crowd. i.e. no cheesy, glitzy Times Square chain-restaurants type of tourist traps!

Peter Luger

I absolutely adore Peter Luger. The restaurant, that is.

I had dinner at its original outpost in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and I swear my dining companions and I were there, bright and early at 6 p.m. But from the looks of the crowd milling about the bar area and reception and those already seated in the dining hall, it looked as though it was eight to nine-ish on a packed weekend night.

I was there on a Tuesday.

I've read that some patrons feel that the decor and ambiance of Peter Luger can be somewhat dowdy. But I disagree as I actually adore the 'old school' vibe of Peter Luger and it seems to befit its legacy as a 100-odd years establishment. It feels like a classy grand ole dame - from its dim, traditional, wooded interiors to the bow-tied, whites and apron-decked servers.

And as a fine-dining establishment, it has none of the poseur airs of its chic, minimalist-interior counterparts and yet, none of the stuffiness of a old, established tradition, but merely retaining a disarming air and casualness about it. So you would not feel self-conscious dining in easy, casual outfits, nor would you be shy about doggy-bagging your leftovers. As a matter of fact, doggy-bagging was pretty much the practice with most diners while I was there.

Dinner kicks off to a promising start with a basket of delicious and warm selection of breads. I especially digged the onion-filled buns.

Starter: Luger's Sizzling Bacon, extra thick, by the slice. Best savored with Peter Luger's own steak house sauce.

The pièce de résistance - the steak for two. A must order. Succulent, char-broiled porterhouse steak, fit for two, or even for three if you are tiny eaters. Do it justice and have it done medium-rare. Truly brings out the carnivore in you!

As service is prided upon here, the servers will portion out the steaks and sides to you individually when they present the steaks at your table. We tried a side of creamed spinach, which is something of a novelty for me and a tad salty for my liking. But an interesting side nonetheless, I can imagine it would go superbly with bread or potatoes.

While we didn't manage to save room for desserts after going carnivore-berserk, we still managed to have a sweet ending to the meal with the generous amount of complimentary chocolate coins given at the end of the meal. Sweet!

Again, contrary to most reports, I actually experienced good service during my visit. Our server, a genial senior of eastern European descent, was friendly, polite and helpful throughout our meal. He was also undeniably honest as he actually returned to us with the excess cash after we accidentally over-tipped him by a hundred dollars! And he did not even bat an eyelid, but instead assisted cheerfully, when we asked to doggy-bag the leftover steaks and even the bread, because we enjoyed them so much. Steak sandwich, anyone?

Note of caution though. Be prepared for sticker shock when dining at Peter Luger. It was an awesome dining experience, but you really do have to be prepared to shell out for it. I suppose with some dining establishments, premium pricing begets quality dining experiences. Oh yes, reservations are a must and it's cash payment only.

Peter Luger can be sort of a destination dining if you're residing in Manhattan, as they only have two outlets - one in Brooklyn, another in Great Neck. But sometimes when you're craving for an all-out New York Steak experience, it's definitely worth the extra trip. For more information, go to

Sushi Yasuda

I've heard of NYC's impressive sushi bars, that they are of comparable standards to the best Tokyo offerings and offer fresh, authentic sushi. Being a sushi-phile, I planned for a sushi treat to fit into my sightseeing itinerary.

Sushi Yasuda, which sits on 43rd St. , near Lexington Ave, fitted in nicely as a lunch stop after my visit to view the gorgeous Chrysler Building and the Grand Central Terminal. And most of all, price-wise, Sushi Yasuda doesn't intimidate with the insane USD 350 omakase price ranges of Masa - the rarefied NY Sushi institution.

If you're a newbie at sushi, dining at Sushi Yasuda could be a nice initiation into the art of this popular Japanese cuisine. Ask for counter-seats, where you can observe and interact with the affable chefs at work and always, ALWAYS ask for the chef's recommendation. The chefs know best which seafood are the freshest catch of the day and which ones are the not-to-be-missed items.

Of course, the ideal meal would be to go entirely omakase (literally translates to "it's up to you" in Japanese, it's basically carte blanche for the chef to prepare whatever he sees fit), but pretty often, that can work up to quite a hefty bill as naturally, the chef would prepare the best and freshest, which often translates to the most expensive. So for diners on a more modest budget like mine, I recommend that after selecting some of your favorite regulars, or budgeted pieces, leave some room and leeway for at least two or three recommendations/splurge-treats.

Sushi Yasuda chefs seem to be well-informed about sushi and the ways of savoring them and they are eager to share and dispense their knowledge to appreciative diners. As a matter of fact, their website proffers a brief albeit illuminating introduction to sushi traditions.

I had the prix fixe sushi and sashimi combination which comprises of soup, salad, a variety of sashimi and choice of sushi. My advice would be to skip the sashimi and just head straight for the sushi. And if you have no aversion to shellfish and exotic seafood, just skip the common fish variety and go all out for the more interesting and absolutely delicious abalone sushi or the uni (sea urchin) and clam toppings. (as pictured below).
Absolute bliss! Remarkably, I can still recall the creamy goodness and fresh briny taste of the abalone sushi, topped delicately with a pinch of sea salt. Yum! Just thinking about it now makes me salivate. This was one sushi that made me contemplate countless times about returning to Sushi Yasuda despite it being out of way from my place of lodging. I was probably close to dreaming about it.

Sushi Yasuda can be easy to miss as it has a rather nondescript exterior and lack of signage, save for a faint and rather teeny fish print that sits atop its store. So do keep a lookout!
For more information, go to


Located in K-town (Koreatown), Todai is an All-You-Can-Eat Japanese Sushi and Seafood buffet. A terrific value-for-money dining choice to ease those hunger pangs after an intensive bout of shopping at Macy's and the 34th Street. Dinner buffet costs around the region of USD 28 before tax.

The buffet mile stretches on and on. I tried in vain to capture the entire line of buffet.

Suffice to say, the buffet variety was astounding and remarkably fresh - ranging from sashimi to sushi to yakitori to salads, to more cooked items and soups, desserts etc.

These substantial and tasty cold, steamed Alaskan crab pincers alone were reasons enough for a trip to Todai.

For more information, refer to


Located in the vicinity of Times Square Theater district, Sapporo is a good dining option for the budget conscious Broadway goer. Or an easy-on-your-pocket dining option after blowing your budget on the more popular Broadway shows. It's cheap and yet authentic.

I can personally vouch that the ramen was as good as the ones I have tried in the actual Hokkaido Sapporo's famed Ramen Yokocho itself when I was there three months prior to visiting NYC.

I relished slurping down the delicious, hearty broth and springy noodles of the Sapporo Special Ramen. The damage? A mere USD 8.50 (before tax).

Sapporo is located at
152 W 49th St, New York 10019. Between 6th & 7th Ave. For more information, go to

NY Mag

When it comes to checking out the dining scene in NYC, I highly recommend browsing New York Magazine's user friendly and highly informative website:

The website is choke-ful of useful tidbits about NYC's eateries, with information on location, website, contact details, price range, as well as a brief profile write-up, editorial reviews and reader reviews, dish recommendations and the most useful of them all - menu listing!

Absolutely brilliant, isn't it? Now you can see exactly what the restaurant is offering before you make a reservation and you can even plan your choice of dishes in advance! And best of all, with the detailed menus which also list the price of the dishes, it takes the guess work out of the usual $ to $$$$ types of price range ratings. As after all, individual preferences vary and one may well overspend or underspend the suggested price range, depending on what you order. Of course the menu feature may no doubt not be available for every, single restaurant in their listing, but as far as I've experienced, it generally never fails for most of the popular restaurants.

The website is also a great resource for getting a feel for NYC culture, as it keeps you informed about the latest on-goings in NYC with its interesting feature stories and you can also read up about other aspects such as bars, entertainment, fashion and shopping, in general. Honestly, NY Mag pretty much became my online bible while I was holidaying in NY. That, plus Google weather updates. NY during Spring can be rather unpredictable - weather-wise.

New York grub

I was on a mission to load up on classic American junk food in NYC - hot dogs, burgers, pizzas and the works.

1. Hot dogs at Papaya King

You can't miss the colorful, neon signages. This outlet at 179 East 86th Street is a convenient stopover to satisfy those middle-of-the-day hunger pangs after making your rounds at the Guggenheim museum.

I shared the King combo (USD 5.99) with a friend - 1 papaya drink, 2 hot dogs and 1 Cajun curly fries. The hot dogs came with some onion and relish toppings and I polished them off with dollops of mustard.

I did not manage to try Grey's Papaya - the other famous hot dog name, recommended by food-traveler and native New Yorker, Anthony Bourdain. But Papaya King was easily the best hot dogs I've tried in NYC so far, easily beating the long established Nathan's of Coney Island. I digged the warm toasted buns and of course, the frankfurters. And I especially enjoyed the tasty curly fries.

Papaya King has 3 outlets in Manhattan and 1 in New Jersey. See for more information.

2. Burgers

Have heard of the legendary In & Out burgers hailing from the West Coast of USA. While NYC does not have In & Out, I have read, heard and been told that the best East Coast equivalent are Shake Shack and possibly White Castle.

Truth be told I've trekked down especially to Madison Square Park twice, in futile hope of checking out Shake Shack's burgers. Alas, the queues are always crazy long and after the second visit, I realized they will probably remain crazy long, no matter the time of the day.

While I'll go to great lengths and sometimes travel the distances for food, I just can't stomach long queues. I know, it sounds silly, seeing that I've came all the way to NYC and made the trip to the park twice, but fail to try the food, simply because I dislike queues. But hey, I've got weak knees, does that explain? Well, and probably also because I made both visits solo, so it seem like quite a pain to queue for such a long time on your own. Even with Ipod fully plugged on, I think I'll still be bored out of my tears.

Perhaps I'll make a return trip on my next visit to NYC, with a companion fully in tow. If any of you reading this have the good fortune and blessed patience to have had tried Shake Shack, let me know how good it is!

Took a look at their website and realized that Shake Shack will be opening a branch (finally!) at the Upper West Side. For more information, see

3. Good old Totonno's pies

I was quite fixated on trying the classic NY, Neapolitan-inspired thin crust pizzas and had my fix at Totonno's.

My travel companions and I headed down to the original flagship shop in Coney Island, Brooklyn. It was a worthwhile trip for not only did we get to savor fresh, made-to-order pizzas, we also got to soak up the atmospheric vibe of the historical eatery, established since 1924. I really dig the dining scene in Brooklyn, where we got to dine at places with eons of history and soak up the culture and vibe. Another such place was Peter Luger's.

Totonno's does not sell pizzas by the slice since they are all made-to-order, so you gotta order a whole pie. And frankly, being superbly thin crust, a large pie could easily be polished off by a party of two or even a ravenous one!

The waitress recommended the plain pie, so we had a large half plain, half pepperoni and sausage.

Totonno's has crazy rave reviews, with some Zagat reviewers enthusing "Only God makes better pizzas"! But of course, bear in mind that Zagat is basically a compilation of laymen reviewers, like myself, who may sometimes go hyperbolic when making a case for their favorite eateries. For more information on Totonno's, see

4. Kosher bites

I figured that since I'm in New York, home to the largest Jewish population outside of Israel, what better place to finally check out Jewish food. I've been pretty intrigued with the Jewish culture and food, thanks to mention in all the Hollywood soaps, movies and reading all that New York literature and media.

I had a chance to finally sample a Pastrami on Rye and Matzah Ball soup, courtesy of Mendel's while dining at the Grand Central Terminal Food Hall.

The best I can described the Matzah ball soup, is that it tastes familiarly like Chicken soup, with the noodle strips and the chicken stock, but with an additional dough ball - the matzah ball.

As for the pastrami sandwich, while Katz's this ain't, I rather enjoyed it as I'm a big fan of beef and cured, thin beef slices with rye and a crunchy gherkin to munch on, sits fine with me.

Probably a better introduction to good kosher food may be the NY institution of Katz's Deli. Good luck tracking that down. Mazel Tov!

5. Ethnic Food at Hell's Kitchen Food Fest

The world truly congregates in New York City and what better place to sample a smorgasbord of international treats than a great fair like the Ninth Avenue Food Festival at Hell’s Kitchen. The annual fair usually takes place the weekend after Mother's Day and it stretches, and I mean stretches, all the way from 37th to 57th street! That's plenty of walking and eating to do!

The choices are wide and I was keen to check out the food offerings by the different ethnicities - Greek, Polish, Russian - the works.

In the end I settled for a Gyro - tasty but rather overpriced, I must say. With the lamb gyro and a can of Coke in hand, I secure a spot at one of the open tables and enjoyed my meal in the sun. On that particular day, it really felt as though Spring was turning into Summer, as the sun was scorching and there was not a sight of Spring's rain and I actually had burnt marks on my shoulders when I got home later!
For more information on the Ninth Avenue Food Festival, go to

6. Famous Taiwan Ah Chung vermicelli makes its way to New York

Some of the most indelible memories of my trips to Taipei were of the Taiwanese street food, notably the famous and impossibly delicious Ah-Chung Mian Xian (vermicelli). I especially relished slurping a hot, piping bowl of the vermicelli on a cool, wintry day. At the popular Ah-Chung stall in Taipei's trendy Xi Men Ting district, you order your vermicelli either to-go or you basically order a bowl and finish it on your feet, standing around the premises, as there was no seating available.

At Queens, NYC, Ah-Chung has a stall right in the heart of Flushing Mall's food court. The portions here are way bigger than Taipei's (if I recall correctly, possibly, a good two to three times more, but probably way more expensive than Taipei's too) and you get seating at the food court. In addition, the stall here also sells other typical Taiwanese dishes such as their pork-rib rice and soup dumplings.

It was a rather pleasant surprise when I found out about Ah-Chung in NYC. But apparently, Flushing in Queens has gained quite a reputation as the other Chinatown of NYC (the current more prominent one being the Canal Street area in Manhattan). But before the influx of the Chinese, this part of Queens was actually known as a "Little Taiwan" of sorts among the Taiwanese community in NYC.