48 Hour Eating, Theatre-Going and Rainy New York Visit Inspires Epic – okay, longish – Blog Post

The food: 5 meals in 48 hours

The story:

My husband E and I touched down in New York last week for a 48 hour rain-soaked visit, and immediately started eating. Our first meal was a late lunch at Chinatown Brasserie which I’d heard had excellent dim sum. That doesn’t explain why I ordered a prix fixe lunch that was not dim-sum-centric (I’ll blame the stresses of travel and the relentless rain for my faulty decision-making) but look at the pretty appetizer selection of dim sum that I did get, one each of a Curry Black Bass Avocado Tart (especially good), a Vegetable Spring Roll, a Shrimp, Corn & Chinese Chive Dumpling and a Shrimp & Snow Pea Leaf Dumpling.

While we waited – and waited – for our rather blah and P.F. Chang-ish main courses, E engaged the waiter in conversation about the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode (#78 – Car Periscope) filmed at Chinatown Brasserie that had recently aired (not the reason we went there). The waiter said he’d missed the Curb filming day but hey, Meg Ryan had just left the restaurant a few minutes before we arrived.

We stewed on this info tidbit – would we have wanted to see Meg Ryan? – until E’s Steamed Sea Bass with Broccoli & Black Beans (tasty and fresh-seeming) and my General Tso’s chicken (not so good – the chicken had an alarming artificial texture and shape to it) arrived with laughably small bowls of rice.

Our next stop was the TKTS line at the puddle-strewn South Street Seaport to buy next day matinee tickets for Follies. While waiting, E engaged in conversation with another stranger(!).

That night, we saw The Book of Mormon, which I thought was clever, funny and lively. I liked the religion mocking jokes, squirmed a little at the baby raping and clitoral mutilation jokes (I wish I was kidding), and wished for more unironic dancing. But I liked this song a lot, particularly starting at the 2:03 second mark of the vid:

After the show, we took our sodden selves to the Shake Shack on 8th Avenue, lined up briefly in the rain to get in, sat at a crowded communal table, soothed ourselves with burgers and fries, and talked to no one.

My all-time favorite burger: the Shack Burger from Shake Shack, with awesome SS fries

Day 2: Still raining. We visited the Met in the morning (where the roof was closed due to rain, grr) and saw Nora Ephon getting out of a cab on our way to the subway. E suggested I approach and tell her I’d reviewed her book “I Feel Bad About My Neck” in the Globe & Mail. I made my alarmed not-on-your-life face and pulled him away quickly.

We went to Torrisi Italian Specialties for an early lunch, and the sides on display looked so good we over-ordered: we had corn salad, fresh ricotta with olive oil and thyme, and fried cauliflower with our reliably flavourful eggplant parm and egg and potato sandwiches:

Spotted in the small house when we were there: Chef/owner Rich Torrisi taking a meeting at a corner table. Woo! We did not say hello.

That afternoon, we sat in our very good half-price seats, with a predominantly white-haired crowd, to see the new revival of Follies. Mixed in with what I thought were some rather tiresome scenes depicting marriage-related angst were a slew of wonderfully performed (with unironic dancing!) and often tear-inducing songs (gotta download that score), including the exuberant Who’s That Woman, an excerpt of which can be seen here (with tap dancing, yay):

After the show, we made our way through the incessant rain to Ippudo for a comforting and delectable bowl of ramen with a side of rice (yes, we were carb loading) and fried chicken.

The next morning, the rain began to let up just as we headed downtown to Locanda Verde for more comforting and reliably delicious food: a late breakfast of uova modenese (I can’t get enough of the cotechino hash and tomato hollandaise) for me, and a zucchini frittata for E:

No luminaries were on hand at Locanda Verde during our visit, though Beyonce and Jay-Z ate there three days later. When it wasn’t fucking well raining.

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Torrisi and the Tonys

The food: Egg, potato and pepper sandwich

The story:

Before going to Torrisi Italian Specialties in Nolita, I didn’t know pepper (as in sweet green or red) and egg sandwiches were a traditional Italian-American food, especially in Chicago apparently, and especially featured around Easter time.

I had heard that the potato, egg and provolone sandwich (with peppers) served at lunch at Torrisi was a sandwich worth going out of one’s way for while in New York. And that the lunchtime Torrisi, an ultra-casual, busy hangout that serves upscale versions of Italian-American sandwiches and antipasti, morphs at night into a much lauded restaurant that serves a prix-fixe-only, no-reservations, changes-daily menu for dinner.

E and I timed our visit to Torrisi perfectly, and got our order in around 11:45 am, before the lineup extended out the door onto the street, and when we could still grab a table. We ordered potato and egg on a roll for me, eggplant parm on a hero for E, and three small antipasti plates to share: cauliflower with breadcrumbs, rapini with chilies, and asparagus with cheese.

Everything we ate was very good and deserving of the high end descriptor. Of the antipasti, I liked the crisp, cheesy and lemony asparagus best, with the sweet browned cauliflower coming in at a close second. But it was the delicious mixture of flavours in the potato, egg, cheese and peppers sandwich that lingered in my food memory and inspired me to try to recreate it when I came home to Toronto.

Torrisi Italian Specialties on Urbanspoon

After some trial and error – and substitution of an aged white cheddar for the too bland Provolone I used the first time I tried making this – I came up with a recipe for the sandwich that tastes almost as good as the Torrisi original.

Egg, Potato, Pepper and Cheese Sandwiches, Hungry Novelist style

4 large eggs, beaten with a splash of milk
2 good-sized Yukon Gold potatoes, cut in 1/2 inch cubes and parboiled until tender but not falling apart
2 roasted red peppers, seeded and cut in strips
1/4 to 1/2 cup grated aged white cheddar
Chalah rolls or slices of chalah bread
Butter for bread
Extra virgin olive oil for frying potatoes

1. Fry parboiled cubed potatoes in large skillet over medium high heat in 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil until browned on all sides. Remove to side plate.
2. Put bread in toaster or split rolls and toast in toaster oven or under broiler.
3. Pour egg mixture into skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring gently to scramble eggs, but keeping the curds large and soft. Just before cooking is complete, stir in peppers, potatoes and grated cheese. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Turn off stove element and allow residual heat in skillet to finish cooking the eggs and melt the cheese while you butter the toast. Pile egg mixture onto hot buttered toast and consume immediately.

Makes 3 sandwiches.

Also worth going out of one’s way for in New York are the current crop of musicals on Broadway that have been nominated for the Tony Awards, which will be given out this Sunday, June 12. Here’s a taste of Catch Me If You Can, a show that I quite enjoyed for its newness, Rat Pack era sensibility, tuneful score, real live Broadway dancers doing lots of actual Broadway style dancing, the cute and talented Aaron Tveit, and especially for this show-stopping number featuring Broadway live wire and Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz:

Think pink

The food: cupcakes

The story:

I was, ahem, in the pink this week, because I got to attend the opening night performance of the touring production of Legally Blonde, the Musical, currently playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.

I saw the original cast on Broadway, including standout Laura Bell Bundy as Elle Woods, and very much enjoyed the show – it had great production values, high energy, and songs that were both tuneful and funny, thanks to the clever, self-parodic lyrics. And the touring production, which features several original cast members, is definitely of Broadway calibre, my only quibble being that the charmingly spunky Becky Gulsvig, who plays Elle, and sings in a voice pleasantly reminiscent of Kristin Chenoweth’s, is not as accomplished a dancer as Bundy is.

The book retains the movie’s more dubious plot points (I could do without everything about the “bend and snap”) but you gotta love a show that opens with the catchy and nuttily but entertainingly long number “Omigod you guys” – a song sequence that introduces half the cast, sets the story in high-speed motion, and includes a talking dog.

Best of all, the show features dancing, lots of it, wittily choreographed (check the different styles of dance the male chorines pull off – with grace, charm and comedic chops – including ersatz reggae and hip-hop, ballet, cheerleading and fitness class routines) and performed by great dancers with killer bodies.

In the spirit of Elle Woods, I wore something pink to the opening (as did many others in the audience) and felt compelled to buy pink food the next day, specifically a Pretty N’ Pink cupcake (made of chocolate cake with raspberry buttercream) from The Cupcake Shoppe, pictured above, and a Strawberries N’ Cream one (vanilla cake with vanilla and strawberry swirled buttercream), shown below.

I like my cupcakes chilled, cut into bite-sized pieces, and eaten with a fork. And I like my musical comedies a lot like Legally Blonde, The Musical – funny, dancey, featuring catchy music and clever lyrics, and performed by a large, talented cast on a big stage with nifty sets and pretty costumes.

Mirvish Productions presents Legally Blonde, the Musical, until August 8, 2010, at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.

Dites-Moi Pourquoi

The food: fresh, seasonal fare in NYC

The story:

During a recent spring visit to New York, E and I ate a refreshing artichoke, caper, Reggiano and arugula salad (above) and a couldn’t-be-more-spring-like pizza (below) featuring ramp pesto and roasted ramps at Co. (It was beautiful, and made with the chewy, tangy Co. crust I love, but it was ultimately too oniony for my palate.)

At Market Table, a bright, airy new-to-us West Village restaurant specializing in seasonal food,

we tried the crunchy fried calamari over guacamole and wished for more guacamole,

enjoyed the classic blue cheese/avocado/bacon combination of flavours in a Cobb salad:

and liked how the Cobb’s richness contrasted with the chunky, zucchini-laced, piquantly flavoured falafel plate:

Between spring-inspired meals, E and I caught a performance of South Pacific at Lincoln Center, a show I’ve had antipathic feelings about since I was a child in the 1960’s, when my mother, in her first and last act of stage motherism, encouraged me to audition for the touring production playing in Toronto.

I learned the simple opening song “Dites-Moi, Pourquoi” with my mother’s coaching, but, paralyzed by stage fright, and also, I think, by a reluctance to play onstage a part for which I was, perhaps, too uniquely qualified, I wept and wailed, refused to go try out, and have avoided the show ever since.

My personal history with the show aside, the Lincoln Center production of South Pacific is beautifully staged and engagingly played by its current cast, and comes across as somewhat forward, for its time, in its treatment of racism, though its claims of progressiveness become a little difficult to swallow whenever the sailors speak longingly of killing some “Japs,” and when you consider that the fate meted out to Lieutenant Cable, the one Caucasian man in the play who falls in love with an Asian woman, is death.

Good show otherwise, though. (!)

Matthew Morrison of current Glee fame played Cable when the Lincoln Center production opened in 2008, and thanks to the interwebs, his lovely rendition of the tuneful, seasonally apropos but morally questionable – how old is the girl being sung about, exactly? – song Younger Than Springtime – lives on:

Buttery Cheese Straws

The food: Darina’s cheese straws

The story:

Before I became a writer, I worked for several years in a corporate type office. One of my friends and coworkers there was a woman named Darina, who had emigrated to Canada from the then-named Czechoslovakia at an early age, and brought with her family customs and recipes for special and ordinary occasions. Committed as I was and am to discovering other people’s precious (and sometimes secret) family food delicacies, I encouraged her to bring into work for sharing anything she thought I might like to eat.

She came through with the delicious, rich and addictive cheese straws that she made every year around Christmastime. She brought me some every December for years, and recited the deceptively simple recipe for them from memory when I asked for it. 19 years have passed since I left the corporate life, but I still make Darina’s cheese straws regularly, often after E expresses a craving for a batch, and I still use the scribbled notes I took down the day she gave me the recipe. I use low fat pressed cottage cheese to make them, so the high butter content must be what makes them so rich – maybe they should be called Cheesy Butter Straws instead.

Cheesy Buttery Caraway Cheese Straws (thanks to Darina Phillips)

1/2 lb/250 gr. sweet butter, preferably European style cultured butter, softened
1/2 lb./250 gr. pressed cottage cheese (I used .5% butterfat) such as from Western Creamery in Ontario
1 egg, beaten
2 c. unbleached flour
coarse kosher salt, about 2 T.
paprika for sprinkling
caraway seeds, about 4 T.

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lay parchment paper on cookie sheet(s).
2. Combine butter, cream cheese, egg and flour in large food processor. Pulse just until a large ball of soft dough forms.
2. Cut dough in half. On floured board, roll out half of dough to a 1/4 inch thickness. (Rolled out dough should be about 11 inches square). Sprinkle rolled dough with half of kosher salt, paprika and caraway seeds and press salt and seeds into dough with hands.
3. Cut into 1/2 inch by 5-6 inch strips, and roll each strip with hands to make cylindrical straws rather than flat ones. Place straws on parchment paper covered cookie sheet, about a 1/2 inch apart.

4. Bake in 325 degree oven for 12 minutes. Remove straws from oven, turn – they should be lightly browned on the bottom – and return to oven for 2-3 minutes more.

5. Remove from oven, and let cool on cookie sheet. Repeat steps with second half of dough or refrigerate dough in plastic wrap for a day and do the rolling, sprinkling, cutting, hand-rolling and baking then.

6. Straws are best eaten warm, and can be reheated for 5 minutes in a toaster oven or regular oven. They can also be frozen for later defrosting and reheating.

Yield: 50

Also cheesy and good is the song The Best of Times, from the musical La Cage Aux Folles. I missed the original Broadway production of the show in the 1980’s, but when I caught the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre revival of it in London’s West End last fall, featuring a golden-throated John Barrowman, I fell in love with the charming score. The show is being transferred (back?) to Broadway this spring, with Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge in the lead roles. To whet your appetite for it, here is The Best of Times, sung winningly by John Barrowman and Broadway stars Faith Prince and Marin Mazzie at a tribute to composer Jerry Herman.

Simple Pleasures

The food: Dundas Street West sandwiches

A BLT at Musa

A BLT at Musa

The story:

On a quick trip to New York last week, I caught a preview performance of Roundabout Theater’s production of The Tin Pan Alley Rag, a new musical about the lives and music of Irving Berlin and Scott Joplin.

A good, not great, show

The show did not elicit from me a single joyous musical theatre tear (a mark of excellence in my personal rating system), and I thought the way the book dwelled on the early deaths of both composers’ young wives (used to demonstrate what the two had in common other than being cultural outsiders who were musical genii) was pretty maudlin.

But what a great score! The songs and music were wonderful, I found the scenes when the composer characters talked (all too briefly) about how they wrote their music fascinating, and I loved hearing the two leads (a charming and sweet-voiced Michael Therriault and a rather stiff Michael Boatman) sing Irving Berlin’s Play A Simple Melody – a delightful tune in counterpoint from 1914(!), which was, for me, the highlight of the show.

Also simple, and a recent eating-out highlight, was “the sandwich” – containing a fried egg, bacon, tomato and cheddar cheese – that I ate at Musa, a restaurant on Dundas Street West in Toronto. We had intended that day to try the oft-hyped Saving Grace nearby, but, discouraged by the large number of people lined up outside Saving Grace, in the rain, we went to the larger Musa instead.

The thrift shop décor (and recycled tacky coffee mugs) at Musa gave us pause, but the golden challah was warm and well-toasted, the fried egg cooked just right, and the combined ingredients of the sandwich altogether satisfying.

"the sandwich"

Soon after, we returned to Dundas West to try Saving Grace on a weekday, and again found a lineup outside, though empty tables, also of the thrift shop variety, could be seen within the bright but rundown interior. (The sole overworked waitress seemed to be having trouble keeping up with her triple roles of hostess, waitress, and busgirl.) The weather was fine, so we waited this time, were seated after about 10 minutes, and ordered sandwiches warm and cold from a menu that listed them alongside breakfast foods and a few lunch items.

We tried the corncakes, which I thought had a rather industrial shape and texture, though E found them tasty, flecked as they were with coriander and green onions.

Corncakes

Corncakes

Our sandwiches, in contrast, looked very home-cooked (and a little sloppy). My cold sandwich – an old cheddar, avocado, tomato combo on what was billed as toasted whole wheat raisin bread with rosemary mayonnaise – sounds better than it tasted, which was ordinary: my perfect home office lunch sandwich on Epi fruit and nut bread is way better, partly due to the superiority of the Epi bread.

Does this look toasted to you? Yeah, me either.

Does this look toasted to you? Yeah, me either.

E’s hot sandwich, listed on the menu as “brie pear walnuts honey on open baguette,” was also not as good as the brie and walnuts sandwich he sometimes makes at home on a superlative baguette from Thobor Boulangerie Patisserie Café.

Green-skinned pears would make a better presentation, IMO.

Green-skinned pears would make a better presentation, IMO.

So the next time I want a simple, satisfying brunchy sandwich near Dundas and Bathurst, I’ll return to Musa. And the next time I want to clear a lovely melody, I’ll listen to an Irving Berlin song, or to one of Scott Joplin’s wonderful piano rags, like my current favorite, Sugar Cane:

Musa on Urbanspoon

Saving Grace on Urbanspoon