My beloved’s birthday falls on Christmas. This always presents a bit of a problem, as we try to find the right celebration balance. We want neither to neglect the man nor indulge to the point of wretched excess (ok, maybe the latter once in a while). This year, it’s a notable birthday (the one that’s not forty and not sixty, but somewhere in between), so I decided to separate the celebrations and make a fuss, and arrange a weekend in New York to mark the occasion. My planning was all about where we would eat. Not least of the many ways in which John is my partner is enthusiastic approach to a good meal.
With the children safely stashed (Naomi with her Mom; Nick with my sister in Westchester county — where he was stuffed with fig newtons and learned to say “Santa”), we made our way into the city on Saturday morning, dropped the bags at our midtown hotel and began a long walk uptown to Eli Zabar’s Vinegar Factory and the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial.
I had read a lot about the activities of the Zabar brothers, and I was looking forward to both the store and the restaurant. Somewhere along the line I had seen The Vinegar Factory desribed as a “playground for anyone who cares about food.” The store was nice– lots of good stuff to buy in a great industrial loft type setting, but for this Ann Arbor girl it was a little underwhelming. It seemed like a big Produce Station or Coleman’s with some really excellent smoked fish thrown in. I’m surprised to be writing this because I think one of the great draws of New York is it’s amazing gastronomic depth and breadth. The thing is though, that what makes The Vinegar Factory special for New Yorkers is that it’s BIG. Big enough to have a lot of display room and variety. And the one thing we have in the Midwest is lots of Big. So room for veritable pyramids of olive oil is no novelty for me. Instead, I’m drawn to the tiny cake shops and spice stores and chocolatiers that pop up in the middle of Manhattan blocks.
The restaurant was another story, although I was surprised, there too, to immediately have an Ann Arbor point of reference. In service and food, it occupies a place somewhere between Zingerman’s Deli and Zingerman’s Roadhouse. But again, New York-ed up in a loft sort of way — which I like very much — all wide plank floors, exposed brick walls and ceilings that recede into the upper reaches of the heavens. Like Zingerman’s it was a lot of money for some really good simple food. A lot of money? Hell, I don’t know; in New York it’s really hard to judge after a few hours.
At The Vinegar Factory, “everything comes with Eli’s bread” and a very good bread it was too, in perhaps five varieties, ranging from fruity and sweet to wholesome and hearty. I had a Gruyere omelet cooked just right, with crispy home-fries on the side. I remarked to John that there were no wimpy undercooked mid-Western home-fries here, and to myself that I was glad I hadn’t ordered them well-done, which has become my standard method of getting some crispiness here in the land that loves soft fried potatoes. John had the smoked seafood platter, which was deceptively simple. Just some salmon, sturgeon and sable (say that three times fast) on a plate with a little red onion, tomato and capers. Boy was that fish good. Very cleanly and lightly smoked, tasting just the right amount fish and the right amount smoke, which means not tasting very much of either one, but at the same time, ineffably, of both. There was fresh-squeezed juice (grapefruit and carrot) and at the end little, dark, pungent espressos, with, praise be, the little lemon peel (so sadly abandoned in most coffee shops) on the side (this last after John hunted down the sweet, slack-jawed sixteen year old waiter who really didn’t seem to quite get the notion of service meaning he should show up at our table once in a while).
Fortified, we left the table for another turn around the store, particularly admiring the selection of brined and pickled and marinated things, and then walked the few blocks to the Musuem where we spent an hour or more looking at endlessly clever and elegant contemporary design objects ranging from surfboards to haute-couture to (my particular favorite) feral robotic dogs. Then we ate a Dean and Deluca blondie and got on the subway and went back to the hotel to compose ourselves for the main meal event . . .