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May 20, 2010 at 7:46 AM

Old Hunger, redux: East Coast foodfest 2010

Yesterday on KPLU’s Food for Thought, I regaled Stein with tales of some of the great things I ate on my recent trip back East. Which, believe me, was a lot more fun than the trip I took in my garden on Mother’s Day: the one that landed me in the emergency room with a thrashed ankle and torn ligaments, unexpectedly extending my vacation by a week.

So, you know how everyone always says, “You can’t get good Jewish deli-food around here” — I Love New York Deli notwithstanding? They’re right. Which is why I cried tears of joy when my sister took me to a place called Pumpernick’s, outside Philadelphia. There, I ordered a hot pastrami sandwich with coleslaw and Russian dressing. But first I strolled over to the complimentary pickle bar (pickle bar! pickle bar!), to help myself to all the half-sours and pickled green tomatoes I wanted.

I’m cryin’ here — with joy!

I had a nice yak-session with our waitress, explaining why I was so happy to be there, given that I’m from the Other Coast — where they don’t have the kind of delis I grew up with. Nor other “Old Hunger” specialties like fat Philadelphia soft pretzels, water ice and cheesesteaks. “Yeah, I lived in California once, for about three months,” she told me. “And when they put guacamole on my cheesesteak, I knew it was time to go home.”

“Yo! 86 the guacamole on my cheesesteak, pal, and pass the Tastykake!”

Amazingly enough, I managed to spend an entire week in and around Philly and South Jersey without eating a single cheesesteak. But I did down a memorable classic Italian hoagie at The Produce Place in North Cape May, which does a brisk business in sliced deli-meats and sandwiches. It was more than a foot long, filled with coppa, prosciutto, imported provolone, lettuce, onion, oregano, a shot of olive oil and a mix of hot and sweet cherry-peppers (my call). And did I mention it only cost $6. Take that, Subway!

You call them submarine sandwiches. We call them hoagies.

One of the things that sets a “real” cheesesteak or hoagie apart from a wannabe is the roll it’s laid out on. And one of the things that drives me nuts about living here is you can’t get readily get your hands on good Italian rolls — the kind that have a bit of pull and don’t taste like cotton. Oh, don’t give me that “You should go to Remo Borracchini’s” business, because as they say in Cape May: “T’ain’t!”

I miss these, bad. Though the Vietnamese rolls found at places like Seattle Deli are a great stand-in.

While I was “down the shore” as it’s known in the local dialect, I also knocked back some great seafood: cherrystone clams on the half-shell, as precursor to a jam-packed lobster roll that had at least two tail’s-worth of meat on it (for $13.99!) And no, they didn’t know what I do for a living.

What? You’ve never eaten raw clams? They’re (almost) better than oysters. The lobster roll was the day’s special.

I usually eat my fill of shellfish at The Lobster House — a Cape May landmark and the only job I ever got fired from, don’t get me started. But the clams and lobster in the above photos were eaten at the Ugly Mug, the first place I ever sipped a legal drink.

One of the many things I loved about the Mug now, and then, is that it takes its name from the beer mugs hanging on the ceiling, imprinted with the names of members of the bar’s own drinking club. And when those members have their last sip on Earth and pass on to that big beer hall in the sky, the mouth of the mug is turned to face the Atlantic, just a couple blocks away. Do you love that, or what?

My first legal drink here at the Mug was a Sloe Gin Fizz — so help me God.

Next, it was on to the center of the dining universe, New York City. There I ate a whole lot of really fancy food at places like Marea — which just won a James Beard Award for “Best New Restaurant” in the nation. And speaking of Beard “Bests,” if you find yourself in Philadelphia, check out Zahav, whose chef, Michael Solomonov, was up for a regional “Best Chef” award.

Lobster at Marea, where I had lunch at a table next to Toni Morrison and Fran Lebowitz (only in New York, right?). At Zahav, do order the house speciatly: salatim and hummus with house-baked laffa.

It seemed like every restaurant in New York was serving burrata. Not that I was complaining. I adore the stuff — seen here alongside fire-roasted garlic chicken for two at Locanda Verde in Tribeca, another “Best New Restaurant” nominee , and a place I insist you’ve got-to-go on the NYC hotspot-circuit. (NY-celeb-sighting No. 2: “You just missed Steven Spielberg!” said the film fest-goer at the next table, as I oohed and ahhed over her roast chicken.)

Burrata with eggplant Calabrese and garlic-roasted chicken-for-two, at Locanda Verde.

There was plenty of fancy-pants fare at the James Beard Awards gala at Lincoln Center, and after rushing back to my hotel to post the news of the local winners and losers, I came back to get a bite to eat. After all: I was on vacation!

Beard bites: Bacon soup! Morteau sausage with lentils! Uni with basil tofu!

And come on: Do you really think I’d leave town and not check out a great sushi bar? You know me better than that. This time I went to Sushi Yasuda for omakase. I have to work an extra two days just to pay for that meal, but I’ve got to tell you: the quality of the seafood was extraordinary.

Critics from East Coast to West love Sushi Yasuda — where I went crazy over the bright colored scallop roe sashimi seen behind the shimmery fresh clam at right.

If there’s a single corner in NYC near and dear to my heart, it’s the one on the Upper West Side: at Broadway and W. 80th. Look right and you’ll find Zabar’s. Look left and there’s H&H Bagels.

Cornering the market on the foods I love: at Broadway and W. 80th.

And if there’s a New York restaurant that I never fail to spend some time — and dime — in, it’s Barney Greengrass. Where they never fail to ask, “You sure you want the salty lox?” And I away say, “Bring it on, buddy!”

Salty (aka “belly” lox), and a nice schmaltzy piece of kippered salmon at Barney Greengrass. You want a knish to go? They’ve got those, too: great for the plane ride home.

I was home in time to spend Mother’s Day with my family. Nate brought me breakfast in bed, arriving first with a tray. On it was a mug of coffee, another of tea, a piece of chocolate and several empty juice glasses. Puzzled, I asked: “What’s this?” He looked at me, straight-faced and said: “It’s your first course: Coffee and tea and the java and me, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup.” Ah, breakfast in bed, courtesy of the kid, proving once again that there’s truth to the old adage, there’s no place like home . . .

. . . until you klutz-out and end up with a big ugly boot and a pair of crutches. Of course it could be worse: I lived to get to the James Taylor/Carole King concert that night (with a wheelchair escort — thanks KeyArena-folks!), and I’ve still got my “driving foot” free.

When you’re down, and troubled, and you neeeeeed a helping hand.

So, tell me this: Have you been to any great NYC restaurants lately? Where’d you go, and what did you eat? And what foods do you head straight for when you’re back in your old stomping-grounds — where ever that may be?

Comments | More in | Topics: Get out of town!


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