Best Of :: Food
In a recent interview, Larry King asked food luminary Tom Colicchio which current chef he would want to trade places with. His response? Twenty-five-year-old Liz Johnson of MIMI. And while his answer mostly hinged on wishing to be young again, he wasn't wrong in asserting that she has the whole world in front of her. That could be because Johnson, who started cooking at fifteen, made a name for herself largely through word of mouth about the prowess of her old-school-meets-new-school approach to French cuisine. Gifted in her ability to coax nuance from decadence, she's obsessive about sourcing and writes her daily-changing menu by hand. Helming the stoves with assistance from her fiancé, Will Aghajanian, she turns cod sperm into impeccably light fritto misto and lards puff pastry with escargot, sweetbreads, and ramps for vol-au-vent. Quiet and poised, she saves the theatrics for the plate — regulars flock to MIMI's snug dining room for her excellent roast chicken (available nightly), though the most riveting avian pyrotechnics belong to the whole roasted duck. The charmingly dramatic presentation involves Johnson emerging from the Greenwich Village bistro's tiny subterranean kitchen to set the bird — its head still attached and wearing an orange-peel collar — ablaze with Grand Marnier. Zachary Feldman
185 Sullivan Street, Manhattan
When Holly MacGibbon and Andy Simmons opened Birdy's (1215 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, facebook.com/birdysbushwick), their bar near the Myrtle-Broadway J/M/Z stop, they were looking to create the kind of atmosphere they sought in their own favorite hangouts. As it just so happens, their tastes are that of your quirky uncle who came of age in the Seventies and never really grew up.
MacGibbon and Simmons have spent years working in north Brooklyn drinking establishments and can often be found behind the Birdy's bar, shaking up $7 singapore slings and serving cheap beer-and-shot specials. Like much of their clientele, they also play in a band — postpunk outfit Weeknight — and have toured dives from coast to coast. "We wanted this place to be what bars in New York used to be," says Simmons. "It's classic New York."
With wood-paneled interior, free foosball, a photo booth, and four well-maintained pinball machines, not to mention kitschy flea-market décor that pays tribute to Elvis and Kiss, they've hit the nostalgia nail on the head. The pièce de résistance is a giant painting of galloping horses that shimmers with color-changing LED lights. It's MacGibbon's favorite bit of ephemera in the bar: "It's hard to not love the horses the most," she says.
In just over a year, MacGibbon and Simmons have fostered a familial atmosphere, greeting the regulars hunched beneath stained-glass lighting fixtures by name, offering up jerky, dub pies, and complimentary party mix. "You talk with people; you establish relationships," says Simmons. "The people that come here are everything. This place is as much theirs as it is ours, really."
Still, the duo's personality shines from every corner — and blasts from the speakers. When Birdy's isn't hosting live DJs, the sound system is pumping Gun Club, Joy Division, and Richard Hell. MacGibbon curates the space's soundtrack, sparked by input from customers and employees. "Someone will say we could use a funk playlist or early-disco playlist, or whatever," she explains. "Then I just start digging and digging and digging."
And though Birdy's is decidedly not a sports bar, its proprietors make an exception when the Mets make the playoffs, pulling back a red velvet curtain to reveal a slyly hidden TV for their baseball-loving patrons' pleasure. With the Mets now out of the postseason, the screen is once again hidden, but will reemerge for the Super Bowl, MacGibbon says: "Even people who don't like sports like the Super Bowl."
The bar is, by and large, like some arcane clubhouse, a home away from home for transplants and native New Yorkers alike, a throwback watering hole where all can find common ground. So when that uncle rolls into town with his cover band, make sure to meet him at Birdy's, where he'll feel like he never left his mom's basement.
Food halls are all the rage these days: Italian-themed, Nordic-themed, Brooklyn-themed — seemingly every unused corner of the city, whether a parking lot, ground floor of a condo building, or train station hall, hosts some sort of culinary experience. But the New World Mall in Flushing, stuck, unstylishly, in the basement of a mall at the end of the 7 line, feels like the o.g. of food courts. Although it's only been around since 2011, when a group of Chinese businessmen took over the site of the long-vacant discount department store Caldor and turned it into an upscale Asian mall, the bustling basement feels like it's been a neighborhood fixture for much longer. What the food court lacks in décor it more than makes up for in variety. Instead of trendy food trucks or precious small plates, there are 32 (and counting) stalls selling the real deal — from expertly folded dumplings to heaps of hand-pulled noodles laden with tongue-numbing sichuan peppercorns to tanks of seafood waiting to be cooked up in one of five sauces to fluffy, palate-cleansing snow flavored with fruit and covered in tapioca. (Eater beware the durian, with a aroma that will linger for hours.)
136-20 Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing, Queens
See if this sounds familiar: You love seafood, but you don't love to cook, and you especially don't love to deep-fry. So you've accepted the fact that you'll eat seafood only in restaurants. But good restaurant seafood tends to be pricey. As a result, except for the occasional splurge, your seafood intake pretty much begins and ends with fish 'n' chips at the local pub.
The solution: Astoria Seafood (37-10 33rd Street, Long Island City, Queens, 718-392-2680). Owned for three generations by a Greek-American family — which moved the operation from its namesake Astoria to its current location in Long Island City a few years ago — this popular Queens destination is a top-notch fishmonger selling all the usual fare, but with a twist: After you pick out your shrimp, red snapper, scallops, or other selection, they'll either grill or fry it and then bring it to you at a table in their chaotic but festive seating area, at no extra charge. So you get a cooked seafood meal — plus optional side dishes — with market-fresh fish, at fishmonger prices. (If you want to cook your seafood yourself, they'll happily wrap it for you and send you on your way, but eat-ins tend to outnumber take-outs.)
Admittedly, this system is not without its hassles. The place is usually jam-packed, so expect some jostling while you pick out your fish. And you'll be the one picking it out — the staff is generally too harried to offer much assistance, so be prepared to grab a plastic bag and help yourself to that grouper fillet or swordfish steak. After your seafood has been weighed, priced, and sent to the kitchen, the wait for your table may take the better part of an hour, and you may be spending it out on the sidewalk. (Pro tip: The 7-Eleven across from the nearby 36th Street subway stop will paper-bag you a 24-ounce Narragansett for two bucks.)
Astoria Seafood's eccentric spirit is personified by Helen Faroupos, who does triple duty as hostess, waitress, and all-purpose New York character. Get on her good side and you're golden; get on her bad side (or just catch her on a bad day) and she'll go from zero to cranky in no time flat. Either way, she practically qualifies as entertainment. One minute she's arguing with the fry cooks about someone's order; the next she's responding to a request for lemon wedges by wordlessly depositing a plate of them on your table as she walks by; then she's muttering, "I need a break" and heading out to the sidewalk for a cigarette. Only in New York, kids.
In any event, you can't beat the prices: During a recent visit, swordfish was $13.99 a pound, sea bass was $7.99 a pound, whole porgy was $4.99 a pound, and dinner for four — including a big Greek salad — clocked in at an insane $72. BYOB, too! Just don't forget to tip generously, or you'll be in Faroupos's doghouse on your next visit.
It sounds almost too good to be true: A chocolate shop that makes inventive and whimsical fair-trade organic vegan chocolates with as many Hudson Valley–grown ingredients as possible — that also kill it in flavor. But it's real, and it's in New Paltz, New York. Thankfully, Lagusta's Luscious (in partnership with vegan, gluten-free macaron-maker Sweet Maresa's) has graced the big city with her yuzu creams, matzo toffee, pagan bark, and furious vulvas by opening up Confectionery at East 9th Street and Avenue A, giving the vegan sorbets at nearby Superiority Burger competition for post–Sloppy Dave dessert. The furious vulva, among all the treats in the tiny shop, is what will stick out to first-time customers. Far from some erotic novelty, it's a cheeky, rich, sharp piece of dark chocolate flavored with pink peppercorns and pink sea salt. Gift a box of them to your friend celebrating a birthday — or a birth.
440 East 9th Street, Manhattan
The sultry flapper and her Gatsby-esque beau, canoodling under the proclamation "Since 1895," clue you in that Manhattan Special soda is the granddaddy of energy drinks. Bottled for over a century on Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn, this straight-up blend of espresso and cane sugar jazzes your tongue as it skyrockets through your brain. While no studies we're aware of have found this carbonated ebony elixir to be as addictive as smack or crack, we do know all too well the siren call of those retro graphics beckoning from a bodega refrigerator case. Indisputably an acquired taste, this sweet jolt is also offered in diet and decaffeinated versions, but we can't speak to those because, c'mon, what's the point?