Spring is upon us— time to push the rock aside, climb out of the cave, and bask in the warm sunshine. I know we didn’t have much of a winter —well, if you forget about February. No matter, your winter diet is yesterday’s news! Gone is the need to consume massive calories just to stay warm, so it’s time to shed excess winter weight (averaging three to four pounds), with the ultimate objective of fitting into that thong bathing suit, whether you’re Pamela Anderson or Sacha Baron Cohen.
So throw away the well-marbled steaks, thick pork chops, half-pound hamburgers, and haunches of venison. Toss the calorific french fries and buttery mashed potatoes. Drain the lakes of cheesy polenta. Squirt the gravy out the tenement window, maybe landing on the head of a passerby decked out in brand-new spring finery. While you’ve been gorging on winter food, I’ve been cruising the boroughs looking for lighter spring fare. Here are the results of my travels, organized according to four dining strategies.
Coffee bars offer a diet of tired sandwiches and high-sugar baked goods, but what about tea parlors? This slow-growing mini-phenomenon often entails healthier meals and smaller portions, and don’t forget the alleged anti- oxidant properties of the soothing tea itself. Hey, tea rocks!
The interior of Chinatown’s Green Tea Café is clad in several sorts of bare stone, making it resemble an animal’s subterranean lair. Start with a decorative cast-iron pot of oolong tea, with the fragrance of ripe peaches, and use it to wash down miniature spice- dusted chicken wings, earthy turnip cakes, and delicate pot-sticker dumplings, for a light but memorable meal. But skip the bubble tea, which can run 500 calories or more per serving. 45 Mott, 212-693-2888
The most notorious tea parlor in town is certainly Tea & Sympathy, a reverent re-creation of a staunch and starched British institution. More than two dozen teas are available, and the wholesome fodder runs to cheesy and nicely browned welsh rarebit on whole wheat toast, vegetarian lentil casserole, fresh-baked scones and crumpets, and, of course, crustless finger sandwiches, filled with cucumbers and cream cheese—rather than real fingers. 108 Greenwich Ave, 212-989-9735
Not to be outdone by the Brit and Chinese tea traditions, Franchia (“Freedom”) offers a Korean spin on the tea ceremony. The menu advises where and when the tea leaves were picked, and the all-vegetarian and mainly vegan menu runs to creatively dressed salads, steamed dumplings (OK, you can get them fried, too), and maki rolls stuffed with kimchi, mountain greens, and spicy un-chicken. The serene balconied space offers intimate seating areas; dig the intricately painted ceiling. 12 Park Ave, 212-213-2527
Have a Picnic
The first week of spring is not too early to have a practice picnic in your living room, if you have a living room. Spread a red-checked tablecloth on the floor, light a candle (keep the fire extinguisher handy), uncork a bottle of white wine (which usually has less alcohol and fewer calories than red), put the Nature Channel on the TV, and start scarfing!
A newcomer to the Trans-Soho, DeSpana Foods peddles fine-quality Spanish charcuterie, cheeses, and canned goods (and no, those words are not antithetical here). Carry out some Serrano ham, the cured pork loin called loma, and maybe a hunk of deeply yellow queso de Cantabria cheese, which has a slight stink to its crumbly richness, like loamy soil in springtime. 408 Broome, 212-219-5050
Accompany your DeSpana picnic with a bottle of cava—a light bubbly white—from the all-Spanish wine store, Tinto Fino. Remember, Spain is the new Italy.
85 First Ave, 212-254-0850
Or go all-cheese, protein-wise. The range of cheeses bursting from reach-in coolers is impressive at Stinky Bklyn, where you can also get a loaf of Sullivan Street Bakery bread. Select cheeses for maximum contrast, such as a sheep’s milk pecorino from Tuscany, a four-year-old Grafton Cheddar from Vermont, and a wedge of blue cheese from the French side of the Basque region, called, logically enough, bleu des Basques. Remember, a thin slice of strong cheese goes a long way.
261 Smith St, Bklyn, 718-522-7425
This time the cava (or the Italian prosecco, another great bargain) comes from
Smith & Vine, a wine store with a marvelous selection for such a small store, just across the street and one block south from Stinky Bklyn.
268 Smith St, Bklyn, 718-243-2864
Eat Your Veggies
Why not make vegetables the centerpiece of your meal, rather than meat, fish, or poultry? Even the most ardent carnivores crave vegetables as the growing season commences. And there will be little at the local farmer’s markets till May. What to do?
Visit old-timer Temple in the Village, where, to the soothing sounds of classical music, you can play the game of pick and choose among a macrobiotic buffet (sold by weight) that features mung bean pancakes, sautéed watercress, oodles of noodles, the stray fish dish, spicy cabbage dumplings, and cookies made of various seeds, to find just the right balance between flavor and vitamin absorption. Tofu and sprouts, ahoy! 74 W 3rd, 212-475-5670
Morphing from a stall that sold fresh samosas, to a full-blown and strictly vegetarian steam table joint, Punjabi Restaurant & Sweets provides a pungent and economical way to fill up on veggies. From the tandoor sail quasi-stiff flatbreads stuffed with cauliflower, pumpkin, or spicy potatoes. Among the vegetable concoctions on display, the curried spinach and the chickpea fritters in a yellow yogurt gravy are the most delightful. 112-11 Jamaica Ave, Qns, 718-846-9400
While we sometimes think of pizzerias as places to gulp down greasy sausage and reservoirs of dodgy cheese, many provide lighter, more veggie-intensive alternatives.
Grandpa’s Brick Oven Pizza makes a mean vegetarian stromboli, spilling mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, and onions out both ends, and the pristine grandma’s pie, hoisting a modest quantity of fresh mozzarella, is similarly light and enjoyable. 4973 Bway, 212-304-1185
Southern Italians appreciate veggies more than most people, and the glass case in the front of
La Sorrentina—named after the gorgeous, citrus-dotted peninsula south of Naples—teems with them. On a recent afternoon, we spied spears of fried zucchini, green beans speckled with minced garlic, gleaming broccoli rabe, and a stew of chicken with artichokes and sundried tomatoes. There’s a selection of vegetable-intensive pizzas, too. 6510 11th Ave, Bklyn, 718-836-4391
South Indian cooking is the most developed vegetarian cuisine in the world. Based on rice and lentils—often ground up and fermented to make batters—the menu offers food high in fiber and nutritional content and relatively low in calories. The cuisine constitutes a blueprint for the flesh-free and sustainable diet of the future.
Centerpiece is the potato-stuffed lentil-and-rice crepe called masala dosa, and the best in the city, possibly in the world, are found at
Dosa Hutt, right next to a Hindu temple dedicated to the elephant-headed god Ganesh. Quite a trek from the
7 terminus of Main Street, Flushing, but then, we need the exercise. 45-63 Bowne St, Qns, 718-961-6228
Or maybe it’s easier for you to take the PATH to Journal Square. Four blocks north find a slew of Indian vegetarian restaurants, including Sri Ganesh’s Dosa House, where a full range of dosas, iddly (spongy dumplings), and uttapham (oniony pancakes) are available, along with some lesser oddities like uppma, a nut-shot porridge. 809 Newark Ave, Jersey City, NJ, 201-222-3883
Remember that Manhattan itself is not devoid of dosa parlors. Curry Hill has a line of them, including Chennai Garden, which mounts a pan-Indian vegetarian menu including dishes from south India, Gujarat, and from the northern Mughal tradition. Skip the lunch buffet, unless you have more self-control than I do. 129 E 27th, 212-689-1999
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 27, 2007