Last week we were in Rome, a few days ago in my home town, Winchester, then we had a night in Hounslow, way west London. An unprepossessing area, perhaps, but we had a great curry at a place called Mantra, all enormous chandeliers, mirrored walls and lighting that phased through various colours, disconcertingly changing the pallor of Fran and our friend Nick as we chewed and chatted. I’ve never before experienced this blend of south Asian kitsch and east European mob (the waitresses were intimidating eastern blondes).
Now, however, we’re in New York, one of the greatest cities in the world despite the ennui of the guy in the Saint James stripy Breton shirts shop and the strange sense of synthesis and deadness in parts of Greenwich Village where no one seems to live anymore but you can spend $700 on a Barbour jacket that would cost you half as much in London.
We started the day yesterday with the worst croissant I’ve ever had and coffee Fran said was “vile”, but it got better. Before going to a Swedish shop playing 80s British music (Joy Division and Sisters of Mercy) in Little Italy, I had a good sfogliatella at Cafetal Social Club. This was a nice bit of continuity as I’ve enjoyed these pastries in Naples (their home) and Rome the past month or so.
The rest of the day involved a visit to an excellent produce market in Union Square and walking the length of the High Line, the wonderful linear park that rehabilitates a section of old raised railway, and a younger cousin to Paris’ Promenade Plantée. Along the way, there was even a stall that sold Zuppe and Biscotti, two of the books from the American Academy in Rome’s Rome Sustainable Food Project – another nice bit of continuity from the life I’ve just left behind.
We subsequently got down to the serious business of sampling some US craft beer. The Blind Tiger Ale House in the West Village was having a Pumpkin Fest with Elysian Brewing, in Seattle, celebrating the new season’s pumpkin ales. Pumpkin ales are a big deal in the US, but previously the only one I’d tried was Italian brewery Baladin’s Zucca; I’ve never seen them in the UK, though British craft brewers are also getting in on the act now.
We tried four, and I must say, I found three of them a bit tricky, and one of them borderline disgusting. It was a great bit of cultural learning, but Elysian Night Owl, a 5.9% ABV pumpkin ale was just too nutmeggy for me, too much spice, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice, to the point where both the more typical flavours of beer – hops and malt – along with any sense of pumpkin were obliterated. Fran identified a smell that recalled tea tree but I can’t say this made it any more palatable.
Fran tried a couple of the dark pumpkin ales, Elysian Dark Side of the Moon (6.5%) and Kuka Pumpkin Porter (7.6%). The latter was from a lot more nearby, with the Kuka Andean Brewing Company being based in Rockland County, New York state. The former had a lot of the Christmas pudding spice flavours going on, along with liquorice, orange chocolate (like Green & Black’s Maya Gold), ginger cake. The latter meanwhile, she said, smelled “a bit like garbage”, rotting veg, cabbage, but was much more balanced flavour-wise, with some pepper, liquorice and smokyness but not so heavy on the Xmas spices.
A helluva lot nicer was the Elysian Hop Squash, where any Christmas pudding spice overload was replaced instead by a serious floral, crisp hoppiness from Sorachi and Motueka hops. The pumpkin came through in a touch of buttery body. Of the four we tried, this one was much my favourite.
I’m not sure about this whole pumpkin ale lark – if there was more overt vegetably pumpkin flavour, sure, maybe, but they all seem much more like pumpkin pie ales, with a lot of sweetness and some serious heavy-handedness with the nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger etc.
Before the jetlag totally floored us, we headed further west again and went to The Spotted Pig, a notable location for its coat of plants and trees, potted along the pavement, cascading from the windows. I really liked this place – it successfully combines the feel of a transported, tweaked British pub with a New York restaurant. Whereas when many British pubs get gastrated, the results lose the quintessential pubbiness, this place gets the balance just right. Feels like a pub, but offers you a (not too formal) restaurant experience.
They even have a decent selection of beers, bottled, keg and cask. The latter – served in handles – included their own Spotted Pig Bitter, which Fran said “smells of new shops”. It’s a sweet, malty, fruity brew, with very low carbonation, no head and a medium body. It’s pleasant, but a kind of stereotype-confirming version of flat, warm English bitter, brewed by Brooklyn Brewery. The other cask ale was Snake Dog IPA, from Flying Dog Ales in Maryland. This was much hoppier, with an almost metallic taste and something that made me think of (delicious, nutritious) stinging nettles.
The Spotted Pig also came with another connection to our old life in Rome. The chef and co-owner, April Bloomfield, is English and trained at The River Café in London before also doing a stint at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, famously founded by Alice Waters – who also set up the Rome Sustainable Food Project.
We continued the local, seasonal food theme with our lunch today, at Cookshop on 10th Avenue, not far from the midpoint of the High Line. I’ve been becoming increasingly passionate about local, seasonal food the past decade and a half, but after my stint at the Academy, and living in Rome generally and trying to buy as much of our food as possible from the farmers’ markets, I feel strangely freaked out now when I encounter out of season produce: it’s just started to feel so profoundly wrong. I can’t quite explain it, but imported out of season, produce has started to repulse me as much as heavily industrially processed food. My mind and body react badly, crying out why, WTF is this? It’s Autumn, why are they offering asparagus (or whatever)? How far has that travelled?!
Really, if you genuinely care about food that’s healthy for you and healthy for the environment, local, seasonal food is the only option. (I’m no saint though, so of course I eat badly sometimes; plus, well, we’re off to the Midwest in a few days, and I get the impression it can be quite hard to find real food there, so I’ll either go hungry or have to eat stuff from the industrial food chain.)
Anyway, the food at Cookshop was excellent, but they also had some great craft beers. I had a Resin from Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn. I was slightly disconcerted by the can, being more used to bottle-conditioned real beer, but heck, why not? This was a great beer – a celebration of the hop, and hop resin, at 9.1% ABV and 103 IBU (International bitterness units; broadly, 30 IBU could be considered an average bitterness). It was both intensely floral and warmly earthy, with a very crisp, dry mouthfeel.
Fran, meanwhile, had Scythe & Sickle from Ommegang, based in Cooperstown, upstate New York. If the US Midwest these days is defined by its industrial maize production, the Autumn 2013 seasonal Scythe & Sickle (5.8%) is a celebration of the old world grains traditionally grown in the northeast: it contains not just barley, but wheat, oats and rye too. It’s lightly malty, with a smooth sweetness that… despite the wholesomeness of this endeavour perversely reminded me of 1970s childhood sweeties.
So, all in all, despite not knowing NYC, and being half-dead from the cumulative effects of moving house, flying, London, home, then flying across the pond, never mind being increasingly unequivocally middle-aged, we’ve managed a pretty good few days of food and booze.
Oh, and excuse me if this is even more rambly than usual. My own laptop is too big to take travelling, so I’ve been bodging this copy together trying to get used to a tiny keyboard for my tablet, as well as getting my head around Fran’s infuriating old Mac (seriously Macaholics – iPhoto? Really? Can you really, honestly and genuinely make an argument for that software exemplifying Apple’s purported ease of use and intuitiveness?! And enough Ken Burns already!)
Cafetal Social Club
285 Mott Street, New York, NY 10012
+1 212 966 1259 | email@example.com | cafetalsocialclub.com
The High Line
West Side Manhattan, New York
+1 212 500-6035 | firstname.lastname@example.org | thehighline.org
Blind Tiger Ale House
281 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10014
+1 212 462 4682 | email@example.com | blindtigeralehouse.com
The Spotted Pig
314 W 11th Street, New York, NY 10014
+1 212 620 0393 | firstname.lastname@example.org | thespottedpig.com
156 10th Ave, New York, NY 10011
+1 212 924 4440 | cookshopny.com