Saturday June 16th was a perfect early summer day in New York City: sunny and warm, with a bit of a breeze. Ideal weather for the Jazz Age Lawn Party (www.DreamlandOrchestra.com), an annual event held on Governor’s Island. A free ferry took us over, and we found ourselves surrounded by flappers and dandies.
Some people went all out in terms of outfits, and picnic set-ups. The admission fee was $15, although we later realized that unless you cared a lot about learning the Charleston, you could enjoy the spectacle from outside the designated area. Bringing a picnic is the key, though. While there were food vendors, the offerings were boring, and not period-specific. Since alcohol could not be brought to the site, there was a cocktail station, sponsored by St. Germain elderflower liqueur, and the two drinks available there were quite good.
Governor’s Island is a former military base that has been given back to the city of New York, and it is the kind of place that should treasured by any big city resident. We went for a walk around, and found plenty of green space, historical architecture, giant sculptures by Mark de Suvero, and bike rentals. After spending some time enjoying the island, and the Lawn Party music and dancing demonstrations, we headed back to Manhattan, talking about coming back next year.
Celebrity chefs seem to be everywhere these days, and one of the most visible is Mario Batali. His restaurant Babbo (www.babbonyc.com) is very popular, and gets booked up months in advance. In a very democratic move, however, Chef Batali offers walk-in seating at tables in the bar area. By being in line when the doors open at 5PM, you can get your name on a list for one of these tables. We were in line about 10 minutes before opening, and got on the list. We enjoyed a glass of Prosecco and some spicy cheese sticks at the bar, and then were seated at a table.
The menu is the same as the dining room, so you can have the full food and wine experience. The main difference is the small space between the tables. For us, this turned out to be a positive, since we had excellent neighbours. We ordered the Traditional Tasting Menu, and while the standard wines looked good, we opted to upgrade to the Riserva wine pairings.
We started with an amuse-bouche of chickpea bruschetta. Simple and delicious.
Here’s how the rest of the meal went:
Duck Bresaola with House-Made Giardiniera. Wine match: Venica & Venica Sauvignon “Ronco delle Mele” 2010 (Friuli). Grass, lemon, green apple, and slate.
Pappardelle with Morels and Thyme. Wine match: Fessina Etna Rosso “Erse” 2009 (Sicilia). Cherries, earth, rhubarb, and bacon.
Duck Tortelli with “Sugo Finto”. Wine match: Les Crêtes “Coteau la Tour” 2006 (100% Syrah from Valle d’Aosta). Plum, black currant, fig, and white pepper.
Grilled Hanger Steak with Porcini, Pearl Onions and Black Truffle Vinaigrette. Wine match: La Togata Brunello di Montalcino 2003. Blackberry, sandalwood, vanilla, and black plums.
Coach Farm’s Finest (cheese) with Fennel Honey. Wine match: Lantieri Franciacorta Brut Rosé (100% Pinot Noir sparkling from Lombardy). Strawberry and sour cherry.
Fig and Rhubarb “Palacinche”. Wine match: Odoardi “Valeo” 2007 (Calabria). Acacia honey and dried apricot.
Lemon “Biancomangiare” with Brown Butter Dates and Pistachios. Wine match: house-made Limoncello liqueur. Very pungent lemon flavour, with high alcohol burn.
Chocolate Delizia “Sotto Cappello” with Salty Cashews. Corte Sant’Alda Recioto della Valpolicell 2004 (Veneto). Plum jam, coffee, dark cocoa, and tobacco.
We spent nearly five hours at dinner, yet it never dragged. It was a terrific experience. Afterwards, we needed a walk, so we strolled up to Eataly (www.eataly.com), another of Chef Batali’s ventures, to have a look around.
Eataly is a market mixed with food shops and restaurant stations. One of the neatest things, and something that feels so veryNew York City, is that Eataly has a vegetable butcher. Once you have purchased your veggies, you can bring them to a guy who will cut, chop, and/or dice them to your specifications while you have a glass of wine or a coffee at the bar. That’s customer service, all right.
For a complete change of pace on Sunday, my last day in town, we headed up to Harlem for Gospel Brunch at Sylvia’s Restaurant. Sylvia Woods is called “The Queen of Soul Food”, and her restaurant has been serving it up for nearly 50 years. The place has become a neighbourhood institution. It has made it onto the tour bus itineraries as well, so there weren’t many locals eating, but that did nothing to diminish the experience.
As soon as we sat down, we received a basket of fresh biscuits (and a second one after that). The sweet tea was included, and spot-on. After that, it was down to the business of eating.
For the description alone, I had to get Sylvia’s World Famous, Talked About Bar-B-Que Ribs with Sylvia’s Sweet and Sassy Sauce. Who could resist that? For my two sides I ordered macaroni and cheese, and black-eyed peas, which, the menu notes, are flavoured with smoked turkey. Of course they are.
To finish up, I had to get a slice of Double Chocolate Cake. It was so moist and rich, I thought about ordering an insulin shot to go.
My meal was just about as far from Babbo’s refined creations as it’s possible to get, and yet it was equally satisfying. It’s not called soul food for nothing.
This being Gospel Brunch, there had to be gospel singing. A woman with a great voice did her custom versions of “Amazing Grace” and “Oh Happy Day”, while greeting restaurant patrons, and asking where they were from. You don’t have to be a believer to feel uplifted by someone singing with passion, and this woman raised the spirit of the room, no matter the hometowns of its occupants.
I was so taken with Sylvia’s Sweet and Sassy Sauce, that I decided to spend $25 to check my bag (don’t get me started on the ridiculousness of this fee) in order to bring some home. With a big bottle of sauce, a full belly, and a refreshed soul, I hopped on the M60 bus to LaGuardia airport. The trip to NYC was over, but these vagabond shoes will be back as soon as they can be.