Tuesday, 3 May 2011

New York institutions

It might take the Guitar Teacher some time to forgive me for dragging him from the culinary delights of Smith Street Brooklyn to Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery on the Lower East Side for our first lunch in New York. But I told him this place has been something of a legend for about a hundred years, and I was a knish virgin, and it had to be done.

We found that a knish is basically a $3.50 grapefruit-sized ball of mashed potato encased in a thin papery dough, and more or less devoid of texture and flavour. It was heavy going, especially the kasha (buckwheat) version. The plastic cupful of cold borscht was more familiar ground, but there was clearly something we weren’t getting about the whole experience. After we’d forced our knishes down, we belatedly noticed the array of mustards on offer and realised that was the sole road to flavour.

It was incredibly cheap and carbful and stick to the ribs for hours and hours, which I might have welcomed more in 2003 when travelling as a student even poorer than now. We made our way to another institution, Café Gitane, afterwards, but found ourselves too bloated to muscle through the crush.

Another reason local Yelpers often give for their love for Yonah Schimmel’s is its resistance to gentrification, so as one tenant-not-homeowner watching askance the relentless progress in Smith and Gertrude Streets, I can understand this too. It looked as if it were untouched since the thirties, and it was hardly a sleek outfit even back then – it was tiny and dingily lit, lined with ageing photos of celebrities who had eaten there, and it had a dumbwaiter. I need to give it another go if there’s a next time; there must be a way into knish nostalgia.

The GT was happier with me the next morning when I dragged him to Amy Ruth’s in Harlem for some soul-food, being virgins in this regard too. He was pleased with his frisbee-sized waffle with its mountain of fried chicken. I had a waffle with a soupbowl of blueberries, smothered in maple syrup. Unfinishable.

 Here’s a picture of Katz’s Deli. 

We tried for a famous pastrami sandwich at Katz’s, how we tried. We even got far enough inside the front door to be ticketed and hustled along by two guards. But there must have been a hundred people lined up in there, and there was the complicated ticketing system, and we were starving. And the guards. And those tickets. In a restaurant. So we left and backtracked a block to a checker-floored vinyl-boothed diner called The Remedy.

There we had a sangwich each – also unfinishable. My pastrami version looked like a joke version of itself – it must have had a dozen chunky slices of pink meat in it and stood about six inches tall on its skewer, alongside a pickle and coleslaw. The taste was a bit lacking and one-note despite all that, and the half I did get through sat in my stomach like a brick. And I’m a big eater, and love eating.

Look, I don’t get the serving sizes thing; much as I’d heard tell of it before I went to the US, I found it pretty confronting and somehow a bit disturbing. Is it some sort of competitive insistence of value for money, or an unconscious statement about largesse when elsewhere in the world the volume of that sandwich would feed a whole family for several meals?

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