The New York Adventure Part 1: Ess-A-Bagel

My wife and I are celebrating our TENTH wedding anniversary in October, and we both wanted to make a big thing of it by returning to New York City, where we spent our honeymoon in 2009.  We haven’t had a chance to return in this entire last decade, but since my wife is a college professor and I’m also in academia, October is a pretty busy time for us, and it would be impossible to get away then.  So we opted for a mid-May getaway, during the empty and quiet weeks between the spring and summer semesters, before New York starts to rival Florida’s heat and humidity.  We also had some personal and professional milestones to celebrate, so the timing was right and the stars lined up for us.  We planned to take in the sights, see shows, and eat like kings.

Just as we did on our honeymoon, we chose our hotel based on its proximity to the legendary Midtown Manhattan bagel restaurant Ess-A-Bagel (https://www.ess-a-bagel.com/), considered by many the best bagel shop in the bagel capital of the world (sorry, Montreal!).  And wouldn’t you know it — we ended up reserving the exact same hotel, just under a different name and new management, ten years later.  It was meant to be!

So here is where the magic happens, this hole-y site.  I’m always taken aback by just how small and cramped many iconic New York restaurants and businesses are, and Ess-A-Bagel is no exception.  You enter and automatically line up, make your way down the counter until someone calls you, place your entire order with them, pay at the end, and hope there’s a tiny table available for you by then.  DSC02113

Ess-A-Bagel boils and bakes some of the largest bagels I’ve ever seen, with all the classics represented: plain, sesame, onion, garlic, salt, everything, pumpernickel, and cinnamon raisin, among others.  Here’s a gigantic everything bagel, which is our favorite — coated with sesame and poppy seeds, toasted onion and garlic, and coarse kosher salt crystals.
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You have a ridiculous choice of cream cheese and tofu-based spreads, all made fresh in-house.  This is like heaven.  The choices are unlimited, but you cannot go wrong.DSC02114

In addition to all the standard cream cheeses, Ess-A-Bagel has a large selection of smoked, cured, and pickled fish, all standard Jewish fare that accompanies bagels.  Most people are familiar with nova salmon — sometimes referred to as lox, although most lox is MUCH saltier than the more familiar nova your basic brunch spot offers.  It pairs so perfectly with cream cheese.  But when you get out of Orlando, you have far more fishy options for your bagels, and these are everything to me: smoked whitefish salad, large golden smoked chubs (whitefish), pickled herring fillets in either a sweet wine-based sauce or a sour cream-based sauce (both with plenty of sweet pickled onions!), rich smoky sturgeon, and the finest of all the smoked, cured, and pickled fishies: buttery sable, which sounds far more appetizing than “black cod.”  Sable is the finest thing you can eat, and here is an article I found with a recipe and more information about it, for the uninitiated.  These are the foods of my people, and they fill me with such joy.DSC02116

You also have a wide variety of tuna, salmon, and other seafood salads.  DSC02117

And some pasta salads, potato salad, cole slaw, and additional vegetarian options, sold by the pound to enjoy as sides.DSC02118

You can also order bagel sandwiches with the sliced deli meats and cheeses of your choice, but it seemed pointless to me to come all the way to New York and Ess-A-Bagel for a turkey, roast beef, or ham and cheese sandwich.  (Despite its traditional Jewish specialties, Ess-A-Bagel is not a kosher restaurant, and I’ve never kept kosher anyway.)

The day we left for New York, we woke up at 3:30 AM to catch our 6:30 AM flight, got caught in morning rush hour traffic from Queens to Manhattan, and made it to our hotel to find out our room wasn’t ready yet.  At that point, it was 12:30 PM — nine hours since we got up, and we hadn’t eaten anything yet.  So we walked to Ess-A-Bagel just in time to join the long lunch line, and by the time we got our food and snagged one of those aforementioned tiny tables, almost an hour after that, it didn’t occur to me to take any pictures.  Mea culpa, although some long-suffering Saboscrivnerinos may be relieved.

That first day, my wife ordered a toasted and buttered everything bagel, with a quarter-pound side of whitefish salad on the side.  I wanted a bialy, that lovely cross between a bagel and a roll (baked, but never boiled!) with an indentation in the middle for baked onions, but they didn’t have any left.  (See this Food Republic article for some bialy background!)  So I got an everything bagel with sun-dried tomato cream cheese and my sweet, sweet sable.  I also ordered a huge, fluffy salt bagel to tear off chunks and scoop up a quarter-pound of smoked shrimp and crab salad that looked and sounded great, and tasted even better.  Everything was magnificent.  My wife had fond memories of an apple cinnamon muffin from our last visit a decade back, but that was crumbly and dry, failing to live up to her nostalgia the way the bagels and fish did.

Our second day in the city, we wanted to take it relatively easy and eat a light lunch in our room, in preparation for seeing a show that evening.  I walked back to Ess-A-Bagel to bring everything back to our hotel, and that time I remembered to take some photos.

My wife tried my sable the previous day and understood what I had raved about on and off for the last ten years, so she asked for an everything bagel sandwich with sable (left), and I happily obliged.  I decided to try something different: a bialy sandwich (finally!) with baked salmon salad (right), at once smoky and creamy, so it didn’t need a layer of cream cheese.  DSC02120

Here’s a half of my bialy sandwich, generously stuffed with the baked salmon salad: DSC02124

And her sable bagel, with nice thick chunks of the buttery, rich fish to melt in our mouths:DSC02125

That huge everything bagel I showed you earlier came from this second visit.  I also got a quarter-pound of their smoked tuna spread to go with that, and it was another good choice.  I grew up eating canned tuna, to the point where I was shocked the first time I ever encountered rich, deep purple raw tuna in sushi in my late teens.  My wife doesn’t like the smell of canned tuna, and it’s high in mercury and unsustainable, so I haven’t bought or even ordered it in years (although I am a huge sardine aficionado, and those are super-healthy and super-sustainable).  But trying smoked tuna seemed like a worthwhile move, and it was far better than any conventional tuna salad I’ve ever had before.  DSC02123

My wife also asked for a black and white cookie, that New York deli and bakery classic.  These should be more cake-like than anything — thick and moist, never crunchy or crispy.  This one was unique for having a slight lemony flavor to the yellow cookie/cake underneath the layer of black and white icing that reminds us “We’re not so different, you and I.”DSC02122

And then we went to see Hamilton, and I think it tied with seeing Tom Waits in concert in 2006 as the greatest musical experience… no, greatest cultural experience of my life.  I love American history, and I come by it naturally.  My dad was an esteemed history and social studies teacher, and now I teach a class that incorporates some U.S. history too.  Combine that with my deep loves of musical theater (encouraged by my wife, a former child and teen actress) and hip hop, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning show always felt like it was made just for me.  I have obsessed over the original cast album for over three years, so finally being able to see it (and in the greatest city in the world, no less!), being right there in the room where it happens, was awe-inspiring.

Like I said, we ate like kings over our few days in the City, so stay tuned over the next week (or let’s face it, probably longer) for more of our culinary New York Adventures, right here on The Saboscrivner!

Baltimore, Part 3: A Tale of Two Crabcakes (Phillips and Faidley’s)

Well, I’m already home from my trip to Baltimore, back at work, back in the real world.  It was a nice second visit to Charm City.  I learned a lot, saw some old friends, made some new ones, and had a few really terrific meals (plus some not so blog-worthy ones, including a trip to Subway because I was pressed for time and it was the best option around).

Baltimore is really known for its famous crabs: blue crabs steamed in Old Bay seasoning and served in the shell, which you smash with mallets and pick apart, and the classier, less-messy alternative, crabcakes.  Crabcakes should be soft and fork-tender, with their outer surfaces only slightly crispy from being pan-seared or broiled.  They aren’t batter-dipped or deep-fried.  It’s a croquette of shredded crabmeat, probably some bread crumbs, possibly onions, peppers, garlic, celery, herbs and spices, and maybe an egg to bind it together.  Obviously the best crabcakes are heavy on the crab and light on the fillers.

Now, you’ve probably tried a crabcake at some point in your life, but the ones in Baltimore are unmatched.  I was lucky enough to try two of the city’s iconic crabcakes at two very different restaurants.  You could say I was on a seafood diet on this trip: when I would see food, I’d eat it, as long as it was seafood.

This past Friday evening (7.13.18), I walked to Phillips, a giant seafood restaurant in the touristy Inner Harbor area, to meet two friends for dinner.  (https://www.phillipsseafood.com/)  Phillips is a pretty nice place, and their crabcakes were no exception.

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These Hooper’s Island crabcakes came with roasted, seasoned potatoes and a nice blend of seasonal vegetables.  Those are two sides I would rarely choose myself, but I enjoyed both more than I expected to.  They also came with a tangy remoulade sauce, a great accompaniment for almost any seafood that is a good alternative to tartar sauce.  I liked them, don’t get me wrong.  They were delicious, and the company at dinner was unparalleled.  But I already knew there were better crabcakes to be found in Baltimore, from my previous visit back in 2011.  Would I make it back there in time?

Well, of course I did, hence the title of this post.  Baltimore’s hottest spot for crabcakes is Faidley Seafood, a legendary restaurant and seafood market inside the Lexington Market.  (http://www.faidleyscrabcakes.com/ and http://lexingtonmarket.com/)  I’m a huge fan of food markets, and they have been some of my favorite travel destinations in cities over the years: the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Pike Place Market in Seattle, the Ferry Building in San Francisco, the North Market in Columbus, Ohio, and the granddaddy of them all, the Lexington Market, founded in 1782.  There’s a lot of history at this place — you can feel it.  It’s nestled in the middle of a historic part of downtown Baltimore, walkable from the Inner Harbor, but not in a direction most tourists would automatically head in.  The indoor market shows its age, and it definitely isn’t fancy, but it’s totally worth visiting and checking out the 88 vendors — especially Faidley.

Founded in 1886 and a Lexington Market resident from the beginning, Faidley Seafood feels like a time capsule in the best way.  It’s a little intimidating at first, since there’s a lot going on at multiple counters throughout the restaurant: a fresh fish counter on your left when you walk in off Paca Street, an oyster bar right in the middle, and the counter where you order crabcakes and other food on the right.  They will prepare any fresh fish you choose, in addition to their regular menu items, which is pretty cool.

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They sell a few different crabcake varieties, as well as seafood platters, where you can try multiple things.  When I went yesterday (7.17.18), I opted for a seafood platter with a backfin crabcake, fried oysters, and fried clams, which also came with two sides.  I got macaroni salad and potato salad, since I like trying everyone’s different versions.  And they had onion rings, so this is also a stealth RING THE ALARM! feature!

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The fried oysters and clams were great.  Sometimes you can order those and taste nothing but breading and grease and wonder if there were any mollusks in there, but these were so fresh, and not at all greasy.  The potato salad and macaroni salad were thick (I hate it when the mayo is runny), creamy, cool, refreshing, and incredibly well-seasoned.  They gave me cocktail sauce and tartar sauce, which were nice for some dipping, but not necessary, given how flavorful everything was.

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The crabcake was the best I’ve ever had, and I felt that way after my earlier trip to Faidley Seafood back in 2011.  It was seasoned better than the one at Phillips, and I greatly preferred Faidley’s much more casual and historic atmosphere.  A classy sit-down restaurant versus a bustling, historic seafood market where you order at a counter and stand up to eat at long tables — you’d think the better one would be obvious, but I prefer casual and historic anyway, and Faidley’s crabcake was just superior.  (And I often eat over my kitchen counter at home, so I’m used to standing up while I eat!)  It was my favorite meal of the entire trip to Baltimore, and I’m so glad I fit it in before a long and frustrating afternoon at the airport.

Crabcake close-up:

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from the onion rings, since we have a local seafood restaurant that makes onion rings that I don’t care for at all, but these were terrific.  Some of the better ones I’ve had — the perfect thickness, the perfect batter, the perfect texture and taste.  They were perfect in every way, not that I should have been surprised.

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If you’ve ever watched The Wire (which I mentioned is my favorite show of all time), two different characters refer to Faidley’s in two different scenes: Omar mentions it to his partner, and McNulty brings a bag of crabcakes to two excited cops as a favor.  David Simon, the showrunner, was a long-time journalist for the Baltimore Sun and more recently, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, so if you don’t believe me, believe him.  Not many people know their way around Baltimore better.  If you visit Baltimore and can only go one place for its legendary crabcakes, eschew the touristy Phillips and soak up the local culture at Faidley Seafood in the Lexington Market.  Just go for lunch, since they aren’t open for dinner!

Baltimore, Part 2: Dangerously Delicious Pies

When you’re a grown-ass person, you can choose to have dessert for dinner if you want to.  Normally that isn’t my ideal meal; I like some sweets, but I’m more likely to crave a good sandwich (almost everything is better in sandwich form), pasta, or salty, crunchy snacks.  But when it comes to desserts, my favorite might be PIE.  I’ll take pie over cake any day; I love pie, and I’m sad that for the most part, pie isn’t hip or cool or popular.  There was a time in the U.S. when pie wasn’t just for Thanksgiving — and true confession time, I think apple and pumpkin may be the most boring, pedestrian pies, and Thanksgiving dinner is boring and bland in general.  But that’s a hot take for another blog entry!

There were times past when you could take a date out for coffee and pie after a movie, or convince more people to attend a voluntary meeting if you promised punch and pie.  Those days are gone, and what desserts are en vogue now?  We’re left with trendy cupcakes, crumbly dry nibbles of cake buried under mounds of sickly-sweet, greasy frosting; macarons, tiny pastel burger-looking things that still look much prettier than they taste; and biscotti, a cruel joke against anyone who likes cookies.

But pie is comfort food, nostalgia, hope — all the good parts of America with none of the bad, the most pastoral of pastries, equally at home cooling on a farmhouse windowsill or resting under a glass dome in a lonely big-city diner straight out of an Edward Hopper painting.  I even fulfilled a lifelong dream I never even knew I had earlier this year, when I volunteered as a judge in the American Pie Championship, right here in Orlando.  That was an experience I’ll never forget or regret, even though I got stuck with the apple pie category and never need to have apple pie again.

So needless to say, I was thrilled when two Facebook friends alerted me to the presence of a pie restaurant right here in Baltimore, where I’m spending the next few days!  Dangerously Delicious Pies (https://www.dangerouspiesbalt.com/) was founded by Rodney Henry, frontman of Baltimore rock band The Glenmont Popes, and apparently quite a baker as well.  The restaurant has two locations in Baltimore, and they specialize in sweet AND savory pies!  The menu is huge, almost to the point of intimidating, but I figured I’d get a piece of savory pie so I could feel like a functional grown-ass person and have more than just dessert for dinner, but follow it with a sweet slice.

I took a Lyft ride to the scenic Canton neighborhood location with an old friend and one of her work colleagues.  It was a cool, funky little restaurant, with walls painted red, some rock ‘n’ roll decor, and a glass case teeming with gorgeous, tempting pies.  All savory pies are $7.50 per slice, and quiches and sweet pies are $6.50 per slice.  Every pie is baked in a 10″ pie pan, and they are cut into six equal, generous slices.

My friend selected the Hot Rod Potato pie: kind of like potatoes au gratin with potatoes, roasted peppers, cream, cheeses, onions, and bacon.  20180714_192934_resized

Her colleague had just flown into Baltimore and was hungry enough to order two slices: the Cannonball (bratwurst, onions, and peppers roasted in Heavy Seas Loose Cannon beer) and the Polka pie (Kielbasa, sauerkraut, potatoes, and cheese).  They were kind enough to let me try theirs, and I did the same.

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I think I panicked from the seemingly-limitless options, because I chose the sausage, tomato, and fennel pie — good, but not as great as all of theirs.  I love tomato-based sauces on pasta, pizza, salsa, you name it, but this had chunks of stewed tomatoes that were a little too large for my liking.  I think it came down to a texture issue for me, as I’d rather have a smoother sauce without huge chunks when it comes to hot, cooked tomatoes.  But my pie included both sweet and hot sausages, and it still tasted really good.  It could have used some cheese, though — either melty mozzarella or provolone, or even a gooey white American or cream cheese to balance out the acidic, chunky tomatoes.

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All these pies had the same crust — fork-tender, flaky, buttery, a little salty, chewy yet also crispy, not really sweet.  It was a really solid pie crust that got thicker and a little dryer toward the back.  Like a lot of dry pizza crusts, I wasn’t too tempted to eat the outer crust pieces, but the tops and bottoms were terrific.

The pies all came with complimentary sides of either a vinegar-based cole slaw with poppy seeds, or a simple side salad.  I opted for the cole slaw, which was great, except for the poppy seeds that got lodged between some of my teeth all night.  I still contend they need to develop an app that warns you about visible food caught between your teeth.

For her sweet pie, my friend went with the house specialty, the Baltimore Bomb, a vanilla-custardy chess pie with Berger cookies, a local delicacy similar to New York’s familiar black and white cookies, melted and swirled into the custard filling.  Berger cookies are smaller than your average black and whites, but they’re comparable “cakey” cookies, covered with rich, thick chocolate icing.  It was in the same kind of flaky, buttery crust as the savory pies, but it was almost a sweetness overload.

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I had a much easier time choosing my sweet pie, especially after studying the menu in advance: the Pineapple Right Side Up pie, white chocolate maple chess pie topped with brown sugar and pineapple.  As I write more on this blog, you will learn that I love anything with pineapple and anything with maple, but it’s very rare for a dessert to include both flavors.  Needless to say, it was delicious, but also ridiculously sweet and rich.  I would have liked a little more of a pineapple upside down cake taste mixed throughout (that’s one cake that I’ll always love) and a little less of the rich custard, which was extremely “eggy”-tasting in both sweet pies.  And normally I love chess pie!

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Anyway, it was an awesome dinner, a unique restaurant, and a great value.  None of us had any regrets, even if I don’t feel like I chose the best savory pie option.  I’m so glad some of my hip friends hipped me to the existence of Dangerously Delicious Pies, because I came across as so cool recommending it to my other friend and her friend.  Now I can say that almost everything is better in sandwich form AND pie form.

This place opens at 10 AM during the week and 9 AM on weekends, and stays open until 10 PM most days, and midnight on Friday and Saturday.  You could literally have pie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I strongly recommend you try that at least once.

To quote FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, one of my favorite fictional characters of all time from one of my favorite shows of all time, these were some damn fine pies.

 

Baltimore, Part 1: Attman’s Deli

I am in Baltimore, Maryland for the next few days.  When I am lucky enough to take work trips, I always try to explore, eat, and soak up the local culture as much as I can on my own limited time.  I despise driving in unfamiliar places, so whenever I travel, I walk when I can, take public transportation if it’s available, or rely on ride-sharing services or cabs.  Luckily, Baltimore has a fantastic public transportation system.  I took a light rail from the airport to my hotel for $1.80, and took a free bus to and from my first restaurant destination.  Figuring out the public transportation systems when I travel makes me feel more like a “man of the world,” and not just a lifelong Floridian who has to drive everywhere to get anywhere.  I was last in Baltimore on a short trip with my wife in 2011, but even before that, the city was already close to my heart.

My favorite television show of all time is The Wire, David Simon’s Baltimore-set epic that unfolds like a great American novel with a cast of hundreds, about the failure of the war on drugs, the struggles of cops and criminals alike, the collapse of blue collar jobs, the failing public school system, the decline of print journalism.  It’s about how institutions always tear down individuals who try to change things for the better, but how you still have to try, to fight the powers that be.  It’s often bleak and grim, sometimes heart-wrenchingly sad, occasionally uproariously funny, and incredibly well-written and well-acted.  The cast members, primarily actors of color, have gone onto higher-profile roles in more popular shows as well as movies, and I’m always happy to see them pop up.  The Wire ran for five seasons on HBO, from 2002 to 2008, and you can still watch it by streaming on Amazon Prime or HBO Go.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Here’s the offical website with a trailer for the series: https://www.hbo.com/the-wire

To make this food-related, I discovered The Wire after it had ended, like so many other fans — but better late than never.  Long before the show was available to stream online, one of my former students always raved about it, and she had been discussing shopping around for a Crock-Pot.  We worked out a deal: I traded her my Crock-Pot in exchange for borrowing her DVDs of the complete series!  She changed my life for the better (and now I own my own DVDs), and I hope she had better luck with that Crock-Pot than I did.

Anyway, back to Baltimore!  My first stop, after checking into my hotel, was to take one of the city’s wonderful free buses to Attman’s Deli, a legendary Jewish deli founded in 1915.  (https://attmansdeli.com/)  I’m a sucker for the food, culture, and history of Jewish delis, and for any restaurants with that kind of resilience.  In this era where everything is ephemeral, I am drawn to those institutions that are obviously doing everything right in order to last decades, whether they change with the times or are so good at what they do that they don’t have to.

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To my surprise, Attman’s isn’t a table service restaurant.  You enter and line up in a long, narrow corridor at the deli counter, place your order, pay for it at the end, and then take it to a dining room or to go.  The sandwiches and other options are listed above the counter, but the menu is overwhelmingly long, so I suggest you study it in advance, as I did, or grab a paper menu when you enter (since that includes the prices, whereas the listings above the deli counter don’t).

I chose the Lombard Street (named for the street Attman’s is on), a double-decker sandwich that comes with pastrami, corned beef, chopped liver, and Russian dressing on rye bread, for a pretty fair $14.95.  I figured that was a good way to try a lot of deli staples at once.  I also ordered a potato knish, because those are so rare nowadays (as are delis in general), and because this is The Saboscrivner, I had to get an order of onion rings so this review could also be a RING THE ALARM! feature.

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The knish was good.  For those who don’t know a knish from kishka, it’s a baked or fried dumpling stuffed with savory fillings, usually mashed potatoes seasoned with onions, but sometimes kasha (boiled, seasoned buckwheat grains), ground beef, or even spinach.  This was a baked knish, the more common variety, but the legendary knishes made by Gabila’s in New York are fried.  The doughy outer shell was soft, but held up firmly enough to properly contain the potatoey filling, and the potatoes had a rich, oniony flavor.  It was everything a baked knish should be.  I like my knishes with lots of deli mustard.  (Stay tuned for CUTTING THE MUSTARD, another planned recurring feature when I start reviewing mustards.)

The sandwich was delicious.  Not as hugely overstuffed as Katz’s infamous deli sandwiches in New York, which is fine, because I didn’t have to deconstruct it or dislocate my jaw in the process.  I sampled the corned beef, pastrami, and chopped liver separately, to fully appreciate them, as well as together in the sandwich as a melange of salty, juicy, beefy flavors.  I consider myself a connoisseur of the salted, cured meats, and I was glad to have chosen wisely from that long, almost intimidating menu.  (https://attmansdeli.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Attmans-Carryout-menu-2018_web.pdf)  In fact, I was so wise that I saved half of the sandwich for later, and I am thrilled that my hotel room has a fridge AND a microwave!

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And the onion rings?  Well, they were fine, but not my favorite kind of onion rings.  They were a little thicker than optimal, with a coating that was kind of like crispy bread crumbs, with that unmistakable jagged surface.  The coating stayed on well, which is always appreciated, but beer battered onion rings are still my Platonic ideal.  Ring the Alarm!

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Well, stay tuned for more Baltimore food reviews in the days to come.