Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Three Little Fishes

Grand Central Oyster Bar, Luke's Lobster, Russ & Daughters, NYC

Just to prove it wasn't all burger, burger, burger during our time in Gotham we also enjoyed some rather fine fish, too.

Grand Central Oyster Bar, Midtown East, Manhattan
At the end of our first sunny and adventure packed afternoon (crashing an Italian wedding, getting lost, scoffing ice cream, having a Ghostbuster moment at the Central Library, getting lost again....) in the Big Apple we found ourselves in the iconic main concourse at Grand Central Terminal, just in time to watch the sun set through the great arched windows.

As well as being famed for appearing in such disparate films as Carlito's Way, I Am Legend and North By Northwest; having the largest number of platforms of any railway station; and its four-faced opal clock, Tiffany glass and Jules Coutan sculptures it is also home to the Grand Central Oyster Bar.

The Oyster bar first opened in 1913, and has become a landmark in the New York culinary scene, churning out oysters and fresh seafood for last 99 years. Inside features a beautiful vaulted tiled ceilings, and the archway in front of the restaurant is also famous for being a whispering gallery.

As you enter there's a bistro area, with red chequered table cloths, to the left, a u-shaped seating area to the right, and a further seating area  and bar through the saloon doors. The place to be though is sat up a stool by the counter at the back, where you can watch the countermen shucking oysters, scooping up bowls of hot chowder and tending to their pan roasts and stews.

Luckily two spots had just opened up as we arrived, at the end of the bar away from the main action, but the perfect place to quietly sup a beer and watch the fray. We ordered two pints to start; the Bluepoint Toasted Lager for me, the Chelsea Sunset Red for the Ewing. Very cold, very good, and very quickly drunk, alongside a handful of salty oyster crackers.

Feeling a little delicate from the flight (and possibly all the burgers and ice cream I had already eaten that afternoon) I stuck to a nice, unchallenging bowl of creamy cherrystone clam pan roast.

Dear God. What arrived, piping hot, a few minutes later at the bar was a lake of the thickest chowder full of the largest, and most frightening looking clams I had ever seen. All I could see was their huge wiggling bellies sticking up through a gallon of creamy, fishy soup. I gamely tried to eat one, and failed. The Ewing gamely tried to eat one, and failed. I managed a little spoonful of the impossible rich broth, then another, then gingerly tried a clam again....

Surprisingly, once I overcame my terror, I found these were sweet and juicy with the tang of the sea, and not at all rubbery or chewy as I had feared. Although they posed a little big of a challenge initially (the round of toast at the bottom of the dish, turning into a bread mush in the soup didn't help things), by the end of the dish I was sad there wasn't a few more of the tender little nuggets to wash down with a cool draught of ale.

Full disclosure: I'm not a big fan of oysters. I realise that as a 'foodie' (or just a glutton) this is akin to saying you prefer breast to thigh, fillet to rib eye, or you like to torture little kittens in your spare time. While I find their history, variety and cultivation quite fascinating, and always gamely gulp down one or two if they are offered to me, the idea of blob of gritty, mucoid mollusc, sitting in a little saline pool doesn't really blow me away. The Ewing, however, is a big bivalve fan and I had promised her a little oyster action as a reward for queueing for burgers all afternoon.

Luckily the Ewing was very excited about her platter of East Coast Oysters, and these didn't disappoint. The counterman set them out in pairs around the dish, smallest to largest, and handed us a ticket with their names on so we wouldn't forget what we were chowing down.

While not much point in trying to ask the Ewing to remember now which ones she liked best, she still struggles with her own name some mornings, it's safe to say they all went down, and none came back up again (always an important thing with raw seafood, I find). I must admit, they did look very tempting, like plump bluey-grey jewels, twinkling in there little briny baths.

They provide huge vats of cocktail sauce, more suitable for dipping fries, as well as pots of horseradish and wedges of lemon to accompany your bivalves, but all these needed was a little nudging loose from there shells, then straight down the hatch.

Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Luke's Lobster, Financial District, Manhattan
Although the lobster roll originally hails from north of NYC, the town has become famous for several  versions, including the ones found the Grand Central Oyster Bar, Red Hook Lobster pound, Mermaid Inn and Mary's Fish Camp. A lobster roll from The Pearl Oyster Bar was the first thing Tony Soprano asked for upon waking up from his coma.

Luke Holden, the eponymous founder of Luke's, knows where to get the good stuff. Hailing from coastal Maine, and having a dad in the seafood processing business, he has managed to source some of the freshest and, at $15, cheapest lobster rolls in Gotham.

After an afternoon riding the Staten Island ferry and sunbathing in Battery Park we were primed for some seafood, and made our way down Wall Street to the latest branch of Luke's in the FiDi. Being the weekend it was mercifully quiet and free of suits, leaving us free to dawdle and deliberate over the menu while chatting to the staff.

We needed little persuading to go for the Noah's ark combo, a full platter of lobster, crab and shrimp rolls with potato chips and a beer each (they also have a selection of Maine Root sodas, including blueberry and Sarsaparilla). The menu is short and to the point, dominated by seafood rolls, but they serve soup, chowder, crab claws and whoopie pies to accompany your dinner.

The Beers are all North Eastern and the nice girl at the counter patiently went through them all with us, despite not really having any idea what we trying say to her, or what any of them actually tasted like. In the end I chose the Allagash White, a wheat beer from Portland, Maine that was refreshingly spicy with orange and coriander seeds. The Ewing plumped for the Belfast Bay Lobster Ale, an amber ale with a nice malty/burnt sugar note.

Our trilogy of rolls; a glistening mass of shrimp, crab meat and lobster, tossed through with a little Hellman's mayonnaise and lemon, sprinkled with secret seasoning and heaped up in a gently toasted, buttered bun.

These rolls may look pretty humble, but they manage to pack in a huge amount of glorious fishy flavour. The crab was my least favourite of the three, still very tasty but a little bland compared to the other two. The shrimp was glorious, fat and juicy little coils of pink, fresh sea flavour. I suppose it's easy to become immune to the charms of a good prawn mayo, with the bad ones being so ubiquitous, but this was truly lovely.

Of course it's the lobster that's the real star of the show. Luke's uses sustainable lobster, flown straight down from Maine and it's glorious. The touch of mayo and butter is just enough to showcase the sweetness of the crustacean, and the sweet toasted rolls make the perfect transportation vehicle (I thought the rolls looked a little stale and wan at first, but trust me, they were very, very good). A very decent sandwich that won't give your wallet too much of a workout.

Luke's Lobster on Urbanspoon

Russ & Daughter, Lower East Side, Manhattan
Russ & Daughters is a classic 'appetizing' (a Jewish fish based version of a deli) store found on Houston Street, down on the Lower East Side. Around since 1914, and currently being run by the fourth generation of the Russ family, it has become a landmark institution and is still considered one of New York's finest appetizing shops.

Inside the store. As well as offering a plethora of smoked, brined and cured fish, caviar, salads, olives and cream cheese there are also many different breads, pastries and chocolates available. These include Jewish favourites such as challah,  babkas and rugelach, macaroons and cookies and hand dipped marshmallows and jellies.

Our server seemed a little frosty at first, but soon mellowed to our incompetent English charm and was very helpful suggesting combinations and offering us little morsels to taste. After ordering our Super Heebster we asked for the classic New York combination of belly lox and cream cheese for our second bagel. 

As I thought there might be, there was an attempt to warn us about the lox (belly lox is the middle section of the salmon cured in sea salt brine, and is far saltier and stronger than the smoked salmon we are normally used to). We were very kindly given samples of both the lox and the Western Nova salmon to compare. Although the lox is quite a full-on fish experience, I really enjoyed the bracing, salty oiliness, in contrast to the gentle smoke of the Nova. We stuck with our choice, but were persuaded to add a little fresh tomato to mellow the flavours.

Some of Russ and Daughters different types of cream cheese, including with horseradish, vegetables, goats cheese, lox and even a tofu version. They also offer six types of caviar as well as trout, salmon and a potent wasabi roe.

The baked whitefish and salmon salad on the Super Heebster was sweet and smoky, which contrasted nicely with the eye-watering pop of the wasabi roe. It makes me very sad we can't get readily get whitefish salad over here in the UK, as it really is a very lovely thing to have for lunch. (some hot smoked trout or salmon fillets, broken up and mixed with a little mayo makes an acceptable, but not perfect substitute)

The belly lox was a more challenging mouthful; the salty and oily salmon cut through with the fresh tomato and smooth caviar cream cheese. The bagel provided just enough heft to keep the whole thing together, and the bland chewiness helped offset the rich fish. Both the store and the sandwich are New York classics for a good reason, and this remains an essential stop on any food tour on the LES.

Russ & Daughters on Urbanspoon

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