Chef, restaurant expert, and author Mike Colameco joins Frommers.com Podcasts host Kelly Regan for a spirited discussion about the New York city restaurant scene. Hear about the best new openings, where to get a great slice, and the dangers of cupcakes and gritty buttercream.
Colameco is the host of PBS's popular Colameco's Food Show and WOR-Radio's "Food Talk". His latest book, Mike Colameco's Food Lover's Guide to NYC, was just published by our parent company Wiley. You can keep track of Mike at www.colameco.com
To listen this episode, click the "play" button on the MP3 player below.
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Kelly: Hi, and welcome to a conversation about all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, editorial director of the Frommer's Travel Guides, and I will be your host. My guest today is Mike Colameco, who is the host of PBS's popular Colameco's Food Show and WR radio's food talk. He is also the author of Mike Colameco's Food Lover's Guide to New York City. So, he is here today to talk with me about the latest news on New York City's cuisine. So, Mike, welcome and thanks for being here.
Mike: No, thanks for having me Kelly, pleasure.
Kelly: Great. So, I thought we would start with obviously a commentary on where things are at the moment. Certainly, the current economic climate is not what it could be. I am wondering from your perspective as someone whose been observing the New York cuisine for such a long time, how do you see the recession affecting the restaurant business?
Mike: It is awful. I was around in 1987. I was a chef back then at the Ritz Carlton on Central Park south the day the market tanked 23 percent, October 19th. That was really bad. No one thought they had seen anything like it; there was no off switch. It was after that they came up with all these protocols. But, having said that, I lived through that and I saw what it did to the business and we had a recession that followed, but I think this is worse. It is broader, because this really cuts across the board. This is real estate; this is stock market, its jobs from blue collar through to the upper echelons of white collar. It is just bad and restaurants are really...season veterans are doing stuff they never thought they would have to do to keep customers coming in.
Kelly: What kind of stuff do you think?
Mike: Well, I don't want to mention names because everybody is sensitive. [Kelly laughs]
Mike: I know a couple of guys that have been in this business a long time, since I was in diapers almost, and they own high end restaurants, they have things like that. They are doing lobster and steak dinner for two people for $99 at a restaurant where the check average for one was probably $99.
Mike: They are downscaling. They are putting burgers on the menu, they are maybe serving a bar menu that didn't exist ever. Basically, what they are saying is, in order to keep a volume of customers coming in, they've had to reduce their check average and position themselves, at least temporarily, in a place where there was enough revenue coming in to keep the business floating.
Kelly: Right, right. So, with that as a backdrop, are there places that are still crazily optimistic enough to be opening?
Mike: Yes, the trouble is with every business, and I don't care if you are in leasing or retail or building, nobody tines anything. So, let's take a couple of restaurants that opened last year that were a big deal. Like, Drew opened up Corton, which was a huge opening at the old Montrachet down at Tribeca. That is a deal that had been in place for years. It just takes a long time to arrange things. Ed Ground opened up 81 on the upper west side. Ed has been in cooking in New York since I've been. This was a deal where first he had to find the place, negotiate the lease, get all of his investors lined out, do the buildup. So, most of the restaurants that have opened up in the last year have been restaurants...
Kelly: Were in plans.
Mike: Exactly, in plans, on paper, with money on the table and leases signed going back to '07 and '08 and nobody saw this coming and of course it is like, what are you going to do? It is the world as you are thrown into. So, everybody is doing something a little different in order to generate enough business to make payroll, make the rent, and hopefully a profit at the end of the day, and survive this thing. I think we are all on that sort of hunker down, French warfare mode.
Kelly: Right. So, what is coming up this fall that you are looking forward to? Are there places on the horizon that you are excited to go to?
Mike: Yes, there still are and God bless them. There are a couple of openings that are going to be interesting to watch. One of them is Oceana, which is a restaurant that is owned by the Livanos family. It has been in a little brown stone on 53rd Street for like 20 odd years, and they just wanted to refresh it. It needed a different look. It was getting a little stale. They've got four or five other restaurants around town. And, they moved it to the McGraw Hill building on 6th Avenue, but it is a much bigger space.
Mike: It is going to an entirely different challenge for the chef. The chef is Ben Pollinger. He is a really good guy. Jansen Chan is the pastry chef. The managing director of the restaurant is the same, but now they are going from doing "X" amount of covers conceivably to two times that.
Mike: With a little bit more of a touristy appeal, maybe a little more of a standardistic crowd that they didn't have before.
Mike: That is going to be neat to watch because everybody is talented. Another couple is going to be San Domenico which had been for years Central Park south, right by Columbus, Tony May's restaurant. Tony May left that space to move downtown and really set his daughter up. His daughter is in her mid to late 30's now. Marisa, she is a great kid, and they wanted to kind of make it younger, make it vibier. They moved down right off of Madison Square Park.
Mike: And I think the new name is SD26 which is kind of like the address, and it's a big roll of the dice. It is a big space.
Kelly: Same kind of food?
Mike: Same kind. Well slightly different. What they are trying to do is, again speak for the times, is instead of having, Tony was really like an ambassador for Italian food, if you will, and he has been for years in New York. I think what they are doing here is the barriers are broken down. So, if you want to order some big things you can, but if you want to graze your way through four or five antipasti, some plates of pasta or risotto, maybe a little piece of protein and then desert, you can do that. So, it is going to be a kind of a new venture restaurant.
Mike: And, interestingly the place that took over the old San Domenico space, which was really one of the big openings of this year, is a restaurant called Maurya.
Kelly: Oh, right.
Mike: Chris Cannon and Michael White, who also run Alto and Convivio, both great restaurants, both really serious. Michael is the chef, and Chris is the front of the house guy and the wine guy. They took over the old San Domenico and gave it a complete reworking. It is completely lux. It is there bid for three star or maybe four star Italian seafood in New York.
Mike: And, it is going to be neat to see what happens there, because it is not an inexpensive place. It is a very gilded beautiful looking space with rosewood and onyx and just wonderful custom made everything.
Mike: It will be neat to see how they do.
Kelly: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That sounds very exciting. And certainly, because we do travel at Frommer's, we are always thinking about food in terms of having certain experiences while you are traveling. I am wondering, New York is obviously such a food, I don't even want to say mecca, it is just kind of a town that takes its food very seriously in all forms you know high brow low brow and everything in between. So, I am wondering for someone who is coming to New York City for the first time, from your perspective give me the top five things that people must do or must experience food wise while they are in New York.
Mike: Well, you know it is so hard to do. One of the reasons I wrote this book, Mike Colameco's Food Lover's Guide to New York is because the guidebook industry in the Post-Gazette era has become very sane. [inaudible 08:13] had a great idea 20 odd years ago to make this little book to fit in your jacket pocket.
Mike: It was full of phone numbers and dress codes and it was great, and the concept behind it wasn't anybody's point of view. Theoretically it was kind of an egalitarian mixture of lots of peoples.
Kelly: It was everybody's point of view.
Mike: It was sort of. We can debate the merits of that another time. [Kelly laughs]
Mike: It's not this discussion. But the problem is that guy became so popular that every guy that has followed -- the few that even seen the light of day and been printed -- are more less cut of the same cloth. Because that's what publishers said: "Oh, we've got to do that because that is what works." Coming to John Wiley with this book I said, "Look, OK you know, here I have been at this now in New York for almost 30 years now as a chef and as a media person. I've great access. Why don't we have a book that is broad and inclusive, but basically it has a complete point of view. And that point of view is mine, it is chef driven, it's an insiders' point of view." It's still big, it's 300 or 400 pages, but it is not 2,000 listings, it is hundreds.
Mike: But, every restaurant that is in there I have eaten at -- there's a reason to go to these restaurants. But to answer your question, and this is the short answer, because it is very hard to sort of you know... [Kelly laughs]
Mike: If you are in New York, there are so many options, but some really cool "hole in the wall places" that are in the book that you're probably not going to find in a lot of the guides, or if you ask your hotel concierge that's for sure.
Mike: They are downtown on the lower east side. One of them is on this great street called Division Street. It is where Orchard and Ludlow ends with a third Avenue L -- when it used to exist -- started.
Mike: It's funky. It's kind of like Chinatown meets the old industrial Jewish shtetl. It is neat. There is a restaurant there called Bacaro...
Mike: And it is Frankie DeCarlo's homage to Venetian wine bars. He basically built the restaurant by hand. Upstairs there is a beautiful little bar, a couple of tables, a gorgeous Venetian chandelier hanging, and then you descend down this beautiful stone and wrought iron staircase into these subterranean rooms.
Mike: There is another bar. It is all candlelit. Some of the tables are actually under the sidewalk. [Kelly laughs]
Mike: The lighting actually comes down through the street. It's like magic. The crowd is young, the soundtrack is vibey and the food is really great, really inexpensive, lots of small plates and little wines from the Vino and also Alto Adige to match. So, that is really a classic insider's thing.
Kelly: Yes, yes.
Mike: Another one that is kind of like that is you go around the corner and go up Ludlow or Orchard, Cafe Katja.
Mike: It is a little Austrian place, where again a couple of New York chefs that had serious resumes said, "Let's just have some fun." One of them is from Austria, one of the partners and they just said, "We have this little tiny kitchen, Austrian food is under-served. Let's do a real simple but traditional Austrian menu with noodles, and sausages, and smoked meats, and cheeses. Combine it with an incredible beer list, which we are going to show off. A great Austrian wine list and how many people in America know about Blaufrankisch? What? [Kelly laughs]
Mike: That is a great Austrian red wine or Gruner Veltliner, it is great white wine and nobody knows.
Mike: And, a great schnapps list. So, it is cool and again it is inexpensive, it's small and it's totally an insider's place.
Mike: A couple of others across the board. I don't think you can come to New York if you want to have your big blowout night, and you want to see what grown up dining is like. I think that the Pool Room at the Four Seasons Restaurant on Park Avenue.
Mike: It may be the greatest dining room in America. It was built to be a restaurant in 1959. Mies van der Rohe was one of guys behind it. It is just one of the most stunning, urban, sophisticated... It's Kerry Grant as a restaurant. [Kelly laughs]
Mike: It's great. Then some other stuff to do. You have to go to Katz's.
Mike: That is a great deli on Houston street. You have to go to Katz's. If you want to try a steakhouse and not do Peter Luger, I love Keens which is this place again has been around since the late 1800s and then The Grand Central Oyster Bar. The food is not great but where else do you see a place like that?
Mike: In Grand Central Station with the Guastavino tiles.
Kelly: And the tablecloths and everything, yes.
Mike: Yes. And they have probably the best oyster selection in the city, and New York used to be a big oyster town, and a great wine list. For little cool places, if you want to feel like you are totally in with the in crowd, try Prune, which is right across the street from Katz's on First Street. Or the Spotted Pig, which is in my neighborhood in The Village. The only caveat with both of those places is don't try to get in between seven o'clock and 11.
Mike: Kind of off hours.
Kelly: Spotted Pig doesn't take reservations.
Mike: They don't take reservations, it's a zoo, but what I do -- and I hate to pull strings and call friends. I can always do that if I am in a pinch. -- but what I do to the Spotted Pig, is sometimes if you want an early dinner or a late lunch and it's been one of those days, I go between two and four or two and five. The kitchen is still open. They still have a great menu. There are still people in there eating. There are often Europeans sharing champagne, having some food, and just killing the day. It is a great little New York restaurant.
Kelly: Yes, yes, totally. Well, you know one thing that most people of course associate New York with is pizza, and there has been a lot of talk lately. There has been a resurgence in pizza as kind of noble, viable eats in New York. I think for such a long time the whole conversation had been Grimaldi's versus John's versus Lombardi's. Now, it has kind of blown itself wide open. I would love to get your take on the pizza landscape as it were, because there is really this state has a large number of up and coming, not even up and coming, but already arrived pizza places, and you do include Keste in the book and New York magazine named it their top pizza place in the city.
Mike: What happened at some point, you know the birthplace of the pizza is Naples and a lot of the pizzerias that have come to America over the years it's sort of a Neapolitan hodge podge. There is a Sicilian version with a thicker, almost like focaccia dough. The basic pizza, the margarita, was invented in Naples, and you still think of that. But, this goes to the issue that is always true in cooking, the simplest things are the hardest things to do.
Mike: To make a baguette is really hard to do. To make a lousy baguette, you can get them anywhere. [Kelly laughs]
Mike: The croissant, the same thing. At its core what is pizza. Pizza is nothing more than dough, a couple of toppings, in the oven. But once serious chef turned their gaze on pizza, they started to pull their hair out because dough is this organic thing. To make a great dough is like really hard to do.
Mike: What kind of flour? What kind of water? Am I going to use natural fermented yeast, or am I going to use commercial yeast? How am I going to control the fermentations? So to cut to the chase, and the answer is that we have never had it better. You mentioned one little place I love, and it is in my neighborhood, it opened up just this past year, Keste. It's right down the street from John's which I don't think gets nearly enough respect. John's is a classic...
Kelly: I think it is essentially across the street from John's.
Mike: It is not. It is a couple of doors down and across the street. John's is a classic village fixture, it makes a very sturdy reliable pizza, they don't slices, you have to buy a pie but it is a great old coal fired oven, it is a good crust, and just walking into John's is like walking into Greenwich Village in the 70s.
Mike: It has posters of Jimmy Hendrix and Blues guitarist. It is kind of psychedelic. Where are my beads and bellbottoms? I need them. But right across the street is Keste, and this is a guy who has been around for a while in the States, had a place in Jersey. He is a Neapolitan [inaudible 09:25] and he has this gorgeous oven. He only does six or seven pizzas, but they are arguably among the best pizzas anywhere in all the boroughs today. He is totally a must visit.
Kelly: Yes, I have had the, my favorite pizza at Keste is the pizza del re. It is a white pizza that has slices of prosciutto laid on top in a truffle cream.
Mike: Yes, it is crazy.
Kelly: I mean it is really...
Mike: Once it is added to the oven, they lay the prosciutto on so it almost begins to kind of melt like lard across the top.
Mike: It is great and we have to mention the next best place, my favorite was pizza Una Pizza Napoletana.
Mike: Anthony Mangueri who was the proprietor, he was this crazy guy. He grew up in Jersey, had a place in Long Ranch, opened up in Manhattan. He's moving to San Francisco. To be honest with you, he is probably going to be more at home as a kindred spirit.
Mike: He is a crazy guy.
Kelly: He has got like a very...people have called it like a monkish devotion to the pizza.
Mike: In his old restaurant, he only opened Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. OK? So, he closed for three days which right off the bat you are going like, "What's wrong with you? You pay rent for seven." [Kelly laughs]
Mike: And then, because he did a naturally fermented dough, when he ran out of dough, which could be Saturday night at eight, he would close the restaurant.
Mike: And that was it.
Kelly: He closed the restaurant.
Mike: He closed. I mean you are out of dough. He would go outside, he would tell all his waiters, there could be a line out the door and "hey, sorry man, " done. [Kelly laughs]
Mike: He went to the west coast but the guys that took over, Mathieu Palombino is a Belgium guy that worked for Laurent Tourondek who is BLT, a fame.
Mike: He is a really good chef. Mathieu has a place in Williamsburg that I adore called Motorino, which is a great pizzeria. Mathieu bought Anthony's old place Una Pizza Napoletana on 12th street, and he is going to keep the oven, which is one of the best pizza ovens in America.
Kelly: It is a wood fired.
Mike: Yea, all of these places. Yes, Keste is wood fired, Motorino's wood fired, this is wood fired. This was an oven that was one piece of stone. It was about $20,000. Tiny little oven flown from in Naples. They had to take the entire front of the store apart to get it in.
Kelly: [laughs] To get the oven into the restaurant.
Mike: So, Mathieu inherited/bought the space from Anthony, and for him it is like playing Jimmy Hendrix Strata cast, or the greatest Steinway. [Kelly laughs]
Mike: Now, he has this greatest piece. So, watch out for that place to be crazy good.
Kelly: When do you think that place is going to open?
Mike: Soon, because everything is there. There wasn't a lot of issues to transfer. It had a permit, it's got all the permits in place, it had the oven in place. He just wants to tweak it a bit, probably expand what he is doing wine wise because Anthony was pretty bare bone. Anthony had only a couple of wines and coffee and Anthony only did four or five pizzas. That was it.
Kelly: And, Anthony didn't do anything else but pizza. So, if you wanted something else, it was too bad.
Mike: "Sorry pal! This is it" [Kelly laughs]
Mike: "That's it you come here to eat. I only do five pizzas. I don't do sides. I don't do deserts." You get a little piece of chocolate and a very nice old fashioned espresso when you're done, goodbye.
Kelly: So, people should just keep an eye out. It is on 12th street between 1st and 2nd in that old Una Pizza Napoletana space and we are looking for good things to happen with the new guy who is taking over.
Kelly: So yeah, we are going to wind down, but before we go, I want to ask you about another kind of funny and perhaps fluffier topic which is, I really want to talk about cupcakes. You know they surprisingly really have become a food thing in New York now. Certainly, I think a large part of that is that it grew out of the exposure that the Magnolia Baker got from Sex and The City. Now the lines, as you say outside of Magnolia are ridiculous, but you mentioned Magnolia and you mentioned Cupcake Cafe in the book. I am curious about what is your take on how they stack up against all these other places that have cropped up? Like, there is Sugar Seed Sunshine, there is Crumbs which is now the Star Bucks of cupcake places. [laughs] They seem to be cropping up all over the place.
Mike: It won't go away, and it is amazing. I have to tell you, I live in the neighborhood by Magnolia. I live a couple blocks down at the end of Bleaker, and it is painful! [laughter]
Mike: There are Sex and the City tour buses where hundreds of girls and their moms pile off the bus with a tour guide that leads them around the neighborhood where I guess this is where what's her name lived, I don't even know, "This is where she sat on the stoop of the brown stone. This is where she stopped for milk." [laughter]
Mike: "And here is the Korean deli where she, "...it is like, "OK, folks can I get through."
Mike: Honestly, Magnolia does like 3,000 cupcakes a day.
Mike: It is not my favorite at all. It is very inconsistent.
Kelly: Yeah, I have to say the thing I love about Magnolia, the thing that I think they do the best for me is the coconut layered cake with the...
Mike: The other stuff that they do is really cool, but that is not where they make their money. I mean their cakes are really good. Their little brownies and stuff like that are wonderful. They do a black forest cake that is really cool. But, their cupcakes, because they do such a volume, it is inconsistent. Cupcakes are tough to make because the relationship of crumb to dough to icing is critical. Then, it is very hard to cook that side. It is not a nine inch cake, it is a little tiny cake so it is really easy to slightly overcook them, which makes them dry, or over mix the dough, which makes them dry. Again, if you are making butter cream like they do with stand mixers and small batches. It is not unusual for them to have granular, sugary, crunchy...it is gritty butter cream which is not good either.
I love Cupcake Cafe. I love the ones you mentioned. There is another kind of a newbie. If you go a little further down Bleaker Street from Magnolia, and you head more toward the NYU part of The Village so you are going east on Bleaker, Bleaker hits Carmine, you make a right on Carmine. There is a little place there called Sweet Revenge that has wonderful cupcakes. She pairs cupcakes with beer and cupcakes with wine. She has other little savory things to it and it has become this kind of cool little neighborhoody hangout. I think that their cupcakes are great just because they are not doing 3,000 because they are really taking better care there. It is a much better cupcake than Magnolia, and it is a ten minute walk.
Mike: She's not in the book because she was new. I mean the trouble with writing a book in this work is that I really have to exempt things. If the place opens up and I only go to it once and I love it, that doesn't mean they are in. I have to go back, and I have to back again. If they can keep their act together for six months and be consistent, then we will talk.
Mike: So, they opened late in the year, but I really like Marlo. Marlo Scott is her name. The name comes from the fact that she got laid off of her corporate job and so the cupcakes are her dream. [Kelly laughs]
Mike: Sweet Revenge is like, "I am going to stick it to the man. I am going to open up this cupcake joint." Well, through this she is working seven days a week. She is there all the time, and it is a great little cupcake place.
Kelly: That's great. Well, that's good to know. I am definitely going to have to check it out. Because, I am a cupcake purest, I feel like all the crazy flavors, cookie dough, peanut butter and jelly cupcakes like, "No, no, no. Give me a good cupcake, good cake, good butter cream frosting," and that's what you need.
Mike: That is hard to find. Trust me, it is true.
Kelly: Well, that is probably all the time we have for today, but before we go I wanted to give a note to our listeners who are on Twitter. You know, if you would like to receive a copy of Mike's book, "Mike Colameco's Food Lover's Guide to New York City" as well as a copy of "Frommer's 500 Places for Food and Wine Lovers", just tweet about this podcast and include the hash tag foodloversnyc, all one word. The first ten people to tweet about the podcast will get copies so make sure and do that. Meanwhile, I have been talking with Mike Colameco who is the host of PBS's program Colameco's Food Show and also the author of "Mike Colameco's Food Lover's guide to New York City" which is on sale now. Mike this was a great conversation. Thank you so much for being here and you have left me very very hungry.
Mike: Well, thanks Kelly and a pleasure to speak with you and your audience, Frommer's are legendary and anytime you guys want talk to me, you have got my number, kiddo.
Kelly: You got it, you got it. So, join us next time for another conversation about all things travel. I am Kelly Regan, and we will talk again soon. [music]
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