Not Fade Away
We\’re calling Monday night\’s show \”DISAPPEARING MANHATTAN,, but this is not to suggest that Katz\’s Deli, or Keen\’s, or Russ & Daughters are going to fade away anytime soon (if ever). What I am saying with this \”Special\” episode is that these are exactly the kind of old school, hometown places I love; uniquely New York institutions who have survived the brutal caprices of style and changing tastes — and are still worth going out of your way to patronize. Let me make this clear: \”Old\” does not necessarily mean \”good.\” Just cause it\’s a \”New York institution\” doesn\’t mean you want to eat there. If it did, New Yorkers might actually eat at Tavern On The Green — and Luchows would still be open.
Peter Luger? You can have it. Grand Central Oyster Bar? Good luck. The places featured on this show just happen to be institutions. They just happen to be old. Newer, more … pragmatic enterprises couldn\’t or wouldn\’t do what they\’re doing. Most — if not all — of the places featured on this episode are dinosaurs, among the last of mostly extinct herds who, once long ago, ruled New York\’s concrete jungle. But these remaining eateries, though perhaps no longer \”culturally relevant,\” and certainly not \”hip\” — and about as far from \”trendy\” or \”hot\” as anything could be, are in fact what make New York special. All are still great after all these years.
I contend they deserve love and respect from anyone serious about food or about having a good time. Good food is always \”relevant.\” Manganaro\’s Grosseria and the awesome time warp of a French restaurant, Le Veau D\’Or are businesses who would very likely be more profitable selling sneakers or tube socks or designer cupcakes. They hang on — in a particularly unfriendly economic climate — for the simple reason that they\’re owned by magnificently stubborn people who happen to own their buildings. Manganaro\’s is a bit of vintage Italian-America that people raised on a more al dente, post-Batali, Northern-inflected, lightly sauced, meatball-free, an Italian might not appreciate. But it\’s a vital step back in time, another world, and an essential one to remember and to cherish.
If you don\’t like the spaghetts with red sauce and meatballs in the back dining area at Manganaro\’s? If you don\’t \”get it?\” You\’re just not drinking enough red wine. There is better French food in New York these days than what they\’re serving at Le Veau D\’Or. But if you can\’t have one of the kooky-great times of your life at this absolutely untouched by time frog pond — with its delightfully irony-free, 60-year-old menu? Then you really have no true love for French food — and certainly nothing resembling a heart. It\’s the bistro that time forgot — a last link to a golden age of tableside carving, curly parsley as state of the art garnish and desserts seen last in the pages of the Larrousse Gastronomique. Snobs will no doubt carp that Katz\’s has been covered to death on TV and in films — and they will groan (accurately enough) that every damn lazy-ass food writer from elsewhere, looking to cover the \”real\” New York (in an afternoon) will write about their few bites of pastrami at this downtown institution, make a few oblique and obligatory \”When Harry Met Sally\” references and move on. But there\’s a reason Marco Pierre White, for instance, loves the place — and why so many people keep going back: not JUST because they \”don\’t make \’em like that anymore\” — but because it\’s damn good pastrami. Period.
The herring and smoked and cured fish they sell at Russ & Daughters would be just as desirable if the store were a spanking new gourmet shop — instead of a century old institution which grew up from a street cart. The product speaks for itself. Russ & Daughters occupies that rare and tiny place on the mountaintop reserved for those who are not just the oldest and the last — but also the best. I do make allowances for personal history, for the sentimental attachments and willful blindness that comes with growing up with a particular kind of food. At Hop Kee in Chinatown, I was — before moving on to the more delicious and authentic delights of the \”phantom menu\” (supposedly reserved for Chinese patrons) — unable to resist the charms of the clunky, corn-starchy kwailo classics I first encountered as a kid. It had been a long, long time since I\’d had an egg roll, or won ton soup, or a scary-bright sweet and sour pork — and by this time, after having eaten all over China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan — that old style \”not really Chinese\” stuff had become genuinely exotic again. For those of you less inclined to nostalgia, I highly recommend the whole flounder and the crabs.
The show closes talking about the changing face of drinking in New York with the dangerously talented, equally dangerous to know Nick Tosches. He\’s written some of the greatest biographies ever (on Dean Martin, Sonny Liston, Jerry Lee Lewis) among other good works, all of which which I strongly urge you to check out. \”Legend\” is not an inappropriate word to use when describing Tosches. His book \”Hand of Dante\” is, I think, the only novel I\’ve ever seen published with a cautionary band and parental advisory outside the jacket.
And while I\’m referring you elsewhere, may I suggest clicking on the \”Meet The Crew\” feature on this site? Getting to know a little about the incredible mix of talented people who produce, direct, shoot and edit NO RESERVATIONS will, I think, explain a lot about why it\’s so different from every other food or travel show. The \”Crew Blog\” and \”Ask the Crew\” sections are also of interest to anyone wanting to understand the highs, and lows and technical arcania of the Chanko Experience.
Lastly, I want to thank Augusto Elefano for getting my sorry ass to finally make the trip to the Philippines. I would not have done it without his final push. He and his family were lovely to me and my crew — and the fact that they were a bit shy with cameras jammed in their faces — if anything — speaks well of them. I\’d rather a shy, thoughtful guy, telling me something real about himself than an \”expert\” professional anytime. Thanks as well, to Claude, Ivan and special shout out to MarketMan — whose preparations for the Cebu lechon extravaganza made the filming of Apocalypse Now look quick and easy.