200-218/1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die

Dec 13, 2017 by

This is one of those “eat the world without leaving NYC” posts.  I did take a trip to LA in October, which was fun, but all of the following items were checked off Mimi’s list in good old New York City.

The first few items were found at an enormous Japanese/Chinese fusion buffet called IchiUmi, a place I’d been wanting to try for a long time, that always has a LONG wait.  Miles and I happened to wander in in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, and got seated right away!  The food is good overall, and the size of this place is epic.  This buffet would be enormous in any context, but in NYC, where real estate is SO expensive, its scale is truly impressive.  Not the best Asian food you’ll find in the Big Apple, but definitely worth a trip.

Shabu-Shabu (200) — Japanese

One of the main reasons I wanted to try Ichiumi is that they do shabu-shabu.  About 1/4 of this massive buffet is raw meats, vegetables, and noodles that you can cook in a boiling pot of broth right at your table.  Mimi tells us that shabu-shabu means “‘swish-swish,’ its name referring to the gentle swishing sound the thinly cut meat, tofu, and vegetables make as they are sloshed around in the simmering broth to cook.”  We had a great time grabbing all kinds of uncooked stuff, both familiar and strange, from the buffet and dropping it into the cauldron on our table to see what would emerge.

IchiUmi, NYC

Matai (Water Chestnuts) (201) — Chinese

One of the vegetables we cooked shabu-shabu style was matai, known in these parts as ‘water chestnuts.”  I’m not a huge fan of these not-actually-chestnuts (the opaque white discs in the bowl below) because I think they taste like nothing, even when cooked in a dish.  Mimi, however, calls them a “singularly crunchy delight” and says they posses a “refreshing, icy bite that adds textural interest to many Chinese dishes.”  In addition to their visible appearance in many Chinese dishes, these edible aquatic tubers are also used to make a mild flour and a thickener for Chinese deserts (again, because, ahem, they don’t taste like anything.  To me.  And it’s my blog.).  I’ve now eaten them again for the sake of completion, and once again, I’ll take a pass.

IchiUmi, NYC

Soba Noodles (202) — Japanese

The IchiUmi buffet also offered small bowls of chilled buckwheat soba noodles.  I’m not crazy about them, especially without any dressing up or sauce, but Mimi says, “purists opt for zaru soba–“soba in a basket”–which might really mean soba on a bamboo mat, with the noodles served cold.”  Apparently the soba may be dipped into different sauces and garnishes per the diner’s taste, but they should always be served plain, and as a main course, never a side dish.  They were tasty, for some blank noodles, but in my opinion noodles always need a little something more.

IchiUmi, NYC

On the other end of the dining spectrum from a massive buffet, is the small-plates experience.  The Chinese have dim sum, the Spaniards have tapas, and the Japanese have izakaya, informal gastropubs for eating small plates and drinking beer and sakeMiles and I were intrigued by the flurry of izakayas popping up in NYC, so we headed out to try OKA in the Kips Bay neighborhood.

Ochazuke (203) — Japanese

On the OKA menu I was excited to see ochazuke, because I’ve never been able to find it before.  I’d never tried this dish — rice soaked in green tea — and truth be told I’m not green tea’s biggest fan, but Mimi where recommends, I follow.  Mimi touts ochazuke as comfort food, “the perfect choice for those looking for a light breakfast or satisfying between-meals snack.  That’s certainly its appeal to busy students and office workers.”  Ochazuke can be eaten alone or topped with many different things: in our case, cooked shrimp and a scallop.  The dish was delicious, as was everything else we had at OKA.  We particularly recommend the salmon roe, pork belly, and grilled squid.

Izakaya Oka, NYC

Moving on, let’s talk about a German cake I bought at a Japanese store…

Baumkuchen (204) — German

There probably aren’t as many German specialty food stores in NYC as there are Asian markets, but I was still baffled as to why the only places I’ve ever seen this German dessert for sale are Muji and Sunrise Mart Maybe Japanese people really love these little cakes, I surmised, so the stores keep them stocked?  Who knows?  My curiosity finally got the best of me and I went for baumkuchen purchased at Muji — maybe not the most authentic, but certainly the most easily acquired.  And I’m so glad I did!  Per Mimi: “after a taste of the gently sweet, almondy, moist, dense, pound cake-like pastry, you’ll know why Germans consider it the king of cakes.”  Apparently baumkuchen should be round and hollow in the center (I’ve seen some this shape at Sunrise Mart), and stand 2-3 feet tall, or even taller for exhibition pieces.  The cakes are actually baked on a rotating spit, onto which the baker ladles layers and layers of custardy dough.  Once baked, the cake is taken off the spit to cool for 10-24 hours, then glazed with a thin white icing or chocolate.  So… yeah.  What I got at Muji is definitely not the best-case baumkuchen scenario, BUT, Mimi does say, “Oddly enough, baumkuchen is a well-known confection in Japan, where it’s been widely available ever since…1919.”  So I’m still going to check this one off the list, but also keep my eyes peeled for the tall, glazed, hollow, more German version in the future.

from Muji, NYC

Banh Mi (205) — Vietnamese

I love bahn mi sandwiches!  They’re basically po’boys with more vegetables, and I am here for that.  My faves in NYC come from An Choi (best Vietnamese food in NYC, period) or the excellent Cambodian chain restaurant Num Pang But the one in the photo below came from Indie Cafe, a place where I’ve had about a thousand lunches (it’s across the street from Juilliard), and their sandwiches are also very good.  Banh mi is actually a fusion food — the baguette of the sandwich reflects French colonial influence, as does the aioli inside.  But the rest of the toppings — shredded carrots, daikon radish, fermented fish sauce, cucumber, chili peppers, and lots of other things — are more reflective of Vietnam.  The protein can be any number of things, from tofu (like the one below) to headcheese.  Like a po’boy, bahn mi is traditionally cheap street food, but as Mimi says, “these days it has become high style and so its prices rise accordingly.”

Indie Cafe, NYC

Borshch (206) — Ukrainian

I know I’ve waxed poetic about the virtues of Veselka on this blog before, so I’ll spare you [most of] my glowing praises for this East Village staple that’s been serving up amazing Ukrainian food since 1954.  Miles and I went on Halloween for lunch, and I had some delicious borshch (spelled “borscht” in the states).  I LOVE BEETS, but I don’t generally like cold soup, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to like it.  I’m here to tell you — BORSHCH IS BALLER.  Comforting and hearty and tummy-warming, even though it isn’t warm in temperature.  How do they do that?  Mimi tells us that around the world, there are over 100 different varieties of borshch, and some are even served hot, “designed for the coldest of winters in the coldest of lands.”  My winter 2018 goal is to learn to make borshch at home.

Veselka, NYC

After a long day of wedding-dress hunting (squeee!) with my pal Hilary and her mother and two other bridesmaids, our very hungry and decision-fatigued party made its way to a fantastic Indian restaurant on the Upper East Side called Dawat Haute Indian Cuisine.

Vegetarian Thali (207) — Indian

What better way  to combat a day of too many hard choices, than by just giving in to having everything?  We ordered the vegetarian thali (tasting menu) for the table, so we could sample a bunch of different vegetarian dishes.  Per Mimi, “it is no random assortment — the dishes are carefully paired to complement one another in terms of flavor and texture.”  This thali had everything Mimi insists should be included — chutneys, dips, yogurt raita (a fave of mine), fresh salad, dal, potatoes, rice, breads, curries, and pickles.  It was a feast for all the senses, and we were a table of happy eaters.  Fun fact: the traditional round metal serving plate is also called a thali.

Dawat, NYC

Bhel Puri (208) — Indian

While we waited for the thali to arrive, I couldn’t resist ordering an appetizer of bhel puri.  I love this stuff (you might remember I wrote about trying it for the first time on this very blog, waaaaaaaay back in 2009) but it’s not overly common on fancy restaurant menus.  Maybe because in India, bhel puri is a chaat, or street snack, like a hotdog or soft pretzel is in US cities.  I was excited to see, after the fact, that Dawat is one restaurant in NYC where Mimi recommends you try this dish that “begins with puffs and chips of rice, chickpea, and wheat flours deep-fried to nutty crispness.  Tossed with peanuts, the mix is showered with hot, salty, and sweet condiments and spices like cayenne, cardamom, cumin, ginger, brown palm sugar, lemony tamarind, and fresh coriander, all flavors that light up the whole palate with each bite.”  It is, unsurprisingly, incredibly addictive eating.

Dawat, NYC

Dal (209) — Indian

I never ate lentils in my childhood, but when I encountered them as an adult, I was instantly smitten.  I almost always order dal (puréed, dried beans) at an Indian restaurant; there were winter nights when I lived in Queens that I’d order the family-sized dal for delivery, and live off that one order for four days.  Mimi educates us on preparation: “To be turned into this mainstay of the Indian diet, the mildly nutty, split and hulled  lentils… are gently, slowly cooked with a variety of spices until they completely fall apart, and are then mashed into a silky, flavorful purée.”  Then one spoons that purée over rice, or scoops it up with delicious, delicious naan bread.  Flavorful and filling, dal is a fantastic main course for non-meat-eaters (and the availability of such carefully prepared vegetarian entrées is a big reason I love Indian food so very much).

Dawat, NYC

Kulfi (210) — Indian

Ice cream is my total jam, but I wasn’t super into this Indian variety.  Kulfi is an unchurned milk-based dessert that contains no eggs or cream (and is usually served in a cone that stands up on the plate, as opposed to this kind of lazy one served lying down).  Mimi informs me that kulfi is generally made by simmering milk and condensed milk together, flavoring it, and then pouring it into a mold to be frozen.  I think the part I didn’t enjoy about kulfi is one of its hallmarks: “it emerges as a cold and creamy affair, one whose distinctively granular texture makes a virtue of the ice crystals that form when the ice cream mixture isn’t kept moving as it freezes.”  I’ve had other varieties of frozen milk desserts that featured this flaky, crystalline texture, and it’s just not my speed.  I prefer a thick, silky cream-based dessert like a gelato or traditional ice cream.  So, sorry, kulfi, but I think I’ll be sticking with kheer (cinnamon-laced rice pudding) as my go-to Indian dessert.

Dawat, NYC

Shifting gears, let me tell you about an amazing Scandinavian meal I had at Smörgås Chef — the adorable café inside Scandinavia House on Park Avenue.  Scandinavia House — The Nordic Center in America is a cultural center on the Upper East side that offers readings, exhibitions, performances, and “a wide range of programs that illuminate the culture and vitality of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.”  And Smörgås Chef offers delectable food from those countries, under the same roof.

Sild (211) and Köttbullar (212) — Scandanavian

As you can see below, I ordered a platter of tiny, tasty treats, the better to get a good sampling of the culture’s cuisine (and not just because I’m obsessed with hors d’oeuvres in all their guises.  Sild are herring, which you can see hiding, silver-white, at the back of the plate below.  These were fine, they tasted like herring, but my lukewarm feelings for that fish are well-documented.  Not so the Scandinavians, however.  Mimi tells us that, “the Nordic countries celebrate those silvery, saline fish like no other part of the world — with more than twenty spectacular variations on the theme.”  I do respect that anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

Also on this adorable platter: köttbullar, better known as Swedish meatballs.  While the IKEA version may be perfectly serviceable, I urge you to try them in an actual home or restaurant that’s not connected to a gigantic furniture retailer.  Good köttbullar are transcendent, and made even more so by their fruity accompaniment (see next item).  Köttbullar are traditionally the size of a walnut and served on a bed of mashed potatoes with lingonberry preserves on top (√√√).  Once again, I was excited to see that the location I’d selected to try a food, is one of the very places Mimi recommends to find it in New York.

FYI, everything else on this plate was also SUPER tasty, but either not part of Mimi’s list, or something I’d already checked off (like gravlax).

Smörgås Chef, NYC

Prinsesstårta (213) — Scandanavian

And just as I say that last sentence, I make a departure from Mimi’s list.  As I’ve said before, there are several items on the list of 100 Foods to Eat Before You Die that I won’t be checking off, for moral reasons (I don’t eat, even if “humanely raised,” a few specific things like veal and foie gras, for moral reasons).  So that means there are a few open slots for ME to recommend items to YOU, and one of the most cruel, most blatant omissions from Mimi’s book, as I see it, is prinsesstårta, or “princess cake.”  As fans of British baking programs will attest, this traditional Scandinavian dessert is time-consuming to make, beautiful to gaze upon, and rarely found in the wild.  In NYC, you can find it at Smörgås Chef, but also the Swedish coffee shop chain FIKA, which does a very good version.  Prinsesstårta consists of layers of sponge cake, marzipan, custard, whipped cream, and jam — all covered in a thick layer of bright green, perfectly smooth, marzipan.  The original recipe first appeared in a cookbook in 1948, and was said to be a favorite of the three daughters of Prince Carl, Duke of Västergötland.  It is one of my favorite desserts on the planet, but not very often on offer, which makes it something you have to go looking for specifically.  Therefore, I’m adding it to my personal 100 Things to Eat Before You Die list.  Enjoy!

Smörgås Chef, NYC

Lingonberries (214) — Scandanavian

Did I mention that Scandinavia House has an awesome gift shop?  No?  It DOES!  And you can buy lingonberry preserves there!  Then you can put them on EVERYTHING at your own home.  At least, that’s what I would do and have done.  I bought a jar of this goodness, and have proceeded to put it on crackers with cheese, as well as turkey and chicken sandwiches, and lots of other things in my kitchen that need a little bit of a pick-me-up.  Not just for köttbullar anymore!  Mimi educates us: “Close relatives of cranberries, lingonberries are tiny, garnet-red berries… with a sophisticated, winey flavor and a serious tartness that means they cannot be eaten raw without sugar.”  Mimi adds that these berries, which are highly nutritious and helpfully have two ripening seasons, are used in a host of Scandinavian dishes from pork chops to desserts.  And the way this jar is disappearing around here, I can heartily attest to their versatility.

Smörgås Chef, NYC

Now on to some foods of Italy, which I sampled at Anchor Wine Bar with my good pal Holly. 

Burrata (215) & Basil (216) — Italian

At this meal, we started with some burrata, a creamy cheese that you see peeking out from under all the meat and leaves in the photo below.  Burrata is utterly delicious, and one of the book entries in which Mimi undoes her top button and loses her mind a little: “filled with pure, heavy sweet cream, burrata oozes with a satiny richness that puts whipped cream to shame… it is the essence of springtime.”  And I must attest — it is all of those things and more, a truly transcendent cheese experience.  Apparently it is best to eat burrata within twelve hours of its being made, accompanied by fruit or olives and bread.  We had it with plenty of bread and coarse salt, and also another item on her list: basil.

I love basil.  I frequently make a Jamie Oliver chicken recipe that calls for a ton of the stuff.  But I guess I didn’t realize it was on the list until this particular eating opportunity came up.  Mimi informs us that basil is actually a member of the mint family, “originating in India, Southeast Asia, and Northeast Africa but now so closely associated with Italy as to be something of a culinary trademark.”  Of course basil pairs like a dream with tomatoes and appears in abundance in pasta dishes, as well as being one of the main components in pesto.  But lately, you can also find it in fancy ice cream flavors and nouveau noodle dishes, and I am all for more basil in more places!  Yum!

Anchor Wine Bar, NYC

Mousse au Chocolat (217) — French

While at Anchor Wine Bar, Holly and I also shared a couple of amazing desserts.  Mousse au chocolat is a long-time fave of mine.  Why?  Well, come on.  It’s just… the essence of chocolate.  It tastes like a hug.  Mimi really puts it best (as she’s the pro): “chocolate mousse really does live up to all the clichés it engenders: light, airy, rich, and quintessentially chocolate, it’s an iconic symbol of indulgence and of the sensuous pleasures of French food… The chocolate is no supporting actor here–it’s the whole show.”  And for that reason, Mimi implies that a chocolate mousse is only as good as the quality of chocolate employed in the recipe.  If that’s the case, than the chocolate used by the chef at Anchor Wine Bar is pretty top-notch.  The mousse au chocolate here was no slouch, and I have standards.

Tirami Sù (218) — Italian

And, finally, we end the year 2017 with another of my absolute fave desserts — tirami sù.  Though still at the top of my list, there was a time (high school/early college) when I was ravenous for this stuff to the point of absolute distraction.  But can you blame me?  The name of the dish literally translates to “draw me close.”  Layers of ladyfingers, chocolate, coffee, and light mascarpone cheese, soaked in rum or brandy, and left to set into the texture of a pudding-cake — where is the problem?  Where is the lie?  I fell in love with tirami sù at a time in my life when everything seemed simpler — and at the end of this tumultuous, often dark year, it seems like a good place to end.  We all need reminders of a time when we thought anything was possible, when the world seemed primed for positive change, and if we can get that shot in the arm — the one that energizes us to keep fighting the good fight — from a much-loved dessert, then great.  I’ll take my moments of buoyancy where I can get them.  Especially if they’re soaked in coffee and rum.

Anchor Wine Bar, NYC


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1 Comment

  1. Jean

    LOVE this. One of my favorite things to do in a large city is to explore different neighborhoods and taste the different foods of each culture. It’s a vicarious delight to do that with you.

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