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Trip Report More recent New York City restaurant experiences

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Went to some more NYC restaurants recently, and here are some reports:

--Peter Luger Steakhouse. Was surprisingly underwhelmed here. Got "Steak for One" which appeared to be a strip steak (the waiter told me the ribeye for one tends to be fatty, that this steak is preferable); definitely wasn't a porterhouse, in any event. It was cooked on the rare side of medium rare, but that's okay with me. Many folks rave that this place does the best steak you'll ever have, and while mine had a pleasantly rich and buttery taste, it also had a large amount of gristle in most every bite -- and that shouldn't be true of "the best steak ever." They don't offer sides for one, so opted for a salad instead. Another surprise, but this time a pleasant one -- the salad consisted of field greens, not iceberg lettuce. There was vinaigrette dressing on it, but it lacked flavor, so I opted to use the steak sauce (a rather heady horseradish concoction with a good bit of verve) on the salad, which worked quite well. There were plenty of hearty rolls, which were fine. Service is supposed to be grumpy from all reports, but the waiter was pleasant and helpful.

--Great NY Noodletown. One of the better food experiences had here. Got mushroom noodles soup, a medium sized bowl of what was likely beef broth, loaded with thin spaghetti-like noodles, several black mushroom caps, and a few stalks of what appeared to be Chinese broccoli. Flavor was pleasant, with personality and without being heavy or assertive. And at $4.50, this was a dirt-cheap pleasure in an expensive food town.

--Chinatown Ice Cream. A very good take-away ice cream spot, with some traditional flavors as well as ethnic offerings such as pandan, lychee, taro, red bean, and green tea flavors. Had tastes of taro (kind of bland with a stringy mouth feel, not for me) and chocolate pandan (just tasted like chocolate to me), before getting a cup with a scoop each of lychee (subtle and pleasant) and pineapple (vibrant flavor, my favorite here). Just don't look at the amazingly dirty digs too closely.

--Second Avenue Deli. Had not been here since they moved to their current 33rd St. and 3rd Ave. location. Had a pastrami sandwich on rye with deli mustard, and while it's not the equal to Katz's, it's still excellent. The pastrami is a little drier in texture than some others, with a relatively assertive seasoning -- but that's a simple observation, not a negative criticism. Delicious stuff, and the sandwich is not so grossly oversized that it can't be eaten in a sitting (that would be you, Carnegie Deli and Stage Deli). They give you dill and sour pickles as well as a pleasantly tangy vinegar style cole slaw for free before the meal. Still a must, to my taste.

--Carnegie Deli. Hadn't been here in a while either, and had mixed results. Had very much liked their cheesecake on previous visits, but this time it was softer in texture and seemingly not as rich and tasty as before. Also got a gefilte fish plate. The main item itself was very good, sturdy in texture and flavor with a nicely funky horseradish accompaniment. It came with several sides. Cole slaw was on the creamy side and pleasant enough, but all else (a plain boiled and peeled potato, raw onion slices, tomato slices, and plain lettuce -- and a truckload of these last three) seemed useless with the fish and remained mostly uneaten.

--Nick's Pizza. They have an original location in Queens, and this is their outpost on the Upper East Side. Got a small cheese pizza, and found it impressive. It's a lighter pie, not as dense with cheese or sauce as its competition, and the crust is plenty thin, but the flavor and texture were very enjoyable. Sauce had a pleasantly subtle amount of tang, and the crust was crispy without being burned.

--Di Fara Pizza. Objectively speaking, there's not a lot to like here. The place is a dump badly in need of sprucing up and in spots even a good cleaning. There aren't many places to sit, either. Hours are erratic, to put it kindly -- their website says they are open 12 noon to 4:30 pm and 6 pm to 9 pm Wed-Sun. The hours posted on the door say 12 noon to 4 pm (not 4:30). And if what I heard from other patrons waiting outside is true, the place often opens significantly late -- the pizza box wedged over the door handle inside tersely said "opens at 6:45." When I went, the old guy who runs the place had fallen asleep in his chair behind the counter with his back to the door, and neither of the two women working with him that day realized he was asleep until ca. 7 pm. They didn't finally open until ca. 7:15 pm! A slice here is not especially large and costs $5.00, and toppings run $1.00 extra each. And they only accept cash. Kept thinking -- this had better be the best darned pizza I've ever had in my life to justify all this malarkey. And guess what? It was. The old guy running the place uses fresh shredded mozzarella, snips fresh basil right on the pizza top, drizzles olive oil on each pie, and employs a nice tomato sauce with pleasing personality. And now I understand what pizza lovers talk about when they say a great pizza has "crust char." Every other time I've seen a blackened pizza crust bottom, it tasted like burned food. But not here -- there wasn't a hint of this unpleasant taste, yet the crust was very much darkened and had a sturdy consistency unique to what I've ever experienced. Is getting such a wonderful pair of slices worth the aggravation? Good question, but I'm glad to have tried this place once. For my taste, this is the best pizza experience in New York on a strictly food-based level, and given how much I've enjoyed pies at John's and Grimaldi's, that's really saying something.

--Sarge's Deli. No one ever mentions this spot on the "must do" deli list, but the place has its ravers over at Chowhound, so I gave it a shot. Also got a pastrami sandwich on rye with deli mustard here. This was a surprisingly good sandwich, too. The meat had an almost ham-like smooth texture and less seasoning than I've experienced, but the flavor was very good. A couple bites with gristle were the only flaws in an otherwise very worthwhile sandwich. No sides, though. Extra credit for being open 24-7-365, so if you're up for deli at 5:30 am on Christmas, they're open.

--Serendipity 3. All reports say skip the appetizers and main courses and go right to dessert here. Didn't opt for either of the first two -- but no question this last is something they do wonderfully well. The decor is a very kitchy riff on a soda fountain space, with some very over-the-top yet kind of charming decor. Got a frozen hot chocolate and lemon icebox pie, and these are on my short list for best NYC desserts ever. The pie had a solid citrus flavor leavened with creamy elements, as well as a sinfully rich mouth feel. Have had frozen hot chocolate before at other places, and it was basically a chocolate slurpee -- but here, the difference was noticeable from other versions tried. The texture was liquid but dense, with some small ice bits scattered around but not heavily slushy. Chocolate flavor was bold, intense, and wonderful.

--Norma's. Speaking of intensely flavored food, that held true for my experience at this place, an upscale breakfast spot in Le Parker Meridien (no, I didn't stay here -- way out of my price range!). If you want a cheap breakfast, this is not the spot (most dishes range in price between $20 and $30), so this is one of those "it had better be good given what I'm paying" places. What I ordered very much was a memorable day-starting food experience. The waiter suggested blueberry pancakes, and this is no ordinary version. The cakes themselves were scrumptious, loaded with blueberries and topped with a rich berry compote, accompanied by a side of decadent Devonshire cream. If that's not enough, they also provide real maple syrup on the side. Truly a must.

--Pigalle. It's really not fair to compare the breakfast I had here with the one at Norma's. While certainly not in Norma's league, this was a solid, basic eye opener beyond diner food level -- got a chorizo and swiss omelet (good, nice spicy sausage overtones), so-so home fries (nice enough flavor but not at all crispy), and good 7-grain toast with fruit jams from a German manufacturer.

--Mario's. This is a classic red sauce Italian place on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, and it puts forth the feel of an unpretentious neighborhood find. No hoopla, no waiters on the sidewalk waving menus in your face, no precious outdoor seating, no sneaky bill surprises. The slightly dated Italian decor was charming and non-touristy. Got a pasta dish, Spaghetti a la Mario, which had finely cut veggies (peppers, onions, tomatoes and the like) in a tasty non-red sauce. The pickled and herbed carrots given out as a free appetizer were great. In short, well worth a return if this kind of food floats your proverbial boat. I like it myself sometimes.

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