Southern NYC Lunch Tour

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Day 20
140 Fulton St.
Nov. 29, 2006

At this point I was feeling that forces much larger than me were in control. I had inadvertently neglected to call Carmine's in advance, only to find a closure notice from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on the door dated Oct 10th (glad I didn't start this tour two months earlier!). Caruso's was next on the list and responded favorably to the exploratory phonecall - I found myself staring over a 30 foot construction moat at an empty green white and red sign background with little holes spelling out "C a r u s o ' s" at what used to be 204 broadway. Felix came along for take 2 of day 20 and while I was fumbling with googletext he consulted a random person who pointed down Fulton St. Sure enough, Caruso's 2.0 awaited us in it's full neon and marble spendor.

The inside was heavily neoned and marbled. Two 4-ft high caricature-chefs guarded the entrance. Very 1980's; a pink and green border around the ceiling that according to Felix did not adequately convey the intended Italian flag color abstraction due mainly to the shade of pink. French wine paintings adorned the extremely desaturated subtly green-patterned walls. The dropceiling was festooned with sunken floodlights, and a smattering of high color temperature uplights which looked like stone stepped flowerpots sticking out of the wall just added to the overall sterility of the decor. I did a double-take at the enigmatic statue atop the glass pizza cases - rounded but still overall conical white cap, black mask - whaaa??? Apparently a Venetian mask statue according to Felix.

They have two lines, one for pizza and one for everything else, and a separate register for each line. Although bustling, it was quite efficient and I didn't feel I wasted much time ordering and paying. Pretty full at 12:45. Caruso's seats 40 and there were roughly 33 folks enjoying moderately priced Italian food that turned out to be moderately good. Everything in moderation at Caruso's, except for the neon and the uneasy feeling that the 1990's and early 2000's never happened.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Day 19
Captain's Ketch
181 Pearl St.
Nov. 28, 2006

Calling it "Captain's Kitsch" is too easy; low-hanging fruit, to use a kitschy phrase. But that's exactly how it felt inside - high-end, upscale kitschy fun. It's supposed to look like the ultramodern lower deck of a state-of-the-art ship. Lowish ceilings from which wine glasses hung like bats. No ropes (so declasse!) but rather sets of square water-filled indoor partition windows filled with blue vertical neon and small rising bubbles. The lower half of the windows revealing the street were frosted glass waves, so that street level didn't exist, only the sky and buildings across the street. Interesting. A peek further inside revealed a substantial dining area, with what looked like a downstairs area as well.

It's definitely a restaurant as opposed to a take-out place. The bar has a room all to itself, and at lunch hour it has a decent smattering of drunken salty dogs, wall-street style. I decided to order the panini special - chicken breast with sauteed spinach and monterey jack cheese - to go. My five minutes wait at the bar was mildly entertaining; I imagined knocking back a few and randomly chiming in on various salty dog exchanges, parrot-style. Maybe one day, when working is purely optional.

The Pannini special came in at just over $10.00, my lunch tour limit, but was well worth it. Captain's Ketch would be actually be fun for an evening too festive to remember.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Day 18
Cafe World
50 Trinity Place
Nov. 17, 2006

Remarkably similar to Cafe Seaport! Lots of jagged wooden signs with triangles that instead of representing waves, maybe representing...everything? Same funny font with the lowercase o's underlined, same dark wood inside with 60's green on the ceiling, must be owned by the same people. Layout a little more constricted, but one big +: they have a hibachi station! I filled my tin plate randomly with raw hibachi ingredients, the hibachi operator moved it around on a sizzling 6 ft diameter metal disc for awhile, and voila. I was initially intrigued by the upstairs seating area in the form of a balcony that extended along the back and side walls high in the air, but it turned out to be extremely dark, oppressive, and low-ceilinged; while the dark wood decor worked to their advantage everywhere else, here it was surreally claustrophobic. Overall, a good experience; though the hibachi ingredient selection seemed a bit limited, it was still great. I walked out a happy customer.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Day 17
Cafe Seaport
150 William St.
Nov. 16, 2006

Idyllic mental image of small lovely cafe down by the piers shattered when I realized that William St. ran parallel to the water, but many blocks away. Probably a small cruddy greasehole selling small cruddy sandwiches, desperately vying for tourist attention. The Menupages menu didn't help dispell this impression.

Surprise again! Cafe Seaport is huge; seats maybe 60 people. The decor is dark wood to within 2 feet of the high ceiling, at which point bright 60's green takes over. The signage is abstract nautical, with wooden wave-teeth bordering the majority of the free-standing and hanging signs. Walking in, one is greeted by integrated service counters and a 3-register checkout station on the left, and directly on the right, beers sticking out of ice-laden beer carts, on wheels! Livin' large...

I had planned on a veggie burger deluxe but was immediately drawn to the hot food/salad bar. Very impressive; 40 hot choices, 40 cold. No oldness or filminess - everything looked perfect. How could I resist. They even had cooked shrimp sushi rolls, with wasabi, ginger and soy sauce. Yes. Curry chicken, mmmm. SESAME NOODLES! and so on. Surely this would cost me, I thought, carrying my precious and quite heavy plunder to the front deck. I was impressed at how mellow they were behind the registers; it wasn't unbearably crowded, even at 12:40. I didn't have to wait in line, and service was all smiles. I smiled too when what I thought was a 10.00 pile of hot food turned out to be only 7.42.

To my delight, there was no distinctive uber-taste running thru my selections! Generally, mega-delis have a one-seasoning-fits all approach to their many offerings. It may vary from deli to deli, but it is recognizable and consistent within each establishment. Not so in this case. In fact, the only common thread holding my lunch together was the fact that none of it was over-seasoned. Nothing too salty, too garlicy, too pickl-y - it was just right. I'm happy to give the Hot Food/Salad bar at Cafe Seaport a well-deserved, enthusiastic recommendation.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Day 16
Cafe Sage
108 John St.
Nov. 14, 2006

I walked in, asked for the pad thai lunch special, paid, and was out of there before I had a chance to blink. And the place was full. A sit-down restaurant, really, with take-out an option. But the efficiency! A wonderful find. That was the shortest amount of time I have ever spent buying lunch. I had just enough time to notice the bright primary-color mural on one wall, the pleasing green-based decor, and the fact that everyone who worked there seemed friendly and happy. The vegetarian pad thai was pretty good, too. Nearer Lemongrass quality than anything else on this tour.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Day 15
Cafe Health Exchange
2 Maiden Lane
Nov. 13, 2006

Maybe it was the cops telling me where to walk while trying to make my way thru the horrendous construction on Maiden Lane between Nassau and Broadway. Maybe it was the afterglow of having just returned to the mothership (see Day 14). In retrospect, I don't feel like I gave them a fair chance.

Here's what happened:

I walked in the door. 12:20, seemed like there were more employees than customers. The layout was novel: in front, a cash register and a salad tossing station; an archway and a slight offset, kind of like walking into another room but not quite. On the left, under a "$5.00 Specials" sign, a counter behind which a knot of employees bustled. On the right, another counter with chafing dishes and prefab lunch tubs, but no employees. There was a line forming at this counter - the folks on the other side were ignoring it. The dank, heavy atmosphere of incompetence made me restless.

I examined the $5 specials sign more closely. Next to the burrito it said $5.50! Same for the taco! WTF?

"It says the burrito is $5.50, but it's on the $5.00 specials board." "yeah, it's $5.50." "Why is it on a sign that says $5.00 specials?" Her brow knotted slightly. "It's $5.50". This place was really starting to tick me off, and just to spite the mildly nasty lady behind the counter I ordered a genuine $5.00 special that actually was $5.00 - the bean quesedilla.

In the next 15 minutes, three different people asked me if I was being helped. Despite the fact that the place was nearly empty, my order seemed like a production, and when the 5 or 6 people behind the counter finally figured out that the bag that 5 or 6 people in the kitchen had handed them was my $5.00 lunch special I was able to get out of there vowing never to come back. No wonder it was empty at 12:45; no one has time for this.

Perhaps if the misleading sign hadn't aroused my ire or if I had been more open to the experience I would have opted for the prefab tub lunch on the other side, would have been out of there in a reasonable amount of time, and would have paid a normal price for a decent pile of food. If anyone reading this feels like it, please feel free to try something that looks good on the righthand side and post a comment to mitigate the possibly unfair sting of this post.

Also, in all fairness, the bean quesedilla was decent; it really wasn't bad for a $5 lunch.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Day 14
Cafe Hanover
5 Hanover Sq.
Nov. 10, 2006

326 steps later I found myself once again at Cafe Hanover, where I had pretty much gone every day for lunch prior to the tour. How I had have missed it; life on the road can be thrilling, but there's no place like home.

I was immediately greeted with the steamy smell of everything mixed together, which is actually quite pleasant in the case of Cafe Hanover, since everything they serve is fantastic. The scene was exotic in it's exquisite familiarity; the giant hot food/salad bar, the sushi station, the sandwich city, and my old friends behind the register efficiently sending people on their way with the best lunches in all of manhattan. Cafe Hanover also has quite a bit of seating. It is huge.

I decided, in the spirit of Lunch Tour, to order the one thing I almost never ordered - the Korean Soft Tofu soup. Its preparation involves bravery and extreme coordination - clay pots bubble and froth over large gas fires, manged by fearless and fireproof culinauts wielding tongs. They will generally crack an egg into it unless you tell them not to. The tofu soup comes with yellow korean pickle shavings and a seaweed salad both of which are exotic and wonderful. Preparation is startlingly efficient - never is a second wasted.

"Hey, where have you been?" " and there..." I didn't have the energy or the presence of mind to try to explain Southern NYC Lunch tour, but left happy to give Cafe Hanover the highest possible recommendation, since they blow away anything I've run into so far in my wanderings. And only 329 steps back, including leap thursdays.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Day 13
Cafe Express
397 S End Ave.
Nov. 9, 2006

forest green and bright yellow awning
outside, an ice cream freezer - early november?
inside, a beige crescent carved out of south end ave
there are no seating options, just a counter
they are obsessed with ice cream
inside and outside
i choose the vegetarian panini
my hopes are high, this is battery park city after all
and their beverage fridge has coconut water and bottled water that looks like it's in a vodka bottle
there i am by the mighty hudson 5 minutes later
prying open the white styrofoam sandwich condo
i am greeted by a drowning victim
a soup'n'salad sandwich
the zuchinni floodwaters released by the pannini process
have claimed my purchase
a spectacular triumph over common sense, this sandwich
it's one thing to dine with fingers in an ethiopian restaurant
quite another in public, with no spoon or straw
i should have known that a place that sold exotic water and had an ice cream fridge out front
in early november
would be capable of serving the world's least practical sandwich

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Day 12
36 Water St.
Nov. 6, 2006

complimentary salsa and chips for people on line
complimentary salsa and chips for people on line is tasty and nutritious
route 66 burrito: excellent
crowd still manageable at 12:20pm
decor cheesification not particularly obnoxious
orders were neither yelled nor broadcasted at high volumes

took awhile for food to actually appear
under more crowded conditions, impossible to imagine that the line of people waiting to order and the crowd of people hovering by the pickout area* would leave any room for effective access to the complimentary salsa and chips station
according to various sources, crowded conditions exist after about 12:30pm

recommendation: a good choice if slightly early timeframe feasible

*Pickout area: the area where food is picked up and possibly taken out, a system pioneered and popularized by Starbucks and Taco Bell in the 1990s.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Day 11
109 Washington St.
Nov. 3, 2006

Behind a slightly odd cartoonish white awning spreads Budtharasa, the only Thai/Chinese lunch place I've ever been to. It really is an evenhanded hybrid of what one would expect from a straight-ahead genesplicing of a thai restaurant and a chinese take-out place. Inside, it's mostly seating; 15 2-person tables with green cushioned chairs, stuccoid dropcceiling, pale green everything. In the chinese takout tradition photos of the various dishes adorn the walls. The cash register sits atop the counter that covers the pre-made lunch dish vats chafing behind glass, waiting to be served. Nowhere is an actual menu with prices posted. One wall is almost all mirror in which is reflected a statue and a large colorful painting hanging on the opposite wall.

Since my last Thai experience (Day 8) was so mediocre, I decided this time to order a dish that was not bubbling away in a vat in plain sight. The woman running the cash register picked up a phone and I heard my order echo through the kitchen over the intercom: Pad Thai with Fried Tofu.

10 minutes and 6 dollars later I walked out with what turned out to be a decent Fried Tofu Pad Thai. Still not Lemongrass quality, but close enough for Day 11 of The Tour.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Day 10
Bread & Olive
20 John St.
Nov. 1, 2006

Small place, 10 tables.
Square tables, green chairs.
Longish wait, good falafel.
Decent grape leaves, reasonably priced.