Listening to my grandmother and aunt talk about their adventures in cooking and compare recipes in baking as I grew up kindled my interest in food. But I've never attempted much cooking since I'd rather bake. I'd rather read books about cooking and chefs and restaurants than try it out myself. I'd rather watch a cooking show on the Food Network than attempt to create my own dinner menu. But during my recent weekend in New York, culinary inspiration met me practically on every corner. I took a food tasting tour of the gritty East Village neighborhood and I went to tea at Lady Mendl’s in Gramercy Park. I tasted adventure on New York’s wild side and sipped the genteel tea of elegance at a historic brownstone. And I’m not sure which flavor I fancied more.
Before we got started on the East Village food tour, the guide asked our group if we were willing to try everything scheduled at our stops. With a reluctant yes, I found myself going below street-level to Jum Mum’s tiny eatery with just two tables. I was pleasantly surprised that the steamed pork dumplings with sweet soy sauce, garlic, scallions and cilantro were delicious. So far, so good. The next stop was Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant that’s been around since 1954. The tour's website had advertised pierogies at this stop, which are a Pittsburgh staple, but the guide said we'd be tasting borscht. I was pretty sure I’d never eaten it before, and I don’t care much for beets. When the bowl was set in front of me, I thought I wouldn’t like it. But it was scrumptious. Whatever they did to the beets, cabbage and pork, served hot with a dollop of sour cream, I liked it and could have eaten another bowl. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I often ate my aunt’s delicious stuffed cabbage and the borscht's familiar ingredients reminded me of one of my favorite foods.
The tour moved on to a tiny corner drugstore for an egg cream drink that was mostly chocolate fizzy water. I choked down a sip before we got pizza from Iggy’s, hot dogs and papaya juice from a street stand and then stopped at the Milk Bar. Christina Tosi is the chef, owner and founder of Momofuku Milk Bar, named “one of the most exciting bakeries in the country” by Bon Appetit magazine. I sampled green pea and almond ice cream and compost cookies. I really could taste the green peas but having them in ice cream seemed strange to me. But it was the compost cookies that made me shiver.
Although they tasted mostly of oatmeal and sweet butterscotch chips, they were also made from ground up potato chips, pretzels and coffee grounds. I absolutely hate the texture of coffee grounds. I’ll throw out an entire cup of coffee if I spot one ground floating in it. So I just couldn’t put the thought of those black specks out of my mind to enjoy the cookie. (I'm thinking that Milk Bar can keep its compost cookies and maybe New York can find a place to recycle them.) The tasting tour finished at an Italian bakery where I sampled a creamy cannoli among the cases and cases of baked goods on display.
After the exhilarating excursion to the East Village, the next day I found myself in an elegant dining room overlooking a charming courtyard garden at Lady Mendl’s. Her 1834 brownstone is the setting for a grand five-course tea. I enjoyed a delectable tiny mushroom tart, adorable tea sandwiches, scones with Devonshire cream and preserves, Lady Mendl’s signature creamy chocolate cake and a final course of petite tea cookies and chocolate-covered strawberries. My spicy and rich chai tea made every bite scrumptious.
The gritty and the elegant. It got me thinking. I know where I’d usually like to be. I kind of like my adventure in bite-sized pieces. I prefer my excitement in tiny nibbles. With a lot of familiar whipped in. I only want change and the strange in small morsels. I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. But sometimes the different, richest, most flavorful experiences reside there. Out on the gritty side. Where a spoonful of uncertainty is. I'd like to cultivate a taste for it. Maybe I can start with learning how to cook a few dinner dishes to add to my repertoire of my one and only pasta with spinach and Italian sausage bake. Now that's a recipe for adventure that's more to my taste.