[Free stuff by Wilfrid: January 4, 2009]
Born under a wandering star or not, many of us at least seem destined to wander in the direction of any restaurant offering a complimentary meal.
Such was the proposition, in any case, which I - along with a swarm of other independent New York food writers, received from one Hagan Blount, a food wandering to some purpose.
Not unlike Odysseus, condemnded to wander for ten years after the sack of Troy, Hagan has been sentenced by the food gods to ramble the streets of this city eating three meals a day for the thirty-one days of January. The numerate among you will understand why the name of this mission is 93 Plates. Rather than quail at Scylla and Charybdis or bind his ears against the lure of the sirens, Hagan will be forced to steer his thus-far-healthy frame between massive brunches and heavy lunches while ignoring any suggestions to slip in a Katz's pastrami sandwich during quiet moments.
Talk about super size me.
There is a charitable purpose to the exercise as well, although everyone involved can doubtless use any publicity which accrues.
Hagan is prepared for the physical strains of the route, but I have warned him about the mental stresses too, which will kick in after a couple of weeks of no shows and attempted reschedulings by his dining companions - this is New York after all. I barely made it to our date at Jane on West Houston. Mornings are not my best time, especially coming off the New Year celebration, and I strongly doubted my ability to consume anything more than a cup of tea and a dry biscuit last Saturday morning. But two novel varieties of Eggs benedict turned out to be just what I needed.
Not to mention the vanilla French toast with maple syrup.
I hadn't previously visited Jane, but it turns out to be the sibling of The Smith, a restaurant on Third Avenue I strongly recommend any time before an enthusiastic young crowd packs in like sardines and makes conversation impossible. The Smith's roast pork sandwich with spicy cauliflower is one of the best sandwiches in the city. Jane seems especially proud of its brunch, and comfortably filled two floors with hungry diners (a full brunch is served on Sunday, but signature brunch dishes are found at the foot of the lunch menu too).
A pedant would insist that Benedict Jane be rechristened Florentine Jane, as Florentine is tha handle traditionally used when spinach noses the ham out of the way in this dish. A hollandaise sauce with a little tarragon is traditional: the dish's innovation lay in replacing toast with crisp, sweet crab and crayfish cakes.
Benedict Johnny, on the other hand, moves chicken sausage in to take the place of the ham, the role of toast being played by first rate corn cakes (Johnny cakes, you see). The hollandaise is tinted with tomato, and the entire ensemble was very good. I preferred Johnny to Jane on this occasion.
The fries I recognized from The Smith, and they're very good although possibly superfluous to an occasion when home fries and French toast are already present, to say nothing of a bread basket.
I refreshed myself with a walk to the East Village, and then, I confess, a period prostrate. Soon it was lunchtime.
An Choi lurks on a block of Orchard below Delancey revitalized over the last year or so by the opening of a series of dining and drinking opportunities, notably the Austrian Café Katja. From the street An Choi is almost anonymous; within it's dark-wooded, cozy, scented with herby steam from the kitchen. Soup and sandwiches is the simple idea, Vietnamese style. It seemed wise, then, to take a phở-bánh mi combo. Hagan, looking annoyingly fresh and already talking about dinner at 15 East, zoned in on the crispy pork bánh mi. I might have ordered it too, but in the spirit of enquiry asked for the classic version - ham, head cheese, pâté. It was immediately obvious that the bread was excellent - since it comes from an outside supplier, An Choi is surely not the only place which uses it - but it's still good that they do.
I don't know when I last ate a bowl of phở. Beef with thin vermicelli noodles, but the broth seemed the main point of it. Foolishly I wondered about the origin of a familiar pungent sweetness - cinnamon, nutmeg even? Afterwards I realized it was cloves. This was comforting on an ice cold afternoon.
And enough for me. With thanks to Tim and Tuan, managers of Jane and An Choi respectively, and to bold Hagan of course, I resolved to skip dinner. Oh, I ended up in Tuck Shop around midnight, but that surely counts as a new day. I wonder how Hagan will feel on February 1st when he wakes up and can say to himself, "Great, no meals today."
Meantime, his progress will be fun to follow.