Friday, December 7, 2007

Shopping in Hell

About a month ago, I saw a write-up about “Food Shopping in Hell” on a website called The City Cook ( It’s a great website that offers information about anything and everything for home cooks in New York City (the City). The article discussed a number of the food stores located on 9th Avenue behind the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which is in the middle of Hell’s Kitchen.

Actually, a friend who grew up in the City introduced me to the food markets on 9th Avenue about ten years ago. Since then, I shopped in that area for many years—more so when I worked in the City (I’m from Joisey—I know, part of the “bridge and tunnel crowd”—but, not really). During that time, my mode of transportation to and from work was via the bus at the Port Authority. And having worked most of my career in the City, I’ve become so accustomed to virtually everything that it has to offer and now frequently go there to shop or to dine or to shop or to dine, or to shop. Recently, I resumed shopping in the City more frequently and have become spoiled that I don’t want to shop anywhere else!

Typically, my “Shopping in Hell” consists of a trip to several of the stores that have been there for close to a hundred (if not, more) years. One of my favorite 9th Avenue locales is Esposito’s Meat Market for poultry products. Last Saturday, I bought some plump duck legs, which I transformed into an Asian duck confit (sort of) on Sunday. After the butcher, it was off to the International Grocer for some spices sold loose by the half-ounce, ounce, pound, or whatever; robust coffee beans in any flavor imaginable, also sold loose by the pound; and a variety of oils from around the world. A few sacks of spices, rice, coffee, and a tin of oil almost always complete that stop for me. Next, it’s the Sea Breeze Fish Market, which carries a wide variety and some of the freshest seafood around, and I could never leave that place empty-handed, so I carried some fresh skate under my arm upon leaving that store (again for Sunday’s meal). I asked the fishmonger to pack it in ice, although it would have held up well to the 32-degree temperature outside. Finally, I ventured into Stile’s Farmers Market, where I was taken aback by the prices of produce. I purchased fresh red peppers, yellow peppers, romaine lettuce, carrots, scallions, garlic, celery, onions and jalapeños – and a bottle of Italian balsamic vinegar – all for under $10. The toll to get through the tunnel is worth it (remember, I’m from Joisey). When my companion asked me which place I preferred—Stile’s Market on 9th Avenue or the Union Square Green Market, which I visited two weeks prior—my response was that it is a tough choice and similar to asking a parent which child they preferred. I couldn’t answer that question.

All of that “Shopping in Hell” made us hungry. Where should we eat? Since it was 3:30 p.m., and many restaurants were closed between lunch and dinner service at that time, there was only one place that immediately came into my mind—“Tony’s place.” Well, that’s what I call Les Halles, one of my favorite restaurants that I wrote about in October. Since Les Halles has service non-stop, it was a perfect time to visit for a “quick” bite. We ventured to Park Avenue South—out of Hell’s Kitchen to “dine.”

And the food was great, as always. I ordered my traditional favorite amuse of escargot in garlic butter, and a café platter, which consisted of duck confit shredded in duck jus, truffle oil, mushroom puree, mashed potatoes and fresh herbs. My companion ordered sautéed foie gras with apple, walnuts and Calvados sauce and a rib eye steak. A bottle of Cotes de Francs, red Bordeaux accompanied the meal—which worked well on that late cold, blustery afternoon. As the sun disappeared, so did the lights at the restaurant. Les Halles depends upon tiny candles to light the restaurant during the evenings.

After dinner and on our way back to the car, we passed by Primehouse New York, Steve Hanson’s slick, new steak house. We looked inside and noticed the spacious white moderately lit bar area, and decided to venture in for a Manhattan (after all, it was cold outside). We sat at the bar for a while and chatted with the bartender/ writer who was originally from Detroit. Of course bartenders always have amusing stories to tell, particularly those who are from the mid-west and relocate to Manhattan. After we finished our drinks, one of the servers escorted me downstairs and showed me the special “Salt Room” where cuts of beef are set to age. I was told that Primehouse has its own bull, named Prime, who produces the beef cattle specifically for the restaurant. That’s one busy bull!

After we left the Park Avenue South area, we ventured to the Village for a quick dessert stop at P*ONG, the relatively new place opened by Pichet Ong of Spice Market. When we arrived, we learned that Pichet was out sick with the flu, but his partner was there and offered hospitable service just the same. We enjoyed a cheese plate and a Stilton cheese soufflé smothered in walnuts with basil ice cream as an accompaniment. That was an excellent “dessert.”
Finally, it was time to call it a day and/or night of shopping and hopping (not really “hopping”). Again? Maybe it was. Whatever you call it, there’s nothing better then spending an afternoon shopping and/or hopping for food in the City. What City is that?

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