So… we have finally made it. We are in the US. We have been planning this for a few months but the idea of going always seemed so distant. Now it’s reality. We have left Prague for the entire month of November: a few days in New York City, and a week in Portland, OR, San Francisco, LA each, and then back to NYC for a few days more. And then back to Prague, to decent weather and not overtly obese, we hope.
And because we are the sharing types, we want to share our experiences and maybe tips with you. So if you are planning a US trip soon (or later), these posts may help a bit. We will post as frequently as possible but on the other hand - hey, we’re on vacation, so don’t get too excited, ok? It might take us a few days to write something. We’ll keep you posted.
Three days in NYC
We landed on Saturday at 2pm. Getting out of the airport was easier than we thought and we were in our BB in less than two hours of landing. We stayed in Brooklyn near Prospect Park. Zuzi always wants to save some money so that’s why. But getting to Manhattan was very easy using the Q train. Oh, another thing about the BB: shared bathrooms. Never again. As we wrote, we are the sharing types, but you have to draw the line somewhere, right?
It was raining bullets the first day so we were in dire need of coffee. We went to Two Hands near Canal Street. Unlike our friends who visited NYC just two weeks before us, we had no problems with rude baristas and everybody was nice to us. We found out later they are not as excited and nerdy about coffee as some Prague baristas tend to be. The one difference? Double shots of coffee in just about any drink. It is hard to get excited over coffee abroad now, with Prague having a really good coffee scene.
Out of the cafes we visited, we liked Blue Bottle just next to the Chelsea Market and Third Rail Coffee in East Village the best. Cafe Grumpy in Chelsea, Two Hands and Stumptown weren’t bad either. The cafes in NYC are really small affairs with a few chairs that fill in quickly with people using laptops sitting everywhere, so you need to be quick to grab a seat. The one exception is Stumptown on Broadway because you can take your coffee to the lobby of the Ace Hotel and just join their wifi network, but you have to be really quick to grab that armchair where the hacker sat for a few hours. Some hyped cafes were disappointments, like Gasoline Alley, which served a very dark roast.
EATING OUT DAY BY DAY
As we said, we flew in to pretty nasty weather, and the last thing we would have wanted to do is to run a marathon, for instance (which was due the next day). We had originally planned to visit Smorgasburg but because it was so windy and rainy, we headed to Manhattan for coffee at Two Hands and a dinner at Russ and Daughters, although we did walk past the Butcher’s Daughter and that looked great too. Also, a pretty good name for a vegetarian restaurant.
Russ and Daughters is a retro kosher deli recommended by friends. The atmosphere was great and we thought it would be a great place for a brunch as originally suggested by our friends. We tried several things and all of them were great but pickled herring three ways on pumpernickel bread was the standout. We wish there was a place in Prague that would do herring that well. We also ordered the creamy borscht to warm up only to find out it was chilled. Nevertheless, it was delicious: smooth, sweet and sour with a rich, concentrated taste.
The next morning, we went for breakfast to Dimes, which is a tiny but a very popular place past China Town. They serve NYC-style healthy breakfasts, including lots of Acai-based bowls. Many people said it was a must-brunch place. We could see ourselves becoming regulars if we lived behind the corner but traveling to this place across the town? No, we don’t think so.
After breakfast, we went on a little shopping stroll (more on that later) and had coffee at Gasoline Alley. Then we got a bit hungry (happens to us always), so we got some pastries at Le Pain Quotidien and Lafayette, which were great and buttery, but still: Du Pain and Des Idees in Paris remains our favorite. And yes, you read right, one pastry place is not enough.
After a bit more shopping and some bookstores we headed back to Brooklyn to Berg’n, a beer hall that was started by the founders of Smorgasburg and that unites the four best places of the market. We had the “burnt ends” bbq at Mighty Quinn’s with some slaw and a Margherita by Pizza Moto. By the time Jan took some decent pictures of the pizza, Zuzi nearly ate the entire burnt ends by herself, claiming it was the best barbecue she has ever had. It was juicy, tender and had an incredibly smokey flavor, but wasnt’s covered in sweet sauce, so it was the meat that had to shine. It was simply delicious by itself. The pizza was also pretty good: great char from the oven, simple and jan liked the taste of the tomato sugo on it. We washed it all down with Brooklyn IPAs. We were so sorry we were so full we could not try the Ramen Burger or the Asia Dog. Perhaps the next time.
But you only live once so we manned up and tried to put some more food in. First stop: Bklyn Larder, a great deli that sells mainly local produce. So of course we had to try some of their cookies. But that made us wonder: what are the best cookies in town? So we googled it and having read the description of Levain bakery cookies as “hot, gooey and buttery”, we simply had to go and try them even if it meant to travel across the city again. And boy oh boy: was it worth it! When we arrived, there were people cueing up to the street and we soon realized why. Now we have to divide our cookie history “before” and “after” Levain. We tried the chocolate chip and walnut and oat and rain cookies. And they were exactly as described. Four dollars for a cookies seemed steep but when you take a bite, you’ll understand.
We swore we would not eat until the next day’s dinner (although skipping breakfast is against Jan’s religious beliefs). We walked the famous Highline to the Chelsea Market and marveled at the Manhattan Fruit Exchange shop with just about any fruit and vegetable you know (and don’t know), and had coffee at Blue Bottle. But then… all that walking made us hungry again. So we tried our luck and had a quick lunch at the crowded and obviously popular Spotted Pig. We had the burger with fries and the burrata with chanterelles on a sourdough bread toast. It was great, simple food but when we later found out they have a Michelin star, we had to check again. It was noisy, loud, slightly chaotic and run down pub with inked waiters with lots of facial hair under rad woolen caps. Nice change of course for Michelin.
If you know us, you probably know we had to have a dessert afterwards. Our map said we were only 20 minutes away from the patisseries of Dominique Ansel, the man behind the cronut craze but you have to wait for these in a line and we’re simply too lazy for that (and we were not impressed by the trademarked version we had in Barcelona). We opted for the 25-layer Tarte Tatin. Although it was served a little cold for us to enjoy it thoroughly, let us just say this: Zuzi want to try it when we get back home to Prague.
Then some shopping, and - more pastries! We had to try the creme brûlée donut at the Doughnut Plant near NoLita. For the hype it gets, we were not impressed. Neither the dough nor the glaze or the pastry cream were that exceptional. The walking and eating got us a bit tired, so it was time for coffee at Third Rail, and then our first big dinner in NYC: David Chang’s Momofuku Ssäm bar.
We thought we would have to wait so we came precisely on the hour. Smart move. Some twenty minutes later, there was a line outside. We had a great waiter (yes, we are still amazed by the customer service in the US) who recommended his favorite dishes and beers so we just went along with his recommendations.
We ordered six dishes and got one extra, so we tasted quite a substantial portion of the menu. We have this thing that we do in restaurants: at the end of the dinner, we rank the foods from first to last according to what we liked the best. It was really hard to do in the Ssam bar because we simply liked everything. Everything was prepared perfectly. But still, here are the three medalists: Momofuku steamed buns with pork belly, hoisin, cucumber and scallion, X.O. roasted skate with clams, carrot and cabbage, and the pickled sardines on toast with Bottarga butter. Sounds good? Tasted even better. The atmosphere was great: right next to us, a party of about ten 16 yo girls ordered the huge Bo Ssäm (with the b’day girl’s father walking in to check up on them, while the communal bar and tables were an invitation for some interesting discussions among ages and nationalities. We were so full we skipped dessert afterwards (a rare thing for us).
The next day was our last full day of the first leg of our NYC stay so we had to cram everything in. Because we skipped dessert the night before - Jan cried himself to sleep because of that - we had to start the day on a sweet note with some chocolate and hazelnut and the almond Rugelachs at Breads Bakery. They were so could eat ten of each. We recommend the former over the latter, though. Because we liked West Village so much before, we had our morning coffee at Cafe Grumpy. One of the largest cafes we saw in the entire town, and it had a really nice, meet-some-neighborhood-friends kinda atmosphere.
After this, we headed back to the city to buy some books but we had to stop for a donut at Dough. The manager was just interviewed by some TV station and said that she considered the Hibiscus donut the best, so we had that. Let us tell you: it put all the other donuts we had thus far to shame. The dough was incredibly smooth and rich, and the hibiscus glaze gave the right mixture of sweetness and zing. As the staff was saying to the customers, it is really hard to share these donuts once you take a bite.
We did some book shopping and sightseeing later on, took a stroll through the Central Park, which was nice, but getting there was a bit worse (the super busy 5th Avenue is nice to experience for a while… and then get the hell out of there). We headed to Upper East Side and had the Luke’s lobster roll for lunch. Great, buttery brioche, nicely cooked lobster and good, subtle seasoning that doesn’t take anything out of the lobster itself. Great fast food. By that time, Zuzi’s food guilt levels reached astronomic proportions so we just walked in to a juice bar on the way to get some greens inside… and got falafel and tahini for free for some reason. Just our luck. And then dessert again: the classic NY cheesecake at Two Little Red Hens. What can we say? It was great.
After this, we had to have a walk, so we walked back to East Village. For dinner, we wanted have ramen at Ippudo but got there too late and the announced waiting time was about two hours. We had wanted to go to Tuome the night before (but chose Ssam bar instead), so we tried our luck this time. A few hours before, the relatively new restaurant of Thomas Chen of Madison Eleven Park fame received a great review from the New York Times, so we were lucky we got the last table for an hour and a half when we walked in right when they opened. As the manager said, the phone was ringing the whole day. It is amazing how influential a magazine review can be.
The food was incredibly good and we still fantasize about some of the dishes. Our favorite was the oxtail-filled phyllo dough fried roll with cumin and herb sauce. Remember how Uncle Scrooge was taking a swim in pools of money in the DuckTales? That’s exactly what Jan wants to do with the dipping sauce. But the other dishes were great, too. The best prepared octopus we’ve ever had, and the spare ribs just melted when you looked bad at them. The deviled eggs? Yum. Also, great use of vegetables. The Brussel sprouts and the broccoli as sides were just perfect. It is really hard to choose between Tuome and Momofuku Ssam bar for the best dinner in NYC so far.
We had to catch a plane to Portland, OR, around noon the next day, so it was just breakfast and bakery for us. We had breakfast at Rosemary’s, an Italian bistro and restaurant in West Village. We may talk about farm-to-table, Rosemary's does roof-to-table: they have an urban garden on their roof that you can visit. We had a standard breakfast and it was all good. We just could not stop thinking that breakfast value is not that great in NYC, compared to lunches or dinners: you pay good money but the cooking is simpler and slightly less exciting. We’d rather have something nice and baked for breakfast, like the croissant and pear and vanilla baguette we had at Arcade Bakery (wink wink to our friend Misa - the bread is on the way!) and save money for lunch and dinner. But maybe that’s just us.
There's one thing you might not know about us: we love shopping when we travel. Well, not exactly. We are not hunting for souvenirs but love to browse through the shops of local designers and craftsmen. It is a great opportunity to see what are the traditions and trends in the places that we visit and to talk with the shop owners or the designers themselves. And despite what we try to tell ourselves, you can't just eat on vacation all the time.
That's why we decided to share a small list of the shops we loved in Prague:
- Steven Allen Home Shop Our favorite shop in NYC. Signature glasses, great furniture and a wide array of home accessories and high-quality woolen products. We wanted it all.
- Still House A single room full of beautiful ceramics and home accessories in East Village. Also great for small gifts.
- Shinola A thought-out shop of Shinola from Detroit in Tribeca: great-looking bikes, some clothing, wristwatches, stationery, small leather goods and fashion accessories. Bought our San Francisco guide there.
- Creatures of Comfort A high-ceiling clothing and apparel shop in Nolita. Lots of higher-end European and American brands for both women and men.
- Top Hat A tiny, tiny shop with a nice selection of accessories for the home. Loved the minimalist decor of this place.
- Miansai A long noodle of a shop that serves tea and coffee in the front and offers signature bracelets, jewelry, watches and straps in the back. Some of the bracelets are assembled to the customer's liking at the work table in the middle of the shop.
- Saturdays Surf NYC Again, and long noodle in Crosby St next to Miansai: an espresso bar serving La Colombe coffee in the front, and men's fashion in the back. In the very back, a small but lovely patio where you can enjoy your coffee.
- MacNally Jackson Goods for the Study A tiny but lovely stationery shop in Nolita. Added bonus: they carry a healthy selection of Kooh-i-Noor products.
We will be coming back to NYC at the end of November for three more days, so this post is to be continued!