New York in just five days? You gotta be kidding. I don't suggest you try to eat your way round like we did, but even in such a short time you will get a feel for the place and probably want to rush back. It's not cheap - at least with our present exchange rate - but it's lively, fun and just one of those things one should do, at least once. Be prepared for neck ache, staring up at all those tall buildings.
I'll come straight out with it, it won't be the food that will urge me to return - it was disappointing on the whole, possibly because of my high expectations, with the odd flash of brilliance. I thought that it would be better than in the UK: I'd heard so much about the wonderful service in even the lowliest fast food joint and couldn't imagine that the average American would put up with the rubbish that we serve up as food here. But I was wrong. Yes, everyone was terribly polite, but on the whole the food was just as bad - you just got much larger portions served with a beaming smile. The wait persons are like automatons, have no notion of how to deal with complaints and the concept of sincerity is completely lost on them.
We arrived at our hotel near Times Square tired and hungry. It was pouring with rain and we had been soaked waiting for a yellow cab at the airport, so we just dashed to the nearest place we could find. Big mistake. Ruby Tuesday was the name of the place and Daniel (name changed to protect the guilty) our server made a little inaugural speech and brought us a menu. I was then served probably the worst veggie burger I have ever had in my life along with chips of which Lot's wife would have been proud: yes, heavily loaded with salt.
Zen Palate I'd only just arrived and they were trying to kill me off already. I told Daniel everything was not all right, when he asked, and I couldn't eat any of it; he smiled broadly and walked off. He returned much later and asked me if I'd like something else instead but since Mr Big had finished his meal and there were no other veggie options, I decided to cut our losses and run. We were charged in full for the whole meal. And no, unlike the song lyrics, I'm not going to miss you.
Our hotel Hotel 41 was fine; it was really a building with rooms, a small reception area and an eating area. Our room was a fair price and clean; the only downside was that it was small, but since we spent very little time there, it did not bother us. The help yourself cold buffet breakfast was very good. Excellent coffee, OJ, bread rolls and toast. In the evening this area becomes a noisy bar, so make sure your room is away from here and also away from the lift, which makes an annoyingly loud "ping" every time it arrives at a floor.
The next day we resolved to stick to our plan of action of two pre-determined places a day, with perhaps a tiny bit of sight-seeing if we had time. Thus we arrived at Zen Palate on a freezing cold day in December. This is a café more than a restaurant and the food, as you would expect from the name, is oriental. We both had some soup to warm us up which was delicious. Mr Big went for a veggie burger whilst I had a mock duck wrap. Portions were enormous; this is not a problem if you are enjoying the food. I was stuffed but Mr Big managed to munch his way through a slice of cheesecake. Service was good. With a soft drink each, our bill came to just under $40, not exactly bargain basement but I guess we Brits are struggling with the exchange rate a bit.
Gobo We walked through Central Park after lunch, starting off where Lennon was shot and taking in the ice skating, the horses and carriages taking frozen tourists for a ride and the street sellers grouped round the exits. The King Cole bar is famous and it was here we spent a very pleasant hour or two recovering from the cold, completing the crossword and drinking expertly prepared cocktails.
In the evening we opted for Candle 79, which has some good reviews on the web. It's a very pretty place, with wallpaper and subdued lighting giving it a cosy feel. Tables are well spaced and ideal for couples although there were plenty of other combinations - of fours and sixes - on the night we visited. The jury was out on this one: I liked it and would go back but Mr Big felt his seitan was disappointing and the place lacked something. I think the delicious non alcoholic cocktail from the bar might have swung it for me.
The next morning we managed to nip in to the Guggenheim museum. The building is awesome (look, I'm slipping into the lingo) but the exhibits were disappointing (considering the cost) and many walls were bare. I guess it's just the luck of the draw. We made our way to Gobo for lunch. It's a Japanese styled place with the typical Zen-like interior; lots of stainless steel and pictures of nothing. The kitchen is open plan and spotlessly clean - a huge plus in my book. We had a really tasty meal here and it's all vegan. I would definitely give this place a thumbs up.
I was looking forward to Pure Food and Wine, our evening place, as I had read quite a lot about this purely vegan restaurant and I love raw food. It's very popular; we had to wait at the bar before they had our table ready, but this gave us an opportunity to have a drink and get into the mood for food. The restaurant has a nice feel, with lots of candles and service was attentive. Unfortunately for us, what let it down were the tables being too close.
Pure Food & Wine Unless you have a couple next to you who have had a row and are not talking (couple to my right) you could hear every single word the other couple (to my left) were saying. When "Mr Trying to Impress His Date" had said his tenth "awesome" in the space of as many minutes, I was sorely tempted to stab him with my fork. We had the tasting menu which was $69 each; with drinks the bill was a shade under $180. The food was exquisite, but for that sort of money I expect to enjoy my meal in peace and would only go back if they could promise I would not have to have some stranger's elbow in my face.
Red Bamboo was our destination for lunch the following day. Our server was quick and efficient but a bit too efficient maybe, bordering on abrupt. Menus were plonked down and within nano seconds she was back for our order. My tempura was hilarious. They were so awful I laughed out loud. Tempura is supposed to be very lightly battered and fried, so that the vegetables could almost float. These were coated in thick bright yellow batter, the vegetables were the size of saucers and as for flying, I think a Dodo would have had more luck. I took a bite to show willing but they were truly grim. Miss Whiplash returned to our table and I told her the tempura were not good. Like Daniel before, she smiled and walked off. She came back later to clear Mr Big's plate and looked at my uneaten meal. "Would you like it bagged?" "It needs to be binned, not bagged, it's truly horrible." She smiled and whipped away the plate, turned her tail and headed for the kitchen. A moment later she was back, with the bill. She didn't actually say "Have a nice day" but I suspect she was thinking it.
Blossom in the evening was an altogether better experience. It's quite small, which gives it an intimate yet cosy feel. The food was exceptionally tasty and imaginative. If you think vegan food is dull, come and eat here. The desserts also hit the spot. It's one of the few places that doesn't automatically add a service charge, so we accordingly left a large, well deserved tip.
After breakfast on our penultimate day, we made our way to Ground Zero. There were a few other tourists but the place was eerily quiet. If anyone spoke, it was in hushed whispers rather like being in church. I felt quite moved. So many lives destroyed; the pain was almost tangible.
Spring St Natural We hurried away to meet our New York blogger, Janine for lunch. Having just been to Ground Zero, it was perhaps appropriate that we were meeting Size Zero. Janine is the opposite of every stereotypical view I have formed about Americans: she's slim, quietly refined and good company. She works nearby and suggested the Spring Street Natural. It's a great place, large and airy with a nice bar and attractively arranged tables in open plan. Although not veggie, there was plenty of choice on the menu for us. Janine had a mixture of steamed veggies with rice, I was in search of a decent veggie burger and Mr Big, in adventurous mood, went for scrambled tofu. A selection of bread arrived before our main meals, which was a nice touch. Of course we had a lot to talk about, but the meal was very pleasant and somewhere I would be happy to visit again.
Hangawi was the food highlight of the trip for me. The whole experience was exceptional. You remove your shoes and then are taken to a private sunken table. What I especially liked was the privacy that this arrangement afforded. In so many places, they greedily try to cram in too many tables - Pure Food and Wine are you listening? - which can spoil the occasion. A dedicated server (not the digital variety) explained our choices and took our order. All the food is vegan. We had the lightest tempura (quite unlike those at Red Bamboo), exquisite leek pancakes and delicious nut dumplings. For mains we both went down the mushroom route: mushroom sizzler and mushroom sweet and sour. Since the food is not plated but left on the table, all dishes are great for sharing. Service was attentive. Unusually for me, I couldn't fault anything. Is this a first? With two drinks the bill came to just under a very reasonable $130.
Our last day arrived and snow threatened. Angelica Kitchen promised a great deal: beautifully laid out, with attractive tiled floor, immaculate toilet and smart wait persons. It's a pity the vegan food did not deliver. It was bland, uninspired and seemed a throw back to 1970. The bill jerked us back into the 21st century however- nearly $40 for two drinks and unmemorable food.
Five days sped past in a blur of activity. The cold added to the Christmassy feel with decorated trees and buildings coming into their own at night. We'd managed to visit the Rockefeller Center, Bloomingdale's, Barney's and somehow managed to get to Macy's every day too. But I suspect this really was just a drop in the ocean. I'll just have to visit again.
Note: Veggie Places always reviews anonymously, posing as an ordinary customer. If we do divulge who we are, it is always after we have paid in full for food or accommodation.