The Odd Big Apple Bite

It’s 5:15 AM New York time. Our red-eye has just touched down at JFK. It’s the first time my wife has been to New York City. I was 17 on my last visit and with a high school tour group, so that hardly counts. We didn’t sleep well – I failed to catch a single Z – but that’s irrelevant.  We’re ready to go. We’re going to New York the shit out of the city.

We have an agenda built around hitting most of the city’s major structural touristy things. We also have a list of essential eats, curated from the opinion of friends, family, and the internet’s nebulousness. A slice of pizza’s on there, so is a bagel and a street dog. Pastrami’s also on there, although I have machinations to slightly modify that requirement and devour a Montreal smoked meat sandwich at Mile End in Brooklyn (for the record, I do, and it’s phenomenal). Stuffed in between these requirements is a personal goal; one that only makes sense if you’re drawn to New York because of food and drink. I want to eat something weird.

Weird, in this case, needs to be qualified in two ways. Firstly, I’m not meaning “food as a dare” stuff like scorpion on a stick or balut. I mean it in a context of unorthodoxy, such as an obscure ethnic cuisine or a local dish that hasn’t broken free of its regional shackles. That’s the whole point of traveling – to partake in life experiences not possible near your home. It’s why the non-rural people that visit the three-story Olive Garden in Times Square deserve mockery. The other qualification for my pursuit is whatever it is, it must be something that catches me off-guard. If this asterisk wasn’t included, a place like Russ & Daughters and their quintessential New York Jewish cuisine would fill the slot with ease. I know what’s coming there thanks to the gaggle of friends that recommended it, so it doesn’t qualify – even though it is rather good.

I’m not sure what it is I precisely want. I’ll figure that out the moment it’s ordered. We have our opportunities to engage in my desired edible surprise. One colleague tells me about a Georgian place in the Lower East Side, but that section of town ends up being strictly reserved for cocktail-fueled shenanigans. Stopping by the under-the-radar French market Le District and their eclectic epicurean delights is but a whirl, affording us just enough time to drink a glass of wine and discuss the somber power of the 9/11 Memorial. We stumble upon a buzzing mall of pop-up stands in Greeley Square slinging everything from raclette to okonomiyaki (aka “Japanese pancakes”), but we find it en route to a scheduled event. This is unfortunate – the pop-up closes the next day, before we could return.

It’s now Saturday afternoon, and I’m beginning to worry. We are indeed making NYC our own, to the point where people start assuming my wife’s a local. Yet the lack of a truly unorthodox food experience hangs over me like the hollow outline of an albatross; one that doesn’t quite weigh me down, but one that will if its borders continue to get colored in with missed opportunities.

Another missed opportunity defines our Saturday evening. We have plans to brave sub 30-degree weather and take an evening boat cruise around Lower Manhattan. These plans are dashed when the navigation app we’re using directs us to the wrong subway terminal and we end up arriving at Pier 83 five minutes after we needed to be there, despite the Herculean efforts displayed by our intrepid Uber driver. It’s audible-calling time. “Would it be possible to take us to the Empire State Building instead?” my wife asks. The driver agrees and nimbly slices through perpetually beeping rows of traffic.

The change sets off a chain reaction. The extra time we gain staying on land gives us a much better shot at trying the secret three-course tasting menu at Agern, Claus Meyer’s Michelin-starred Scandinavian-inspired eatery hiding inside Grand Central Station. The same Claus Meyer behind Noma, the restaurant that became shorthand for “world’s best restaurant” earlier in the decade. This is a huge opportunity, and not just for the pedigree. Normally, a tasting at Agern here sets you back $155-$175 a person. The secret menu slices this price in half. One caveat: seating for the clandestine feast starts at 8:00 PM on a first-come, first-serve basis. There’s an outstanding chance we’ll need to resort to Plan B. Plan B is good, but it’s not Agern.

We hit the Empire State Building’s observation tower and take a restrained number of photos. It’s 7:55 when we get back to earth. Grand Central’s a 15-minute walk away. Things look bleak, but we cross our fingers and sally forth. We arrive at 8:15. “We’re here for the tasting menu?” my wife asks in a hopeful timbre.”

“We have a spot for you!” The host chirps. They have plenty of spots. Most of the chairs surrounding the exhibition kitchen where the secret menu takes place are vacant, a presumed by-product of the Veteran’s Day holiday and season’s first genuine cold snap keeping the locals away. We can take a spot at the bar if we want, but we’ve already bellied up several times around the Lower East Side. It’s all about the kitchen, which is square and adorned with chairs on three sides – culinary theater in the round. In its center is Isabel Zamora, Agern’s pastry chef, methodically sculpting a fluffy meringue. It’s a surprise to see her in the space – normally, pastry chefs aren’t thrust front and center like this. Not only is the square hers, she owns the space completely. It’s cool to see.

The meal itself is remarkable. We know this before it technically even starts. A fat ball of bread comes piping to our table, ready to be slathered by house-made butter infused with skyr yogurt and apple cider vinegar. It’s worth the regular price of admission, let alone the budget-friendly cost. The first dish is a black bass hidden behind a Spirograph-patterned sheath of cucumbers, accompanied by sunflower and green garlic. It’s bright, refreshing, and slightly tart – basically a crudo. I wouldn’t have thought I wanted a crudo-style dish when the thermometer couldn’t make 30 degrees outside, but here we are. This is followed up by a duo of apple glazed guinea hen cubes and roasted guinea hen drumsticks, the latter served on the bone and doused in a Nordic barbecue glaze. The paper bound around the sticks’ bony handles prevent messy fingers and adds a little tongue-in-cheek lightheartedness to the affair. It makes us chuckle. The flavor of both dishes makes us burble and coo with deep appreciation.

We strike up a conversation with Isabel as we dine. It’s effortless, engaging chatter made more delightful by her enthusiastic smile. She casually reveals she’s a native of Mexico City, where she launched her career as the bread baker for, as she puts it, “a place called Pujol.”

“Wait,” I gasp. “Pujol?”

“You know Pujol?”

“Oh, yes,” I reply. Damn right I know Pujol. It’s considered by many to be Mexico City’s finest restaurant. No way that’s off my radar. She got her start there, and now she’s working at a restaurant owned by the Noma guy. I already know I’m in the presence of kindly grinning greatness without taking a bite of her handiwork.

“So where are you from again?” Isabel asks.

“Southern California,” I answer. “Orange County, about fifteen minutes south of Disneyland.”

“I want to get out there,” she gushes. “I’ve heard there’s some great food out there, like Taco Maria.”

I’m blown away. A New York restaurant worker just name-checked a restaurant five minutes from my house. In retrospect, her knowledge of Taco Maria makes sense: It’s been one of Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold’s top Los Angeles-area eateries for years; its Owner-Executive Chef Carlos Salgado is a James Beard semi-finalist; and the restaurant did a collaboration with Pujol last year. Her desire to go there isn’t as random as it may look. Nonetheless, it’s damn cool.

The meal finishes with that sculpted meringue; a quince dish made with lemon verbena and rice pudding. It’s sublime. It’s also a false finish; Isabel sends out a couple extra goodies, including an extra black board of bite-size victuals. One set of morsels is a pair of faint tan one-inch logs wrapped in translucent wax paper. They lead off her presentation.

“These are our beef fat caramels,” she says. I somehow contain the inevitable “wait, what?” until she’s finished introducing the remaining board members, but barely.

“I used beef fat to make a savory caramel,” she states with a smile, natch.

I’m giddy. I’ve figured out what my weird New York food is, and I’m staring at it with enough intensity to practically puncture its wax paper casing. These tiny logs are the achievement I at last get to unlock. Before I do, one question remains.

“How did you come up with beef fat caramels?” my wife inquires.

“The kitchen had accumulated a lot of beef fat, and they were just going to throw it out,” Isabel says. “Before they did, I asked if I could keep it, because I wanted to try out a few things. They gave it to me, and I eventually came up with these.”

I unwrap my log and take a bite. It’s psychological trickery on a grand scale. It contains the precise soft, chewy textural elements befitting of a proper caramel, but its ribbon of sweetness is loosened, enabling a nuanced version of the beef fat’s savory essence to emerge. It’s palpably unctuous but not overwhelmingly so. The two-bite design is perfect. Anything more leaves it vulnerable to over-speculation. As it is, it’s perfectly wild; the type of thoughtfully complex bite befitting of a place with Noma’s DNA coursing through its veins.

The caramels put me at ease. I’m no longer on the hunt for something weird, which means I can completely chill out for the rest of the trip, much to my wife’s relief. I know we’re going to return to Agern the next time we visit New York. I’m already anxious to see what unorthodox bite awaits us when we eventually arrive.