New York City: Momofuku

171 First Avenue, New York City, 212 777 7773

Apparently, successful restauranteurs consider signage an expense they can do without. Why incur the cost of mounting the restaurant’s name over the door when fifteen people blocking the sidewalk out front before the noon opening time provide the best advertisement? And so, on a recent Saturday early afternoon in New York City, I had no trouble locating David Chang’s Momofuku. Nor did I have trouble snagging a seat at the bar. All the tables were filled immediately, but for the first fifteen minutes that Momofuku was open, I was the bar’s only occupant.

Initially, Momofuku was not on my to-do list when I blew into town two days before. I had my sights set on Danny Meyer’s Maialino. That was, alas, not to be. So, on my way to meet up with family on Saturday morning, I took a detour and stopped here.

The blond wood-lined noodle bar is young and hip with a diverse clientele. At one point, I was distracted by a very earnest conversation between a nerdy black man and one of the servers about the possibility that one of the desserts might not in fact be vegan. The menu invites diners to call out their food allergies to their servers.

Having no food allergies or aversions whatsoever, I started with a soy egg, which turned out to be two halves of a hard boiled egg, whose surface was stained in some mysterious way a pale taupe by soy sauce. Fried shallots and finely chopped chives were sprinkled on top. Then, the menu presented me with a choice of Brisket Bun with horseradish, pickled red onion, and cucumber or Smoked Chicken with noodles, black bean and soy egg. I chose the brisket and wasn’t sorry. The meat was at its most tender. I tasted some light touches of Chinese 5-spice. The layer of fat added additional sweet notes. The horseradish provided some bite. What impressed me most were the cloud-like steamed buns that were shaped more like flatbread. I folded the bun around the meat like a taco and lifted it to take a bite. This was the highlight of the meal. I wish Chang had included the recipe for the brisket in his book.

After all my effort to make Chang’s ramen broth at home, I had to try the real thing. To my surprise, I was a little disappointed. I wished each of the ingredients were prepared a little differently. I’ve decided I’m not wild about the smokiness of Chang’s broth (it calls for smoked bacon among other things). That’s just my personal preference. I also thought the pork belly would have been better crisped and the pulled pork shoulder better seasoned. Finally and, again, to my surprise, I thought the noodles were a touch too soft. But that may be my fault. I’m used to saying “less boiled” or “firm” when I order ramen. I didn’t expect to have to say it here.

But don’t let that discourage you from trying to eat here. The menu isn’t long, but I saw in it at least two subsequent trips to Momofuku. The buns alone are worth the visit. I’m going to try to make them myself at home.

New York City: Café Sabarsky

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at the Neue Gallerie, 1048 Fifth Ave. at 86th St. The café’s website here.

If the Café Sabarsky hadn’t been at the Neue Gallerie, my attempts to visit the collection of early 20th-century German and Austrian art would have been far more frustrating than they were. But my frustration is my own fault, because I failed to check the website two days in succession. The gallery, please take note, is closed TWO days a week, not simply one, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Thank god the café was open on Wednesday, the day of my second attempt.

Café Sabarsky occupies a dark wood-panelled room on the ground floor of the gallery. For those who have never visited Austria, like me, the ambience evokes images of fin-de-siècle Viennese cafés. It feels Old World. The customers looked like they were either tourists or graduate students in art history. The serving staff wear ankle-length aprons over black pants, white shirt, and black vest. A large mirror facing the windows overlooking Fifth Ave. enhances the light in what would otherwise be a dark room.

The food offered is distinctly Hapsburg: schnitzel, strudel, sausage, and pastry. For lunch, I chose a crêpe filled with smoked trout with horseradish crème fraîche and a salad of celeriac, apple, and walnut. I ordered as well Elderberry syrup in sparkling water to drink with my meal. Everything was good, fresh, and flavorful.

Although not cheap, lunch at the Café Sabarsky offers a nice, peaceful lunch in a casual but elegant refuge from the city.

New York City: Pepe Rosso

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149 Sullivan Street, near the corner of Houston, 212-677-4555

For those fortunate enough to live south of Houston, SoHo can feel like a village. So I learned when I visited my 2-year-old nephew and his parents, who have lived for over a decade in an apartment on Thompson. Each time I visit them, their home makes me realize that tiny apartments are to SoHo what Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik are to shoes — extremely expensive. Nevertheless, like all their denizens, they spend most of their time outdoors.

And they eat in restaurants like Pepe Rosso, a place no bigger than their own shoebox apartment. More kitchen than dining room — and both are small — Pepe Rosso offers good, unfussy pasta, panini, salads, and a limited number of main dishes (secondi piatti). While waiting for four panini to go, the eight diners that the tables seat all had plates of penne, rigatoni, and spaghetti dressed in sauces whose colors indicated the cooks use fresh ingredients. I ordered variously kinds of panini — prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, salame, grilled vegetables — that all turned out very tasty. We ate them and swilled a couple of bottles of good Chablis surreptitiously at one end of a nearby playground while my nephew scrambled over the vast expanse of a brightly painted jungle gym. Passing rock stars and supermodels eyed our boisterous urban picnic  with envy. I love New York.