O & Co.

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I have never been one of those people who likes obscure music, movies, or books.  I am a mainstream kind of gal, and I certainly don’t believe that just because something becomes popular it suddenly stops being cool.  Even stranger, once I find something I enjoy, I remain loyal to the end (that is why I still listen to New Kids on the Block on cassette tape.)  So, when I started this blog, I wrestled with the idea of whether I should include shops in New York that I love, but were created elsewhere.  I want to highlight those things that are unique to New York and created by New Yorkers, but one of the things I love about New York is the access to some really great foreign-born shops.  Listen, I am not going to write about Target here – that would be silly – not because I don’t love Target (I do! I do!) but because it seems nearly everyone on planet earth has access to it.   I do want to talk about a few of those shops that although not completely original, are still special because they provide high-quality or unique products that can’t be found just anywhere.  One of those stores I love is O & Co, which sells some of the best olive oil I have ever had, along with vinegar and other high-quality products .

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Yes, you can shop online for O&Co, and you are unlikely to be disappointed if you do, but visiting it in person is so much more fun.  Customers are encouraged to taste as many delectable oils and vinegars as they like.  If you have only ever bought olive oil at your local supermarket, you will be blown away by the flavor.  Some are grassy, others earthy, and it is so great to figure out which you prefer.

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I have purchased a lot of products at O & Co, but I think the olive oil provides the best value for your buck.  That and the truffles packed in oil.  This is not “scented” truffle oil – these are actual truffles that you can tuck in your cupboard and put in homemade mac and cheese or spread on a sandwich along with some arugula and buffalo mozzarella cheese when you are feeling decadent.  Or you want to impress someone with your cooking skills.  Or because it is Tuesday.

Where it is: There are three locations in NYC – Soho at 249 Bleeker Street (at Leroy), the Upper West Side at the Shops at Columbus Circle (1st Floor), and in Midtown at Grand Central Terminal.

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La Esquina

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From the outside, La Esquina looks like it could stand to set aside a part of its budget for a little upkeep.  The exterior paint is fading and the signs advertising food are missing letters.  I am not sure if this is a deliberate attempt to give it a cool, “worn” vibe that those hipsters seem to love or if they know they have such a great reputation they don’t have to look polished on the outside.  Either seems possible.  On one hand, this little “taqueria” is located in the heart of Soho, where people are more than happy to plunk down $14 for a mixed drink served in a plastic cup if they are surrounded by the cool crowd.  In the trendier areas of NYC, the quality of food doesn’t always matter so long as there is a good time to be had.  But, despite the hip address and decor that caters to that crowd (paint chipped tables, worn wooden floors, and pockmarked walls bedecked with Picasso-esque art), La Esquina stands apart from many of its neighbors by consistently turning out delicious food that is worth the money you pay for it.

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I have ordered many different items off the menu and have found each and every one to be delicious.  The “street” tacos, corn on the cob rolled in spice and cheese, and the ceviche all rock the house.  The reason I return, and will wait in line despite being the oldest and worst dressed person around, is for the Sopa de Tortilla.   Somehow, despite swimming in the perfectly spiced broth, the chicken retains bits of crackling skin that never becomes soggy. The tortillas are finely sliced and crunchy and the avocado always perfectly ripe.

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But, look, I am not going to sugarcoat it – La Esquina is not above the Soho snootiness.  The hostesses have a reputation for behaving as if the restaurant is continually hosting an after-Oscar party to which you were not invited – especially if you try to go the “secret” downstairs room where it is rumored you must have a reservation, a publicist, and other insider connections to sit in.   If you don’t have the time or patience for that nonsense, you can order from the menu out-front and take the good stuff to go.

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Cosmopolitan Cafe

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Ever had one of those days when you feel so annoyed by your fellow New Yorkers?  A day when too many people stopped to check their text messages halfway up the subway stairs so every other person has to walk around them?  A day when the city feels too crowded and every “excuse me” sure sounds a whole like “excuse you”?  A day when the person who decides to spit on the street misses your sandal-clad foot by a mere inch, or worse, not at all?  One of the best cures for a day like that is to step into the Cosmopolitan Hotel Cafe.  This hotel cafe is different than most in that it isn’t overpriced.  It is quaint, quiet, and calm.  The perfect place to shrug off some of those annoyances and get your head together.

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Although it is small, no one is going to rush you out the door.  And despite the over-crowded Starbucks just a few doors down, people don’t seem to come here in droves.  Instead, you are much more likely to run into a young couple from abroad, a businessman having breakfast, or Michael Imperioli (I have seen him there twice).  The cafe recently purchased a candy store around the corner and they have combined the spaces.  So, now, infringing on what was an old-world minimalist decor is soda pop shop candy and some vintage looking signs.  This is not an upgrade.  But, because the service, quality of coffee, and ambiance hasn’t changed, I keep returning.

Where It Is and Why I’ll Miss It: 125 Chambers Street (although the entrance is on West Broadway); Delicious, affordable coffee in a relaxed, old-world atmosphere.

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The Shops at Columbus Circle – Time Warner Center

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Ah, the mall.  This seems like such a cheesy thing for a New Yorker to appreciate – a mall is so suburban, so “middle-America”, so teenager-y.  But, maybe it is because as a kid I had to travel two and a half hours to get to a mall   I have always thought of it as a real treat .  Our “local” mall was in Billings, Montana (yes, in a different state from where I lived) and every time without fail I would go to the Nuthouse and get one dollar worth of cashews and another dollar worth of gummy coke bottles.  I would mix them together and eat them while sitting in the food court, marveling at all the city kids.  If I was especially lucky I would get to buy some new clothes (anything not ordered out of a catalog was extra-special).  Really, it was a great time.   As I got older, though, the thrill began to wear off, and I think that is because most malls cater toward the teenage crowd who hang out in the food courts and buy skateboard clothing at the trendy and cheap stores.  My favorite mall in New York City – the Shops at the Time Warner Center –  caters has a decidedly upscale vibe (it houses some very fancy restaurants including Per Se, Landmarc, Masa, and Center Bar) and offers an oasis from the hectic streets of New York City.   This doesn’t mean you can’t bring your kids – it has more open space than a city kid has probably seen in a year and kids seem to be welcome here: the sheer number of strollers parked in front of Landmarc makes Park Slope look like Ft. Lauderdale in wintertime.  I heard a gentleman say to a friend while gesturing toward the strollers  “see why I don’t want to eat here?” and then looking a tad bit embarrassed that I overheard him while I strolled by with my kids.  I wanted to pat him on the back and say, “listen fella, I don’t want to eat there either.  If I am dropping some serious cash to eat at Landmarc I am leaving the kids at home.”  If I happen to have my kids with me, we eat at the Bouchon bakery outpost: they always seems to have delicious brioche bread cheddar cheese sandwiches and tomato soup on special.  If I am without my kids I take a leisurely stroll through some of my favorite stores:   J.Crew, O & Co., L’Occitane, Williams-Sonoma, and C. Wonder.  (If I am with my kids I still visit those stores, just at warp speed. ) Then, if I want to sit and read I visit the restaurant portion of Bouchon and spend some time staring out onto Columbus Circle and the statue through large windows.  It is very calming.

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The Fountains at the Natural History Museum

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As a child I would spend my summer days wandering around my neighborhood totally untethered to my parents.  I was usually tagging around after my brother and sister, but there were times when I would explore the neighborhood and surrounding wilderness all alone for hours at a time.  The only requirement was I return home at the end of the day still intact and ready to eat dinner.  Living in New York City, that is just not possible for my kids.  Not only are there too many cars, unseemly people, and other hazards, but there just isn’t that much wide open space to explore.  Some of the best playgrounds are so crowded even a helicopter parent will lose sight of their kids.  That’s what I love about the Fountains at the Natural History Museum.  The fountains cover an area about the size of a football field and it is never, ever crowded.  There are trees providing shade all around and benches where parents can relax. Perhaps best of all, it is free.
Where It Is and Why I’ll Miss It:  The fountains are located closest to 81st street and Columbus Avenue.  If you are walking South on 81st and Columbus Avenue you should take a left onto 81st as if headed toward Central Park West.  Instead of continuing down Columbus Avenue, cut in toward the Natural History Museum (but don’t do this at the handicapped and stroller entrance where buses are often parked – you have gone to far).  If you follow a path you will see some pretty landscaping and a path to a staircase.  Climb up that staircase and Eureka! – there it is.  Maybe no one gets here because they can’t find it?
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A Sunny Day

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take a few hours on a Friday afternoon for myself.  I had no appointments.  No lunch date.  No errands to run.  I decided to head downtown to one of my favorite neighborhoods – Union Square and the Flatiron District.  My first stop was the Union Square Farmer’s Market – a maze of stalls full of honey, milk, wine, local meat and seafood along with fresh fruits and vegetables.  There are many farmer’s markets in New York City, but this one is the Grand Daddy of all farmer’s markets, and if I am ever anywhere in the area when it is open, I stop by.  That day I was hunting for a few items that you are only available a few weeks of the year in the Spring: baby artichokes and ramps (baby leeks).  There was not a baby artichoke in sight, but I found some beautiful ramps.  I also saw a stall with tons of greens – spinach, Swiss chard, and mustard greens, but maybe because it was early Spring, they were all smaller and daintier than their typical counterparts.  I bought a bunch of flowering baby mustard greens and put them in a vase when I got home.  They were so pretty I wasn’t sure I would have the heart to hack them up.
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I then headed north, stopping by my favorite New York City Deli – Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop.  The waitress saw me with my camera and definitely thought I was a tourist but when I ordered a chocolate cream soda, matzo ball soup, and a pastrami reuben she looked surprised and said ” you ordered all the best things”.  I agree.  So delicious.
I then walked a little further north to Eataly, but not before stopping at Marimekko, one of my favorite stores for inspiring and colorful design.
After that I headed to Eataly and had a macchiato, bought some salt packed capers and anchovies (so hard to find, but so much more delicious than brined capers or olive oil packed anchovies), and some sausage.
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Then I headed to the roof top bar for a glass of wine.  This place was packed for 2:30 on a Friday afternoon.  I found myself asking “does no one in this City work?”, before realizing at least half the people there were tourists.  I found a little spot in the shade that afforded me a view of the tip of the Flatiron Building through the open roof.  Although I brought a book to read, I spent the next 45 minutes sipping a delicious (and heavily poured) glass of Sauvignon Blanc while overhearing conversations in at least 6 different languages along with English tinged in various accents.  There were families with small children, groups of girls in their early twenties, couples on dates, gorgeous women in high heels, businessmen in suits, and retired couples obviously on vacation.  I sat in the middle of this buzzing frenzy reveling in this great City and the attraction it holds for so many of us from so many different walks of life.
On my subway ride home I contemplated what to do with all the stuff I had purchased that day and decided I should do something with the mustard greens and anchovies.  In honor of Mario Batali, who is a part-owner of Eataly, I thought I would consult one of his cookbooks.  Inspired by two recipes – one for a pasta with anchovies and another for simply sautéed greens- I came up with this.  It was totally worth hacking up those mustard greens.
Spaghetti with Caramelized Onions, Anchovies and Toasted Breadcrumbs (and Wilted Greens).
* Adapted from Mario Batali’s Molto Italiano cookbook
Serves 4 very hungry people:
Ingredients:
1/4 cup plus 3 tbs. extra virgin olive oil;
2 large spanish onions, cut lengthwise in half and then into 1/4 thick half-moons;
5 salt-packed anchovies, filleted and rinsed*
1/2 cup milk
4 cloves garlic
1 tbs. garlic
1 bunch greens (mustard greens, arugula, or Swiss chard would be nice), washed and spun dry, then roughly chopped.
1 pound spaghetti
1/2 cup roughly chopped italian parsley
1 cup toasted bread crumbs
* For years I used oil packed anchovies, which are just fine.  But, man, these salt-packed anchovies are amazing.  They smell like the ocean and they actually look like little fish (which they are, but you wouldn’t know it by the anchovies you typically see in our grocery stores).  If you are lucky enough to find and purchase these you can store the remaining anchovies indefinitely by adding salt to the space created from removing anchovies.
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Instructions:
1. In a 10- to 12- inch sauté  pan, combine 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the onions are very soft and gold brown, 20-25 minutes.  Remove onions and set aside.
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2. Meanwhile, bring 6 quarts of water to boil in a large pot, and add 2 tablespoons salt.  Soak the anchovies in the milk for 10 minutes.
3. In same sauté pan, heat the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil over medium-high heat until smoking.  Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until the red pepper flakes are lightly toasted, about 30 seconds.  Drain the anchovies, toss them in the pan, and cook, stirring, until they have broken down, 4 to 5 minutes.   Add greens and cook, stirring frequently, until wilted – about 5 minutes.  Add the cooked onions and lower the heat to a simmer.
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4. Drop the spaghetti into the boiling water and cook until just al dente.
5. Drain the pasta and toss into the pan with onion and greens mixture.  Add the parsley and stir to coast.  Pour into a warmed serving bowl, sprinkle with the bread crumbs, and serve.
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Tribeca Treats

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Cupcakes, again. Tribeca Treats makes my other favorite cupcakes in New York City. I can’t say I really like any of the rest (I am talking to you, Crumbs). This little shop, situated between Church and West Broadway on Reade Street, is awfully sweet. The smell that greets you when you walk in is so delicious it makes me wonder if the air has calories. The front of the store houses these great greeting cards – many of them are sarcastic and slightly rude, which is perfect for my friends.

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The cupcakes, chocolates, and other decadent treats are housed in the back. My favorite cupcake by far is the peanut butter and jelly. It features peanut butter frosting with a strawberry jam interior. So divine! They don’t serve it everyday, so might I suggest stopping in frequently to see if they made it that day? If not, you shouldn’t leave without having sampled one of their other flavors. You can’t, and won’t go wrong.

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The last time I visited they had whoopee pies. In the interest of journalistic integrity I had to take one home and try it. WOW! First of all, the cake part not only has chocolate, but lots of chocolate chips. And while I could see a lot of fancy places filling the center with whipped cream, they fill it with traditional marshmallow cream. It is like your best childhood memory that you never really experienced. They also serve great coffee from Irving Farm and their chocolate treats blow Godiva out of the water.

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And as a side note, not to be all Gloria Steinem on you, but every single time I have gone to that store, the owner is behind the counter working. She is clearly invested in her store, and there is nothing that warms my heart like seeing a hard-working woman making her dream come true. Not even seeing my daughter devour one of her cupcakes.

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Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

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When I was a kid I thought all ice cream was good ice cream.  It was a big treat when my Mom would buy the big half gallon of neapolitan ice cream in the plastic tub.  There were three flavors: vanilla, chocolate, and supposedly strawberry.  Inevitably, the chocolate strip would disappear first.  Then the vanilla.  Finally, that hump of strawberry in the middle was slowly worn away.  Over time, my taste in ice cream evolved.  In Wyoming, we have Schwan’s ice cream – which is like a traveling ice-cream truck with treats you buy in bulk.  My favorite was the silver mint bar – mint ice cream covered in chocolate.   In college, it was Edy’s chocolate chip with the thin little bits of chocolate that literally melted in your mouth.  And then, in law school, Eureka!  Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.  You see, I was a boring old mint and chocolate kind of girl until the moment I stepped into that shop and thought I would try something different – watermelon sorbet.  This sorbet tasted like the coldest, juiciest piece of watermelon I had ever had.  The same is true for every other sorbet flavor including lemon, lychee and mango.   After trying the strawberry sorbet you would have no choice but to leave that strip of “strawberry” neapolitan to rot in the freezer forever.  The “regular” flavors are just as good in creamy sort of way: green tea, black sesame, red bean, zen butter (toasted sesame seed), and ginger.  I love that they describe their oreo, chocolate, and mint chip as “exotic”.  When you take your kids here, order something completely out of the ordinary.  I don’t care how picky of an eater they are, they will like it, I promise.

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Green Tea and Black Sesame – my favorite combo

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This was my ice cream – I think I wrangled two bites out of her.

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Banh Mi Saigon

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My first job after law school was working as a clerk at the Immigration Court in New York City.  One of the best things about that job was its close proximity to Chinatown.  My fellow clerks and I would eat lunch there constantly, but we seemed to frequent the same places and order the same familiar things.  Lucky for us, one judge who worked at the Court grew up in Chinatown and would occasionally take us out to lunch.  We ate at so many restaurants that highlighted the difference in regional Chinese cooking.  I also had my first dim sum lunch (amazing!)  One day, he offered to take us on a tour of Chinatown after work to show us his favorite haunts.  It was an amazing tour: he showed where to buy the freshest fish, cheapest vegetables, and introduced me to the Vietnamese sandwich at the Banh Mi Saigon.  I would never have found this place on my own.  At the time it was situated in the back of a gemstone jewelry store on Mott Street.   It is now on Grand Street near Little Italy, and although the shop is now cleaner, larger and has seating, it still maintains that aura of mystery.  Why are they selling these delicious little devils in the back of a jewelry store?  Why are there lines around the corner for mediocre Italian food while this place seems to be undiscovered by tourists?  All I know for sure is that the pork banh mi sandwich, which marries a French baguette with Vietnamese style barbecued pork topped with fresh cilantro, pickled daikon and carrots, might be the best sandwich in town.

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Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop

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If you didn’t know any better you might walk into the Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop and think “wow, this place really needs an update.”  But, if you have lived in New York City for long enough, you know that when you stumble upon place that looks like it hasn’t  changed since the 1920s, you have likely found a true treasure.  What others see as worn-out, a New Yorker sees as well-loved.
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IMG_3661That is certainly true for Eisenberg Sandwich Shop.  Although the place is packed on any given day and every stool at the counter is taken, I always seem to be able to find a table.
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Service is really fast here, and within moments of sitting down you will be served a paper dish full of pickles as a starter.  Why can’t all restaurants do this?  I would happily trade in most bread bowls for some of Eisenberg’s pickles.
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After decimating those, I settle in for what I always can’t help but order: chocolate cream soda, matzo ball soup, and a pastrami reuben.
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It really is a shame that I am stuck in this rut because there are so many other delicious things on the menu and many of them are almost impossible to find anywhere else (lime rickeys, chicken liver and hot tongue sandwiches).  That’s why it is nice to dine with someone of an earlier generation like my mother-in-law who always orders the chicken liver sandwich – or your grandma who remembers drinking lime rickeys at the local soda shop when she was a kid.  This stuff is not foreign to them, and they can introduce you to the good stuff that you might otherwise be too afraid to order.    But make no mistake, people don’t go to Eisenberg Sandwich Shop for a trip down memory lane.  They go because the food is really, really good.
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