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Feature Sat Jun 14 2008
New York City is a fun place for anyone who's a fan of vegan food and also has a decent eat-out budget. One list for options in the Lower East Side alone scrolls and scrolls. I'd flown in to spend some time with some friends, with the intention of trying to get as much food into one day as reasonably possible. By the end of a Saturday, I'd tasted from eight eating establishments, plus a street pretzel. I had a bagel from H&H three times, and thought about a meal at Candle Cafe hours afterwards. It's also an expensive city, and to keep accommodation costs to a minimum without imposing on any local friends, sleeping quarters were closet-like tiny (no exaggeration).
I spent two nights in what my friend Amod affectionately likened to his memories of a sleeping room on a Bombay train. It was tiny but efficient. When I had laid down, my stretched legs touched the wall at the foot of my bed. My head tapped the opposite wall. I'm only five-foot ten. A third wall came flush with the bed's right side. The fourth wall was far enough away for me to stand, but not fully bend even my slender body without leaning far into the bed. A small vertical cupboard was in the corner, right against my bed. The makeshift wooden walls stopped far short of the ceiling. I could hear the thud and painful groans of some neighbor who kept falling from his bed. Sounds of his sloppy stumbling to the bathroom were clear as could be, again and again. Drunken-like bathroom sounds were a bit muddled, but still quite obvious.
Saturday morning at 7:45, I was waiting for Atlas to open, not very well rested, but still quite happy to be in a city that lingers of energy even when it's drowsy. Atlas is a small storefront bakery and café with a few tables inside and on the sidewalk, chalkboard menus, and more listings on hanging paper signs. The street here at 73 Second Avenue, between 4th and 5th Streets, was quiet. Last night's short lines of club-goers had given way to bags of trash on the sidewalks of this alley-free city. Runners and their dogs passed scavengers looking for cans. A laundry mart and open-air flower stalls were open, but not much else. In this part of the East Village, stylish restaurants appeared invincible in their closed hours, their fearlessly naked windows and tasteful window awnings untouched by the people who'd so obviously and brightly tagged the intermingled storefronts that were ironically protected by solid metal roll-ups.
Atlas served me a vegan crepe folded into a square, dusted with powdered sugar. Yes, I wanted it "to stay." I liked how they said "for here" that way, as much as I like the way London spots call to-go orders "take-away." My crepe first felt watery and runny with apple chunks too crispy. Once fork-fulls were in my mouth, the banana, strawberry and tender crepe happily danced together in a tender creaminess. I'd passed on the Nutella crepe. Nutella's not vegan, the counter told me. I could have had a Mediterranean crepe with tomato, olives, roasted pepper, mushroom, onion and tofu cheese. I'd go back for that. The unchicken or veggie burger options weren't as luring, at least in print. Non-vegans could get a crepe with goat cheese or chicken. Anyone can have the "VeganTreats Premium Desserts," which they "proudly carry" according to a sign. They also offer vegan toppings on soft serv, plus panini, wraps, salads, shakes and some breakfast items.
After breakfast, I strolled about, finding myself on a corner just outside Stuyvesant Town. Inside and at the feet of tall residential buildings, footpaths wound though a crew planting a scattering of fresh, new trees that softly diffused the sun. Then, my friend Satya called and we met up blocks later to look for her morning croissant. We ducked into a small, adorable café luring us with an espresso machine and the clean look of white marble-like tabletops contrasting with their sturdy, black bases. The quick, cheerful staff told us they didn't have croissants. They'd thought of serving Italian ones - appropriate for, as it turns out, this being an Italian restaurant complete with a meat case and hot red scale in back - but told us such croissants are no good. Satya took biscotti and cappuccino. I had a soy late. Our server sent us off with a gentle smile.
Sujata called. She'd arrived New York on a train at Penn Station, then took the subway and was getting off at 4th Street. We walked to meet her, and then ran towards each other. We looked to no avail for the dosa vendor who I had heard worked around Washington Square Park. Sujata offered to share a pretzel she'd bought on the street while in transit.
Next stop: Union Square for the Saturday farmers market, a smorgasbord of fruits, vegetables and various derivative food products from lines of vendors alongside those selling art. Rosemary sorbet sold next to iced tea in three flavors: ginger/cayenne, peppermint/spearmint, sweet basil/mint. The spicy tea's chilling refreshment was a trick that soon left a nicely burning aftertaste. A cheeseless pesto used walnuts. I avoided the apple cider donuts, wishing they were vegan. Bread, sprouts, mesclun, nasturtiums, strawberry and rhubarb all made appearances - as did sales of worm castings and metal worm bins. A salesman demonstrated his vegetable peeler using carrots and potato on a corner, telling us that this was no dollar store merchandise. When you come to an eye (of the potato), he told a small crowd, you scoop it out. There's the scoop (on the tool), he pointed.
Storefront signs had been mentioning "vegetarian" to some of us since we got in, too many options to sample from in one day - even at my rate, going on my third restaurant of the day by barely after 11 a.m. Sujata's friend had suggested Souen Restaurant. In their 13th Street location, I was eyeing the tofu scram with tempeh bacon. Would this be too much food? We had reservations for lunch at 2 p.m. at 75th Street. It'd be a lot of walking to get us there. Maybe I needed more energy. Time might necessitate the subway for a portion of the trip, though, so I shared the mochi waffles off the brunch menu with Sujata. Sweet rice flour-based, they were brilliantly sticky and chewy inside but crunchy outside. Sweet azuki bean spread gave them a deep, sweet taste. My grain coffee drink came with frothed soy in a curvy, handled glass mug. The music was soothing, reminding me of the group Satya was in New York to sing with. Outside, a delivery trike passed by us, with bakery names marked on its green cargo box. We walked back a few blocks to Union Square. Candied nuts perfumed the sidewalk across the street from someone selling mangos out front stairs down to the subway.
Sujata, Amod and I went uptown to Candle Cafe. As we looked at the menu, Sujata told me, "basically everything on this entire menu looks fantastic." And it probably was. The porcini crusted seitan picatta was so good I could have forgotten any other restaurant existed. Its thick, crispy breading effortlessly crunched apart in my mouth, while being reassuringly teary inside, and so savory that it seemed all my taste buds woke up at once. A slice of vegan carrot cake was absolutely no disappointment, either.
Central Park absorbed the three of us after lunch. Inside, the internal loop known as Park Drive was closed to motorized traffic, and bicycles and pedestrians took to the streets and sidewalks. We lounged on the grass as row boaters passionately kissed. The park is so big that at times, I couldn't see any buildings in the sky, not one skyscraper in any direction, in the middle of Manhattan.
We popped out on the other end of Central Park, on the Upper West Side. A pizza shop on Columbus at 72nd Street sold me two teas for $2.20, less than I'd expect to pay in Chicago. Waiting for a turn in the restroom, I spot thick breaded pizza slices. I thought of making some back home, fluffy, with a tangy sauce.
We kept walking west. At Broadway and 78th Street we spotted garlic knots. Salt and plenty of garlic were left behind in aluminum foil wrapping - but not for long, such was the perfect finish for such a savory treat.
H&H Bagels came into sight at 80th and Broadway. I had absolutely no idea how tender a bagel could be before this day. I ordered one with everything: salt, sesame seeds, toasted garlic, and poppy seeds. It was so fluffy it was almost soft, yet somehow chewy, maybe a touch sweet, with a gentle crunch on the outside just to remind me that I wasn't hallucinating. We ate in the middle of Broadway, on a traffic island with benches between lanes of traffic, as the crosswalk passed through at 80th Street. It was an odd spot to be hanging out. Yet, just outside H&H, it was perfect. Sujata soon went back for a second bagel for her and I to share. She called them "life changingly good." If it wasn't for my friend Dan's raves about H&H when hanging in Chicago, I probably wouldn't have been wise enough to ever stop in. I went back for a third to enjoy all by myself, running across the street to make the light. Amod went to the far corner for ice cream at Zabar's deli and market, a quaint spot taking up multiple store-fronts of the same old building, as if it had kept growing and growing until finally becoming a legend. Then he went back for two knives, across the street again. He sliced the top of his ice cream off and into a trash, the amount in excess of what he'd wanted, so smoothly that it seemed like cheese.
That night, Satya sang at Smalls, and it was over just as a water main broke and the streets flooded. Sujata, her sweetie, Amod and I finished the night at Gandhi Café a few blocks from Smalls, on Bleecker Street between 7th Avenue and Jones Street. It wasn't the best Indian food I've tasted, but it didn't need to be. With a full stomach, I was ready for bed.
by Chris Brunn