JET LAG I CAN HANDLE. It's food lag that's the drag. So when I land in New York on a chilly Saturday at 7am, the first order of business is to find sustenance, and stat – it's dinner time in Hong Kong, or so my grumbling tummy tells me. We're staying in Midtown, hotbed of Broadway shows, mega-boutiques, bright lights and creepy costumed Elmos and Hello Kitties charging for photo ops; desert for dining options. But Yelp guides us to a well-received diner off 53rd Street called Madison Restaurant, where we score both a window booth and orders of challah French toast and Belgian(ish) waffles with eggs and sausages. If you have to stoop to diner food (though, arguably, this culinary subculture has its hit-the-spot merits), this is the place to be, the jewel in its crown the crispy-edged challah that yields a milky, moist centre, a New York comfort-food twist on the pain perdu.
This carb-tastic breakfast is immediately followed by the discovery of a Sprinkles cupcake shop a few blocks away, the LA shop that famously debuted a cupcake ATM for 24-hour fixes. I buy two, and hope that the one-inch-high glop of cream-cheese icing on my red velvet will give me the sugar rush needed to make it till sunset.
I'm definitely not handling the jet lag, and a hail-Mary visit to America's best national fast-food plague Chipotle is my final shot at satiety before bedtime. I manage only half a burrito bowl before my eyelids tell my stomach to shut down.
A 1.45pm reservation for Sunday brunch at the Lower East Side's Beauty & Essex means there's time the next morning for a trip to Doughnut Plant, which has for the last 20 years been plying designer donuts based on a recipe handed down by owner Mark Israel's baker grandpa Herman, sans trans fats, preservatives or artificial flavourings. Favourites include the filled square donuts, boasting oozing centres of peanut butter and banana cream, or vanilla bean and blackberry jam, but I jump instead for a rose-filled “doughseed”, or mini donut, elegantly decorated with a single white petal and beautifully infused with that elusive floral flavouring. Dunkin Donuts this is not.
In sharp contrast, Beauty & Essex is set up with a pawn-shop front, its foyer lined with rad electric guitars and display cases filled with knick-knacks. Inside it's like a boudoirthemed nightclub with a skylight, dark and glam and too cool for school. It's designed by AvroKo, the New York firm that's behind Hong Kong's Carnevino, Catalunya, Al Molo and Socialito, the last of whose format – a taqueria fronting a resturant-club – seems consistent with the trickery involved here.
The venue is stunning, and so are the staff, with hostesses who in the dead of winter and bright of day sport chic cocktail dresses and sashay between tables. Brunch is served family style, and for our table of three the waiter recommends five or six dishes, appending, with a flash of white teeth: “Sorry, we're out of the red velvet waffles.” We dry our eyes and opt instead for lemon blackberry pancakes (fluffy), lobster and chorizo hash (intense and flavourful), the pork-belly BLT (crispy and messy), fried chicken biscuit bites with Tabasco honey butter and red cabbage slaw (hearty) and a kale and apple salad that kicks off a proper obsession with America's new favourite leafy green. Brunch ain't brunch without cocktails, and Beauty & Essex's list is a doozy: Earl the Pearl comprises Ketel One with lemon, mint syrup and Earl Grey tea; the Beauty Elixir combines cucumber and strawberry with gin and sparkling rose; and the Dark Chocolate Velvet, which we don't order, is a scary combo of Guinness with prosecco that's known as a hangover cure and was once described by a writer in The New York Times as “wonderfully other”. But why would you pay for cocktails when you can get your bubbles on the house? Down the winding staircase in a snazzy women's bathroom is a small bar with a (female) bartender offering flutes of champagne to refill the bladder you've just emptied. This, I imagine, is not a desirable job, but for the patrons it's a quirky perk.
We're out of luck with in-demand entrees again later today, when we're informed in the evening at Blue Ribbon Bakery Kitchen that the beef marrow with oxtail marmalade is out. The Blue Ribbon restaurant group spans over a dozen outlets, from the flagship brasserie to sushi specialists to a bowling café to the bakery and associated dining room upstairs, almost all of them offering the signature marrow dish – and we've walked into the one that's out of the dish. Rather than freak out, we make do with a lovely beef tartare, escargots and a plate of cheeses, as well as baskets of bread baked on the premises in a restored, 135-year-old brick oven.
On Monday morning, we check into Trump Soho for a quick review, and a brief respite from the madness that is Times Square. It's 10:52am and we're instructed at the reception desk to rush to our room to make the breakfast deadline, which ends in eight minutes. Two minutes of cardiovascular exercise later, we're dialling up lobster benedicts – butter-poached shellfish that sit on discs of brioche and under puddles of truffle hollandaise and bulbous poached eggs. It's tempting to get tucked into bed with a day's worth of Full House reruns on TV, but Soho – and its plethora of dining options – beckons.
The find of the trip is Dominique Ansel Bakery, which opened last year and swept the city's awards for best new bakery. The clean, well-lit place mainly offers sandwiches and pastries, including what's called the Perfect Little Egg Sandwich, a Cannelé de Bordeaux with charred outsides and beyond moist insides, and an epic creation nicknamed the DKA, short for Dominique's Kouign Amann, a Breton cake that's like the awesome love child of a croissant and a palmier, buttery and layered and puffy but with a crunchy, caramelised exterior. At US$5.25 before tax, it's pricey, especially with Ben's Pizza next door peddling deep-fried oreos at something like $2 for a trio. We prudently buy just one, return the next day for another, and the day after succumb to the reality of the situation and pick up a box of four so we don't have to keep coming back.
Our fanaticism towards this pastry is the way many feel about the Momofuku group, which is owned by Korean-American culinary impresario David Chang and consists of a family of unique restaurants that combine Asian influences with contemporary reinventions and haughtily strict policies. Most of his establishments don't take reservations, excluding the 12-seater Momofuku Ko, which allows them 10 days in advance only with registration through its website, and notoriously doesn't allow photography of any kind (Asians toting iPhones, beware).
We land at Ssam Bar 15 minutes after it opens for lunch, and are greeted by a redbearded hipster who takes our order of the rotisserie duck-over-rice set, which is a Crescent Farms, Long Island-sourced duck that's stuffed under its skin with a duck and pork sausage, sliced and served with a gooey duck confit, with sides of chive pancakes and lettuce. The meat is so tender I begin to question if it really is duck, and mentally rank it the second-best specimen I've tried, bar the UK's legendary Four Seasons roasted version. Just as succulent, and even more juicy, are the steamed pork buns, which bring together hoisin, cucumber and glistening pork belly – the version served at global runaway ramen hit Ippudo in Hong Kong doesn't hold a candle to this.
Across the street, the cultish Momofuku Milk Bar is big in reputation, small in size. A tiny counter in a closet of a store, it's barely bigger than a food truck, but its wares are now world famous, with cookbooks and cookie mixes available across the country. It's exactly zero degrees Celsius, so our cereal milk ice-creams need to be consumed indoors, and though, like the next three customers who come in, we inquire about the contents of the crack pie (butter, brown sugar and oats), overconsumption of duck leaves no room to contemplate it. The cereal milk soft-serve really does taste like the milk left in your bowl after eating cereal, or weirdly, a little bit like Horlicks. It's good, and definitely unique, but not revolutionary, or anything close to my version of crack, the Hokkaido milk soft-serve at the Sweets House Cha Cha counter in Causeway Bay's city'super.
There are no comparisons that spring to mind for the food at Jungsik, a Seoul import in Tribeca that peddles nouvelle Korean in a cookie-cutter fine-dining atmosphere, complete with beige booths, white linen and minimal furnishings. What the space lacks in personality, the cuisine more than makes up for: brilliant and uncontrived, like a yook hwe that pairs a wagyu tartare with wild sesame rice, oyster croutons and a sous-vide-cooked egg yolk. Most of the experiments utilise Korean seasonings without specifically paying homage to any hometown dishes, which has been the cause of complaint for some, but in my book only elevates the sophistication level in that it doesn't rely on conceptual crutches or standard flavour combinations. The surprise-and-delight factor is high, whether it's sea urchin on seaweed rice with fried quinoa (finally, a decent rendition of the trendy seed), or even a Jungsik salad that basically throws together everything you'd want to see in a salad – from quail egg to watermelon radish to tuna to sea urchin – and somehow still works. Owned and operated by kitchen wunderkind Jung Sik Yim, formerly of Bouley and Aquavit, this is the best restaurant that nobody is going to, and whether that's because the cost seems high for what people assume to be a K-town redux restaurant, or because the New Asian movement has been scorned as passé, it's a real crime.
Besides the tablecloths, Eleven Madison Park is pretty much the antithesis of Jungsik. The menu is essentially based on gimmicky twists on New York staples, like the savoury and sweet black-and-white cookies that bookend the meal, or a beer-and-cheese picnic that's literally served in a basket. And it's so popping that diners are willing to take a 10pm weeknight reservation for a three-hour-plus dinner that will take them past 1am. But hey, more on that in our interview with Chef Daniel Humm.
There are plenty more haute and hot establishments worth trying, but man cannot live on tasting menus alone, even when we're talking big names like Per Se, Atera, Daniel et al. So our final meals err on the side of simplicity. Joseph Leonard is part of Gabriel Stulman's West Village mini-empire, and boasts rustic chic and elevated comfort-food classics. The kale salad makes another appearance, and as an egg aficionado I find the scrambled with manchego on a croissant mouth-watering, especially when paired with sriracha-laced Brussels sprouts, a new New York paradigm courtesy of The Vanderbilt in Prospect Heights. But it's the country fried chicken sandwich that's unmissable, glazed with honey and Tabasco with sweet pickled cucumbers and enough mayo that it's veritably dripping out with each bite. It's so crispy it's almost like a suckling pig (with batter instead of skin), and so juicy you almost can't believe this is just a common yardbird. Nor can you call Shake Shack's chief product just a common burger. This meaton-a-bun sensation is known for its lines around the block, and even when it's below zero in the Big Apple, fans take their places for a bite of this heaven and a sip of the Shack's shakes. Arguably, with its made-to-order burgers and sometimes hour-plus waits, this is the slowest fast food a person could ever encounter, but that hardly deters those craving a bite of the Shake Stack, a cheeseburger that hugs a fried Portobello mushroom. It's just hours before my flight when I finally take my place in that snaking queue, order and receive the pager to notify me when my food is ready. The wait to lose my Shake Shack virginity seems interminable. It's said that over-anticipation can often ruin the reality, that hype can kill true pleasure. I'm pleased to say that in this case, delayed gratification hasn't done anything to lessen the joy of that first bite. It's the last mouthful I'm sad to leave behind.