Friday, August 7, 2009

Al Fresco Dining in NYC (food)

Although I could be biased due to my love of air conditioning, I never really got the whole al fresco dining thing. I mean, in the countryside, that's cool. But in the city? What's the point of eating on the damn sidewalk? However, I came across these two spots that are good for enjoying what is left of the summer outdoors.

Southwest Porch (Bryant Park)

In the southwest corner of Bryant Park, there is a designated area that is sponsored by Southwest airlines. They serve $7 good beers, $8 wine, and $9 cocktails. They also serve sandwiches made by Wichcraft especially for them at $9 for two mini-sandwiches. They give you bags of peanuts and the water is the canned water that they serve on their flights. The sandwiches are tasty, although a bit on the expensive side. I had the soft-shelled crab sandwich, which results in one whole crab between the two sandwiches, as well as the bratwurst sandwich, and both were good. It's a good place if you're planning to lounge for a while and just enjoy sitting in the park (they have couches and rocking chairs) sipping a summer cocktail.

Inside Park at St. Bart's Church (50th St and Park Ave)

I wasn't originally planning on eating outside, but the inside dining room was closed the evening that I went there. The outside terrace space is lovely and I'm glad that I got to experience it. Since you have to walk a few steps up and in towards the church, the big terrace space does not have that "eating on the sidewalk" feel at all. In fact, it was kind of surreal to be watching the yellow cabs go by and yet feel so detached from busy Manhattan.

The cuisine is generally greenmarket-driven, and the portion sizes for the entrees looked decent from what I saw around me. They have an assortment of simple plates, ranging from $5 to $7, with a selection of 3 for $18. So I went with two selections of 3, and just picked the most expensive ones to get some value. Cheese with music was a plate of large sticks of French cheese lying in a pool of vinegar and spices and served with toast. It wasn't particularly special. The beef tongue served with cucumber and a toast stick was nice, simple, smoky, and tasty. The country pate was very well done. It had vibrant flavors and it was the first time in a while that I had a pate/terrine where the meat was flavored well and I didn't need to be served three different types of grain mustards or stuff like that. The trout gravlax had a nice taste and good texture mix with the slightly bitter frisee salad that came with it, but there was very little of the fish. The spiced blue prawns were nice and fresh (2 to an order), with their heads perfectly fried so that you can just pop it in your mouth with the eyes, brains and all. The grilled calamari had a nice char on the outside and the fried tentacle was good.

That's the good news. Unfortunately, there's a good amount of bad news also. During the time that I was there, the church bell tolled every 15 minutes. The bread wasn't particularly good. The manager/sommelier had a pompous air to him while the service was definitely slow and inexperienced. The runner who poured my water looked at me like I was his mortal enemy. Music was blasting out of the speakers that are placed next to the bar area. Not overly loud, but definitely such that everyone could hear the music. They had it on some XM radio channel, which I assume was 90's music, since I heard House of Pain's Jump, The Humpty Dance, and Wonderwall. While I love those songs, I don't know if they're dinner music.

I didn't think the prices were too bad especially given the fact that it's directly across the street from the Waldorf Astoria. I would recommend it to people who like good food in an al fresco setting where you're both still in the city but at the same time feel like you're taking a step back away from it.

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