Daddy Daughter Days

This time of the year always reminds me of the wonderful times I had spent with my dad in the City during the holiday season. I always looked forward to those Daddy-Daughter days when he was mine for a day and we could wander the city, go shopping and of course eat. It was a tradition that he and I would hop on the train to Grand Central and spend the day shopping up and down Madison and Fifth Avenues. We’d start out on Fifth, and stroll up the Avenue mostly window shopping until we’d get to his favorite place in Rockefeller Center — Teuscher Chocolates. This magical chocolate shop, was filled with all kinds of chocolates flown in weekly from Switzerland and wrapped in the most elaborate boxes, one more fantastical than the next. My favorite were the champagne truffles, which made me feel so grown up and sophisticated — oooh, Champagne was inside so it must be the best. Dad would get his dark chocolate covered orange peel and we’d eat them all as we strolled up the avenue. There was another location conveniently located close to one of his favorite wine shops, the original location for Sherry Lehmann, which was on Madison Avenue. So we had options and bribes. I’d bribe him to go up 5th with me and he’d get chocolate; and he’d bribe me to walk into Sherry Lehmann while he spent hours and hours talking about wine — then I’d get chocolates — and clothes.

Patience is not a Kowalsky virtue, I come from a long line of people without patience, from Grandma to Grandpa and Dad, who was basically impatience personified. I’d wait and wait until he was done with his wine shopping. Now that I think back on it, maybe taking me to go clothing shopping and chocolate eating, was his way of getting into the city to check wine shops, talk to his buddies and make me wait endless hours. I don’t really remember how I entertained myself, growing ever more impatient, but I knew that clothing was the light at the end of the tunnel. I’d tolerate the hours we spent looking at bottles and more bottles, and then he’d take me into Saks or Lord and Taylor. Now it was my turn, but again Kowalsky’s don’t have patience, so shopping with him was like speed dating with clothes. I’d say “Hi skirt, how do you do?” “Great we’re a match” so then dad would say something like, “Ok you like it, great, take 2, I don’t want to come back.” Once I figured this out, speed shopping was the best! Though once home, mom wasn’t so happy when she saw that I had the haul of the century!

But before returning home, we’d once again enter the glorious Grand Central Station, to make our pilgrimage to the cathedral of seafood, the one and only Grand Central Oyster Bar. But before I take you through my culinary journey with Dad, I have to brag a bit about an amazing experience I just had last week at the Oyster Bar, which jogged my memories of being there with dad so many years ago. One of my fellow Dames, from Les Dames d’Escoffier, invited me to the Canadian Oyster Festival, held there in celebration of the retirement of the Oyster Bar’s executive chef, famed Sandy Ingber who after 31 years decided to hang up his oyster knife. I helped my friend Michael Ann Rowe, the queen of all things crustacean, with a sparkling wine donation from Bouvet Ladubay. Bubbly and Oysters, a match made in heaven and I was in heaven! What an array of oysters to feast on, so many different ones from Canada all paired with the smooth, and creamy sparkling wines of Bouvet.

As I helped pour, my neighbor, one of the celebrated Canadian oyster shuckers from Raspberry Point, kept giving me oysters! It was a great night for sure, but it did make me think about all the great meals at the counter I had with my dad before we got on the train to go back home. Sitting at the counter was a right of passage, yes there were tables, but no true New Yorker sat at a table. There’s nothing like sitting at the counter, being served by the waiters and waitresses who had been there forever, under the vaulted ceilings designed by Guastavino. We’d start with a dozen clams on the half shell, dad loved them doused with cocktail sauce and lemon. Then we’d each get our favorite chowder — dad Manhattan Clam Chowder and me New England. The battle of the soup was on as we’d argue about which was better. Each soup was accompanied by Oyster Crackers and a bread basket with filled with savory crackers and rolls and hard as a rock butter on ice.

Bellies full, our final food stop was at Zaro’s for a black and white cookie for me, which I still think is the perfect cookie, a cake, a cookie, chocolate, vanilla all in one! We’d then hop on the train back home for the short ride up the Hudson. I loved these Daddy-Daughter days, true New Yorker days. And yes folks the City is New York, no arguments here, for me it’s the only one allowed to be called the City. Food, wine, shopping, NYC and dad that was a perfect day in my books.

Not My Grandmother’s Lower East Side!

You know things are different when you see an historic, venerable, quintessential New York institution like Katz’s next to a Marshalls.

Though we as a family never actually ate at Katz’s — it wasn’t Kosher you see, and grandma would only eat Kosher. She would definitely not approve of this change of the neighborhood! “A Marshall’s” she’d say, “who needs that? Who goes there? Eh” She’s been gone for a long time and hadn’t seen the dramatic changes that have taken over the LES (Lower East Side) and I’m sure if she had, she’d have been baffled. Long gone for the most part, are the Orthodox Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the Streets of Gold in NY. Long gone are Jewish food institutions like the Essex Street Market, where grandma would select live chickens, or the plethora of religious shops. Gone is Ratners with their famous onion rolls — come on who’s grandmother didn’t take the basket of those rolls and dump them into her purse? I know mine did, though later in life she would never fess up to it even when caught red handed! There was the Garden Cafeteria, the Second Avenue Deli (now on 3rd ave lol) Moishe’s Bakery or Gertels Bakery. Most of the folks, along with the foods I remembered, moved to Brooklyn or Rockland. The few places that remain such as Kossars, Katz’s, Russ and Daughters or Yonah Shimmel, are now tourist destinations that few New Yorkers visit on a regular basis as I did when I was a kid.

Yes I know things change, neighborhoods gentrify, but so much of what makes NY, NY is slowly disappearing — or at least what I consider NY is disappearing. Food as I’ve said before so many times, evokes memories; when you smell a particular food it can bring you back to a place in time. So today before I went to a meeting in one of the trendy new coffee spots on the LES, where the coffee menu is long and it’s hard to get just a cup of coffee (if it were not trendy I’d call it a coffee shop!), I decided to reminisce and stopped Yonah Shimmels for a knish. For those of you who have never had a real knish, and I don’t mean one that’s square gummy things you get from the hot dog guy on the corner, Yonah Shimmel is the place. Round open pastry surrounding soft potatoes and caramelized onions, and seasoned with lots of pepper– and it must be served warm and no mustard please!

Now that I had my potato knish fix, I ventured over to the famous Katz’s. Now as I said I had never actually eaten there with my family, we were Second Avenue Deli folks. And I have to say I do prefer Second Avenue over Katz’s. Subtle differences like the way it’s sliced and seasoned, along with the rye used, I do prefer Second Avenue. Since Second Avenue was kosher, that’s the only place grandma would eat. Whether eating there or taking back to grandma’s, dad and I would order at the counter. We knew the guys — we had a guy! He would always start us off with a schmear — chopped chicken liver on rye followed by a hot dog coated in spicy deli mustard and smothered in coleslaw (this was the Kowalsky way!) Then we’d sample the pastrami which was always juicy (the PC way of saying fatty) and thin (Katz’s is chunkier). Not sure how we then had room for supper, but somehow we managed. Our deli-man would then weigh out the rye bread and throw in a few more slices, (as dad would say — “A schtickle more…) lots of their spicy mustard and pickles galore. If you ate there you had a basket of rye on the table which, you guessed it would wind up in grandma’s purse, pickles and “health salad” though there was nothing healthy at all in this place! There are clearly 2 kinds of corned beef/pastrami eating people — those in the Katz’s corner and those in the Second Avenue corner. Now I’m not saying it was bad, because it was good! Peppered pastrami, nice and juicy on rye bread, coated in spicy deli mustard and topped with coleslaw (again that’s the Kowalsky way) — accompanied by pickles and a Dr. Brown’s Cel-ray tonic, all hit the spot on a cold day. And yes I was surrounded by tourists, again nothing wrong with that they should experience our NY institutions. I do the same when I travel, as I must also experience the cuisine of a culture and city. However as a New Yorker, there is a right way to eat a Pastrami or Corned Beef sandwich people and it’s NEVER with mayo, as overheard at the table next to me. Oy vey!

Next stop was into Russ and Daughters to check out the appetizing. Now here again we Kowalskys differed from most — we were M. Schact folks. Not fancy like Russ and Daughters, Schacht’s was located on Second Avenue, across from the Second Avenue Deli. Long gone, Schachts was actually the purveyor to most of the other appetizing stores. I still remember old man Max, the M in M. Schacht, hovering over wooden barrels of belly lox which he soaked until they were perfectly salty. He would wait on me and dad and personally giving us tastes until dad approved that it wasn’t too salty. He’d spoon out the herring in cream sauce with onions; dad always had to have an extra container of the cream sauce with onions (tzibeles), sweet and creamy and oh so good smothering a piece of Russian Black Bread. And he had the choicest white fish chubs, smoky and glistening all waiting to be brought to grandma’s for Jewish Brunch (we never said brunch!).

After getting the appetizing, dad and I would stop at the Gus’s for more pickles (just like from the movie Crossing Delancey) and our final stop would be at Kossars for bagels and their famous bialy and a pletzel for grandma. If you’ve never experienced the smell of a fresh, hot Kossar bialy, then let me tell you, you are missing out on one of the best smells in the world! Hot yeasty bialys with a perfect center of onions, garlic and poppy seeds; or the larger version the pletzel — heaven!

All these amazing food memories bring me back to the time I spent with dad and grandma. All this shopping would take at least an hour if not more, because if you knew my dad, we’d be chatting with everyone as we made our purchases. The car now smelled amazing! So we’d bring it up to the house, grandma would put down her version of salad which was a few iceberg leaves, onions and sliced tomatoes — she would say, “Salad, who eats salad, that’s for the the animals.” “Did you find a parking spot”, she’d ask and we’d roll our eyes and say “No the car is circling the block on its own”. We’d sit at the table, she’d stand and eat over the sink. Finally dessert would come, babka from Gertels and then grandma would try to make coffee. One, two, three she’d start counting; we’d play with her and say five, six…, she’d yell Anche (dad’s Yiddish name) stop it, and then she’d start again. I guess I inherited her lack of coffee making skills; she would have loved today’s coffee pods. For me the Lower East Side (not the LES) is all about the memories of the foods, their taste, their smell and family.