Open-fire cooking at Peasant.
When it comes to cooking, Mark Bittman does it quite simply. The self-proclaimed nonchef penned his signature New York Times column “The Minimalist” for 13 years (it’s now in retirement) and has taught the world to cook with his best-selling cookbook series How to Cook Everything.
“I am not a foodie in the sense of someone who runs around exploring new restaurants all the time,” admits the writer, who believes the food system must be fixed (check out his new op-ed column in the Times). “Although, I do that in other cities. But when I am in New York, I would rather go home.” Typically no-nonsense, he says, “I am not about the new, I am about the places I like.”
Bittman rediscovered an old favorite, Peasant, five years ago and was blown away. “This guy, Frank DeCarlo, just completely gets what simple, straightforward cooking is all about. If it was in my neighborhood, I would probably eat there twice a week.”
Of his go-to business lunch spot, Nougatine, Bittman says, “I am friends with Jean-Georges and have cooked with him on and off for 20 years. What I love about Nougatine is they play around, and some of the dishes may end up on the Jean-Georges menu.”
If take-out or a quick lunch is in order, Bittman makes a pit stop at Minar Indian Restaurant: It’s the closest thing in the United States to food that you get in India.”
Nougatine at Jean Georges
The Locale: 1 Central Park West, Manhattan
The Chef: Jean-Georges Vongerichten needs little introduction as one of the most recognizable chefs in the business. He has created an empire of three- and four-star restaurants worldwide. At Nougatine, he is the executive chef and is there daily when in New York City.
The Atmosphere: Nougatine opened in 1997 in the Trump International Hotel, across from Central Park. Jean Georges is the main restaurant and Nougatine is an informal dining room with an open kitchen, bar area, separate menu and a busy, animated vibe.
The Menu: The food is classic Vongerichten, mixing classic French and Asian style, such as tuna tartare with avocado, spicy radish and ginger marinade or roasted red snapper, spaghetti squash, sesame broth and chili oil. “If it was a standalone restaurant, it would probably be a three-star or at least two by my friend [New York Times restaurant reviewer] Sam Sifton’s standards.” Bittman says he can count on great roast chicken (roasted organic chicken with parsnips, kale and pomegranate vinaigrette) or well-prepared fish (slowly cooked cod, aromatic black beans, avocado, ginger and truffle juice).
The Locales: 5 West 31st Street, 138 West 46th Street, Manhattan
The Chef: Inder Singh has owned and operated Minar since 1984. Singh, from New Delhi, uses his father’s recipes for authentic North and South Indian food. A chef himself, Singh counts on 10 additional chefs to help him prepare for and feed the hungry line that forms out the door at Minar.
The Food: The specialties at Minar are paper dosas (crepes) and chicken tikka masala (chunks of chicken and peppers in a tomato sauce). The authentic, home-style Indian food is made fresh each day. Singh doesn’t use lots of cream or oils. The ingredients are from India and all the masalas are made in-house. “I have never eaten any meat at Minar, because I go there to get amazing vegetarian and vegan food,” Bittman says. “They have huge paper dosas that are two feet long and are the most beautiful things. Then there are stews with lentils and eggplant deep with the flavor of cooked onions and mysterious—at least to those of us who didn’t grow up with this stuff—spices. It’s just wonderful.”
The Atmosphere: There are two locations, both in Midtown Manhattan, that deliver. Expect a low-key, cafeteria-style setting with a busy lunch rush from noon until 2 p.m. “It’s quite cheap,” Bittman says. “It’s hard to spend $10 there, though I suspect you can do it.”
The Locale: 194 Elizabeth Street, Manhattan
The Chef: Frank DeCarlo is the Italian chef and owner of the 10-year-old restaurant in NoLiTa. DeCarlo, born and raised in New Jersey, grew up in restaurants: He started as a dishwasher at age 14 and never left the kitchen. He runs Peasant with his wife, Dulcinea Benson, who is the sommelier and manager. Together they travel to Italy three times a year to get ideas for their menu.
The Food: Peasant features food from all regions of Italy and the surrounding islands, but DeCarlo does not try to put a new twist on Italian recipes. “We cook baby pig on a wood-fired rotisserie. No one else in the city does that,” DeCarlo says. His ingredients are authentic—rabbit, sepia (cuttlefish), razor clams, moscardini (baby octopus). DeCarlo uses olive oil, salt, meats, wine, radicchio, endive, cured meat—all from Italy. “It may be cheaper to buy Californian olive oils, but we don’t.” Bittman attests to the authenticity: “It’s all for real. He built these brick ovens, and god knows how much wood he goes through, but tons.” He raves about the cuttlefish with olive oil, garlic and chilies cooked in small pottery, the fantastic salads and the simple but well-executed pastas.
The Atmosphere: “I built the kitchen out of repossessed brick that I found in dumpsters around the city,” DeCarlo says. “The kitchen is stone. It’s open. You can look into it from the dining area. It’s like looking into a medieval kitchen—there are fires everywhere.”