The Upper East Side may seem like a culinary dead zone if you’re used to the restaurant-studded blocks of, say, the West Village or Williamsburg. Growing up in the neighborhood, my brothers and I were forced to find ways to eat deliciously without violating the “no subway after dark” rule. Luckily, our combined research led me to this perfect night, including an under-the-radar (to the downtown folks) cultural gem.
Step 1: Slurp Vermicelli at Vietnaam88
Asking me about my favorite restaurant in NYC is like asking Carrie Bradshaw about her favorite pair of shoes. Gun to my head, however, I’d name Vietnaam88. How could an obscure Vietnamese restaurant on Second Avenue take the gold medal? Well, let me tell you.
Everything that Vietnaam88 cooks is exceptional. Each dish has a flavor that my mind always wanders back to. (How did they make that dumpling sauce so addictive?! What were those spices on the chicken satay?) You could eat here every day and never get sick of the food.
Start with the garlic-chive-and-shrimp moon dumpling. These pouches of heaven are encased in chewy rice paper that soaks up the accompanying sweet and salty sauce. In the mood for something with a bit of a crunch? Order the nem, a deep-fried spring roll stuffed with ground pork, shrimp, jicama, tree mushroom, and glass noodles, served with a nuoc cham sauce (fish sauce, lime, garlic, and red chilis).
For your main, order the pho bok choy with chicken. If you’re familiar with Vietnamese food, you’ll notice that this version mixes the northern bun cha with the traditional southern pho. Like in bun cha, the broth becomes heavily flavored by the barbecued meat. This soup comes with vermicelli noodles, but I like to replace the noodles with the heartier udon in the winter. The chopped fried onions add a sweetness that helps round out the salty broth base.
Step 2: Get Cultured at the 92nd Street Y
The 92nd Street Y has been around for 140 years but, lucky for us, it’s undergoing a renaissance. Its lecture series has never been more innovative or featured higher-profile guests (Hillary Clinton even spent her birthday night lecturing!). Creatively speaking, the 92Y refuse to hold back. Last Sunday, for example, it experimented with a six-hour live reading of Philip Roth’s Plot Against America, just a slight test of our increasingly shortened attention spans. It still holds to its Jewish values of family, education, and civic responsibility, but opens its arms wide to all those who wish to participate in its programming.
Two weeks ago, one of my favorite chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi, hopped across the pond to chat with Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman about his new cookbook, Ottolenghi: Simple; the inspiration behind his recipes; and the general trend he sees toward simplicity in home cooking during these chaotic times. It was a fantastic night of edutainment.
Make your trip sooner than later; there’s a lot of programming to look forward to this month. Reflect on election night with a polling analyst and statistician from FiveThirtyEight this Friday. Kick off New York City Jewelry Week with Town & Country editor in chief Stellene Volandes in conversation with David Yurman and James de Givenchy. And, on November 13, expand your horizons learning about classical music with the chief critic from The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini.
Step 3: Chase Pale Ales With Bread Pudding at Earl’s Beer and Cheese
On the border of East Harlem and the Upper East Side, Earl’s Beer and Cheese borrows much more of its casually eclectic neighborhood vibe from the former. Communal wood tables line the brick wall of the tavernlike space. Each lighting fixture is a different-shaped orb but glows the same subdued orangey light, which clashes with the multicolored Christmas lights lining the beams overhead. The wall opposite the brick is adorned with a deer head, a Hudson Valley–esque painting, as well as a portrait of a pig in a top hat with antlers (naturally).
Earl’s rotating all-American craft beer list is always exceptional. Focus your attention on LIC Beer Project’s Coded Tiles, a “juicy” pale ale triple-hopped with simcoe, cascade, and citra. If you’re into sours, order the Grimm Psychokinesis, a hazy dry-hopped brew with tropical undertones.
Top off the night with Earl’s “stupidly good” bread pudding. The thick-cut pieces of bread soaked in cinnamon sugar sauce come sizzling in a black pot and topped with crunchy green apples and whipped cream. For the savory-toothed, choose a cheesy dish like its mac and cheese made with giant rigatoni, rosemary, and goat cheese.
Settle in and play Jenga into the wee hours of the night. And a note from Earl’s: If you put the blocks back neatly, the beer and cheese gods will thank you!