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A Delicious Day in Nolita

Ever since I arrived in New York, I’ve been wandering around wondering where all the good food is. I expected a lot from New York’s food scene. But I’ve been disappointed all three times I’ve visited the city because the good food was just that. Good. Not exciting or interesting or innovative. It was just good. But in a city like New York, “good” feels average when it comes to what food can be, and what food is heralded as being here. So I was surprised to find that on a recent wander through the Nolita neighborhood, I found some really neat food. In fact, everything I had on this particular Saturday exceeded my expectations. Interestingly, all of these food spots were recommended at some point by the Food Network. Turns out, we really can trust the people at Food Network, and thank god.

After hopping off the subway and emerging into Nolita, a trendy neighborhood near SoHo and Little Italy, I started walking with the intent of buying a ticket for a catacomb tour of The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (a mouthful, indeed). As it was cold and cloudy, it seemed like the perfect day to indulge in some low-grade spooking (and NYC history) while the spooky season is still upon us. But my plans came to a screeching halt when I noticed people musing at a brightly colored eatery with a big sign.

“Is that what I think it is?” I excitedly wondered to myself. And sure enough, it was. I’m almost religious about my obsession with Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate, so I knew immediately that this exuberant eatery called Rice to Riches was the rice pudding place Lisa Lillien (of Hungry Girl fame) recommended on the “Chilled Perfection” episode.

I crossed the street and went inside to discover a place that serves rice pudding like ice cream. There are a bunch of different flavors ranging from rocky road to raspberry to mascarpone with dried cherries. I got the flavor Ms. Lillien had recommended: Fluent in French Toast. I had my reservations about it because French toast is a real hit-or-miss flavor, but she was so right about this one. So right. It was actual chilled perfection.

The rice pudding itself was cool and super creamy without being too sweet. The creaminess led the way on this dessert (which today, I was calling breakfast). But cinnamon was the predominant flavor, followed by subtle maple and vanilla notes. Nothing about this dish was overwhelming, though. The cinnamon was not too strong, the creaminess was not too rich, and the sweetness was not too sugary. I topped my rice pudding with a caramel vanilla sauce called “Remedy,” which I can say bordered on being too sweet, but since it was served on the side, it wasn’t a problem. The sauce had an almost boozy kick, though, which makes me wonder if there’s some bourbon in the recipe somewhere. Either way, I walked out of Rice to Riches so thrilled and satisfied. It was a beautiful experience, but not the last one I’d have on this day.

After acquiring my ticket for the catacomb tour, I wandered around the area some more, which led to me finding a place that is a new classic in New York City: Milk Bar.

Chef Christina Tosi is behind what was originally known as Momofuku Milk Bar, a dessert shop that became popular after Tosi began the cereal milk trend. So I was once again thrilled to happen upon such an acclaimed eatery, even if the Nolita location is just a little window where you order everything to-go. I got myself a cereal milk latte and a Thanksgiving croissant. The lady behind the counter forgot about my drink for all of three minutes, so she apologized by giving me a size larger than what I had ordered, a card for a free drink and a free cornflake-chocolate chip-marshmallow cookie, which I thought was quite the apology, and I gleefully accepted.

Now, I’ll be real with you, I DID NOT think the cereal milk latte was going to be very good. Coffee seemed like too strong a flavor, so in my logic, I thought the cereal milk flavor would be drowned out, and I would ultimately be left with milky coffee. Luckily, I was wrong. Cereal milk lattes are the way forward. The latte itself was just the right level of sweetness, where the coffee was not overpowering, so the flavor of the cereal milk (made from cornflakes) was able to hold its own. The thing I didn’t realize about cereal milk is that it’s a sort of salty-sweet flavor that, with coffee, is a beautiful marriage of flavors that’s also very well balanced between salty, sweet and bitter. It was both a nostalgic and masterful latte.

As for the other foods, the cookie is interesting because the cornflakes retain their crunchiness, which makes for a great texture. But the flavor of the cookie is pretty much just like a salted chocolate chip cookie, which is to say it’s delicious, but not in my top five. The Thanksgiving croissant was pretty good, too. I found the turkey to be a little dry, but the flavors were definitely on point.

Last up in my small eating tour was a place I have been meaning to go to for almost a year (because we have one in St. Louis now!). It’s arguably a New York fast food institution, founded by a guy from St. Louis. Oh yeah, I’m talking about Shake Shack. Finding the one in Madison Square Park was totally a happy accident, as I had taken the wrong subway and was just searching for the right one. Then I saw it, in all of its fairy-lighted, burgerlicious glory. I decided that the universe was telling me that today was the day, and I wholeheartedly obliged. Honestly, it was one of the cheapest meals I’ve had here, coming to a little less than $10 for a burger and fries.

As I walked with my Shake Shack meal past the Flatiron Building, all the way home to Staten Island, I was thinking this was not going to be anything exciting. “It’s just a fast food burger and fries,” I thought. But when I sat down to eat it, it was a little more than that. It’s by no means the best burger I’ve ever had (BLT Burger in Las Vegas still holds the crown for me), but it’s an incredibly decent cheeseburger, and part of that for me has to do with the fact that it speaks to my St. Louis heart.

There are no Steak N’ Shakes in New York, but it’s obvious that Danny Meyer was inspired by the steakburger when he devised Shake Shack’s burger because it’s basically a slightly thicker version of a steakburger, griddled edges and all. The fries are totally different, though. They’re crinkle-cut, which I don’t love, but these could convert me. The fries almost had a meaty flavor, like they were fried in beef fat. They tasted like when I dip my fries in the au jus leftover from a French dip sandwich (which if you haven’t tried, you need to). Oh man, they were so good.

Finally, I’ve began finding where some of the great food in New York is! Now, to just find more of it. Stay tuned, folks.