New York. There are songs about it, shows about it and no doubt it is one of the most visited and famous places in the world. This place captured my imagination back in the late 90’s, when my first international travelling adventure brought me here. I was a back-packer back then, and the city was going through one of many transformations that would follow over the next couple of decades. I had come for fun and food, but with my tight, post-university budget, my culinary experience of this city was restricted to a few famous delis in and around Times Square, and I saved any discretionary coin for places like Chinatown and Little Italy – two places renowned for their authentic food experiences.
Fast forward almost 20 years, and once again I find myself here in a much different phase in my life and thankfully a bigger budget to explore what this city has on offer. And, to my surprise, despite the numerous visits I’ve made here since, this city is now going through a culinary and coffee transformation! The whole country is amidst an alternate universe politically at the moment (that’s a whole other story!) but New York (along with other well-known US cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and Boston) is a-buzz with all things food and coffee, and it seems to be influenced by many an urban space akin to the alleyways of Melbourne and cafés of Sydney and Europe.
So no wonder Urbanspace Vanderbilt, a recent addition to Midtown’s culinary landscape, has the tourists and local New Yorkers flocking here in their droves. Located a very convenient stone’s throw away from Grand Central Station, Urbanspace Vanderbilt brings together 20 artisanal and chef-driven food concepts influenced from all over the world – Greece, Mexico, Thailand, Japan, Italy, Australia and of course, America – into the most buzzed about food hall. And here at Coco and Vine, we love the idea of movements supporting local and small businesses, nurturing sustainable practices and above all simplicity and authenticity in the food experience – so how could we not be impressed with Urbanspace Vanderbilt?!
So fellow Coco and Viner Steve and I are here for the week, which means we got to enjoy, and try, the multitude of selections many times over! Here were some of our favourites…
More than once, I headed here for breakfast to indulge in the steel cut oatmeal with blueberries, cacao, pumpkin seeds and pecans from Two Tablespoons. And I say indulge, but this place is all vegan, gluten and preservative free, so it’s an indulgence without the guilt, my oh-so-favourite kind! My ‘oatmeal’ is made with quinoa and almond milk and the ingredients are fresh and raw. It’s light but filling, and the flavour combination is delicious, offering nuttiness and texture, and the only sweetness comes from the drizzle of honey over the top with a dusting of cinnamon. Such a reprieve from the overly sweet dishes you often get when ordering…well just about anything…in the US!
The chicken karage from Kuro-Obi by Ippudo NY was a perfect snack-size start to our non-breakfast food adventure. I mean who could go pass tasting the delights of the famous Ippudo, without all the lines and waitlist…and it did not disappoint! These bite-size morsels of goodness were cooked to perfection. The crunchy layer, strong with ginger and soy flavours, delicately gives way to the tender chicken inside. Made fresh-to-order, they are dusted in light chilli powder for an extra kick, and don’t forget to generously squeeze the fresh lemon on top for an extra tang of freshness!
Given our recent experience in Sydney at Watermans Lobster Co, we had to try the comparison right here in the US, with a Connecticut-style lobster roll from the well-known Red Hook Lobster Pound. Succulent pieces of fresh, warm lobster drizzled in butter and scallions are cradled in the most deliciously toasted roll. The lobster is sweet, moist and melt-in-your-mouth perfection and so fresh you can almost taste the sea with every bite! The buttery, creamy bun is toasted to exactly the right crunchiness to give this roll texture and has an almost brioche-like sweetness. This roll was impeccable and absolutely delicious. It also meant that we didn’t have room for anything else – but don’t let that stop you if you make your way here from ordering the lobster mac and cheese. In the 5 mins I was waiting for my roll to be made from scratch, 4 of those dishes made its way to customers! Definitely the second favourite menu item on this list…
We had to find room for dessert, at least once, and so it was the home-grown Dough for their artisan doughnuts. Daily specials are always on offer alongside their staples of glazed and cinnamon sugar, so Steve and I try the passionfruit with chocolate nibs. This doughnut is definitely not of the Krispy Kreme variety! The sweetness has been pared right back, with a nice blend of tartness and only a slight hint of sugar from the passionfruit glaze. The doughnut itself is moist and…well….sublimely doughy without all the greasiness and fat typical of American doughnuts. Head here towards closing time or late on a weekend and there is often 2-for-1 specials so you can try more than one!
After the third or fourth visit, I kept being drawn to the vendor Liquiteria. Intrigued, I finally had room to try one of their original smoothies. Known for pioneering cold press juices in NYC and with a philosophy of using raw, super foods as the basis for all their food and drink options, anyone is spoilt for choice from the menu. On this day, I choose the blue velvet made with acai, blueberries, vanilla whey, vanilla almond milk, coconut butter, almond butter and coconut sugar. This was a meal all unto itself! You could taste the creamy nuttiness from the almond butter, complemented nicely with the coconut butter and sugar, and the tartness from the acai and blueberries ensured that this wasn’t an overly sweet drink. It was thick and packed full of fantastic flavours, but plan on not eating for a few hours!
Now, we cannot leave without heading to the Australian-influenced corner of the food hall. And of course, it’s the proper barista-style coffee by Toby’s Estate that makes it mark, serving up ‘real’ coffee (sorry America…but you know it’s true!). I can barely contain my excitement of finally being able to have a non-chain coffee, as I scour the menu at the rustic bar-style bench. There are no grande-frappe-mocha-lattes, with 10 different syrup shots and cup sizes large enough to take a bath in here, there are a few simple things on the list that make me smile and feel the oh-so-familiar nostalgia of home…macchiato, piccolo, cappuccinos…and yes, even a flat white! I promptly order a flat white and am so happy not to be asked what size, but just my name, and I can’t wait to taste it. I am pleasantly surprised that this ‘regular’ size coffee has the same strong, bold flavours known to Toby’s coffee, the milk is the right temperature with the layer of creaminess to enhance the coffee notes and although it’s been overdone in Oz, the coffee ‘art’ brings a smile to my face.
Even in a week, we couldn’t have gone through all the specialties from each of the vendors, but this is definitely a place where any visitor, or local, can be spoilt for choice. The quality of the food is outstanding from what is clearly a carefully selected choice of purveyors. Head here to this refurbished heritage warehouse for your food adventure the next time you are in New York, and like us, you’ll be coming back over and over!