I write this sitting on the flight to New York in stasis mode, having metamorphosed into a sedentary lump. The invisible but insidious radiation, and the already- breathed air must be to blame for my lack of concentration: I’ve started five films, and finished one – a saccharine, brainless comedy. And in this reduced state, my thoughts revolve around my stomach (more than usual). The looming flight attendant and her trolley are causing spikes in adrenaline –so attuned to the possibility of food delivery am I that I’m reacting pavlovianally to the click of the locker doors as the meals are unloaded. By flying west, I’ve gained time. More time equals more meals. I had breakfast and lunch at home, but the grey boredom of airports requires food for stimulation. The pre-flight, Prêt snack ritual has been observed. But that has not deterred me from munching through the 5pm dinner (chicken, and sticky-toffee pudding - and not bad actually. Better, in fact, than the recent attempt at a repast at The Palomar – see my review).
In-flight entertainment is clearly not being served by the screen in front of me, but instead by the rotating supply of snacks from the “Wonder Wall”. These fill the flight with purpose: I must try every one of these matte- packaged, faux-healthy snacks. Initially, I feel pride as I conquer them: a nut-free, oat bar so small that I need to have two just to make sure I document the flavour correctly; a tiny packet of popcorn that is apparently “cheese toasty and caramel flavour” (too weird not to try); some vegan sour sweets (only four in a pack - what a tease, two please); olives; hand cut crisps that promise to be artisanal (I’m sold); two-bite bars of Himalayan salted chocolate that barely register due to their shrunken format.
At 11pm UK time, I’m served afternoon tea (a selection of cakes, a scone, and some mayonnaise-suffused sandwiches). I persevere with these. There’s no stopping me now.
It’s half an hour until landing, and reality is beginning to set in. I’m surrounded by a shameful nest of wrappers: unequivocal evidence of my greed and boredom.
Pride has turned to nausea.
After a day of recovery, I launched myself on to the NYC dining scene. I’m mainly vegetarian, so most restaurants set out below are either fully plant-based, or vegetarian/vegan-friendly. This is by no means an exhaustive list but an account of the places that I enjoyed (with one rather off-putting experience).
The Fat Radish
Vibe: Vegetable-focused Modern European cuisine in an earthy chic paradise.
Highlights: Though not vegetarian, the vegan and vegetarian options are numerous and innovative (refreshingly not pasta or risotto). Order several of the sweet pea pot pies which are so good I’ve had to replicate them twice since returning to London. The Macro plate and banoffee pies are also must-eats. Booking is essential.
Good for: vegans/vegetarians/restricted diets
Where: Lower East Side
Jajaja Plantas Mexicana
Vibe: Vegan innovative Mexican style cuisine in a vibrant, bustling urban cafe
Highlights: No one at my table could get enough of the nachos with vegan chorizo, fermented black beans, turmeric vegan queso fundito, spicy vegetable relish, and vegan sour cream. The crispy chayote ‘fish’ tacos with chipotle almond butter and pickled red onion are also deliciously different.
Lowlights: no booking, and the tightly packed restaurant mean that you should avoid peak meal hours. Service also slows drastically during these times.
Good for: vegans/restricted diets/casual dining/adventurous eaters
Where: Lower East Side (near China Town)
Root & Bone
Vibe: rustic-modern take on Southern-American comfort food.
Highlights: The buttermilk biscuits are freshly baked, and so light they melt on your tongue. The side of honey butter just helps them slide down even more sweetly. Crispy topped and golden, with unending tangles of molten cheese, the mac and cheese is amongst the best.
Lowlights: The fried chicken. I may have gone with warped expectations – I had primed myself for strips of chicken breast coasted in thick crispy-crunchy breadcrumbs (especially good at London’s Mother Clucker). However, what arrived was a basketful of dismembered chicken body parts. The rebellious wing bone protruding uncomfortably from the thin batter was enough to put me off. However, this may just be a personal dislike.
Good for: comfort food/family gatherings
Where: East Village
Vibe: Casual Asian-American cross-over cuisine in a dark wooden pub from Top Chef contestant, Dale Talde
Highlights: I’m not a big meat eater, and I never eat chicken wings. However, I make a very rare exception for the Kung Pao wings which are ridiculously sticky and succulent – order many. The Pad Thai puts most to shame with its zingy freshness too.
Lowlights: The bibinkga divided opinion with its eggy coconut texture. I came around to it after the third mouthful.
Good for: inventive cooking/vegetarians/brunch/casual dining
Where: Park Slope, Brooklyn
Vibe: Airy, female-flocking, vegan café (also in London)
Highlights: The salad portions are generous – my favourite is Spicy Thai which, with its kale base, crispy wontons, apricot-glazed tempeh and spicy peanut dressing, is a mouth workout in a bowl - but every mouthful is worth savouring. The tempeh-lentil chia classic burger and kale-artichoke dip are also major hits.
Lowlights: The London branch is not restful as you have to wait for your name to be shouted out to pick up your food. The NYC branch I visited was great.
Good For: vegans/vegetarians/healthy eating/casual meals
Where: West Village
Vibe: artisanal vegan and dairy ice-cream served from wholesome butter-coloured trucks and stores around NYC
Highlights: the vegan honeycomb is a sludgy grey but don’t let that put you off. Made with cashew coconut and cocoa butter it is ambrosial. The non-vegan peanut butter and marshmallow crunch and Sicilian pistachio are also sublime.
Lowlights: It’s addictive – I began to think they were stalking me as I managed to go past at least one Van Leeuwen truck or shop every day… and failed to resist each time.
Good for: vegans/vegetarians/innovatively flavoured ice creams
Where: multiple locations
Black Seed Bagels
Vibe: pared down, fresh out of oven, open bakery
Highlights: multi-everything bagel – get there early in the day to get it piping hot from the oven
Lowlights: Addictiveness – I once ate 4 black seed bagels in a row.
Good for: breakfast on the go, vegans, high-carb gluten-full diets
Where: Nolita, Battery Park City, East Village
Vibe: stripped back, no-frills bakery for some straight-to-the-point indulgence
Highlights: Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter chip cookie – thick, crunchy on the outside, fudgy inside loaded with an abundance of peanut butter chips – there is a reason it has been named best cookie in NYC.
Lowlights: Lines for the bakery can get rather long, so go at a strategic, off-peak time
Good for: over indulgence and sweet-tooth satisfaction
Where: West 74th St, Harlem
El Luchador (Tacos vs Burritos)
Vibe: Hole-in-the wall, cheap, simple and brilliant Mexican food haunt. London could do with mowing down its innumerable greasy kebab joints and replacing them with this.
Highlights: the pollo asado burrito. Spicy, fresh, busting with flavour and filling
Good for: late night cravings, fresh Mexican food, done well (a rarity in London), vegetarian, vegan
Where: Lower East side