In the beginning, chefs created amazing food in Manhattan, and the critics said their restaurants were good.
Then the darkness lifted over the waters of the East River, and chefs began creating amazing food in Brooklyn, and New Yorkers flocked to Brooklyn, by bridge and tunnel and yeah, even by subway, and some critics soon said the restaurants there were even better.
And lo, in search of new revenue streams, a measure of these Brooklyn restaurants begat branches in Manhattan, because that is where the critics reside. With all this back and forth, some of these outfits must be running out of energy by now.
Which may be why you will find a fair amount of tired-out upper-end fast food at UrbanSpace Vanderbilt, the bright food mall that opened in September next to Grand Central Terminal. UrbanSpace is a company that assembles food courts in New York and London. Nearly half of the 20-plus stands here have their roots in Brooklyn. But not all of their offspring in this latest UrbanSpace installation seem to be as creative or as hip as their Brooklyn forerunners. Is that sesame paste I taste? Must be the Asian Rice Bowl.
That is not to say you can’t get a good meal here at a decent price — but you need to do your homework. Some of the dishes, whether born in Brooklyn or in Manhattan, are borderline excellent. And the sheer variety of the dishes offered under a single roof makes this place an obvious choice when you’re in a group with divergent tastes. Indeed, the place is drawing mobs. Here are my best bets.
My top choice is Delaney Chicken, created by Daniel Delaney, the man behind Brooklyn’s celebrated smoked-meat palace BrisketTown. Do yourself a favor and check out the $8 fried-chicken sandwich, a crunchy-crusted boneless breast adorned with pickle slices and a tangy sauce of mayo and Tabasco. The standard-issue burger bun in which it nestles could be better, but at least it doesn’t detract.
Still hungry? Try the fava bean dip ($7) at Amali Mou (whose roots are in Manhattan), an oozy bean mash accented by scallions, capers and olive oil. Amali Mou, which describes its cooking as “modern Greek,” also offers an admirable Cascun Farm pork gyro sandwich ($12), packing delicious long-simmered chunks of tender pork confit into a pita with tzatziki sauce, French fries (!), and bits of cucumber, tomato and red onion.
Are you drawn to great big fat sandwiches bursting with flavor? Consider Mayhem & Stout, another Manhattan descendant. Its specialty is long-simmered braised meats, although salads and vegetarian options are also available. A good entry point might be the Old Timer ($10.10), a sub roll packed with pulled short rib and brisket and dressed with a horseradish cream sauce and long-simmered onions. You will be sated.
Or maybe you prefer something lighter, like the open-face sandwiches from Brooklyn-based Sips & Bites. Try the ham and hard-boiled egg slices on a bed of green pea purée with a tangy mustardy sauce ($8).
If you fancy vegetarian, there is the Total Vegetarian Chaos & Destruction ($8) from No. 7 Veggie, an offshoot of Manhattan-born No. 7 Sub. Sure, you can get the plain veggie burger for two bucks less, but where else can you get your burger topped with mashed avocado, cheese, pickled beet slices, grilled onions and steak sauce? The burgers themselves are made from roasted broccoli, mushrooms and the wheat derivative known as seitan. The result is gooey, crunchy and chewy all at once and exploding with flavor, although it would be better on a higher-quality bun.
One of the Vanderbilt site’s Brooklyn success stories comes from Roberta’s, the venerable pizza establishment launched in Bushwick in 2008. Pizzas here are sold in eight-inch ($6 to $11) and 12-inch ($11 to $16) models, and are of course made to order. Each takes just a few minutes in one of the stand’s two awesome wood-fired pizza ovens, creating a just-barely-crunchy bottom and blistered crust. The toppings are first rate, including fresh basil leaves more flavorful than anything I bought this summer at the Union Square farmers’ market.
Another popular Brooklyn-born spot is Red Hook Lobster Pound, where three styles of lobster roll are on offer ($17 to $19). You can also scarf down oysters on the half shell (depending on the day and variety, about $20 for half a dozen), peeled boiled shrimp ($6 for six) or clam chowder ($7). The bill adds up but seafood is, alas, a splurge.
If you still have room for dessert and coffee, let me steer you to the delectable supersized doughnuts from Brooklyn-based Dough. These are typically smeared with supersweet flavored toppings but the “nut” is the best part, so check out the plain glazed.
To revive your brain with a quick espresso before jogging back to the office, visit Toby’s Estate, which started out in Brooklyn as a small-batch roaster and is now popping up all over town.
While most food halls fall short in the alcoholic drinks department, UrbanSpace Vanderbilt strives to deliver interesting wines and beers. Some of the individual stands have surprisingly varied selections, served at counters lined with bar stools.
Unfortunately, seating at UrbanSpace mostly consists of backless benches at knotty-pine picnic tables, and the din makes normal conversation a challenge. Unless there are four of you, you are going to be sharing space with strangers. At most of the stands, the food is routinely packed to go even if you want to eat on the spot, so there is plenty of packaging waste.
While each stand has its own style, the overall decor is exactly what you would expect: high ceiling, exposed pipes and industrial-style lighting. But the restrooms, tucked beyond the Toby’s Estate stand, are topnotch.
Alas, no one is on table-swabbing duty. Grab some extra napkins and clean off your space before you sit down.
UrbanSpace Vanderbilt is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. It is located on the northeast corner of 45th Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, Manhattan. (646) 747-0822
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.