Between my allergies, picky preferences, and random moments of religious guilt, food and I have a tricky relationship. Seafood of any and all ilk, with or without a shell, is off-limits, so that makes half the menu at your average fancy restaurant off-limits from the get-go. Add to that my neuroses about pork and hatred of all matter of flavors from red pepper to fennel to ginger, and you start to understand why I can’t get invested in Top Chef, no one can take me anywhere nice, and I eat so much damned chicken.
Thankfully, fancy New York restaurants often offer unique takes on basic foods, like a Thanksgiving dinner made entirely out of foam, a sloppy joe that’s actually dessert, or, as I recently tried at Elder, a pasta dish that’s actually a deconstructed Reuben sandwich. I adore pastrami. Although I prefer it in its purest form with mustard on rye, I’m game for trying it almost any context, especially since it’s one of the few things I can eat, period. Here are a few pastrami remixes I was lucky enough to sample.
The Rye Pasta At Alder (on 2nd Ave near 10th St, where Plum used to be):
Alder is Wylie Dufresne’s new restaurant in the East Village, and while his name doesn’t mean much to non-foodie/Top Chef viewers like myself, it sounds so perfect that it’s like the fake movie names from Seinfeld of trendy downtown restaurant chefs. I agreed to go with a food-savvier friend when I saw the rye pasta on the menu, and while I can’t recommend the restaurant overall, the rye pasta, which has a mustardy sauce, bits of shaved pastrami and pickle (or slaw? I’m not sure, it was dark, and FYI, also loud), was pretty delicious. Unfortunately, the menu is broken into six sections of small dishes, and while they recommending ordering a dish from each section, that would make the meal cost as much as monthly food budget. As such, the dish was good, but the portion size wasn’t, and the ambience made me feel as old and cranky as one of the old waitresses that used to work at the Second Avenue Deli when it was across the street and would serve me special occasion pastrami mountains without a smile.
The Reuben Croissant at Milk Bar (various New York locations, although I walked over to the one on 13th near 1st since I was still hungry after the tiny dishes at Alder)
This is, far and away, one of the most genius takes on pastrami, not just within on this list, but in the known cured-meat universe. The croissant itself is rye, with the meat and russian dressing tucked inside. That might not sound like such a genius innovation, but it tastes like a Reuben that also happens to be buttery, and while you might think that would be gross, you forget that butter makes everything better, even loose meat sandwiches (not to mention loss, burgers, and cancer). It just so happens that it’s less gluttonous and grotesque to wrap your sandwich in a flakey, buttery shell than put a pat of butter on your meat like you getting heart disease was your job. So thank you, MIlk Bar/Momofuku, for doing the wrong thing the right (delicious) way.
Kung Pao Pastrami at Mission Chinese (154 Orchard St, downstairs, down a very long haul after a crazy wait, unless, like me, you get take out)
Sadly, one of my many dietary restrictions involves spice, which is to say, I have an extremely tender palate and my near-total lack of ability to peacefully ingest hot food has been both a source of pain for me and amusement for everyone I know. My basic rule of thumb is, if a woman who’s breastfeeding thinks it’s too spicy to eat, I can’t eat it without my face turning red and leaky from every hole. Even though the menu at Mission Chinese is generally off-limits due to spice, ingredients, fear of holy wrath, etc, I was determined to try the pastrami to make my meat tour complete, even though the item has two flames next to it on the menu and includes “explosive chili.” So, while avoiding the chilis (which are included in the dish whole as well as in seed and flake form), I tried a few bites of the meat, as well as some peanuts and celery, and plenty of rice. The flavor is delicious, and it’s a very nice mix asian and Jewy flavors, but it’s that terrible, stealth spice that you don’t even notice until you realize you’ve suddenly been struck with fever, cough, sniffling, sneezing, and almost every other symptom listed in Nyquil commercials. Again, my reaction was probably way more adverse than most, but even so, those bites, painful as they were, were a worthy pastrami sacrifice.