Like racing jockeys and opera stars, food critics are doomed to a succession of diets. I endured a lengthy stretch of abstinence recently, and while I sat in grand restaurants gnawing on carrot sticks and gently pushing dessert plates aside, I passed the time hallucinating about meals that might have been. I dreamt of bellying up to the bar at Casa Mono, near Gramercy Park, and hoovering down towers of salty, charred lamb chops, and Andy Nusser’s special sweetbreads, which are fried and rolled in crushed almonds. I fantasized about the puffy, fresh-made bread at Taboon, and bowls of the steamy, sweet shrimp-and-corn risotto served with all sorts of other southern delicacies at the East Village bayou joint Natchez. I dreamt of barbecue in all its forms, particularly the greasy cuts of brisket at Blue Smoke, and the Texas beef chili sold in cups at my local Daisy Mae’s BBQ USA cart (it’s on the corner of 39th and Broadway), which I used to supplement, during the course of long-ago binges, with sandwiches of Carolina pulled pork tasting faintly of citrus.
During my bleak days of no snacking, I also pondered fat Niman Ranch hot dogs from the new East Village branch of Westville; the wet, gravy-infused, uncannily tender roast-beef sandwiches at the new Manhattan outpost of Roll ’N’ Roaster; and the impressive “Fourth of July Picnic” (cole slaw, fried-chicken strips, and bourbon-flavored mayonnaise squeezed between a messy baguette), which is just one of the inventive creations available at a clean little shop called Carve Unique Sandwiches, on a raffish corner of Eighth Avenue and 47th Street. I imagined devouring a brace or two of toasty, compact pork-chop banh mi (sweet pork, pickled carrots, mayonnaise, and cilantro stuffed in a hot, crunchy bun) at Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches, on the Lower East Side, before creeping uptown to demolish the great, toppling “Skyscraper Burger,” the most formidable of several pleasing burger options at the bustling lower Park Avenue outlet of New York Burger Co.
Speaking of hamburgers, I’ve whiled away long abstemious afternoons pining for Tom Valenti’s structurally impressive new Ouest Burger, served at lunchtime only, at Ouest, or the zeppelin-sized roquefort cheeseburger at The Spotted Pig, which is best enjoyed, for maximum caloric damage, with a bowl of pillowy gnudi (little ricotta dumplings rolled in semolina and drowned in brown butter) and several dizzying tankards of very fattening Old Speckled Hen Ale. The burger at Danny Meyer’s seasonal fast-food boutique, Shake Shack (try the Triple Shack Burger when the restaurant opens again in the spring), is pretty good, too, although what I craved most of all as I tossed and turned in bed, listening to the unhappy sounds of my gurgling belly, was the four-dip, four-topping, frozen-custard extravaganza called the “Shackapalooza” (Valrhona-chocolate chunks, hot caramel sauce, and coconut macaroons, please), presented with proper ceremony in a decorous pail, with a plastic shovel.