New York Neighborhoods Project: SoHo's Highs and Lows

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It's been a while since I've worked on the NY Neighborhoods Project, and this neighborhood in particular has been a long time coming.  I spent almost a year going back and forth to SoHo (which incidentally comes from "SOuth" of "HOuston") to The French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) as I tackled first culinary school and then their Sommelier program, and it's been over a year since I graduated from the latter, so I think it's high time we do this.

I actually started out to do this write up way back in the fall. I asked my friend and fashion blogger Miss Sophie from Les Anti-Modernes* to guide me on a shopping outing through SoHo. When we got down there, though, we remembered that both HATE shopping in SoHo. The trip was ill-fated.

In truth, I have a general love-hate relationship with the area. Walking down the stretch of Broadway that runs through SoHo during any normal time of the day qualifies as one the bottom circles of NY Hell in my book– just behind the subway at rush hour at the peak of winter or summer (both equally awful in different ways) and midtown between the 30’s to the upper 40’s. But there is also a creative energy to this neighborhood that is undeniable and you never know what you might see here.

While I was in culinary and somm school, I used to love to walk down this part  of Broadway in the morning, when the sidewalks were free and clear and it was possible to actually take in all the store windows – well, that is when I wasn’t rushing past in frenzied panic of lateness.  By the time I’d leave class, the sidewalks would be packed from edge to edge with college and culinary students, willowy models towering over the crowds, and tourists who don’t understand the rules of proper NY sidewalk conduct. Essentially, it turns into a shit show.

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(Side note to NY visitors – when you find yourself on crowded NYC sidewalks, you absolutely cannot simply just stop and look around to take in the sights. You should treat it like a human highway. Stopping short is the equivalent of slamming on the brakes in the middle of a freeway in rush hour traffic. You should pull over onto the shoulder before making a complete stop. Now that we’ve got that cleared up, we can move on.) 

Now I understand that many people might be determined and even excited to tackle this particular New York shopping experience, if you want to hit up the boutiques on this part of Broadway, I really recommend starting early. It’s a much more pleasant experience. Maybe start things off by gearing up for battle with breakfast from Balthazar’s Bakery. The restaurant is a NYC institution, but you can grab pastries, quiche, or a croissant and coffee with a much shorter wait from their smaller storefront next door.

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Or maybe head to Dean & DeLuca, another staple. Their coffee and scones powered me through many days at culinary school. Beyond the coffee and tasty eats, the gourmet grocer has a million things to spark a foodie’s imagination.

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The store does tend be a little pricey, but I somehow always tend walk out with a couple of things I somehow I absolutely couldn’t live without, like confit shallots or chipotle mustard.

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Once you’ve got your coffee, you might be ready to hit the stores. All the well-known chains are here, as well as many high-end designer boutiques that I certainly can’t afford, and few steadily expanding chains that may have not yet reached all corners the country have bases here. UNIQLO is a Japanese chain that makes great, reasonably priced basics.

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 MUJI continues the Japanese invasion with everything from sleek clothing and accessories, to stationary, luggage, and household products. You’ll also find outposts of casual chic chains like Madewell, Artizia, and C. Wonder (the last one’s just off the main drag.)

At the quirkier end of the spectrum, I love to stop into Pearl River Mart. This place has all the fun of searching through the bric-a-brac and curios of Chinatown, but just a little bit more organized. You never know what you might find here.



On our shopping voyage, Miss Sophie introduced me to the Flying A, a cute little boutique on Spring Street with a combination of new, vintage, and indie label finds at various price points. Very fun. I’m going to have to hit this place up again when I get up the strength to shop in this area again.

Once you can’t take the crowds anymore, get off the main roads and explore the side streets. These are actually what I love best about SoHo. Street art adds just the right amount of grit to cobblestone streets, and the fantastic architecture that chronicles the area’s many ups and downs. Here, you can actually stop to take in the historic cast iron buildings without getting plowed down by human traffic.

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The boutiques definitely get pricier on these side streets, but the store windows are fun and a lot easier to see than those on Broadway.  The people watching is also more pleasant down these alleys, and you never know what you’ll see—models and photographers in the middle of a guerilla photo shoot, white rapper-types carrying turn-tables hanging out with meticulously dressed Asian men holding scooters, and your occasional celebrity, all mixed in your average New Yorkers and tourists.

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By now, you probably need some refreshment.  Grand Street is a good place to quench your thirst. During my culinary school days, we’d often stop into the pub-like spots like Toad Hall and Lucky Strike after class. In fact, on any given weekday afternoon, you’re likely to find culinary students and sometimes chef instructors having a couple of drinks to take the edge off. Each has a bit of an old-timey feel, but Toad Hall skews toward slightly Brit feel, and Lucky Strike skews a bit French. Either is a good place for a casual, no-fuss drink. 

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If you’re feeling a bit more posh, the Garden at David Burke Kitchen at the James Hotel has nice outdoor seating on a rooftop patio, from which you can literally look down on all those poor haggard souls walking around SoHo. 

The coffee and breakfast from earlier in the day is probably not cutting it anymore at this point either, so it’s most likely about time to get some more food. It just happens that my favorite taco spot is nearby. La Esquina is right on the border between SoHo and Nolita, floating in the center of an intersection between Lafayette, Centre, and Kenmare Streets. Mexican is one of the few cuisines that is rather lacking in Manhattan, but this where I usually go to get a fix. La Esquina actually has 3 restaurants on this corner.

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 There's an absurdly exclusive bar/restaurant hidden down a staircase; I think you need to either know someone or make a reservation eons in advance to get in here. I can't fathom how it could possibly be worth it. There's also a very nice looking cafe with table service, but honestly, I always go straight to the taco stand because it's the Cochinita Pibil tacos I jones for, along with the tortilla soup in the winter. I think these Cochinita Pibil tacos are as good as any I had in California—and that's a big concession for a California taco snob. If pork ain't your thing they have plenty of other delicious options for veggies and meat eaters alike. In good weather Greg and I like to take our tacos and eat in the tiny park across the street. 

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Chicken Tortilla Soup

If you're looking for something more substantial, Osteria Morini is just up the block. Osteria Morini is Chef Michael White's take on the casual, family-style Italian restaurant, with big, wooden slab tables and an open kitchen. This is yummy Italian comfort food, with a little polish. The home-style pastas are wonderful, as is the salumi. The prices are quite reasonable as well. However, moderate prices for good food from a celebrated Chef means a packed house. You'll need a reservation for dinner here. I have gone in the mid to late afternoon, as well though, to a couple of glasses of wine and a few small plates with girlfriends and got in without reservation or fuss.

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If you're looking for a fancier evening out, there are plenty options in Soho to serve you, like David Burke or Mercer Kitchen, where I celebrated my graduation from FCI with all my culinary school gal pals and our guys.


Alternatively, if you want the feel of fine dinning at a more moderate price tag, there is L'Ecole, the school's restaurant. This is a lot like the culinary equivalent of getting a haircut at a high-end beauty school. It may not be perfect, but gives you a lot of bang for the buck. The offerings change seasonally and you get an option of three or four course prix fixe menus for lunch or dinner. (Lunch $30 or $42, Dinner $39.50 or $54.50.) I took my parents here while they were in town on a recent trip, and got to re-experience dinning here on the front side of the house.


Admittedly, both my fish entree and Greg's lamb dish were overdone, albeit well seasoned. However, my pasta appetizer and both of my parents' fish entrees were very good and very well prepared.

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 Everyone won on the dessert course, when we all just basically went all in and shared all the offerings, including a bonus cheesecake that was sent out on top of the regular options. The wine list also has a decent variety at various price points. On the whole, it was a lovely experience. I've done a lot worse at many other French restaurants around town for more money.

So there you have it, the highs and lows of Soho. If you can manage to avoid being crushed by the mobs, there's a lot to take in. Avoid peak hours and get off the main streets, and there's quite a bit to get your creativity moving.

Here are more of Greg's Pics:


And more or my pics here.




For more info:
www.sohonyc.com
www.timeout.com/newyork/manhattan/soho-manhattan-neighborhood-guide

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