The Pleasure Of... Midtown Soup

On difficulty, serendipity, and melted cheese.

Hating midtown is usually a default stance for New Yorkers, for an unsurprising list of good reasons: crowding, chaos, garbage, office buildings, chain stores, soullessness. But because I don’t commute to an office, because I don’t *have* to be there often, I take a certain amount of joy in the characteristic feeling, in that belt that wraps Manhattan below the park into the mid-20s, of being at once dwarfed and swept up and shoved aside. All anyone wants from you there is for you to get out of their way. And while the avenues are predictable, shiny wide boxes and people in suits, the side streets are still full of surprise, doors to other worlds and little set-pieces of street pageant—guys unloading something enormously impractical in the middle of traffic, holding you up as they maneuver, say, a huge gilded mirror on a handcart over broken paving and around trash mounds, for mysterious reasons and mysterious clients. If some basic essence of this place lies in getting things done in the most difficult way possible, in the smallest space, and on somebody’s back, then here’s where you see it. And if some other essential part lies in stumbling through just the right door, among thousands, then this week we were unexpectedly in tune with the city.

When I picked my OB-GYN a few years ago, it was because she was absurdly convenient to where I was working, and now that I no longer have that job, the trek to her office is impractical but already layered with nostalgia, for the visits and the changing weather and the places we went for lunch afterwards. The Shake Shack at the end of the block is closed for renovations. That was our first stop, back in the summer when we knew it was real: milkshakes and burgers on a bench by a playground, looking around at all the strollers and kids and saying “well then” to each other a lot. Other places close to the office or the ultrasound place further south, clustered closer as walking got harder. 

On Thursday, we were on the bus down Columbus to midtown planning on one of earlier, perfectly fine but unexciting spots, Bareburger or the Flame Diner, when we passed a little ramen place and I suddenly knew what I wanted. I haven’t had any food cravings and almost wish I did—instead I get suddenly, powerfully hungry, but the particular taste I’m after is elusive. Nevertheless, when I see it, I know it, so we jumped off the bus and went to Terakawa, just beating the rush, sitting up at the counter next to a family with two kids, the serious-faced younger one wielding her chopsticks with far more grace and skill than I ever will, and a couple of solo diners hunched over books. I had a basic miso ramen with a side of incredibly fresh, light pork gyoza, and T had the spicy house ramen, which was creamy and smoky and peppery at once. We’re loyal to our local, Tamashii, where we always go after getting home from a trip, but I don’t mind admitting that this little hole-in-the-wall was better, brighter, stronger-flavored, with that magic that comes from a kitchen tinier that the one in our apartment and the feeling of getting in on a secret.

Two days later, we found ourselves back in midtown, a little further south  and east, cold and hungry, and ducked into La Bonne Soupe on 55th, a French bistro which has been around for decades, though I’ve never actually eaten there before. They serve maybe the best French onion soup(e) I’ve ever had, the kind where the Gruyère comes loose in little soft rubbery bundles and you burn your tongue in your impatience. They do a lunch deal that’s $25 for soup, salad (with their house dressing), bread, a drink, and dessert. Which, for midtown, or anywhere in town, is not bad at all. 

I keep thinking about this recent piece by Jeremiah Moss about the East Village, one of the few New York-is-dying laments that I’ve loved, because its quirks are so specific and its rage so eloquent. The piece really gets at what it means to sanitize a city—“scouring it all the way down”—and what’s lost when life gets so much easier for its residents, on the surface at least. I’m wary of romanticizing poverty and difficulty, but I also think we don’t interrogate ease and abundance—and what they cost—nearly enough. (On that note, too, I’m also still thinking about The Good Place finale...)

A couple of pieces from me this week: this Guardian profile of Jenny Offill, whose excellent new novel Weather is finally out. I had such a blast chatting with her, having for some reason thought she would be serious and standoffish, but she was so warm and smart and funny, and a good sport about ending up in the rather loud and expensive Breslin, adjacent to the Ace Hotel lobby. (Another pro tip, for midtown south this time, if you have serious carb cravings—the Breslin does an excellent and truly mountainous “assortment of pastries” for $15, a decent breakfast for at least three people.) (No, this did not make it into the profile.) Do pick up the book! And then read my friend Lucy Scholes’s excellent review in the Telegraph.

I was less happy about Anne de Courcy’s new book about Coco Chanel and the French Riviera from the 1930s through the war, which was interesting, but definitely triggered my rich-people-are-monsters-and-glamour-is-a-tool-of-fascism sirens, so it was fun to review in a publication aimed at rich people. Don’t mind me, I’ll be over here in the corner eating peasant soups and sharpening my pitchfork.