Jeff Gordinier’s Westchester, Part 1
Our Interview with Esquire’s Food and Drinks Editor (Who Lives and Eats Here, Just Like Us)
JS: What are you working on right now?
JG: Right now, I’m working on my column that I actually turned in yesterday. I’m going through revisions, and that’s the thing that you forget about: They don’t end, because you have to jump back in. I’m traveling to France tomorrow for a story for Travel + Leisure Magazine and then I come back for a little bit of home time. Then I fly to South America for a story for Esquire. And then I come back. That’s the rhythm of my life now and one reason that I’m always frantic—because it’s not just the travel—it’s also planning the travel.
So, just over the last year, I’ve been to Italy, Norway up above the Arctic Circle, Copenhagen several times and Mexico three or four times for this book I’m doing. And where else? Tennessee, L.A. many times. Los Angeles is where I’m from and I have family in Southern California, so I’m back there a lot. And then sort of spot trips—Providence, Rhode Island. At Esquire, we have the Best Bars issue coming out soon. I had to put together the best bars list with Kevin Sintumuang, who is the culture and lifestyle editor of Esquire. We did that piece together, but I’m also supposed to curate, for lack of a better word, what has generally been the “Best New Restaurants” coverage at Esquire. It’ll be morphing a little bit under my direction—the spiritual theme of it is gonna change—but as a result, I have to travel a lot for that.
And I travel a lot for the book, which is a book about Rene Redzepi [of Copenhagen’s fabled Noma] called Hunger that’s supposed to come out next year. And I travel a lot for Esquire profiles and also for these Best Bars and Best Restaurants packages. And then I do stuff for other magazines like T and Travel + Leisure—not that often, but sometimes. I’m beyond jet lagged. I mean, I really don’t even feel it now. I find myself on planes and I have no idea how long the flight is or what happens when I get there. But the interstitial weeks and days are spent in Westchester County. And in some ways, they’re no less exciting.
I mean, people find out that I live in Westchester County, and they will leap to this assumption based on decades of suburban literature that it’s incredibly white bread. People just assume that I live in a white-bread community with no interesting culinary options. That assumption can be far from the truth. I mean, I think that there’s terrific Korean food, Japanese food, Middle Eastern food and Greek food here. There are really dynamic young chefs pushing the envelope and creating food that’s delicious and restaurants that are entertaining but also, you know, taking some risks and bringing their voice and perspective to the enterprise of cooking.
One of these days I’m going to write about these folks, but I think that Christian Petroni, who has several restaurants in Westchester, is a superstar. He’s an incredibly charismatic guy and funny and he knows how to run a restaurant but also, he’s an incredible cook. I mean, I remember first encountering his food—I think it was called Peniche, it was like a tapas bar.
It was in White Plains a decade ago. And I’m, like, “Who is this guy?” He came over to our table—I wasn’t even at the New York Times or Esquire writing about food then, I was at Details and just a general interest writer. Something just leapt out at me about his cooking. It seemed fresh and vibrant and delicious and engaging. So, I recently went to his Fortina restaurant in Rye Brook. I had a blast! I went with my girlfriend Lauren and there was live music and Christian was doing a tasting menu thing for some guests. The pizzas were flying out of the oven—the food came fast and hot. It was just a really fun and dynamic restaurant that could easily be in East Village.
And may soon be!
Yeah! Yeah! I mean, I think Hastings-on-Hudson is a remarkable little boomtown for food right now. Bread and Brine and Juniper and Tacos on Hudson are all, unless I’m mistaken, Alex Sze, who is, gosh—what a modest person he is. You know, like, he never seems to sell himself and he doesn’t hustle me about getting press. He’s never done that at all—I don’t even know if he’s aware that I am a food writer. I just go into those restaurants, all three of them, and get remarkable food. And remarkable cocktails, thanks to Clark Moore. I mean, Clark Moore has been a hero of mine in this county for about a decade now.
Yeah, me too. I love Clark. You know, one of the things I love about Alex is, as you say, his modesty, but also his food hits all of the points of finesse. Always. That’s hard to do.
He could easily be cooking in the West Village or Williamsburg and build a big name for himself. His food would stand out even in those competitive neighborhoods and marketplaces. These are quality dishes that he makes, but these are also delightful restaurants. My girlfriend was out of town, so I went to Bread and Brine by myself and I sat at the bar and had some incredible IPA, got some roasted oysters, got an incredible Caesar salad. And I thought, “This is a blast! This is wonderful, what a blessing to have this level of cooking here.”
You know what’s funny? That restaurant, of all the weird places for chefs to congregate, that’s where they’re drinking. Bread and Brine after service, necking oysters and beer.
Nice! I mean, there are certain places that I hit for lunch on a regular basis. I’ve been cooking a lot lately, but when I don’t cook, I’m almost—I mean, if anyone wants to reach me, they can probably find me most afternoons at Fujinoya on Central Park Avenue getting, like, a teriyaki chicken rice bowl situation. And I’ve become addicted to their kimpira, kind of a pickled burdock root thing that’s supposed to be really healthy for you. And I also go all the time to Royal Palace, which is an all-you-can-eat Indian lunch buffet. It’s sooo good! It’s really different every day and they make an incredible dosa. They have a special dosa station, and I cannot resist a dosa. You know, that’s what I mean: excellent Indian food and affordable.
My kids basically want Japanese food, Korean food, or Chinese food all the time. That’s it. They favor Asian cuisines if we decide to go out.
I’m in the same place. My daughter virtually hates restaurants except for those in that group. That’s why half my Instagram is in Queens.
Isn’t that interesting? I think that’s a generational shift. I mean, I grew up in Los Angeles and I certainly grew up with an incredible diversity of options. For me, I sorta ping-ponged between Mexican food and Thai food when I was growing up, and, it’s interesting. Korean food, when I was growing up—and, obviously, there’s a vibrant Korean community in Los Angeles, and I was exposed to that in my high school years and I was having my mind blown—but it was fairly rare. It would be, like, a special trip to Koreatown, whereas my kids have Korean food two or three times a week.
So, H-Mart has that food court …
Three stations! Japanese food, Chinese food and Korean…
And they’re all a bit Koreanified…
But these are, like, their three favorite cuisines. We kind of bounce between those, each one of us will choose a different lane. I’m often found there on weekends getting kimchi fried rice or something. Sometimes I’ll post this stuff on Instagram, and friends of mine are, like, ‘Oh, where is that? Is that in Jackson Heights?’ Or it’ll be Indian food, and they’ll go, ‘Are you out in Edison, NJ?’ And I’ll be, like, “No! It’s Westchester County.” It always seems to surprise people.
Another example of that is Azuma Sushi, which is right near the Hartsdale train station, and it’s just an old-school omakase joint. And, if you go in there and ask for the Full Monte of omakase, you know, they will bring it. They have a chef—I don’t know his name—but he will bring it. For, like, $50! It’s a great deal for the quality of fish you get and the quality of life.
I don’t know. When I talk about all these places, I get excited. I really enjoy all these options in Westchester County. And there are other places that are kind of classically suburban that I’m very fond of that remind me of places that I grew up with in Pasadena.
I’m think of Suzanne’s Table in Irvington, she’s a friend. But this is a little spot where she does catering but she also does prepared foods that are ready to eat. She does beet salads, farro salads and grilled cheese sandwiches, things like that.
It reminds me exactly of a place called Julienne that made that kind of food back in the ’80s when I was growing up in San Marino, California. Just the same feeling, the same flavors. But Suzanne makes, I believe, the best chicken salad sandwich I’ve ever had. I mean it. And I’m very picky, as a WASP, about my chicken salad sandwiches. I just loathe, when you’re eating a chicken salad sandwich, if you get gummy pieces of ligament or skin or something like that. If the chicken hasn’t been prepared correctly and you get a tiny piece of bone or something. For some reason, that’s terribly unpleasant. I mean, it shouldn’t be that big a deal, but it kind of negates the whole sandwich for me. And she just prepares it beautifully, the chicken is cooked perfectly. It’s tender, it’s cut up correctly, and then she has some dried apricots in there, I believe some walnuts. But it’s nutty and fruity and salty—it’s just great.
For better or worse, I have these patterns. I mean, I go around the world to eat—that’s basically what I’m doing these days, and, generally, I’m trying new things. New restaurants. New dishes from people. Everything is about the new. And so when I circle back to Westchester County, I do find myself inhabiting the role of a regular. Like, I tend to get the same things.
Is it just comfort?
Yeah. I haven’t really thought about it. Like, I go to Irvington Delight and I get the stuffed grape leaves, or I go to Suzanne’s Table and I get the chicken salad sandwich, or I go to the Irish Bank in Hartsdale and I get a martini, or I go to MP Taverna in Irvington, which I’ve probably eaten at 200 times. I always get this bulgur salad that has dates and olives and onion and herbs and all kinds of stuff chopped up in it. For a while, I lived very close to MP Taverna—like, a few steps away—and it became my Cheers. I kinda lived there for awhile. I would write there, I would research articles there, I would eat lunch there and hang out at the bar. I think I have had every item on the MP Taverna Irvington menu—like, literally every single thing.
And you know what’s impressive to me? I’ve been in there so many times when Michael Psilakis is there. You probably know this too. He’s this celebrity chef—and he has places in Brooklyn and out on Long Island, and I’m sure he has to make an appearance at those—but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how often he is actually at the Irvington location and comes up and says hi.
He always scares me a little bit, though—he reminds me of Mr. Freeze from the old “Batman” TV show.
Oh, yeah! I guess he is kinda tough looking. So, I went in there one night and, frankly, I was in the middle of a marriage separation and I was a little down, as one would be. And Michael Psilakis was in there, like, “Dude, do you want to try some steak? I’m experimenting with adding some Greek steaks to the menu.”
He did that to me as well!
See? He’s smart. So, he cooked up these steaks and he put all this lemon on it, which is so simple but, like, a game changer. It was, like, lemon on a steak—of course! I mean, actually, it’s brilliant—the lemon and the salt together make that steak just, like, tremble with delight. It was terrific. And then we sat and drank far too much wine together. It was a good night.
(End of Part 1)
Check out more of our interview with Jeff Gordinier next week when we discuss local Mexican food, burgers, drinking, conveyor belt sushi, malls and more!