Joe Allen

(New York, NY) For our first free night together in Manhattan, we accepted an invitation from MJ and her hubby Steve to join them at Birdland for some live jazz before heading out for dinner nearby. We had no idea where the evening would take us, but we were excited to find out...

He Fed:

Admittedly, I am a little tired after my long day in the sun, walking Central Park, hiking down to Les Halles for lunch, hiking back to the hotel, and waiting for Juliet to finish her shift. When she does arrive back to our room, we barely have time to say hello (it has been nearly 4 days since we’ve seen each other) before it’s time to get ready for our big night out. A quick check of Google Maps confirms we need to cab it to Birdland to meet our companions for the evening.

With only 15 minutes to spare, we arrive at a little jazz club and go right in. MJ and Steve are already seated at the table, where we could order food if we wanted. (I am still full from lunch.) Instead, I order a bottle of champagne. It is nothing special, a bit rough on the tongue, so I take my time sipping it. We make some brief introductions and then the lights dim.

Birdland is a normal jazz joint, but on early Friday nights it becomes something special. Tommy Igoe, drummer, directs The Birdland Big Band, which consists of famous musicians from the city and from around the globe. Some come from Broadway, warming up before their main gig. All of them come for their love of jazz. I am not what you’d call a jazz lover; I can take it or leave it, most of the time. But there is something to seeing these guys (and one gal) perform live that simply amazes. Tommy conducts, announces, and gently guides the other players in his set list. He is also a mad whirlwind on the drums, fascinating to watch. The crowd hoots and hollers in the all the right places. There are regulars here, and if I lived in New York, I’d be here every Friday night as well. They play everything from the standard classics to N’Awlins to Rio. And, of course, they close with Charlie Parker’s “Birdland”.

Still incredibly high from the performance, we rely on MJ and Steve for advice on what next. They recommend a bar just around the corner for a quick drink, then we can wander the local eateries. Sounds good to us. We follow them up two streets, happy to be out on a New York evening that is damn near warm, with many people out enjoying the night life. Before we know it, we’re descending a half stair down into a lower basement-type establishment that bears the name “Joe Allen”.

Immediately inside is a long bar nearly full, but two seats remain open. We snag them for the ladies and the adjacent stools become available very quickly, as other patrons depart to catch a show. Away from the noisy jazz club, we are able to carry on a conversation and get to know one another. I have an Anchor Steam, gabbing with Steve while the ladies catch up. Out of curiosity, we ask for the dinner menu. One glance is all it takes to convince us that we should be eating here.

Now that the Broadway-bound customers have gone, we have our pick of tables. I keep it steady with the Anchor Steam, not wanting to venture down any paths that might make it difficult to wake up tomorrow morning. For dinner, I’m thinking something less heavy and the Tabouleh salad with skewers of lamb sounds about right. I also order the mac & cheese, knowing Juliet will help out with that. She is also the reason I order the Roasted Marrow Bones with grilled bread. For a while now, she’s extolled the virtues of bone marrow and I’ll be damned if she gets all the fun.

My lamb is quite nice and juicy, with no gamey taste. There’s nothing special about it, but it hits the spot and is prepared perfectly. The mac & cheese is out of this world. Just the right amount of crispy crust and noodles swimming in deep, earthy cheese. Yum! Just for fun, I try Steve’s steak tartare. Previously I’ve shied away from eating raw beef because it just seems a little too extreme. Not so! It is phenomenally good, with Worcestershire sauce, onions, capers, raw egg, and other herbs and seasonings...a creamy, rich, and surprisingly spicy delight.

There’s a glitch with the bone marrow; our server forgets to put the order in. No matter. I decide to have it for dessert instead. What appears to be a leg bone from some animal (too big for cow...human?), split in two, arrives on a platter with scorched toast. Taking instruction from Juliet, I scoop out the gooey, gelatinous marrow and spread it on a piece of bread. The toast is too overdone, black on some parts, and the marrow tastes like...nothing. Honestly, it tastes like fat that isn’t particularly rich. It’s not even buttery. The scorched bits of bread overwhelm it until it becomes nothing more than sensation. I can take it or leave it.

Thankfully, almost on a dare, Steve orders escargot for dessert. (He does it because he knows I’ve never tried them, and had debated ordering them.) A little platter filled with pools of green, swampy potholes comes out of the kitch not long after. Again, I must take someone else’s direction. Stick a tiny fork into one of the potholes and fish out a lump of snail, dripping in white wine, butter, garlic and mixed green herbs so that it looks like something out of Swamp Thing, then shove it in your mouth. I am expecting a spongy eraser but the escargot is tender and chews quite nicely. The rich and heady green admixture in which it has marinated is delicious. Look at me! I want to shout. I’m eating snails!

Sadly, the meal is done and I am sinking fast. The lack of sleep from early flight and energetic travails around the city have caught up with me. We thank MJ and Steve for their generous hospitality, then catch a cab back to the hotel where visions of raw meat, cloven bones, and shell-less slugs dance in my head while I succumb to slumber.
She Fed:

After two long days on my feet working an event, I am anticipating a fabulous fun-filled weekend in Manhattan with Jeremy. And what a way to kick if off! Tonight we are meeting new friends MJ and Steve for jazz and dinner afterward. We are to meet at Birdland, a well-known jazz club promptly at 5 pm. Every Friday night Birdland features "The Birdland Big Band" formed by several musicians that play in Broadway shows. With time to kill in between travelling to the city and their respective curtain calls, these musicians have figured a way to warm up and make a few bucks at the same time. So the band plays a couple sets at Birdland and then heads out individually to their various Broadway gigs for the night. The plan is for us to enjoy the Birdland Big Band show and then hit a nearby eatery after all the Broadway shows have started, in order to avoid the crowds. Brilliant!

As luck would have it, I am running behind and by the time I get to the hotel and freshen up, we are a few minutes late. Traffic doesn't help (my feet were screaming for a cab instead of a long walk) and we arrive to Birdland closer to 5:30 pm. No worries, as MJ and Steve have secured a great table. We sit down and Jeremy orders a bottle of champagne to celebrate the night. It occurs to me at this point that I was so focused on getting to the hotel and changing that I didn't give him much of a greeting after being gone for three days. Hopefully the squeeze I give his knee under the table lets him know I appreciate the gesture of bubbly.

The lights are dimmed and we are immersed in jazz for over an hour, probably closer to 90 minutes. Now in all honesty, Jeremy and I don't know that much about jazz and have had minimal exposure to it here in Grand Rapids. Some of the pieces are recognizable, but more of them are new to me. I enjoy the music a great deal and find myself drawn to the musicians and appreciative of the effort they're putting into this. I never realized how intensely physical it is to play an instrument, and marvel at their talent and dedication. Before we know it, the band's sets are over and they're heading out to their "real" jobs now. We finish our drinks and begin talking about where we might have dinner.

MJ and Steve had suggested Joe Allen the night before, but tonight also offer up a steakhouse and a seafood place. Both Jeremy and I like the sound of Joe Allen, a local neighborhood place that MJ and Steven frequent. It's just a few blocks away and we talk as we stroll up the block, enjoying the warm night air. It's an incredible night for a walk.

There's just a teeny wait for a table, so we sit at the bar for a round and cool our heels. MJ and I share a half-bottle of the Cuvee St. Anne and the boys order beers. The atmosphere at Joe Allen's is casual and friendly. MJ tells the story of their friend that introduced them to the place years ago and described Joe Allen's as his "living room away from home". I don't know if it's fatigue from three long days away from home, all the champagne or the ambiance, but I do feel very relaxed and right at home.

As I drain my glass, our table is ready and we sit at a cozy four top and peruse the menu. Steve orders a bottle of the Sonoma Zinfandel to share with MJ and I, while Jeremy opts to stick with beer for the night. I'm debating between the Thai veggie dish, the pasta with eggplant and sausage or the steak. When Jeremy quizzes our waiter about what's good, he steers us away from the Thai dish so I go for the steak frittes.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Jeremy decides to start with an order of the roasted bone marrow and MJ orders the endive and watercress salad as a starter. She offers to share some salad which is quite yummy. The greens are bitter and crunchy and contrast with the creamy tartness of the roquefort blobs scattered throughout. The zinfandel pairs really nicely with the salad as well.

Our entrees arrive and Jeremy has ordered a side of macaroni and cheese for the table to share. I must have missed it on the menu which is unusual given my "mac 'n cheese radar" ability. My strip steak is cooked perfectly to medium rare and has a good hearty flavor. I'm not a big fan of the red wine reduction on the side and skip it. The fries are some of the best I've had and find myself daubing them, not in the red wine reduction, but in the steak drippings. Amazing? Absolutely.

The macaroni and cheese is outstanding and I'm so glad Jeremy ordered it. It's baked in a little gratin dish and boasts a crispy, crackle-y bread crumb topping. I eat entirely too much of it considering I also devour half my steak and nearly all my fries. I also enjoy a bite of Steve beef tartare which is not at all what I expect. It's salty with brine from the capers and pungent with raw onions...really quite lovely spread on a piece of toasty bread.

Midway through dinner we realize the marrow bones never arrived. Our waiter offers to cancel them, but Jeremy wants to try marrow for the first time. Steven and Jeremy decide to have escargot and marrow for dessert! Somewhere during all this dining debauchery, a second bottle of zin arrives. The boys share the escargot and I dive in to the marrow bones. This marrow is more like beef fat than any marrow I've had before; it's clear and quite greasy. Pretty good schmeared on the accompanying grilled bread, but not the best I've had. I've hit the wall both with wine and food. Time for a cab to the hotel and a good night's slumber.

Joe Allen's is a wonderful treat and something we never would have discovered without MJ and Steven's recommendation. This is a perfect beginning to our weekend in the Big Apple.
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