Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Chat 'n Chew: Solid comfort food. Just don't call it "Southern."

Chat ‘n Chew
10 East 16th St.
(between Union Square and Fifth Ave.)
Monday-Friday, 11:00 a.m.-midnight; Saturday-Sunday, 10:00 a.m.-midnight

The Goods
If you're looking for authentic Southern food, you won't necessarily find it here. But if it's reliable American comfort food you want, you should leave feeling better than when you walked in.


  • Phenomenal mashed potatoes.
  • Tasty fried chicken.
  • Decadent Coca-Cola Cake.
  • Large portions.


  • No sweet tea – a sin for a restaurant serving Southern staples.
  • Disappointing mac-n-cheese.

My Meal

  • Teenie Weenie Mac and Cheese, $5.50: An oversized appetizer of macaroni and cheese.
  • Uncle Red's Addiction, $13.95: Pan fried chicken with mashed potatoes and Green Bean Casserole.
  • Coca-Cola Cake, $5.95: Rich chocolate layer cake with icing concocted from Coca-Cola.
From what I had heard about Chat 'n Chew, I was expecting authentic Southern fare. On the other hand, I grew up in the South, and I know that what sometimes passes as Southern food in New York is not.

That said, I was nonetheless optimistic, although I was ambivalent about the country kitsch decor. While the old road signs and tin cans stacked artfully on shelves above the white-washed wainscot were charming, such overt signs of down-home authenticity could, I thought, be a mask for food that isn't authentically down-home.

In the end, it was and it wasn't. The macaroni and cheese was overly peppery, and not truly baked like the mac-and-cheese you get down South. The fried chicken wasn't "Southem" fried, but it was delicious, tinged with honey and expertly pan fried so it was moist on the inside but chewy on the outside. The mashed potatoes – with the skins on – were like velvet, light and creamy but still textured. The traditional Green Bean Casserole was complete with lightly fried strips of onions on top.

I had most looked forward to the Coca-Cola cake, having never found that dessert north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Chat 'n Chew's wasn't like the one my mama used to make, but it was too good to fault tt for that: rich without being too dense, lathered with creamy, sweet icing, and drizzled with a sticky chocolate sauce.

So though Chat 'n Chew didn't quite deliver the Southern food experience I was hoping for, it delivered solid comfort food, and that was enough.

BONUS TRACK: My Mama's Coca-Cola Cake Recipe

My trip to the Chat 'n Chew restaurant, which serves down-home cooking and is known for its Coca-Cola Cake, made me long for the Coca-Cola cake my mother used to make back in Arkansas. It was our standard family dessert for holidays, birthdays, picnics and other large gatherings.

When she was featured in the "Cooks Corner" section of the local weekly, the Benton Courier, the owner of the local market reported to her later, "We just about ran out of Cokes and cocoa after that recipe ran."

Thanks, Sammie, for letting me share your recipe here.


  • 2 cups unsifted flour
  • 2 cups refined sugar
  • 3 sticks butter
  • 1 cup + 6 tablespoons Coca-Cola
  • 6 tablespoons cocoa
  • ½ cup buttermilk
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1-1/2 cups miniature marshmallows
  • 1 box powdered sugar
  • 1 cup chopped nuts, toasted (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

While the oven is preheating, lightly toast 1 cup of chopped nuts for the frosting: Spread nuts out on a cookie sheet, and shake pan frequently; leave in about five minutes and be careful not to scorch..

Grease and flour a 9x13 sheet-cake pan.

Combine flour and refined sugar in a large mixing bowl.

Heat 2 sticks of butter, 1 cup of Coca-Cola and 3 tablespoons of cocoa over low-medium heat just until it starts to bubble. Remove from heat, and pour over theflour/sugar mixture. Mix well.

Add the eggs, buttermilk, baking soda and vanilla. Beat well.

Add marshmallows, and stir well. This will be a thin batter, and the marshmallows will float to the top.

Pour into a greased-and-floured 9x13 sheet-cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

Empty 1 box of powdered sugar into a medium-sized mixing bowl.

Heat 1 stick of butter, 3 tablespoons of cocoa and 6 tablespoons of Coca-Cola over low-to-medium heat until the mixture is simmering rapidly. Remove from heat and pour over the powdered sugar. Beat well.

Add toasted, chopped nuts. Stir well.

Spread the frosting on the cake while the cake is still warm.

About 24.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Renting a Car in Manhattan: NYC Car Rental Tips

Did you get stuck in town over President’s Day Weekend because you couldn’t get a car rental? Renting a car in Manhattan can be frustrating and expensive. The wait at the counter during peak times can be excruciating, the extra fees can add up quickly, and renting a car at the last minute is an oxy moron in this town. Here are some tips to help you minimize your hassles and maximize your experience.

Advance Planning Is Key
Unfortunately, spontaneous trips and car rentals don't go together in Manhattan. You have to plan ahead, especially around holidays, during the fall foliage season, on three-day weekends and anytime in the summer. Reserve your car well in advance, but bear in mind that rates can come down in the two weeks prior to your trip if an outlet is trying to adjust its inventory levels. Your best bet is to check the rental rates again as your trip gets closer.

This being Manhattan, those great deals the car rental companies advertise on TV are seldom – if ever – available here. But, you'll typically get better rates on the car rental companies' Web sites than by calling the reservation lines. Surf around and compare prices, as they can vary significantly. It’s easy to review, modify or cancel reservations online, too, as well as search for the outlets nearest you. If you rent frequently, sign up for the preferred customer programs.

Pick One Near Your Home: Car Rental Outlets by Neighborhood
Car rental outlets in Manhattan's various neighborhoods tend to be clustered together within a few blocks of each other. Here's a sampling:
  • Upper West Side: West 76th-77th Sts. (Alamo, Avis, Hertz, National)
  • Upper East Side: East 80th-90th Sts. (Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz, Thrifty)
  • Midtown West: West 40s-50s (Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz)
  • Midtown East: East 40s (Avis, Budget, Hertz)
  • The Village: East 11th-13th Sts. (Alamo, Avis, Hertz, National)
What About ZipCar?
ZipCar offers a new membership-based model for car rentals in the city, allowing rentals by the hour ($8.50 and up) or the day ($59 and up), eliminating the car rental counter (your "ZipCard" unlocks the car you reserve), and including insurance, gas and parking in the rates. If you rent frequently, or usually only need a car for a few hours, you might want to join; select a monthly or yearly membership fee, based on how often you rent. Cars are available all over Manhattan.

Major Credit Cards Required and Other Rules to Know
You must use a major credit card to rent a car. Don' show up with cash, personal checks or a debit-only ATM card.

Naturally, you must be a licensed driver, and typically you must be over 25 (21 for ZipCar). The same applies to anyone who will be driving the car.

To avoid potential snafus in the event of an accident, officially add anyone who will be driving the car to your rental contract. You can usually add one extra driver, who must be present and sign the contract when you pick up the car.

Pick Up and Return During Off-Peak Hours
Nothing gets your trip off to a worse start than waiting on line to pick up the car, and your happy memories of the trip will quickly fade standing on line to return it (after sitting in traffic on the West Side Highway).

Schedule your pick-up and return during off-peak hours. If you plan to leave early in the morning, pick up the car 30 minutes before closing the night before; most of the major rental companies are open until at least 10:00 p.m. Then you can return it late, too.

Use the 24-Hour Rule
Avoid incurring charges for extra days by returning the car at the same time you picked it up. Most places have a 59-minute grace period. Check the hours at the outlet you select; you may have picked up the car at 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, but if the place closes at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, you'll be charged for an extra day if you arrive after closing. For example, Enterprise Rent-a-Car outlets in Manhattan tend to close early.

If Fido Goes Along for the Ride...
Avoid extra cleaning charges when you return the car. Most car rental companies in New York will charge fees of $30 or more if they find excessive pet hair in the car. If you'll be taking your pet(s) along for the ride, cover the seats and floors with a clean sheet or blanket to avoid leaving pet hair behind. At the end of your trip, vacuum out the car or visit a good carwash where they'll vacuum it for you. The same advice applies if you have young children or rowdy, messy friends.

Don't Put off Dealing With a Parking Ticket
If you get a parking ticket on your rental car, don't think you can ignore it just because you don't own the car. The City will catch up with you -- and so will the car rental company. Your best bet: Avoid getting a ticket at all. Check out the Alternate Side of the Street Parking rules, get up to speed on the meter rules, and learn to interpret all those crazy No Standing, So Stopping, No Parking signs at the Department of Transportation's Web site.

If, despite your best efforts, you get a ticket anyway, you can pay for or dispute it online at the Department of FInance Web site. To avoid additional costs, respond within 30 days -- those extra penalties add up fast.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Morningside Heights Walking Tour: Parks, Churches & Sunset on the Hudson

Morningside Heights -- so named because it sits atop a 135-foot bluff -- is a genteel neighborhood just above the Upper West Side. Flanked by Riverside Park to the west and the wilder, less landscaped northern section of Central Park and the sprawling Morningside Park to the east, it is one of the city's greenest communities, marked by wide tree-lined streets and dotted here and there by colorful gardens. This is a neighborhood that people truly make their home; it's not a stopping point on the way to "something better" -- it is the something better.

Officially, the Upper West Side ends and Morningside Heights begins at West 110th St. But those boundaries are more nebulous to local residents above West 96th St., who refer to the area alternately by its proper name, or the "Upper Upper West Side" or sometimes just "near Columbia," which anchors the stretch from the West 100s up to West 125th St. In addition to the parks and Columbia University, two glorious, historic churches also help define this neighborhood's character, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Riverside Church.

This isn't so much a walking tour as a strolling tour, for Morningside Heights lends itself to meandering and taking your time. Plan on spending a leisurely day here, starting in the morning and ending with a sunset picnic overlooking the Hudson. Or, if picnics aren't your thing, watch the sunset, then head back toward Broadway to one of the neighborhood's myriad restaurants.

To get to Momingside Heights, take the 1 or 9 train to either 103rd St. or 110th St.; which station you choose depends on whether you prefer croissants or bagels for breakfast.

If the former, get off at 103rd St. and walk north on Broadway to the Silver Moon Bakery at the corner of West 105th St. for its light, buttery croissants (one plain, one chocolate, $3.75) and strong coffee. If the latter, get off at 110th St., cross Broadway, and walk south to Absolute Bagels at West 107th St. Consistently rated among the city's best, these bagels are the perfect combination of slightly cruncy exterior and light, chewy interior, and are available with a variety of cream cheese, tofutti or fish salad toppings ($1.95 for plain cream cheese; $2.75 with walnut-raisin tofutti; $5.50 with whitefish salad).

Whichever breakfast you prefer, get it to-go and walk to Straus Park, situated at the junction of Broadway and West End Ave., for your nosh. This oasis of seasonal flowers, shrubs and blooming trees provides a daily respite for local residents. The park is a memorial to Isidor and Ida Straus, German immigrants who lived at Broadway and 105th St., and who met a tragic end in the TItanic disaster. Isidor Straus was the self-made department store magnate who, with his brother Nathan, turned R.H. Macy & Co. into the World's Largest Department Store. A fountain at the south end of the park pays tribute to the couple.

Once you've had your fill of breakfast and people-watching, go west on 106th St., lined by graceful mansions,toward Riverside Park. Just as you come to the Riverside Drive service road, take a detour one-half block south to the New York Buddhist Church (332 Riverside Dr.). Standing at the entrance is a towering bronze sculpture of Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), who founded the Jodu Shinshu sect of Buddhism.

What's most remarkable about this sculpture is its origin: It was brought to New York in September 1955 from Hiroshima, where it survived the atomic bomb dropped during World War II. It stands as "a testimonial to the atomic bomb devastation and a symbol of lasting hope for world peace." This is the kind of earnestness that lies at
the core of Morningside Heights' soul.

Now, backtrack to 106th St. and descend the stairs to Riverside Dr. proper, cross the drive, and you'll be on the upper promenade of Riverside Park, amid the dog walkers, joggers, families with children and other locals. This park truly belongs to the residents and, like Straus Park, is part of their daily routine. Walk two blocks north along the tree-lined Promenade to the stairs at West 108t St., and enter the park's second level (of three).

Now that you're on the park's main level, you have a choice: Ultimately, you'll be heading north, but if you're a dog lover, take another detour, and head south a few steps to a second set of stairs. At the bottom of those stairs, turn left, and you'll see the local Dog Run just up ahead at around 107th St. Full of dogs and their owners at just about any time of day, this is a great place to eavesdrop on neighborhood gossip, size up a mix of mutts and pure-breeds, and get lots of unconditional love.

From the dog run, or from the 108th St. stairs, turn right to go north through the park. You can choose one of two paths: The wooded upper path is quieter and less traveled, while the wide second-level Promenade affords sweeping views of the Hudson. Both will take you to your next destination, the Bird Sanctuary at West 115th St.
The entrance to this is about midway, from either direction, on the path that connects the upper path to the Promenade.

Step into the Bird Sanctuary, and you'll suddenly question whether you're still in the city or hiking Upstate. Created in 1916 by the Women's League for the Protection of Riverside Park, this wooded preserve is home to over 100 species of birds, including Peregrine Falcons and Red-Tailed Hawks. Even If you're not a bird-watcher, this peaceful haven is a place to linger for a while.

When you reach the far side of the Bird Sanctuary, you'll be at West 119th St. Turn right, and connect back with the upper path; then turn left, and head up the stairs back to the street-level Promenade at West 120th St. Across Riverside Dr. is The Riverside Church.

A non-denominational church with a strong social services ethic, Riverside traces its history back to February 1841, when it was founded as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church. By 1925 it had adopted its multidenominational stance, and two years later broke ground for the present church, which was modeled after the 13th Century gothic
cathedral in Chartres, France.

The doors of the church are generally open to the public. Take a few moments to sit In the stillness of the sanctuary. If it's lunchtime, you can grab a bite at the Riverside Cafe, located in the South Hall of the Martin Luther King Wing (open Sunday-Friday, 8:30-10:30 a.m. for breakfast and 12:00-3:00 p.m. for lunch;
212-870-6821). Public tours of the church are also offered; check at the entrance for availability.

Across from the northwest corner of the Riverside Church complex sits the General Grant National Memorial, more commonly known as Grant's Tomb. Operated by the National Parks Service, the final resting place for General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife was dedicated on April 27, 1897, in a ceremony attended by over 1 million people.

A wide plaza stretching northward from West 122nd St. fronts the entrance to the memorial. This is a popular spot for strollers and skateboarders. Vou can pay your respects to the Grants year-round (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Days) from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Enter the rotunda, and descend the stairs to the viewing area; it's still and quiet, and some find it a bit disconcerting, but the experience is worthwhile. Back upstairs, you can learn more about General Grant and his accomplishments as a Civil War hero and President (1869 to 1877).

Adjacent to Grant's Tomb is Sikora Park, a small neighborhood park overlooking Morningside Heights to the east. It features an expansive lawn and a quaint gazebo that provides a shady spot from the afternoon sun.

From Grant's Tomb and Sikora Park, you'll be heading south and back east over to Broadway. You can return via Riverside Park's upper Promenade, then cross over West 116th St., or descend the stairs from Sikora Park and wind your way back to Broadway through the residential streets in the western part of Morningside Heights. Your next stop is the Columbia University Quad at 116th St. and Broadway.

Entering the Quad is another one of those stepping-into-another-world experiences common in Morningside Heights. Busy with students and academics, even on weekends, it is an enclave unto itself, surrounded by classic Ivy League campus structures. It will likely seem familiar -- it has been featured in a number of films over the years, including Ghostbusters and Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives.

You can leave the Quad the way you came in, at West 116th St. and Broadway, and turn left to continue south. Alternately, you can exit the Quad on the Amsterdam Ave. side, turning right to go south. Your next stop is at West 112th and Amsterdam; taking the Broadway route, at West 112th St. you'll pass the familiar blue and pink neon signs marking Tom's Restaurant, an old-school diner and favorite Columbia student haunt made famous by Seinfeld; the neon "Restaurant" sign on the diner's south corner was used for the exterior of the show's fictional Monk's Diner. Turn left here and head east on West 112th St.

The advantage to crossing West 112th St. is the spectacular view it provides of your next destination, The Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Approaching the Cathedral from this vantage point, framed by the block, creates a feeling of anticipation that will be rewarded by your trip inside the cavernous nave.

Construction of St. John's began December 27,1892, and continues today. After an arduous initial construction period spanning 49 years, it opened on November 30, 1941. One week later, the bombing of Pearl Harbor suspended further construction, which was not resumed until 1972.

Along both sides of the nave are a number of exhibits, ranging from a tribute to poets to a larger-than-life quartz mined in the state of Arkansas. All are worth perusing, as is the eclectic gift shop. If you happen to be here late on a Sunday aftemoon, it is also worth waiting for the Choral Evensong and Organ Meditation (6:00 p.m.), when the choir chants a cappella and the great pipe organ resounds up to the vaulted ceiling.

No trip to St. John's would be complete without a turn through the Children's Sculpture Garden, with its enormous, odd centerpiece, and a trek around back to search for the peacocks that roam the grounds. Afterward, relax for a while across Ansterdam at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a Morningside Heights mainstay. Neither the coffee nor the pastry are top-notch, but the ambience is authentic New York coffee house.

Weather permitting, the best way to end your day in Momingside Heights is back in Riverside Park, down by the Hudson River along the Cherry Walk. Lined by Cherry Blossom trees, this stretch of the pathway developed along Manhattan's west side waterfront affords gentle, unobstructed views of the sunset and is the perfect spot for a twilight picnic.

You can pick up supplies at the Milano Market (Broadway at 112th St.) or Garden of Eden (Broadway at 107th St.), both of which offer an array of prepared salads, meats, cheeses and desserts. Return to Riverside Park, go down to the main level via the stairs at 108th St. or 103rd St., and head south. As you approach the area parallel to West 100th St. on the main-level Promenade (a few blocks south of the Dog Run), a path veers off to the right and winds down under the 96th St. overpass of the West Side Highway. Pass through the tunnel under the overpass, and you'll come out on the Cherry Walk.

At the entrance to the Cherry Walk is a triangular grassy knoll. Plop down here or try out the rocks along the river's edge. Benches are available to the left. Anywhere along this stretch, which extends to about 91st St. to the south and 125th St. to the north, makes a serene place to end your tour, as the sun slowly settles over Morningside Heights.

If you're looking for food or drink after sunset, plenty of both are available on Broadway, and during spring and summer, the majority offer outdoor seating. Here's a sampler of places to end your day in Morningside Heights:
  • Mama Mexico (Tex-Mex): 2672 Broadway @ 102nd St.; 212-864-2323.
  • Henry's (American bistro): 2745 Broadway @ 105th St.; 212-866-0600.
  • La Rosita (Cuban/Dominican): 2809 Broadway @ 108th 5t.; 212-663-7804.
  • Deluxe (retro American): 2896 Broadway @ 112th 5t.; 212-662-7900.
  • Le Monde (French bistro): 2885 Broadway @ 112th 5t.; 212-531-3939.