The recommendations streamed in before my ferry even docked on Randall’s Island. “The food-in-a-jar at Tyme is terrible.” “It’s nice that Court Street Grocers has so many vegetarian sandwich options.” “Morgenstern’s is right by my booth, you better come eat an ice cream cone with me.” A thoughtfully stacked food court has helped establish the London-based Frieze fair since it first pitched its (actual) tent in New York in 2012, and this year the ample selection leaned heavily toward comfort food. Nothing too fancy, but packed with umami; it’s the type of food that inspires dedicated neighborhood followings.
While the redundant inclusion of both Frankies Spuntino and Roberta’s — two pizza places beloved in their respective corners of the city — only drives home the fact that comfort reigns, any honest account of the fair must mention the fatigue-inducing discomfort of the tent’s filtered light and stagnant air. What fuels the whole thing is iced coffee: it is the only substance that adequately cuts through the sticky hugs and an afternoon of squinting. Lower East Side-based Fat Radish supplied my first cup of cold brew, and it was so watery and bad that only the ice offered something interesting to talk about. For twelve dollars, there’s nothing more offensive than those ugly, cylindrical ice barrels that slowly accumulate on the chilled steel tit of an ice machine. I don’t have dental insurance. Don’t serve me ice that’s engineered to be structurally sound.
Fat Radish is more the type of place for sweet tea than coffee anyway. Its menu takes the farm as inspiration, and, at Frieze, they designed dishes to showcase single ingredients. A dish of tomatoes was charred, curried, and built upon a foundation of dark, whole-wheat toast. Roasted carrots were grounded by the earthy aromatics of seaweed. And a mishmash slaw of veggies made sure you looked for the charred broccoli buried in between (though it was still a bit buried). Sometimes they leaned too heavily on the farmhouse pantry: pickled beets, grapefruit, and fennel were brought in to bolster a lackluster fluke crudo. My spring bounty aptly concluded, though, with a wad of delicious rhubarb Eton mess (that’s its real name).
I would need another iced coffee immediately, and iced coffee number two came from Gertie, a fancy cafe that follows a high-end model repeated in nearly every neighborhood in New York. Did I ever indulge. The cold brew was toffee rich, especially given the touch of oat milk I added. Stacks of cookies lined a glass display case in sumptuous, leathery tones, and, having solicited the barista’s favorite one, he selected for me a homespun pastry pervaded by caramelized brown sugar. With the coffee plugged into my lips like an IV drip, the next hour or more would find me on a long stroll — I was only there for the food, after all. I picked at the cookie from the depths of my tote bag, and the beverage would outlast its crummy paper straw
Dinner would only supply an addendum to my afternoon, perhaps because my eventual tally of three iced coffees stymied my appetite. Still, the language surrounding food at the evocatively named wine bar Foul Witch, if not the food itself, brought some fulfillment to my day. A glass of Grüner was my attempt at happy hour, and I used my hands to pick at a refreshing gem salad with mint. But a flummoxing double-digit price tag for a hunk of Roberta’s-made baguette really raised questions. And as I think back on the succulent seared scallop ceviche, my mind is locked on a semantic problem: you can’t call it ceviche if you cooked it first. The true riddle is why I decided to gamble on shellfish at 5:30pm after the long, hot, poorly refrigerated afternoon, especially right before the ferry ride back home. In spite of all the logistical issues, though, I survived.