Leggings: The Trend That Won't Go Away

I walked into Barneys, and there they were.

Lurking under sweater tunics, hovering above ankle boots. Leggings! They were everywhere! Leggings on mannequins, leggings on racks, leggings on shelves, leggings on salesgirls!

It was the stuff of nightmares.

I fled the building. This trend was supposed to be over. Leggings were in this spring, then they were going to die a quiet death, just as leg warmers had a couple years back. Why wouldn't they die? They were unflattering, uncomfortable, uncouth. As a trend, they were unsustainable.

Yet here they were again. The cockroach of fashion. Not only had they survived, other fashion staples had mutated to accommodate them. Sweaters became longer. Skirts became shorter. The Olsen twins kept piling on layer after damn layer of clothes. I tried to put leggings out of my mind.

As with roaches, you can ignore one isolated sighting. But when they start proliferating, encroaching into more of your territory, panic sets in. Leggings appeared again, this time on NeimanMarcus.com. What were they doing there? Neiman Marcus is supposed to be a store for adults, but here it was hocking leggings paired with $300+ sweaters and Manolo Blahnik ankle boots.

I knew my reaction to the reappearance of leggings was not logical. But that is the nature of phobia, defined as "a persistent and irrational fear of a particular type of object, animal, activity or situation." I couldn't even look at leggings without flashing back to Flashdance and that painful stage of adolescence at which body image is already at an all-time low. For me, that time corresponded exactly with an influx of Lycra-based clothing.

I should have remembered how cool Madonna looked in them. Instead, I couldn't get out of my mind the image of Jane Fonda, whose leggings in her workout videos displayed not one unsightly bump or jiggle. Nevermind that she later revealed she was bulimic at the time. I still needed those legs.

Since leggings didn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, I decided to try a radical solution: immersion therapy. For this, I required leggings and a fluorescent-lit dressing room. Fortunately, there was an American Apparel nearby.

"You're laughing at me!" I cried, when my date and defacto leggings therapist burst out laughing.
"I just can't believe this sh*t is back," he said. "It's like the eighties all over again. Like people walking around with their collars flipped up."
"These make me look fat and short."
"No, they don't."
But my inner Molly Ringwald teen diva was back. "You're still laughing at me!"
"I'm laughing with you!"

I stormed back into the dressing room. Then I bought the leggings.

Though it was August, it had been raining for five days straight. Gloom was the order of the day. Also, black is the new black, so I decided to dress completely in black, including black leggings, so as to better fade into the background in my spandex outfit. I felt as if I'd stepped out of an Ingmar Bergman film.

When I arrived at Ditch Plains to meet my old college girlfriends for dinner, no one even noticed anything different. Keep in mind, these chicks had seen me in leggings the first time around. Do I always look this way? Finally, I pointed out the leggings.

"So? You look fine. You look good."

Admittedly, the leggings did show off my KORS Michael Kors by Michael KORS Kors shoes. We waxed nostalgic about leggings past.

"Remember how the coolest thing ever was to wear leggings under a long blazer?"
"That was totally hot. I wore that."
"It was all because of Esprit and Benetton. The big sweater with the B on it."
"I have leggings now. I wear them under this Urban Outfitters sundress."
"I wore them under a skirt the other day, and this homeless guy called out after me on the street. 'Wazzup, ballerina?!?'"

By the time dinner was over, my phobia had faded. I even looked forward to wearing the leggings again. Anything that can be used to showcase one's shoes can't be that bad. And it wasn't like jeans with zippers at the ankles were coming back in style.

Or were they?


Momofuku Ssäm Bar

Intriguing news hit the downtown culinary scene recently: David Chang of the revered Korean fushion place Momofuku Noodle Bar, a favorite of off-duty chefs and off-expense-account restaurant reviewers, was opening a new restaurant. The offshoot, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, would specialize in...burritos?

Heresy! How dare this uppity chef tinker with our favorite food? Determined to investigate, I trekked over there one rainy afternoon.

Though the concept sounds kitschy, Momofuku Ssäm Bar is not. Spare and wood paneled, with a bright, open kitchen, the burrito bar is designed much like Momofuku Noodle Bar, though thankfully, this space is wider and roomier. I place an order for the Berkshire pork ssäm (a.k.a. burrito) at the counter. (Unlike the noodle joint, there is no table service here.) One chef pulls a flour tortilla out of a steamer and hands it to two other chefs for what proves to be a major burrito-making operation. I hope the ssäm will rival the Berkshire pork buns at Momofuku Noodle Bar, also on the menu here, which are so good they inspired a friend of mine to call me and repeat: "Pork buns... Pork buns..." until I agreed to accompany her there again.

The chefs pile the tortilla with a mountain of pork, black beans, rice, cabbage slaw, and a dollop of chili sauce, then somehow manage to wrap this into a burrito. They hand it to me - a relatively diminutive person, especially when seen in the same frame as a giant burrito - with an apprehensive look.

The space is welcoming, but there is something about it that makes me feel slightly...out of place. Then I realize: I am one of very few women in the room. I do a headcount. Twelve out of sixteen lunch patrons are men, most of them good-looking, seemingly straight, and dressed in carelessly chic clothing. But of course. There is indie rock playing on the stereo, a beat-up vintage John McEnroe poster by the door, and for Christ's sake, this is a burrito joint! I feel as if I've somehow gotten into the guys' clubhouse. If only more New York women were aware of this phenomenon, perhaps they would embrace carbs as well.

The ssäm itself is great: a delectable combination of ropy Cuban-esque pork, smoky beans, rice, and crunchy vinegary cabbage slaw, all made extremely spicy by the Korean chili sauce. The flavors are similar to the ones at Momofuku Noodle Bar, but in burrito form.

So why did David Chang do it? Perhaps because he is a disciple of master spinner-offer Tom Colicchio of Craft. Perhaps because NYU is building more high-rise dorms in the area every day, much to the chagrin of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Momofuku Ssam Bar already has late night hours and delivery service on the way, as an email sign-up sheet by the door informs us. Whatever side you're on in the epic NYU/GV real estate battle, there is a definite side benefit to NYU's expansion: This is the ultimate college food, dude.

I roll out of there feeling as if I've turned into an extra-large burrito. When my college-age metabolism was still roaring at relatively high speed, albeit in another, smaller town, all we had in late night offerings was a cheesesteak joint, pizza shops, and Chinese takeout so bad we called it "Hein Garden." Kids these days? They get to binge on Momofuku's $9 gourmet.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar
207 Second Avenue
at 13th Street


I Love Lamb

Once considered the lowly stuff of schwarma joints, lamb has been popping up in haute cuisine recently. The quality has improved: the gamey taste once in lamb dishes at second-tier French bistros has morphed into a lighter, more delicate flavor. After superstar francophiles like Thomas Keller, who has served lamb at French Laundry for a while now, started sourcing out grass-fed lamb, farms have been raising more and better lamb and getting it to market faster, and gradually diners have responded. Many who used to say they didn't like the taste of lamb have changed their tune in the past couple of years, and now only a few people other than non-meat-eaters complain if it appears on the plate.

Such was the case at Per Se the other night, where a fixed dinner menu for a private party included Herb-Roasted Elysian Fields Farm's "Selle D'Agneau," or shoulder of lamb. The waiters did not ask whether or not we cared for lamb, which was featured amid uncontroversial items like halibut, squash, and peach melba. The only asked if we had any food allergies.

The lamb turned out to be the highlight of the dinner. It was perfectly roasted, as was to be expected at Per Se, where Thomas Keller's deft touch is still very much in evidence. But it had a complexity that couldn't be credited to the delicious demi-glace or the kitchen's techniques alone. It was also a fabulous cut of meat.

Roast lamb appeared again at Craftbar later that week, where it was similar to Per Se's but not quite as dazzling, and according to other New York diners, it is on the menu at the new L'Atelier du Joel Robuchon, though I haven't been there yet.

Next up: in what may turn out to be a futile battle, I am going to attempt to recreate the lamb perfection of Per Se in my own kitchen. So far, in one semi-botched cooking spree last night, I have discovered that it is much more difficult to make roast lamb taste delicious than say, roast chicken. It's also difficult to find a good butcher with excellent cuts of lamb. This may explain why lamb is everywhere now: New York chefs love a challenge, especially one that involves having the right connections.


Roll and Dough

You've gotta love a place with an Atkins-be-damned name like "Roll and Dough." It pretty much says: no focus groups were involved in the creation of this restaurant. And, since this is not a site for people who avoid carbs, an insidious mental disorder that results in low blood sugar and general peevishness, Roll and Dough seemed the perfect place to start.

It was immediately apparent from the street that the interior decorator's budget was low. For one thing, the giant menu propped up against the counter bore the name of the sister restaurant, not this one. Apparently there's something called Unique Pastry in Queens, which is why this shop is famous. But wait, this sign says "Unique Fast Food." Whatever. Their stores are unique, okay? All of them.

Inside I was relieved to find a pair of Chinese lady diners. This was a welcome change from other Asian restaurants in the environs, like Café Spice, where the food and patrons convey the general concept "spice," but in a watered-down, vague way, much like the non-spiciness of the Spice Girls. Not that there could be any doubt that Roll and Dough was actually the real thing: the counter guys wore the bizarre uniform of bright orange tee shirts and fake Burberry visors, presumably straight from Chinatown.

Bings, their specialty, are basically Chinese bagels without the hole. The warm, crunchy exterior is coated in sesame seeds and the inside is squishy dough. But whereas the Jews were content to stop there, the Chinese decided to take it up a notch and stuff the savory roll with spicy chicken, pork or vegetables.
I love rolls and dumplings filled with surprises! One of the bings even has sweet taro root in it as a contrast to the savory sesame. Even the plain steamed rolls, puffed up with a mixture of hoisin-y pork and cabbage, exceeded my expectations.

Why aren't there more of these fabulous treats-hidden-in-dough combos in Western cooking? It's just so genius, and a pleasure to eat. Chinese chefs truly understand the psychology of their diners. We are all children who want to be pleasantly surprised by color, flavor, and texture. Roll and Dough scores high points in all three categories.

Roll and Dough
135 W. 3rd Street at Sixth Avenue

Black Is the New Black: Greenwich Village

Bill Cunningham was right: Black is the new black. Fashion is swinging back to the somber minimalism of the mid-nineties, when Kate Moss first appeared on billboards across New York. Now that her image is ubiquitous again, so is her original spare style.