What to Eat at Penn Station’s New Celeb-Chef Food Court
New York's food hall boom isn’t slowing down one bit—Anthony Bourdain is planning a 150,000-square-foot Asian night market at Pier 57, and just last Monday, The Pennsy, named after the Pennsylvania Railroad's old nickname, swung open its double glass doors atop Manhattan's Penn Station. Though it doesn’t feel like a destination in the same way that Gotham West Market did when it opened in far west Hell's Kitchen, the 8,000-square-foot, street-level space in the old Borders location is certainly exciting news for commuters in the area who've run out of lunch options.
The Pennsy is airy and industrial-looking, and includes a row of five restaurants and a soon-to-open bar. When the liquor license comes through, you’ll be able to dawdle with a few cans of beer or a giant glass of wine to help ease the general malaise associated with actually being above Penn Station.
If we're calling it what it is, the Pennsy is a hub for expensive fast food—sandwiches, soups, grain bowls—anointed by celebrity chefs who you’re unlikely to see on-site.
At Marc Forgione’s The Lobster Press, the star is a hot, pressed lobster sandwich ($17). The dish is essentially a streamlined, somewhat portable version of a crowd-pleasing appetizer Forgione serves at his eponymous restaurant in Tribeca—a fine pile of lobster tail, knuckle, and claw meat in a buttery, sriracha-spiked broth. Reconfigured for the lunch crowd, it's become a slender, less garlic-forward sandwich of about four ounces of lobster meat. There's a side of hot, spicy broth for dipping bites as you go. If you want cheese, and it'll be recommended that you get cheese, it's $18. Don't do it, though! The cheese makes the lobster meat practically invisible, kind of defeating the purpose.
If it's grilled cheese you want, there's a honey-drizzled version at Mario by Mary, the result of Mario Batali co-branding with the caterer Mary Giuliani. The sandwiches are good, though the ratios of filling to bread can be a little off in some cases, like with the delicious, intensely flavored spicy tuna sandwich (sandwiches here are $9-13), which seemed a bit suffocated by the big pillows of Italian bread. A white bean and escarole soup was rich and well-seasoned, though slightly sticky in texture.
The beloved, but now defunct vegan food truck The Cinnamon Snail has a full-time shop slinging robust seitan burgers ($11) that sell out very quickly and tempeh sandwiches on spelt bread ($10). There are doughnuts and cinnamon buns, too, all big enough to share.
All the restaurants will pack up their food to go for less-sad desk lunches or pickups on your way home after work (the Pennsy is open until 11 p.m. except for on Sunday, when it closes at 8 p.m.). The Little Beet seems particularly well-suited for weekday lunching. Franklin Becker’s gluten-free, vegetable-focused (but not vegetarian) chain crowns bowls of brown rice or quinoa with lentils, cheese, and vegetables ($13) and serves fat, wholesome brown rice and nori wraps with salmon or chicken ($10), which I saw people attempting to consume one-handed in the communal seating area, while also answering e-mails on their phone. This ended badly.
Pat LaFrieda, the New Jersey-based butcher to the stars, opened the largest space among the restaurants, with a store of prepackaged snacks and meat. Place your order at the register in the front, then walk through to pay and pick up a simple steak sandwich or a roast beef with pickled onions ($12). On a recent visit, seven cooks were squashed behind the line, pressing meatball sandwiches, but it moved a little slowly—things are still warming at the Pennsy.
The food hall is just a subcategory in the cheffy fast-food genre. A few days ago, David Chang, who's quickly building a fried-chicken sandwich empire with Fuku, opened a new location just next door in Madison Square Garden. The Pennsy will soon open a large event space upstairs, and though it's hard to imagine it right now, pre-blizzard, there will be outdoor seating on the 33rd Street side in the spring.
The Pennsy is at 2 Pennsylvania Plaza; 917-475-1830 or thepennsy.nyc.