Coffee Break

I think it’s important to celebrate the milestones in your life, be they reasonable accomplishments, or the more understated achievements that most people probably find kind of lame. For example, recently I’ve felt very proud of myself for what some might call a pretty underwhelming development — I’ve finally started taking my coffee black. It’s useful because I’m trying to cut down on sugar where I can (and let’s be honest, I’m just not gonna start eating fewer Oreos). And it allows me to play at being sophisticated (see previous sentence about Oreos), since there’s something oh-so-chic about declining milk and sugar with a “no thanks, I take mine black.” But the reason I think I’ve fixated on this new habit is that it’s a piece of the developing puzzle of what my taste as an adult is. My relationship with coffee mirrors my general relationship with food, and shockingly, I feel as though I’m learning to embrace new discoveries beyond the walls of all-dessert-all-the-time.

I can clearly remember when Starbucks came to my hometown in the early 2000s. I had always avoided my father’s brewed coffee (smells great, tastes awful), but when it was explained to me that a mocha involved chocolate, well I just had to try. It was serviceable, but these Starbucks folks clearly had no idea that for a chocoholic tween, the emphasis should be less on the espresso and way more on the chocolate syrup and whipped cream. A few years later, another Starbucks opened up literally next to my high school. Sophomore year,  I challenged the upper limits of my pancreas by opting for a Venti Hot Chocolate during every early morning free period I had. (Note: this was an early but striking lesson in nutrition, when I discovered that consuming full-fat cocoa drinks with whipped cream several days a week in fact leads to weight gain. Shocking.)

It wasn’t until I got to college that I started voluntarily consuming coffee-based drinks, and even then the term “coffee-based” is a bit of stretch. My college roommate Megan was a Pennsylvania native, and so decided in our first scant hours together that I needed to be educated about the wonder that is Wawa. For those not in the know, Wawa is pretty much 7/11, only WAY BETTER. Not only do they offer a multiplicity of brewed coffee flavors (french vanilla, hazelnut, etc), but they have one of those gross powdered-latte machines. And that miraculous machine was precisely where my true coffee journey began.

Cue a montage of my freshman year experiments with the Wawa latte machine. Just as Megan had promised, the machine was meant for dreamy artist-types, with its magical capacity for flavor combos, like Irish coffee/peppermint, or french vanilla/toffee. And note the easy learning curve afforded by the push-and-hold-to-fill buttons. You could start with a 90% hot chocolate, 10% almond latte, then slowly adjust the proportions as you became addicted to the sugar and caffeine high of these artificially flavored masterpieces. By the end of that year of trial-and-error I probably would have picked the caramel-mocha as my go-to drink, which just seems disappointingly mundane given all the possibilities.

Much like the venti hot chocolates of my high school days, I eventually realized that I was basically drilling cavities into my teeth with these drinks, and I tried to make the switch to regular coffee. Plus, Megan had moved on, and I’ve realized in chronicling this she really was the tastemaker for me when it comes to coffee. She was always one step ahead on the journey to coffee simplicity, and chose black coffee for years before I got into the game. So I grimaced and set aside the latte machine for the flavored coffee carafes right next to them, adding in a couple of packets of artificial sweetener and maybe even a flavored coffee creamer to keep up the excitement of untried flavor combos. Baby steps, to be sure.

Luckily, a semester abroad in Scotland forced my hand. I was distressed to discover that brewed coffee is relatively rare in Scottish cafes (or at least it was in 2008), and the exchange rate does not favor an American in a Scottish Starbucks. Reluctant to empty my bank account on expensive mochas (and/or add to the generally unhealthy diet of delicious Indian food and cafeteria meat pies I was surviving on), I turned to the only thing that seemed familiar — Americanos. Of course, I threw a solid amount of milk and sweetener into those, since the straight espresso flavor was a big leap for me. I grumbled about missing real coffee for 4 months, but it was heaps better than the gritty cups Taster’s Choice Instant Coffee I grimaced through each morning in my dorm.

Back in America, I had my ups and downs, at one point giving up coffee all together, then slowly falling back into the habit with decaf, and eventually returning to full-fledged addiction when I started in the working world. It’s only been in the past year or so that I’ve cut out my customary packet of Sweet-n-Low, and only in the past month that I’ve left the half-and-half in the fridge.

And you know what? I actually kind of like the bitter taste of black coffee. Maybe it’s the same effect as when you start drinking a liquor like Scotch straight-up — once the dominant flavor of  the mix-ins is removed, you start to notice the subtlety of the base itself. While I would be loathe call myself a discerning coffee drinker (I like Dunkin Donuts a lot — there, I said it), I can now really tell the difference between the brews of coffee I like and those I don’t. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and gosh darn it, I’m actually proud of myself for taking the opportunity to try something different.

During the tumultuous period of my 20s, it’s kind of refreshing to discover new things about myself on the micro-scale. There’s a lot of change going on in every part of my life, but finding out I like eggplant or poached eggs or pinot noir are the kind of developments that somehow offer me a bit of stability. Silly as it may seem, accepting that my tastes are shifting lets me know that change is inevitable and can actually be rewarding. Like my fencing coach said in high school — if you focus on taking small steps, you’ll be balanced when opportunity comes to lunge. I don’t fence these days, but occasionally life throws you a tough bout, and you can damn well bet when that happens that I’ll be on the strip well-caffeinated and armed with my full cuppa joe. I’ll take it black, please.

Fencing epee in high school

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Restaurant Stalking

Brick Lane

I knew I was getting seriously obsessed with food when I started checking Eater NY and Grubstreet multiple times a day, refreshing their homepages in the hopes of some tidbit about a new restaurant opening or the latest trendy dessert (FYI: odds are now on pudding being “the next cupcake”). But I think the gateway drug to my current food habit really originated outside of the internet. It’s all because of a little restaurant called Brick Lane Curry.

I live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which, according to the foodie scene of NYC, is currently experiencing a sort of revitalization on the restaurant front. We’ve got the hot pub The Penrose which opened up just across from my friends’ apartment in the east 80s, there’s a Meatball Shop location headed our way in January, and who could overlook the new Maison Kayser, the first American bakery by famed French bread-braniac Eric Kayser? Where did he decide to place his proverbial Plymouth Rock? East 70s, baby.

The flip side to all of this, of course, is that the construction on the Second Ave subway line has killed off a number of local businesses. In the nearly 2 years I’ve been living in the neighborhood, I’ve seen plenty of shuttered windows and “commercial space available” signs. Even this past week the nearby Tasti-D-Lite said its goodbyes. (Although to be honest, I don’t really understand their franchising strategy — Tasti has not one, but 2 locations within 2 blocks of the 86th St subway. They don’t offer that many flavors — how is this profitable?)

What this means is, as a denizen of the UES,  you get used to a certain ebb and flow of restaurants and stores opening and closing, and come to understand that promised deadlines are rarely kept. Case in point: the odd series of events I witnessed as the bakery on my corner promised a spring 2011 opening, only to change names (and possibly owners) 3 times and finally open in early 2012. Unfortunately, it seems this lesson hasn’t really sunk in for me yet,  and that has led me not only to perpetual disappointment, but also to a mild stalking habit. If one can stalk a building, that is.

Back in the early summer, I noticed a new sign going up at a recently shuttered Japanese restaurant in my neighborhood. The text was “Brick Lane,” and the logo featured a chile pepper. My first thought was Mexican food, and I couldn’t help but be excited about a new burrito place or tapas joint, or whatever this was going to be. But a quick search on Google proved me wrong — this was going to be the new location of Brick Lane Curry, a NY/NJ Indian mini-chain modeled on the curry houses of London’s Brick Lane (oh, duh), and recently featured on Man vs. Food for their superhot Phaal curry. Color me doubly pumped, since the only cuisine I love more than Mexican is Indian, and if Adam Richman was intrigued, I should probably check this place out.

So for the next few months I patiently waited for the plywood to come down, passing by 93rd and 3rd on my way to the gym each morning, and mentally crossing my fingers that today would be the day an “Open” sign would appear on the door. June passed, then July, and finally in August the wood came down and tables laid with pristine white tablecloths appeared in the front window. I told my friends about it, and we made tentative plans to go for dinner when Brick Lane opened, which I could only assume would be in the next week or so. After all, who puts neon lights in their signage and sets their tables without planning an opening?

Well, apparently Brick Lane does. See the photo below:

Brick Lane's baffling set tables

This was not taken in August. This was taken less than a week ago. For the past two months, Brick Lane has taunted me, seemingly totally ready for customers but utterly empty. Weeks of a signs calling for “Help Wanted.” Weeks of those tablecloths with no one seated. Weeks of men sweeping the floors, adjusting light fixtures, and even having drinks at the bar.

I began to get desperate. I looked to Eater and Grubstreet daily to see if there was any news. I checked the Brick Lane website, which stubbornly insisted the UES location was “coming soon.” I Googled and poured over local neighborhood news sites for any info beyond an “early fall opening.” I checked Craiglist for jobs in the food/hospitality category for any mention of a new Indian restaurant on the UES. And upon my friend Laura’s suggestion, I even tried to go up and tap the glass one Saturday morning, but no one was around.

Now I freely admit this is all crazy behavior. It’s not like I can’t get good Indian food in Manhattan. But the promise of convenience and quality constantly thrown in face by the empty facade of Brick Lane was driving me bonkers.

Luckily, there is a happy ending to this story. While browsing my options on the delivery site Grubhub last Friday, I stumbled upon an unexpected gift. There was a listing for Brick Lane Curry, not currently accepting online orders, but offering a phone number for the 3rd Ave location. I weighed the creepiness of calling for a moment, but curiosity won out. I just had to know. A few minutes later, my obsessive perseverance was rewarded. The very confused, but polite man who answered the phone informed me that Brick Lane would have an inspection next Tuesday, and should be open by the end of the week. Finally, some real answers!

I’m pretty sure I’ll ultimately be disappointed by Brick Lane Curry’s food. After all, how can it measure up to the months of anticipation I built up through my slavish vigilance? But at least the mystery has a conclusion in sight. I can finally focus on all the other things that deserve my attention.

Like this new construction that’s gone up on 94th and 3rd. Wonder what this is gonna be?

New plywood on 94th and 3rd

Oreoception

I swear, I had grander plans for my first post. I had every intention of highlighting the culinary delights of a recent trip to Rhode Island, or delving into my new hobby of unopened  restaurant stalking. But unfortunately, and I have to admit, quite fittingly, the first post on my new food blog is going to be about Oreos.

Luckily, we’re not talking about just any Oreos — this post is about a new interloper, a possible gamechanger, an oreo that redefines what it means to be a chocolate sandwich cookie with vaguely vanilla-ish creme filling. Of course, I’m talking about the new Limited Edition Ice Cream Oreo Cookies and Creme flavored Oreos. Christopher Nolan’s cookie of choice. The Oreo-within-an-Oreo. Oreoception.

Before I discuss my encounter with the L.E.I.C.O.C.&C.s (geez, Nabisco, could you make that name longer?), I think it’s only right to explain why I literally searched every single bodega and grocery store near my apartment to find a box of these. (Side note: If you also seek the grail, check out Stop & Shop — after weeks of fruitless and awkward bodega loitering, I ended up smack dab in front of a large display at the supermarket. Facepalm.)

Here are the hard, cold facts: I have a serious, lifelong Oreo problem.

I have to imagine it started in the womb, since I can’t remember a time when I didn’t lust after anything remotely cookies & creme flavored. If it’s the cookies, I’m a brand purist, sticking by Nabisco and their claims of producing Milk’s (and at one time America’s) favorite cookie. Put away your Trader Joe’s Jojos, and don’t even talk to me about Newman-O’s. But within the safety of the National Biscuit Company’s arms, I’ll go hog-wild. Double-stuf (the real Oreo lover’s classic), golden, peanut butter, mint, mini, fudge-covered, McFlurrys, DQ Blizzards, I’m down. Show me an Oreo-themed dessert at a restaurant, and I’ll show you an inappropriate level of excitement.

As a child, I devoured Breyer’s Cookies and Creme ice cream (the blue package is the only box for the discerning Oreo lover). I would also purposefully schedule playdates to increase my chances of an afterschool bowl of Oreo-O’s (RIP, you best cereal ever). By the time I got to college, I had developed a bit of a reputation. What was the first cast gift I received as a stage manager? Well, just take a look at the photo below.

 

Me and all the oreos

I don’t know if it’s evident from the sheer joy on my face, but this was one of the best presents I’ve ever received. Inquiring minds can ask for reviews of the specific products in that photo, but let me just say that second semester of freshman year was a blur of black and white deliciousness. And I frickin saved that box of Oreo-O’s for MONTHS. (Second side note: I recently learned that you can buy Oreo-O’s from Korea off of eBay. I struggle with whether this is a valid purchase.)

So yeah, I don’t think anyone would argue that the L.E.I.C.O.C.&C.s and I were destined to be together. My favorite ice cream combo smushed inside my favorite store-bought cookie? Sounds like an express train to tasty-town in my mouth. But enough preamble, let’s open these bad boys up!

 

 

2012-10-06 13.30.34

Okay, so from the get-go you can see they’re making it absolutely clear that these are ICE CREAM flavored. There’s even a ice cream cone on the side to emphasize the comparison. (Based on scale, that’s either a giant Oreo or the world’s most adorable mini-ice cream cone.)

Unfortunately, Nabisco’s effective leading of the witness is completely necessary. But let’s not jump ahead.

2012-10-06 13.32.12

Things seemed to be heading in the right direction when I opened the package. I was a little nervous because I’ve been recently burned by the Birthday Cake Oreos. Not only did they taste awful, but you were subjected to an overwhelmingly chemically smell upon opening. It smelled like aliens had tried to re-engineer a cake out of amino acids. The L.E.I.C.O.C.&C.s also had a strong aroma, but thankfully it was the heady scent of dairy mixed with vanilla. It reminded me of opening a pint of actual C&C ice cream, or unwrapping a Hershey’s Cookies & Creme bar. I sniffed a solitary cookie — even the chocolate part smelled of ice cream.

2012-10-06 13.36.23

 

These guys are somewhere between Double Stuf and Classic thickness, which I appreciate as a creme-over-cookie fan (seriously, if they sold Oreo filling in jars, I would buy it). The sandwich was very easy to twist, and you can see that the layers separate cleanly. The creme is strangely greyish in color, with what appear to be flecks of cookie throughout. I imagine if we go deeper, Joseph Gorden-Levitt is in those flecks fighting in a revolving hallway of sugar (okay, okay, last Inception joke).

But as a I alluded to before, despite a solid foundation of smell and look, these cookies really just under perform on taste. The cookie layer is your classic Oreo, which wasn’t surprising — after all, the filling is clearly supposed to be the star here. But the creme was just grainy and very mild compared the to the strong flavor suggested by its smell. It lacks the intense sweetness of regular Oreo creme, and it doesn’t taste anything like my old Breyers Ice Cream or Hershey’s C&C bars. And alas, just like the Birthday Cake Oreos, there is a strange chemical aftertaste that lingers as a bitter note.

What the creme really reminds me of is the non-cookie products in the Oreo line — like the fudge sticks or Oreo-O’s. They approximate Oreo flavoring, which I can get behind since they’re not trying to be a cookie, but here it just doesn’t make sense. You’re trying to be the meta-Oreo — you should taste like the ultimate, authentic cookie!

Overall, the Limited Edition Ice Cream Cookies and Creme Oreos were not flat-out gross like their Birthday Cake counterparts, but I’d probably choose regular Double Stuf over these guys the next time I’m buying. It just doesn’t seem worth it to eat a milder version of almost-Oreos.

That said, I’m probably about to devour this whole box. I mean, I just spent an entire post describing my unreasonable affection towards Oreos — now Mama’s jonesing for a fix.