Review: Calle Ocho

I’ll give you fair warning: this post is not particularly family friendly. It doesn’t espouse the virtues of patience or pragmatism (or any real virtues at all, to be frank). This is a review of a drunk brunch, a damn fine drunk brunch, and if you’re down with hearing about that, then buckle up. I do apologize to all my underage or more temperate readers (who am I kidding, you lushes), but for once I’ll be writing largely about something other than food.

I’m not exactly sure when I first heard about Calle Ocho, but it had to be shortly after I moved to Manhattan, because I feel like it’s been on my brunch backburner forever. Their gimmick is not remarkably novel — plenty of restaurants and bars in NY offer all-you-can-drink (AYCD) brunches, and many of them include sangria. But what sets Calle Ocho apart is their level of commitment. These people are serious about sangria, and serious about getting you smashed, if you so choose.

Decor:

Calle Ocho recently reopened in the Excelsior, and there's still scaffolding up from the construction.

Calle Ocho recently reopened in the Excelsior, and there’s still scaffolding up from the construction.

Calle Ocho is located inside of the Excelsior Hotel, on West 81st St and Columbus, right across from the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve passed it a million times in my countless visits to gape at the dinosaurs, but this past Saturday I finally fought my way through the falling snow into the hotel to meet my friends. As with many AYCD brunches, Calle Ocho is very popular, but luckily they’re one of the few places in NY that allow reservations for brunch, so my industrious friend Sarah (different than Thanksgiving Sarah, I know, it’s confusing) had jumped on that early, and we were quickly ushered to our table. Sarah, who lives nearby on the Upper West Side, told me that the restaurant also has a Monday happy hour deal — mojitos and daquiris for $5. As an underpaid twenty-something who collects info on cheap deals on food and alcohol like she used to collect Beanie Babies, my ears perked up at that — filed away for another rainy/snowy day.

The bar -- there were a couple of lounge areas to the right and left.

The bar — there were a couple of lounge areas to the right and left.

Unlike the wood-paneled, more regal lobby of the Excelsior, Calle Ocho’s interior is bright and adorned with bright colors in stripes and polka dots. The restaurant is very large, with a spacious bar area with lounge seating, then two large dining rooms that seem to take up most of the hotel’s ground floor. We were seated in a comfortably large booth in the farthest dining room, which is clearly also used for private events.

The back dining room, which was about half the size of the main one.

The back dining room, which was about half the size of the main one.

Food and Drink:

Now let’s get down to brass tacks. The reason Calle Ocho is so popular is because their brunch features an unlimited sangria deal: as long as you are eating, you can make your way through any and/or all of their 8 types of sangria (4 white, 4 red). The catch? These bad boys are served in 20 oz glasses. TWENTY OUNCES. As in one bottle of Coke-sized. Holy bursting bladder, Batman. So yeah, I’d love to see somebody take 8 glasses down, and then deal with the bathroom visit (and possible alcohol poisoning), if they could find someone to literally drag them there.

My feelings about sangria are similar to my feelings about Oreos. Whenever I see sangria on a menu, I have an existential crisis about whether it’s appropriate that I order it. It’s my alcoholic kryptonite. Unfortunately, unlike the rigorous standards enforced by Nabisco that assure my Double Stufs are consistently double-stuffed (stufed?), plenty of bars in NY tend to cheat on sangria. Some cheap red wine, an apple chunk or two, lime wedge — bam, sangria, right? Thankfully, Calle Ocho is not that kind of establishment. All of their sangria options featured unusual spices and fruits for the drink, like tamarind or cinnamon.

Although I’m usually a red sangria kind of gal, I ended up getting two of the white varieties (yes, 40 oz of sangria — I told you this was far from a virtuous review). I started with the cheesily-named “Havana Banana,” which featured coconut rum, Creme de banana, coconut, bananas, and lychees. Maybe it’s a stretch, but in my mind it was almost suitable for breakfast, considering all of those fruits. While it was certainly very sweet, the sweetness was actually  effective in balancing the taste of the alcohol from the wine, rum, and creme de banana. I’d never had lychee before, and once I made it over the texture hurdle (it reminded me of those bowls of peeled grapes people put out at Halloween — ooooh, it’s a bowl of eyeballs!), I actually liked the taste. Granted, I should probably try lychees when they’re not soaked in fruity alcohol to get a real sense of them.

The Havana Banana -- note the fruity eyeballs in the bottom.

The Havana Banana — note the fruity eyeballs in the bottom.

The other 3 members of my brunch group ended up getting red sangria — the “Samba,” which seemed closest to your average type of sangria, the “Fresas,” which prominently featured raspberries and blueberries, and the “Roja,” which emphasized brandy. My second glass was the “Tropical” (Light Rum, Triple Sec Lemongrass, Lemons, Passion Fruit Nectar), another white sangria which was enjoyable, but I found a little too heavy on the lemon for my tastes. The “Havana Banana” remained my favorite, although the late second round entry of the “Spanish Harlem” that my friend Megan got was a close runner-up. It seemed like a take on cold mulled wine — dark rum, cinnamon, mandarins and peaches. Although I tend towards beer and wine for my drinks, rum is my go-to spirit, so I really enjoyed the interplay of the red wine and the rum, and the warm spice of the cinnamon. I might keep that combination in mind for a winter cocktail in the frozen depths of February.

Now I have to at least attempt to redeem myself by briefly mentioning the food. Calle Ocho offers a variety of pan-Latin cuisine, and I’d love to go back and really sample the menu for dinner to give the food its due. My fellow brunchers got “Cachapa de Salmon”: Venezuelan sweet corn crepes filled with salmon, a Cuban sandwich, and the “Calle Ocho Omelet,” stuffed with manchego and tomato. I ended up getting the “Tortilla Espanola”: a frittata with spinach, peppers, asparagus, and mushrooms over a “crab enchilado,” which seemed to be a tomato-based sauce with crab meat. I thoroughly enjoyed the frittata — the eggs were firm and well-cooked without being overdone, and the vegetables were similarly still their independent and flavorful selves, instead of the mushy mess of green stuff that you sometimes get at brunch egg dishes. The tomato sauce was delicious as well — a nice amount of acid to balance the richness of the crab meat. I only wish the crab had been a little more seasoned — it was pretty plain compared to the flavors of the rest of the dish.

Tortilla de Espanola -- I loved all the veggies with the crab meat in the sauce.

Tortilla de Espanola — I loved all the veggies with the crab meat in the sauce.

Calle Ocho omelet

Calle Ocho omelet

Cuban sandwich

Cuban sandwich

Cachapa de Salmon

Cachapa de Salmon, about to be devoured.

Also worth noting is the bread basket. I consider myself a snootily discerning individual about bread baskets (I do love me some carbs), and this one was exemplary. Chocolate chip rolls (reminiscent, but not as good as Cornelia Street Cafe), corn muffins, and miniature biscuits that reminded me of Mexican donuts with their crisp outer layer and soft and airy interior. All of the above was served with strawberry butter, which seems to a be a NY brunch staple these days.

Service:

Where Calle Ocho loses a few points is on service. They were very attentive in seating us and taking our drink and food orders, but 3 of our dishes came out all at once, leaving one person waiting alone while the rest of our food got cold. The downside of being seated far back in the separate dining room was that we were a destination spot for the waiters, rather than something they passed by en route to the kitchen, so our requests went unanswered for much longer. For example, my friend Sarah got a Cuban sandwich, and it ended up having no pickles on it. She was basically done with the sandwich by the time we flagged the waiter down, asked for the pickles, and had someone go back and get them. A similar situation occurred with our attempts to get a picture taken — we finally got a busboy to do it because our waiter had disappeared. I think this situation might be easily remedied by asking for a table in the main dining room, but it was still frustrating and a downer during an otherwise lovely meal.

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I would definitely recommend Calle Ocho for brunch, even if your goal is other than testing the limits of your day-drinking abilities. While the service was less than ideal, they kind of get away with it because I was a little too tipsy to really notice the lags in time. I’d love to try some of the other sangrias, which seem to rotate seasonally (some of the varieties I saw on Saturday are not on the website, and vice versa), and I’d like to give the food its due. It was a nice brunch to end 2012 on, and certainly the kind of raucous revelry you expect from the year-end. I certainly intend to go back, but it might not be for a few weeks —  January is the time for resolutions and gym visits, not sloppy Saturday afternoons with creme de banana. So here’s to 2012, a year full of exciting food adventures, but now, I swear, I’m going to buckle down. Expect only posts about salads in 2013 — Experimental salad-stronomy. Starting tomorrow, I swear. Right after I eat all of the cookies and magic bars I baked for tonight’s NYE party.

Happy New Year everyone!

Calle Ocho

The Excelsior Hotel

45 W. 81st St

http://www.calleochonyc.com

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Domo Arigato, Mr. Daido (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat All the Fried Food)

Now that the countdown to Christmas has turned to a mere handful of hours, we’ve officially reached the apex of that time of year when calorie counts break down and anything we’d already consider decadent is battered, fried, and topped with ice cream (aka the parallel universe known as November through January in America). I can’t tell you the amount of buttered, dipped, iced, or glazed things I’ve consumed in the past few weeks (not that I was much of a poster child for moderation before that). And so with holiday fast approaching, and my willpower at its annual low, I find myself recounting yet another chapter in the tale of The Demise of Maggie’s Cholesterol. Let’s dig in:

As my previous post discussed, one of the reasons I actually like the holiday season (inflatable lawn ornaments aside) is the emphasis on tradition. Chanukah may only be a minor festival in Judaism, but there are certain habits and rituals that my family and I use to mark the occasion, and that’s what truly makes it significant for me. This past weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to join in a tradition of my friends Laura and Steven — a day of cooking and eating Japanese food. This tradition isn’t necessarily holiday-season-bound for them, but being included at this time of year made me feel like a kid being asked up to the grownups’ table for the first time, and that table was covered in fried dumplings.

For at least as long as I’ve known them, Laura and Steven have been going to this Japanese market in White Plains called Daido. For years it was a mythical place for me, where the strange candies like Koala’s March and Pocky in Laura’s lunch bag came from, but lacking in a real geographical location. Of course, when we actually went there on Saturday I realized I’ve driven by it literally hundreds of times (in my defense, there is poor signage!). Aside from supplying unique desserts for their lunchboxes, Laura and Steven would occasionally go to Daido to pick up a hodgepodge of dumplings, croquettes, noodles and meat for their ritual fried feast. Basically, I was prepping myself for a meal at a Japanese Cracker Barrel (and if you think I’m referring to the cheese company, then you’ve never had the joy of highway rest stop chicken fried chicken, and I’m sorry for your loss).

The rather unassuming entrance to Daido

The rather unassuming entrance to Daido

Daido was larger than I anticipated, given the specialty markets I’ve been to in NY. While certainly no Super Stop ‘n’ Shop, Daido had enough room for 5 or 6 aisles, plus a meat, frozen, and produce section. Not to mention the small Parisienne bakery (what?) near the registers.

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Oh, you know, in case I want to throw a croissant in with my udon noodles.

Oh, you know, in case I want to throw a croissant in with my udon noodles.

One of my weirder interests is my fascination with foreign fast food (much like my fascination with foreign public transit systems — you know what, the mundane stuff can tell you a lot about a culture), so if I’d had more time I would have roamed the aisles to really explore all the strange frozen meals and snacks. But we were on a mission, and the first step was procuring rice balls. I was told rice balls are to be eaten in the car immediately after checkout and before going home, as a prelude to the main event. Some eating before our eating? I am fine with that.

Rice balls in their native habitat. There were probably six or seven types available.

Rice balls in their native habitat. There were probably six or seven types available.

Despite multiple efforts on my part, I remain not a huge fan of sushi, so I was a little reluctant to dive into the rice ball world of salmon roe and seared tuna. Laura, Steven, and my friend Sarah (of Thanksgiving dessert amazingness fame) were kind enough to guide me to the tuna/mayo rice ball. Comforted by the safety of that purchase, I went out on a limb for my second rice ball and picked out kelp, an admittedly odd combination. Then Steven and Laura went off to pick out the necessities for dinner, and Sarah and I wandered the aisles as she picked up some wasabi-flavored rice crackers and I scanned the cookies. While I didn’t find any Japanese Oreo products, Sarah and I stumbled upon the terribly unfortunately named Couque D’Asses. Predictably, a quick search on the internet leads to many other bloggers with the same juvenile reactions we had, but not explanation of what these Japanese confectioners were going for.  Even Google Translate just explains it as “Biscuit of Asses.” Clearly we had to buy it. I’m disappointed to report that these cookies had no clear connection to either donkeys or bottoms — it ended up just being a delicate chocolate-filled wafer cookie that tasted like a mild Milano. So I guess kudos to Pepperidge Farm for winning the “classiness” competition, simply by not trying?

I'm sensing a strangely incongruous Francophone trend, here...

I’m sensing a strangely incongruous Francophone trend, here…

Once all our comestibles were purchased, we headed back to the car to commence stage one of our day of eating: rice ball consumption. Little did I realize there is a specific procedure for prepping the ball, which Laura walked me through. First, remove the rice ball from the plastic, then carefully slide the separately packaged seaweed wrapper out (careful not to tear it), and finally, rewrap the rice ball in the seaweed. Then stuff it in your face as quickly as possible, because these things are unfairly delicious. The first few bites are mainly sticky rice, but eventually the filling in the center is revealed. The tuna/mayo was nothing special visually, but I was surprised by the kelp — it was almost a paste in consistency, as opposed to the strings of seaweed like material I thought I would be eating.

A riceball, properly assembled.

A rice ball, properly assembled.

The tuna-mayo filling looked like, well, tuna and mayo.

The tuna/mayo filling looked like, well, tuna and mayo.

It’s hard to describe why I liked the rice balls so much, since the flavors were straightforward. The tuna/mayo tasted pretty much like the tuna sandwiches my dad would pack in my lunchbox for school, and the kelp tasted mostly of salt and “beach grit,” if that makes any sense (although oddly, I found it pretty satisfying and would get it again). Perhaps I liked it because rice balls focus on the elements of sushi I actually enjoy — the well-cooked sticky rice contrasting with the salty pucker of the seaweed wrapper. Now that I’ve tried them, I actually do want to be a bit more adventurous with my next sampling, so I need to see if there are any Daido equivalents in Manhattan.

Reasonably full of starch for the moment, we returned to Steven’s house, where the chef and sous-chef set up shop in the kitchen and the guests settled in to watch the mandatory holiday viewing of Love Actually. While awaiting the main course we tried the Couque D’Asses and an equally odd American snack — Pizzeria Combos. This was probably the third time in my life that I’ve eaten Combos, but I was floored by these. Not because of some outstanding salivary experience, but because they don’t taste like pizza — THEY TASTE LIKE A PIZZERIA. Some magical food scientists distilled the olfactory sensations of being in a pizza shop and shoved it into a pretzel crust. It was mind boggling, and makes me glad that I neglected to look at the ingredient list.

In the kitchen, Laura and Steven were contending with hot oil and boiling water as they got our dinner together. The menu consisted of an assortment of items to be refried: shrimp shumai, shrimp spring rolls, chicken and shrimp dumplings, calimari, and vegetable croquettes (okay, so not my best attempt at keeping kosher, I admit). Add to that shrimp wontons, rice, yakisoba noodles, seared tuna, and the collection of random desserts, and well, you know why I was basically in a coma for the rest of the day.

Chef and sous-chef braving oil burns for our future satisfaction

Chef and sous-chef braving oil burns for our future satisfaction

My favorite part was probably the fact that Steven has all the paraphernalia, from rice bowls to real chopsticks — not just the remnants of your takeout collection. We all sat on the floor around the living room coffee table to eat, and while I definitely felt super not Japanese, it was fun to attempt a nod to the culture of the cuisine.

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Oh god, look at that beautiful, massive plate of fried things, top left.
Only a small portion of the full dessert options -- Koala's March (chocolate filled little marsupial cookies), chocolate/animal cracker like mushrooms, and strawberry candies

Only a small portion of the full dessert options — clockwise from top: Koala’s March (chocolate filled little marsupial cookies), chocolate/animal cracker like mushrooms, and strawberry candies

Overall, while totally delicious, the meal ended up being a little heavy for me. I hate to admit it, but I think my stomach is not the steel-girded machine it used to be. My favorite dishes were the vegetable croquettes (like a hash brown with peas), and the yakisoba noodles. Mostly it was just a really wonderful day of sharing in someone else’s foodie ritual. Between Colin Firth speaking in broken Portuguese and nibbles on Koala’s March, somehow the holiday spirit snuck in, without a Christmas ornament or menorah in sight. Sometimes friends and good food is really all you need. Oh, and Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters. That’s like, a basic requirement.

Nippan Daido, USA

522 Mamaroneck Avenue,

White Plains, NY 10605

Holiday Snaps

Since last week’s post rivaled War and Peace in length, I thought I’d dial it back this go-round and share some quick moments from my holiday season so far:

  • My mother and I decorate a gingerbread house each year with an intensely egalitarian flair. Note Santa on the roof and the icing menorah on the back. I think it would be fair to say that we manage a ratio of 2:1 for candy put on the house vs candy consumed. Which I believe shows a fair amount of restraint. Pretzel sticks with icing and some M&Ms stuck on them? Totally delicious.
Casa de Gingerbread 2012

Casa de Gingerbread 2012

Side view with a better shot of Santa's sleigh

Side view with a better shot of Santa’s sleigh

photo 3

It’s like a holiday mullet: Christmas in the front and Chanukah in the back.

  • And of course a huge part of the holiday season is the endless consumption of treats at parties and gatherings. I contributed to that seasonal necessity with gingersnaps (with and sans white chocolate chips), some Biscoff Rice Krispy Treats (Biscoff = “cookie butter” — do yourself a favor and look it up), and the obligatory pile of latkes I made for a Chanukah shindig.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures (working on it, I swear!) of the latkes and Krispy treats while making them, and they were scarfed down before I could think to snap a pic at the party itself.

More chewy than “snappy” really, but appropriately ginger-flavored. I promise the unsightly broken ones still tasted great!

  • Another tradition I share with my mother is using baked goods as holiday gifts. When I was in school we used to make her famous chocolate chip cookies to give out to my teachers before the winter break. Unsurprisingly, as my cooking and baking have become more serious habits, my ambitions for elaborate holiday gifts have slightly outpaced my sensibility about the actual amount of time I have to spend on 30-odd care packages for coworkers and friends.

This year I went all out and tried a new technique I had never even dabbled with — homemade marshmallows. It was my first time working with gelatin and making a simple syrup, and once I got over my fear of the candy thermometer, it went very smoothly. Ultimately,  I was pretty damn proud of my achievement. All those hours spent watching Top Chef taught me the value of mise en place (literally “everything in place” or laying out all your ingredients and materials ahead of time), so as long as I kept to the directions provided by the all-knowing Alton Brown, it really wasn’t that tough. The most difficult part was dealing with the stickiness when trying to cut through the giant mallow mass you’ll see below. Better yet, somehow despite all of the sugar in the recipe, I found the flavor of the homemade marshmallows really mild, and a nice complement to the rich chocolate fudge. Eating a bunch of Jet-Puffed marshmallows usually makes my teeth ache a bit, but I was perfectly happy to dutifully taste test my homebrewed batch — alone, roasted over the stove, and in some s’mores. I’m happy to report that in all scenarios, the homemade marshmallows performed exceptionally.

Raw, unfiltered marshmallow glory on the right, and unreasonably decadent fudge on the left. The gingersnaps make a cameo appearance bottom left!

So far my holiday baking efforts have been very well-received, and I find myself excited to keep experimenting with new techniques. I’ve had Gesine Bullock-Prado’s Sugarbaby cookbook on my shelf for over a year now, and now that I’ve cracked the outer shell, the siren call of candy is kind of drawing me in.

Hope you’re all overindulging! ‘Tis the season to eat chocolate (falalalalah)!

Review: Murray’s Cheese Bar and Big Gay Ice Cream Shop — One Udderly Delicious Night

Ewed better believe I just made a dairy joke. And a damn gouda one at that, I must cownfess. Okay, enough already, this is getting abscurd.

Well, if you’re still reading after all those terrible puns, I actually do have a fair amount to say about the evening I spent at Murray’s Cheese Bar and the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop. And yes, I have pictures this time! A word of caution, before we proceed — this combo is only for the most lactose-tolerant. Those not interested in milk-based delights should turn off here.

One of the myriad lessons I’ve learned from my mother is the importance of lists, from to-dos to groceries to party invitees. Unfortunately, the internet has only served to facilitate my list-making habits, and so in an extension of that philosophy, I have Google doc to keep track of the kooky New York food institutions I want to visit. This week I got to check not one, but two items off of that list! Let’s begin with the cheese course:

Murray’s Cheese Bar

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The first and more recent addition to said list was Murray’s Cheese Bar. Murray’s Cheese is a classic part of New York food culture. However, growing up in the suburbs outside of the city meant my only real exposure to Murray’s products came from their counter inside the Grand Central Market. Occasionally a parent or friend would pick up a cheese or some crackers on the way home, but to this day I’ve actually never stepped inside the real Murray’s Cheese Shop in the West Village.

In my quest to more specifically define my palate, I’ve been trying to narrow down the features I like most in cheeses. Of course, I’m going about it in the same haphazard, financially limited way that I’m exploring wine and beer (basically, when I can afford to try something new, I take incremental, not super brazen steps). But, I have started yet another Google doc of my favorite cheeses and their basic wikipedia descriptions. This was inspired in part by the monthly cheese club I bought into at work, organized by my coworker Mike. Each month I would get to try three or four new cheeses, and once Pandora’s box was opened, I just wanted to learn (and eat) more and more.

While I’ve heard that you can get pretty fabulous cheesy paninis at Murray’s Shop, it wasn’t until this past summer that they opened up a separate sit-down, dine-in full service restaurant, just a few doors down on Bleecker. As soon as the post announcing Murray’s Cheese Bar popped up on Eater NY, I yelled across the office to Mike (and my foodie companion Jacob) that we had to go. It’s a restaurant literally dedicated to cheese — just think of the sampling options! Finally, after months of scheduling kerfuffles, we  made it to the Cheese Bar last week.

Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of real estate to go around in the West Village, so Murray’s Cheese Bar is small, but not uncomfortable. The dominant color is white with accents of red from the chairs, but overall I kept feeling like I was in a neighbor’s clean, but cozy kitchen. A small number of tables line the right wall, facing the bar where cheese is displayed in glass cases, and you can watch the cheesemongers prep the plates if you so choose. We were offered the last three seats at the bar, but ended up taking a table nearby instead.

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The view from our table. Cute holiday additions complement the obligatory cheese jokes.

For drinks, Murray’s offers wine, beer, and a selection of hard cider (which is becoming a bit of a trend, at least in NY). I got the Foggy Ridge Hard Cider First Fruit, and I fully recommend it if you’re curious about cider. It’s got a great apple taste without being cloyingly sweet, which I often find is the problem with a lot of the ciders that have become readily available (Woodchuck, Original Sin, etc). It was a flavorful drink that complemented, but never overpowered, the food I ordered.

We started with the seasonal cheese flight, pictured below. Unfortunately I didn’t realize their seasonal menu isn’t available online, so I can’t tell you the names of those cheeses (blogging lessons — both camera and notebook necessary). Murray’s flights all include a soft cheese, a semi-firm, and a hard cheese. I ended up liking the soft cheese covered in rosemary in the back, although I think it might have been the heft of the herbs, rather than the actual flavor of the cheese that appealed to me most. I tend to like really funky, strongly flavored cheese, and none of the cheeses below were powerful enough to really stick with me. The cheese plate came with paired accoutrements — a jelly, a honey, and pickled carrots. We also got a sizable bag full of crackers and slices of bread, seen emptied in the back. I would say their flights are definitely enough food for a satisfying snack if you’re looking for something to nosh on with your wine, beer or cider. It was nice to get something fresh and in-season, but if you’re searching for a more memorable flight, I’d look into the options Murray’s offers year-round.

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The Seasonal Cheese Flight

We then picked a number of items to share: the Burrata crostini, which the waitress had praised, the Classic Melt (aka grilled cheese and tomato soup), the Beets and Blue salad, and a couple pieces of charcuterie (beef and clove and a prosciutto).

Burrata with roasted tomatoes

Burrata with roasted tomatoes

The Whole Shebang

The Whole Shebang

Note the charcuterie on the far right side.
Despite my attempts at being classy (cough black coffee cough), what I ended up liking the most was the Classic Melt. Murray’s describes it as being made with their “secret blend” of cheeses, so I can only guess at what was actually inside. My bet is on Gruyere being one component, but whatever the blend is, it made for a sandwich that was decadent, but somehow still reminded me of the white bread and American Cheese wonders my old babysitter used to whip up on Friday afternoons. The tomato soup was unbelievably thick and smoky — we all decided it was almost like a dipping sauce rather than soup. I would say the “Classic” mantle is a bit dubious, but in terms of experimenting with a tried and true staple, Murray’s succeeded.

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The other standout for me was the salad, actually. I think I’m really warming up to beets, and it was a palate cleansing contrast to the cheese surrounding us. It might be a stretch to call it a “salad,” though, since Murray’s plated it as a clump of beets, a sprig of greens, and a sprinkle of blue cheese. Nevertheless, I’m always excited to discover a change in my palate (ugh I’m such a food dork).

Shockingly, or maybe not so if you know me well, after all of this food I was still game for dessert. And luckily, so were my companions. Thanks to my constant vigilance (or obsession) with NY Local food blogs, I had heard that Big Gay Ice Cream was opening a new location in the West Village, just a few blocks from Murray’s. Never one to turn down ice cream, I suggested we give the new shop a shot, and off we went, for yet another dairy-based dish.

Big Gay Ice Cream Shop

Now here is where I get really excited. I’d been interested in Big Gay Ice Cream since they were just a lone food truck roaming NYC a few years ago. The buzz was that they were basically Mr. Softee on crack — soft serve with ridiculous toppings and flavor combinations that you couldn’t get anywhere else, like ginger-curry milkshakes and nutella-lined cones. Not to mention absurd names like The Salty Pimp and The Bea Arthur. In just a couple of years they’ve moved from food truck to storefront in Alphabet City, and now to a new place in the West Village.

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When we visited the shop, they’d only been open for a couple of days, so the decor was a little spare, but moving in the right direction. There are a few tables at this location (I’ve heard the east side one is basically a hole in the wall), and it has the bright, sparkly feel of a classic ice cream parlor, except for the pink unicorn-adorned chalkboard out front, of course.

I got their flagship cone, The Salty Pimp, which is a dulce de leche lined cone with vanilla soft serve, chocolate hard shell coating, and sea salt. I cannot fully express how delicious this was. The balance of salty and sweet was spot on, with the ice cream providing a subtle vanilla base without tasting just “plain” like some soft serve, and the dulce de leche and sea salt elevating the chocolate shell to a whole other level. My favorite part of BGI’s approach is that they not only put the toppings on the ice cream, but also in their cones, so as you make your way to the end of the treat, you still get the full experience.

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The Salty Pimp

Mike got the other flavor of the day, which was Brownie Batter, and Jacob got the Chocolate Peanut Butter milkshake. I still liked The Salty Pimp the best, but the Brownie Batter was tasty, if not particularly batter-flavored to me, and the shake was like a punch in the face of peanut butter and chocolate. It was as if someone had liquified some Reese’s cups, which I enjoyed a few sips of, but couldn’t imagine polishing off the whole thing. Levain’s cookies still wins the pb chocolate challenge for me.

Brownie Batter

Brownie Batter

(Jacob’s shake just looked like a generic chocolate shake, so I didn’t snap a pic of it.)

Final Thoughts

Overall, it was a pretty spectacular foodie night. I appreciated my experience at both Murray’s and Big Gay Ice Cream, but I don’t think I’ll need to return to the cheese bar. It was great to try something new, but there’s not a lot on the menu I want to explore further, and there are other wine bars that offer interesting cheese pairings and quirky themed restaurants on my list that I’d rather go to. On the other hand, I plan on taking everyone I know to Big Gay Ice Cream. I’d like to make my way through their menu (For example, the Gobbler — pumpkin butter/maple syrup, or apple butter/bourbon butterscotch and pie pieces and whipped cream? Or perhaps you’d like to try a cone topped with bacon marmalade). It’s just unreasonable to expect this slightly adventurous, desperately sweet-toothed gal to stay away.

Murray’s Cheese Bar

264 Bleecker St,

New York, NY

http://www.murrayscheesebar.com/

Big Gay Ice Cream Shop

61 Grove Street
(at Seventh Avenue South)
New York NY 10014

biggayicecream.com

The Learning Curve

Well, I’m now several weeks into this blog, and it’s actually been a pretty fascinating exercise so far. I’ve really enjoyed getting to flex my writing muscles a bit, mundane as the topics of my posts may be, and I’m immensely grateful for all of you who have been following along. But there have definitely been some bumps in the road I never would have predicted when I started Experimental Gastronomy. The largest one being that I love food too much to stop and smell the roses, or rather, take pictures of them.

I mentioned this problem back in my post about Levain. I had every intention of photographing my City Bakery trip, but once I moved from the frosty November air to the cookie-infused interior of the restaurant, I was dunzo. Cue stuffing my face, my phone snuggled safe in my purse without a thought of documenting the experience. This happened yet again on Saturday, when I went to brunch with a friend  at the Cornelia Street Cafe. I really, really tried to be better this time. Even though I was running late and huffing and puffing my way from the subway, I paused for a moment to run across the street and capture a few images of the facade of the Cafe:

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And once I got inside I was bold enough to be a creeper and take pictures of the interior, complete with innocent bystanders who will now have their breakfasts scrutinized by the cold eye of the internet. Sorry about that.

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See how adorable it is? Apparently they have a performance space in the back, with a rotation of different types of live music throughout the month.

But yet again, once I sat down and started actually brunching with my friend, all thought of recording the meal for posterity went out the window. The problem is that I’ve never been much of a camera person — I tend to get wrapped up in the moment with the friends or family I’m with, and just hope that someone else is on top of the photography. I had a few friends in college on whom I relied for physical evidence of my social life, and now that we’ve graduated, I think the number of new photos of me on Facebook has decreased exponentially. And when you throw food into the mix, I have a disappointing habit of immediately putting it in my mouth, which does really hampers the development of a thoughtful critique. Maybe food critics never review when they’re hungry? Then how do the judges on Top Chef endure the 18 dishes each they have to try each episode? How is Padma Lakshmi so goddamn skinny?!

Unfortunately, photography in food blogging seems pretty essential. Even if I’m just using my lame iPhone camera, I need to be able to share some part of the meal with you all, to provide context for my comments and descriptions. I always get upset when someone reviews a product and doesn’t offer up any photos — how am I supposed to find the limited edition Gingerbread Oreos if I don’t know what box to search for in the supermarket? (Seriously, though, if anyone finds and tries those, let me know. I have a great recipe for Gingerbread Oreo blondies I’d like to try.)

For those curious about my brunch at Cornelia Street Cafe, it was nice, but not revelatory in any way. The Cafe offers a $20 prix fixe brunch, which includes your choice of bread, a selection from a few of their brunch dishes, a juice or alcoholic brunch beverage, and coffee or tea. I ended up just getting scrambled egg whites with garlic rosemary potatoes, and a mimosa and coffee, which all were satisfactory. By far the best and most unique thing about the meal was the initial choice of bread. My brunchmate recommended the “warm chocolate bread,” and unsurprisingly I went with it (Maggie? Chocolate? Who would have thunk it?). I wasn’t sure exactly what would arrive at our table — would it be a dark brown quickbread, chocolate through-and-through? Maybe something scone-like? It actually ended up being more like a cinnamon roll or monkey bread in terms of texture (and here, a picture would be so useful, dammit!). There were layers of fluffy, yeasty white bread to pull away piece by piece, and the roll was studded with oozing, gooey chunks of chocolate that coated both my fingers and my plate. It was messy, but well worth it. I’m not sure the chocolate was anything too gourmet, but as a longtime fan of Nestle Tollhouse, I had no real issue with that. I would definitely come back for the bread, and maybe get an omelet or the eggs florentine next time.

In the age of Instagram, I feel woefully stodgy and provincial with my natural and kind of selfish inclination to just be in the moment without documenting it, but I guess I need to get with the times, as they say. I don’t really have a roadmap for this blog or what I want to achieve with it beyond it being a creative outlet for my own thoughts and obsessions with food, so I’m fortunate not to feel real pressure to offer professional level photography (or erudite, well-written insights, it appears). But as a consumer of food blogs, I know what I look forward to in a new post, and part of that is the photography. It’s the reason I spend way too much time on Foodgawker, why I have Chopped on my DVR, and why I generally try to buy cookbooks with pretty pictures. So with the new year approaching fast, maybe I can make an early resolution on being more aware and more deliberate with my photography for this blog. It’s a small change that could make a big difference, and maybe it would help me to slow down slightly with my habit of immediate food-to-face intake.

The Cornelia Street Cafe

29 Cornelia Street  New York, NY 10014

http://corneliastreetcafe.com/