Sans Mystery Meat: Dinner at Cafeteria

In the arts there is a concept known as the “Rule of Three,” which basically posits that information grouped in threes is more effectively communicated than in any other number. This is why there are Three Little Pigs, three ghosts in A Christmas Carol, and three Star Wars films (in my universe). The power of a triad comes from the creation of a progression — the audience is shown two similar items that set up an expectation — followed by the subversion of that progression by the final piece. We delight in this surprise, in having our foregone conclusions flipped on their heads. I find that same wonder when I encounter new takes on traditional food, when my preconceived notions of taste and texture are counted on, and then thrown out the window. It’s what made the Salty Pimp at Big Gay Ice Cream so appealing, and what makes me desperate to visit Peanut Butter & Co. for their spin on a PB&J.

My dinner at Cafeteria this weekend was an exercise in expectation subversion, and I mean that in the best way possible. When you decide to get whimsical with well-known recipes, you better deliver on quality, and thankfully, my meal at Cafeteria was far beyond lunchlady ladling.


First Impressions:

Cafeteria sits on the corner of 17th St. and 7th Ave South.

Cafeteria sits on the corner of 17th St. and 7th Ave South.


This was actually my second time at Cafeteria, but my first visit was for a first date a couple of years ago, so let’s just say the restaurant itself was not the center of my attention. This time I was hosting my college roommate Megan for a weekend visit, and the two of us were meeting another friend for dinner, so I got to appreciate the venue a bit more. Cafeteria is located in Chelsea, and features an aesthetic that walks the tight-rope between modern restraint and self-aware winking. The decor is chic, black and white, and featuring lots of cut outs and gleaming surfaces. It appears about as far from the average dumpy cafeteria as you can get. Megan commented that it actually reminded her of Jones, one of our favorite Stephen Starr restaurants in Philadelphia (where we went to school). Jones has a similar take on down-home American food — it’s like gourmet IHOP (I highly recommend their chicken and waffles if you’re in Philly).

The chic interior of Cafeteria, with it's front windows open for sidewalk seating.

The chic interior of Cafeteria, with it’s front windows open for sidewalk seating.

However, Jones does not venture into camp the way Cafeteria does. Megan and I arrived early, so we got drinks at Cafeteria’s small lounge area downstairs. The drink menus featured a shirtless man posing seductively with a cheeseburger, which some could take as a heavy-handed cypher for the restaurant’s goal of making comfort food sexy. Fortunately, this was Cafeteria’s most over-the-top moment, well, that and the names of the cocktails.

Our alluring drink menus.

Our alluring drink menus.

Speaking of which…

The Food:

My cocktail -- "Liquid Passion"

My cocktail — “Liquid Passion”


Cafeteria offers an extensive drinks menu, from beer and wine to some playfully named cocktails. Megan and I decided to embrace a girly stereotype or two and ordered off of the champagne-based section of the cocktail menu. Inspired by my fruit-and-vegetable adventures in Israel, I had the “Liquid Passion,” composed of prosecco, passion fruit juice, and “edible flower.” I really enjoyed the cocktail, which was pretty much a passion fruit bellini, although I couldn’t tell you what the edible flower added to the experience, in taste or texture. But I would consider bringing along some passion fruit juice instead of OJ or peach to my next brunch picnic.

Megan's drink, the "White Peach Classico"

Megan’s drink, the “White Peach Classico”

Megan got the “White Peach Classico,” made up of prosecco, “artisanal peach bitters,” Gran Classico and burnt orange zest. This cocktail was well balanced, and both Megan and I commented that the peach flavoring was subtle — more natural than the Del Monte peaches in syrup cloying sweetness. Again, there was no real indication of where the burnt orange zest was, except for some lingering pieces of peel at the bottom of the glass.

When Jacob joined us he branched out beyond the bubbly beverage, choosing the “Cafeteria Cosmo” — Svedka Clementine, cranberry and passionfruit juice. Tasty and dangerous, since it was one of those cocktails where you’re not sure if you’re actually drinking alcohol.

The waiter suggested Jacob get the "Cafeteria Cosmo" on the rocks, so it appears slightly manlier here than it actually was.

The waiter suggested Jacob get the “Cafeteria Cosmo” on the rocks, so it appears slightly manlier here than it actually was.


As with most of my meals with Jacob, we decided to go family style on dinner, and fortunately Megan has similar priorities about trying as many dishes as possible. We ended up ordering an assortment of appetizers and sides and one entree to share, which ultimately verged on too much food for the three of us, but we were troopers and took one for the team … and then walked down for dessert at Big Gay Ice Cream (I wasn’t letting Megan leave New York without trying the Salty Pimp).

The meal started with complimentary cheddar biscuits and honey butter. The biscuits were warm from the oven, soft and doughy, with just a hint of cheese, and did a great job of putting me in the spirit for some well-executed comfort food. I actually preferred them on their own, finding the addition of the honey butter a little too rich. I also appreciated the presentation of the biscuits in a newspaper-lined basket, immediately setting the tone of elevated familiarity.

These delicious biscuits were one of the highlights of the night.

These delicious biscuits were one of the highlights of the night. You can see the cheese flecked throughout the dough.


For our appetizers we chose the Crispy Green Beans, and a Cheddar and Fontina Macaroni and Cheese. Cafeteria actually has four types of mac and cheese on its menu (or the fifth option of the “Mac Attack” tasting of three), but Jacob is a seasoned Cafeteria vet and guided us towards the more classic two-cheese option.

It's still considered healthy if you can see some green beneath the frying, right?

It’s still considered healthy if you can see some green beneath the frying, right?

I have little love towards green beans in general. As a child they were one of my least favorite vegetables (along with peas and broccoli), but I’ve come around to them depending on how they’re prepared. Basically, add enough butter to any previously-loathed vegetable and I’ll dig right in. The Crispy Green Beans were lightly fried in a delicate batter, with their green skins still visible through the crust. As advertised, they were crispy without providing a real crunch, so you still had the vegetal flavor as dominant, heightened by the salty, buttery coating. The dish came with a grilled lemon and a soy-based sesame ginger dipping sauce, although again I thought the beans were better sans sauce. Adding soy on top of the salted, fried strips was too much salt for me. Despite my negative history with green beans, this dish was actually one of my favorites of the night.

A two-cheese mac and cheese, so ... a mac and cheese cheese?

A two-cheese mac and cheese, so … a mac and cheese cheese?

The mac and cheese was a strong contender, but I didn’t find it innovative enough to stand out. Perhaps my disappointment is unwarranted, considering we went for the more classic take on mac and cheese, over the truffle oil or buffalo blue cheese, but my feelings for the dish are largely “delicious, but not something I would order again.” The portion would have been enough for someone’s entree, but split between three people it was a reasonable appetizer. There was a defined crust that gave way to a cheesy roux and al dente noodles, and there’s no arguing with a pairing like fontina and cheddar. I definitely enjoyed it more than the dishes I’ve tried at S’Mac, but compared to the interesting interplay of texture and taste with the Crispy Green Beans, the mac and cheese felt a little “old-hat.”

For our main course we shared the Black Kale Salad, the Zucchini Parm Latkes, and the Pecan Crusted Catfish.

The Black Kale Salad -- a one two punch of spice and bitter -- not my cup of tea, unfortunately.

The Black Kale Salad — a one two punch of spice and bitter — not my cup of tea, unfortunately.

The Black Kale Salad is a new seasonal menu item. It seemed like Cafeteria rotates a significant number of dishes each season, as Jacob’s favorite dessert is no longer being offered (a homemade Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, curse the cruelty of fate!). In fact, if you’re mildly obsessive like me, you will note that the kale salad described on Opentable’s Cafeteria menu page is different from the one we encountered at dinner. This brand spanking new salad boasted black kale (naturally), with pine nut gremolata, mint, ricotta salata, and a jalapeno grilled lemon vinaigrette. All three of us are wimps when it comes to spicy food, so we opted to have the dressing on the side. However, after a few forkfuls into the salad it became clear that the bottom of the plate had been lightly coated with the jalapeno vinaigrette, leading to some impolite grimaces as we tried to put on brave faces. I’ve also yet to fully get onboard the kale train, so I was hoping that the rest of the items in the salad would balance the bitterness of the greens. The mint and jalapeno did offer up some strong punches of flavor, and the ricotta salata worked to cool things down a bit, but overall I was looking for a light and refreshing dish to counterbalance the heaviness of the rest of the meal, and I just found the salad overwhelming, jumping back and forth from bitter to spicy.

Zucchini Parm Latkes win points for presentation in their tiny cast iron skillet.

Zucchini Parm Latkes win points for presentation in their tiny cast iron pot.

The Zucchini Parm Latkes sounded like an interesting meshing of Eastern European and Italian food, so I was eager to see how they would pan out. To be honest, I didn’t taste the “parm” part, but the pancakes were fried to the perfect point of crispyness, and I appreciated that they were not thick patties of starch. My pancake had good crunch to it, although I missed the biting contrast of an onion (you know how I feel about onions in my latkes). I could have sworn I detected an herby, almost mint taste running through my latke.  At first I thought it was just the kale salad lingering on my tongue, but Jacob agreed that he tasted mint or chives of some sort, which threw off the buttery, warm flavors of the latke. The best part of the dish was the apple sauce — basically a thick apple compote, nearly the density of apple pie filling, fresh, sweet, and chunky with a real crisp apple taste. I could easily imagine it on the table at Thanksgiving.

My personal winner of the night -- the Pecan Crusted Catfish.

My personal victor of the night — the Pecan Crusted Catfish.

My favorite dish of the night was the Pecan Crusted Catfish, despite the fact that I’ve never really liked catfish. It’s an unreasonable excuse, but whenever I see catfish on a menu I immediately think of the live fish and get a little bit grossed out. Something about the whiskers throws me off. I mostly pushed for ordering this dish because of how I imagined the combination of a pecan crust and the included sides would work together. The dish came with a sweet potato hash, smoked Cipollini onions, and a red pepper emulsion. The fish was tender and flaky, providing a nice contrast with the crunchy pecan coating. It will come as no shock that I loved the sweet potato hash. The smoky onions and bright acidity of the red pepper sauce helped to tame the sweetness of the pecans and sweet potatoes. Looking back on it, the catfish itself was pretty much just a vehicle for the other flavors in the dish, since I can’t say anything specific about the fish’s flavor. However, the fish did nothing to detract from my appreciation of the rest of the dish, so I’d happily order it again. Like my other favorite of the night, the Crispy Green Beans, it was a sophisticated take on a comfort food standard, elevating a commonplace fish like catfish with a novel crust and sides that worked together to create an unexpected starring element.


Final Thoughts:

The word “cafeteria” generally conjures up such appetizing phrases as “hairnet,” “glop,” and “mystery meat.” But thankfully Cafeteria the restaurant is well aware of those standards and is happy to toy with them for your benefit. They’re encouraging you to engage your expectations and hope that they’ll be twisted and turned around — that your order of steamed, limp green beans will be battered and crisply fried, that you can choose between meatloaf, biscuits and gravy, or chicken paillard any time of day, and that you’ll see nary a plastic tray nor lunchlady in sight. I really enjoyed my dinner at Cafeteria because it took advantage of my curiosity. I wouldn’t normally order green beans or catfish, but I was intrigued by the way Cafeteria was reimagining them. Sometimes that leap of faith fell flat on the floor, but in other cases I discovered a new appreciation for foods I’d written off.

Maybe what we’re forgetting is that the root of the American cafeteria is the idea of communal dining, of taking a break from work or school to sit down and press the pause button on everything but the food in front of us. Yes, Cafeteria is about as far from my middle school lunchroom as you can get, but even without the little cartons of chocolate milk, I couldn’t help but think of the sheer joy of breaking free from classes and responsibilities and getting to hang out with my friends. For that aspect, Cafeteria happily hits the nail straight on the head.


Cafeteria

119 7th Ave (Corner of 17th St)

http://www.cafeteriagroup.com/

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Anglophilic Appreciation: Lunch at Jones Wood Foundry

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming!

So let’s dive back into New York food by talking about the United Kingdom and more of my travels. I’ve always had a passion for British culture, probably stemming back to my family’s love of movies starring Sean Connery (say what you will about his accent, that man is KILLER in The Hunt for Red October). I’ve traveled to the UK more than any other country, and when I was in college I spent a semester studying film at the University of Glasgow. Now Scotland gets a lot of crap about its native cuisine. Understandably so, given that the national dish is a stuffed sheep’s stomach. But to be honest, I actually ate pretty well when I was in Scotland. The Indian food I had while abroad was actually way better than any I’ve eaten in the US, and I managed to find some pretty stellar desserts (sticky toffee pudding, anyone?). Yes, the average chip shop offers a greasy fry-up and some soggy chips (read: french fries), but I’ve found you can get bad regional food anywhere you go. I ate some underwhelming pasta in Rome, some bad pastry in France, even some bad falafel in Israel. My point is, no matter what the cuisine, it’s silly to write off a whole culture because of bad dining experiences. You can’t control what the food is, but you can control the quality of restaurant you choose to eat at — does anyone actually order the steak at a greasy spoon in NY?

I say all of this because of a fantastic lunch I had a few weekends ago at Jones Wood Foundry on the UES. Jones Wood Foundry is a “food-driven pub” according to their website, located on 76th St, between 1st and East End. JWF has been open for a couple of years now, but I’d never managed to make it all the way east to get my British fix. I’m lucky enough to live near Caledonia, a Scottish pub on 2nd Ave, where I could indulge in beers and ciders from the UK that for the most part met my nostalgic needs. But last weekend my parents were looking for a new brunch location on the UES, so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to check JWF off my to-do list.


First Impressions:

The front window is bedecked with British paraphernalia.

The front window is bedecked with British paraphernalia.


JWF is in a narrow building right around the corner from 1st Ave. The building it’s housed in is an old brownstone, and the owners have decked out the front window with British memorabilia, just skirting the line of kitschy. Upon entering the restaurant, you’re greeted with the long, darkly rich wood bar, and a sense of classic British reserve. The area is dimly lit, the narrow hall more than halfway filled with the bar and stools, and at the end of the room you can see some steps down into the dining area. Jones Wood Foundry offers a number of beers on tap, which are listed on the chalkboard menus on the wall that also highlight the current cask ales on tap, and the pie of the day.

The massive bar is the first thing that you see.

The massive bar is the first thing that you see.

Cask ales and the pie of the day.

Draft beer, cask ales and the pie of the day.

Moving past the bar you walk down into the first of three dining spaces — a small room with one wall of french doors that lead out to the second space, the garden patio, and fianlly, the larger dining room, farthest back from the bar. The decor was familiar — dark wood paneling, plain chairs and tables, the walls adorned with British posters and pictures — but with touches of a more upscale tone, such granite tabletops and leather banquettes. JWF is straightforward in its aesthetic and attitude — the comfort of your favorite corner bar, but with a little more thought and attention paid. This carries through to both the service and the menu, and I found the general unpretentious air to be one of the best things about the place.

The first, smaller dining room, adjacent to the patio.

The first, smaller dining room, adjacent to the patio.

The largest dining area -- note more UK-centric posters and photos on the wall.

The largest dining area — note more UK-centric posters and photos on the wall.

This laid-back but thoughtful attitude extended to the staff as well. Our waiter was happy to answer any questions about unfamiliar British food nomenclature (what are “rissoles,” exactly?), offer his own opinions on the best dishes (which we ended up picking), and even went the extra mile of switching out my mug for a fresh one when I switched from regular to decaf coffee at dessert. Yes, I had dessert at lunch with my parents — I come by this sweet tooth honestly! This thoughtfulness even extended to the end of the meal, where we received a post card featuring photos of the restaurant’s earliest employees with our bill. Ours featured a construction worker who had loved the JWF guys so much he asked if he could stay on once the restaurant opened. They found him a spot in the kitchen, and he still works there to this day.


The Food:

A lamb pie all of my own.

A lamb pie all of my own.


On our waiter’s recommendation I ordered the pie of the day, which was a lamb and rosemary pie with a side of mashed potatoes. The pie was about the size of frozen dinner pot pie, slightly larger than the handpies I’ve seen at the Tuck Shop or Pie Face, but far from the hefty ladlefulls of Shepherd’s Pie I encountered at the cafeteria at U of Glasgow. In what would become a recurring theme, the highlight of the dish was the crust — flaky and buttery without being greasy, offering just a little resistance as I plunged my fork into it. It gave way to a thick, stew-like gravy full of well-seasoned, tender chunks of lamb. I appreciated that the meat was not ground, and I thought that the rosemary was very delicately used. I happen to love rosemary, but I recognize that it’s a herb that can overtake a dish. Jones Wood Foundry’s judicious use left the rosemary as an undercurrent to cut through some of the richness of the lamb.

The mashed potatoes were actually more whipped in texture. I’m not a big mashed potato person, but they were part of a grand bargain to allow me access to the “chips” part of my father’s fish and chips. My parents seemed to enjoy the mash, and I certainly appreciated the delicate presentation of the potatoes next to my pie.

My mother got a dish that seemed to be a British play on Smoked Salmon Benedict, featuring a crumpet instead of an English muffin (but what do the English call muffins?), and scrambled instead of poached eggs. I’ll admit I was too enraptured with my lamb pie and tasting the fish and chips to try more than the crumpet. I’ve had crumpets before, and found them too spongy for my taste. This one seemed perfectly fine to me, and I think my mother enjoyed her brunch. Dessert certainly helped seal the deal.

My mother went totally British with a tea and crumpets brunch.

My mother went totally British with a tea and crumpets brunch.

The other strong recommendation from our waiter was Jones Wood Foundry’s take on fish and chips, which my father ordered. While personally my lamb pie took the top spot in the entree competition, the fish and chips were a close second. In my visits to the UK I’ve had many a newspaper-wrapped piece of fried cod, and there is something incredibly comforting about a slick sheen of grease on the paper as evidence of the tremendously unhealthy food you’re ingesting. It’s like folding your slice of pizza only to have a sluice of oil run down the back off your hand. When you’re stumbling drunk and paying 5 bucks, the cholesterol is almost a bonus.

I love the knit cap for the lemon to prevent seeds falling onto your fish.

I love the knit cap for the lemon to prevent seeds falling onto your fish.

But JWF’s fish and chips is aimed at a slightly more conscious eater, and thankfully the dish was no gut bomb. Presented on a wooden board with a cup of medium-cut chips, the fillet of cod was very lightly fried. Like the crust on my pie, the batter used on the cod was flavorful without being overly buttery and rich. It was just salty enough to play off the mild fish meat, which flaked delicately. Alas, there was no malt vinegar to be found (usually a fish and chips standard), but it was served with a nice lemon aioli. As for the chips — being a bit of a french fry connoisseur (is this a job? Can I evaluate fries for a living?), I was slightly disappointed in the chips. They were too thinly cut to be authentic, and were a bit soggy considering how well cooked the fish was. On the other hand, the potato base was clearly of a higher quality than your average steak-cut chip shop fare.

So after our very light and healthful lunch (hah), we couldn’t help but peruse the dessert menu our waiter brought around. As I mentioned above, my favorite British dessert is sticky toffee pudding, but my parents were leaning more towards the Apple Grumble and the Banoffee Pie, so I was happy to compromise and try those out. I’ll just have to save the pudding for my next visit to JWF to compliment a cask ale.

Look at the chunks of crumble on the Apple Grumble.

Look at the chunks of crumble on the Apple Grumble!

The Apple Grumble was pretty much a regular fruit crisp, filled with pieces of pear and apple, topped with a brown sugar crumble, and served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. The ice cream was rich with great vanilla bean flavor. The fruit was all right, poached but not quite as melt in your mouth soft as I would have liked. The crisp topping (again with the pastry) was the real star, with sizable chunks instead of a mound of crumbs.

Look at how the gorgeous plate mirrors the almonds on the banoffee pie.

Look at how the gorgeous plate mirrors the almonds on the banoffee pie.

I ultimately preferred the Banoffee pie, again largely because of how the pie crust played off the filling. The pie had real slices of banana suspended in the toffee pudding, topped with whipped cream and toasted almonds. The base was a super rich graham cracker crust that somehow balanced the sweetness of the banana and toffee. The contrast of textures in the baked, yet crumbly crust, the soft pudding filling, and the crunchy toasted almonds kept every bite interesting, and I happily scarfed down 3/4 of it, trying to ignore the fact that it was my second pie dish in one meal. Looking back on it, I’m very happy that I shared the Banoffee Pie, because it probably would have been too large a portion for one person alone. But if I’m coming back to skip dinner and go straight for beer and dessert, then maybe it’s a perfectly reasonable size.


Final Thoughts:


Overall, my lunch at Jones Wood Foundry was an enjoyable experience from start to finish. The staff is friendly and attentive, the food is familiar but slightly more refined in execution, and atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. I’m eager to return for dinner and see what other British staples have been toyed with on the menu. Eating at Jones Wood Foundry is like having comfort food for an Anglophile. Sure, you’re paying more than you would at your average Irish pub, but I’m happy to shell out for artful hand with pastry, and the lack of indigestion later.  Jones Wood Foundry won’t dazzle you with cutting-edge innovations in Anglo cuisine, but maybe, just maybe it’ll make you believe that a Brit armed with the right ingredients can turn out some quality dishes.

Jones Wood Foundry

401 E 76th St

www.joneswoodfoundry.com

Snackshots Abroad: Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 3

While uploading photos to include in this last post about my trip to Israel, I suddenly realized how many different places I ate at. So I thought I’d include a quick montage of some of the more random and/or pedestrian fare I ate, and then focus on a few particularly memorable or exotic dishes from my travels.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out "Doritos" in Hebrew.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out “Doritos” in Hebrew.

We’ll start out with snacks — I’m sure that bag looks pretty familiar. It is the Israeli version of Doritos, and despite the non-Latin letters, the artificial cheesy flavor remains comfortingly the same.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Fans of Edgar Wright films may recognize this ice cream treat as Nestle’s Cornetto (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Flavours_Cornetto_Trilogy), frequently seen in American ice cream trucks as the King Cone. In Israel I saw a wider variety of flavors offered — this one featured peanuts and caramel, and was the perfect treat after a long hike up and down Masada.

Now onto the more local fare:

Shawarma b'laffa in Sderot.

Shawarma b’laffa in Sderot.

First up is the shawarma b’laffa I had in Sderot. My brother’s girlfriend Leah, who lived in Israel for a year, recommended that I get a laffa wrap at least once. Laffa is a larger flatbread, closer to naan in texture than a pita, and a million times better than your average wrap. The shawarma here was tasty, but one of my favorite things about your average street food/deli in Israel was the small salad and condiment bar that seemed standard. Even the mall shawarma place we stopped at one lunch had pan-fried eggplant, pickled vegetables, and a couple of different chunky sauces to accompany your meal. The meal I had in Sderot was memorable not because of the food itself, although it was delightfully greasy in the way a great sub from a NY deli is, but because of the significance of the location. Sderot is a border town with the Gaza Strip, and the poverty was pretty palpable. Our guide explained that due to the frequency of rocket attacks, all those who have enough money to leave Sderot have, and the people left are the ones that are stuck. This was great for our group because it meant a cheap lunch, but I couldn’t help but notice a certain haunted and worn-out look to the roads and market we walked through. There was another rocket strike only two days after we visited Sderot. Regardless of your feelings about the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, there’s no reason innocent people (on either side) should be subjected to that kind of violence.

2013-03-19 14.06.42

The sign says “Tasty Falafel 4”

Let’s lighten up the mood a bit, and transition to a happier encounter with laffa. This small falafel shop was in a strip mall in Jerusalem. Tasty Falafel 4 offered 4 different types of falafel (wow, who could have made that intellectual leap?) with the option of putting it in a pita, laffa, or on a platter. They get extra points for all the different delivery options — half pita, half laffa, falafel, shawarma, a combo of the two, or veggies. They also gave you complementary “chips,” which were closer to the British chip in terms of being fried potatoes rather than our American Lays, but were actually small potato puffs that topped your order like a Greek gyro. I ended up getting a mix of all four falafel types with all the salad trimmings (except the spicy sauce). Sure, it was probably the equivalent of Taco Bell in NYC, but sometimes you just want fast food.

Sorry, but I couldn't wait to bite into a "chip" before I took a picture of my falafel.

Sorry, but I couldn’t wait to bite into the “chip” on top before I took a picture of my falafel. Look at the soft potato center and golden brown fried edges. Mmm.

Next up, we have the Lahuhe from the sacred city of Tzfat. It’s basically a Yemeni crepe/burrito, full of herbs and spices and three different types of cheese.

Lahuhe -- basically a Yemeni crepe -- from Tzfat.

Lahuhe — basically a Yemeni crepe — from Tzfat.

I only tasted the wrap my friend Dave got, but it had the light texture of a tortilla mixed with gooey cheese and a heavy za’atar backend spice.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

Let’s move into the big leagues for our next round of Middle Eastern edibles. I’ll admit that I had a list of must-try food written up before I even set foot on the plane (we’ve discussed my dependency on lists previously). A lot of the items on the list were types of food I had sampled in America, but I needed to compare with the more authentic Israeli equivalent — falafel, shawarma, hummus and so on. But at the top of the list was an elusive dish I have still yet to try in the US — shakshuka. Shakshuka is one of those foods that has a million variations across the globe — chak chouka, eggs in purgatory, huevos en el Purgatorio, and so on. At its most basic level, shakshuka is eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce. When I told one of my Birthright leaders I was desperate to stick my face in some shakshuka, she suggested what seemed to be an obvious answer: go see the Doctor. Dr. Shakshuka, that is.

The doctor's office.

The doctor’s office.

Dr. Shakshuka is a restaurant near the flea market in Jaffa, the older Arab city that Tel Aviv grew out of. The inside of the restaurant was crowded and dim, but around the corner Dr. Shakshuka has taken over the whole alleyway, ten tables of varying lengths strewn about the space. I ended up ordering family style with a bunch of my tripmates, getting shakshuka with eggplant, shakshuka with shawarma, stuffed peppers, and a couple of kebabs. The meal also comes with an unlimited supply of thickly sliced loaves of warm, soft white bread to sop up the runny egg and tomato sauce.

Dr. Shakshuka's version of unlimited breadsticks.

Dr. Shakshuka‘s version of unlimited breadsticks.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

The star of the show -- shakshuka with eggplant.

The star of the show — shakshuka with eggplant.

As I had hoped, Dr. Shakshuka totally lived up to expectations. The eggs were perfectly poached, and breaking the yolk led to the unctuous, fatty egg mixing with the acidity of the tomato. A self-professed eggplant zealot, I thought it was a great addition to the dish, the silky texture melding with the rest of the liquid, adding a little bit more chew without distracting from the spices. The beauty of the dish is the way everything comes together — this is definitely not one of those foods for people who like to keep each part of their dinner in separate little sections on their plate. You gotta be ready to get a little messy, dipping your bread in and keeping plenty of napkins at the ready. I know of a few places in NYC that serve shakshuka, and I’m eager to try them out — I only got to try the dish once in Israel, so no over-shakshuka-exposure for this gal.

The most exotic food I ate in Israel came on the last day of my trip, while strolling through Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. Another recommendation (both from the trip leaders and my brother’s girlfriend Leah) led me down a side street of the shuk to the Iraqi restaurant Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

Inside, the restaurant is visually nothing to shake a stick at. Small tables and rickety chairs fill the space, and you order off a menu on the wall, giving your order literally to one of the cooks, who makes and places your food on a cafeteria tray and sends you off to the elderly gentleman by the ancient cash register. I had zero knowledge of Iraqi food, but some items on the menu looked familiar — meat-stuffed cigars that seemed almost Greek, and those brimming bowls of hummus with different toppings of beans, vegetables, and sauces. But I couldn’t get just any ol’ bowl of hummus –I needed something authentically Iraqi (or at least ostensibly authentic). So I went with a bowl of red kubbeh. Kubbeh (or kibbe) is an overarching category of Middle Eastern dishes that involve bulgur or semolina and chopped meat. Red kubbeh is made up of semolina dumplings stuffed with ground beef, boiled in a tangy  broth with stewed vegetables.

I didn't realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I didn’t realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I initially thought the soup would be spicy, perhaps because I’ve been trained to equate “red” with curries or chili powders. But in fact it was more acidic than spicy, which played well against the richness of the dumpling dough and the ground beef. The vegetables were tender, and even with the meat the meal was filling, but not overly heavy. I know it’s pretty lame to get so excited about trying a new cuisine, but I was very pleased with myself for choosing something new and unknown. Luckily, I happened to like the food, too. There were a number of other kubbeh permutations to try at Rachmon, so I’m hoping I can find some Iraqi food in NY. One of my lunch buddies got fried kubbeh, which seemed almost empanada-ish in appearance.

We started with dessert, so we’ll end with it, too. Jaffa was especially kind to me, from the flea market where I found some great gifts, to Dr. Shakshuka‘s, and finally, to the best ice cream I had on my whole trip. Between his insatiable thirst for trivia and history, and his insatiable desire for ice cream, our tour guide Shachar was a man after my own heart (er, stomach?). He came along to Dr. Shakshuka for lunch, but barely touched his food, explaining that he was saving room for some phenomenal ice cream. And so after a little shopping in the market, I followed his directions to a gelateria a few blocks down. They had a wide assortment of flavors from sugarfree to fruit based to candy-laden types like Snickers. I opted to get a combination of the almond-toffee and the Indian Kulfi.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

Overall, the milk base of the gelato was strong, but what really took my gelato to a new height were the flavors. The almond-toffee was delicious, if not particularly shocking — the crunch of the almond against the sticky, gooey toffee and the creaminess of the vanilla base was, as you would expect, a stellar combination. But the Indian Kulfi threw me for a loop. Cardamom was the dominant flavor, and I found it absolutely addictive. It reminded me of the best version of kheer, which is Indian rice pudding — almost savory in taste, but the creamy sugar sweetness of the gelato itself kept the flavor from veering out of dessertland. I’m “borrowing” my mother’s old ice cream maker this summer, and I’m determined to try to replicate this gelato. I’ve seen recipes for cardamom ice cream on sites like Serious Eats, and it’s definitely on the top of my ice cream experiments list.

Last, but not least, we’ll deal with one of those amazing food moments of redefinition. Sometimes all it takes is a really well-made version of a dish to completely shift your opinion. For me, this happened with rugelach. I’ve admitted in the past that I’m not the best Jew-food eater, and part of that was my distaste for rugelach. Too often I would come up against stale, dry, crusty rugelach, the filling like bland paste with the barest hints of the sweet promise of cinnamon or chocolate. Forget rugelach — hand me a piece of babka or a danish, please. But then I went to Marzipan Bakery in Jerusalem. Marzipan was a recommendation from the writers of Serious Eats, and with my rugelach-obsessed friend Zina in tow, when I caught a glimpse of the sign in the Jewish Quarter, I knew we had to stop in.

The hebrew spells out "Marzipan" phonetically.

The hebrew spells out “Marzipan” phonetically.

Inside, it was clear what their star product was:

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

And somehow, despite my history with disappointing rugelach, the fact that all of the city had switched to Kosher for Passover goods (blech, matzoh-meal), and the unreasonably high expectations. the rugelach I had from Marzipan that day was lifechanging. It was the best rugelach I’ve ever had — a slightly sticky coating on the toasted, flaky dough, a luscious chocolate filling that made me yearn for a Zabar’s babka. It was everything I’d been told I should love about rugelach, and damn if I wasn’t a proud Jew at that moment.

I’ll be honest, I’m wrestling with how to sum up this brief series of posts about my trip. I didn’t even get to all the delicious things I tried in Israel (like their fascinating take on frozen yogurt), but hopefully the items I’ve covered give a good picture of my general sense of wonder about the entire experience. This trip challenged me in so many ways, from traveling on my own (well, sans friends, that is) to getting up on a camel, to dipping my toes (and the rest of me) into the Dead Sea. Trying to capture just the part of the trip dealing with food keeps pushing me to make grander statements about my own personal growth and willingness to expand my palate, both for literal tastes and the larger tastes in my life. But truth be told, I’m backing away from the melodrama on this one. If you want a pitch for why everyone who can should do Birthright, let me know and I’m happy to jump right into the spiel. Mostly, I just had a wonderful vacation. And like most of the things I write about on this blog, it was as much about feeding my appetite as it was about feeding my curiosity.

Giving Thanks for the Fruit of the Vine (and the Ground) — Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 2

Disclaimer: The following post deals entirely with fresh produce. There is no mention of dessert, chocolate, or alcohol. I know this is shocking considering my weaknesses and passions, but dear God if they had fruit and vegetables like this in America you’d see a lot more food blogs spazzing over tomatoes. Anyway, on to the good stuff.

One of my favorite activities on my Birthright trip had very little to do with the political or historical issues of Israel and Judaism. Just before we headed out into the desert for our Bedouin experience (including an all too short camel ride), our group was taken to Shvil Hasalat, or The Salad Trail, an educational farm and greenhouse facility in the Northern Negev. According to the website, The Salad Trail is owned by agronomist (awesome job title) Uri Alon, although we were led by a different guide (of Australian or South African origin — I hate that I can’t tell those two accents apart).

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We started the tour a few miles outside of the facility, where we were introduced to The Salad Trail’s resident homing pigeons. Our guide explained that in the early days of the Israeli Defense Force, the army would use homing pigeons to deliver messages. A few people volunteered to write messages and we released a few of the pigeons. Homing pigeons always return to the place they were born, which in this case was the farm, so by the end of the tour they had returned our messages to us (Well, 2 out of 3 at least. Hopefully the last pigeon made it home eventually).

Prepping a pigeon to carry a message home.

Prepping a pigeon to carry a message home.

We then jumped on the bus to head to the greenhouses and fields of The Salad Trail. After saying hello to the homing pigeon home base, and meeting a sizable tortoise, we were ushered into the first greenhouse, where hundreds of fresh strawberries hung suspended a few feet in the air. Our guide explained how these “flying strawberries” were easier to pick, and avoided rot because of being hung in the air. They were, of course, organic, and pesticide free, although a specific type of insect was introduced to the strawberry greenhouse to prevent other bugs from chowing down. Not us, though — our guide passed around a basket of freshly picked strawberries, and when I bit into one I was actually floored by the flavor. These strawberries were much smaller than the monsters you can find in your average produce section, but their flavor was much stronger and sweeter. They lacked the diluted, watery taste of supermarket berries, and suddenly I understood why some people just enjoy a fruit salad for dessert. With this kind of freshness, I would find it plenty sweet enough as well.

Lighter-than-air strawberries.

Lighter-than-air strawberries.

Next stop was the tomato greenhouse, where the guide outlined the numerous varieties of tomatoes they grow (mostly smaller cherry and grape varieties). As someone who routinely keeps a pint of grape tomatoes in her fridge for snacking, I was in heaven. I tried to look up the names of some of the tomatoes we tasted, but it turns out there’s a vast catalogue of tomato varieties on the Internet, so unfortunately I think those details are lost to the ages. I do remember that my favorite of the samples came to a point at the bottom, so any intrepid researchers or tomato-know-it-alls are welcome to chime in with the answer. Anyway, it was in this greenhouse that we first got to put our grubby mitts all over the merchandise and actually pick the samples off the vine. It was a little surreal to not have to worry about washing my produce — I just plucked it off, brushed off a little fuzz, and popped it in my mouth. The contrast in both taste and experience between my Key Foods tomatoes and the fresh ones off The Salad Trail was pretty staggering. It really makes you take a step back and recognize how far humanity has come from basic agriculture.

Tomatoes on the vine -- oh man, it's Passover and I want pizza BAD.

Tomatoes on the vine — oh man, it’s Passover and I want pizza BAD.

I somehow managed to restrain myself from eating the entire stock of tomatoes and moved on with the group to a greenhouse full of edible herbs. Our guide chose a couple of volunteers for a blind taste test, and they did pretty well — until he gave my friend Dave the natural equivalent of Viagra. I didn’t ask Dave how that fared later on that day, but I think he succeeded in maintaining his composure, so the potency of this plant may not be at “little blue pill” level. We then milled around, trying different assorted herbs like basils, parselys, mints, and even lettuces.

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Chives, anyone?

My favorite farming (gathering? harvesting?) moments came when we finally headed outside again. We first went into a field of carrots, and were told to have at it. Cue many, many Bugs Bunny references. I pulled up a purple carrot by the roots (yes, this time I did wash it, only because I wasn’t super interested in eating Israeli desert dirt. However, maybe it would have been delicious, considering the rest of The Salad Trail offerings). Again, carrots are a favorite veggie of mine, so I was happy to chow down. I picked a pretty reasonably sized carrot, but some people ended up with carrots the size of cantaloupes. I found the purple carrot to be a bit milder in flavor than the common orange, although obviously it was incredibly fresh, since I literally pulled it straight from the ground. According to the Internet, however, purple carrots are usually sweeter than orange carrots, so maybe mine wasn’t fully ripened yet.

When you first pull it out of the ground, you really have no idea what color the carrot is.

When you first pull it out of the ground, you really have no idea what color the carrot is. You can see how bright purple it was from the very tip.

After a citrus detour (clementines and tangerines) where we rested our picking hands, we were told to jump into a maze of passion fruit plants. I’ve seen my fair share of passion fruit flavored sorbets and yogurt packages, but to be honest I had no idea what a passion fruit actually looked like. We were instructed to only take the black fruit — the green would be unripe, and therefore hard to bite and gross to eat. After some panicked searching because we had already been told we were running out of time for our tour, I managed to spot a mostly black, egg-shaped fruit hiding high in the vines at the back of the maze. It was a little larger than the size of my palm, with a smooth, thick skin that resisted the attempts of my fingers to peel it. Our guide shouted to the rest of the group to just bite into it, so I channeled Evangeline Lily and chomped down on that mofo (Yes, that was a Lost reference. Way to reference a show that went off the air in 2010). Once I cracked the skin I was able to tear open the rest of the fruit to reveal the goopy innards and seeds. Employing my Girl Scout/cave woman foraging skills, I used the torn top of the fruit as a scoop and had my first taste of passion fruit. It was overwhelmingly sweet and syrupy, ending with a sharp note of tartness. I’ve since tried both passion fruit sorbet and greek yogurt, and I think I like it best when mixed with a creamier base to balance the powerful sweet and tart flavors.

The passion fruit maze.

The passion fruit maze.

Biting into that passion fruit was an amazing moment of primitive triumph, and a perfect example of something that I would never have done on my own. Unlike visiting the shuks, which I could and will do whenever I return to Israel, without Birthright I would have never known about The Salad Trail. It highlighted the achievements of Israel without hitting you over the head with the message (look, Zionists transformed this desert land into an arable place), and it was as much about the past of Israel as its future, economically and culturally. Plus, it serves as a wonderful metaphor for self-discovery — taking the initiative to try something new and fresh, and making that experience happen on your own. Although I suppose my metaphor would collapse a bit if I was shorter and had needed someone to pick the passion fruit for me. Regardless, it was personally significant to me as a physical symbol of the growth and renewal I experienced on the trip.

My small symbol of victory.

My small symbol of victory.

And if I could have had some of the items I tried at The Salad Trail on the breakfast buffets, I might have partaken in more traditional Israeli breakfasts. Because, let’s be serious, this all really comes down to me and my need for a proper meal.

Oh, and don’t you worry, my last  post about Israel deals with all the expected fare — shawarma, falafel, ice cream and more. We’ll be back to talking about grease and milk fat before you know it.

The Salad Trail

http://www.salat4u.co.il/?t=PV&L1=8