Brief Bites: Wafels and Dinges Cafe

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(Welcome to the inaugural edition of Brief Bites, in which I attempt to highlight one or two dishes and keep my word count to slightly less than Dostoevsky-levels. We’ll see how it goes.)

My best friend in 3rd grade was a girl named Kathlien, who had moved to Larchmont from Belgium a few years before we met. At that point, I couldn’t have pointed  Belgium out to you on a map, let alone tell you what Belgians ate, but Kathlien and I shared a common love of boxball, Barbies, and eating as many Girl Scout cookies as we sold, so I was basically a shining example of youthful multiculturalism. Eventually her parents’ careers took the family back to Ghent, and Kathlien and I grew up and apart. Perhaps my early brush with Belgian culture left me predisposed to view the country positively, but even now I can’t help but view Belgium with a kind of reverence. After all, this is the nation that lays claim to my favorite kind of beer (Belgian strong ales like Delirium Tremens), amazing waffles, delicious cookies (Biscoff), Godiva chocolate, and freaking french fries. Oh yeah, and they have some neat art and stuff, too (Rubens’ Prometheus Bound, anyone?).

So while this seemingly Willy-Wonka-wonderland of my favorite foods lies far across the vast Atlantic, the best I can do for now is sampling a bit of Belgian bravura at the new brick and mortar location of Wafels and Dinges, down at the bottom of the East Village on 2nd and Avenue B.

 

The Set Up:

A very official plaque establishing Wafels and Dinges as missionaries of the gospel of Belgian desserts.

A very official plaque establishing Wafels and Dinges as missionaries of the gospel of Belgian desserts.

Wafels and Dinges, known for besting Bobby Flay in a Waffle (er, wafel?) Throwdown (the victorious wafel is now on the menu), and for tempting the hearts and stomachs of many a drunken NYU student with their truck parked almost nightly near Astor Place, has been roving NY for over half a decade in cart and truck form. Their first permanent store opened last month, conveniently just a few steps away from the owner Thomas DeGeest’s East Village apartment. The sizable cafe occupies the corner of the block, and the open and airy space features the same tongue-in-cheek whimsy of their portable locations (such as a plaque on the front wall declaring this the “Belgian Ministry of Culinary Affairs: Department of Wafels”). The outer walls are basically all windows that can be opened up to the air, and the interior is decorated in an industrial style that mimics the look of the food trucks — yellow and black painted metal, unfinished steel, antique waffle irons hanging along the walls. A glass-enclosed kitchen/bar area occupies the front half of the store, with a collection of tables and chairs in the back. We happened to visit at the tail end of National Waffle Day (too late to catch the crowning of Mr. and Mrs. Wafel, alas), but the cafe was still decked out in plenty of cute blackboard drawings and taped-up artwork proclaiming wafel devotion. Aside from their food and drink offerings, the Wafels and Dinges cafe sells merchandise and house-endorsed items like speculoos spread, maple syrup, cookies and imported Belgian products.

The inside of the cafe is decked out in the familiar colors of the W&D trucks and carts.

The inside of the cafe is decked out in the familiar colors of the W&D trucks and carts. Note the glass-enclosed kitchen/bar area, where you can watch some wafelcraft in action.

Vibrant displays of dinge devotion next to the Mr. and Mrs. Waffle scorecard.

Vibrant displays of dinge devotion next to the Mr. and Mrs. Waffle scorecard.

 

The Bites:

The Wafels and Dinges cafe offers the same menu as found on their trucks, along with the shakes and sundaes, espresso drinks, and some savory wafels that are exclusive to the store (like the 2nd Street Salmon Special, which is like a bagel and lox platter, only on a waffle). Jacob and I decided to get a wafel (in honor of the holiday), and a milkshake to take advantage of the location’s offerings.

The variety of wafels -- Brussels on top, then Liege, then mini wafelini, and the Quarte and Stroopwafels on the bottom row.

The variety of wafels — Brussels on top, then Liege, then mini wafelini, and the Quarte and Stroopwafels on the bottom row.

 

We selected the Liege Wafel with Nutella and sliced bananas. Wafels and Dinges offers two main types of waffles: the Brussels waffle, which looks more like the familiar dining hall/IHOP model and is rectangular and airy, and the Liege waffle, which is thicker, less uniform in shape, chewier and denser (kinda like if Eggo waffles were artisanally-crafted). After selecting your wafel type, you then get to pick what kind of “dinges”, or toppings (ranging from dulce de leche to plain butter to walnuts), you’d like on your wafel — the first for free, and the rest come at an additional cost.

All hail our Liege, Lord of the nutella and bananas (nothing like a bad feudalism joke).

All hail our Liege, Lord of the Nutella and bananas (everyone loves a bad feudalism joke, right?).

I’ve actually never had the Brussels wafel, since the Liege is just so good. Unsurprisingly, this classic W&D menu item lived up to expectations — just as satisfying as the first one I ordered from the truck. Really, you can’t go wrong with a killer combo like chocolate and bananas. The contrast of the cold, freshly sliced bananas against the warmer smooth Nutella, and the chewy, slightly caramelized wafel made each bite a complex mishmash of temperature and texture. The only improvement would have come from warming the wafel more, or serving it fresh from the iron. Wafels and Dinges makes the wafels in batches that can sit out for a bit, depending on how busy the cafe is. The quality of the wafel is still superb even at room temperature, with strong vanilla and brown sugar flavors present in the batter, but had it arrived piping hot, the Nutella would have melted a bit and helped to bring the dish together more firmly.

Shake creation in action.

Shake creation in action.

We opted to go full-on Belgian for the milkshake, choosing the Spekuloos Shake, which features  W&D’s homemade Spekuloos ice cream mixed with crushed speculoos cookies. It’s served in a glass coated with speculoos spread, and topped with whipped cream, more cookie crumbles and a sprig of mint). For the uninitiated, spekuloos (or speculoos) are a type of spiced Belgian cookies that are traditionally made for the Feast of St. Nicholas around Christmastime, but are today more commonly served on Delta flights, in the form of complimentary packets of Biscoff cookies. Frequently light in color and oval-shaped, speculoos cookies have a similar flavor to gingerbread, but without the earthy intensity of cloves. The rise of the Nutella-like Biscoff spread (speculoos cookies crushed to a peanut butter consistency) has pushed the cookies more into the mainstream spotlight, to the point that Trader Joe’s sells its own version, in both cookie and spread form.

The Spekuloos Shake: an onslaught of sugary spice.

The Spekuloos Shake: an comely onslaught of sugary spice.

This shake is a triple punch of speculoos spice, so you’d better be a serious proponent of cookie butter allure if you opt to order it. Since we were splitting the shake, I didn’t find it too overwhelming, but if it were my sole dessert, I might have found it ultimately a little too one-note. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Biscoff, and the ingredients were all top notch — the fresh creamy ice cream, the sweet spread, and the thick whipped cream — but it was a bit of a sugar bomb. Both Jacob and I felt that the drink was a bit too thin, more milky than truly slurp-able, like a great milkshake should be (at least, if you’re a Fribble lover like me). While I’m not opposed to the idea of speculoos-flavored milk, I think a mix-in or two would have simultaneously made the shake more interesting to drink, and broken up the intensity of the cookie flavoring. Wafels and Dinges actually offers another shake with Spekuloos ice cream and fresh strawberries, and I think having chunks of fruit in the milkshake would better allow the ice cream’s distinct flavor to shine. The mint garnish was also a source of confusion. Visually appealing, the bright green leaves certainly popped against the beige shake and white whipped cream, but once you started actually drinking, the mint seemed a bit out of place — what are you supposed to do with it? Chew small bites in between sips? Maybe it’s a consequence of watching too many episodes of Chopped, but I don’t see the point of inedible garnishes. Especially because I think a mint-speculoos shake sounds like a delicious and more refreshing dessert than the original version we had.

 

The Last Licks:

All in all, the Wafels and Dinges cafe is definitely a destination worth traveling for. Rather than scouring the city for the trucks or carts, you can find all the dessert delights you want at this new location, served daily with a solid dose of whimsy, even when it’s not National Waffle Day. While the milkshake didn’t blow us out of the water, the wafels are consistently superior to any other contenders I’ve encountered, and I’ll be back to try out their savory varieties, and maybe a sundae (the Speculoos Split with caramelized bananas is calling to me). Our server even remembered our names as Jacob and I headed out into the night, thanking us for stopping by, and making me wish I lived just a bit closer and could become a W&D regular. It may not be the most authentic Belgian experience, but until I find myself in Bruges, I’ll think fondly of Kathlien and her home country’s amazing cuisine as I take an extended tour through the Wafels and Dinges menu.

 

Wafels and Dinges

209 East 2nd Street (corner of Avenue B)

http://www.wafelsanddinges.com

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Summer Restaurant Week Lunch: A Sophisticated Treat at Boulud Sud

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I’ve always felt there’s something inherently decadent in a fancy weekday lunch. Maybe it’s a holdover from my childhood, a memory of “take-your-daughter-to-work-days” when my parents would whisk me away from the doldrums of elementary school to the magic and wonder of the Big City. Or maybe it’s the lack of a corporate charge card — even as a working adult the business lunches have been pretty few and far between, special occasions that are to be savored, the rare respite from bag lunches or trips to the corner bodega’s chopped salad bar. During those special lunches I always feel like I’m part of the in-crowd, an exclusive club of diners with larger wallets and looser office rules, allowed to while away the afternoon sipping Chiraz and munching on delicately toasted crostinis.

This past week I had the chance to dip my toes in those elusive waters once again, when my office closed for a full Summer Friday. Instead of reverse commuting to Connecticut, I would actually spend a weekday in Manhattan, and dammit, I was going to take advantage of that. Fortunately, it was also the last day of Summer Restaurant Week, so Jacob, Sarah and I decided to check out the RW lunch deal at Boulud Sud.

 

First Impressions:

The simple and refined entrance to Boulud Sud, a good indication of the decor to come.

The simple and refined entrance to Boulud Sud, a good indication of the decor to come.

Boulud Sud is one piece of Daniel Boulud’s mini empire of restaurants and shops, spanning the globe from his high-end flagship restaurant Daniel in NY, to versions of his more affordable French-inflected restaurants like Cafe Boulud and Bar Boulud, found both in NY and more exotic locales such as London, Singapore, and Beijing. Although all of Boulud’s restaurants are based in his background of French cooking, Boulud Sud is defined by an emphasis on Mediterranean flavors, including a wide range of regional influences from the Riviera to North Africa to Turkey and the Middle East.

Looking through one of the large plate glass windows that make up the front of the restaurant.

Looking through one of the large plate glass windows that make up the front of the restaurant.

I’m lucky enough to have previously dined at Daniel for my mother’s birthday, and even though I was far less pretentiously critical about food back then, I recall being bowled over by the service and the quality of the food. For the most part it was more traditional French cuisine, and so when choosing another Boulud restaurant to visit for RW, I wanted to try to emulate my experience at Jean Georges’ Spice Market and see how Boulud would handle the flavor profiles of non-native cultures. Given my recent trip to Israel and growing appreciation for Mediterranean cuisines, Boulud Sud seemed like an obvious choice.

Boulud Sud is located right off of Lincoln Center, on 64th St between Broadway and Central Park West, and is housed in the same building as two of Boulud’s other endeavors — the casual Bar Boulud and the eat-in/take-out market Epicerie Boulud. These restaurants are also just across the street from Picholine (the high-end restaurant by Terrance Brennan of Artisanal fame) and a location of the Atlantic Grill, making this a bit of a powerhouse corner of the Upper West Side.

The view from the bar into the rest of the dining room, where you can see the regional paintings on the walls.

The view from the bar into the rest of the dining room, where you can see the regional paintings on the walls.

The restaurant’s aesthetic is modern restraint, the outside decorated with a plain sign, a large steel door, and huge plate glass windows that allow lots of sunlight. Inside, Boulud Sud features a soft, cool color palette, heavy on slate grey, chocolate brown, and sunflower yellow, with green-tinted water glasses on the basic wooden table tops. The modern metallic chairs actually reminded me of the types I’d see in the conference rooms at my middle school, oddly inelegant considering the rest of the delicate decor. The dining room itself is relatively small, perhaps due to the conglomeration of 3 restaurants in one building, but this adds a level of intimacy, aided by the soft lighting and softer music, a bit of a respite from the louder soundtracks and lackluster acoustics of some of New York’s other trendy restaurants. The brown and taupe walls are covered with paintings of Mediterranean land and seascapes, except for the majority of the inner side of the restaurant, which is dominated by a huge open kitchen. As commonplace as open kitchens seem to be these days, I admit I still really enjoy a tableside view of chefs in action (maybe it’s my slight addiction to Chopped). There were several times during our lunch that we would stop and try to figure out which dish the chefs were working on, from stirring massive stockpots to food processing the heck out of some yogurt sauce.

Looking back from our table into the large open kitchen of Boulud Sud, which takes up most of the back wall.

Looking back from our table into the large open kitchen of Boulud Sud, which takes up most of the back wall.

 

The Food:

As was discussed in my Peter Luger review, I like to do a bit of research before going to a restaurant. I’ve always been a planner, and I try to avoid making poor decisions based on haste and fluster in the face of an impatient waiter. I leave the spontaneity to new Oreo products and ice cream flavors. Part of the decision to go to Boulud Sud for Restaurant Week was based on the menu on their website, and I also poked around on Google to see if anyone had already reviewed their lunch offerings. Unfortunately, the menu had changed since the beginning of Restaurant Week (which confusingly takes place over a month), and while most of the entree choices were the same, the appetizer and dessert segments of the menu were dramatically different. Perhaps it’s a matter of seasonal/market ingredients, but I was bummed because I had been looking forward to a specific Middle Eastern flatbread appetizer one blogger had raved about. Overall, we still had a great lunch, but it was slightly more improvisational than I had anticipated.

Faced with the unfamiliar menu, I chose the Summer Chicory Salad to start, while Jacob and Sarah picked the Ouzu Cured Salmon. Then Sarah and I both went with the Spiced Lamb Burger as a main, and Jacob got the Za’atar Spiced Merlu. Sarah and I finished our meals with the Chocolate Panna Cotta, and Jacob chose the Housemade Cremes Glacees (Chef’s Daily Ice Cream Selection).

The complimentary olive oil and bread -- way more than your average throwaway bread basket.

The complimentary olive oil and bread — way more than your average throwaway bread basket.

The meal began with complimentary bread and olive oil. The olive oil was clearly of extremely high quality, and was poured table-side into a small saucer with slivers of garlic and rosemary sprigs on the bottom. We were given two types of bread — slices of standard rustic Italian bread baked with olives, and pieces of focaccia that seemed to be topped with oregano and tiny pieces of sun-dried tomatoes. I generally have an aversion to olives (I find the flavor utterly pervasive in dishes), but this bread was so soft and fresh I ended up eating multiple pieces (luckily the olives were relatively few and far between). Focaccia is one of my favorite types of bread, so I took more than my fair share out of our bread basket. Both types of bread had a great, springy chew to them, and they soaked up the oil as we all greedily dunked again and again. Fortunately, our waiter noticed our empty tray almost immediately and promptly asked if we’d like some more (cue impolite nods with crumb-filled mouths). The service at Boulud Sud is quite fast, so before we had even finished our second tray of bread, our appetizers arrived.

My literally bitter/sweet Summer Chicory Salad.

My literally bitter/sweet Summer Chicory Salad.

The Summer Chicory Salad (Capers, Golden Raisins, Red Wine Vinaigrette) was a nice-sized portion, especially when placed next to the Ouzu Salmon, which seemed a little skimpy in comparison. Although I’ve tried New Orleans chicory coffee, I’d actually never encountered the green in the flesh (er leaf, I guess). It turns out chicory looks a lot like arugula, and has a similar peppery, bitter taste. When combined with the radicchio that made up the rest of the roughage, I found the base of the salad a little too bitter for my tastes. Fortunately, the rest of the components served to brighten the dish, from the sweet golden raisins to the thin slices of cheese I would wager was Pecorino. The red wine vinaigrette and the capers were more subtly present, and I thought the small crouton cubes added a nice crunch component while avoiding soaking up too much of the dressing. When I managed to get all the salad’s ingredients into one bite, it was actually a pleasantly floral combination.

The Ouzu Salmon - still not my cup of tea, but pretty to look at.

The Ouzu Cured Salmon – still not my cup of tea, but pretty to look at.

I’m starting to think I should just force myself to like salmon, since I seem to encounter it at nearly every new restaurant I try. My untrained palate couldn’t detect a strong ouzu flavor to the Ouzu Cured Salmon (Whole Wheat Bulgur, Cucumber, Dill Yogurt). If you’re curious, ouzu is an anise-flavored aperitif that is extremely popular in Greece and Cyprus. I’ve never warmed to the taste of anise or anything on the fennel/licorice spectrum (Red Vines only, please), so you would think the combination of salmon and anise would be pretty repugnant to me. Actually, I found the fish very fresh, and fairly similar in flavor to the lox my mother serves alongside the basket of bagels on Sundays. The overall plating of the dish is what impressed me most (in fact, most of the dishes in our meal were very elegantly laid out). The dish came off as bright and summer-y with a great contrast of colors in the bright pink radishes, the orange-ish salmon, and the green dill yogurt and cucumber. I thought the accompaniments shone brightest in this dish — the bulgur had a nicely chewy texture that played off the softer salmon, cucumber and yogurt. The sauce ended up approximating the flavors of the tzatziki spread on my burger, a standout element there as well.

The Spiced Lamb Burger ultimately reminded me of a high quality American take on shawarma.

The Spiced Lamb Burger ultimately reminded me of a high quality American take on shawarma.

Although I had been tempted by the Ratatouille and Hand-rolled Ricotta Cavatelli on the menu, I ultimately had to go with the Spiced Lamb Burger (Harissa, Eggplant, Tzatziki, Sweet Potato Chips) because it received high praise from the review I had read. The burger came served simply on a slate board, with the chips to one side and a small bowl of good ol’ Heinz ketchup on the other. Given the exotic spices included in the dish, the ketchup seemed a bit incongruous, but I guess I can’t really complain given my traditionalist views of hot dog toppings. The Lamb burger was served on an excellent soft brioche bun. I usually lean towards the potato bun for burgers, but unsurprisingly, Boulud Sud uses great bread that held its own as much as it could against the juiciness of the burger and its toppings. I also admired the fact that Boulud Sud recommends a more undercooked lamb burger — most places will suggest cooking the patty to at least fully medium, but at lunch the waiter suggested I go with my usual burger choice, medium rare. The burger arrived fully pink in the middle, the finely ground meat moist and flavorful. Although there was a lot of interplay between the harissa and the tzatziki, I never lost the taste of the lamb in the jumble. Harissa is a hot chili sauce from Tunisia made mainly of piri piri, serrano and other chili peppers, garlic paste, coriander, chili powder, and an oil. In this case the harissa added a little kick to the meat, but I wasn’t put off by the spice, since it was mitigated by the silky eggplant pieces and the cool tzatziki spread placed underneath the patty. The only downside is that all of these spreads and oily eggplant pieces meant the burger eventually started falling apart as I worked my way through it, leading to a fork-and-knife situation by the end of the course. I enjoyed each bite as I went, so I didn’t really mind, but it seems obvious to me that you can’t load down a bun with chili sauce, yogurt, oily eggplant and a burger patty and expect it to really hold together. This was still the best lamb burger I’ve had — putting Bareburger’s dry patty to shame for sure, but overall I prefer other proteins if I’m going to have a burger. A rack of lamb, or a lamb stew captures the succulence of the meat far better. The most disappointing aspect of the dish was the sweet potato chips. Sweet potatoes are one of my all time favorite foods, so I was let down by the lack of distinct sweet potato flavor in the chips — they mostly tasted of the seasoning (maybe za’atar?), and considering the caliber of the vegetables in the appetizers, these chips were really only adequate.

My favorite dish of the meal -- Za'atar Spiced Merlu.

My favorite dish of the meal — Za’atar Spiced Merlu.

While the Lamb Burger had elements of Boulud Sud’s Mediterranean inspiration, the truly distinctive dish I should have gotten was Jacob’s Za’atar Spiced Merlu (Rice Pilaf, Eggplant, Lemon Tahini). The small bites I had of his dish were my favorite of the whole meal, which is crazy considering how impressed I was with my dessert (and dessert in general, frankly). Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend mixing dried herbs, sesame seeds, sumac, and salt. Like Indian curry powders or garam masala, the exact specifics of a za’atar recipe are family secrets that vary from chef to chef and culture to culture — Lebanese za’atar is different from Israeli za’atar, which is different from Jordanian za’atar — although common components are thyme, marjoram, oregano, and sage. The merlu (which Wikipedia suggests is the French term for the white fish hake) sported a thick top crust of the za’atar, to the point where you could easily spot the sesame seeds and reddish tinge from the sumac. The fish was perfectly cooked, flaking off in small slices and serving as a buttery base for all the seasonings. The dish was topped with cilantro, liberally applied to avoid overpowering the entree while still adding another level of complexity, especially working in concert with the brightness of the lemon tahini in accentuating the sesame in the za’atar. The rice pilaf on the bottom was soft, but not goopy, with enough heft to it to combat the tenderness of the other components, from the fattier eggplant to the smooth fish flesh. Overall, it was just a remarkably well seasoned, fresh dish that was distinctive and memorable, standing out above Sarah and my well-executed, if somewhat more familiar Lamb Burger. I think if I went back for the regular menu at Boulud Sud, I would lean towards the seafood dishes, which highlight Boulud’s deftness as a French chef to elevate the bounty of the Mediterranean Sea.

 

The Housemade Ice Creams from left to right: Dulce de Leche, Rose-Marzipan, and Rhubarb Gelatos.

The Housemade Ice Creams from left to right: Dulce de Leche, Rose-Marzipan, and Rhubarb Gelatos.

The desserts suggest that Boulud’s pastry chef is pretty damn deft as well. The ice creams of the day were Rhubarb, Dulce de Leche, and Strawberry Gelato, but we were intrigued by the Rose-Marzipan Gelato mentioned in the Orange Cloud dessert (although I wasn’t particularly interested in the dessert I was curious about how one creates an “orange cloud”), and so asked if we could sub it in for the more mundane strawberry. The restaurant happily complied, although they neglected to tell us this fact until we asked after receiving our check (our waiter was very apologetic afterwards). So while eating, our uninentionally enforced detective work led us to conclude we had indeed been given the Rose-Marzipan, but it did not taste strongly of rose or marzipan. There was the generic sweetness I expect from rosewater, but I was surprised at how muted the almond flavor was, especially considering the recent spate of almond/marzipan desserts I’ve tried where the marzipan nearly punches you in the mouth. The other two gelatos were much more successful — the rhubarb tasted like it had just been plucked from the market, with its trademark tartness. Sweets monster that I am, I loved the dulce de leche, which was achieved the classic powerful sweetness without veering into the cloying quality of some of the newer trendy salted caramel ice creams. Although the plating was not the explosion of artistic flourishes that my panna cotta was, I appreciated the clean lines of the small (but deceptively full) metal cups of gelato, served with a few small sugar cookies baked with pine nuts. The Boulud take on Pignoli cookies tasted less pine-nutty and more just like the powdered sugar on top, but they were a nice complement when paired with the rhubarb gelato.

The Chocolate Panna Cotta -- lovely to look at, even better to eat.

The Chocolate Panna Cotta — lovely to look at, even better to eat.

As I alluded to before, the Chocolate Panna Cotta (Caramel, Raspberry Foam, Chocolate Sorbet) arrived in front of me demanding attention. The plate was splashed with a collection of bright and dark colors, soft and crunchy textures, and a range of flavors from bitter to sugar-overload sweet. The Raspberry Foam’s taste was just as strong as its nearly blood red color — concentrated and very sweet, but in a natural, “Jolly Rancher ain’t got nothing on this” way. I loved dipping the fresh raspberries in the foam to pump up the fruit’s flavor. The cookie crumble spread across the dish reminded me of both Oreo crumbs and the cookie crunchies that split the two layers of a Carvel ice cream cake (obviously, either way, I was in heaven), while the yellow pieces evoked Rice Krispies or petite pieces of Cap’n Crunch. There were also miniature squares of what tasted like a rich caramel blondie — and all this before you even get to the panna cotta or sorbet. The panna cotta was set beautifully, holding its shape as I swiped spoonful after spoonful. It seemed to be made of dark chocolate, its relative mildness only apparent in contrast to the intense bittersweet darkness of the Chocolate Sorbet, which was so dense and rich it seems impossible that it wasn’t made with dairy. This was just a fantastic melange of flavors and textures — you had some acidity from the fruit, intense richness from the panna cotta and the sorbet, some sweetness from the crunchies, and some saltiness from the caramel — overall, it was a multilayered, extremely satisfying dessert, coming as a bit of a surprise considering the relatively mundane description.

 

Final Thoughts:

While I would say on the whole my meal at Spice Market was a more exciting culinary adventure, my Restaurant Week lunch at Boulud Sud was in no way less memorable. It was exciting to dabble in a world of leisurely weekday repasts, to people-watch the upscale tourists and NY natives murmur over the soft jazz and elegantly plated fare. The food was excellently executed and well-seasoned (I might give more of a rave if I had ordered the merlu myself), if not as daring as I had initially expected, but I think I’d like to explore the rest of Boulud Sud’s regular menu on another visit, maybe even for dinner.

As I stumble my way through my mid-twenties, one of the things that has become increasingly clear to me is the importance of the ritual. The memories of those special city lunches with my parents held aloft in my mind linger because they were a break from the routine, something my classmates didn’t get to experience — a secret shared by only a select few. I’m grateful to have discovered that that magical quality remains as you get older — it’s just a matter of savoring those less common opportunities. My lunch at Boulud Sud was a prime example of this — surrounded by friends, playing sanctioned hooky, it seemed like an embarrassment of riches. So if you have the chance to escape the office for some noontime noshing, I’d suggest giving Boulud Sud a try. Its relaxing, classic environment, attentive service, and comfortably transcultural fare present a lovely meal, while also allowing you to relish having the opportunity in the first place.

Boulud Sud

20 W 64th St (Between Broadway and Central Park West)

http://www.bouludsud.com

Vox Populi: Spuds 2.0 Unveiled at Shake Shack

Although the title implies I’m going to be talking about Shake Shack, I promise that no hamburgers were consumed in the making of this post. After my killer dinner at Peter Luger, I’m letting the dust settle a bit before breaking into beef again. If you’re really curious, I do like the Shackburger, but this time around we’re going to focus on some of the lesser known elements of the menu.

If you haven’t heard, Danny Meyer recently admitted a gap in the Shake Shack menu, a crack in the metaphorical frozen custard concrete of the brand. Granted, he only admitted that flaw by immediately offering a new solution, but who would expect any less from the Sultan of Shack?

The issue: the Shack’s french fries, a quintessential part of any fast food meal, and a topic of some controversy in the food blogosphere. Prominent food writers like Ed Levine of Serious Eats had bemoaned the Shack’s cooked-from-frozen crinkle cuts, limp and generic in the face of Meyer’s ethos of heightening fast food with fresh ingredients and quality service. Personally, I’d never given much thought to the fries at Shake Shack. I’m actually pretty ambivalent about the restaurant on the whole — I know both people who actively dislike it, and some diehard fans who rack up multiple visits in a week. I can vouch that I’ve never had a bad meal there, but I’ve probably only been a handful of times since they opened their first shop in 2004. Casting a more contemplative eye towards the fries, however, I do tend to agree with the critics. As a potato enthusiast, I liked the old Shack fries because of a certain level of nostalgia (they reminded me of the Ore-Ida frozen fries my parents would occasionally serve as a dinner treat), but the truth is that they were substandard given the care put into the rest of the dishes Shake Shack offers. Yes, the crinkle cut fries had merit, since frying from frozen guarantees a consistent level of quality. But it also means that the flavor potential is capped — you’re never going to achieve the freshness you’d get from newly cut potatoes straight out of the fryer.

And so, 9 years after opening, Shake Shack admitted that they really had been listening. As they proudly announced on their website (http://www.shakeshack.com/2013/08/06/fresh-cut-fries-debut-at-ues-shake-shack/), they are, as of last week, serving fresh cut, never frozen, skin-on fries. It was revealed that the Upper East Side location served as the test kitchen, the staff spending countless hours training before opening each day. Right now you can only get the new fries at the UES branch, leaving a strange potato-paradox of past and present iterations coexisting in Manhattan, the crinkle and the fresh-cut fries simultaneously available with only a cross-town bus ride between them.

As it happens, despite living on the UES for 3 years, I’d actually never been to the Shake Shack up by me (I’ve visited their Upper West, Times Square, and Madison Square Park locations), so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to check out my local shop and be overly judgmental about some side dishes.

 

First Impressions:

The familiar logo at the entrance to the UES Shake Shack.

The familiar logo at the entrance to the Upper East Side Shake Shack.

The UES Shake Shack is on 86th Street between 3rd and Lex, so it’s nearly impossible to avoid walking by unless you’re a hermit who never leaves the neighborhood. The entrance features the familiar prominent plate glass windows, metallic lettering, and green neon fixtures of the rest of the chain’s locations. The restaurant itself is below street level, along with the outdoor plaza next door, which is technically open to the public but seems pretty much exclusively used by Shake Shack customers. Inside you’re greeted with the same pseudo-industrial aesthetic I noticed at BurgerFi — plain planks of wood siding and tables, green plastic chairs, and cool metal surfaces.

Looking down into the public plaza that also serves as an outdoor dining  area.

Looking down into the public plaza that also serves as an outdoor dining area.

The restaurant was in full-on fry propaganda mode. Outside, the windows had signs announcing “fresh cuts,” and the normal burger-shaped neon sign had been swapped for a new icon displaying a cup of fries. Inside, all of the employees were decked out in brand new green shirts with the same fry-cup design, topped with the caption “We Heard.” The Specials chalkboard near the menu featured the following message (note the hashtag), and there were announcement flyers detailing the new fries prominently displayed near the registers.

Did we mention we have new french fries?

I’m not sure if you knew, but Shake Shack has new fries.

No seriously, they're brand new.

No seriously, they’re brand new. But they’re keeping it kind of on the DL, hush-hush, you know?

I figured that as long as I was being adventurous, I might as well take a chance on Shake Shack’s vegetarian option, the ‘Shroom Burger, to make sure I ingest as many fried foods in one sitting as possible. Luckily, Jacob was there to split my order of fries, and he also opted for a non-hamburger item, choosing the Chicken Dog with Shack-Cago style fixings. Post meal, because somehow we weren’t totally stuffed, we also split a Single Concrete of Vanilla/Chocolate swirl with Chocolate Truffle Cookie Dough.

 

The Food:

Our overflowing tray of the new fries -- golden-brown, crispy, and a major improvement.

Our overflowing tray of the new fries — golden-brown, crispy, and a major improvement.

First things, first — the fries. In my review of BurgerFi, the french fries ended up being the standout dish of the meal — my preferred medium-cut with good crisp and a bit of skin still on. Shake Shack’s new fries are very much of the same spirit, except thinner-cut. They completely lived up to the advertising copy — thin, starchy, salty, with obvious skin on at least one side of each fry, and a discernibly fresh potato flavor. None of the fries were limp or soggy, nor did I find any blackened burnt sticks, an impressive feat given the relative inexperience of the kitchen. Our generous portion seemed to be the norm as I watched other orders being filled, and because the fries are now thinner, I think it’s better bang for your buck than the chunkier old crinkle-cuts. Overall, I was impressed by the consistency of the fries, and the streamlined service the staff at Shake Shack had already conformed to — they had upwards of 5 people working the fry line during my visit (only a few days after initiating Operation: New Fries). It’s definitely a positive change for Shake Shack, especially because it’s more in line with their ethos of conscious fast food.

The fry line in action -- there are at least three people farther down the row working the friers.

The fry line in action — there are at least three people farther down the row working the friers.

The 'Shroom Burger, a vegetarian, if not exactly "lighter" option at Shake Shack.

The ‘Shroom Burger, a vegetarian, if not exactly “lighter” option at Shake Shack.

Unfortunately, I think there is still room for improvement in the vegetarian section of their menu. The ‘Shroom Burger (Crisp-fried portobello mushroom filled with melted muenster and cheddar cheese, topped with lettuce, tomato and ShackSauce) came out looking like a thick hockey-puck of crispy fried breading, like someone had tried to surreptitiously replace a beef patty with a monstrous mozzarella stick (on second thought, that doesn’t sound half bad). Although it plainly states on the menu that it’s a fried mushroom, in my head I had just skipped over that fact, imaging a vegetarian take on a Midwestern Juicy Lucy (a burger stuffed with cheese) with the portobello meat as the main attraction. The ‘Shroom comes with the same fixins’ as a regular Shackburger, and I while found the trademark Shacksauce paired well with the salty layer of fried crust,  I felt the sauce’s tanginess clashed with the mushroom flesh once I made it deeper into the patty.

Biting into the 'Shroom Burger, you're met with a oozing onslaught of hot cheese. Delicious, but slightly dangerous .

Biting into the ‘Shroom Burger, you’re met with a oozing onslaught of hot cheese. Delicious, but slightly dangerous .

As Jacob had warned, biting into the fried ball yielded a cascade of gooey molten cheese, so proceed with caution lest you burn your tongue. The muenster and cheddar were a great combination — once I was past the middle of the patty, and had mostly leftover cheese and naked mushroom flesh, that’s when I thought the dish really succeeded, with a strong flavor from the portobello shining through. Ultimately, I found the breading merely a distraction from the merits of the burger, unnecessary especially considering the lovely potato bun that Shake Shack uses for its sandwiches. The breading was salty and overwhelming, distracting from the inherent umami combination of the mushroom, tomato, and cheeses. I’d rather Shake Shack take their Shackburger and just sub the beef for a couple portobello caps, or even make a ground up mushroom burger and stuff that with cheese, rather than hiding the pleasure of flavorful fungi behind a mask of crowd-pleasing battered breading.

The Chicken Sausage Dog, piled high with all the Shack-Cago trimmings.

The Chicken Sausage Dog, piled high with all the Shack-Cago trimmings.

Jacob seemed to enjoy his Chicken Sausage Dog (Shake Shack chicken, apple and sage sausage), which was topped with the Shack-cago Dog fixings (Rick’s Picks Shack relish, onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper, celery salt and mustard). I thought the sausage itself was great — don’t expect it to taste like a hot dog, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the interplay of the sweet apple and the earthy, herbal sage. I found the toppings to be a bit overwhelming, however. Maybe I’m just a fuddy-duddy when it comes to hot dogs — gimme some ketchup, maybe some mustard, and I’m all set. Here I was disappointed by how the pickles and celery salt overpowered the subtle sausage flavors with their intense vinegar bent.

Our swirled Vanilla/Chocolate Concrete with Chocolate Truffle Dough. Take that, Dixie Cup!

Chocolate custard with dark chocolate truffle pieces — proof positive you can never have too much chocolate.

I feel like I barely have to give a review of the Concrete, because most of the time I find Maggie + ice cream = immense satisfaction, and this is just another proof of the validity of that equation. But I do think I should mention that while BurgerFi wins the french fry race in my heart (because of their slightly thicker-cut fries), Shake Shack has a lock on the frozen custard competition. Both the vanilla and the chocolate flavors were smoothy, creamy, and tasted exactly like what they claimed to be (some might think this would be obvious, but some frozen dessert shops, like Tasti D-Lite, offer vanilla and chocolate flavors that are somewhat different, but definitely don’t taste like a chocolate bar or a vanilla bean. It’s more of a “flavor A” or “flavor B” scenario). The texture of Shake Shack’s custard is somewhere between Mr. Softee’s soft-serve and Rita’s frozen custard. The Chocolate Truffle Cookie Dough was misleading, because it seemed just like small chunks of chocolate truffles (I’m pretty sure truffles aren’t baked anyway, so using the term dough seems unnecessary), but regardless of nomenclature, they were delicious —  rich, dense, dark chocolate, just chewy enough to linger on your tongue as the custard melted away. My only complaint is that the truffle pieces were few and far between — I could have doubled down on those truffles, easy-as-pie (or custard, I suppose).

 

Final Thoughts:

Shake Shack’s empire is expanding exponentially these days, with new locations popping up both around the country (Washington DC and Boston this summer, Las Vegas in 2014), and around the world (London and Istanbul in just the past few months). With all of this growth, it’s gratifying to see that the company is still looking for new ways to improve their offerings. It still makes a difference what people are saying about their food, beyond focus groups and market tests. Will these french fries ever win a worldwide competition? Hardly — you’re better off checking our Pommes Frites down in the East Village if you want some hardcore fry action. But if you’re in Shake Shack, contemplating your options, pick up a side order — they’ll put Mickey D’s fries to shame.

I don’t doubt that once Shake Shack rolls out these new fries to all their locations, there will hardly be the same level of quality assurance. But the initial impulse comes from the right place. Yes, this is a fast food chain, yes, it’s a corporate monolith (although not faceless like McDonalds, thanks to Danny Meyer), and yes, there may even be a bit of disappointing discarding of principles in the face of business decisions (such as Chipotle’s new investigation into using antibiotic-treated meat). But for now, as Shake Shack is so proudly shouting out to the world, what the people want, the people will get. Maybe if we use our mouths as more than hamburger-receptacles,  it could lead to more changes, like a few more vegetarian options on the  menu. Danny Meyer’s aiming to empower, so  speak up, the Shack‘s all ears.

Shake Shack

(Multiple locations, new fries only at 154 E. 86th St)

http://www.shakeshack.com/

A New York Steak of Mind: Peter Luger Steakhouse

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Growing up just outside of the City in Westchester County, you would think my childhood was simply brimming with classic New York experiences. And while yes, I was lucky enough to see Broadway shows multiple times a year, chilled with the dinos at the Natural History Museum like it was my part-time job, and rode the Circle Line with my 3rd grade class, I missed out on many “typical” New York activities because they seemed cliche, touristy, and lame to a blase teenaged local. Even now, having come back to actually live in Manhattan post-college, there are still certain items left unchecked on my city to-do list, simply because of the way they make the native New Yorker hairs on the back of my neck rise (we’re not going to even engage in the from the city/from the suburbs who’s a native debate here — I’m at least a New York Stater by birth).

One of the crucial things you learn as you grow up, however, is that sometimes doing the “lame” or “touristy” thing is worthwhile. For every double-decker-open-air bus tour of Chinatown, there’s a mainstream experience that is popular because it’s actually pretty effing fantastic. Sometimes the hype is actually not hype at all, but merely an abundance of exuberance that should be heeded. And thankfully, there are still a few long-time New York institutions like Peter Luger Steakhouse to slap some starry-eyed sense into this skeptical New Yorker. Nothing like a healthy dose of history (and cholesterol-raising meat) to give a jaded girl a little bit of wonder.

I’ve talked about New York dining institutions before, but Peter Luger is in a different category. The restaurant was established not in the 21st nor 20th centuries, but way back in 1887 in then-predominantly-German neighborhood of Williamsburg (to this day mere blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge). It has been awarded one Michelin Star, was named to the James Beard Foundation’s list of “American Classics,” and was named the best steakhouse in New York by Zagat 28 years in a row (a fact they proudly showcase by lining a wall with the annual award plaques). It is the kind of place that is so popular, they can operate on a cash-only policy. Let me repeat that — a cash only policy. At a steakhouse. Well, to be honest they do honor one credit card — the Peter Luger Card. When I first heard about this, I was pretty skeptical. It sounded absurd, overblown, the kind of place that preys on poor schmucks who go to New York and think that they’re having a real authentic slice of pizza at a random “Original Ray’s.” But even before I knew of all the history and accolades, I had been told by multiple sources over and over that Peter Luger was a must-visit, a unique and extraordinary experience if you liked steak at all. So I tried to stay open-minded, paid a visit to an ATM, and made my way with a group of friends to Williamsburg last Friday night.

 

First Impressions:

The unobtrusive, classic brick facade of Peter Luger Steakhouse.

The unobtrusive, classic brick facade of Peter Luger Steakhouse, a legend looming large on the corner.

 

Because of its enduring popularity, my friend Peter was only able to score a reservation for 6 at 9:45pm, presumably the last seating of the night. Consequently, everything around Peter Luger was closed, and lent the restaurant a sort of “shining beacon” quality (this might have also been due to my intense hunger — I operate more on the early-bird special schedule than the Continental late night dining scene). Peter Luger sits squarely on the corner of its block, the decor traditional and old-fashioned both outside and in. Outside the worn dark wooden signage announces just “Peter Luger” — no mention of what kind of cuisine waits inside — above plain brick and large metal paned windows.

One of the dining rooms in Peter Luger -- plain furnishings except for some whimsical beer steins.

One of the dining rooms in Peter Luger — plain furnishings except for some whimsical beer steins.

Inside, I was immediately reminded of the German beer halls I’ve recently visited, except that here the design is based in the restaurant’s origin, rather than an appeal to a foreign cultural aesthetic. Once you step into Peter Luger you are met with oak floors, a long wooden bar, dark wood paneling and exposed crossbeams bracing white stucco walls. The impression of basic utilitarian necessity, clean but spare reigns supreme — brass chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and plain wooden tables and chairs make up the dining rooms. No tablecloths, no fancy schmancy place settings, no piped in music, and no paintings or posters. The only purely decorative objects were the series of beer steins of different colors and styles that were displayed along the dining room walls.

Even with our late reservation, the bar area was still packed with waiting parties when we arrived, so we milled around waiting to be seated and watched the staff rush from the kitchen to the three dining rooms with plates and plates of outrageously over-portioned food. Clearly this place was expensive, but you get a lot of bang for your buck. Watching the service in action, I couldn’t help but notice that all of the staff seemed to be men in their mid-40s, all dressed in the same suit of plain black pants, white shirts, and aprons, another slightly jarring sign of PL’s old-fashioned approach. Barely ten minutes later the crowds had thinned and our party was called to be seated (in fact, this was an accurate representation of the speed and quality of service — we were in and out of Peter Luger, and left very satisfied, I might add, in a little over an hour).

Sitting down to a table not so far removed from the Ikea dining set I have in my apartment (although PL’s probably has and will endure far longer than mine), we found plain white napkins, plain starter plates, stainless steel silverware and small water glasses. Oh, and a basket piled high with all different types of bread, which our waiter, a gruff but polite and attendant middle-aged man, refilled steadily until our steaks arrived.

 

The Food:

Our bountiful bread basket.

Our bountiful bread basket, with a gravy boat of Peter Luger‘s House Sauce on the right.

Our complimentary bread basket was filled with Parker House-like rolls, slightly charred at the edges, and a onion rolls speckled with salt and garlic and featuring slices of caramelized onion inside. I preferred the onion bread, although both rolls were well salted, chewy and soft. The only improvement would have been adding more onion to the inside of the rolls, to moisten the interior a bit. Alongside the basket were twin gravy boats of PL’s house steak sauce, a tomato-based, tangy condiment that reminded me of a less aggressive cocktail sauce. I tried the house sauce on nearly everything, and found, somewhat surprisingly, it pretty much compliments the menu. Peter’s girlfriend Carol (a pescetarian) even dressed her mixed green salad with it, over the blue cheese dressing she had initially chosen.

The menu at Peter Luger is as laconic as its wait staff — a bit unforgiving in the modern scene of endless options and descriptors (Grass-fed lamb shanks with rosemary clippings, chive blossoms, with a Swiss mint gelee, etc etc). Instead, you’re faced with a remarkably simple set of choices. Choose some appetizers. Choose some sides. You want steak? Choose how many people you want steak for, your options ranging from “Single Steak” to “Steak for Four,” with no elaboration on the preparation, cut, or how it is served (I guess in 1887, the idea of the empowered diner did not exist). Fortunately, most of us had done some level of research beforehand, and Diana had read that the best strategy was to get steak for (n-1), with n = the number of meateaters dining. So for our five carnivores, we would get enough steak for four people. But here’s the catch — there’s a difference between all those Steak for X entrees — what is not stated on the menu is that those are all different cuts of beef. My research had uncovered that PL’s  best cut was their Steak for Two, the Porterhouse, whereas the Steak for Four is a T-bone. We opted for two orders of the famous Steak for Two, five orders of the similarly famous bacon (offered by the single slice, and a must-try according to everyone I talked to), two orders of French Fries for Two, two orders of Onion Rings for Two, and some creamed spinach. Go big or go home, folks.

Bacon worth breaking the rules for.

Bacon worth breaking the rules for.

The bacon was the first to arrive, served as an appetizer. Now those who know me might be wondering why I ordered bacon in the first place. All through my childhood I operated under the premise that my family did not eat bacon in observance of kosher law (never mind our hypocritical love of crab crakes and beer-boiled shrimp), so I avoided any and all pork products I came across. Sometime during college my illusions were shattered when my father ordered a side of bacon at brunch, and since then, while I continue to avoid seeking out pork-based dishes (no carnitas for me), I don’t have a problem ordering a Cobb salad or a chowder with bacon in the broth. It’s hard to say no to a restaurant’s signature dish, however, so I was resigned to try Peter Luger’s bacon and see if it could win over a porcine-averse palate.

Peter Luger offers their bacon in single slice servings, which are doled out onto each plate by the waiter. Bacon-ignorant as I am, I could only guess that Peter Luger’s version is closer to the Canadian Bacon patties I’ve seen in Eggs Benedict than the thin crispy pieces on typical diner breakfast plates. The pink slice was thick, with a dark edge and lighter interior, and dwarfed my small bread-and-butter plate in length (it was probably the length of a standard oval seving dish). I tentatively cut into it, speared a bite, and suddenly understood our collective fascination with bacon.  The meat was simultaneously salty, savory, and unctuous. It was totally addictive, probably due to how how the fat content was — as Diana astutely pointed out, a cross section of the bacon revealed a small pink center bookended by delicious deposits of fat. Of course, the bacon was equally delicious dipped into the House Sauce, the sweet tang of the sauce complementing the sharp, salty meat. I’m not sure I could have had more than the one slice I got (especially considering the bounty of beef to come), but it was well worth breaking my person food rules. In what will become a common refrain in this post — listen to the hoi polloi when it comes to Peter Luger — the popular opinion knows what it’s talking about.

The steak, slightly elevated by smaller plates, mid-service.

The Steak for Two, slightly elevated by smaller plates, mid-service.

Only a few minutes after our somewhat-inappropriate bacon-induced moans of pleasure had subsided, our waiter was back, briskly removing our starter plates and replacing them with full sized dinner plates and a new set of silverware, including intimidating steak knives. Then, the main course service began. It’s a bit of a production, with multiple waiters assaulting the table with large portions of food in a precise, efficient display of well-honed showmanship. Although far from the highly-choreographed synchronized serving in high-end restaurants like Daniel, there is still a level of theatricality to the exodus of steak from the Peter Luger kitchen to each table. When our waiter brought out the bacon, he had inexplicably placed two bread-and-butter plates upside down in the middle of the table. As our steaks arrived their purpose became clear — the platters of meat are placed with one end resting on the butter plate, so the platter tilts, allowing the juices to drain down to the other end, which are then spooned back onto the steak, effectively pan-basting the meat table-side.

 

The hand-served elements of our meal, from left to right: creamed spinach, potato hash, steak.

The hand-served elements of our meal, from left to right: creamed spinach, potato hash, steak.

The porterhouses come pre-sliced, with some meat still left on the bone. Each diner is served a couple steaming pieces of the steak by one waiter, while another spoons out the creamed spinach, and a third serves the potato hash (which we didn’t know came with the steak, another insider tip that probably would have led us to opt out of the fries). The rest of the sides were served on platters, family style, in large heaping mounds. The general consensus was that at Peter Luger, the descriptive phrase “for two” implies two adults roughly equal in size to Shaq.

 

Classic steak fries -- my favorite kind.

Classic steak fries — my favorite kind.

The enormous pile of onion rings -- if a Bloomin Onion and calamari had a baby, it would taste like this.

The enormous pile of onion rings — if a Bloomin’ Onion and calamari had a baby, it would taste like this.

The creamed spinach was definitely heavy on the cream, almost the consistency of a Indian saag dish. My first bite was smooth and flavorful, but the spinach wore on me in the face of all of the fried foods and rich pieces of steak. I much preferred the fries and onion rings (what? it’s not like creamed spinach is really a “healthy choice” here). The fries were my favorite variety — thick cut steak fries, with excellent crisp on the outside and a soft starchy center. The onion rings were by far my favorite side, as evidenced by the hefty amount of damage I unleashed on the plate on my half of the table. I generally find that onion rings suffer from too many potential weaknesses, from the type of breading used to the thickness of the onion slice. But these were like the shoestring fries equivalent of onion rings, as if someone had sliced through a Bloomin’ Onion to the thinnest degree and piled it high. The thin slivers of onion were lightly fried, crunchy and crispy and well-salted to provide a contrast to the meat.

A view of the carnage mid-meal.

A view of the carnage mid-meal.

Speaking of, let’s turn our focus away from the hanger-ons and pan over to the star of the show, the Steak for Two. Even days later, it’s hard for me to articulate how delicious this piece of meat was. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve become a part-time vegetarian these days, and even before then I’d generally opt for duck or lamb over a steak, but when I bit into the porterhouse at Peter Luger, I suddenly remembered why I’ve never turned in my carnivore card. This was, hands down, legitimately one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten — it was perfectly medium rare, with a vibrant pink center, and dripping with juice as you cut into it. The first bite released an explosion of earthy, funky beef flavor with great crust on the outside, tender as you chewed, and slowly melting on your tongue to linger as a smooth, naturally umami aftertaste.

 

Bowls of shlag on a nearby table, waiting to be served.

Bowls of shlag on a nearby table, waiting to be served.

Although Serious Eats has named Peter Luger as having one of the best hot fudge sundaes in NYC (slightly dubious since they use Haagen Daz ice cream), we were way too full to test that claim. However, over the course of our entire meal we had seen waiters walk by with heaping bowls of whipped cream (referred to as “schlag”) as topping for the various desserts. As a lifelong whipped cream fanatic (I’ll choose it over frosting any day), I jokingly said we should ask our waiter if we could just get a bowl of schlag for dessert. Peter seized on my idea, and as soon as our waiter appeared to clear the table, Peter asked him if that was possible, literally inquiring as to if they would accommodate us, maybe for a little extra  (like $3 or something). Without a saying a word, our waiter just disappeared back into the kitchen, the doors barely swinging closed before he emerged with a full bowl of shlag exclusively for our table. While the bowl had only one spoon with it, it was served alongside PL’s signature parting gift, a bunch of chocolate coins (it’s Chanukah in August!), which served as excellent vehicles to shove the shlag into our mouths (I did eventually ask for more spoons). The shlag was heavenly — real whipped heavy cream, instead of the pressurized Reddiwhip. It was thick and slightly sweet with a faint vanilla flavoring. I would honestly go back just to get the chance to have more shlag. It was a truly decadent way to end an absurdly indulgent evening.

A bowl of shlag to call our own, with Peter Luger gelt for dipping!

A bowl of shlag to call our own, with Peter Luger gelt for dipping!

Final Thoughts:

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There are countless movies and TV shows featuring an awestruck out-of-towner “discovering” New York, marveling at the tall buildings, boating on the lake in Central Park, and spinning around Times Square, overwhelmed by the glitz and glamour. Unfortunately, it’s hard to live day-to-day in this city and not start to notice the grime coating those bright lights. Between the homeless people, the piles of garbage, and the way the streets smell faintly of urine in the summer — it can be hard to keep the magic of the Big Apple in mind, especially when something just dripped on you and there’s not a cloud in the sky.

But sometimes the City finds a way to rub some more of that metropolitan sparkle into your eyes, finds a way to remind you of the collision of history, cultures, and sheer humanity that makes up New York. The fact that within a week I can eat at both the trendy, multicultural Spice Market and the traditional, fuhgeddaboudit, historic landmark Peter Luger Steakhouse is a testament to the endless possibilities of life in New York. My dinner at Peter Luger was a great wake-up call, a classically New York experience — this is how we do things, and you can like it or leave it. Well, like most of the diners at Peter Luger, I really, really liked it. From porterhouse-pros to those less beef-inclined, everyone should check it out, and at least put those Zagat claims to the test. Get a taste of history, get a bit of a New York attitude purer than that at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and for the love of God, get a bowl of shlag. Trust me — I’m from around here.

 

Peter Luger Steakhouse

178 Broadway (at Driggs Ave)

peterluger.com

Restaurant Week at Spice Market: Eastern Quotidian by Highly Trained Hands

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I’ve always been fascinated by fusion restaurants. They take a big risk by combining disparate cuisines, since it’s pretty easy to end up simply highlighting the worst parts of your original food cultures. Fusion is also one of those trends that many argue has been overdone, nearly guaranteeing a raised eyebrow if not a full-on eye-roll when you mention the hottest new fusion spot — oh right, we really needed someone to mash together Ethiopian and Ecuadorian food. (Wait, does that exist?)

I know that poorly executed fusion restaurants are out there, but I’ve yet to encounter one that truly disappointed me. I spent a number of birthday dinners in high school at Ruby Foo’s in Times Square, marveling at their takes on Chinese food made with a quarter of the grease used by my local takeout place. I even liked the few times I went to Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, first in Tampa, and later in Philadelphia. I’d never had Hawaiian food before, and I thought the Asian twist (logical, I suppose, given the geography and cultural heritage of Hawaii) worked as a great entry point into Hawaiian ingredients and preparations. I’ve been eager to try more traditional Hawaiian food since then (maybe even spam fried rice?), so if anyone has a recommendation for a spot in New York, I’d be very grateful.

When Summer Restaurant Week 2013 rolled around, I already had my eye on visiting one of Jean Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants. The man is a legend in the New York and world food scene, and what’s the point of Restaurant Week if not to briefly make reachable to the plebeian masses the haute cuisine of the upper crust? However, part of what made my Winter Restaurant Week meal at Kutsher’s Tribeca so satisfying was the way they reinvented familiar dishes (reuben spring rolls, anyone?), so rather than pick the more conventional Nougatine, I thought Vongerichten’s Spice Market might prove a more thrilling culinary adventure. And lucky for Jacob, his cousin Carolyn, and I, our Restaurant Week supper there last Sunday was exactly that.

 

First Impressions:

The modest exterior of Spice Market belies its intricately designed interior.

The modest exterior of Spice Market belies its intricately designed interior.

Spice Market is located in the heart of the Meatpacking District, caddy-corner to the Gansevoort Hotel. Walking up to the restaurant, I realized I had passed it a number of times, but never connected the space with the name. This is in part because of how unassuming the outside of Spice Market is — it’s housed in one of those nondescript Meatpacking former warehouses, built mainly of brick and wrought iron.

I'm pretty sure every multilevel restaurant needs to add a tower at the top of their staircase.

I’m pretty sure every multilevel restaurant needs to add a tower at the top of their staircase.

The interior, however, is a completely different story. Inspired by his experiences traveling through Asia, the aim of Spice Market is to apply classical French cooking techniques to popular Asian street food. The decor focuses mainly on this Eastern influence, blurring the lines between chic temple, nightclub, and opium den. The space is dominated by dark wood, vaulted ceilings, and Asian architectural features, from the multilevel, narrow staircase topped by what appears to be a bell tower (actually holding a lamp inside), to the draping of dark red and orange curtains all around, to the intricate wood carving that encloses the bar. The staff is dressed head-to-toe in orange Buddhist-esque robes, except for the white-and-orange-decked busboys (and the general manager, who wore a suit). Asian lanterns lend a soft glow to everything (hence my fuzzy photos), but at the same time you have the familiar exposed ceilings and pulsing music, leaving behind a zen setting for the louder tenor of the NY dining scene.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

 

I was first to arrive, so I made my way over to the bar and ordered a cocktail. Spice Market has a full bar with domestic and Indian beers and a variety of speciality drinks, created using housemade syrups and sodas. After conferring with the bartender, I went with the Passion Fruit Sangria (Gewurztraminer, Gran Gala, Blackberry, Orange). Jacob and Carolyn arrived soon after, and chose the Whiskey Passion Fizz (George Dickel No. 12, Passion Fruit, Chili, Ginger Ale) and Cucumber Chill (Dill-infused Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Cucumber, Lemon), respectively. I found my sangria light and refreshing (I’m obviously an ardent fan of the drink in general — Calle Ocho, anyone?), the white wine laying a more delicate base, and the Gran Gala (an orange liquer) mixing smoothly with the fruit components. The passion fruit itself wasn’t particularly prominent, aside from lending an overall tropical flair. I’d recommend it as a great drink for brunch, if you’re in the mood for something fun and fruity.

My Passion Fruit Sangria on the right, and Jacob's Whiskey Passion Fizz on the left. You can see a small glimpse of our orange-bedecked bartender in the background.

My Passion Fruit Sangria on the right, and Jacob’s Whiskey Passion Fizz on the left. You can see a small glimpse of our orange-bedecked bartender in the background.

Jacob’s Whiskey Passion Fizz had more of a kick to it than I expected (both in spice and strength), but I enjoyed it despite a dislike of both ginger ale and whiskey. Carolyn’s was my least favorite drink, although she was happy she picked it. She said it tasted like a pickle, which immediately made me wary, but when I took a sip I found it lacked the harsh vinegar quality I dislike so much, coming off more like cucumber water with a bit of a kick, with no real flavor of vodka at all. But let’s stop dilly-dallying with discussions of alcohol — the main attraction awaits.

The Food:

We were seated shortly after our set reservation time, and in general the staff was fairly attentive. Our waiter was happy to answer any and all of our questions at first, but he only appeared a few times to take our orders and check in at the entree stage. However, I saw the general manager walking around multiple times throughout the evening, scanning the floor and checking with tables, even adjusting a place setting once to make sure everything was aligned and straight. The food itself came very quickly, served family-style so that at one point we were almost overwhelmed by the influx of dishes. I was also happy to note the frequent refilling of our water glasses, a pet peeve of mine that pettily can strongly influence my overall impression of a meal.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Our meal started with a complimentary bowl of pappadum-type lentil crackers. I found the pappadums at most Indian restaurants to be either too bland and soft, or too burnt and smoky, but these were a different breed altogether. They were like lentil tortilla chips, thicker and crunchier, and more capable of scooping up the hot tomato chutney they were served with.

Both Jacob and I opted for the Restaurant Week menu, but Carolyn was more interested in Spice Market’s regular offerings. At first I was concerned, since some restaurants make everyone at the table opt into the RW menu if any diner chooses it, but our waiter quickly confirmed that Carolyn was fine ordering a la carte.

Carolyn chose the Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings and the Spicy Thai Slaw to start, and then the Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu as her entree. Jacob selected the Salmon Sashimi, followed by the Kimchi Fried Rice, and I ordered the Spiced Shrimp Broth, followed by the Wok Charred Daikon Cake. We all split two of the Restaurant Week desserts: the Black Sesame Cake and the Malted Chocolate Parfait.

The Spicy Thai Slaw Salad: not so spicy, but a refreshing way to start a meal.

The Spicy Thai Slaw Salad: not so spicy, but a refreshing way to start a meal.

The appetizers came out in a steady stream, starting with Carolyn’s salad. The Spicy Thai Slaw (with Asian pear, crispy shallots, and mint) was one of my favorite dishes of the night. A refreshing shredded cabbage salad, it had just a hint of heat that was balanced by the coolness of the mint and the sweetness of the Asian pear (similar in flavor to a mild apple). The crunch of the cabbage and the crispy shallots kept it interesting texturally, although by the time you reached the bottom of the bowl the salad was a little soggy from all of the pooled dressing.

Spicy Thai Chicken Wings -- these aren't kidding on the spice, but they'll put up a good fight against Buffalo Wild Wings.

Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings — these aren’t kidding on the spice, and they’ll put up a good fight against Buffalo Wild Wings.

The Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings (with sliced mango and mint) lived up to their name a little more. I’ve never been into wings, so this dish didn’t impress me all that much, but even as an outsider observer I could tell that the breading was truly crispy, and the meat was very tender and juicy. Much like the inclusion of the mint in the salad, here it worked with the mango to cool down the heat of the wings, which I found a little too spicy for my liking. If you are a wings fan, I’d definitely recommend giving this dish a go — it was lightly fried so that the crust gave great texture without veering into the extremes of either too crunchy or mushily falling off the meat.

Although Jacob and I were attempting to experience the majority of the Restaurant Week menu by splitting the dishes, we both found ourselves drawn to appetizers the other wouldn’t like. We tried to find common ground in the other two appetizers, but the Mixed Green Salad and Beef Satay just couldn’t stand up against our respective love of salmon and shrimp. So we gave each other a pass on the starters, and in retrospect it was a strong strategic move.

The Salmon Sashimi, delicately layered and covered in a creamy sauce.

The Salmon Sashimi, delicately layered and covered in a creamy sauce.

Jacob seemed to really enjoy his Salmon Sashimi (with Golden Garlic and Lemon Soy), which arrived in small slivers drizzled with a creamy sauce. I tried a piece (I’m trying to get on the raw fish bandwagon, one leg at a time, folks), and like my Seattle salmon encounter, I could tell the the fish was of a very high quality, even if the flavor didn’t do much for me. The sauce reminded me of scallion cream cheese — perhaps a vaguely Japanese nod towards bagels and lox?

The Spiced Shrimp Broth -- this photo doesn't do the depth of flavor of this soup proper justice at all.

The Spiced Shrimp Broth — this photo doesn’t do the depth of flavor of this soup proper justice at all.

Now I could go on and on about my Spiced Shrimp Broth (with glass noodles and herbs). If you’re a fan of shellfish, this was a mindblowingly good preparation of it, and has stuck with me out of all the dishes at Spice Market, even several days later. Truth be told, after being in New England this weekend, and Seattle just a few weeks ago, I was prepared to come back down to earth from shellfish heaven and relearn to be satisfied with New York’s pretty solid fish scene. But as an eternal shrimp lover, I couldn’t overlook this appetizer once I spotted it. This soup is like a punch in the mouth of shrimp — pure, luscious, somehow achieving the kind of deep flavor you usually have in a dense bisque, though this broth was very light (and bright pink). The bowl contained mostly long strings of the glass noodles with small chunks of shrimp at the bottom, making me think of pho but with a seafood twist (is there some Thai or Vietnamese non-coconut soup that I don’t know about? Please let me know, I will order it always). On top of the broth floated leaves of cilantro and basil, adding an herbal brightness to the natural umami of the shrimp. I legitimately could have had a gallon of this soup and left a happy camper.

 

The simple components of the Kimchi Fried Rice: beef, rice, kimchi. Still a solid dish, though.

The simple components of the Kimchi Fried Rice: beef, rice, kimchi. Still a solid dish, though.

However, this was just the beginning — next up, our entrees. Jacob’s Kimchi Fried Rice with Korean Beef came out first. You can see from the photo that the dish was heavier on the rice aspect than the beef. I found this especially disappointing, because the Korean beef was melt-in-your-mouth good. The shortribs were presented in a small rectangle lightly dusted with sesame seeds atop the rice, the individual strands of meat visible to the naked eye. Sticking a fork in, little chunks flaked away beautifully, like long-braised brisket. I can understand the restraint given how rich the beef was, but when you come across well done shortribs, it’s just hard to stop and savor the flavors laminating your tongue. The rice was nicely chewy, and had a bit of the pop from sour kimchi. It was much more subtle a taste than I expected, given my previous experiences with heavily pickled kimchi. The dish worked as a whole, but it was much more muted overall than I had anticipated, especially considering the limited and straightforward components of rice, beef, and slices of kimchi.

 

Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu -- intriguing and new, if a little much for a full entree.

Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu — intriguing and new, if a little much for a full entree.

Carolyn’s Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu in Black Bean Sauce lingered with me a bit more. Carolyn and I agreed that the tofu had a deep, smoky taste, but Jacob thought the tofu was only mildly flavored. Although I think smoked food can be hit or miss, I liked that the kitchen had achieved a burnt flavor for the tofu without altering the texture too much — this wasn’t charred to a crisp, but still the soft squares of tofu you find in miso soup. The pearl noodles were thick like udon, but not quite as long, and were tender from soaking up the moisture from the black bean sauce. The sauce had a great earthy flavor, full of fermented beans and infused with soy, coming off as just slightly sweet. I enjoyed the small bites I had, but I wouldn’t order it for my main course. I think a full bowl of it would end up being too cloyingly sweet and decadent.

 

The Wok Charred Daikon Cake -- redefining the idea of "cake" and unexpectedly addictive.

The Wok Charred Daikon Cake — redefining the idea of “cake” and unexpectedly addictive.

Last, but certainly not least, was my Wok Charred Daikon Cake (with scallions and peanuts). I was on a roll with my menu selections, because this ended up being my second favorite dish of our dinner, sliding in right behind the Spiced Shrimp Broth. I wasn’t sure exactly would arrive when I read the words “daikon cake” on the menu, and our waiter unfortunately didn’t give clarity. Knowing that daikon is a radish, I had to wonder if it would be some sort of tower of slices? The bowl of food that eventually arrived at our table was far from any definition of cake I’ve ever heard of — it looked more like a curry with a thick sauce, cubed pieces of unbelievably soft radish, slices of red chiles, scallions, and whole peanuts. Digging a little deeper while writing this post, it seems like (at least from Google image search) daikon cake is usually made from radish cooked and compressed into a square or rectangle. Spice Market’s take seemed to then deconstruct that cake, chopping it up into chunks, and folding it into a stew of sauce and vegetables. This gave the daikon pieces an almost eggplant-like texture, soft and succulent. While the rest of the dish verged on smooth and squishy, the peanuts were moist but still crunchy, which kept the texture from being too monotonous. The Thai theme comes out again in this dish, which I found reminiscent of a Thai curry in terms of the deep, layered flavors, and inclusion of peanuts. Salty, sweet, with just a tiny kick from the chile peppers, I just kept ladling more and more onto my plate.

I know this must sound highly suspicious coming from me, but dessert was kinda an afterthought for our dinner. After the stream of new exotic flavor pairings that had steamrolled across my tastebuds, I found our two desserts perfectly adequate, but far from showstoppers. I felt that the Black Sesame Cake (with green tea mousse and yuzu) was the lesser of the two dishes. Truth be told, I’ve had sesame desserts before — ice cream flavors and other versions of cakes, and I’ve never really gotten the appeal. I like sesame in savory dishes, but as a card-carrying chocoholic, it’s just never been sweet enough for me in a dessert setting.

 

The Black Sesame Cake -- with tasty shards of sesame brittle.

The Black Sesame Cake — with tasty squares of sesame brittle.

The cake arrived in a small bowl, a deep green square seated upon the green tea mousse, and topped with yuzu ice cream, shards of sesame brittle, and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds. The cake itself was a little dry, but the mousse and the yuzu ice cream added brighter flavors and a bit of moisture. Overall it just read too savory to me — I know green tea is not an unusual flavoring for Asian desserts, but I really only think of it in the context of a beverage, and while the citrusy taste of the yuzu was pleasing, I’m arbitrarily picky about fruit-based desserts.

 

The Malted Chocolate Parfait -- a delicious, if oddly American dessert.
The Malted Chocolate Parfait — a delicious, if oddly American dessert.

The Malted Chocolate Parfait (with caramel crumble and summer berries) was much more in my wheelhouse, and so it’s no surprise that I dug right into it. The malted chocolate came in the form of a mousse as the bottom layer of the parfait, topped with blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries, then the “caramel crumble” (basically a streusel topping), and finally vanilla ice cream and chocolate crunchies. I didn’t get much of a malted flavor, but as I’m not a fan of Whoppers, I wasn’t complaining. It was served in a small bowl, and I appreciated the modest portion size. Combined with the lightness of the mousse and ice cream, it was a good way to end the meal, with pure, fresh-tasting ingredients that didn’t weigh you down. After the variety of Asian-influenced dishes of the night, it was a little odd how All-American this seemed, from the fresh berries to the crumble. Overall the dessert was comforting, and I was glad I had it to contrast against the more exotic black sesame cake.

 

Final Thoughts:

My Restaurant Week trip to Spice Market was a fantastic dinner that had me trying new flavors, while still enjoying some well-executed combos I was familiar with. It’s a great bang-for-your-buck spot for Restaurant Week, since the menu doesn’t skimp on portions, and offers both dishes that appear on the regular menu, as well some RW exclusives. And when you take into account the caliber of the chef behind Spice Market, it’s pretty affordable in general (they offer a $25 lunch “bento box” prix fixe, and the tasting menu at dinner is only $48). I’m eager to go back and dive into the menu a bit more, since there were plenty of dishes that appealed to me, across all the categories, from appetizers to dessert (Ovaltine Kulfi — what is that, and can I eat it now?).

All in all, Spice Market gets a strong recommendation from me for good service, a trendy and fun vibe, and for offering genre-bending dishes that challenge more staid palates without pushing too far into exotic ingredients or spice levels. To me, that’s one of the best goals for fusion restaurants — to offer a smooth entryway for diners into new flavor combinations and cuisines through more well-known techniques. At Spice Market, Jean Georges gently coaxes his diners to step through those orange curtains and sample some street food from worlds beyond the NY dirty-water dogs and a bag from Nuts-4-Nuts. Sure, you’re missing the hustle and bustle of humanity from the markets of Asia, but maybe if Jean Georges does his job right, you’ll want to pay a visit someday and see just what inspired him in the first place.

 

Spice Market

403 W 13th St

New York, NY 10014

spicemarketnewyork.com