Oh, Summer. Can you truly be over? I feel the lingering urges to dip my toes into briney/chlorinated depths, to slather myself in UVA/UVB/UHF/USB SPF 5000 and throw my epidermal health to the wind, and to challenge the physical limits of hot dog consumption. But Labor Day has indeed come and gone, and soon enough the New York winds throw a chill down your shirt collar, the leaves will swirl in eddies around Park Avenue, and the brisk fall air will leave the streets smelling of boring, everyday garbage — the faint, mystifying odor of urine simply a memory of the previous July.
With the specter of Fall looming over me, I resolved to spend the Labor Day long weekend as any good New Yorker should (well, those of us without access to the Hamptons) — eating and walking around the city. In case you were convinced that aside from food nerdery, I someone manage to pass off as “hip” or “with it”, please don’t fret — my solo hours in transit around Manhattan were accompanied by a truly dorky BBC podcast about the history of world religions. Aw yeah, just call me a modern day Fonz. Or the female equivalent (Fonzette?).
So here’s a brief look at the surprisingly eclectic mix of edibles I had during the last few days of summer. I’ve since traded in my white dresses for a white napkin, and now that bikini season is over, we can breathe a sigh of relief and look ahead to the gorging orgies of Halloween and Thanksgiving to come.
First up, I wanted to highlight my trip to Hester Nights, an event that is actually still going on for a few more weeks at the Eventi Hotel near Herald Square. Hester Nights is part of the Hester Street Fair, a food and craft market that takes place during summer weekends down on the Lower East Side. In addition to those daytime markets, the organizers also set up a smaller event each Thursday night slightly farther uptown, in the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel. Called Hester Nights, the series runs from May until late September, and features around 12-15 vendors from the Street Fair, cycling weekly.
While Hester Nights has many similarities to Mad Sq Eats, thankfully on the Thursday Jacob and I went, it was a substantially calmer environment. This may be the product of it being located more off the beaten path, or perhaps because it’s later in the summer and near the end of Hester Nights’ run, or simply because there were fewer vendors in a larger space. I’d actually been to the Eventi pavilion before for drinks — the hotel itself has a great indoor/outdoor pseudo foodcourt called Foodparc & Beerparc, offering burgers, hot dogs, fried seafood, and beer and wine. The outdoor space is dominated by a large fountain in the middle, but there are also a good number of tables and benches, plus a giant video screen on the wall of the building behind the hotel (we visited on Michael Jackson’s birthday, so our meal was accompanied by an unexpected MJ concert soundtrack).
There was a nice variety of vendors that night, offering eclectic foods from South African jerky to Brazilian cheese bread, gnocchi, waffles, and tacos. Jacob and I decided on an Asian flavor to our meal, and ended up getting Duck Confit Dumplings from the Brooklyn Wok Shop, and Khao Man Gai from Khao Man Gai NY, whose stalls were conveniently located next to each other.
Brooklyn Wok Shop has a brick and mortar location in Williamsburg, where they offer the dim sum menu they had at Hester Nights, plus a larger selection of rice and noodle dishes. After tasting the Duck Confit Dumplings, I would definitely consider paying the restaurant a visit. It’s exactly the kind of Asian fusion I love — retaining the flavor palate of more traditional Eastern cuisines while stirring the pot with classical Western dishes. The rest of the menu at the Hester Nights stall ran the gamut from familiar to off-the-wall — crab rangoon wontons, roasted cauliflower and eggplant, roast pork, and pastrami dumplings — making picking just one dish difficult, but both Jacob and I are suckers for duck, so the idea of tiny pouches of duck confit seemed irresistible.
The Duck Confit Dumplings (fresh shiitakes, cabbage, hoisin dipping sauce) were also the only non-fried item on the menu, and I while I’m certainly a fan of fried food, I appreciated the lightness of the preparation considering the dumplings’ filling. The simply plated dish (this is a food fair, after all) came with four steamed dumplings slathered with hoisin sauce and chopped cilantro. Overall, it was a pleasant appetizer, the portion size and delicate quality of the wrapper dough playing off the fatty confit filling. I wish I had taken more dipping sauce, because you really can’t go wrong with hoisin and duck, but the dumplings really held their own, even without their accompaniments. While this was a great size for a starter, to make a full meal of it, you’d probably need two or three orders between two people. But with the right strategy, a trip to Brooklyn Wok Shop could yield a pretty exotic international tour of flavors without weighing down your stomach or your wallet.
For our main course Jacob and I chose Khao Man Gai NY, which makes one dish, and one dish only — Khao Man Gai, of course (they also sell some Thai teas, but no other food). Although not well-known in the US, it turns out the dish is one of the most popular street foods in Thailand. KMGNY only operates out of a stall at markets like Hester Nights, but they have a great sales pitch, displaying a sign that fully explains the dish, and offering tastes by the spoonful. Once I tried the sample, I immediately knew I had to get the full dish. Khao Man Gai, at least as prepared by KMGNY, is “Organic Chicken poached with garlic, ginger and Thai herbs, with Thai jasmine rice cooked with the poaching liquid and herbs, served with a soup for sipping between bites, and a sauce of fermented soybean, garlic, ginger, simple syrup, vinegar, and chilis.”
We were served a plate full of chicken and rice, with sauce and a cup of broth on the side, and given specific instructions on how to appropriately tackle Khao Man Gai. To be properly enjoyed, the sauce must be dumped onto the chicken, so it coats the meat and soaks into the rice, and the soup is to be sipped in between bites to act as a palate cleanser. After following the instructions and finally digging in, I found the chicken was poached to an almost collapsing degree of tenderness, falling to pieces even with just a flimsy plastic fork cutting into it. Both the meat and the still somewhat chewy rice were moist and flavorful, the herbs and spices of the broth having been fully infused. Not surprisingly, since we’re talking about street food, Khao Man Gai is pretty unimpressive visually — a lump of rice, slices of barely adorned poached chicken, and a small cup of clear broth — but once you start biting into it, it’s obvious why this dish is so popular. Each bite packs a punch of earthy salt, just a bit of heat from the chilis, and a hint of sugar from the viscous sweet and sour soybean sauce. I was skeptical of the point of the broth, but the small sips between bites really does elevate the meal, washing your mouth with umami and priming your tastebuds for the next delectable forkful. Khao Man Gai NY seriously needs to get a storefront, or at least a truck, because with winter coming and the street fairs winding down, I don’t want to have to wait another half a year to try this dish again.
Il Laboratorio Del Gelato:
My other major Labor Day excursion was to the Lower East Side, where I finally paid a visit to Il Laboratorio del Gelato. I’d been reading about this place for years now, constantly seeing it ranked on lists of the best ice cream or gelato in New York, and I’d even walked by it on occasion (staring longingly at it as I headed over to Clinton St. Baking Co., for example). Il Laboratorio del Gelato is located right on Houston, only a few blocks over from the Whole Foods Bowery. They certainly can’t be accused of false advertising — the decor is industrial, plain white paint and tile combined with stainless steel — you couldn’t give off a more scientific, laboratory vibe unless the staff was decked out in hazmat suits (fortunately, the friendly staff wear blue aprons and hats, so you know you’re getting gelato, and not a flu shot). Although ILDG is housed in a fairly large space, the majority of it is devoted to the process of making all that gelato, leaving only a few benches by the front windows for seating. And at least when I was there, the front of the store was packed to the gills with a long line of eager gelato-anticipants.
ILDG makes over 275 flavors of gelato, offering 48 at the start of business each day, so the diversity of choices coupled with the long line and lack of a visible menu (you can’t see the daily flavors until you reach the front) inevitably lead to a bit of choice anxiety. Even my good ol’ reliable web research couldn’t help me here, since the highly touted caramel was not being offered at the time. ILDG doesn’t make things any easier, since you’re only allowed 2 tastes per person, a meager amount in the face of the mountain of appetizing gelatos and sorbets. I understand the need for all the rules because of the popularity of the place and the sheer quantity of gelato flavors, but I did feel a bit stymied in my exploration of ILDG’s products. How am I supposed to know whether to get just two flavors, or three, or a shake?
Luckily, Il Laboratorio del Gelato has the goods to counterbalance all the rules and regulations. This was some of the best gelato I’ve had in Manhattan, and certainly the most innovative flavors I’ve seen (although I have my eye on the cornbread gelato over at Williamsburg’s Oddfellows). Jacob and I decided to get two small cups (with two flavors of gelato each) — one on the sweeter side, and one more fruity. I got the Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch and Mocha Chocolate Chip gelatos, and Jacob chose the Raspberry gelato and Green Apple sorbet (at the suggestion of our server).
Both gelatos had great consistency — the sweeter, milkier gelatos were creamy and slightly melty, coating your tongue as they dissolved. The Mocha had a bold coffee flavor, with a smooth rich milk chocolate, and reminded me of chocolate covered espresso beans. I really loved the textural contrast of the Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch — the “crunch” seemed to come from crumbled amaretti cookies that were swirled into the airy hazelnut gelato base. The Raspberry was thick, smooth, with a fresh fruit taste, just a bit of tartness to contrast the sugar, but definitely still a gelato. The biggest surprise was the Green Apple sorbet, which I was prepared to be disappointed by. I ended up finding it the most interesting, and most satisfying flavor of the bunch. I had expected it to be tart like a Granny Smith apple, which I tend not to like (I’m a Honey crisp or Gala gal), or worst case scenario, like the fake sour green apple you encounter in candy and sugary liquors. But it lived up to the sorbet mantle — light, refreshing, with a pure, natural apple flavor and an almost crushed ice/granita texture. I can’t believe I’m saying this, as someone who will almost always choose the chocolate mousse over the fruit tart, but the Green Apple sorbet was the most memorable flavor for me, sticking in my mind even a week after my visit.
The rest of the weekend was filled with brunches, beer halls, indie films, frisbee in Central Park, and as many glorious catnaps as I could justify to myself. All in all, I think I managed to capture the distilled spirit of a New York summer — a mix of the transient with the established institution, a melting pot of cuisines and heritages, and the completely homegrown desire to sleep away the afternoon. If you can, try to make it out to Hester Nights in its last few weeks — I always think it’s worthwhile to see the innovative up-and-coming vendors in the area, and I was genuinely delighted to discover a number of new dishes I had never even heard of before. And I know I’ll be back to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, inquisitive ice cream ingester that I am. You just can’t throw down a 275-flavor gauntlet and not expect this Rocky Road Rambo to lock and load.
So with that, I bid adieu to the summer season. Goodbye heat, goodbye outdoor seating, goodbye sundresses, goodbye fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them. Hello pumpkin spice everything, hello leather jacket weather, hello mulled apple cider. Suddenly the leaves changing doesn’t seem so bad at all.
Hester Nights @ the Eventi Hotel
6th Ave between 29th and 30th Streets
Brooklyn Wok Shop
182 N 10th St (btwn Bedford and Driggs Ave)
Khao Man Gai NY
Il Laboratorio del Gelato
188 Ludlow St. (at East Houston)