Hooked by Seattle’s Seafood: Dinner at Ray’s Boathouse

2013-12-20 20.36.20

Just before Christmas I headed back to Seattle, ostensibly to visit my brother and his fiancee, but really to get a sobering look at just how big my hair can get in the unending mist of the Pacific Northwest winter. If it wasn’t abundantly clear from my previous posts about Seattle, the city has a great food scene, especially when it comes to seafood, so I couldn’t help but jump at the chance to dig into at least a fish or two. My parents were along for the trip to see Dan and Leah’s new home city, so on my first night out we made our way over to Ballard to Ray’s Boathouse.

 

First Impressions:

Wait, tell me again -- who's boathouse are we going to?

Wait, tell me again — who’s boathouse are we going to?

Ray’s Boathouse is located in Ballard, an area historically known as the center of Seattle’s Scandinavian fishing and sailing community. The neighborhood even has a Nordic Heritage Museum, and on my previous trip Dan and I visited the annual Ballard Seafood Fest (remember, right before we ate D’Ambrosio gelato … which sounds gross in abstract, but was perfectly logical and delicious at the time). It should therefore come as no shock that Ray’s is located right on Puget Sound. It was dark by the time we arrived for dinner, but the back of the restaurant is lined with huge windows, allowing us to see the lights of a trawler passing by during our meal, its lights shimmering off the water and giving the barest glimpse of how beautiful the view must be during the warmer months.

Reverence for the past with photos of historic fishing crews ... and a giant ceramic fish.

Reverence for the past with photos of historic fishing crews … and a giant ceramic fish.

It’s impossible to miss Ray’s, due to the giant neon sign spelling out R-A-Y-S, a touch I initially thought was retro until I found out the boathouse dates back to 1952, and Ray himself built the sign. The interior still features authentic elements of a boathouse, with wood paneling all around, pictures of fishermen lining the walls, and even a giant ceramic fish at the top of the stairs. The first floor holds the main restaurant and bar, while a more casual cafe takes up the second floor.

The view from our booth, looking over towards the massive center bar.

The view from our booth, looking over towards the massive center bar.

Ray’s main dining room is grounded with an enormous bar in the center, blocked off from the rest of the restaurant by waist-high dividers. The design is casual, but refined, made up of leather half-moon booths along the inside wall and dark wood tables with deep brown leather chairs around them. You can’t help but feel a certain sense of timelessness — a kind of comfortable confidence that comes from a restaurant that’s been around the block a few decades.

 

The Food:

Ray’s Boathouse is a traditional seafood restaurant, offering the typical proteins based on seasonal, local fare, but updated to reflect current trends. But before we dive into the menu, that big ol’ bar in the middle of the restaurant lived up to expectation, at least from the drinks we ordered. My mother and I were boring and ordered glasses of Riesling, but the rest of our table went a little more off the beaten path, with Leah ordering a sparkling rose, Dan getting a cocktail called the Lido Deck (Aviation gin, cardamom, grapefruit, lime), and my dad going for the Anchors Away (Goslings Black Seal, Crème De Cassis, lime, ginger beer). You gotta love the nautical-themed cocktail list, and all the drinks were well-mixed and refreshing. I’m usually not a big gin person, but the combination of the acidity of the grapefruit and lime and the cardamom in the Lido Deck was really intriguing, at least for the small sip I had.

Now when my family goes out to dinner, especially if it’s a vacation dinner, things can get a little out of hand. After conferring with our very friendly and helpful server Jennifer, we decided to get two orders of the Warm Rosemary Gougeres for the table to start. My mother and I split the Chiogga Beet & Goat Cheese Salad, my father got a bowl of Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder, Dan started with the Local Albacore Poke, and Leah had Ray’s Seasonal Salad. Then, for our entrees, my dad and I got the Smoked Sablefish, Dan got the Sablefish in Sake Kasu, my mom chose the Wild Cedar Plank Salmon, and Leah got a vegetarian version of the Housemade Tajarin Pasta. Oh, and you know there’s dessert — we finished the meal with an order of the Peanut Butter Bomb, belatedly in honor of Dan’s birthday.

Our complimentary bread basket, playing coy with a few errant crackers sticking up.

Our complimentary bread basket, playing coy with a few errant crackers sticking up.

The complimentary bread was presented as a wrapped package, with a row of flatbread crisps arrayed upright in stegosaurus-style down the middle. Beneath the napkins were a few soft white rolls, along with fresh butter. The bread was standard, but not particularly memorable, especially when compared to the more robustly flavored gougeres to come.

 

The Warm Rosemary Gougeres, bite size pastries with unreal gruyere dipping sauce.

The Warm Rosemary Gougeres, bite size doughy pillows with unreal gruyere dipping sauce — cheez whiz for an individual with refined taste.

When the Warm Rosemary Gougeres (Housemade pastry puffs with melted gruyere dipping sauce) arrived, it immediately became apparent that we didn’t need two orders — there were probably ten little puffs in each bowl. The gougeres themselves reminded me of miniature popovers, airy and flaky on the inside, with a crusty exterior. They were buttery and sweet, with just a hint of rosemary. But the real standout portion of the dish was the gruyere sauce, a rich whallop of pure nutty gruyere flavor. My father described it as “elevated cheez whiz,” and it was almost a midway step to fondue, a smooth, creamy spread that managed to remain room temperature without congealing. I asked Jennifer how it was made, and she explained that it’s really just gruyere melted down (with a little bit of butter), then kept stabilized in pressurized canisters (like the ones they use to dispense whipped cream). Simple as that might seem, the cheese sauce was one of the best elements of the dinner for me.

 

The Chiogga Beet Salad -- delicately composed, but held back by clumpy goat cheese.

The Chiogga Beet Salad — delicately composed, if held back by clumpy goat cheese.

The Chiogga Beet and Goat Cheese Salad (mixed baby greens, white balsamic, Laura Chanel goat cheese, Oregon hazelnuts) turned out to be pretty similar to the salad I had at Fulton a month back. Not that I mind — I obviously love the combination of ingredients, or I wouldn’t order it over and over. I did like the plating more at Ray’s — the thin slices of beet on one side, and the dressed greens on the other, topped with a few clumps of goat cheese and sprinkling of hazelnuts. I love fresh goat cheese, especially in salads, but the sticky properties of the cheese make equal distribution across a dish difficult, and I found myself wishing for a bit more cheese. Still, this cheese had good flavor, and it was probably good to have only a small amount, considering the whole of my dinner. The nuts added a little crunch, especially useful paired with the beets, which were moist and mild, serving as a vehicle for the white balsamic.

 

The Local Albacore Poke -- a new dish for me that might have changed my mind about raw tuna.

The Local Albacore Poke — a new dish for me that might have changed my mind about raw tuna.

I’d never had poke before, but after Dan gave me a taste of his appetizer, I actually asked him if I could have a second bite. Poke is a Hawaiian raw fish salad, usually made of tuna marinated in a soy/salt/sesame/chili mixture. While I was a big tunafish sandwich fan growing up, I’m still hit-or-miss on the raw sashimi form, but the fish in Ray’s Local Albacore Poke (Sesame crackers, cilantro, lime) made me rethink my previous hangups. Again, Seattle knocks it out of the park on baseline, sea-sourced protein. The chunks of tuna were soft without being mushy, and I loved the acidity imparted by the cilantro and lime (and of course I’m always down for a great cracker). This dish made we want to seek out poke at other restaurants.

 

Ray's Pacific Northwest Chowder, with pillars of tempura fried clams rising out of the broth.

Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder, with pillars of tempura fried clams rising out of the broth.

I didn’t get to try Leah’s Ray’s Seasonal Salad (Sherry vinaigrette, radish, pumpkin seeds, aged cheddar), but I think she enjoyed it. I did have a chance to taste my father’s bowl of Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder (Tempura razor clams, smoked salmon, thyme, fingerling potatoes, fennel), which was a punch in the mouth of excellent seafood. The tempura-fried clams were an interesting addition, sticking up out of the bowl so the majority of the pieces stayed crunchy. Coming from the northeast and our endless iterations of New England Clam Chowder, it was cool to see a variation that played to the strengths of the West Coast.

 

The Wild Cedar Plank Salmon, cooked to my mother's specifications and a fine specimen of fish.

The Wild Cedar Plank Salmon, cooked to my mother’s specifications and a fine fish specimen.

Our entrees were all solid, satisfying contenders, although some dishes stood out more than others. I tried a bite of Leah’s Vegetarian Tajarin Housemade Pasta (mixed vegetables, mushrooms, Tutto Calabrian chiles, arugula, sherry sauce), mostly because I was curious about what “tajarin” looked like. It turned out to be a noodle somewhere in between fettuccine and linguini, and was well-made, soft but not too starchy. I also only had a small taste of my mom’s Wild Cedar Plank Salmon (White bean cassoulet, baby carrots, broccolini, garlic confit), since I’m still not a salmon convert. Like my previous experiences with salmon in Seattle, I could tell this was a great piece of fish, even if the flavor is not appealing to me. My mother had asked for the salmon to be a little more well-done than the barely medium it is usually served at, and was pleased by the way it arrived, fully cooked but not too dry. She also really loved the white bean cassoulet, especially the consistency of the beans, which still had a bit of snap to them. I enjoyed the vegetables, but personally fall more on the creamy-style beans, so I thought that here they detracted from the cassoulet.

 

The Smoked Sablefish, served with an addictive cilantro pesto.

The Smoked Sablefish, served with an addictive cilantro pesto.

While I enjoyed my dish as a whole, the most memorable elements of my Smoked Sablefish (roasted baby carrots, coriander, cilantro pesto, sautéed rainbow chard) were the accompanying vegetables (wow, I’m a boring adult, getting all excited about vegetables. Thank god I have dessert to talk about in a bit). That being said, this was again a high caliber fish, the flesh supple, gliding off with a swipe of my fork, and melting on the tongue. The smoked flavor was subtle, a little sweet rather than the harsher, ashy smokiness you get with barbecue sometimes. As with my mother’s salmon, the large cut of sablefish rested atop the accompaniments, in my case a bed of sauteed rainbow chard, cooked down to a velvety consistency, like a lighter creamed spinach. On the side were baby carrots, sweet and soft without falling into mush, resting in the cilantro pesto. The cilantro was prominent but not overwhelming, and I couldn’t get enough of the sauce, wanting to pour it over every piece of the dish. I ended up leaving a bit of the fish uneaten, but I literally scraped the pesto off my plate to get every last drop.

 

The Sablefish in Sake Kasu — tinged with Eastern flavors, but still grounded in Seattle’s local fish market.

The Sablefish in Sake Kasu — tinged with Eastern flavors, but still grounded in Seattle’s local fish market.

My overall favorite bite of the night was Dan’s Sablefish in Sake Kasu (jasmine rice, gingered bok choy, honey-soy). It was the only fish entree we had that was plated differently, this time in a large bowl, layered with the sake sauce at the base, followed by the rice, the bok choy, and the sablefish on top. The mix of honey, ginger and soy really woke up my tastebuds, and at least for the small taste I had, I found the powerful mix of salty, sweet and acidic highlighted the fish more than the smoked take I ordered. It’s hard to say how I would have felt eating a whole portion, but Dan polished his off and declared it his favorite plate as well.

Obviously this dessert was meant for Dan. Even if he didn't actually eat any of it.

Obviously this dessert was meant for Dan. Even if he didn’t actually eat any of it.

So we had to get dessert, right? I mean, how can you celebrate someone’s birthday (coughthatwasinNovembercough) without a candle-topped indulgence and some awkward staff/family singing? Dan was actually least invested in the dessert, which was mainly taken down by Leah, my mom and I. The surprisingly under-described Peanut Butter Bomb turned out to be a chocolate-coated hemisphere of peanut butter mousse with a graham cracker crust on the bottom and crushed peanuts on top, accompanied by a concord grape sorbet with chocolate sauce and crushed peanuts underneath it. The mousse itself was delicious, with a strong peanut flavor and a consistency close to cheesecake thickness. Despite not being that big of a “grape-flavored foods” person, I actually really liked the sorbet. Here it succeeded in evoking the nostalgia of a PB&J, providing a palate-cleansing freshness against the richness of the mousse and chocolate shell. Since it was a sorbet it had a light texture and was sweet, but not tooth-achingly so (don’t worry, the chocolate sauce on the bottom helped put the sugar over the top). The only disappointing aspect of the dish was the crust, which didn’t have much flavor and got soggy over time, eventually becoming lost among the more assertive elements of the dessert.

 

Final Thoughts:

I guess I should just say this once and for all, since presumably I’ll have the good fortune to visit Seattle many times over the next few years — Seattle just has amazing seafood. No bones about it, it brings serious game on the gill front. My dinner at Ray’s Boathouse was a satisfying, well-rounded meal, but I think as a visitor I’d rather go back and see what new innovations are being concocted at Tanglewood Supreme than go another round with Ray’s. What made the meal memorable was really the quality of the fish, like in Dan’s Poke and Sablefish, and the eye towards regional influences, like the Asian-inflected chowder. None of the dishes were showstoppers, but it was a comfortable environment with a courteous staff and a unique cocktail list. Looking at their cafe menu, I actually think I’d be more inclined to come back for a visit to the counter upstairs, to check out how the kitchen deals with more casual pub grub, like fish and chips or crab cakes.  Much like a classic steakhouse in New York, I think Ray’s Boathouse is the kind of restaurant to have in your back pocket — not necessarily a bucket-list destination, but an establishment where you know you’ll get a high grade meal and be treated right. Now if they’d only start selling that gruyere sauce separately, I’d keep the place in business single-handedly.

 

Ray’s Boathouse

6049 Seaview Avenue NW

Seattle, WA

http://www.rays.com/

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Come in From the Cold: A Warming Dinner at Village Taverna

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Snow — to elementary-aged Maggie, this word meant magic, plain and simple. The kind of magic that requires extra effort: it’s not enough to simply wish for snow, you must entreat the weather gods through sacrifices like putting an eraser under your pillow or wearing your pajamas inside-out and backwards (while there is some contention about the specifics of the rituals, it is universally agreed upon by North Eastern American children that some sacrifice is mandatory). And if you did everything right, and the snow came, it meant freedom — from class, from homework, from the usual routine. You could throw on unreasonably puffy pants and moonboots and hurl yourself headfirst into the drifts in your backyard, bean unsuspecting passersby with snowballs, and drink enormous mugs of hot chocolate with heady swirls of whipped cream.

Well, as with many things in life, the wonders of childhood snow do not extend into adult life. These days heavy snow means an endless commute, clunky boots you drag around the office, and the inexplicably speedy transition of white powder to grey slush in the New York streets. Maybe it’s just the unexpected deluge we’ve recently had across the country, but frankly, this grownup is a little worn-out on snow.

My Grinchy-grumpiness is probably fueled by being stuck without functioning snowboots during the storm last weekend. Old lady Maggie took her ancient snowboots to work last week, where she cranked up her spaceheater to avoid office frostbite (damn you, server farm), only to discover the unfortunate consequence of the heat cracking the plastic tops of the boots. Dammit. So come Saturday, when another snowstorm rolled through New York, I was caught bootless and bereft. Luckily, I found refuge and a lovely dinner at Village Taverna in Union Square, warmed by excellent food and friendly service.

 

First Impressions:

Walking into Village Taverna, you encounter the take-out counter with desserts on display.

Walking into Village Taverna, you encounter the take-out counter with desserts on display.

Village Taverna is located right off of Union Square on the corner of University Place and 11th St. It’s a cute, relatively small corner restaurant, with the takeout counter and kitchen facing front as you enter, and the bar and dining room fanning out in an L-shape to fill the rest of the space. Village Taverna is decked out in the classic style of a Greek restaurant — high ceilings above white walls with accents of dark blue or gold, the chairs and tables made up of plain but polished light wood. The restaurant takes advantage of its corner location through the large windows that line the exterior walls, which when we visited were slightly covered by long curtains, and the interior walls and bar had mosaic tiles and decorative plates on them.

The bar and corner shelves filled high with blue vases of varying shapes and sizes.

The bar and corner shelves filled high with blue vases of varying shapes and sizes.

It was pretty quiet when Jacob and I visited, most likely due to the driving snow outside, so I can’t really speak for the overall noise and activity level of the place. During my visit, however, I found that my meal was the perfect antidote to the messy weather outside. The dining room is made up of a long banquette on the inner wall and a number of two and four-tops, and our waiter gave us the pick of the litter. We ended up at one of the banquette tables, and I was warm and comfortable for the entire meal (although Jacob complained that he might have been under a cold-air vent). Overall the atmosphere was calm and casual, the staff more than happy to make recommendations and answer our questions (and most importantly, refill our fresh pita after we scarfed down the first plate).

 

The rest of the dining room, decked out with decorative plates and tiled walls.

The rest of the dining room, decked out with decorative plates and tiled walls.

 

The Food:

‘Tis the season to stuff your face with dessert (though long-time readers might argue my dessert season is year-long), and I’d proudly taken part in a few holiday traditions earlier that day. I spent the afternoon trimming the tree at Laura’s (of Bantam and Jam fame) house, and of course proper tree-trimming requires not only ornaments and tinsel, but nostalgic holiday foods like hot chocolate, cashew bars, sticky buns, and linzer cookies. So it’s understandable that by dinner I was eager for some light, wholesome food. Jacob suggested a soup/salad/appetizer strategy, which sounded perfect considering both the weather and my blood sugar level.

Greek is one of those cuisines I was very against when I was younger, mostly because I thought of it as being populated with such “gross” foods as olives, feta, and eggplant. These days, though I find my palate edging more and more towards Mediterranean-adjacent cuisines, I’m still plenty unfamiliar with the basic Greek dishes (alas, Greek Lady on Penn’s campus ranks about as high as NYC street meat on the authenticity scale). As such, I’d never encountered any of the dishes I tried at Village Taverna. Fortunately, Jacob was a much more worldly child, and so steered us in the right direction. We opted for splitting the Melitzanosalata spread, the Village Salad, and a bowl of the Avgolemono. It ended up being plenty of food for two people, and was pretty reasonably priced — we got out of there for just about $30, including tax and tip.

To be clear, our selection was only the tip of the iceberg for Village Taverna’s menu — they offer a ton more spreads, salads, and appetizers, plus a grill section full of kebabs, seafood, traditional Greek dishes like Mousaka (with a vegetarian version), souvlaki, gyros, and pita wrap sandwiches. Had I been game for a heartier meal, I probably would have struggled to choose an entree between all the options.

Now this is what I call a bread basket, er ... plate.

Now this is what I call a bread basket, er … plate. The only acceptable use of olives — to augment olive oil.

Our dinner started with a complimentary plate of pita, olive oil, and olives. The bread was freshly grilled and warm to the touch, with deep brown lines seared into it. Bread-fiend that I am, I couldn’t get enough of the pita — it had the perfect texture,  soft with just a tiny bit of toasted crunch. I still can’t get onboard the olive train, but I really liked how the fresh olives intensified the flavor of the oil, which perked up my tastebuds after my sugary repast.

 

The Melizonasalata -- a strong pick for eggplant fans.

The Melitzanosalata — a strong pick for eggplant fans.

The Melitzanosalata (Puréed fine roasted eggplant spread made with fresh ground eggplants, garlic, vinegar, fresh herbs & extra virgin olive oil) surprised me with its texture. I had expected it something closer to baba ganoush, but this dip was more like the roasted red pepper/eggplant dip I made for Thanksgiving, chunkier and with some bulk as I scooped into it with a piece of pita. It was served with capers on top, and I found that their brininess overwhelmed the dip. On its own the Melitzanosalata had a strong eggplant flavor, with subtle notes of vinegar and parsley. Its initial thickness melted on the tongue, and though I missed the smokiness of baba ganoush, I would certainly look to this dish as a good way to cure an eggplant craving.

 

The Village Salad, offering my first taste of manouri cheese.

The Village Salad, offering my first taste of manouri cheese.

I was excited to try the Village Salad (Mixed greens, grilled manouri cheese, croutons, cherry tomatoes, white & dark sesame with honey balsamic vinaigrette) because I’d yet to come across manouri in my cheese adventures. According to Wikipedia, manouri is “a Greek semi-soft, fresh white whey cheese made from goat or sheep milk as a by-product following the production of feta.” It’s supposed to be creamier and less salty than feta, with less acidity. I really enjoyed it in this dish, and will definitely seek it out again as a good cheese for use as a topping . The Village Salad was very simple, seemingly designed to let the cheese shine brightest. Usually I like my salads like I like my ice cream — with plenty of mix-ins — but here I appreciated the straightforward, well-proportioned combination of just a few ingredients. The manouri arrived with thick grill marks on top, leaving it softened without melting it, and it easily broke apart into large chunks with the application of a little fork pressure. The creamy texture and nutty taste played well with the bitter greens and the acidity of the tomatoes. There were some tiny croutons dispersed throughout the dish to add crunch, and the dressing echoed the nutty-sweet cheese with its sesame and honey.

 

Avgolomeno -- Greek chicken soup for the soul.

Avgolemono — Greek chicken soup for the soul.

Now I’d actually heard of Avgolemono (Traditional Greek chicken soup made with rice and thickened with an egg lemon sauce), but for some reason I was picturing more of the American classic chicken soup, with a clear broth and thick-cut vegetables. What arrived at our table more closely resembled a chowder (or egg-drop soup, as the description implies). It was very creamy, thick and filling, with soft strands of chicken belying the strong broth flavor. Like the rest of our meal, it was a simply produced dish with basic, fresh and wholesome ingredients cooked with care. The brightness of the lemon sauce kept the soup from weighing me down too much (as can happen with a bowl of clam chowder), and I found myself happily satisfied without being overfull by the end of our meal.


Final Thoughts:

I only had a small sampling of the menu at Village Taverna, but the dishes I did try speak to the quality and overall feel of the restaurant. Maybe it was the snowstorm outside, or maybe it was the nostalgia-inducing holiday activities of the day, but I came away from my dinner feeling like a surrogate Greek mother had cooked just for me. Albeit, a Greek mother who also employs a staff of waiters and busboys. Despite the proximity to the mobs of NYU students and Union Square bustle, Village Taverna has the atmosphere of a family restaurant, polished and attentive yet warm and welcoming. I’m definitely planning to go back and further my Greek food education, and if I find myself stuck in the snow again sometime this winter, I know a bowl of chicken soup that’s just calling my name.

 

Village Taverna

81 University Place (corner of 11th St)

http://www.villagetaverna.com/

Brief Bites: 5oz Factory

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I’ve never actually been to Wisconsin, but people there seem to have their priorities in order. After all, this is the state that proudly declares itself “America’s Dairyland” on its license plates, and counts a foam wedge of cheese as acceptable haberdashery. Oddly enough, there seems to be a growing faction of Wisconsiners (Wisconsonians? Wisconsonites?) injecting a little Midwest into NYC, from the venerable Michael White to Gabe Stulman’s “Little Wisco” restaurant group. The latest entrant is the more casual sandwich/frozen custard shop 5oz Factory. It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that my interest was peaked by the promise of a grilled cheese and ice cream, so in this edition of Brief Bites, we check out if these cheeseheads live up to their reputation.

 

The Set Up:

The well-appointed but compact interior of 5oz Factory.

The well-appointed but compact interior of 5oz Factory. Note the adorable cow cutout scene in the bottom right window.

5oz Factory is located just northwest of Washington Square Park, and is clearly geared towards NYU students, a few of which Jacob and I saw during our meal. I had anticipated more of a cafe in the style of Wafels and Dinges, but I guess real estate is pretty pricey so near the park. 5oz Factory’s layout is pretty bare bones, mostly a sandwich/custard counter with a couple of tables  and stools lining the front window for dining in (although the staff preps everything as if it were for takeout). The shop’s interior design has a little more spark to it, however, featuring cutouts of cows, warm light wood, pastel colors, and bright mom’s kitchen-esque tiles on the back wall of the custard/sandwich prep space. I especially liked the window into the kitchen, which allows customers to see their “cheese melts” being assembled.

The back of the store features a view of the melt prep in action.

The back of the store features a view of the melt prep in action.

 

The Bites:

 

When we paid a visit, 5oz Factory seemed to be a bit in flux. Posted around the restaurant were signs with changes to the menu, featuring some seasonal additions, as well as some alternate recipes for the sandwiches (since writing, the website has finally updated their menu) The basic categories remained, however: Grilled Cheeses , Market Sides, and Frozen Custard. Jacob and I split the “5oz Factory Melt” and the “Short & Sweet” sandwiches, followed by a 5oz portion of frozen custard with a few toppings.

Our melts arrived snugly wrapped and labeled.

Our melts arrived snugly wrapped and labeled. The identifying stickers were on the bottom, holding the paper shut.

Though our order (both sandwiches and custard, which were placed separately) took a while to arrive, I was happy to see that our melts were well-griddled, dark brown and crusty without veering into burnt territory. They came wrapped in classic deli brown paper, and were taped shut with a sticker that denoted the sandwich’s name. Under the brown paper a layer of tin foil kept them warm, and I was happy to see the gooey, stringy mess of cheese that came from pulling apart the halves.

The 5oz Factory Melt, with the medley of cheeses seeping out from between the layers.

The 5oz Factory Melt, with the medley of cheeses seeping out from between the layers.

The 5oz Factory Melt (Cheddar, Swiss, Gruyere & Colby on Homestyle Brioche) is the straight-forward grilled cheese you’d largely expect it to be. I loved the combination of cheeses, the sweet nuttiness of the Gruyere standing out amongst the milder Swiss and Colby, and pleasantly intermingling with the salty sharpness of the Cheddar. While I thought the brioche was the perfect vehicle for our second sandwich, here I felt like the thick-sliced bread muscled in on the cheese. I was raised on thinner-style grilled cheese sandwiches, however, so it may just be a matter of personal preference. My perfect grilled cheese lets the sandwich filling shine, so I’d rather have a slimmer Pullman slice as the bookends to my melt.

 

The Short and Sweet --a rare instance of my enjoying pickles.

The Short and Sweet –a rare instance of my enjoying pickles.

While the 5oz Factory Melt was a solid, if slightly pedestrian dish, the shop’s sandwich-making skills really shined with the Short & Sweet (Horseradish Chive Havarti, Swiss, Roasted Mushrooms & Cornichons, Sprecher’s Black Bavarian Beer Braised Short Ribs on Brioche). I’ve waxed rhapsodic many a time about my newfound love of short ribs, and the meat showcased here had clearly been braised to juicy tenderness. What made this melt more successful than the basic grilled cheese was the strategic mixing of textures and flavors, from the shredded, moist short ribs with a hint of sweetness from the beer braise, to the earthy mushrooms and briny cornichons still giving a little crunch, to the gooey mess of the cheese, featuring herby spice from the Havarti and a smoother underlying Swiss. This may seem like a lot of disparate elements fighting for attention, but the sandwich was well constructed, so the dominant meat and cheese factors were highlighted by the other components. As I mentioned above, I was a big fan of the use of brioche in this melt. In this case you need the thick and toasted pieces to hold together the messy innards. (Examining the menu further, it seems that 5oz Factory offers only brioche, trenchers, and gluten-free bread for their melts, so of those options, brioche seems like the most obvious choice for both of our sandwiches.)

 

Our foray into 5oz Factory's frozen custard, piled high with stellar whipped cream.

Our foray into 5oz Factory’s frozen custard, piled high with stellar whipped cream.

Like Shake Shack, 5oz Factory offers their frozen custard in three forms: plain with optional toppings, spun into a shake, or blended with said toppings as a concrete (or “Moozy Muddle”). Looking over the Moozy Muddle menu, Jacob and I struggled to come to an accord about our desired toppings. The truth is, we have different priorities when it comes to ice cream-style desserts — Jacob wants a more straightforward, smoother product with an emphasis on the dairy, while I’ve always been a fan of as many mix-ins as possible (my McFlurry of choice features both M&Ms and Oreos, natch). We finally decided to forego the preset items and have a basic sundae. Aside from the standard chocolate and vanilla custard, 5oz Factory cycles through seasonal flavors, such as espresso, caramel, and peppermint. We opted for a swirl of vanilla and chocolate custard, topped with Ghiradelli chocolate sauce, caramel, and Organic Valley unsweetened whipped cream. Our server also tossed a few custom-made cowhead-shaped gummies on top.

A closer look at those cute cow gummies.

A closer look at those cute cow gummies.

Now as I mentioned in my review of the Shake Shack fries, Jacob is a connoisseur of the Shack menu, and a huge fan of their frozen custard. I, on the other hand, hold Rita’s to be the epitome of commercial custard. Rita’s tends to be slightly sweeter and thicker than Shake Shack’s offering, and I think I liked 5oz Factory’s custard more than Jacob because of this. The vanilla and chocolate flavor was stronger than the Shack’s more subtle taste, and I loved the texture of the custard, which verged on the chewiness of New England ice cream (no seriously, that’s a thing: http://sweets.seriouseats.com/2012/09/herrells-ice-cream-steves-boston-massachusetts-flavors.html). Surprisingly, the most memorable aspect of our dessert was the whipped cream. My unrepentant adoration of Reddi-whip generally sets a pretty low bar for me in terms of whipped cream flavor, but I could honestly discern a difference in quality by using the organic milk. Even though Organic Valley is sold in supermarkets and hardly straight off the farm, I could taste a real freshness in the cream, and you can tell from the picture that it looked more like homemade whipped cream than the kind squirted out the can and straight into your mouth at 3 in the morning (what? we all have our low moments).

 

The Last Licks:

I couldn’t tell you how closely 5oz Factory hews to the authentic Wisconsin experience, but I certainly appreciated the Midwestern charm of its offerings. It’s unfortunate that New York features such a high number of sandwich, grilled cheese, and frozen dessert purveyors, so you really have to offer a standout product to stick out of the crowd, and relying on home state pride doesn’t automatically guarantee superior quality. I’m not sure I’d recommend the shop as a destination spot for those farther afield in the city, but if you’re hanging around the NYU hub, 5oz Factory is a strong option for filling and hearty sandwiches and desserts. It’d probably be pretty nice to grab a custard in the summer and sit in the park, actually. Is 5oz Factory the next Melt Shop? Probably not. But I’d say that purely on the basis of dairy-use, they do their Cheesehead brethren proud.

 

5oz Factory

24 W. 8th St (between 5th and MacDougal)

http://5ozfactory.com/

 

More is Less: Choice Anxiety at Sembrado

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I’m definitely one of those people at restaurants. The talkers, the incessantly curious, the somewhat (hah) neurotic individuals who need to ask the waiter at least one question before ordering. I try to restrain myself from veering too far into obnoxious territory, but the truth is, my main motivation is curiosity. I may have previously studied the menu online, but when I get to the restaurant, I’d rather know what the staff who have seen the food cooked, and maybe even tasted a dish or two, think. Of course we may not have the same preferences, but the level of the server’s enthusiasm can speak volumes about the overall quality of a dish.

I write about service a lot on Experimental Gastronomy because I think it’s a crucial part of the dining experience. It’s part of the difference between a vending machine or a fast food drive-through and an actual restaurant where you interface with real people. That’s not to say that I expect white napkin service everywhere I go — sometimes a friendly smile from a coffee shop employee is all I need. But the best experiences are those where you feel like you’re in good hands, especially in unfamiliar territory, like our helpful waiter at Tamarind, or the extremely accommodating and generous staff at Barbuto. I bring this up because of a recent meal I had at Sembrado, one of the many new taquerias popping up in the East Village. Sembrado has a lot going for it, from location to the high pedigree of the chefs behind it. Despite all this, I found myself underwhelmed by dinner there, a bit at sea when facing down the menu. The food had a lot of potential, and to be fair, I might have just hit a bad shift. But at the end of our dinner, Jacob and I felt there was something missing, some pep or spark to elevate the meal, the lack of an unspoken element that might just have been a personal touch.

First Impressions:

Nice contrast of masculine mahogany and the groovy mural in the back.

Nice contrast of masculine mahogany and the groovy mural in the back.

Sembrado is a new taqueria from Danny Mena, previously of Hecho en Dumbo (where I once ate a great dinner), and featuring ice cream sundaes from Fany Gerson of summertime favorite La Newyorkina. Tacos seem to be the new hip food trend in the City, with shops popping up seemingly everyday (Tres Carnes, Otto’s, Mission Cantina, Taquitoria, to name just a few). Just a few blocks from Stuy Town, Sembrado has a rustic aesthetic, riding the line between industrial and hipster chic with some deliberately placed decorative flares, seen most clearly in the contrast of the exposed brick walls and back wall mural that seemed to be a psychedelic take on a fractal.

Overall, the space is pretty tight, dominated mostly by the bar/kitchen, the remaining area filled with two and four tops. Jacob and I stopped by after seeing a matinee at the Public Theater, so we came in at an off-time, 5pm on a Saturday afternoon. There were a few people at the bar, but we were the only people dining at that time.

Food:

The dinner menu at Sembrado, reminiscent of AYCE sushi menus.

The dinner menu at Sembrado, reminiscent of AYCE sushi menus.

After seating us and bringing around tap water, our waiter handed us the menus — long pieces of paper lined with boxes for you to mark (how many of each taco you want, if you want cheese added). Our waiter explained that the menu was typical of the items you’d find at any taqueria around Mexico City (slightly gussied up, of course — or at least hopefully so with New York City pricing). That meant traditionally-sized tacos that should be tackled with the strategic ordering of a variety of small plates.

Since we were eating during happy hour, we opted for the slightly discounted guacamole ($2 off dinner price), then started down the list of appetizers, tacos, and other assorted dishes. We ended up with the Tacos Al Pastor, Bistec, Pollo, Hongos, and Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana, along with the Bistec and Nopal Costras. And because through rain, sleet, hail or snow we order ice cream, Jacob and I split one of Ms. Gerson’s El Sundaes to finish out our meal.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole arrived in a small bowl framed by homemade tortilla “chips,” which upon the further arrival of our tacos, were revealed to be the house tortillas fried to a crisp. Because of this, the chips were very fresh, although because they were uncut, I felt the chip-to-dip ratio was uneven, requiring us to eventually ask for a refill. There was a deceptively ample amount of guacamole in the bowl, which I had initially viewed as skimpy for the normal $9 price tag. However, it was one of my favorite parts of our meal (I’m sure partially because I am an avocado fiend). This recipe was smooth, pebbled with tiny chunks of avocado, and though there were no tomatoes in it, it had a strong bite from the onions and cilantro. Jacob and I had a nice moment with our waiter, lamenting those unfortunate souls for whom cilantro tastes disgustingly soapy. When used liberally in a dish like this, cilantro really just brightens all the underlying flavors.

Topping options -- three salsas and a bowl of fresh onions and peppers.

Topping options — three salsas and a bowl of fresh onions and peppers.

In advance of our tacos, our waiter brought out a funky vessel holding four different condiments — three types of salsa and a mix of freshly chopped red onions and peppers. The salsas varied in heat and smokiness. One of them was made with a bit of beer, which lent a subtle malted flavor. My favorite was the really smoky salsa (top right in the photo), which reminded me of barbecue sauce, but Jacob preferred the milder beer-infused one on the bottom left. Unfortunately, this is where the trouble starts. When we were served these condiments, and then our tacos soon after, there was no instruction or suggestion of how to pair the two. Given the myriad combinations given five tacos and four condiments, a poor East Coast Jewish gal like me didn’t even know where to start. I ended up mainly dipping my chips into the salsas, because I didn’t want to ruin my experience by dousing a taco in the wrong sauce.

Our smorgasbord of tacos, clockwise from top left: Pollo, Al Pastor, Hongos, and Bistec.

Our smorgasbord of tacos, clockwise from top left: Pollo, Al Pastor, Hongos, and Bistec.

Because of this, I ate my tacos largely in their natural state, with just a bit of lime juice squeezed on top. For all of the varieties, the consistency of the tortillas was excellent — fresh, pliant and chewy, serving as an stable vehicle without distracting from the fillings. As for those, well, some were more successful than others. My least favorite was the Bistec (all natural flatiron steak), which arrived chopped and fully cooked, flying solo in its tortilla. The meat was a little on the dry side, and while I like steak as much as the next person (perhaps more, considering my ecstasy at Peter Luger), I much preferred the Bistec in Costra form, with the fat and salt of the cheese to contrast with it. The Pollo (all natural free range chicken breast) fared slightly better, the small chunks of meat juicier and flavored with a nice marinade. I would have preferred a little more char on the chicken, but perhaps my dissatisfaction was due to my own neglect of the salsas near me — a little smoky salsa might have elevated the chicken or steak. The Hongos (grilled portobello mushroom with epazote) was also served relatively plain, although the addition of epazote (a Central American herb) gave it another layer of flavor. Of course my love of mushrooms is a given at this point, and portobellos are a top tier variety for me (don’t get me started on Hen of the Woods #mushroomnerd), so it’s not that shocking that of the unadorned tacos, the Hongos would win out.

Pescado del Dia taco -- flying solo, but packing more of a flavor punch.

Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana taco — flying solo, but packing more of a flavor punch.

Both the Taco Al Pastor (spit grilled marinated pork, onions and cilantro) and the Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana (grilled market fish — fluke that day — in a classic Mexican salsa of chile serrano, tomato and onion) had a little more complexity in their preparation, and I thought this made them the best of the bunch. I’ve always avoided ordering tacos al pastor before because I mostly avoid pork, but I’m glad I tried it at Sembrado, since it ended up being my favorite taco. It seemed as though you could taste the long, steady spit-roasting of the meat, which was juicy and had a smoky, almost mole-ish flavor. (Wikipedia research reveals that the rotisserie style of cooking was likely introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century).  The fluke tasted the freshest of all the tacos, especially when the acidity of the tomatoes and the heat of the jalapenos hit my palate. Again, the addition of toppings here really filled out the profile of the taco, making it more memorable than the plainer steak and chicken.

The Costras, like the mutant child of a quesadilla and a tostada -- Bistec on the left, Nopal on the right.

The Costras, like the mutant child of a quesadilla and a tostada — Bistec on the left, Nopal on the right.

If I’m being honest, I think I prefer the slightly more casual menu at Oaxaca Taqueria. Without a bit of a tour guide on how to experience more authentic Mexican cuisine, I’d rather have the decisions already made for me with established combinations. So at Sembrado, I found myself enjoying the Costras (crisp caramelized cheese atop flour tortilla) more than the tacos. The Costras, which were pretty much open-faced quesadillas, just seemed more fully realized as a dish. Plus, who doesn’t like caramelized cheese? As I mentioned earlier, the Bistec shone a lot brighter in Costra form, its funky umami serving as a nice base for the cheese. But I especially liked the Nopal (grilled cactus pad), an ingredient that I’d seen before on menus but never tried. Like the fish taco, you could taste how fresh the nopales were, and I liked the way the vegetal flavor cut through the richness of the cheese.

We dabbled with getting a few more items, since all of these servings were palm-sized and split between two people, served as a relatively light dinner. No surprise, we quickly tossed aside any notions of further nutrition in favor of diving headfirst into a giant sundae. El Sundae has its own paper menu full of potential add-ons. You select vanilla, strawberry, or horchata ice cream as your base, select your preferred toppings, elect a salsa (Mexican hot fudge or goats milk caramel), choose si or no on whipped cream, and decide if you’ll shell out the extra $3 to make it a brownie sundae. Alas, Sembrado was out of vanilla on our visit, so we ordered the horchata ice cream, topped with Nueces Garapinadas (piloncillo candied pecans) and Chocolate (Mexican chocolate bits), covered in both “salsas”, whipped cream, and heck yeah we’re having the brownies.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

Well, the sundae we were served was pretty good, but there were a few stumbling blocks. I’ve only had horchata in its traditional form a few times, and found it to be like watered down rice pudding, but as a thick and creamy ice cream, it was a solid substitute for the vanilla, and a not too sweet base for the rest of the sugar-overloaded components. I’ll take whipped cream in any form from udder to pressurized Reddi-Whip can, so I was more than happy to chow down on that. As for our salsas? Well, the hot fudge was nowhere to be found, but the caramel sauce was sweet and syrupy. Much like with my dessert at Blue Duck Tavern, I’m not sure how one discerns goats milk caramel from plain ol’ cows milk, but I really enjoyed Sembrado’s version when combined with the candied pecans. In fact, the nuts and Mexican chocolate bits were very helpful in providing a bit of textural contrast, since much like the hot fudge, our brownies were mysteriously absent. I’m sure my vascular system was relieved to be saved that extra peak of blood sugar, and in the end we weren’t charged for them, but I was a little disappointed to miss out on what could have been a tremendous brownie sundae.

Final Thoughts:

There’s a concept in psychology called “choice anxiety,” which posits that though we think we want as many options as possible, in truth, people quickly get overwhelmed by having to make too many decisions. It’s similar to the Millenial “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out” — presented with a long list of choices, we often just opt out all together. We may think all-encompassing personal agency is the most satisfying route, but what we’re actually looking for is limited power, a dip in a pool just deep enough to let us kick a bit without fear of sinking.

I couldn’t help but think about choice anxiety after my dinner at Sembrado. Overall, it was a good, but not great meal, successful in some elements but a letdown in others. I can’t place all the blame on the service, either. Our waiter was friendly if a little removed from the situation, but I think part of the problem comes from the space Sembrado occupies on the casual/fine dining ladder. It seems to be riding a sort of middle ground — a little too expensive to be the kind of neighborhood taco joint that revels in its oil and fried fat content, but clearly trying to be more casual than the elevated Latin cuisine experiences I’ve had at Hecho en Dumbo or La Esquina. For the relatively uninitiated taco consumer, Sembrado’s menu can be overwhelming, prompting numerous questions — how many tacos should I get? What’s a good combination of tacos? Should I get cheese on some? All? None? I’m not saying Sembrado should abandon their check-off menus in favor of the hegemony of an executive chef’s tasting menu (I actually rather like the paper menus), but they might benefit from the addition of a section outlining some suggested combos. Creating a starting point for your diners gives them somewhere to jump off of, and admits that not everybody may be as in the know about authentic Mexico City tacos. Maybe I’m in the minority for wanting to learn while trying new foods, but for us curious culinary enthusiasts, Sembrado would stand out more if it were willing to teach.

Sembrado

432 E. 13th Street

http://sembradonyc.com/