Pushing at the Edges: Zizi Limona

2014-06-08 11.11.31

I celebrated my birthday this past week, and looking back at the year that was, it’s hard not to think of the old adage of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’ve got a lot of new, exciting developments in my life, from changing jobs to my upcoming enrollment in grad school. But as food shifts from passion to profession for me, I’m noticing more than ever my palate’s internal tug-of-war between my desire for new tastes and experiences and my lifelong devotion to those comfort foods that evoke contentment and simple satisfaction.

 

So in a way it’s fitting that one of my last meals as a 25-year-old was at Zizi Limona, a restaurant that bills itself as “Mediterranean Home Cooking,” and was called “Grandma’s Middle Eastern kitchen” in one review. My brunch at Zizi Limona was the perfect combination of the traditional and the innovative, taking me back a little over a year to the scents and flavors of my Birthright trip to Israel, while also introducing me to a take on falafel that I’m pretty sure would leave the cooks at our kibbutzim scratching their heads. This is exactly the reason to get yourself over to Williamsburg and check this place out. You’ve got safe bets and experimental options aplenty, catering to any type of bruncher (or dinner-er … diner) you might have in your posse.

 

First Impressions:

Mismatched chairs, brick and wood covered walls, and Mediterranean goods for sale say a lot about Zizi Limona's vibe before you even crack a menu.

Mismatched chairs, brick and wood covered walls, and Mediterranean goods for sale say a lot about Zizi Limona’s vibe before you even crack a menu.

The trip to Zizi Limona was instigated by my belated birthday present to my Gastronomic Life Partner Jacob — a tour of the Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory. I could spend an entire separate post on that experience, but I’d rather just tell you to go. It’s very affordable, and aside from starting at 10am on a weekend, definitely a memorable experience. It’s worth every dollar for the amount of high quality dark chocolate you get to put in your face, plus you learn far more about the art of chocolate-making than I did at the “factory tour” at Hershey Park.

 

However, after our blood sugar levels dropped from their Mast-induced highs, Jacob and I found ourselves in the brunch mecca of Williamsburg with a desperate craving for non-cacao-based dishes. Neurotic that I am, I had of course researched our options, and landed upon Zizi Limona, a restaurant that had been on my radar for a few years after reading raves about its sandwiches and spreads.

 

The other side of the dining room, with the tiled bar and hanging pewter pitchers for brewing Turkish coffee.

The other side of the dining room, with the tiled bar and hanging pewter pitchers for brewing Turkish coffee.

Zizi Limona is an establishment with personality, to be sure. This is immediately apparent from the vibrantly green exterior topped by a red-and-green striped awning. Peering inside reveals a single, light-filled dining room constructed out of a variety of woods and exposed brick. This orchestrated mishmash of decor continues throughout the space, from the collection of non-matching tables and chairs, to the multicolored painted tiles on the small bar. Behind the bar are multiple shelves brimming with wine and beer bottles, and the wall across from it holds shelves stuffed with regional speciality products, like Turkish coffee, spice mixes, and date molasses. Speaking of Turkish coffee, Jacob (recently back from a trip to the country) noted that Zizi Limona hangs pewter vessels over the bar, to be used in the traditional method of brewing the coffee. We sat at one of the handful of outdoor tables, also made up of an assortment of styles, sizes, and seating arrangements. In fact, the only consistency I saw came in the table setting — all of our flatware and dishes was of the same set. I would venture that Zizi Limona is trying to emphasize a “restaurant next door” persona, quirky, eclectic, but accessible.

 

 

The Food:

 

That’s actually a pretty apt description of Zizi Limona’s menu, as well. The menu denotes vegan and gluten-free foods, but also carries the warning: “to keep our food balanced the only possible substitutions are listed.” Grandma’s only doing so much for your picky palate, kiddo. After struggling to narrow down our choices, Jacob and I chose to split an order of Aunt Trippo’s Falafel, followed by the Challah Sandwich for him, and the Shakshuka for me. Jacob almost ordered the Sabih (sic) Croissant (he does love his sabich), but drawn to the Challah by the promise of a more egg-forward, brunchy dish.

 

Complimentary spiced popcorn -- not as good as the pita and tahini to come but I'm never one to turn down free carbs.

Complimentary spiced popcorn — not as good as the pita and tahini to come but I’m never one to turn down free carbs.

Our meal started with a complimentary bowl of popcorn sprinkled liberally with Spanish Paprika. I would have preferred the pita and tahini bread basket outlined in the Serious Eats review I read, but in hindsight the popcorn was a nice entrée into brunch — heavily spiced, with lots of smoky flavor and salty, but not greasy or oily, which meant it didn’t make a serious dent in my stomach.

 

Aunt Trippos Falafel, the Aggro Crag of chickpea appetizers.

Aunt Trippos Falafel, the Aggro Crag of chickpea appetizers.

Aunt Trippo’s Falafel (pickles, smoked tomato, curry yogurt/tahini) was unlike any falafel dish I’ve seen before — tiny fried chickpea balls, each about the size of a large marble, plated atop a curried tahini sauce, then piled high with a smoked tomato chutney, charred shallots, and pickled cabbage. The falafel themselves were a little on the dry side, but had nice mix of basic chickpea flavor and fragrant spices like cumin and coriander, and the crunchy outer crust provided textural contrast with the tahini and the chutney. I really enjoyed both of the sauce elements — the curry-infused tahini was not as assertively sesame-y as some versions, its spices marrying well with those incorporated with the falafel, reminding me somewhat of Indian pakoras. The tomato chutney, chunky enough to stab with your fork and smokey and speckled with peppers,  turned out to be serious foreshadowing for my shakshuka. Overall, the dish was unfamiliar but satisfying, grounded in the traditional combination of falafel with vegetables and tahini, but taken to new corners of the globe through its spices and format, a tangle of tastes and textures that is far from Taim’s pita pocket, but still quite delicious.

 

 

Zizi Limona's Shakshuka, the best specimen I've tried outside of Eretz Yisrael.

Zizi Limona‘s Shakshuka, the best specimen I’ve tried outside of Eretz Yisrael.

Now as you know, I fell in love with shakshuka in Jaffa, care of licensed practitioner Dr. Shakshuka. Since I got back from Birthright I haven’t really found an iteration that lived up to the Doc’s, most of them mere echoes of the soupy, stewy, umami bomb of a skillet I had in Israel. But Zizi Limona’s Shakshuka (Two eggs poached in tomato stew with smoked eggplant, tahini, and cilantro) comes closest to reaching that high bar. As it happens, the owners of Zizi Limona come from Hummus Kitchen and Hummus Place, two restaurants where I’d been reasonably satisfied, if not bowled over, by the shakshuka. Apparently it took a meeting of the minds to crack the eggy code. What brought me back to Jaffa was the inclusion of the smoked eggplant, adding a deep, earthy flavor that cut through the richness of the perfectly cooked eggs, and fought for dominance with the alternately sweet and savory tomato stew. I really appreciated the wide variety of flavors that intermingled in this dish, from the bright cilantro to the nutty tahini, the acidity of the tomatoes to the mild bite of the onions. After breaking the eggs, the texture was pretty much like a sauce, but as with the falafel there were substantial chunks of tomato strewn throughout, thickened by the mixing with the unctuous eggplant. I sopped up the shakshuka with the same pita we had been given with the falafel — a fluffy disk of warm, soft dough, sturdy enough to handle the soupy shakshuka but still chewy and light on its own. The dish was a very filling, but wholesome lunch that took me back to that outdoor table in Jaffa — albeit, with a slightly different vibe, as a number of hip Brooklyn stereotypes strolled by us on a Sunday morning. But the stew itself evoked enough nostalgia to make me place Zizi Limona’s shakshuka at the top of my stateside list.

 

The monster Challah Sandwich, not quite the eggy dish Jacob was aiming for.

The ginormous Challah Sandwich — all about the bread, at the unfortunate expense of its filling.

Unfortunately, I felt like the Challah Sandwich (omelette, charred veggies, harissa) was the weakest dish of our brunch, although it was it was by no means a bad sandwich. Our waiter had called it the “heavier” of the two when comparing the Challah and Sabih Croissant, and it was easy to see why he felt that way: this was definitely a monster of a sandwich,  with two thick, almost Texas Toast-style slices of toasted challah encasing an egg patty, harissa, tahini, and a bounty of grilled vegetables. It came with pickles, yogurt, and some sort of lemon sauce on the side, which tasted like curd but had the appearance of applesauce. Despite all its promise, I found myself disappointed by the sandwich. It ended up being almost entirely about the challah and vegetables, which would have been fine if the challah had matched the standard set by the pita. But it was the kind of white-bread-esque challah I find underwhelming except when employed as the base for french toast. See, I grew up eating Zomicks, a local brand of challah that has a supremely sweet eggy dough, with their best loaves possessing a pliant, even bouncy texture as you tear into them (leading to the occasional smushing as you try to slice them). If you haven’t encountered Zomicks, seek thee out the diamond in the rough.

 

As for the filling, after the care and subtlety of our other two dishes, I was surprised by how bland the Challah Sandwich was. The grilled vegetables had a nice amount of char to them, but the eggs that Jacob had wanted so badly were anonymous in the sandwich, reminding me of the kind of generic patty of premixed omelet you’d find in a cafeteria. The tahini was creamy, but there was none of the punch of a good harissa. Jacob ended up opening up the sandwich to eat it with a knife and fork by the end of our meal, and I found myself happiest with the dish when I used the challah to soak up more of my leftover shakshuka.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I was more than satisfied with Zizi Limona — it’s got a great, laid back atmosphere, helpful servers, and Mediterranean-inflected food that is playful without neglecting its roots. I fully intend on returning to try some of the meat dishes like the shawarma, or come back for lunch for the infamous Sabih Croissant to take another stab at Zizi’s sandwiches. Although I’ll admit it’s going to be a struggle to order anything besides the shakshuka, so maybe I’ll just have to visit enough to quench my stewed-egg-longings.

 

I’ve spoken before about authenticity, and the more I explore cooking and dining, the less stake I put in it (at least in this city of Ramen Burgers and General Tso-boys). My point is that, at least in my case, sometimes you can have it all — the genre-bending and the classic fare, the loves both old and new. I fell in love with Mediterranean food over the past year (as mentioned over and over and over on this blog), but hummus has been my homeboy for at least a decade. I kinda like that I’m the girl who tries chicken hearts on rosemary skewers, but is also desperate to find the new Reeses Cup Oreos (seriously, anybody seen ‘em?). Maybe the whole point of exploring food, or growing up, is not to “put away childish things,” but rather to realize that your experiences lie on a spectrum that widens as you age. By trying new things and challenging myself, I push the outer limits of that spectrum, but that means there is always room for Archie comics and the Atlantic, for blue Cookie Monster ice cream and Durian Banana Sorbet, for Mickey Mouse pancakes and for damn fine shakshuka. Almost makes me glad I’m getting older.

 

Zizi Limona

129 Havemeyer, Brooklyn, New York

http://zizilimona.com/

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The Grand Cookie Crawl: Bouchon Bakery

2014-05-19 19.03.12

I have to apologize. I’ve been so busy filling my time and stomach with nachos and ice cream, I’ve neglected one of my most important missions — to wade through the endless morass of New York’s chocolate chip cookies for your edification and sanity. After far too long a hiatus, I bring you another entry in the annals of the Grand Cookie Crawl (and as a bonus, this one features pretender to the Oreo throne)!

In the waning days of freedom of my inter-job NYC staycation, I had the fortune of going to a taping of the Daily Show with (who else) Jacob, and so after an exhausting 90 minutes of sitting and laughing loudly, we obviously were in dire need of sustenance … made completely of sugar. So we trekked up Broadway to Columbus Circle, to sample the wares at Bouchon Bakery.

Bouchon Bakery is famed chef Thomas Keller’s ode to French boulangeries. Keller is the chef/owner behind 8 restaurants in the US, including renowned California restaurants The French Laundry and Ad Hoc, and NY hot spot Per Se (located next to Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center). Not impressed enough? Keller has seven Michelin Stars, and according to his bio is the only American-born chef to hold multiple 3-star ratings by the Michelin Guide. I’ve yet to be able to visit one of his restaurants, but with Bouchon Bakery much more within reach, I was determined to try whatever of Keller’s output I could get access to.

 

 

First Impressions

 

The soft white and pastel paint of Bouchon Bakery are a nice break from the mall's metal and glass architecture.

The soft white and pastel paint of Bouchon Bakery are a nice break from the mall’s metal and glass architecture.

Located in the “Shops at Columbus Circle” (aka the Time Warner Center) just down the hall from Per Se, this location of Bouchon Bakery (there’s another in 30 Rock) is, well, kind of just a fancy mall bakery. When you get down to brass tax, the Time Warner Center is just a glitzy, glass and metal version of many of the upscale malls you can find in America. It’s anchored by the pedigree of high-caliber restaurants like Per Se and priciest-meal-in-NYC sushi heaven Masa, but look past them and you’ll find plenty of familiar faces, from Sephora and Williams Sonoma to Swarovski and even the Art of Shaving. So you can’t really fault Bouchon Bakery for fitting into this mold, restrained in both its physical and aesthetic footprints.

 

 

The large selection of baked goods helps, too.

The large selection of baked goods helps, too. That’s right, those macarons come in regular and SUPER-SIZED.

The space is fairly generic at first glance — a counter with refrigerated cases facing out towards a cluster of metal tables and chairs. Small touches evoke a French influence, from the delicate palette of pastel greens and pinks in the Bouchon Bakery logo and menus (not to mention the literally French quotes on the wall), to the chalkboard menus, to the retro light fixtures hanging above the baked goods. Speaking of, there were still a good amount of options at 7:30pm, including a wide variety of macarons (small and giant-sized), cookies, and traditional pastries. Bouchon Bakery also offers a small selection of savory items with sample versions displayed, leaving me vaguely disgusted by a bowl of soup that had to be on the verge of entirely congealed. When you get close to dinner, I’d suggest skipping the Bakery counter in favor of the recently opened cafe, which has a more robust menu, and probably doesn’t leave its soup out for hours.

Undeterred by sludgy soups, Jacob and I went for a selection of the Bouchon Bakery classics — a Chocolate Chip Cookie, a TKO (Thomas Keller Oreo, chosen for obvious reasons), and the eponymous Bouchon (which Jacob makes everyone try).

 

 

The Cookies:

 

The eponymous Bouchon, an elegantly cork-shaped ... fancy fudge cake.

The eponymous Bouchon, an elegantly cork-shaped … fancy fudge cake.

We’ll start with Bouchon Bakery’s namesake, the Bouchon. The word means “cork” in French, which explains its shape, but belies its heft. This is no crumbly, air-filled confection — it’s basically a dense, fudgy chocolate chocolate cake, made out of such a dark cocoa powder it’s nearly black (suggesting dutch-, or even ultra-dutch-processed cocoa). The taste was reminiscent of a box brownie mix, and I mean that in the best way possible — chewy and rich rather than cakey, the outside made of a crisp, thin skin giving way to a moist interior crumb. I certainly enjoyed the Bouchon, but found it almost too much even at such a small size. I’d love to pair it with a scoop of ice cream to vary up the texture a bit.

 

 

The TKO, for the discerning eater who doesn't claim Oreos as her kryptonite (aka, not me).

The TKO, for the discerning eater who doesn’t claim Oreos as her kryptonite (aka, not me).

Now as we know I’m a skeptic when it comes to Oreo-imitators. I’ll use Joe-Joes in baked goods in the place of Oreos, but if I’m chowing down on just the cookies, get those Newman-o’s away from my face. However, a simple Google search of “Bouchon TKO” will yield endless blog posts naming the cookie as “to die for,” “amazing” and a “more sophisticated” take on an Oreo. Occasionally I like to pretend I’m more than a 5-year with her hand in the cookie-jar when it comes to dessert, so I stuffed down my trepidation and made the ultimate sacrifice of eating an artisanal cookie.

Sadly, my friends, Nabisco’s dodgy ingredient list still wins the day. I found myself perplexingly disappointed by how, well, fresh the TKO was. The scalloped wafer cookies were made with the same uber-dark cocoa powder as employed in the Bouchon, which was evocative of Oreos, at least in appearance. The flavor of the cookies, however, was too intensely chocolatey, and there was a strange smoky/salty aftertaste that left Jacob semi-convinced Keller uses bacon in his cookies. The filling was a white chocolate buttercream, far too soft to stand up again the rigid wafers, so that with each bite I found the cream squeezing out the sides and into my hands. Again, the definitive white chocolate flavor was a step away from the unmistakable but somewhat anonymously sweet taste of Oreo creme. As so often happens, this was really a case of subverted expectations. Had I been given a TKO without knowing its name or inspiration, I probably would have happily dug in — to Keller’s credit, it’s a visually appealing cookie, well-made with high quality ingredients. But with the weight of Oreo reverence already tipping the scales, it’s no surprise that personally, the TKO didn’t stand a chance.

 

 

Bouchon Bakery's Chocolate Chip Cookie, simple, staid, classic, and pretty damn tasty.

Bouchon Bakery‘s Chocolate Chip Cookie, simple, staid, classic, and pretty damn tasty.

The reverse situation happened to me while eating the Chocolate Chip Cookie. It had mostly been an afterthought — an obligation for covering the Grand Cookie Crawl, and nowhere near as exciting as the new, shiny, unfamiliar Bouchon and TKO. But of course, it’s the underdog that steals first place. Bouchon’s Chocolate Chip Cookie is roughly the same size and shape as the ones at City Bakery and Jacques Torres — wide, thin, golden brown in hue. Bouchon uses semi-sweet chocolate chunks, and through the mystery of cookie chemistry, these chunks maintain a semi-solid state well after cooling (these cookies were sitting under heat lamps in a case, rather than warmed like JT’s). As you split the cookie, these pockets of gooey chocolate ripped open and oozed outward (although not quite the deluge of Levain‘s entry). I’ve come to the conclusion that the quality of the chocolate chips is not a huge priority for me when it comes to these cookies. Nestle semi-sweet or Guittard 80%, I’ll take either if given a properly executed dough. And Bouchon delivers exactly that — a cookie base with a crispy exterior but chewy inside, and strong notes of caramelized brown sugar and vanilla. To me, a good chocolate chip cookie baker isn’t afraid of his eaters encountering the stray chip-less bite, because the dough can stand on its own (sometimes I search through my mother’s batches for a chip-free runt of the litter, because her recipe is that good).

 

 

Final Verdict:

 

I’m still waiting for the cookie that can unseat Levain, and I’m not sure I’ll find it in NY. Anyone who thinks their favorite can topple those UWS behemoth baked goods, please let me know. I’m very much game for the challenge. However, I would slide Bouchon’s Chocolate Chip Cookie in above City Bakery’s (and Jacques Torres), because it had the killer combo of texture and flavor. Certainly I’d recommend Bouchon’s drop cookies over the TKO, although I’ll allow that others may be able to look beyond the paragon of packaged cookies and appreciate the subtlety of Keller’s ode to the childhood classic. I do want to try his take on a Nutter Butter, since I’m much more open-minded when it comes to peanut butter-based desserts. I’d also like to return for more items in the vein of the Bouchon, to see how Keller does with his takes on more traditional French pastries and cakes (those eclairs were calling out to me).

Considering its surroundings and pedigree, Bouchon Bakery is relatively unpretentious, and worth a visit if only for the variety of its menu, and the lovely view out onto Columbus Circle. Does it have the local, down-home vibe of a place like Levain? Of course not, it’s in a mall, after all. But if you can look beyond the brand, Bouchon Bakery does offer more than one spoonful of sugar to make your post-shopping credit card bill just a little bit easier to swallow.

 

Bouchon Bakery

Ten Columbus Circle, Third Floor

New York, NY 10019

http://bouchonbakery.com/