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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Picking Through the Pop-Ups: Mad. Sq. Eats

I’m a big fan of options — that’s why I love appetizer platters, buffets, and ice cream flavors with lots of mix-ins. I’d rather try a chicken finger/mozzarella stick/pig-in-blanket combo than munch through a bowl of boring popcorn, and give me Phish Food over plain jane vanilla any day of the week. Because of this, I’m always curious to check out the newest crop of pop-up food events in New York.

The term “pop-up” refers to short-term food projects that take over a public space, such as the Kubbeh Project that took place at Zucker’s Bakery earlier this year (which closed literally as I returned from Israel), or YUJI Ramen, the latest installation that is all the rage at the Whole FoodsSmorgasburg at Bowery.” Pop-up restaurants can serve to showcase the talents of a specific chef, or just simply explore the potential of a certain concept. The scene has seemingly exploded over the past few years, expanding to encompass not only established restaurants, but also food trucks and catering vendors through stalls at farmer’s markets and festivals. I got a small taste of some of the newer players on the pop-up scene last week when Jacob and I managed to sneak in  a visit to Mad Sq. Eats, on the last night before it closed up shop for the summer.

The entrance to Mad Sq. Eats, plenty busy on its final night.

The entrance to Mad Sq. Eats, plenty busy on its final night.

Mad Sq. Eats is a semi-annual, month-long pop-up food market that takes place next to Madison Square Park in the spring and the fall. Both established brick-and-mortar restaurants and relatively small-scale vendors are featured at MSE, and the makeup of the festival not only changes year to year, but also between seasons. This time around, the cuisines offered ran the gamut from East Asian to pizza to barbecue, and despite MSE being located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, there were vendors representing at least Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, if not all the boroughs. Some of the booths offered multiple dishes, while others stuck to variations of just one concept, like meatballs or arancini.

When Mad Sq Eats comes around again next fall, I’d definitely recommend trying to hit the festival in the middle of the month. There were significant negative consequences for visiting on the last day. First — the crowds. MSE is located in the tiny public space between Broadway and Fifth, just west of the park, and when we arrived around 7:45pm on Friday, it was overflowing with people perusing the vendors, waiting on lines, and trying to find a spot at one of the handful of tables set up in the middle of the market. Then, once Jacob and I had made the circuit and decided what we wanted to try, we discovered that our first choice, La Sonrisa Empanadas, was already completely sold out, with more than an hour before closing time. Refusing to be deterred, we quickly pivoted, deciding to take charge of our foodie fate by dividing and conquering. I hopped on line at Ilili’s booth, and Jacob headed down the row to Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen.

Give me your huddled masses yearning to eat treats...

Give me your huddled masses yearning to eat treats…

Ilili is a Lebanese/Mediterrean restaurant in the Flatiron that I’ve happily made multiple trips to. In fact, when I visited Mad Sq. Eats last fall I ended up ordering and loving the lamb shoulder shawarma sandwich. After the egregious lack of empanadas, I almost gave in and just ordered the shawarma again, but I convinced myself not to miss out on an opportunity to try something new, so I went with the Phoenician Fries, on Jacob’s recommendation. The lucky duck lives only a few blocks away from Madison Square (yes, and he’s close to Beecher’s — talk about unfair), so he’d already been to MSE a couple of times this May.

Phoenician Fries from Ilili, spiced and smothered to perfection.

Phoenician Fries from Ilili, spiced and smothered to perfection.

The Phoenician Fries were handcut and fried to order, covered in sumac, salt, Aleppo pepper, and garlic whip. They arrived looking pretty much like Middle Eastern cheese fries. Although I’ve previously stated my preference for ketchup over the trendier aioli, in this case I found the garlic whip absolutely addictive. The sumac and salt added a little bite to contrast against the creamy sauce, and the fries were perfectly crisp and crunchy due to being hot out of the oil. You can find these spiced spuds on Ilili’s restaurant menu year-round, and considering their generous brunch prix-fixe, I wouldn’t be surprised if we coincidentally crossed paths sometime in the near future.

While I was salivating over our fries, Jacob was off at Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen procuring one of their specialty grilled cheese sandwiches. The vendor dubs itself a “grilled cheese bar,” and until this week was a Brooklyn-based startup that existed solely at  pop-up events like MSE. As of this Monday, however, Mrs. Dorsey’s has a found a storefront, so kudos to them on entering the permanent NY food scene. We chose a cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese, served on panini-pressed sourdough. It was far from a classic grilled cheese, but the sharpness of the cheddar mingled well with the smokier gouda, and the bread had a nice toasty crunch to it. The major detractor was the fact that the sandwich was not cooked for long enough, leaving the cheese warmed, but basically unmelted. Overall, It was a perfectly serviceable grilled cheese made with quality components, but nothing beyond what I could have made in my own kitchen. I’m not giving up on Mrs. Dorsey’s, however, since their catering menu is more varied and creative in its sandwich selection (such as the Jam Goat, featuring goat cheese and strawberry preserves). We’ll have to see where their new store is located, and what they’ll be serving.

The cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese from Mrs. Dorsey's Kitchen. Strong cheese, but not as melted as it needed to be.

The cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese from Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen. Strong cheese, but not as melted as it needed to be.

The display case at Mmm Enfes, full of buttery, stuffed pastries.

The display case at Mmm Enfes, full of buttery, stuffed pastries.

The other “main course” of our meal came from Mmm Enfes, a Turkish street food and pastry shop in Midtown West. We got two of the varieties of gozleme, a Turkish flatbread stuffed with meat and/or vegetables and cheese. We opted for the chicken and mushroom and the spinach and feta. The gozlemes reminded me of a hybrid between a stuffed naan and the flat laffa bread I had in Israel. The flatbreads were heated and then rolled like crepe, with the same slight sweetness and eggy flavor. The filling of chicken and mushroom was slightly dry and crumbly, and was heavily spiced, leaving me pretty thirsty. I found the spinach and cheese gozleme much more successful. The sweeter bread paired wonderfully with the salty cheese and the faint bitterness of the spinach, coming off like the wrap version of a quiche.

The chicken and mushroom gozleme, a little dry without a binder like cheese.

The chicken and mushroom gozleme, a little dry without a binder like cheese.

The spinach and feta gozleme, which I thought was superior due to the moister filling and stronger flavors.

The spinach and feta gozleme, which I thought was superior due to the moister filling and stronger flavors.

 

There’s really no point in a disclaimer anymore. Obviously I got dessert, and everyone expects me to rave about it. Well, I’m not going to disappoint you. We chose to visit Melt Bakery’s cart for some of their signature ice cream sandwiches. Melt, located on the LES, is “New York’s First Ice Cream Sandwich Store.” They make both the cookies and the ice cream that have made their creations infamous amongst ice cream devotees such as myself (it’s a wonder I haven’t given myself a lactose allergy at this point). Melt’s menu changes daily, so while Jacob had already gotten to try their Lovelet sandwich (red velvet cookies with cream cheese ice cream, dammit), I wasn’t given that option. I wasn’t too bitter, however, because I was able to order the Cinnamax, a snickerdoodle/cinnamon ice cream sandwich. Jacob chose the Morticia, featuring malted chocolate rum ice cream between two crackly chocolate cookies. As shown by the fist-to-sandwich comparison photo below, these sandwiches were actually smaller than Levain’s cookies, but I took that as a positive. The ice cream was full and creamy, and the cookies definitely didn’t skimp on the butter, so it was good not to have too large a serving of such a rich dessert, especially after our frie, cheese, and pastry dinner.

Melt's sandwiches are about the size of a classic Chipwich.

Melt’s sandwiches are about the size of a classic Chipwich. Shown here, Jacob’s deeply chocolate Morticia.

 I’m one of those people who simply cannot have enough cinnamon in things, to the point where I top my fake-o cappuccinos ($3 hand-frother off of Amazon, aka food-nerd present from the best mom ever!) of drip coffee and almond milk with a liberal shaking of cinnamon. So anything cinnamon bun or oatmeal raisin themed in the ice cream department is going to be right up my alley. The Cinnamax definitely satisfied my recurrent cinnamon craving, but I ultimately found the Morticia more satisfying. Where the Cinnamax falters is the similarity of flavors between the snickerdoodle and the cinnamon ice cream. While the cookies were soft and made it easy to keep the sandwich intact (a crucial component of a strong ice cream sandwich), in the end it was a very single-note dessert.

The lighter, sweeter Cinnamax.

The lighter, sweeter Cinnamax.

 Jacob’s Morticia, on the other hand, had a variety of different textures and flavors throughout it. The cookies were just as crackly as advertised, breaking off more readily than the chewier snickerdoodles, which made for a messier eating experience for sure. However, they had a rich dark cocoa flavor, which played off the sugary malt and rum tastes of the ice cream, and overall I enjoyed the textural contrast of the cookie vs. filling, as sticky as my hands got eating it. Somehow I found it more refreshing than the Cinnamax, although I’m not sure I would opt to order either flavor again if I visit Melt Bakery’s store downtown. I’m still holding out for the Lovelet, or the peanut butter/banana themed Elvis.


Even though my visit to Mad Sq Eats had its ups and downs, I fully recommend checking it out next fall. It’s wholly unique experience, like an artisanal version of the mall food court, where the prices are slightly higher and the food is infinitely better. It’s a wonderful chance to sample some up-and-coming and off-the-beaten path vendors, not to mention a delicious opportunity to support small businesses. I’m planning to make the trip to Hester Nights (Thursdays at the Eventi Space through September), and hopefully I’ll check out the Smorgasbar down at South Street Seaport. And hopefully when I head back to Mad Sq Eats in the fall, I may finally be able to try those empanadas.

Ilili

236 5th Ave (between 27th and 28th)

http://www.ililinyc.com/

Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen

138 Willoughby Street (in Brooklyn)

http://mrsdorseyskitchen.com/

Mmm Enfes

70 W. 39th St (corner of 6th Ave)

https://twitter.com/MmmEnfes

Melt Bakery

132 Orchard St

http://www.meltbakery.com/

Wait, They Have More Than Milk and Honey? — Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 1

It's pretty dorky, but I really loved seeing familiar products with Hebrew names.

It’s pretty dorky, but I really loved seeing familiar products with Hebrew names.

Sorry for the recent lapse in updates, but as implied by the title of this post, I just got back from a 2 week trip to Israel. I was on a Birthright trip, and though I wish I could be more original, I’m going to be like everyone else who has gone on those and say it was completely worth it. If you can scrounge up any molecule of Jewery in your DNA, I highly recommend trying Birthright. For someone who defines “pushing herself” as getting medium salsa instead of mild, it was an incredibly rewarding personal challenge. And of course I got to eat my body weight in hummus and pita, so no complaints here.

We criss-crossed the country at rocket ship speed, so there’s a ton to cover, even if I limit myself to just talking about food. I love traveling for many reasons, but I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that exploring the everyday cuisine of someplace new is up at the top of my list. I’ve only really gotten into Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food in the past year, so I was pumped to move beyond falafel and tahini to see what other basic dishes I could try in Israel. I’m going to focus this post on some larger take-aways about the food on my trip, to provide some context for the more in-depth discussion of the more memorable dishes.

Everyone is provided with two meals a day on a Birthright trip, which are generally breakfast and dinner at whatever kibbutz or hotel you’re staying at. The meals were all cafeteria style buffets, and usually involved tons of vegetables and salads, some meat-stew dishes, and rice or couscous. Luckily, I was perfectly happy to take a shovel to the eggplants, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

By the end of the trip, however, I was really struggling with breakfast. Israeli breakfast is very different from the typical American, or even European meals I’ve had. Israelis tend to have very large breakfasts, which our guide explained is due to the schedule of working on a kibbutz (= farming commune) back when they were first established in the late 19th Century. You’d wake up early, go work the fields for a few hours, and then come in for breakfast before heading back out to work some more. To make up for all the hard labor, a traditional Israeli breakfast involves hardboiled eggs, salads of tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, and other fresh vegetables, yogurt-based dips and sauces, and some bread (generally pita). At the places we stayed there were also fried eggs, yogurt, cereal, and pudding for breakfast (no joke, both vanilla and chocolate were offered at nearly every hotel or kibbutz).

I suppose this really isn’t too different a notion than the big farmer’s breakfasts we have here — bacon, eggs, sausage, potatoes etc. — but the foundational tastes of the meal are pretty far apart. As an American I struggled with the idea of having vegetables for breakfast, and found myself craving some sort of fruit in the morning — some berries or citrus or even a banana. I also tend to eat smaller, blander breakfasts (oatmeal with bananas and cinnamon is a frequent occurrence), so I was slightly overwhelmed by the heaviness of the buffet. This is partially because like in Europe, low-fat products are rare in Israel — the basic milk offered was 3%, and the lowest yogurt fat content I saw was 1.5%, with the highest being up to 5%. Now this is not to say that America has it right with our obsession with all things low-carb, low-fat,  and diet-branded (such as diet milk, which is a real thing), but I won’t deny the fact that I’m used to having the option. By the end of the trip I was basically limiting myself to yogurt and granola or cereal, because I knew that my options for lunch or dinner were going to be much heavier, and I regrettably couldn’t jump on the veggie bandwagon in the morning.

A few other random observations about food and drink in Israel:

– I was told by multiple people that Starbucks’ efforts to expand into Israel failed because of the country’s obsession with coffee. The most prevalent chain coffee house is Aroma, which actually has a couple locations in New York. I thought their espresso was nothing to shake a stick at, but they do have an extensive food menu with far better offerings than Starbucks — actual sandwiches and salads served with warm fresh bread.

Aroma also serves the Israeli version of “iced coffee,” which is pretty much a frappucino. I found it tooth-achingly sweet (which says a lot coming from me), but it’s clearly very popular, since almost any store that sold coffee offered a version of iced coffee from a slushee-type machine. This includes both fancy espresso bars and more common snack stands at places like the Dead Sea.

– I only found one restaurant that gave you the option of combining milk and meat (which goes against keeping Kosher) — Black Burger (similar to Five Napkin Burger in NY), but it was a separate topping, not a standard menu item. Even at a sandwich shop, you had to choose between a cheese sandwich and a meat-based one — the cheese and meat were sitting near each other in the refrigerator, but the employees refused to make a turkey and cheese sandwich.

– Fruit juice stands were everywhere, and they were amazing, partially making up for the lack of fruit at our accommodations. I discovered a new appreciation for pomegranate because of it, and I wish the fruit vendors in NY would occasionally bust out a blender or two.

But enough of the complaints, let’s dig into the times we had to buy ourselves food, because that’s where the more interesting dishes were. Given the frenetic pace of the tour, I didn’t have much time to jot down notes on food, so consider this a brief slideshow of some culinary exploration, rather than a detailed analysis of Israeli street food. I can’t say I was disappointed by anything I ate, from the strip mall shawarma to my first taste of Iraqi food.

I’ll get into the specifics of my various lunches and dinners next post, but for now I wanted to talk about the two markets or “shuks” that I went to in Israel, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I’ve been to various farmers’ markets in my life, including the famed Union Square Market, but I’ve never seen anything comparable to the markets they have in Israel. It was like someone had turned a supermarket inside out — you could find anything you wanted there, from fresh fruit and vegetables to desserts, condiments, spices, and even full fish and butcher shops.

2013-03-15 13.26.35

A typical stall in the Tel Aviv Market — you couldn’t help but hit a dried fruit vendor every twenty feet or so.

One of the most plentiful items on sale was dried fruit, with a wide variety in copious quantities. Aside from the obvious Middle Eastern staples of dried figs and dates, I also tried dried pineapple (not the overly sweetened chunks you see in the grocery store) and dried mango. Since the vendors charge based on weight, it was impossible only get a few pieces of anything. I was lucky enough to sample others’ hauls and avoid having to make my way through 5 pounds of figs. I was also excited to try fresh dates for the first time.  The fresh date reminded me of a mellower grape — it still had the sticky-sweetness of dried dates, but the juiciness helped to mitigate it a bit. I’ve only come across dried dates in the US, so if someone knows where I can get fresh ones, I’d be extremely grateful.

This may look like cheese, but it's actually piles and piles of halva.

This may look like cheese, but it’s actually piles and piles of halva.

Another shuk mainstay are the halva stalls. Halva is a overarching term referring to a number of different types of sweets that are found in the Arab and Jewish world, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe to North Africa and beyond. The word itself just means “sweet” in Arabic, and is generally divided into two categories: flour-based and nut-butter-based. The halva I encountered in Israel was mainly sesame (aka tahini) -based, so they were dense and crumbly. As you can see from the photo, there are at least as many varieties of halva as flavors at Baskin Robbins. In both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem the stalls had free samples available, and I got to try chocolate and coffee halva, respectively. The texture reminded me a little of dried out pate, which was off-putting, although they were both certainly very sweet. I personally prefer my tahini on its own, so I wasn’t tempted to buy any halva to bring back to the States.

Aside from raw ingredients, you could also find freshly made pastries, like rugelach and baklava.

Aside from raw ingredients, you could also find freshly made pastries, like rugelach and baklava.

I ate more rugelach than ever before during my trip to Israel, and it really changed my opinion on the treat. Most of the rugelach I’ve encountered in the US has been dry and stale, with the cinnamon or chocolate filling providing the slimmest amount of moisture to combat the crumbly crust. But the fresh rugelach in Israel was almost like a cinnamon roll in texture, the dough squishy and saturated by the buttery filling. More to come on the top rugelach contender in part two of my Israel posts, but the total ubiquity of  rugelach in the shuks points to the reasoning behind my fascination with these markets. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is ride the public transportation in a foreign city. It may seem odd to be so interested in a subway system, but I’m fascinated by how people from different regions have figured out urban design — with the same basic constraints of a light rail or subway system, how does someone outside of New York or the US tackle the conundrum of creating a convenient commute? It takes me out of the picturesque tourist attractions and gives me a tiny slice of everyday life in Paris or Rome or Amsterdam.

Because of safety issues, Birthright groups are pretty much restricted to the tour bus provided by the trip, which meant riding the light rail or public bus was not an option for me. But I did get to walk through the shuk in Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon, as average, everyday shoppers were getting their food and supplies for Shabbat. Unlike some of the more novelty stalls at the Union Square Market, these people were literally shopping for staples — peppers and onions, raisins and cinnamon and ketchup and mayo, and maybe even a little dessert for after Shabbat dinner. The markets were bustling, partially with awestruck tourists like me, but we were not the majority of people there. So while I dilly-dallied, taking in the sights of loaves of challah and being eyeballed by head-still-on herring, the rest of the world got on with its business. Mundane as it might be, I couldn’t help but be grateful for the chance to be an observer of uncurated life, similar to my own but just different enough to make me question when our paths diverged, and if there are any Super Shuk-and-Stops in Israel.

Next post I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of some of my favorite meals in Israel. Let’s just say that I found a deeper bond with the Israeli people than our common religious heritage: an everlasting desire for ice cream in all its glory. Stay tuned for shawarma, falafel, shakshuka, and of course, lots of dessert.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Daido (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat All the Fried Food)

Now that the countdown to Christmas has turned to a mere handful of hours, we’ve officially reached the apex of that time of year when calorie counts break down and anything we’d already consider decadent is battered, fried, and topped with ice cream (aka the parallel universe known as November through January in America). I can’t tell you the amount of buttered, dipped, iced, or glazed things I’ve consumed in the past few weeks (not that I was much of a poster child for moderation before that). And so with holiday fast approaching, and my willpower at its annual low, I find myself recounting yet another chapter in the tale of The Demise of Maggie’s Cholesterol. Let’s dig in:

As my previous post discussed, one of the reasons I actually like the holiday season (inflatable lawn ornaments aside) is the emphasis on tradition. Chanukah may only be a minor festival in Judaism, but there are certain habits and rituals that my family and I use to mark the occasion, and that’s what truly makes it significant for me. This past weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to join in a tradition of my friends Laura and Steven — a day of cooking and eating Japanese food. This tradition isn’t necessarily holiday-season-bound for them, but being included at this time of year made me feel like a kid being asked up to the grownups’ table for the first time, and that table was covered in fried dumplings.

For at least as long as I’ve known them, Laura and Steven have been going to this Japanese market in White Plains called Daido. For years it was a mythical place for me, where the strange candies like Koala’s March and Pocky in Laura’s lunch bag came from, but lacking in a real geographical location. Of course, when we actually went there on Saturday I realized I’ve driven by it literally hundreds of times (in my defense, there is poor signage!). Aside from supplying unique desserts for their lunchboxes, Laura and Steven would occasionally go to Daido to pick up a hodgepodge of dumplings, croquettes, noodles and meat for their ritual fried feast. Basically, I was prepping myself for a meal at a Japanese Cracker Barrel (and if you think I’m referring to the cheese company, then you’ve never had the joy of highway rest stop chicken fried chicken, and I’m sorry for your loss).

The rather unassuming entrance to Daido

The rather unassuming entrance to Daido

Daido was larger than I anticipated, given the specialty markets I’ve been to in NY. While certainly no Super Stop ‘n’ Shop, Daido had enough room for 5 or 6 aisles, plus a meat, frozen, and produce section. Not to mention the small Parisienne bakery (what?) near the registers.

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Oh, you know, in case I want to throw a croissant in with my udon noodles.

Oh, you know, in case I want to throw a croissant in with my udon noodles.

One of my weirder interests is my fascination with foreign fast food (much like my fascination with foreign public transit systems — you know what, the mundane stuff can tell you a lot about a culture), so if I’d had more time I would have roamed the aisles to really explore all the strange frozen meals and snacks. But we were on a mission, and the first step was procuring rice balls. I was told rice balls are to be eaten in the car immediately after checkout and before going home, as a prelude to the main event. Some eating before our eating? I am fine with that.

Rice balls in their native habitat. There were probably six or seven types available.

Rice balls in their native habitat. There were probably six or seven types available.

Despite multiple efforts on my part, I remain not a huge fan of sushi, so I was a little reluctant to dive into the rice ball world of salmon roe and seared tuna. Laura, Steven, and my friend Sarah (of Thanksgiving dessert amazingness fame) were kind enough to guide me to the tuna/mayo rice ball. Comforted by the safety of that purchase, I went out on a limb for my second rice ball and picked out kelp, an admittedly odd combination. Then Steven and Laura went off to pick out the necessities for dinner, and Sarah and I wandered the aisles as she picked up some wasabi-flavored rice crackers and I scanned the cookies. While I didn’t find any Japanese Oreo products, Sarah and I stumbled upon the terribly unfortunately named Couque D’Asses. Predictably, a quick search on the internet leads to many other bloggers with the same juvenile reactions we had, but not explanation of what these Japanese confectioners were going for.  Even Google Translate just explains it as “Biscuit of Asses.” Clearly we had to buy it. I’m disappointed to report that these cookies had no clear connection to either donkeys or bottoms — it ended up just being a delicate chocolate-filled wafer cookie that tasted like a mild Milano. So I guess kudos to Pepperidge Farm for winning the “classiness” competition, simply by not trying?

I'm sensing a strangely incongruous Francophone trend, here...

I’m sensing a strangely incongruous Francophone trend, here…

Once all our comestibles were purchased, we headed back to the car to commence stage one of our day of eating: rice ball consumption. Little did I realize there is a specific procedure for prepping the ball, which Laura walked me through. First, remove the rice ball from the plastic, then carefully slide the separately packaged seaweed wrapper out (careful not to tear it), and finally, rewrap the rice ball in the seaweed. Then stuff it in your face as quickly as possible, because these things are unfairly delicious. The first few bites are mainly sticky rice, but eventually the filling in the center is revealed. The tuna/mayo was nothing special visually, but I was surprised by the kelp — it was almost a paste in consistency, as opposed to the strings of seaweed like material I thought I would be eating.

A riceball, properly assembled.

A rice ball, properly assembled.

The tuna-mayo filling looked like, well, tuna and mayo.

The tuna/mayo filling looked like, well, tuna and mayo.

It’s hard to describe why I liked the rice balls so much, since the flavors were straightforward. The tuna/mayo tasted pretty much like the tuna sandwiches my dad would pack in my lunchbox for school, and the kelp tasted mostly of salt and “beach grit,” if that makes any sense (although oddly, I found it pretty satisfying and would get it again). Perhaps I liked it because rice balls focus on the elements of sushi I actually enjoy — the well-cooked sticky rice contrasting with the salty pucker of the seaweed wrapper. Now that I’ve tried them, I actually do want to be a bit more adventurous with my next sampling, so I need to see if there are any Daido equivalents in Manhattan.

Reasonably full of starch for the moment, we returned to Steven’s house, where the chef and sous-chef set up shop in the kitchen and the guests settled in to watch the mandatory holiday viewing of Love Actually. While awaiting the main course we tried the Couque D’Asses and an equally odd American snack — Pizzeria Combos. This was probably the third time in my life that I’ve eaten Combos, but I was floored by these. Not because of some outstanding salivary experience, but because they don’t taste like pizza — THEY TASTE LIKE A PIZZERIA. Some magical food scientists distilled the olfactory sensations of being in a pizza shop and shoved it into a pretzel crust. It was mind boggling, and makes me glad that I neglected to look at the ingredient list.

In the kitchen, Laura and Steven were contending with hot oil and boiling water as they got our dinner together. The menu consisted of an assortment of items to be refried: shrimp shumai, shrimp spring rolls, chicken and shrimp dumplings, calimari, and vegetable croquettes (okay, so not my best attempt at keeping kosher, I admit). Add to that shrimp wontons, rice, yakisoba noodles, seared tuna, and the collection of random desserts, and well, you know why I was basically in a coma for the rest of the day.

Chef and sous-chef braving oil burns for our future satisfaction

Chef and sous-chef braving oil burns for our future satisfaction

My favorite part was probably the fact that Steven has all the paraphernalia, from rice bowls to real chopsticks — not just the remnants of your takeout collection. We all sat on the floor around the living room coffee table to eat, and while I definitely felt super not Japanese, it was fun to attempt a nod to the culture of the cuisine.

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Oh god, look at that beautiful, massive plate of fried things, top left.
Only a small portion of the full dessert options -- Koala's March (chocolate filled little marsupial cookies), chocolate/animal cracker like mushrooms, and strawberry candies

Only a small portion of the full dessert options — clockwise from top: Koala’s March (chocolate filled little marsupial cookies), chocolate/animal cracker like mushrooms, and strawberry candies

Overall, while totally delicious, the meal ended up being a little heavy for me. I hate to admit it, but I think my stomach is not the steel-girded machine it used to be. My favorite dishes were the vegetable croquettes (like a hash brown with peas), and the yakisoba noodles. Mostly it was just a really wonderful day of sharing in someone else’s foodie ritual. Between Colin Firth speaking in broken Portuguese and nibbles on Koala’s March, somehow the holiday spirit snuck in, without a Christmas ornament or menorah in sight. Sometimes friends and good food is really all you need. Oh, and Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters. That’s like, a basic requirement.

Nippan Daido, USA

522 Mamaroneck Avenue,

White Plains, NY 10605

Holiday Snaps

Since last week’s post rivaled War and Peace in length, I thought I’d dial it back this go-round and share some quick moments from my holiday season so far:

  • My mother and I decorate a gingerbread house each year with an intensely egalitarian flair. Note Santa on the roof and the icing menorah on the back. I think it would be fair to say that we manage a ratio of 2:1 for candy put on the house vs candy consumed. Which I believe shows a fair amount of restraint. Pretzel sticks with icing and some M&Ms stuck on them? Totally delicious.
Casa de Gingerbread 2012

Casa de Gingerbread 2012

Side view with a better shot of Santa's sleigh

Side view with a better shot of Santa’s sleigh

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It’s like a holiday mullet: Christmas in the front and Chanukah in the back.

  • And of course a huge part of the holiday season is the endless consumption of treats at parties and gatherings. I contributed to that seasonal necessity with gingersnaps (with and sans white chocolate chips), some Biscoff Rice Krispy Treats (Biscoff = “cookie butter” — do yourself a favor and look it up), and the obligatory pile of latkes I made for a Chanukah shindig.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures (working on it, I swear!) of the latkes and Krispy treats while making them, and they were scarfed down before I could think to snap a pic at the party itself.

More chewy than “snappy” really, but appropriately ginger-flavored. I promise the unsightly broken ones still tasted great!

  • Another tradition I share with my mother is using baked goods as holiday gifts. When I was in school we used to make her famous chocolate chip cookies to give out to my teachers before the winter break. Unsurprisingly, as my cooking and baking have become more serious habits, my ambitions for elaborate holiday gifts have slightly outpaced my sensibility about the actual amount of time I have to spend on 30-odd care packages for coworkers and friends.

This year I went all out and tried a new technique I had never even dabbled with — homemade marshmallows. It was my first time working with gelatin and making a simple syrup, and once I got over my fear of the candy thermometer, it went very smoothly. Ultimately,  I was pretty damn proud of my achievement. All those hours spent watching Top Chef taught me the value of mise en place (literally “everything in place” or laying out all your ingredients and materials ahead of time), so as long as I kept to the directions provided by the all-knowing Alton Brown, it really wasn’t that tough. The most difficult part was dealing with the stickiness when trying to cut through the giant mallow mass you’ll see below. Better yet, somehow despite all of the sugar in the recipe, I found the flavor of the homemade marshmallows really mild, and a nice complement to the rich chocolate fudge. Eating a bunch of Jet-Puffed marshmallows usually makes my teeth ache a bit, but I was perfectly happy to dutifully taste test my homebrewed batch — alone, roasted over the stove, and in some s’mores. I’m happy to report that in all scenarios, the homemade marshmallows performed exceptionally.

Raw, unfiltered marshmallow glory on the right, and unreasonably decadent fudge on the left. The gingersnaps make a cameo appearance bottom left!

So far my holiday baking efforts have been very well-received, and I find myself excited to keep experimenting with new techniques. I’ve had Gesine Bullock-Prado’s Sugarbaby cookbook on my shelf for over a year now, and now that I’ve cracked the outer shell, the siren call of candy is kind of drawing me in.

Hope you’re all overindulging! ‘Tis the season to eat chocolate (falalalalah)!

Review: Murray’s Cheese Bar and Big Gay Ice Cream Shop — One Udderly Delicious Night

Ewed better believe I just made a dairy joke. And a damn gouda one at that, I must cownfess. Okay, enough already, this is getting abscurd.

Well, if you’re still reading after all those terrible puns, I actually do have a fair amount to say about the evening I spent at Murray’s Cheese Bar and the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop. And yes, I have pictures this time! A word of caution, before we proceed — this combo is only for the most lactose-tolerant. Those not interested in milk-based delights should turn off here.

One of the myriad lessons I’ve learned from my mother is the importance of lists, from to-dos to groceries to party invitees. Unfortunately, the internet has only served to facilitate my list-making habits, and so in an extension of that philosophy, I have Google doc to keep track of the kooky New York food institutions I want to visit. This week I got to check not one, but two items off of that list! Let’s begin with the cheese course:

Murray’s Cheese Bar

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The first and more recent addition to said list was Murray’s Cheese Bar. Murray’s Cheese is a classic part of New York food culture. However, growing up in the suburbs outside of the city meant my only real exposure to Murray’s products came from their counter inside the Grand Central Market. Occasionally a parent or friend would pick up a cheese or some crackers on the way home, but to this day I’ve actually never stepped inside the real Murray’s Cheese Shop in the West Village.

In my quest to more specifically define my palate, I’ve been trying to narrow down the features I like most in cheeses. Of course, I’m going about it in the same haphazard, financially limited way that I’m exploring wine and beer (basically, when I can afford to try something new, I take incremental, not super brazen steps). But, I have started yet another Google doc of my favorite cheeses and their basic wikipedia descriptions. This was inspired in part by the monthly cheese club I bought into at work, organized by my coworker Mike. Each month I would get to try three or four new cheeses, and once Pandora’s box was opened, I just wanted to learn (and eat) more and more.

While I’ve heard that you can get pretty fabulous cheesy paninis at Murray’s Shop, it wasn’t until this past summer that they opened up a separate sit-down, dine-in full service restaurant, just a few doors down on Bleecker. As soon as the post announcing Murray’s Cheese Bar popped up on Eater NY, I yelled across the office to Mike (and my foodie companion Jacob) that we had to go. It’s a restaurant literally dedicated to cheese — just think of the sampling options! Finally, after months of scheduling kerfuffles, we  made it to the Cheese Bar last week.

Unsurprisingly, there’s not a lot of real estate to go around in the West Village, so Murray’s Cheese Bar is small, but not uncomfortable. The dominant color is white with accents of red from the chairs, but overall I kept feeling like I was in a neighbor’s clean, but cozy kitchen. A small number of tables line the right wall, facing the bar where cheese is displayed in glass cases, and you can watch the cheesemongers prep the plates if you so choose. We were offered the last three seats at the bar, but ended up taking a table nearby instead.

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The view from our table. Cute holiday additions complement the obligatory cheese jokes.

For drinks, Murray’s offers wine, beer, and a selection of hard cider (which is becoming a bit of a trend, at least in NY). I got the Foggy Ridge Hard Cider First Fruit, and I fully recommend it if you’re curious about cider. It’s got a great apple taste without being cloyingly sweet, which I often find is the problem with a lot of the ciders that have become readily available (Woodchuck, Original Sin, etc). It was a flavorful drink that complemented, but never overpowered, the food I ordered.

We started with the seasonal cheese flight, pictured below. Unfortunately I didn’t realize their seasonal menu isn’t available online, so I can’t tell you the names of those cheeses (blogging lessons — both camera and notebook necessary). Murray’s flights all include a soft cheese, a semi-firm, and a hard cheese. I ended up liking the soft cheese covered in rosemary in the back, although I think it might have been the heft of the herbs, rather than the actual flavor of the cheese that appealed to me most. I tend to like really funky, strongly flavored cheese, and none of the cheeses below were powerful enough to really stick with me. The cheese plate came with paired accoutrements — a jelly, a honey, and pickled carrots. We also got a sizable bag full of crackers and slices of bread, seen emptied in the back. I would say their flights are definitely enough food for a satisfying snack if you’re looking for something to nosh on with your wine, beer or cider. It was nice to get something fresh and in-season, but if you’re searching for a more memorable flight, I’d look into the options Murray’s offers year-round.

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The Seasonal Cheese Flight

We then picked a number of items to share: the Burrata crostini, which the waitress had praised, the Classic Melt (aka grilled cheese and tomato soup), the Beets and Blue salad, and a couple pieces of charcuterie (beef and clove and a prosciutto).

Burrata with roasted tomatoes

Burrata with roasted tomatoes

The Whole Shebang

The Whole Shebang

Note the charcuterie on the far right side.
Despite my attempts at being classy (cough black coffee cough), what I ended up liking the most was the Classic Melt. Murray’s describes it as being made with their “secret blend” of cheeses, so I can only guess at what was actually inside. My bet is on Gruyere being one component, but whatever the blend is, it made for a sandwich that was decadent, but somehow still reminded me of the white bread and American Cheese wonders my old babysitter used to whip up on Friday afternoons. The tomato soup was unbelievably thick and smoky — we all decided it was almost like a dipping sauce rather than soup. I would say the “Classic” mantle is a bit dubious, but in terms of experimenting with a tried and true staple, Murray’s succeeded.

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The other standout for me was the salad, actually. I think I’m really warming up to beets, and it was a palate cleansing contrast to the cheese surrounding us. It might be a stretch to call it a “salad,” though, since Murray’s plated it as a clump of beets, a sprig of greens, and a sprinkle of blue cheese. Nevertheless, I’m always excited to discover a change in my palate (ugh I’m such a food dork).

Shockingly, or maybe not so if you know me well, after all of this food I was still game for dessert. And luckily, so were my companions. Thanks to my constant vigilance (or obsession) with NY Local food blogs, I had heard that Big Gay Ice Cream was opening a new location in the West Village, just a few blocks from Murray’s. Never one to turn down ice cream, I suggested we give the new shop a shot, and off we went, for yet another dairy-based dish.

Big Gay Ice Cream Shop

Now here is where I get really excited. I’d been interested in Big Gay Ice Cream since they were just a lone food truck roaming NYC a few years ago. The buzz was that they were basically Mr. Softee on crack — soft serve with ridiculous toppings and flavor combinations that you couldn’t get anywhere else, like ginger-curry milkshakes and nutella-lined cones. Not to mention absurd names like The Salty Pimp and The Bea Arthur. In just a couple of years they’ve moved from food truck to storefront in Alphabet City, and now to a new place in the West Village.

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When we visited the shop, they’d only been open for a couple of days, so the decor was a little spare, but moving in the right direction. There are a few tables at this location (I’ve heard the east side one is basically a hole in the wall), and it has the bright, sparkly feel of a classic ice cream parlor, except for the pink unicorn-adorned chalkboard out front, of course.

I got their flagship cone, The Salty Pimp, which is a dulce de leche lined cone with vanilla soft serve, chocolate hard shell coating, and sea salt. I cannot fully express how delicious this was. The balance of salty and sweet was spot on, with the ice cream providing a subtle vanilla base without tasting just “plain” like some soft serve, and the dulce de leche and sea salt elevating the chocolate shell to a whole other level. My favorite part of BGI’s approach is that they not only put the toppings on the ice cream, but also in their cones, so as you make your way to the end of the treat, you still get the full experience.

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The Salty Pimp

Mike got the other flavor of the day, which was Brownie Batter, and Jacob got the Chocolate Peanut Butter milkshake. I still liked The Salty Pimp the best, but the Brownie Batter was tasty, if not particularly batter-flavored to me, and the shake was like a punch in the face of peanut butter and chocolate. It was as if someone had liquified some Reese’s cups, which I enjoyed a few sips of, but couldn’t imagine polishing off the whole thing. Levain’s cookies still wins the pb chocolate challenge for me.

Brownie Batter

Brownie Batter

(Jacob’s shake just looked like a generic chocolate shake, so I didn’t snap a pic of it.)

Final Thoughts

Overall, it was a pretty spectacular foodie night. I appreciated my experience at both Murray’s and Big Gay Ice Cream, but I don’t think I’ll need to return to the cheese bar. It was great to try something new, but there’s not a lot on the menu I want to explore further, and there are other wine bars that offer interesting cheese pairings and quirky themed restaurants on my list that I’d rather go to. On the other hand, I plan on taking everyone I know to Big Gay Ice Cream. I’d like to make my way through their menu (For example, the Gobbler — pumpkin butter/maple syrup, or apple butter/bourbon butterscotch and pie pieces and whipped cream? Or perhaps you’d like to try a cone topped with bacon marmalade). It’s just unreasonable to expect this slightly adventurous, desperately sweet-toothed gal to stay away.

Murray’s Cheese Bar

264 Bleecker St,

New York, NY

http://www.murrayscheesebar.com/

Big Gay Ice Cream Shop

61 Grove Street
(at Seventh Avenue South)
New York NY 10014

biggayicecream.com

The Learning Curve

Well, I’m now several weeks into this blog, and it’s actually been a pretty fascinating exercise so far. I’ve really enjoyed getting to flex my writing muscles a bit, mundane as the topics of my posts may be, and I’m immensely grateful for all of you who have been following along. But there have definitely been some bumps in the road I never would have predicted when I started Experimental Gastronomy. The largest one being that I love food too much to stop and smell the roses, or rather, take pictures of them.

I mentioned this problem back in my post about Levain. I had every intention of photographing my City Bakery trip, but once I moved from the frosty November air to the cookie-infused interior of the restaurant, I was dunzo. Cue stuffing my face, my phone snuggled safe in my purse without a thought of documenting the experience. This happened yet again on Saturday, when I went to brunch with a friend  at the Cornelia Street Cafe. I really, really tried to be better this time. Even though I was running late and huffing and puffing my way from the subway, I paused for a moment to run across the street and capture a few images of the facade of the Cafe:

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And once I got inside I was bold enough to be a creeper and take pictures of the interior, complete with innocent bystanders who will now have their breakfasts scrutinized by the cold eye of the internet. Sorry about that.

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See how adorable it is? Apparently they have a performance space in the back, with a rotation of different types of live music throughout the month.

But yet again, once I sat down and started actually brunching with my friend, all thought of recording the meal for posterity went out the window. The problem is that I’ve never been much of a camera person — I tend to get wrapped up in the moment with the friends or family I’m with, and just hope that someone else is on top of the photography. I had a few friends in college on whom I relied for physical evidence of my social life, and now that we’ve graduated, I think the number of new photos of me on Facebook has decreased exponentially. And when you throw food into the mix, I have a disappointing habit of immediately putting it in my mouth, which does really hampers the development of a thoughtful critique. Maybe food critics never review when they’re hungry? Then how do the judges on Top Chef endure the 18 dishes each they have to try each episode? How is Padma Lakshmi so goddamn skinny?!

Unfortunately, photography in food blogging seems pretty essential. Even if I’m just using my lame iPhone camera, I need to be able to share some part of the meal with you all, to provide context for my comments and descriptions. I always get upset when someone reviews a product and doesn’t offer up any photos — how am I supposed to find the limited edition Gingerbread Oreos if I don’t know what box to search for in the supermarket? (Seriously, though, if anyone finds and tries those, let me know. I have a great recipe for Gingerbread Oreo blondies I’d like to try.)

For those curious about my brunch at Cornelia Street Cafe, it was nice, but not revelatory in any way. The Cafe offers a $20 prix fixe brunch, which includes your choice of bread, a selection from a few of their brunch dishes, a juice or alcoholic brunch beverage, and coffee or tea. I ended up just getting scrambled egg whites with garlic rosemary potatoes, and a mimosa and coffee, which all were satisfactory. By far the best and most unique thing about the meal was the initial choice of bread. My brunchmate recommended the “warm chocolate bread,” and unsurprisingly I went with it (Maggie? Chocolate? Who would have thunk it?). I wasn’t sure exactly what would arrive at our table — would it be a dark brown quickbread, chocolate through-and-through? Maybe something scone-like? It actually ended up being more like a cinnamon roll or monkey bread in terms of texture (and here, a picture would be so useful, dammit!). There were layers of fluffy, yeasty white bread to pull away piece by piece, and the roll was studded with oozing, gooey chunks of chocolate that coated both my fingers and my plate. It was messy, but well worth it. I’m not sure the chocolate was anything too gourmet, but as a longtime fan of Nestle Tollhouse, I had no real issue with that. I would definitely come back for the bread, and maybe get an omelet or the eggs florentine next time.

In the age of Instagram, I feel woefully stodgy and provincial with my natural and kind of selfish inclination to just be in the moment without documenting it, but I guess I need to get with the times, as they say. I don’t really have a roadmap for this blog or what I want to achieve with it beyond it being a creative outlet for my own thoughts and obsessions with food, so I’m fortunate not to feel real pressure to offer professional level photography (or erudite, well-written insights, it appears). But as a consumer of food blogs, I know what I look forward to in a new post, and part of that is the photography. It’s the reason I spend way too much time on Foodgawker, why I have Chopped on my DVR, and why I generally try to buy cookbooks with pretty pictures. So with the new year approaching fast, maybe I can make an early resolution on being more aware and more deliberate with my photography for this blog. It’s a small change that could make a big difference, and maybe it would help me to slow down slightly with my habit of immediate food-to-face intake.

The Cornelia Street Cafe

29 Cornelia Street  New York, NY 10014

http://corneliastreetcafe.com/