America, F*ck Ja!: Celebrating Independence Day at Reichenbach Hall

I spent this Fourth of July as our founding fathers did — drinking hefeweizens and eating sausage at a German Beer Hall. I mean, George Washington probably ate some bratwurst with some Hessian POWs during the Revolutionary War, right? And you know Ben Franklin would have been all about alcohol served by the liter. So in the spirit of honoring the great beginnings of these United States, I fled the scorching streets of Manhattan to the cooler climes of Reichenbach Hall, to stuff my face with meat, carbs, and some fermented hops. I can’t think of a better definition of pure patriotism.

I’ve only been to a couple of beer halls in my time — the first during a Spring Break roadtrip in Covington, KY, and more recently to the popular Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Williamsburg. I found out about Reichenbach Hall from the NY food & culture mailing list Thrillist, and I’ll admit I was partially drawn to it because of the literary allusion (the even more shameful admission is that the bigger motivation was thought of Benedict Cumberbatch, rather than Basil Rathbone). Factor in the relative ease of access since Reichenbach is a scant 4 blocks from Grand Central, and it seemed like a near duty to dip in Deutsch waters.

 

First Impressions:

 

A brightly colored sign helps to point out Reichenbach's entrance amongst the bland office buildings.

A brightly colored sign helps to point out Reichenbach’s entrance amongst the bland office buildings.

Reichenbach Hall is found in the strange no-man’s land of Midtown South, below the Beaux-Arts grandeur of Grand Central but not quite into the wilds of Brotopia Murray Hill. Just off 5th Ave on 37th St, Reichenbach is surrounded by nondescript office buildings, a few delis, and the occasional noncommittally-Irish pub. On the one hand, this makes for a bit of an incongruous setting for an establishment of Reichenbach’s ethnic enthusiasm. On the other hand, the area gives you access to a huge amount of real estate. Coming in from the urban monotony, I was delighted to find a cavernous hall with lofty ceilings that immediately transported me from the dim and dusty dive bars of Manhattan to the open and airy space that I’d experienced at Radegast.

 

Reichenbach Hall, decked out in red white and blue.

Reichenbach Hall, all decked out for the holiday.

As with my Brooklyn and Covington experiences, Reichenbach’s interior design is dominated by dark paneled wooden, long communal tables, and wrought iron lighting fixtures. German paraphrenalia line the walls, and along the right side of the hall runs a massive bar filled with beer steins of both expected and prodigious size.

The interior of Reichenbach -- you'd half expect Quasimodo to be hanging around up in those rafters.

The interior of Reichenbach — you’d half expect Quasimodo to be hanging around up in those rafters.

Can't have a beer hall without a bar, or without TVs for showing ESPN, apparently.

Can’t have a beer hall without a bar, or without TVs for showing ESPN, apparently.

I was a little surprised to find Reichenbach nearly empty on July 4th — a family with small children was finishing up their meal as I arrived, and once they left my friends and I were the only patrons in the whole restaurant. Perhaps because of this (but hopefully not), the service was truly great. Not one, but two waitresses served us over the course of the meal. (Fortunately, my initial disappointment over their respective Irish and Australian accents was soon assuaged when another server announced the arrival of our food in an honest-to-goodness thick German accent.) A couple of my friends beat me to the bar, and when I got there our waitresses were explaining that the gas line for the beer taps was broken. As compensation they brought over 3 half-litres of beer, on the house — literally the last bit of beer they could squeeze out of the taps. They continued to update us on the situation during our stay, and luckily, being collective lightweights (and with this as our first meal of the day), we found ourselves with beer to spare when the taps were finally fixed. From start to finish, the staff apologized for any confusion and delay, happily gave further details on any of the beer or food on the menu, and offered their recommendations when they could. I can only hope they’re this eager and attentive during dinner rush.

 

The Food: 

Of course, the real reason I wanted to visit Reichenbach Hall is food-related. My email from Thrillist not only touted the beers offered at Reichenbach, but highlighted a certain off-menu item, the “Wow Pretzel.” As the picture shows (http://www.thrillist.com/drink/new-york/midtown/reichenbach-hall), this is no ordinary soft pretzel. This is the ubermensch of pretzels, my friends. Don’t be fooled by the misleadingly titled “Giant Bavarian Pretzel” on the menu — this is a misnomer in the face of its reclusive older brother. Naturally, we ordered one for the table. Misjudging the amount of food we were about to receive (or perhaps unknowingly creating a challenge of Joey Chestnut proportions for the holiday), we also put in entree orders. Diana chose the Bratwurst plate, Laura the Kase-Wurst, and I tried the Curry-wurst.

 

Idealistic optimism in the face of a pretzel of mythological proportions.

Idealistic optimism in the face of a pretzel of mythological proportions.

The Wow Pretzel arrived first. Normally accompanied solely by the in-house mustard, our waitress had suggested we also add a side of the O’Batzda cheese sauce (especially once Laura made it clear that the inclusion of cheese is a high dining priority). O’Batzda is a traditional Bavarian cheese spread made from cheese, beer, and spices and topped with sliced onion. Digging underneath the onion, the spread seemed reminiscent of queso dip, thick and viscous in texture. It had a strong yeasty quality, but the sharpness of the raw onion helped to cut the richness, and with the dense dough of the pretzel, I almost preferred the cheese a little less gooey. It paired fantastically with the bite of the mustard, and of course the Wow Pretzel was a great vehicle.

 

The Wow Pretzel up close and personal, with mustard on the right, and O'Batzda on the left.

The Wow Pretzel up close and personal, with mustard on the right, and O’Batzda on the left.

The Pretzel itself was as large as advertised — easily the circumference of an inner tube. As we first tore into it, the pretzel was still fresh and warm, and the shiny veneer of the smooth crust gave way to a perfectly dense, chewy inside. Unfortunately, because of its size and geometrically-induced large surface area of a soft pretzel, it cooled down fairly quickly. I would also have liked it to have had more salt covering it, to compensate for the sheer quantity of bread. I’d gladly order it again to share with a large group, and I think the addition of the cheese really shakes up the flavor profile of the appetizer beyond the same old Auntie Annie’s order.

 

The generously portioned sausage plates -- Kase-wurst in back, bratwurst in front.

How about a whole mess of sausage to go with your pretzel? Cheesy Kase-wurst in the back, classic bratwurst in the front.

Shortly after we dug into our intimidating appetizer, the rest of our food arrived. The sausage plates came with sizable portions of Rotkohl (red cabbage salad), Kartoffelsalat (potato salad), and sauerkraut. I didn’t try Diana’s bratwurst, but it seemed like it was well-cooked, with distinct grill marks but not charred. I had a bite of Laura’s Kase-wurst, since I was curious about what a cheese-filled sausage would be like. I’ve had the hamburger iteration in the form of a Juicy Lucy (check out Whitman’s down in the East Village if you’re interested), but this was a different beast. The Kase-wurst seemed to be filled with the same type of soft cheese that we had with the pretzel — more oozing liquid in consistency than the gooey mozzarella-stick-style I expected. I found it a bit rich for my tastes, but I’ve never been one to opt for the cheese-whiz-topped dog at the ballpark, either.

 

My close encounter with Curry-wurst, plus the typical side of fries with mayo.

My close encounter with Currywurst, plus the traditional side of fries with mayo.

I was a little nervous about ordering the Currywurst, since Diana had told me she didn’t particularly enjoy it when she visited Germany. Luckily, I had nothing to be anxious about. Currywurst is one of the most popular fast food dishes in Germany, and consists of “steamed, then fried pork sausage cut into slices and seasoned with curry ketchup, regularly consisting of ketchup or tomato paste blended with generous amounts of curry powder, or a ready-made ketchup-based sauce seasoned with curry and other spices.” The doubly-cooked bits of sausage had that great snap of the casing as you bit into them, the insides tender and salty. It was only in retrospect that I realized that I’d eaten pork sausage — I’m more of a beef/turkey sausage kind of gal, so I think if given the option I’d like a noveau beef currywurst even more. But to be honest, my favorite part of the dish was the curry sauce itself, so the particulars of the vehicle are somewhat moot. The sauce brought me back to the few times I’ve had curry fries — and because of this I largely ignored the mayo-topped fries on my plate, hunting and digging underneath for the untouched potatoes I could dip into the pool of curry ketchup. I’m generally a purist when it comes to french fries – as Patrick Henry said, “give me ketchup, or give me death.” But for curry fries I make the exception — they have just the right amount of spice to make you perk up and pay attention to what you’re eating, and the contrast of the slight curry heat and tomato tang against the soft, oily undercooked center of a french fry is almost too good to be true. (If it wasn’t obvious by now, my relationship with french fries borders on the inappropriate).

 

Das on-the-house biers.

Das on-the-house biers. From left to right: the Schofferhofer Grapefruit Hefeweizen, the Veltins Pilsner, and the Spaten Oktoberfest.

I can’t very much write a review of a beer hall without mentioning the beer, now can I? Our on-the-house pints were the Schofferhofer Grapefruit Hefeweizen (Bavarian Hefeweizen mixed with grapefruit juice), Spaten Oktoberfest (AKA Marzen-Oktoberfestbier, or March Beer), and the Veltins Pilsner. I then also ended up getting a half-liter of Weihenstephaner Heferweizen, which ended up being my favorite. I love the light and fruity tones of hefeweizens as a category, and this one was delightfully cold and refreshing in the face of the intense July heat outside. The Grapefruit Hefeweizen had a very sweet and intriguing taste on first sip, but I’m not sure I could handle an entire half-liter of it. My other favorite of the day was the Spaten Oktoberfest, which came at a bit of a surprise. Although I’m working on expanding my palate, at this point I’m still not very interested in darker beers — I usually find them too heavy or bitter. However, the Spaten is described as being a sweeter than a traditional German lager, which may be behind my interest in it. I thought it had real bitter coffee-like tones to it, which paired well with the rich sausage and cheese fest we were enjoying for lunch.

My second beer -- the

My second beer — the Weihenstephaner Heferweizen, in all its lofty glory.

Final Thoughts:

I’ll admit, there was something a little odd about sitting in a German beer hall, chowing down on sausages as the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest played on the TV behind the bar. But if you really think about it, all those foods we consider quintessentially American — the very tubes of indiscernible meat mash ol’ Nathan’s turns a profit on — well, it’s not like they were on the menu for the first Thanksgiving, right? The more you dig into it, the more our hamburgers and hot dogs and pancakes and pizza and french fries turn out to be not so native at heart. Maybe the true celebration of our nation’s independence comes from acknowledging the fruits of the freedoms we’ve fought and died for over the decades, even if that means reveling in the sheer melting pot ridiculousness of taking a traditional Oktoberfest pretzel and making it goddamned American-Supersized. I mean, if we’re going to turn the Fourth into another American holiday of eating-as-celebration, it seems perfectly reasonable to me to enjoy the diversity of our nation’s culinary past, present and future. Plus, what red-blooded American is going to turn down the chance to drink a liter of beer?

All in all, Reichenbach Hall is a great addition to corporate landscape of Midtown Manhattan. With plenty of seating, a fairly authentic menu, a friendly and informed waitstaff, and over a dozen new and old style German beers on tap, it seems like a great after-work spot, and a worthwhile trip for my fellow uptowners who aren’t up for the longer trek to Brooklyn or the LES. I still need to try out some of the other beer halls and biergartens in the city to see how Reichenbach measures up, but for now I’m more than happy to stop by again and introduce more of my friends to the wonders of the Wow Pretzel.

 

Reichenbach Hall

5 W. 37th St (between 5th and 6th)

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Reichenbach-Hall/133720086731508

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The District: Brunch Just Down the Block

2013-06-30 12.12.15

In the nearly three years since I moved to the Upper East Side, I’ve watched the neighborhood slowly evolve, accumulating more and more interesting stores and restaurants beyond the ubitquitous nail salons and dry cleaners. It seems as though the scourge of the 2nd Avenue Subway is finally loosening its grip on the area, and at last some intrepid entrepeneurs are testing the waters. In the past year alone I’ve seen new bars and lounges, coffeeshops, and even a spin studio open up in the ten blocks below my building. It’s the kind of gentrification I can support, because for the most part these new business are not run by mega-corporations. For every new Dunkin Donuts that grabs a corner, there are the guys behind Earl’s Beer and Cheese, who are slowly building a mini-empire on the stretch of Park between 97th and 98th (a cocktail lounge, a beer bar, a wine bar, and their latest endeavor — a donut shop: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/coreycova/dough-loco). Although I’m trying to see more of the city these days (and let’s be honest, eat more of the city these days), it’s nice to have a neighborhood you want to come back to. Some weekends, you just want a local spot to grab a solid brunch. This past Sunday I ventured into one of the newer pubs, The District, to see if it could fill that role.

First Impressions:

2013-06-30 12.12.23

The District opened up shortly after I started this blog (in fact, I mentioned the construction on it in my second post, about my anticipation regarding Brick Lane Curry). Located on the corner of 94th and Third Ave, The District took over a space that formerly housed an Indian restaurant, and completely revamped it. Gone were the pink walls and floral murals, replaced with steam-punk-esque battered steel ceilings, antique filament bulbs, and a brick and steel facade that suggested upscale neighborhood bar. Inside the space is bright and inviting — the front of the pub is all windows, which are frequently opened up on hot summer nights.

The vaguely steam-punk interior of The District, with antique-looking lightbulbs strung across the ceiling.

The vaguely steam-punk interior of The District, with antique-looking lightbulbs strung across the ceiling. Note the dichotomy of the stained glass window and the flatscreen TVs.

A long bar lines the left side of the pub, with an impressive number of taps, including my all-time favorite beer, Delirium Tremens. Dark wood tables fill the rest of the space, with some raised seating near the front, and a red banquet lining the back corner. There’s a bit of a strange dischordance between the vaguely Gothic (or at least Victorian) liquor cabinets behind the bar and stained glass window at the rear, and the numerous TVs tuned to ESPN or NBC Sports. But if you can look past the anachronistic bent, the space is quite charming, if a little loud. That’s sort of a given when it comes to bars, and I’d rather have a place be busy the first time I visit — it’s a good indication that they’re not about to serve you a mediocre meal.

The Food:

Brunch at The District comes with a complimentary Mimosa or Bloody Mary. While I went with my daydrinking bubbly mainstay, my parents both ordered a Bloody Mary, and remarked on the freshness and real bite from the horseradish. My mimosa was perfectly fine, but I generally don’t expect great things from that libation unless we’re talking Dom Perignon and freshly-squeezed orange pulp. For a free drink, I was more than happy with a little spiked Tropicana to start my day.

The District’s menu has a nice ratio of breakfast to lunch options, ranging from the standard Eggs Benedict, yogurt and granola, and french toast morning foodstuffs, to the heavier District Burger (a brisket blend I’m looking forward to trying someday soon) and a variety of salads. With the exception of the Steak and Eggs, none of the dishes top $14, making The District surprisingly affordable given the catalogue of possible entrees.

Ultimately, my parents and I settled on the breakfast side of things. My father selected the Corned Beef Hash, my mother chose Eggs Florentine, and I went with the Egg in Bread, which our waiter informed us was the chef’s specialty.

The only downside to our experience was that although the service up until our food arrived was polite and timely, unfortunately after being served it fell off a bit. Our waiter did check in with us mid-meal, but water refills were somewhat few and far between, and while I was offered a refill on my coffee, my parents were never asked if they would like to order something other than their cocktails.

Where the service, excelled, however, was in the kitchen. Our dishes were delivered much faster than I expected, the staff nearly sprinting up the stairs to lay the hot plates on our table.

 

The Corned Beef and Hash -- potato on potato action.

The Corned Beef and Hash — potato on potato action.

The Corned Beef Hash is described as “house made hash served with 2 eggs any style, fresh parsley and Spanish Onion.” My father ordered his eggs poached, but as shown above, the eggs ended looking more on the sunny-side. He took this in stride, however, since it still provided him with the runny yolk to blend into the hash. He got a double dose of potatoes in this dish, both within the hash and with breakfast taters on the side, plus a couple pieces of toast to boot. Although he commented that the hash was a bit untraditional and on the drier side, he finished off his plate. I’ve never been much for corned beef in general, so I can’t really speak to its authenticity, but the bite I tried had a nice amount of peppery punch to it.

Eggs Florentine, delicately coated in Hollandaise sauce.

Eggs Florentine, delicately coated in Hollandaise sauce.

 

My mother also seemed perfectly happy with her Eggs Florentine (“poached eggs, sauteed spinach served on a toasted English muffin & topped with house made Hollandaise sauce”). I tried a small bite, but I generally find Hollandaise sauce a bit too rich for my palate as my first meal of the day. The eggs seemed to be nicely poached, firm little ovals revealing an oozing core to soak into the English Muffin. Vegetable lover (slash loser) that I am, my favorite part was the spinach, which was tender and still had that fresh-tasting bitterness to contrast with the fatty sauce and egg combo.

While she enjoyed her eggs, my mother seemed disappointed by the breakfast potatoes. Now, I am an equal-opportunity potato consumer, so I was plenty happy to scarf down the small hunks of starch. But I did agree they could have done with a bit more seasoning — the potatoes were tossed with salt and slivers of parsley, but could have really benefited from some pepper or even some rosemary. My mother also theorized that this cubed style of breakfast potatoes would have been better served by a using a smaller potato, like a fingerling or a red potato. She thought the chopped Russet variety worked better in the smashed/scattered hash-brown style of the Waffle House.

The Egg in Bread -- the chef's speciality, and my delicious introduction to eggy-in-a-basket.

The Egg in Bread — the chef’s speciality, and my delicious introduction to eggy-in-a-basket.

I have an unreasonable amount of self-satisfaction when I order what turns out to be my favorite dish of the meal. I’d wanted to try egg-in-bread since I saw it in one of the greatest breakfast scenes in film, in V for Vendetta (which happens to be a fantastic adaptation — yes, in addition to my nerdy food and fencing interests, I also read comic books. You can imagine how full my dance card was during high school). Also called eggy-in-a-basket, one-eyed jack, hen-in-a-nest, and a whole host of other names, the dish usually involves cutting a hole in a piece of bread, and then frying an egg inside it. However, The District uses a different technique for their version — they baste their eggs. A quick Googling revealed that basting an egg is achieved one of two ways: Much like basting a turkey, you can cook the egg in fat (butter, oil, what have you), then spoon a bit of that fat over the top of the egg. This produces a sunnyside-up egg on the bottom, but with a slightly firmer top. The other option is to put a lid on the pan as you cook the eggs, so the steam produced helps to “baste” them (http://www.organicauthority.com/foodie-buzz/what-are-basted-eggs.html). The eggs in my dish were the perfect consistency for my tastes, so I’m definitely interested in attempting some “basting” at home.

The plate arrived laden with two thick slabs of brioche, toasted to just golden-brown, so the outer crust gave way to soft dough on the inside. Served with potatoes and a bit of maple syrup, the Egg in Bread left me with the impression of a deconstructed French Toast. The brioche had a natural buttery sweetness that was emphasized by the addition of the maple syrup, and unsurprisingly the broken yolk seeping into the bread helped to bring out that creamy richness of classic French Toast. If they had dusted the whole thing in cinnamon-sugar, it would have brought me right back to my dad cooking breakfast on Sunday mornings. It’s hard for me to comment on the change in egg-cooking method, having never tried the traditional version of fried-egg-in-a-basket, but I think the basting technique worked to make the dish more delicate and subtle. It kept both the egg and the bread from forming too thick a toasted crust on the outside, and helps all the elements to meld together better, almost as if you were eating a wonderful poached egg sandwich (actually, that sounds kinda gross. Maybe a poached egg bread pudding?). Regardless, I devoured the dish, and will happily seek out new variations in my future brunches.


Final Thoughts:
All in all, The District is a great neighborhood spot offering a brunch deal for almost anybody. It’s not going to redefine your definition of brunch, but that’s not really their aim. Whether you’re looking for a sandwich, a salad, vegetarian offerings, or a  dish to put your cholesterol to shame, you can find it here, plus they’ll thrown in a cocktail on the house. No, you won’t find the kind of decadence seen in the $1000 lobster caviar omelet from Norma’s, but you will get a few creative tweaks on American and British staples, like a Smoked Salmon Pretzel, or a Nine-Grain Porridge. For those of us on the UES, it’s just nice to find a place comfortably between the 24/7 diner and the upper crust steakhouse. The District strikes that balance — with a little bit of flair, a great beer selection, and hopefully, an indication of the type of establishments to come.

The District

Corner of 94th St. and 3rd Ave

thedistrictbarnyc.com

Sans Mystery Meat: Dinner at Cafeteria

In the arts there is a concept known as the “Rule of Three,” which basically posits that information grouped in threes is more effectively communicated than in any other number. This is why there are Three Little Pigs, three ghosts in A Christmas Carol, and three Star Wars films (in my universe). The power of a triad comes from the creation of a progression — the audience is shown two similar items that set up an expectation — followed by the subversion of that progression by the final piece. We delight in this surprise, in having our foregone conclusions flipped on their heads. I find that same wonder when I encounter new takes on traditional food, when my preconceived notions of taste and texture are counted on, and then thrown out the window. It’s what made the Salty Pimp at Big Gay Ice Cream so appealing, and what makes me desperate to visit Peanut Butter & Co. for their spin on a PB&J.

My dinner at Cafeteria this weekend was an exercise in expectation subversion, and I mean that in the best way possible. When you decide to get whimsical with well-known recipes, you better deliver on quality, and thankfully, my meal at Cafeteria was far beyond lunchlady ladling.


First Impressions:

Cafeteria sits on the corner of 17th St. and 7th Ave South.

Cafeteria sits on the corner of 17th St. and 7th Ave South.


This was actually my second time at Cafeteria, but my first visit was for a first date a couple of years ago, so let’s just say the restaurant itself was not the center of my attention. This time I was hosting my college roommate Megan for a weekend visit, and the two of us were meeting another friend for dinner, so I got to appreciate the venue a bit more. Cafeteria is located in Chelsea, and features an aesthetic that walks the tight-rope between modern restraint and self-aware winking. The decor is chic, black and white, and featuring lots of cut outs and gleaming surfaces. It appears about as far from the average dumpy cafeteria as you can get. Megan commented that it actually reminded her of Jones, one of our favorite Stephen Starr restaurants in Philadelphia (where we went to school). Jones has a similar take on down-home American food — it’s like gourmet IHOP (I highly recommend their chicken and waffles if you’re in Philly).

The chic interior of Cafeteria, with it's front windows open for sidewalk seating.

The chic interior of Cafeteria, with it’s front windows open for sidewalk seating.

However, Jones does not venture into camp the way Cafeteria does. Megan and I arrived early, so we got drinks at Cafeteria’s small lounge area downstairs. The drink menus featured a shirtless man posing seductively with a cheeseburger, which some could take as a heavy-handed cypher for the restaurant’s goal of making comfort food sexy. Fortunately, this was Cafeteria’s most over-the-top moment, well, that and the names of the cocktails.

Our alluring drink menus.

Our alluring drink menus.

Speaking of which…

The Food:

My cocktail -- "Liquid Passion"

My cocktail — “Liquid Passion”


Cafeteria offers an extensive drinks menu, from beer and wine to some playfully named cocktails. Megan and I decided to embrace a girly stereotype or two and ordered off of the champagne-based section of the cocktail menu. Inspired by my fruit-and-vegetable adventures in Israel, I had the “Liquid Passion,” composed of prosecco, passion fruit juice, and “edible flower.” I really enjoyed the cocktail, which was pretty much a passion fruit bellini, although I couldn’t tell you what the edible flower added to the experience, in taste or texture. But I would consider bringing along some passion fruit juice instead of OJ or peach to my next brunch picnic.

Megan's drink, the "White Peach Classico"

Megan’s drink, the “White Peach Classico”

Megan got the “White Peach Classico,” made up of prosecco, “artisanal peach bitters,” Gran Classico and burnt orange zest. This cocktail was well balanced, and both Megan and I commented that the peach flavoring was subtle — more natural than the Del Monte peaches in syrup cloying sweetness. Again, there was no real indication of where the burnt orange zest was, except for some lingering pieces of peel at the bottom of the glass.

When Jacob joined us he branched out beyond the bubbly beverage, choosing the “Cafeteria Cosmo” — Svedka Clementine, cranberry and passionfruit juice. Tasty and dangerous, since it was one of those cocktails where you’re not sure if you’re actually drinking alcohol.

The waiter suggested Jacob get the "Cafeteria Cosmo" on the rocks, so it appears slightly manlier here than it actually was.

The waiter suggested Jacob get the “Cafeteria Cosmo” on the rocks, so it appears slightly manlier here than it actually was.


As with most of my meals with Jacob, we decided to go family style on dinner, and fortunately Megan has similar priorities about trying as many dishes as possible. We ended up ordering an assortment of appetizers and sides and one entree to share, which ultimately verged on too much food for the three of us, but we were troopers and took one for the team … and then walked down for dessert at Big Gay Ice Cream (I wasn’t letting Megan leave New York without trying the Salty Pimp).

The meal started with complimentary cheddar biscuits and honey butter. The biscuits were warm from the oven, soft and doughy, with just a hint of cheese, and did a great job of putting me in the spirit for some well-executed comfort food. I actually preferred them on their own, finding the addition of the honey butter a little too rich. I also appreciated the presentation of the biscuits in a newspaper-lined basket, immediately setting the tone of elevated familiarity.

These delicious biscuits were one of the highlights of the night.

These delicious biscuits were one of the highlights of the night. You can see the cheese flecked throughout the dough.


For our appetizers we chose the Crispy Green Beans, and a Cheddar and Fontina Macaroni and Cheese. Cafeteria actually has four types of mac and cheese on its menu (or the fifth option of the “Mac Attack” tasting of three), but Jacob is a seasoned Cafeteria vet and guided us towards the more classic two-cheese option.

It's still considered healthy if you can see some green beneath the frying, right?

It’s still considered healthy if you can see some green beneath the frying, right?

I have little love towards green beans in general. As a child they were one of my least favorite vegetables (along with peas and broccoli), but I’ve come around to them depending on how they’re prepared. Basically, add enough butter to any previously-loathed vegetable and I’ll dig right in. The Crispy Green Beans were lightly fried in a delicate batter, with their green skins still visible through the crust. As advertised, they were crispy without providing a real crunch, so you still had the vegetal flavor as dominant, heightened by the salty, buttery coating. The dish came with a grilled lemon and a soy-based sesame ginger dipping sauce, although again I thought the beans were better sans sauce. Adding soy on top of the salted, fried strips was too much salt for me. Despite my negative history with green beans, this dish was actually one of my favorites of the night.

A two-cheese mac and cheese, so ... a mac and cheese cheese?

A two-cheese mac and cheese, so … a mac and cheese cheese?

The mac and cheese was a strong contender, but I didn’t find it innovative enough to stand out. Perhaps my disappointment is unwarranted, considering we went for the more classic take on mac and cheese, over the truffle oil or buffalo blue cheese, but my feelings for the dish are largely “delicious, but not something I would order again.” The portion would have been enough for someone’s entree, but split between three people it was a reasonable appetizer. There was a defined crust that gave way to a cheesy roux and al dente noodles, and there’s no arguing with a pairing like fontina and cheddar. I definitely enjoyed it more than the dishes I’ve tried at S’Mac, but compared to the interesting interplay of texture and taste with the Crispy Green Beans, the mac and cheese felt a little “old-hat.”

For our main course we shared the Black Kale Salad, the Zucchini Parm Latkes, and the Pecan Crusted Catfish.

The Black Kale Salad -- a one two punch of spice and bitter -- not my cup of tea, unfortunately.

The Black Kale Salad — a one two punch of spice and bitter — not my cup of tea, unfortunately.

The Black Kale Salad is a new seasonal menu item. It seemed like Cafeteria rotates a significant number of dishes each season, as Jacob’s favorite dessert is no longer being offered (a homemade Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, curse the cruelty of fate!). In fact, if you’re mildly obsessive like me, you will note that the kale salad described on Opentable’s Cafeteria menu page is different from the one we encountered at dinner. This brand spanking new salad boasted black kale (naturally), with pine nut gremolata, mint, ricotta salata, and a jalapeno grilled lemon vinaigrette. All three of us are wimps when it comes to spicy food, so we opted to have the dressing on the side. However, after a few forkfuls into the salad it became clear that the bottom of the plate had been lightly coated with the jalapeno vinaigrette, leading to some impolite grimaces as we tried to put on brave faces. I’ve also yet to fully get onboard the kale train, so I was hoping that the rest of the items in the salad would balance the bitterness of the greens. The mint and jalapeno did offer up some strong punches of flavor, and the ricotta salata worked to cool things down a bit, but overall I was looking for a light and refreshing dish to counterbalance the heaviness of the rest of the meal, and I just found the salad overwhelming, jumping back and forth from bitter to spicy.

Zucchini Parm Latkes win points for presentation in their tiny cast iron skillet.

Zucchini Parm Latkes win points for presentation in their tiny cast iron pot.

The Zucchini Parm Latkes sounded like an interesting meshing of Eastern European and Italian food, so I was eager to see how they would pan out. To be honest, I didn’t taste the “parm” part, but the pancakes were fried to the perfect point of crispyness, and I appreciated that they were not thick patties of starch. My pancake had good crunch to it, although I missed the biting contrast of an onion (you know how I feel about onions in my latkes). I could have sworn I detected an herby, almost mint taste running through my latke.  At first I thought it was just the kale salad lingering on my tongue, but Jacob agreed that he tasted mint or chives of some sort, which threw off the buttery, warm flavors of the latke. The best part of the dish was the apple sauce — basically a thick apple compote, nearly the density of apple pie filling, fresh, sweet, and chunky with a real crisp apple taste. I could easily imagine it on the table at Thanksgiving.

My personal winner of the night -- the Pecan Crusted Catfish.

My personal victor of the night — the Pecan Crusted Catfish.

My favorite dish of the night was the Pecan Crusted Catfish, despite the fact that I’ve never really liked catfish. It’s an unreasonable excuse, but whenever I see catfish on a menu I immediately think of the live fish and get a little bit grossed out. Something about the whiskers throws me off. I mostly pushed for ordering this dish because of how I imagined the combination of a pecan crust and the included sides would work together. The dish came with a sweet potato hash, smoked Cipollini onions, and a red pepper emulsion. The fish was tender and flaky, providing a nice contrast with the crunchy pecan coating. It will come as no shock that I loved the sweet potato hash. The smoky onions and bright acidity of the red pepper sauce helped to tame the sweetness of the pecans and sweet potatoes. Looking back on it, the catfish itself was pretty much just a vehicle for the other flavors in the dish, since I can’t say anything specific about the fish’s flavor. However, the fish did nothing to detract from my appreciation of the rest of the dish, so I’d happily order it again. Like my other favorite of the night, the Crispy Green Beans, it was a sophisticated take on a comfort food standard, elevating a commonplace fish like catfish with a novel crust and sides that worked together to create an unexpected starring element.


Final Thoughts:

The word “cafeteria” generally conjures up such appetizing phrases as “hairnet,” “glop,” and “mystery meat.” But thankfully Cafeteria the restaurant is well aware of those standards and is happy to toy with them for your benefit. They’re encouraging you to engage your expectations and hope that they’ll be twisted and turned around — that your order of steamed, limp green beans will be battered and crisply fried, that you can choose between meatloaf, biscuits and gravy, or chicken paillard any time of day, and that you’ll see nary a plastic tray nor lunchlady in sight. I really enjoyed my dinner at Cafeteria because it took advantage of my curiosity. I wouldn’t normally order green beans or catfish, but I was intrigued by the way Cafeteria was reimagining them. Sometimes that leap of faith fell flat on the floor, but in other cases I discovered a new appreciation for foods I’d written off.

Maybe what we’re forgetting is that the root of the American cafeteria is the idea of communal dining, of taking a break from work or school to sit down and press the pause button on everything but the food in front of us. Yes, Cafeteria is about as far from my middle school lunchroom as you can get, but even without the little cartons of chocolate milk, I couldn’t help but think of the sheer joy of breaking free from classes and responsibilities and getting to hang out with my friends. For that aspect, Cafeteria happily hits the nail straight on the head.


Cafeteria

119 7th Ave (Corner of 17th St)

http://www.cafeteriagroup.com/

Snackshots

In the spirit of mixing things up (slash a thinly veiled attempt at proving I am actually taking more pictures when I eat/make things), I thought I would use this post as a brief retrospective of some of the delicacies from December and January that didn’t quite make it into the spotlight. Consider this a tour of the minor league, if you will.

Mulled wine from Radegast

Mulled wine from Radegast

I discovered my absolute favorite type of warm cocktail this winter — mulled wine. I used to be all about spiked apple cider, but as my beverage tastes have moved away from sweeter drinks, I found myself ordering mulled wine (and making it at home) more and more often. I’m a sucker for autumnal/wintry spices — cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, I find myself constantly cold, and I’m hoping to expand my taste for red wine, so you really couldn’t give me a better drink than mulled wine. This particular glass came from Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Williamsburg, and was a great combination of citrus, spice, and slightly sweetened red wine. I really recommend checking Radegast out — it’s the first beer hall I’ve been to in NY, so I don’t have much to compare it with, but I enjoyed my wine, the hefeweizen I also ordered, and the German-esque food on the menu. As for space itself, the hall appears to be a converted factory, so for once in NY there’s actually plenty of space. One side of the hall is dominated by an enormous bar and smaller surrounding tables, and the other side holds the kitchen/grill and a dozen or so picnic tables.  I could see it getting a little crowded on weekend nights, but on a Saturday afternoon it was bustling without being raucous, and you can’t really argue with a Bavarian band providing the soundtrack for your daydrinking.

Momofuku Milk Bar in Williamsburg

Momofuku Milk Bar in Williamsburg

That same day I finally got to go to one of the Momofuku Milk Bar locations — albeit the one in Williamsburg, not the ones closer to me in the East Village or the Upper West Side. Milk Bar is known for its wacky takes on dessert — most famously for its Cereal Milk (yes, like the stuff left over in your bowl) and its Compost Cookie, which is a bit of a kitchen-sink type cookie with potato chips, cereal, coffee grounds, and other unexpected ingredients.

The almost overwhelming menu at Milk Bar -- where to begin?

The almost overwhelming menu at Milk Bar — where to begin? And yes, they do offer “pretzel milk” as well.

Although this was my first time actually inside of the store, I’ve had the opportunity to try some of the Milk Bar specialties like the Crack Pie and the Compost Cookie before. Still, there were an enormous number of options available, so I ended up falling back on my comfort zone of ice cream, and got the Oatmeal Creme Pie soft serve. I enjoyed it, but found it very mild in flavor, reminiscent of the way your milk tastes after you dunk an oatmeal cookie into it a few times. The texture of the soft serve was probably the best part — smooth and creamy in the way you want every Mr. Softee order to be. I wish they had given me a spoon instead of the nostalgic Dixie Cup wooden stick. I am eager to try out the pretzel shake at some point, not to mention the “fancy shakes” (aka spiked) shakes offered at the bottom of the menu, so I’ll probably make a trip back, although perhaps to one of the other locations.

The visually appealing, but somewhat lackluster oatmeal creme pie soft serve.

The visually appealing, but somewhat lackluster oatmeal creme pie soft serve.

2012-12-16 15.19.02

The next port of call was Vegan Divas, an Upper East Side vegan bakery and cafe. I stopped in to pick up some holiday goodies for vegan coworkers. The shop was quaint but not cutesy — the focus was happily on the baked goods themselves.

I picked out a bunch of the mini donuts for my coworkers.

I picked out a bunch of the mini donuts for my coworkers.

Vegan Divas has been praised for its donuts, so combined with my weakness for miniaturized things, there was little else I could pick out as gifts. I got myself a lemon-raspberry muffin, mainly to see how their baking fared. Sometimes vegan baking leads to incredible dense, lumpy cakes, so I wondered if all the wrinkles in the substitution scheme had been ironed out. Muffins can be very hit or miss depending on the baker, so I thought it would be a good test of the caliber of Vegan Divas’ desserts.

My small, but heavy muffin

My small, but heavy muffin

Unfortunately, I did find the muffin lacked the air-pocket-laden lightness of a great breakfast pastry. But texture aside, Vegan Divas succeeded in creating a healthy muffin (less than 100 calories) that didn’t taste like “health food.” The lemon and raspberry flavors were bright and very present, and I would be willing to go back and see what else the bakery has veganized, although I might opt for something more traditionally dense in makeup, like a brownie.

Chicken and Vegetable Ramen from Minca

Chicken and Vegetable Ramen from Minca

I’m pleased I was able to scrounge up at least one photo of a savory item from my recent gastronomical adventures. Shown above is the fabulous bowl of ramen I had from Minca in the East Village. I opted for the veggie-packed ramen, which to Minca‘s cooks apparently meant including an entire head of lettuce. Fortunately, beneath all that roughage was a deeply rich chicken broth with a hardboiled egg, an assortment of vegetables, and pieces of thinly sliced chicken. It was an umami-bomb, and I mean that in the best way possible. This was probably one of my favorite meals in the past month or so — simple fare but cooked expertly, and pretty inexpensive to boot. Although I personally prefer non-pork based ramen, Minca offers a wide range of soups from vegetarian to all the pig a person could want. Heads up, though — like a lot of ramen joints, Minca is cash only.

2012-12-30 19.14.56

Much like my love for the miniature, I also have a deep affection for holiday-themed versions of food. So despite it being well past Christmas when I baked this, I had to pick up the Nestle Holiday Baking Bits (aka red and green semisweet chocolate chips) that were on sale at Stop and Shop. C’mon — Christmas themed AND on sale? How could I resist? The monstrosity above was made for a New Year’s Party: Magic Bars/Seven Layer Bars/Munchies — whatever you want to call them, they involved graham cracker crumbs, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, butterscotch and white chocolate chips, shredded coconut, and Heath bar pieces. Let’s just say they were well-received.

Last, but not least, a picture from my recent visit to Salvation Taco. Although I decided to enjoy the meal sans compulsive photographing, I just had to share my last cocktail. Salvation Taco is the latest project from April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, the people behind the restaurant in the Breslin Hotel (great, but expensive brunch) and the Spotted Pig (supposedly a fantastic burger, but I’ve yet to make it there). Salvation Taco is a lounge/restaurant in the Pod 39 Hotel in Midtown, and although its over-the-top “hip” vibe is a little out of place in the mild-mannered just south of Grand Central neighborhood, I found the food and drinks to be playful and innovative. My favorite taco by far was the least taco-ish on the menu — ground Moroccan lamb served on a tiny piece of naan. My first cocktail was the “Fly By Night,” a mixture of “gin, lemon juice, cinnamon-vanilla bean, orange blossom, sea salt,” and came in a normal glass. But when I ordered the “5 Island Horchata,” which is listed as “5 island rum, coconut horchata, cold-brewed coffee, fernet-vallet, cinnamon and vanilla,” the waitress neglected to inform me of how my cocktail would be delivered:

Yup, in a parrot.

Yup, in a parrot.

It was a great drink, if a little on the heavy side. It ended up tasting mostly like a rum and coffee flavored slushy, which I was happy to slurp down, but left a bit of a snowball-esque lump in my stomach afterwards. Regardless, it was worth it, if only because I can now say, “why yes, I have had a cocktail out of a ceramic bird.” You know, in case that ever comes up.

I leave you with one last tidbit from my kitchen. Between Winter Restaurant Week and the Superbowl, there seems to a lot of serious eating in my near future. Of course I’m trying to be virtuous and eat salads and veggies where I can, but I did just get a cast iron skillet, and there’s really only one way to properly break that bad boy in:

2013-01-27 14.35.00

AW YEAH, GIANT SKILLET COOKIE. And yes, those are some leftover Nestle Holiday Baking Bits. Like I said, they were on sale!

 

Radegast Hall & Biergarten

113 N 3rd St, Brooklyn

radegasthall.com

Momofuku Milk Bar

Various locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn

milkbarstore.com

Vegan Divas

1437 First Avenue, (between 75th and 74th Street)

http://www.thevegandivas.com

Minca

536 E 5th St.

Salvation Taco

Pod 39 Hotel, 145 E 39th St

salvationtaco.com

Review: Calle Ocho

I’ll give you fair warning: this post is not particularly family friendly. It doesn’t espouse the virtues of patience or pragmatism (or any real virtues at all, to be frank). This is a review of a drunk brunch, a damn fine drunk brunch, and if you’re down with hearing about that, then buckle up. I do apologize to all my underage or more temperate readers (who am I kidding, you lushes), but for once I’ll be writing largely about something other than food.

I’m not exactly sure when I first heard about Calle Ocho, but it had to be shortly after I moved to Manhattan, because I feel like it’s been on my brunch backburner forever. Their gimmick is not remarkably novel — plenty of restaurants and bars in NY offer all-you-can-drink (AYCD) brunches, and many of them include sangria. But what sets Calle Ocho apart is their level of commitment. These people are serious about sangria, and serious about getting you smashed, if you so choose.

Decor:

Calle Ocho recently reopened in the Excelsior, and there's still scaffolding up from the construction.

Calle Ocho recently reopened in the Excelsior, and there’s still scaffolding up from the construction.

Calle Ocho is located inside of the Excelsior Hotel, on West 81st St and Columbus, right across from the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve passed it a million times in my countless visits to gape at the dinosaurs, but this past Saturday I finally fought my way through the falling snow into the hotel to meet my friends. As with many AYCD brunches, Calle Ocho is very popular, but luckily they’re one of the few places in NY that allow reservations for brunch, so my industrious friend Sarah (different than Thanksgiving Sarah, I know, it’s confusing) had jumped on that early, and we were quickly ushered to our table. Sarah, who lives nearby on the Upper West Side, told me that the restaurant also has a Monday happy hour deal — mojitos and daquiris for $5. As an underpaid twenty-something who collects info on cheap deals on food and alcohol like she used to collect Beanie Babies, my ears perked up at that — filed away for another rainy/snowy day.

The bar -- there were a couple of lounge areas to the right and left.

The bar — there were a couple of lounge areas to the right and left.

Unlike the wood-paneled, more regal lobby of the Excelsior, Calle Ocho’s interior is bright and adorned with bright colors in stripes and polka dots. The restaurant is very large, with a spacious bar area with lounge seating, then two large dining rooms that seem to take up most of the hotel’s ground floor. We were seated in a comfortably large booth in the farthest dining room, which is clearly also used for private events.

The back dining room, which was about half the size of the main one.

The back dining room, which was about half the size of the main one.

Food and Drink:

Now let’s get down to brass tacks. The reason Calle Ocho is so popular is because their brunch features an unlimited sangria deal: as long as you are eating, you can make your way through any and/or all of their 8 types of sangria (4 white, 4 red). The catch? These bad boys are served in 20 oz glasses. TWENTY OUNCES. As in one bottle of Coke-sized. Holy bursting bladder, Batman. So yeah, I’d love to see somebody take 8 glasses down, and then deal with the bathroom visit (and possible alcohol poisoning), if they could find someone to literally drag them there.

My feelings about sangria are similar to my feelings about Oreos. Whenever I see sangria on a menu, I have an existential crisis about whether it’s appropriate that I order it. It’s my alcoholic kryptonite. Unfortunately, unlike the rigorous standards enforced by Nabisco that assure my Double Stufs are consistently double-stuffed (stufed?), plenty of bars in NY tend to cheat on sangria. Some cheap red wine, an apple chunk or two, lime wedge — bam, sangria, right? Thankfully, Calle Ocho is not that kind of establishment. All of their sangria options featured unusual spices and fruits for the drink, like tamarind or cinnamon.

Although I’m usually a red sangria kind of gal, I ended up getting two of the white varieties (yes, 40 oz of sangria — I told you this was far from a virtuous review). I started with the cheesily-named “Havana Banana,” which featured coconut rum, Creme de banana, coconut, bananas, and lychees. Maybe it’s a stretch, but in my mind it was almost suitable for breakfast, considering all of those fruits. While it was certainly very sweet, the sweetness was actually  effective in balancing the taste of the alcohol from the wine, rum, and creme de banana. I’d never had lychee before, and once I made it over the texture hurdle (it reminded me of those bowls of peeled grapes people put out at Halloween — ooooh, it’s a bowl of eyeballs!), I actually liked the taste. Granted, I should probably try lychees when they’re not soaked in fruity alcohol to get a real sense of them.

The Havana Banana -- note the fruity eyeballs in the bottom.

The Havana Banana — note the fruity eyeballs in the bottom.

The other 3 members of my brunch group ended up getting red sangria — the “Samba,” which seemed closest to your average type of sangria, the “Fresas,” which prominently featured raspberries and blueberries, and the “Roja,” which emphasized brandy. My second glass was the “Tropical” (Light Rum, Triple Sec Lemongrass, Lemons, Passion Fruit Nectar), another white sangria which was enjoyable, but I found a little too heavy on the lemon for my tastes. The “Havana Banana” remained my favorite, although the late second round entry of the “Spanish Harlem” that my friend Megan got was a close runner-up. It seemed like a take on cold mulled wine — dark rum, cinnamon, mandarins and peaches. Although I tend towards beer and wine for my drinks, rum is my go-to spirit, so I really enjoyed the interplay of the red wine and the rum, and the warm spice of the cinnamon. I might keep that combination in mind for a winter cocktail in the frozen depths of February.

Now I have to at least attempt to redeem myself by briefly mentioning the food. Calle Ocho offers a variety of pan-Latin cuisine, and I’d love to go back and really sample the menu for dinner to give the food its due. My fellow brunchers got “Cachapa de Salmon”: Venezuelan sweet corn crepes filled with salmon, a Cuban sandwich, and the “Calle Ocho Omelet,” stuffed with manchego and tomato. I ended up getting the “Tortilla Espanola”: a frittata with spinach, peppers, asparagus, and mushrooms over a “crab enchilado,” which seemed to be a tomato-based sauce with crab meat. I thoroughly enjoyed the frittata — the eggs were firm and well-cooked without being overdone, and the vegetables were similarly still their independent and flavorful selves, instead of the mushy mess of green stuff that you sometimes get at brunch egg dishes. The tomato sauce was delicious as well — a nice amount of acid to balance the richness of the crab meat. I only wish the crab had been a little more seasoned — it was pretty plain compared to the flavors of the rest of the dish.

Tortilla de Espanola -- I loved all the veggies with the crab meat in the sauce.

Tortilla de Espanola — I loved all the veggies with the crab meat in the sauce.

Calle Ocho omelet

Calle Ocho omelet

Cuban sandwich

Cuban sandwich

Cachapa de Salmon

Cachapa de Salmon, about to be devoured.

Also worth noting is the bread basket. I consider myself a snootily discerning individual about bread baskets (I do love me some carbs), and this one was exemplary. Chocolate chip rolls (reminiscent, but not as good as Cornelia Street Cafe), corn muffins, and miniature biscuits that reminded me of Mexican donuts with their crisp outer layer and soft and airy interior. All of the above was served with strawberry butter, which seems to a be a NY brunch staple these days.

Service:

Where Calle Ocho loses a few points is on service. They were very attentive in seating us and taking our drink and food orders, but 3 of our dishes came out all at once, leaving one person waiting alone while the rest of our food got cold. The downside of being seated far back in the separate dining room was that we were a destination spot for the waiters, rather than something they passed by en route to the kitchen, so our requests went unanswered for much longer. For example, my friend Sarah got a Cuban sandwich, and it ended up having no pickles on it. She was basically done with the sandwich by the time we flagged the waiter down, asked for the pickles, and had someone go back and get them. A similar situation occurred with our attempts to get a picture taken — we finally got a busboy to do it because our waiter had disappeared. I think this situation might be easily remedied by asking for a table in the main dining room, but it was still frustrating and a downer during an otherwise lovely meal.

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I would definitely recommend Calle Ocho for brunch, even if your goal is other than testing the limits of your day-drinking abilities. While the service was less than ideal, they kind of get away with it because I was a little too tipsy to really notice the lags in time. I’d love to try some of the other sangrias, which seem to rotate seasonally (some of the varieties I saw on Saturday are not on the website, and vice versa), and I’d like to give the food its due. It was a nice brunch to end 2012 on, and certainly the kind of raucous revelry you expect from the year-end. I certainly intend to go back, but it might not be for a few weeks —  January is the time for resolutions and gym visits, not sloppy Saturday afternoons with creme de banana. So here’s to 2012, a year full of exciting food adventures, but now, I swear, I’m going to buckle down. Expect only posts about salads in 2013 — Experimental salad-stronomy. Starting tomorrow, I swear. Right after I eat all of the cookies and magic bars I baked for tonight’s NYE party.

Happy New Year everyone!

Calle Ocho

The Excelsior Hotel

45 W. 81st St

http://www.calleochonyc.com