Never Mind the Sizing, Just Try a Scoop: Solid Gelato at A. B. Biagi

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With the return of the summer season, I can finally stop making excuses for my near-constant ice cream craving. Intellectually, I always want ice cream, regardless of how the rest of my body feels about it. I’ve recently discovered I’m genetically predisposed towards this condition, when my father told me that his mother ate a bowl of ice cream nearly every day of her life. So it was really only a matter of time that I stumble into a new cup-and-cone-commissary, wide-eyed and near-drunk with the anticipation of embracing my birthright once more.

The first entry in my list of Summer 2014 frozen desserts is A.B. Biagi, a small and relatively new (they opened last summer) gelateria on Elizabeth St. Jacob and I paid a visit after our falafel-fest at Taim, braving intermittent rain to once again test the veracity of a Serious Eats rave review.

(I suppose you could argue that I’ve already broken the seal with my inhaling of a Sprinkles Sundae, but I’d counter that the focus of that dish was split between ice cream and cupcake, whereas A.B. Biagi is all about the gelato.)

 

First Impressions:

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

As I mentioned above, A. B. Biagi is only a few short blocks away from Taim, a gelato oasis in the relatively scoop-free Nolita. The bright yellow exterior gives way to a tiny store front, narrow, yet deep, with most of the space devoted to the kitchen. Inside, the walls are covered in white tiles on the bottom half, with the upper sections decorated with unconventional paintings evoking scenes of Italy on one side, and a large mural of a woman (A.B. herself?) on the other.

 

A. B., is that you?

A. B., is that you?

Across from the counter is a small bench that offers the only seating. The set up is similar to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, albeit smaller and less clinical in decor — the goal is to get you in, ordering gelato, and out again, with minimal hanging around. Although in our case, we were the only customers on a rainy Friday afternoon.

 

The Food:

 

Size is in the eye of the beholder...

I guess at this shop, size is in the eye of the beholder…

A. B. Biagi offers a rotating selection of 6 flavors of gelato, a couple of sorbets, and espresso, coffee, tea and hot chocolate (covering all your temperature-based food needs). On our visit, the options were Stracciatella, Chocolate Brigadeiro, Vegan Almond Butter, Pistachio, Chia Pudding, and Coffee gelato, and Lemon and Guava sorbet. Any of those can be scooped into A. B. Biagi’s somewhat confusingly named sizes — Tiny, Small, or Regular — which remind me of the McDonald’s strategy of renaming Super Size as Large, hoping we wouldn’t notice that the actual volume stayed exactly the same. The cashier warned us that the Small cup holds more gelato than you’d expect, so we opted to play Goldilocks and go neither too big or too small.

After sampling nearly all of the gelato flavors, we ended up splitting a Small cup of the Stracciatella and the Vegan Almond Butter. I was a little surprised that Jacob would ignore the opportunity to have chocolate gelato, but he said the Chocolate Brigadeiro was a little too sweet, and I concurred that it might be best left as its own dessert (as former employees of Brazilian animated film director Carlos Saldanha, we’ve been fortunate enough to sample more than a few authentic brigadeiro varieties, such as those from My Sweet Brigadeiro).

 

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

As promised, our cup came piled high with gelato, split between the two flavors. The Stracciatella was composed of a thick and intensely rich sweet cream base, speckled with dark chocolate shavings still big enough to offer a bit of a snap as you bit down on them. Whereas the Chocolate Brigadeiro fell more on the milk chocolate side, the chocolate in the Stracciatella was just over the edge of bitter, providing a nice contrast to the sugar of the gelato base. I was hit with a bit of childhood nostalgia when eating it, suddenly taken back to bowls of Breyer’s Chocolate Chunk ice cream out of my parents’ freezer, my teeth struggling to crack through the semi-sweet chocolate chunks.

Yet despite the memories called up by the Stracciatella, my favorite of all of A. B. Biagi’s flavors was by far the Vegan Almond Butter. Although we asked the cashier, he wasn’t sure what the base of the gelato was. It tasted like it was made of almond milk, but had the same thick consistency as the non-vegan Stracciatella, leaving me curious as to how they achieved that chewy texture (most vegan ice cream recipes I’ve seen call for coconut milk, but I couldn’t detect any coconut flavor in A. B. Biagi’s version). Regardless of the technique, the Vegan Almond Butter was absolutely delicious, creamy gelato that had a subtle almond taste, no frying-pan-to-the-face of almond extract here, punctuated with the sweetness of the almond butter, thinly swirled throughout so it was more like an array of crunchy crystals rather than a ribbon. I’ll admit that after being a lifelong peanut butter fanatic, I’ve been on a bit of of an almond butter kick, adding it to my yogurt in the morning and a few cookie recipes. It feels like a more adult flavor (at least, the raw unsweetened version I bought) — somewhat more restrained, but still giving you that wonderful nuttiness. That was the level of flavor in A. B. Biagi’s gelato as well — not the orgiastic sugar wonderland of say, Sprinkles‘ Rocky Road, but a more mature, composed dessert that you should linger over.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I was pleased with the quality of gelato at A. B. Biagi, and understand why Serious Eats was a fan (I think their offices might be close by, too…). However, considering the prices, I’d recommend checking out Vivoli or Il Laboratorio del Gelato first, depending on your tradition vs. innovation preference when it comes to gelato. Despite it being in Macy’s, you’ll get more bang for your buck at Vivoli, which still tops my list for classic gelato in NYC, and I’d tell anyone that you have to try some of the wacky flavors at Il Laboratorio if you’re a frozen dessert fan. Not to knock A. B. Biagi — they do offer a solid group of interesting and well-made gelatos, but just not of the caliber to break into my pantheon of ice creams. If you’re walking around Nolita or Little Italy, and you’re looking for a cool treat, I’d say stop by and try the Almond Butter. Maybe I was just born this way, but I think you can make any day better with the addition of just a little gelato.

 

A. B. Biagi

235 Elizabeth St (Between Houston and Prince)

abbiagi.com

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Snacks by Subscription: The Nibblebox by Graze

 

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I like to think of myself as selectively sheep-like. I dislike arguments too much to be truly iconoclastic, and I’ll admit there have been a number of times in my life where I’ve given in to the hype and found myself reveling in doing something “trendy.” I remember one class in high school where all the kids stood in a circle, and a good 90% of us were wearing some version of blue jeans and Converse shoes. And I’ll admit, I breathed a sigh of relief that I was amongst that majority. Maybe it’s lame, maybe it’s letting the man get me down, but I think most high schoolers are pro-conformity at times.

So what item of Maggie’s Trendwatch 2014 is on the docket today? Subscription boxes, specifically the “Nibblebox” by Graze. These boxes are all the rage right now, from snacks to drinks to pet treats (no joke, Barkbox is a thing). I’d given a few of these as gifts — most recently going in with my brother on a Julibox subscription for my mother’s birthday, wherein she receives a monthly box full of the ingredients and instructions for curated cocktails. Unfortunately, as fun as these boxes are, in general they’re not particularly wallet-friendly (bang for your buck wise), so I’d resisted the nagging Facebook ads asking if I was really sure I didn’t want to try Naturebox.

What made me finally break down and submit to the tides of trends was an article from (who else) Serious Eats, reviewing a number of popular boxes. They gave high praise to Graze, and with a coupon code that got me a free box, I figure it couldn’t hurt to see what all the hubbub was about.

 

I picked Graze over the other highlighted boxes for several reasons, starting with their emphasis on variety (and ending, in a silly but still true reason, in the fact that they’re originally British). In almost all of my food-related ventures, I’m happiest with a smorgasbord of options — Chex Mix, Frito-Lay Munchies, Ben and Jerry’s Half-Baked (unintentional pot-theme acknowledged). You only have to look at my posts about Pike Place or Mad Sq. Eats for proof of my utter joy at all the choices. Graze’s website encourages you to be wild with your choices. After signing up, you indicate any dietary restrictions or allergies, and then dive into the snack selection. Every item has a range of rating buttons — Trash, Try, Like, and Love. The automatic baseline is “try,” meaning you’ll get sent that item once in a blue moon. Like means you’ll get it semi-frequently, and Love means you’ll have it in nearly every box (which, depending on your preference, comes weekly, fortnightly, or once a month). Trash, as you might imagine, means you’ll never see that item in your Nibblebox.

And to make establishing your preferences even easier, each snack has a drop down list of ingredients, allowing you to search by individual components. In my case, that meant calling up all the snacks with orange in them, in order to Trash any that combined it with chocolate (I’m still working on warming to citrus+chocolate). Aside from this, I left most things at Try, enticed by all the potential box-fillers, from savory to sweet, barbecue to curried to wasabi-flecked to tropical in flavor.

 

My free Nibblebox by Graze, enabling my weaknesses for mini things and variety packs.

My free Nibblebox by Graze, enabling my weaknesses for mini things and variety packs.

Within a week of my signing up, my Graze Nibblebox appeared, all components aside from the food itself noted as recyclable. Opening up the slim cardboard box revealed four labeled (and decorated) snack packs, with a booklet explaining how Graze works, offering coupons for friends, and providing nutrition and allergen and a “best by” date information for each snack. My free box came with Dark Rocky Road, Pomodoro Rustichella, Summer Berry Flapjack, and Tutti Frutti.

 

So how did the snacks stack up? Overall, I was pretty pleased with the well-rounded nature of the Graze box — three out of four snacks did skew sweet over savory, but they were each distinct in their flavor profiles and textures.

 

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The Pomodoro Rustichella, inspiring a desire to try to make tomato-romesco sauce.

The Pomodoro Rustichella, inspiring a desire to try to make tomato-romesco sauce.

 

My favorite ended up being the Pomodoro Rustichella (cheese croutons, tomato baguettes & tomato & herb almonds), which may be due to having it last after the sweetness of the other three items, or the fact that I generally have oats/unsalted nuts/dried fruit as my afternoon snack, so the Pomodoro Rustichella was a big departure from my routine. The little baguettes looked like the breadsticks you’d get with your school lunch cheese dip and crackers, but they had a much stronger tomato flavor, reminding me of the borderland of a pizza right where the sauce meets the crust (hints of tomato paste, pepper, oregano). The tiny croutons were Ritz-Bitz sized, and only somewhat cheesy, as if just dusted with parmesan. But the best element of the Pomodoro Rustichella was the tomato & herb almonds. I was initially skeptical of a tomato/almond combo, but it was actually a great pairing of the inherent sweetness of the nuts with the acidity of tomato (full disclosure, almonds are my favorite nuts, so I was possibly predisposed to like these). When eaten together, the Pomodoro Rustichella is most reminiscent of a deconstructed take on “Pizzeria” flavored Combos, and I mean that in the best way possible.

The Tutti Frutti (blueberry infused cranberries, pineapple, cherry infused raisins and green raisins) and the Summer Berry Flapjack (rustic rolled oat flapjack with berry-infused cranberries), were both fairly straightforward, with the exception of the Britishism “flapjack,” which does not refer to our American pancakes, but rather to an oat bar made with golden syrup. They both featured “infused” fruit, which is used in a lot of Graze’s snacks, according to their website. I’m not sure I’m totally hooked on the concept — I happen to like the way cranberries taste naturally, and so the ones in the flapjack reminded me most of the generic “berry” flavor used in candy and cereal. In the case of the Tutti Frutti, I thought it actually undercut the simplicity of the snack — if I’m going to have a variety of dried fruit, why not just give me dried blueberries and cherries, rather than “infusing” cranberries and raisins? This was by far my least favorite snack, although I liked the dried pineapple enough to look for other Graze snacks featuring it and move them to “Like.”

 

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The Summer Berry Flapjack, unintentionally educational in terms of cultural diversity.

The Summer Berry Flapjack, unintentionally educational in terms of cultural diversity.

The Summer Berry Flapjack had more going for it, since the infused morsels were sprinkled throughout. With the highest caloric value, the Flapjack pack was filled with 3 miniature bars, just enough to feel satisfying, but still sugary enough to seem like an indulgence. Even with the generic berry flavor of the craisins, the flapjacks were soft and fresh, well-preserved in the Graze plastic pack several days after my box arrived.

 

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My favorite snack -- Dark Rocky Road, although it did make me want to go to Trader Joe's.

My favorite snack — Dark Rocky Road, although it did make me want to go to Trader Joe’s.

I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that my favorite sweet snack was the one with chocolate. The Dark Rocky Road (Belgian dark chocolate buttons, cranberries and pecans) was made of simple components, not so different from the trail mixes you can find at Trader Joes. I really appreciated the proportions of the snack — it was heavy on the cranberries, but they didn’t skimp on the chocolate buttons and pecan halves.  Although they don’t list the cacao percentage on the website, the chocolate seemed like it was slightly better quality than a Hershey’s Special dark, and the plain cranberries and raw pecans paired wonderfully with it. The only thing that would have made this better would be to salt the pecans — the chocolate isn’t dark enough to be really bitter, so the contrast of salty and sweet would be more present with a little extra seasoning.
Let’s be honest with each other — these boxes are never going to beat the bulk bins at the supermarket for economic efficiency. But for the curious (and semi-lazy) snacker, Graze offers up a good deal. They allow you to choose your level of engagement with your food choices, from eyes closed eeny-meeny grab-bag to intensive curation through the “Love” rating. Personally, the reason I liked Graze was because it pushed me to try new things, so I can’t imagine picking “Love” for many snacks unless something blew me out of the water. I do have another Graze box coming, but I stepped it back to bimonthly, so that my Graze subscription is only a little more expensive than my Netflix. It’s an indulgence, but a fun one that doesn’t do too much damage to your wallet, and with the option of a free box to start, why not give it a shot (if you want a freebie, click here: https://www.graze.com/us/p/YJV6G1V4U)? C’mon, underneath aren’t we all just a little made of mutton?

 

https://www.graze.com/us/products 

Finesse in the Familiar: Brunch at Lafayette Grand Bakery and Cafe

As I’ve mentioned before many times on this blog, I would not consider myself much of a thrillseeker. I’ve never been to Six Flags, you won’t catch me buying sriracha, and the concept of bungee jumping seems like  Medieval torture-device-turned recreation to me. The only area I really dare myself to try the new and unconventional seems to be the culinary scene. The more new cuisines and restaurants I try, the more curious I grow about Filipino dishes, or Himalayan food, or what makes an Alsatian dinner distinct from a French one.

This mindset can have its disadvantages, however. I often find myself unwilling to go the safe route when there are so many options in New York, so many opportunities for the thrill of finding a new flavor combination you never even knew you liked. But that can lead to missing out on an equally affecting meal due to its familiarity. Frank Bruni recently wrote a column in the New York Times about the value of being a regular, of returning to a specific restaurant for the comfort, the reliability of the service and menu, and the satisfaction of eating a meal you know will leave you happy. In fact, he mentions the chicken at Barbuto, a place I’d love to go back to, but often overlook because I’ve been there before, and they serve Italian instead of Afghani.

I bring this all up because of my recent brunch at Lafayette Grand Cafe & Bakery. It’s a perfect example of the kind of restaurant I find myself passing over too often in favor of Lebanese or Colombian fare — familiar French dishes executed with a delicate touch. Did I discover anything remarkably new during my brunch? No, but what I did have was a lovely meal with an attentive server, delicious food, and a pleasant atmosphere. It was a great reminder to put aside my foodie fanaticism for a second and enjoy the whole dining experience, from company to table-setting. And that is something that makes a place worth returning to.

First Impressions:

Lafayette -- the of a French cafe inside the body of an American brick behemoth.

Lafayette — the outside of a French cafe inside the body of an American brick behemoth.

Unsurprisingly, Lafayette sits on the corner of Lafayette and Great Jones Streets, evoking the classic bistro aesthetic, but spread out within a massive space. The descriptor “Grand Cafe” makes sense once you enter the restaurant and see how the generally claustrophobic sidewalk French bistro has been blown out to American Super-size proportions. Fortunately, this makes for a very comfortable restaurant, retaining the clean cut style of rich wood, white and blue accents, and light colored marble across a high-ceilinged dining room. Besides the indoor dining area, Lafayette features the largest outdoor seating space I think I’ve seen in New York, wrapping all the way around the corner. We ended up sitting underneath a massive awning because of possible rain, but there were probably 20-25 tables of different sizes within the partitioned outdoor area.

Inside Lafayette -- a larger dining area is up a few steps to the left, and the bakery is to the right.

Inside Lafayette — a larger dining area is up a few steps to the left, and the bakery is to the right.

As they say in the name, Lafayette is not just a sit-down restaurant. Walking in, you come face-to-face with the bakery and coffee shop, which offers takeaway savory and sweet items throughout the day, from baguettes to sandwiches to pastries (tartes, macarons, eclairs, quiches and more). The bakery has some countertop stool seating near the window, and a high table in the center with newspapers on it, for those wishing to pause for a moment while they dive into their danish du jour. I really appreciated the care and attention to detail shown in the selection of newspapers, composed of a wide array of international sources. If I lived a bit closer, I would definitely consider coming down for a petit dejuener and a leisurely read of the New Yorker.

The bakery area, full of unfairly tempting treats like the brightly colored macarons in the lefthand display case.

The bakery area, full of unfairly tempting treats like the brightly colored macarons in the lefthand display case.

The Food:

They have towers of croissants, in case you were concerned about the legitimacy of their French origins.

They have towers of croissants, in case you were concerned about the legitimacy of their French origins.

Lafayette’s brunch menu is made up of traditional fare with a bit a French flair to it, from oatmeal with cognac-stewed fruit to a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich on a croissant. After drooling over the abundant amount croissants in the display case of the bakery, and in the company of two fellow bread enthusiasts in Jacob and his mother, Brauna, we just had to start with the Boulangerie Basket (an assortment of baked goods with Vermont butter & confiture). Foolishly thinking we would still need a good amount of food after that, Jacob got the Smoked Salmon Benedict, and Brauna and I chose the Egg White Frittata with Mushrooms.

Our waitress was very friendly, and happy to answer all of our questions about the menu, and said it would be no problem to specifically request an almond croissant as part of our Boulangerie Basket. Apparently some lines got crossed in communicating our order, however, because this is the basket that arrived at our table:

An almond croissant for each of us, plus one for Elijah?

An almond croissant for each of us, plus one for Elijah?

Unclear if the kitchen was bitter about our high-maintenance request, or if they just thought we’re really big fans of almonds. Although we probably could have taken those four croissants down, when our waitress checked in on our table, she immediately realized how ridiculously redundant the basket was, and let us keep one croissant while she asked the kitchen for a more varied replacement. Take two:

Muuccchhh better. If I'm going to carbo-load, can I at least get some variety?

Muuccchhh better. If I’m going to carbo-load, can I at least get some variety? Clockwise from the top right: blueberry muffin, pain aux chocolat, raisin-walnut bread, and a plain croissant.

This time our basket was made up of a regular croissant, a pain aux chocolat, a blueberry muffin, and three pieces of raisin-walnut bread. The basket was served with Vermont butter and “confiture,” a French preparation of fruit preserves (apricot in our case). The basket ended up being my favorite part of the meal, which I suppose is understandable given the physical prominence of the bakery and the high-level pastries on display.

The Almond Croissant -- lone survivor of the demise of our first Boulangerie Basket.

The Almond Croissant — lone survivor of the demise of our first Boulangerie Basket.

The Almond Croissant was well worth requesting — the dough was light and flaky, but had a strong buttery quality that melted on your tongue. The almond filling was moist and gooey, not as mind-blowing as Breads’ version, but certainly a very high quality croissant. The Pain aux Chocolat was also good, although less memorable in my mind than the almond — there’s a lightness to the marzipan/almond filling in an almond croissant that I’ve yet to find in a chocolate one. The rich, fudgy center was made of dark chocolate, just on this side of bittersweet. The only downside was the distribution of ingredients. The filling was located too much in the center, so achieving the maximal bite combination of croissant dough and chocolate was a little difficult.

I usually don’t like blueberry baked goods, but I found the Blueberry Muffin surprisingly satisfying. I think it came from the fact that the muffin dough was almost coffee-cake like in texture, a thick, dense crumb that had some real chew to it, plus they used clearly fresh blueberries. I feel like so many of my taste preferences are based on experiences with lesser quality ingredients (you mean Entenmann’s isn’t the height of farm-sourced baking?), so I often surprise myself in the face of premium versions of foods I thought I disliked.

I’m always game for raisin-walnut bread, although it felt a little out of place in this basket of thick, butter-laced dough. That aside, the piece I tried was a solid effort, if not a showstopper (truthfully, most slices I’ve encountered in the US will never hold a candle to the raisin baguettes I ill-advisedly wolfed down in Cannes). Although we made a honorable attempt at finishing off the basket, we did end up having a few pieces of bread left over, including the regular croissant which Jacob doggy-bagged for later. After all, we did have our actual entrees to eat as well.

The partially deconstructed Smoke Salmon Benedict.

The partially deconstructed Smoke Salmon Benedict.

The Smoked Salmon Benedict (“served on brioche with sauce choron”), arrived in a cute cast-iron pan. The menu description was a bit misleading, since the brioche was actually placed off to the side, with the rest of the dish front and center. It was as if someone had slipped the bottom out of the benedict. The poached eggs were served atop a bed of sauteed spinach and smoked salmon, all of which was covered by the sauce choron (a tomato-infused hollandaise sauce). Nontraditional as it was, I really liked this approach, since it keeps the toasted brioche dry and crunchy, and allows you control the proportions of egg and toppings to bread base as you wish. I’m still at the point where salmon is an unnecessary (if no longer outright disliked) part of a dish, but I thought the eggs were nicely poached, and I enjoyed the addition of the tomato to the hollandaise — the acidity helped to brighten the sauce, which I frequently find a bit too heavy for egg dishes.

The Egg White Frittata -- a fresh, if familiar vegetable foray.

The Egg White Frittata — a fresh, if familiar vegetable foray.

The Egg White Frittata with Mushrooms seemed pretty plain from its description, but our waitress explained that the menu really undersells the item. The frittata actually includes the titular mushrooms, plus arugula, cherry tomatoes, and thinly sliced fingerling potatoes. Brauna and my dishes arrived in a colorful, cleanly plated manner, with the pop of the bright, freshly cut tomatoes and the arugula sharp against the softer yellows of the egg and sliced potato base. The interior of the dish revealed that it was clearly made of egg whites, but I swear there must have been a substantial amount of butter involved in the cooking, considering how rich it tasted. It probably sat a bit heavier than a regular egg white frittata, but the lump in my stomach could also have come from the ten pounds of bread I had already scarfed down at that point. Perhaps because of this, I really appreciated the acidity of the raw tomatoes as well as the bitterness of the arugula, and was delighted by the variety of mushrooms included once you cut into the frittata.  The freshness of the produce in the frittata helped to elevate the more bland egg white foundation.

Final Thoughts:

Let's be serious -- this is what France is all about, right?

Let’s be serious — this is what France is all about, right?

Overall, the dining experience I had at Lafayette has stuck with me more than the food that made up my brunch. I certainly enjoyed my meal, and have little bad to say about the specific dishes, but I felt like my frittata and the sauce choron flair of Jacob’s benedict were things I could fairly easily crib for my own weekend cooking. By far, the best part were Lafayette’s baked goods, and I would definitely come back to the bakery for a quick snack and a cappuccino. It’s actually located just down the block from one of La Colombe’s cafes, which is one of my favorite coffee companies I discovered while at school in Philly. I’d expect that I’ll continue to hit up La Colombe when I’m strolling through the area, since I really prefer their brew, but if I want to sit down, read a paper, and relax, Lafayette wins out.

As for the restaurant itself, I think the attentive service and large, spacious dining areas make Lafayette worth trying out for dinner (especially because I tend to prefer non-brunch French food). The relatively low noise level and comfortable distance between tables also make Lafayette a good spot to take your parents.

Embracing a little risk-taking doesn’t mean we have to put aside our occasional desire for the comfort of the familiar. Reliability and classic appeal are valuable and rare commodities in our increasingly multicultural and heterogenous world. Restaurants like Lafayette remind me that sometimes the best toys aren’t the shiniest, and sometimes the best parts of a meal are the people you get to enjoy it with. So call up your parents, your friends, your significant other, and head over to Lafayette for a solid meal in a pleasant setting. Worst case scenario, you walk out with an exceptional eclair or two.

Lafayette Grand Cafe & Bakery

380 Lafayette St (corner of Great Jones)

http://lafayetteny.com/

From Nostalgia to Next Steps: Vivoli Il Gelato at Macy’s Herald Square

One of the themes I hope I’ve expressed over the course of this blog is my personal belief in the value of context when it comes to food. While certain dishes can linger in your mind due to their astonishing flavor profile, more often than not, the nostalgia we feel towards a certain meal derives from our memories of the occasion — the company, the conversation, etc. Recent scientific studies have shown that context affects the experience of eating on the most basic levels, from the type of dish you use to the material of your utensils. The steak I had at Peter Luger was certainly outstanding, but what made that night so fun was the anticipatory glee of my friends, the quirky service, and the halo of legendary status that enshrouded the restaurant.

Context has everything to do with my memories of eating and drinking in Rome. After 3 months of living in increasingly damp and chilly Glasgow, I scheduled a weekend trip to Rome in the last few weeks of my semester abroad. By that point the Scottish winter was definitely settling in, with freezing rain and snow soaking through my inappropriately American sneakers and bestowing a malevolent and interminable frizz upon my scalp. With the bulk of my finals work behind me, I hopped aboard the Continental equivalent of the Chinatown bus — good ol’ RyanAir– and fled southeast. I distinctly remember walking through some ruins near the Roman Forum and seeing a small grove of orange trees in bloom, a physical symbol of the brightness and thriving life around me, far from the early sunsets and slush-slicked slopes of my dorm back at the University. And oh, did I gorge myself in Italy, seizing upon the fresh pasta, biting espresso, and of course, the gelato. Like many of my fellow tourists, I found a way to have gelato every day of my trip, reveling in the creamy thickness of each scoop, the richness of the slivered chocolate in the Stracciatella, the goopy caramel swirls. I know I didn’t hit the haute cuisine of Rome during my stay (in fact, I’m pretty sure I ate at many a restaurant the locals would sneer at), but by taking a step back to examine the context, my rapturous gastronomic experience is easily explained. It was a break, an escape in every sense of the word, from schoolwork, responsibilities, and endless cafeteria meat pies and curries. Add in the fact that I was basically surrounded by works by my favorite sculptor, Bernini, and you can understand why to this day I enthusiastically argue the merits of Rome, and continue to wish fervently for the chance for a return trip.

With this kind of overwhelmingly positive nostalgia, it’s no surprise that I hold the gelato I had in Italy in the highest esteem, upon a pedestal that may be too lofty to reach in reality. When I mentioned a new gelato place called Vivoli Il Gelato to Jacob a few weeks back, he excitedly asked if it was owned by the same cherished Vivoli he experienced in Florence. A quick bit of Googling revealed that indeed it was, and so of course we had to see how authentic Italian gelato would fare against the recent triumph of American-bred Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Could sourcing the homeland bring me back to the bliss of yester-year?

 

First Impressions:

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

Vivoli’s location is liable to make a New Yorker cringe. The gelateria is not tucked away in some hole-in-the-wall corner of Red Hook as the hip foodie might hope, but instead placed smack dab in tourist-filled Herald Square, on the sixth floor of the flagship Macy’s. I’ll admit to having a true distaste for the area, generally overflowing with sightseers stumbling from Penn Station to the Empire State Building, or minimizing available sidewalk space by lingering over the window displays. But if you struggle through the crowds and hop onto the elevators on the 34th St side of Macy’s, you’ll shoot up to the sixth floor and be treated to the gorgeous views that make up a large part of the appeal of Stella 34 Trattoria, the department store’s  mammoth new restaurant/cafe.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Stella 34 takes advantage of its height above the hustle and bustle, featuring a wide open, airy space decked out in swathes of white tile, accented by black chairs and benches. The bulk of the seating (both for table service and takeaway) is situated next to the giant windows looking east over Herald Square. It was a clear day when we visited, resulting in a ton of sunlight pervading every corner of the restaurant.

 

The Food:

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli's small corner of the cafe.

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli’s small corner of the cafe.

Along with Vivoli‘s gelato, Stella 34 Trattoria serves sandwiches, flatbreads, pizzas, salads, and pastries, and we couldn’t help but be inundated with the delicious smells of melting cheese and sizzling meat as we ate our gelato. It’s a great move by Macy’s, taking advantage of the relative dearth of high quality, quick-service restaurants near Penn Station. I would definitely meet someone at Stella 34 for a quick bite before hopping on a train or bus, or to warm up post harried holiday shopping come December.

A passel of possible scoops.

A passel of possible scoops.

But this visit was all about Vivoli, and the question of whether authentic Italian gelato can find a home in the pantheon of American commercialism. Vivoli’s section of the cafe is located on the opposite side of the seating area, facing out onto the houseware and dining department. The menu states that flavors change seasonally, but during our visit Vivoli had 13 options to choose from. All the gelati offered were renditions of Italian classics, from basic Crema (aka sweet cream) to Pistachio to Stracciatella. While Vivoli does not offer the physical evidence of the gelato making process, like Il Laboratorio (and therefore the slight air of mysterious sugar science), what they do provide is a clear-cut explanation of the natural and specialty-sourced ingredients in their gelato. The menu does not describe what each flavor is, but rather lists the ingredients that go into it. For example, the Pistachio is listed as “Bronte pistachios from Sicily, Italy, whole fresh milk, fresh eggs, sugar” (emphasis theirs).

The menu displayed by the gelato case -- it's all about the ingredients, baby.

The menu displayed by the gelato case — Vivoli lets their ingredients speak for themselves..

After some serious deliberation, we decided on the Bacio, the Croccante, the Fragola, and the Limon. Unsurprisingly, since the shop is located in a major tourist area, this is not inexpensive gelato. We opted to share the largest size, the Grande, which nets you up to 4 different flavors and costs $6.75 (full disclosure: we also just wanted to try as many flavors as possible). To be fair to Vivoli, though, you do end up with a sizable serving, and I thought there was more than enough for two people split. And as their spare ingredient list would suggest, you are getting a pretty damn high quality dolce for your dollars.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Limon, Bacio, Croccante, and Fragola.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Croccante, Bacio, Limon, and Fragola.

I was drawn to the Bacio (hazelnuts from italy, cocoa powder, whole milk, farm eggs, sugar) and the Croccante (almonds from italy, whole mlik, farm eggs, sugar) because of my gelato experiences in Seattle. After loving the Bacio di dama from D’Ambrosio Gelato, I was excited to see a similar profile at Vivoli. This flavor, however, was closer to frozen Nutella, with a deep cocoa taste and a nice crunch from the hazelnuts. I hate to say it, but I think I’m now a full-on chocolate/hazelnut convert — I still don’t particularly like hazelnuts on their own, but I’ve found I really enjoy the combination. The Bacio ended up being the knockout champ at Vivoli — with its decadent, dark cocoa plus the sweet, buttery bite of hazelnuts, I’m hoping that this is not one of the seasonal flavors that will get rotated out.

You may remember how I waxed rhapsodic over the Toasted Almond gelato I had at Fainting Goat Gelato in Seattle. I’m pretty sure I will now eat anything that is almond-related or almond-adjacent, so it’s no surprise that I was thoroughly satisfied by the Croccante. It was my second favorite behind the Bacio, just absolutely fantastic — delicate almond flavor, creamy texture, sweet without coating your teeth in sugar.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

The Fragola (fresh strawberry, sugar, water) and Limon (fresh lemons, sugar, water) were actually sorbets, since a sorbet is defined by the lack of dairy. Both had the strong, natural taste of their base fruit ingredients. Of all the gelati we tried, the Limon had the least creamy consistency, reminding me of the Italian ices I used to buy at local pizzerias growing up (but with way fewer additives). It was very fresh, and extremely tart, tasting pretty much like frozen lemonade. It was refreshing in small doses, but despite Jacob and my deep devotions to dessert (and cleaning our plates like good children), we actually left a bit of this in the cup, finding it just a little too overpowering in the end.

Jacob had declared that the Fragola gelato he had in Italy was unreal, so that was the one flavor I knew we were going to order going in. It reminded me of Yoplait strawberry yogurt, if Mr. Yoplait himself had picked the strawberries from the vine and hand-crafted the dish for you. Although I love strawberries themselves, I’m usually a little more tentative about strawberry ice cream, generally avoiding the pink stripe in the rare occasions I have to eat Neapolitan. However, I will admit that this was definitely a superior product. I didn’t regret ordering it, but I would probably opt for another one of the sorbets next time around, especially because I expect the sorbet selection will be the part of the menu most dependent on the season.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Visiting Vivoli Il Gelato was a great exercise in contrast after so recently experiencing Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Both companies make an exceptional product, but Vivoli is much more mainstream, making traditional flavors with simple ingredients, rather than the mad scientist approach of Il Laboratorio (although I suppose that’s just something to take for granted, considering their name). While I can’t speak to the consistency of Vivoli compared to their native production in Florence, their gelato I had in New York was impressive in both execution and taste. It makes me curious about the rest of the offerings at Stella 34 Trattoria, and if they meet the high mark set by Vivoli.

Can any new experience truly surpass the heady heights of a cherished memory? Perhaps we shouldn’t aim as high as that — maybe it’s enough to be content with making some wonderful new ones. Carpe diem, or carpe gelato, in this case. And maybe there’s some merit to stripping off our jaded New Yorker coats once in a while to bask in the bliss of touristy ignorance. So if you have a bit of shopping to do, you might as well taste some superb gelato at Vivoli while you’re at it. Sure, you may have to be shell out a few more bucks per scoop, but just imagine that you’re taking a trip to Italy and have to deal with the Euro exchange rate. At least this time you’re saving the cost of a flight.

 

Vivoli Il Gelato (at Stella 34 Trattoria)

Macy’s Herald Square

151 W. 34th St., Sixth Fl.

http://www.patinagroup.com/restaurant.php?restaurants_id=139

Snackshots Seattle, Part 2: Sightseeing by the Mouthful

I could have gone on even longer talking about my visit to Pike Place Market, but I’d rather leave some elements of mystery for you all (mostly my parents, who are just going to have to go there when they visit Dan). Fortunately, I still have plenty to share, since the rest of my weekend was taken up by alternating bouts of food inhalation and mild exercise.

I got into Seattle on Friday, and spent the afternoon checking out the EMP Museum while Dan finished up at work. If you’re a music, pop culture, or sci fi fan, I highly recommend checking the museum out. Between the “Icons of Sci Fi” and the “Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic” exhibits, I could barely contain the geek glee welling up inside me. Tons of props and costumes from movies and TV, plus guided audio tours featuring George R.R. Martin and Jane Espenson. Well worth the admission fee.

Dinner on Friday night -- Tanglewood Supreme in Magnolia. Fine dining down a random alley?

Dinner on Friday night — Tanglewood Supreme in Magnolia. Fine dining down a random alley?

Eventually Dan and I met up for dinner, and after a little bit of research, we settled on the highly rated Tanglewood Supreme. Despite sounding more like a Taco Bell order than a “fisherman to table” spot, Tanglewood Supreme is actually a “local seafood bistro” found in the classy, pricey neighborhood of Magnolia. It is tucked away down an alley, but once you enter the restaurant, Tanglewood immediately gives off a familiar upscale vibe of modern restaurants in NY or California. The same industrial aesthetic, with an open kitchen and simple wooden tables and chairs. The staff was very nice and accommodating, and perfectly happy to answer all of our questions.

Tanglewood Surpreme is a little more familiar on the inside.

Tanglewood Supreme is a little more familiar on the inside.

Dan was very eager to do the 7-course tasting menu (a ridiculously reasonable $45), but the jet-lag had left me not quite hungry enough to face down multiple courses, not to mention the fact that our waiter informed us it would take two hours to serve. I promised to join Dan for the full Tanglewood experience on a future visit.

The Spring Baby Lettuces salad, with a delectable dollop of Humboldt Fog in the top right corner.

The Spring Baby Lettuces salad, with a delectable dollop of Humboldt Fog in the top right corner.

We both started with Spring Baby Lettuces Salad (radish, Humboldt Fog, champagne grapes, pecan vinaigrette, carrot and apple), mostly because it included Humboldt Fog, one of my favorite goat’s milk cheeses. Although it’s produced in California, I’ve seen it on a number of menus in NY (in fact, Murray’s sells it), and always enjoyed it by itself on cheese plates. As you can see in the photo, Humboldt Fog contains a line of of ash across the middle (like another fave of mine, Morbier), and has a strong, rich but tangy flavor, which worked really well against the bitterness of the lettuces and the acidity of the grapes. The salad was light and refreshing, and I was impressed with how all the components played off each other.

I was bound and determined to get my fill both of seafood and Asian food when in the Pacific Northwest, and managed to hit two birds with one stone at Tanglewood Supreme. As soon as I saw they had scallops, I was set (as I’ve mentioned before, scallops are one of my must-eat foods). Tanglewood Supreme’s Asian-influenced take on the mollusk featured Alaskan Weathervane Scallops with baby bok choy, thai jasmine rice, red curry sauce, and “naan puffs.” Dan went the more traditionally American route with the Rod & Reel King Salmon with rapini, mushrooms, bacon, celeriac purée, and june berry gastrique.

My entree of scallops, with a potent red curry sauce on the left. Both were great solo, but I found the combination unappetizing.

My entree of scallops, with a potent red curry sauce on the left. Both were great solo, but I found the combination unappetizing.

In what I would soon discover to be a common theme during my trip, the seafood in each of our dishes was of superbly fresh. The scallops were my favorite part of the whole dinner — caramelized on top, with a smooth buttery taste and just the right amount of chew. The baby bok choy was covered in a sesame glaze that paired well with the sweet scallops, but I found the red curry sauce, while appealing in flavor, too powerfully spicy for me. It ultimately overpowered the delicate subtlety of the scallops. However, the biggest disappointment were the naan puffs. Naan is one of my all-time favorite breads, to the point of dangerous overeating when I’m at an Indian buffet. But these puffs failed to be distinctly naan-like in any way — they were just like the pop-over version of donut holes, blandly bread-tasting without the smoky, charred yet chewy quality of well-executed naan.

Dan's salmon dish -- very fresh fish with fabulous sides.

Dan’s salmon dish — very fresh fish with fabulous sides.

Dan really enjoyed his salmon, and even as a conscientious objector to the Cult of Salmon, I could tell how great the fish was. Flaky, but with real integrity to the meat. But as much as he liked the fish, he really dug the sides. The celeriac puree flawlessly masqueraded as fluffy mashed potatoes, and the layers of contrasting flavors from the berry gastrique, rapini, and fatty bacon and mushrooms lent a vaguely Thanksgiving-ish feel to the dish. Dan cleaned his plate, and from the sample bites I had, I could easily understand why. Overall, while I wasn’t blown away by my dinner, I think I would be willing to try Tanglewood Supreme again, if only to see what the chef would come up with for the tasting menu.

 

Silly me, I thought that when Dan declined to order dessert at Tanglewood, it was because he was too full from dinner. In actuality, he had latched onto a comment I had made earlier about my list of Seattle must-eats (is anyone actually surprised that I did food research beforehand?). It turns out that Fainting Goat Gelato, one of the top-rated gelaterias in Seattle, is only a few blocks away from his house in Wallingford. So naturally we took a detour on the way home from Magnolia to say hello to a Fainting Goat.

Fainting Goat's whimsical logo on prominent display.

Fainting Goat‘s whimsical logo on prominent display, not once, but twice. 

Serious Eats’ review of Fainting Goat was chock full of praise, and boy were they on the money. I ordered the chocolate hazelnut and the toasted almond, while Dan ordered the tiramisu. I thought that FG’s equivalent of Nutella gelato had a well-defined hazelnut flavor, rich without tipping the scales into decadent. But I really went gaga for the toasted almond — it had a depth of flavor that totally surprised me — the kind of pure almond taste reaching beyond just a good extract and into the land of marzipan. While almonds have always been my nut of choice, between the almond croissant from Breads Bakery and this gelato, I’m discovering just how much I enjoy it as a leading ingredient in a food. Fainting Goat Gelato gets strong recommendation from me. They make all their gelato in-house, and have a rotating selection of flavors that changes daily. Dan said he had really enjoyed the fruit sorbets on previous visits, and thought that Fainting Goat’s coffee gelato was the best he’s ever had (a bold, if a bit sacrilege statement coming from a long-time Capogiro Gelato devotee).

Our orders of gelato at Fainting Goat, which lived up to their slogan: "so fainting good!"

Our orders of gelato at Fainting Goat, which lived up to their slogan: “so fainting good!”

 

After devouring the bounty of Pike Place Market on Saturday morning, Dan and I took a break from eating and strolled around a couple of Seattle parks. In the late afternoon, once our appetites had returned, we made our way to a couple more spots on Wallingford’s main drag of N. 45th St (apologies if there is another main drag in Wallingford — I’m working off of limited knowledge focused mostly on edible trivia). Looking for a pre-dinner drink, Dan suggested we check out Bottleworks Seattle, a specialty beer store and bar.

2013-07-13 18.36.16

Inside Bottleworks: a small sample of their enormous selection of fermented drinks.

Inside Bottleworks: a small sample of their enormous selection of fermented drinks.

Bottleworks inhabits a long and narrow space, each wall lined with fridge after fridge of alcoholic options, from US microbrews to beers from across the globe (I spotted a row of Ommegang bottles not too far down from some shelves full of honeywine and mead). Several beers are also available in kegs, a handful are featured on tap in the back of the store (for pints and growlers), and if you choose to stay and crack open your purchase, there are tables and chairs filling the middle of the space.

Washington St. Cider from Snowdrift -- my attempt to drink locally as well.

Washington State Hard Cider from Snowdrift — my attempt to drink locally as well.

Dan was thinking of trying out a new oatmeal stout, but I managed to convince him to try a local cider with me, since that was the reason he had suggested Bottleworks in the first place. The cider options were numerous and somewhat overwhelming, but luckily a staff member guided us towards the Washington State Hard Cider by Snowdrift Cider Co. It was smooth and easy to drink, dry yet delicate, with a slight fruity flavor that avoided the tooth-aching sweetness of some more common hard ciders. I got into hard ciders in college thanks to the cloyingly sugar-laden Woodchuck Granny Smith (employing the “this doesn’t taste like alcohol, that’s awesome!” strategy), but now I can barely stand the darker Woodchuck Amber or Angry Orchard stuff. Unfortunately, the day’s diet of donuts and crumpets had left me slightly underserved in the tolerance department, and I quickly found myself solidly tipsy (in all fairness, it was 7.8% ABV). After making fun of me for a few minutes, Dan finally relented and led the way to dinner, at his new favorite Thai restaurant, May.

May is located just down the block from Bottleworks, in a two story building. Downstairs is the bar, which also has a few tables, but the second floor of the building houses the actual restaurant. The dining room is small, made up of maybe a dozen tables, and decorate in a cozy domestic style that Dan says is allegedly due to moving a home from Thailand and rebuilding it piece for piece in Seattle. (My one cider-induced regret is that I neglected to take pictures of May‘s decor). The restaurant had a very neighborly, welcoming feel to it, and the service was friendly and lightning quick.

Our appetizers at May -- tender spare ribs on the bone, and filled-to-bursting fresh vegetable rolls.

Our appetizers at May — tender spare ribs on the bone, and filled-to-bursting fresh vegetable rolls.

We started with the fresh vegetable rolls and the pork spare ribs, which were delicious, but fade in my memory in the shadow of the pad thai. May has won “best pad thai in Seattle” multiple times, and so although I was tempted by an eggplant dish (you know how I feel about that nightshade), both Dan and the waitress recommended/insisted I opt for the pad thai. Just to round out my decidedly unkosher dinner, I chose shrimp pad thai, while Dan went with his usual, pad thai with chicken.

My unreal shrimp pad thai at May.

My unreal shrimp pad thai at May, with the pile of chile powder in the upper right corner.

The pad thai is brought out unassembled on a green banana leaf and is mixed at table-side to your preferred spice level. A small pile of chile powder sits in the corner of the plate to be blended in as per your direction. The only downside of this method is that klutzy eaters like me might end up accidentally scraping up some of the leftover powder, and then having a tremendously flattering coughing fit as a result. However, spice mishaps aside, this pad thai was hands down the best I’ve ever had.  The noodles were chewy but pliant, the vegetables were crunchy and perfectly seasoned (not the least bit oily from the sauce), and the shrimp had a great snap to them. Honestly, the protein involved was pretty secondary to the rest of the dish, so I don’t even think it matters whether you get chicken, shrimp, or opt out of meat altogether. If you think you’re a Thai fan, May is well-worth your time.

Macrina Bakery in Queen Anne -- perfect for a laid back brunch.

Macrina Bakery in Queen Anne — perfect for a laid back brunch.

I’m pretty sure the only reason we didn’t get dessert on Saturday night was because of our sugar-laden morning at Pike Place. But not to worry, Sunday was a brand new day to work on forming new cavities. Dan and I had grand plans of trying the famous croissants at Cafe Besalu, but the cafe was closed, the owners on vacation for two weeks. Rolling with the punches, we Yelped our way to the highly rated Macrina Bakery for brunch, and it ended up being a stupendous substitute. The location we went to was in Queen Anne, but there are also cafes in Belltown and SODO (whatever that stands for), according to Macrina’s website.

Enough pastry for you?

Enough pastry for you?

Despite having no connection to 90s faux-Latin dance crazes, Macrina is still a spot worth visiting for a low-key brunch or lunch. The location we went to was made up of the counter and kitchen area, next to a small dining room filled with half-a-dozen tables (with some outdoor seating available as well). The cafe is decorated in pleasant, muted tones of red, yellow, and gray, leading your eye towards the seemingly endless array of breads and pastries. I was sorely tempted by the scones and muffins (especially the Morning Glory Muffin, which our server repeatedly recommended), but the allure of the brunch display plates was even more powerful. The brunch menu features a small selection of dishes, ranging from the basic two-eggs with toast and potatoes to the “is-this-even-breakfast” absurdity of Macrina’s Brioche French Toast, slathered with cherry compote and amaretto creme fraiche (excuse me, what?).

The Market Special of the week at Macrina, with two eggs over easy.

The Market Special of the week at Macrina, with two eggs over easy.

Miraculously, I managed to show some tiny measure of restraint, opting for the Market Special, which that week featured two eggs how you like, with mushroom fritters, spinach and corn, herb-roasted potatoes, and a brioche roll — somehow encompassing nearly all of my favorite foods (just add in some chocolate and avocado somehow, and I would have hugged the chef). Although it seems like a lot of food, the portions were reasonable and filling. I was very impressed with the lightness of the mushroom fritters, that complemented the runny eggs and the freshness of the spinach and corn. What stopped me from finishing my plate was the additional Morning Bun Dan and I split. Continuing on his quest to eat all of the salmon in Seattle, Dan chose the Salmon Egg Bialy (“Onion Bialy topped with softly scrambled eggs, Gerard & Dominique cold-smoked salmon and chive crème fraîche. Served with herb-roasted potatoes.”).

We also had a Morning Bun on top of our separate brunch dishes, because one roll is just simply inadequate.

We also had a Morning Bun on top of our separate brunch dishes, because one roll is just simply inadequate.

 

The Morning Bun (a pre-Cronut era cousin of the croissant, baked in a muffin tin) was sweet from the swirl of vanilla sugar coating its insides, although I thought its flavors would have been further elevated if it had been served warm. Overall, I was glad I was sharing it, because flying solo that would have been a bit of a gut bomb, delicious as it was. Dan was very satisfied with his bialy and lox, and swore that he would bring his girlfriend Leah to Macrina for brunch on her next visit.

Inside D'Ambrosio Gelato in Ballard.

Inside D’Ambrosio Gelato in Ballard.

 

My last stop on my inaugural Seattle food tour was in Ballard, at D’Ambrosio Gelato. Some might find it unsettling that I would eat gelato twice in three days, but some people are just party poopers. D’Ambrosio was another spot mentioned in my Serious Eats-fueled field guide, so when Dan and I were strolling through the neighborhood during the Ballard Seafood Festival, we took a break from the heat with some authentic gelato, take two. Unintentionally emulating the flavors from my Fainting Goat experience, I ended up ordering the Stracciatella and the Bacio di Mama (aka “woman’s kiss”), a mix of hazelnuts and almonds in vanilla gelato, inspired by a type of Italian cookie. Fainting Goat’s toasted almond still triumphed in the gelateria Seattle battle, but the texture of D’Ambrosio‘s gelato is probably the closest I’ve found in America to what I ate in Rome. Thick and heavily churned, but somehow still airy enough to practically fly onto your spoon as you dipped into the cup. Like everything else I ate in Seattle, the high quality and freshness of the ingredients were evident from the first bite that touched my tongue.

My last bite in Seattle -- Stracciatella and Bacio di Dama from D'Ambrosio.

My last bite in Seattle — Stracciatella and Bacio di Dama from D’Ambrosio.

I would say, if you can, try to visit both Fainting Goat and D’Ambrosio Gelato. FG’s got a more wacky, free-spirited vibe to it, and features more unexpected flavors like Guinness or Banana Cream Pie, that aim to expand your gelato palate. But D’Ambrosio’s more traditional menu is extremely well-executed, and better than many of the places I’ve tried in NY. It takes a deft hand to make the relatively commonplace Stracciatella a flavor you’ll want to order again and again.

 

All in all, no one can argue that I failed to eat well in Seattle. However, for all of the donuts and chocolate and cinnamon buns, the element of the city’s food scene that left the strongest impression were those largely untouched in the kitchen — the fruits and vegetables. Much like my time in Israel, I found myself marveling at the sheer juiciness of a peach, or the crunch of the bean sprouts in my pad thai. New York may have Seattle beat on Michelin-starred haute cuisine, but once you step into the ring of quality of everyday, street-level produce, Seattle’s got a mean right hook. For an Oreo-obsessee, it’s a little surreal that I’m actually counting down the days until I can eat some more fresh Rainier cherries. Not that I’d turn down some mini donuts on the side. Hope to see you again soon, Seattle (oh, and Dan, too, I guess).

 

Tanglewood Supreme

3216 W Wheeler St,

Seattle, WA 98199

http://tanglewoodsupreme.com/

 

Fainting Goat Gelato

1903 North 45th Street

Seattle, WA 98103

http://faintinggoatseattle.blogspot.com/

 

Bottleworks

1710 N 45th St #3

Seattle, WA 98103

bottleworksbeerstore.blogspot.com

 

May

1612 N. 45th St

Seattle, WA 98103

http://maythaiseattle.com/

 

Macrina Bakery

615 West McGraw Street

Seattle, WA 98119

http://www.macrinabakery.com/

 

D’Ambrosio Gelato

5339 Ballard Ave NW

Seattle, WA 98107

http://www.dambrosiogelato.com/

A Tale of Two Bakers: Dominique Ansel’s Cronut v. Breads Bakery

All right, my friends, it’s time for a croissant cagefight, a donut deathmatch. We’re talking full on pastry prizefighting. In this corner we have … the up-and-comer, the hot new hybrid, the latest culinary craze to hit Manhattan — Dominique Ansel’s one and only Cronut! And in the other corner … the tried and true technician, the desert darkhorse, the archetypal archduke of allspice — Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant. It’s a throwdown for the ages, and the only type of warfare I readily endorse. So (in what must be a violation of a trademarked catchphrase) … let’s get ready to crumble!

Dominique Ansel Bakery‘s The Cronut:

For those who may be unaware of the Cronut Mania overtaking Manhattan at the moment, here’s a bit of context. Dominique Ansel, formerly of the Michelin-starred Daniel, and currently one of the top pastry chefs in America, recently devised a new form of pastry. His personal Frankenstein’s monster is a half-donut, half croissant hybrid, and therefore was christened The Cronut. Arriving last month, the pastry swiftly sent shockwaves through New York’s foodie scene, eliciting the kind of fervor that might seem more reasonable at a Twilight premiere. Lines began to form at Ansel’s Lower East Side bakery, and as they stretched longer and arrived earlier, Ansel had to start instituting rules (outlined on the “Cronut 101” page of their website — yes, this exists). The bakery can only produce between 200-250 cronuts each day, so customers were limited to only two per in-store purchase, six if you manage to get on the pre-order list — which won’t happen, because they’re already full. Oh, and if you want that in-store Cronut? Better gird your loins and bring some energy drinks along — you’re lining up at 6am for that buttery bad boy. The bakery opens at eight, so pack a sudoku book or two.

None of the above is a joke — this hyperbolic hysteria is actually happening each day in downtown Manhattan. A Cronut black market has developed, with seemingly otherwise unemployed and endlessly patient people offering hand-delivered Cronuts for those willing to shell out nearly 10 times the store price (one Cronut retails for about $5, on Craigslist people are asking for upwards of $50 a delivery, depending on the neighborhood).

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

 

I received my Cronut secondhand as well, but never fear, I did not sink so low as to entrust my dessert delivery to a complete stranger. A good friend and fellow foodie Randeep decided to endure the line and get a Cronut the oldfashioned way (well, the month-old-fashioned way, I guess), and was generous enough to let me buy his second pastry off him. So full disclosure: the Cronut I tasted was a day old. I did my best to reheat it in the toaster oven at work, but I recognize that my views are tainted by the ravages of time upon those delicate layers of dough.

The Cronut carrying case -- classy packaging, or commercial ploy?

The Cronut carrying case — classy packaging, or commercial ploy?

 

The Cronuts are packaged in a golden, pyramidal box, which could be viewed as either a way to placate the masses and elevate the experience (this is no Krispy Kreme donut, mon ami), or as an over-the-top, eye-roll inducing display of food fetishism. Guess which camp I fall into? Look, I know I’m one to talk in my glass house of Oreo and Levain cultism, but I sometimes I find the spectacle of food presentation a little unnecessary. I’m all for molecular gastronomy and innovative plating, but I don’t think the way you package a baked product needs to be any fancier than a white cardboard box. The beauty of Dominique Ansel’s Cronut is in the design of the pastry itself. The gold box adds a layer of pomp and circumstance that feels like a poor play to make me feel like the Cronut unboxing should be an event in itself.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

 

Thankfully, as I alluded to above, the Cronut itself is a gorgeous display of craftsmanship. Even after a day of marinating in its own creamy innards, the layers of flaky dough were still distinct. Golden-brown and crispy on the outside, with a soft yellow, multilayered inside reminiscent of the croissant-side of its family, the pastry cream was still soft and oozing from the crevices. Cronut 1.0 was flavored vanilla rose, but Ansel is rolling out new flavors each month, so my June Cronut was lemon maple. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a lemon person, so I wish I had gotten to try the Cronut in its initial form.

Inside you can see the distinct layers of dough, and the cream oozing between them.

Inside you can see the distinct layers of dough, and the cream oozing between them.

According to Ansel’s website, the Cronuts are first fried in grapeseed oil, then rolled in sugar and filled with pastry cream, completing their donutification. This means that when you bite into the Cronut, the dominant flavor is that of the cream filling instead of the dough itself. For June’s iteration, the foremost taste is strongly lemon, with a hint of vanilla from the surrounding dough. I struggled to find any maple flavor at all, although it may serve mainly as a sweetener. A day after it was baked, the Cronut had indeed lost some of the lightness in the pastry, but you could still see the wafer thin and springy layers as you tore into them. The overall impression I got was one of eating a deep-fried croissant, perhaps because the basic architecture of the dessert was born from a croissant. I’m not sure what could have brought the Cronut closer to its donut heritage — perhaps its best thought of as a croissant adopted and raised from birth by donut parents.

All in all, while I applaud Dominique Ansel’s creativity and devotion to raising the pastry game, I think I’d rather try one of his takes on a more traditional dessert, like his highly regarded Kouign Amman (which was previously the most popular item on the Bakery’s menu).

 

 

Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant (and more):

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Our other contender comes from Breads Bakery, down in Union Square. Breads is relatively new to the New York scene, opening in the beginning of 2013 as the first American outpost of the popular Lehamim Bakeries in Tel Aviv (Lehamim means “breads” in Hebrew). Located just off Union Square on East 16th St, Breads seems to still be flying just under the radar, despite earning the accolade of baking the “best babka in NY” from New York Magazine. When I visited the bakery/cafe last Saturday, I found a steady stream of customers but plenty of space to linger, sit and sample the menu.

Inside Breads -- the dessert and bread counter located up front, and the coffee is in the back.

Inside Breads — the dessert and bread counter located up front, and the coffee is in the back.

Breads offers both savory and sweet goods, with their loaves of various breads and baked items at the front counter, a coffee bar and selection of salads and sandwiches in the back, a small seating area in the middle. They win major points for an enthusiastic staff — everyone I talked to was willing to explain the menu and offer their own recommendations. Plus, you gotta love a place that not only offers free samples as you walk in, but also constantly replenishes the supply and rotates the sample selection. In the time I was there I got to try a fresh hard and crusty baguette, a boureka, and some onion bread.

A small sample of Breads baked goods.

A small sample of Breads baked goods. Note the rugelach on the left.

I didn’t get to test New York Magazine’s assertion this go-round, but I did buy a piece of rugelach, the other item Breads is well-known for. Both the rugelach and the babka are loaded up with a Nutella/Belgian chocolate filling, and covered with a sugar syrup after emerging from the oven, leaving a soft, flaky crust.

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Breads‘ rugelach, bringing me back to my days in Jerusalem.

My typical preference for babka or rugelach is cinnamon over chocolate, but man this was one phenomenal rugelach. You can detect just a hint of nuttiness in the filling, but the dominant flavor is the rich Belgian chocolate, similar to a ganache in texture. The dough is flaky on the outside, but yeasty within, the filling and the sugar glaze keeping it moist (and lingering on your fingers). Breads’ rendition reminded me of the personal-paradigm-shifting rugelach I had at Marzipan in Jerusalem. Maybe it’s because the chef behind Breads Bakery is Uri Scheft, a Danish-Israeli with an eye towards twisting up traditional breads, but a reverence for tradition with Jewish staples. For example, along with the dark Scandanavian rye loaves that fill the baskets at Breads, Scheft bakes up challah each weekend for Shabbat.

 

The flat but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

The flat, but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

But the more appropriate dish for Cronut comparison (Cro-comp?) is Breads’ version of an Almond Croissant, which Jacob selected. (Again, the lucky duck lives in the neighborhood — clearly I need to move to Gramercy.) While almond croissants are one of Jacob’s favorite pastries, I’ve only had a handful in my life, probably due to the poor quality of most of the ones you find at the local Starbucks or Au Bon Pain. Much like my rugelach experience, however, Breads’ take on an almond croissant proved eye-opening.

The pictures featured on Breads’ website show a familiarly puffy pastry, but the almond croissants we encountered at the bakery were the flattest I’d ever seen. However, the croissant was clearly baked with care, golden-brown with some slightly burnt areas near the edges. It appeared to be double-braided, almost like a challah loaf, and had marzipan piped on top, beneath a dusting of powdered sugar and sliced almonds. The first bite revealed that marzipan also filled the middle of the croissant. More viscous than the pastry cream in the Cronut, I strongly preferred Breads’ filling, since it gave a moistness to the croissant dough but held the whole pastry together, making it easier to eat overall. The lemon maple cream of the Cronut squirted out with each bite, leaving you with pastry cream on your hands and face. The more stable marzipan also allowed the taste of the dough to have more of a presence on your tongue. It made the almond flavor purer and more natural tasting than the common almond croissant, which tend to be differentiated from their original brethren simply by tossing a few almonds on top.

 

All in all, the Cronut and Almond Croissant fared equally on dough texture, but Breads wins out because of the basic architecture of its dessert. I think you need the integrity of a yeast donut to properly handle the pastry cream. In fact, most of the cream-filled desserts I can think of have a certain amount of heft to the surrounding baked dough — eclairs, cupcakes, even twinkies have a stronger structural base compared to the airyness of croissant layers. While the frying of the Cronut solidifies the dough a bit more after baking, the pastry cream doesn’t get absorbed by the Cronut, making the process of eating it a messier experience than its elegant appearance would suggestion. In the end, I sampled all three of these pastries long after they had been baked. Although the Cronut suffered the longest delay, even my friend who tried it fresh out of the fryer concurred that it was good, but not really worth all the hype. I’m happy for Dominique Ansel to get the business, because I honestly believe he’s pushing the industry forward, but on a blow-by-blow count, Breads Bakery wins in a knockout. The newest eye-catching, show-stopping fad can be pretty thrilling at the time, but sometimes all you need is a small tweak to familiar formulas to really be memorable.

Bottom line? If you can find your way to a Cronut with little hassle or time investment, give it a shot — it’s definitely a beauty to behold. But feel free to sleep in on Saturday morning if getting up at 5 sounds awful — Breads Bakery will be there, open until late and inviting you to sample and revel in some rich rugelach or commendable croissants.

 

Dominique Ansel Bakery

189 Spring Street (between Sullivan and Thompson)

http://dominiqueansel.com/

Breads Bakery

18 E 16th St.

breadsbakery.com

Snackshots Abroad: Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 3

While uploading photos to include in this last post about my trip to Israel, I suddenly realized how many different places I ate at. So I thought I’d include a quick montage of some of the more random and/or pedestrian fare I ate, and then focus on a few particularly memorable or exotic dishes from my travels.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out "Doritos" in Hebrew.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out “Doritos” in Hebrew.

We’ll start out with snacks — I’m sure that bag looks pretty familiar. It is the Israeli version of Doritos, and despite the non-Latin letters, the artificial cheesy flavor remains comfortingly the same.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Fans of Edgar Wright films may recognize this ice cream treat as Nestle’s Cornetto (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Flavours_Cornetto_Trilogy), frequently seen in American ice cream trucks as the King Cone. In Israel I saw a wider variety of flavors offered — this one featured peanuts and caramel, and was the perfect treat after a long hike up and down Masada.

Now onto the more local fare:

Shawarma b'laffa in Sderot.

Shawarma b’laffa in Sderot.

First up is the shawarma b’laffa I had in Sderot. My brother’s girlfriend Leah, who lived in Israel for a year, recommended that I get a laffa wrap at least once. Laffa is a larger flatbread, closer to naan in texture than a pita, and a million times better than your average wrap. The shawarma here was tasty, but one of my favorite things about your average street food/deli in Israel was the small salad and condiment bar that seemed standard. Even the mall shawarma place we stopped at one lunch had pan-fried eggplant, pickled vegetables, and a couple of different chunky sauces to accompany your meal. The meal I had in Sderot was memorable not because of the food itself, although it was delightfully greasy in the way a great sub from a NY deli is, but because of the significance of the location. Sderot is a border town with the Gaza Strip, and the poverty was pretty palpable. Our guide explained that due to the frequency of rocket attacks, all those who have enough money to leave Sderot have, and the people left are the ones that are stuck. This was great for our group because it meant a cheap lunch, but I couldn’t help but notice a certain haunted and worn-out look to the roads and market we walked through. There was another rocket strike only two days after we visited Sderot. Regardless of your feelings about the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, there’s no reason innocent people (on either side) should be subjected to that kind of violence.

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The sign says “Tasty Falafel 4”

Let’s lighten up the mood a bit, and transition to a happier encounter with laffa. This small falafel shop was in a strip mall in Jerusalem. Tasty Falafel 4 offered 4 different types of falafel (wow, who could have made that intellectual leap?) with the option of putting it in a pita, laffa, or on a platter. They get extra points for all the different delivery options — half pita, half laffa, falafel, shawarma, a combo of the two, or veggies. They also gave you complementary “chips,” which were closer to the British chip in terms of being fried potatoes rather than our American Lays, but were actually small potato puffs that topped your order like a Greek gyro. I ended up getting a mix of all four falafel types with all the salad trimmings (except the spicy sauce). Sure, it was probably the equivalent of Taco Bell in NYC, but sometimes you just want fast food.

Sorry, but I couldn't wait to bite into a "chip" before I took a picture of my falafel.

Sorry, but I couldn’t wait to bite into the “chip” on top before I took a picture of my falafel. Look at the soft potato center and golden brown fried edges. Mmm.

Next up, we have the Lahuhe from the sacred city of Tzfat. It’s basically a Yemeni crepe/burrito, full of herbs and spices and three different types of cheese.

Lahuhe -- basically a Yemeni crepe -- from Tzfat.

Lahuhe — basically a Yemeni crepe — from Tzfat.

I only tasted the wrap my friend Dave got, but it had the light texture of a tortilla mixed with gooey cheese and a heavy za’atar backend spice.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

Let’s move into the big leagues for our next round of Middle Eastern edibles. I’ll admit that I had a list of must-try food written up before I even set foot on the plane (we’ve discussed my dependency on lists previously). A lot of the items on the list were types of food I had sampled in America, but I needed to compare with the more authentic Israeli equivalent — falafel, shawarma, hummus and so on. But at the top of the list was an elusive dish I have still yet to try in the US — shakshuka. Shakshuka is one of those foods that has a million variations across the globe — chak chouka, eggs in purgatory, huevos en el Purgatorio, and so on. At its most basic level, shakshuka is eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce. When I told one of my Birthright leaders I was desperate to stick my face in some shakshuka, she suggested what seemed to be an obvious answer: go see the Doctor. Dr. Shakshuka, that is.

The doctor's office.

The doctor’s office.

Dr. Shakshuka is a restaurant near the flea market in Jaffa, the older Arab city that Tel Aviv grew out of. The inside of the restaurant was crowded and dim, but around the corner Dr. Shakshuka has taken over the whole alleyway, ten tables of varying lengths strewn about the space. I ended up ordering family style with a bunch of my tripmates, getting shakshuka with eggplant, shakshuka with shawarma, stuffed peppers, and a couple of kebabs. The meal also comes with an unlimited supply of thickly sliced loaves of warm, soft white bread to sop up the runny egg and tomato sauce.

Dr. Shakshuka's version of unlimited breadsticks.

Dr. Shakshuka‘s version of unlimited breadsticks.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

The star of the show -- shakshuka with eggplant.

The star of the show — shakshuka with eggplant.

As I had hoped, Dr. Shakshuka totally lived up to expectations. The eggs were perfectly poached, and breaking the yolk led to the unctuous, fatty egg mixing with the acidity of the tomato. A self-professed eggplant zealot, I thought it was a great addition to the dish, the silky texture melding with the rest of the liquid, adding a little bit more chew without distracting from the spices. The beauty of the dish is the way everything comes together — this is definitely not one of those foods for people who like to keep each part of their dinner in separate little sections on their plate. You gotta be ready to get a little messy, dipping your bread in and keeping plenty of napkins at the ready. I know of a few places in NYC that serve shakshuka, and I’m eager to try them out — I only got to try the dish once in Israel, so no over-shakshuka-exposure for this gal.

The most exotic food I ate in Israel came on the last day of my trip, while strolling through Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. Another recommendation (both from the trip leaders and my brother’s girlfriend Leah) led me down a side street of the shuk to the Iraqi restaurant Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

Inside, the restaurant is visually nothing to shake a stick at. Small tables and rickety chairs fill the space, and you order off a menu on the wall, giving your order literally to one of the cooks, who makes and places your food on a cafeteria tray and sends you off to the elderly gentleman by the ancient cash register. I had zero knowledge of Iraqi food, but some items on the menu looked familiar — meat-stuffed cigars that seemed almost Greek, and those brimming bowls of hummus with different toppings of beans, vegetables, and sauces. But I couldn’t get just any ol’ bowl of hummus –I needed something authentically Iraqi (or at least ostensibly authentic). So I went with a bowl of red kubbeh. Kubbeh (or kibbe) is an overarching category of Middle Eastern dishes that involve bulgur or semolina and chopped meat. Red kubbeh is made up of semolina dumplings stuffed with ground beef, boiled in a tangy  broth with stewed vegetables.

I didn't realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I didn’t realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I initially thought the soup would be spicy, perhaps because I’ve been trained to equate “red” with curries or chili powders. But in fact it was more acidic than spicy, which played well against the richness of the dumpling dough and the ground beef. The vegetables were tender, and even with the meat the meal was filling, but not overly heavy. I know it’s pretty lame to get so excited about trying a new cuisine, but I was very pleased with myself for choosing something new and unknown. Luckily, I happened to like the food, too. There were a number of other kubbeh permutations to try at Rachmon, so I’m hoping I can find some Iraqi food in NY. One of my lunch buddies got fried kubbeh, which seemed almost empanada-ish in appearance.

We started with dessert, so we’ll end with it, too. Jaffa was especially kind to me, from the flea market where I found some great gifts, to Dr. Shakshuka‘s, and finally, to the best ice cream I had on my whole trip. Between his insatiable thirst for trivia and history, and his insatiable desire for ice cream, our tour guide Shachar was a man after my own heart (er, stomach?). He came along to Dr. Shakshuka for lunch, but barely touched his food, explaining that he was saving room for some phenomenal ice cream. And so after a little shopping in the market, I followed his directions to a gelateria a few blocks down. They had a wide assortment of flavors from sugarfree to fruit based to candy-laden types like Snickers. I opted to get a combination of the almond-toffee and the Indian Kulfi.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

Overall, the milk base of the gelato was strong, but what really took my gelato to a new height were the flavors. The almond-toffee was delicious, if not particularly shocking — the crunch of the almond against the sticky, gooey toffee and the creaminess of the vanilla base was, as you would expect, a stellar combination. But the Indian Kulfi threw me for a loop. Cardamom was the dominant flavor, and I found it absolutely addictive. It reminded me of the best version of kheer, which is Indian rice pudding — almost savory in taste, but the creamy sugar sweetness of the gelato itself kept the flavor from veering out of dessertland. I’m “borrowing” my mother’s old ice cream maker this summer, and I’m determined to try to replicate this gelato. I’ve seen recipes for cardamom ice cream on sites like Serious Eats, and it’s definitely on the top of my ice cream experiments list.

Last, but not least, we’ll deal with one of those amazing food moments of redefinition. Sometimes all it takes is a really well-made version of a dish to completely shift your opinion. For me, this happened with rugelach. I’ve admitted in the past that I’m not the best Jew-food eater, and part of that was my distaste for rugelach. Too often I would come up against stale, dry, crusty rugelach, the filling like bland paste with the barest hints of the sweet promise of cinnamon or chocolate. Forget rugelach — hand me a piece of babka or a danish, please. But then I went to Marzipan Bakery in Jerusalem. Marzipan was a recommendation from the writers of Serious Eats, and with my rugelach-obsessed friend Zina in tow, when I caught a glimpse of the sign in the Jewish Quarter, I knew we had to stop in.

The hebrew spells out "Marzipan" phonetically.

The hebrew spells out “Marzipan” phonetically.

Inside, it was clear what their star product was:

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

And somehow, despite my history with disappointing rugelach, the fact that all of the city had switched to Kosher for Passover goods (blech, matzoh-meal), and the unreasonably high expectations. the rugelach I had from Marzipan that day was lifechanging. It was the best rugelach I’ve ever had — a slightly sticky coating on the toasted, flaky dough, a luscious chocolate filling that made me yearn for a Zabar’s babka. It was everything I’d been told I should love about rugelach, and damn if I wasn’t a proud Jew at that moment.

I’ll be honest, I’m wrestling with how to sum up this brief series of posts about my trip. I didn’t even get to all the delicious things I tried in Israel (like their fascinating take on frozen yogurt), but hopefully the items I’ve covered give a good picture of my general sense of wonder about the entire experience. This trip challenged me in so many ways, from traveling on my own (well, sans friends, that is) to getting up on a camel, to dipping my toes (and the rest of me) into the Dead Sea. Trying to capture just the part of the trip dealing with food keeps pushing me to make grander statements about my own personal growth and willingness to expand my palate, both for literal tastes and the larger tastes in my life. But truth be told, I’m backing away from the melodrama on this one. If you want a pitch for why everyone who can should do Birthright, let me know and I’m happy to jump right into the spiel. Mostly, I just had a wonderful vacation. And like most of the things I write about on this blog, it was as much about feeding my appetite as it was about feeding my curiosity.