Snackshots Labor Day: Summer Sweet and Savory

Oh, Summer. Can you truly be over? I feel the lingering urges to dip my toes into briney/chlorinated depths, to slather myself in UVA/UVB/UHF/USB SPF 5000 and throw my epidermal health to the wind, and to challenge the physical limits of hot dog consumption. But Labor Day has indeed come and gone, and soon enough the New York winds throw a chill down your shirt collar, the leaves will swirl in eddies around Park Avenue, and the brisk fall air will leave the streets smelling of boring, everyday garbage — the faint, mystifying odor of urine simply a memory of the previous July.

With the specter of Fall looming over me, I resolved to spend the Labor Day long weekend as any good New Yorker should (well, those of us without access to the Hamptons) — eating and walking around the city. In case you were convinced that aside from food nerdery, I someone manage to pass off as “hip” or “with it”, please don’t fret — my solo hours in transit around Manhattan were accompanied by a truly dorky BBC podcast about the history of world religions. Aw yeah, just call me a modern day Fonz. Or the female equivalent (Fonzette?).

So here’s a brief look at the surprisingly eclectic mix of edibles I had during the last few days of summer. I’ve since traded in my white dresses for a white napkin, and now that bikini season is over, we can breathe a sigh of relief and look ahead to the gorging orgies of Halloween and Thanksgiving to come.

Hester Nights:

Hester Nights at the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel.

Hester Nights at the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel.

First up, I wanted to highlight my trip to Hester Nights, an event that is actually still going on for a few more weeks at the Eventi Hotel near Herald Square. Hester Nights is part of the Hester Street Fair, a food and craft market that takes place during summer weekends down on the Lower East Side. In addition to those daytime markets, the organizers also set up a smaller event each Thursday night slightly farther uptown, in the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel. Called Hester Nights, the series runs from May until late September, and features around 12-15 vendors from the Street Fair, cycling weekly.

One side of the row of vendors at Hester Nights, where you can buy pizza, tacos, or South African jerky.

One side of the row of vendors at Hester Nights, where you can buy pizza, tacos, or South African jerky.

While Hester Nights has many similarities to Mad Sq Eats, thankfully on the Thursday Jacob and I went, it was a substantially calmer environment. This may be the product of it being located more off the beaten path, or perhaps because it’s later in the summer and near the end of Hester Nights’ run, or simply because there were fewer vendors in a larger space. I’d actually been to the Eventi pavilion before for drinks — the hotel itself has a great indoor/outdoor pseudo foodcourt called Foodparc & Beerparc, offering burgers, hot dogs, fried seafood, and beer and wine. The outdoor space is dominated by a large fountain in the middle, but there are also a good number of tables and benches, plus a giant video screen on the wall of the building behind the hotel (we visited on Michael Jackson’s birthday, so our meal was accompanied by an unexpected MJ concert soundtrack).

The menu at Brooklyn Wok Shop's stall: a deluge of dim sum.

The menu at Brooklyn Wok Shop‘s stall: a deluge of dim sum.

There was a nice variety of vendors that night, offering eclectic foods from South African jerky to Brazilian cheese bread, gnocchi, waffles, and tacos. Jacob and I decided on an Asian flavor to our meal, and ended up getting Duck Confit Dumplings from the Brooklyn Wok Shop, and Khao Man Gai from Khao Man Gai NY, whose stalls were conveniently located next to each other.

The diverse dumplings on display.

The diverse dumplings on display.

Brooklyn Wok Shop has a brick and mortar location in Williamsburg, where they offer the dim sum menu they had at Hester Nights, plus a larger selection of rice and noodle dishes. After tasting the Duck Confit Dumplings, I would definitely consider paying the restaurant a visit. It’s exactly the kind of Asian fusion I love — retaining the flavor palate of more traditional Eastern cuisines while stirring the pot with classical Western dishes. The rest of the menu at the Hester Nights stall ran the gamut from familiar to off-the-wall — crab rangoon wontons, roasted cauliflower and eggplant, roast pork, and pastrami dumplings — making picking just one dish difficult, but both Jacob and I are suckers for duck, so the idea of tiny pouches of duck confit seemed irresistible.

The Duck Confit Dumplings -- delicately wrapped, but bursting with flavor.

The Duck Confit Dumplings — delicately wrapped, but bursting with flavor.

The Duck Confit Dumplings (fresh shiitakes, cabbage, hoisin dipping sauce) were also the only non-fried item on the menu, and I while I’m certainly a fan of fried food, I appreciated the lightness of the preparation considering the dumplings’ filling. The simply plated dish (this is a food fair, after all) came with four steamed dumplings slathered with hoisin sauce and chopped cilantro. Overall, it was a pleasant appetizer, the portion size and delicate quality of the wrapper dough playing off the fatty confit filling. I wish I had taken more dipping sauce, because you really can’t go wrong with hoisin and duck, but the dumplings really held their own, even without their accompaniments. While this was a great size for a starter, to make a full meal of it, you’d probably need two or three orders between two people. But with the right strategy, a trip to Brooklyn Wok Shop could yield a pretty exotic international tour of flavors without weighing down your stomach or your wallet.

Khao Man Gai NY, offering the best Thai dish you've never heard of.

Khao Man Gai NY, offering the best Thai dish you’ve never heard of (note the sign in the upper left for an introduction).

For our main course Jacob and I chose Khao Man Gai NY, which makes one dish, and one dish only — Khao Man Gai, of course (they also sell some Thai teas, but no other food). Although not well-known in the US, it turns out the dish is one of the most popular street foods in Thailand. KMGNY only operates out of a stall at markets like Hester Nights, but they have a great sales pitch, displaying a sign that fully explains the dish, and offering tastes by the spoonful. Once I tried the sample, I immediately knew I had to get the full dish. Khao Man Gai, at least as prepared by KMGNY, is “Organic Chicken poached with garlic, ginger and Thai herbs, with Thai jasmine rice cooked with the poaching liquid and herbs, served with a soup for sipping between bites, and a sauce of fermented soybean, garlic, ginger, simple syrup, vinegar, and chilis.”

Khao Man Gai -- some assembly required.

Khao Man Gai — some assembly required.

We were served a plate full of chicken and rice, with sauce and a cup of broth on the side, and given specific instructions on how to appropriately tackle Khao Man Gai. To be properly enjoyed, the sauce must be dumped onto the chicken, so it coats the meat and soaks into the rice, and the soup is to be sipped in between bites to act as a palate cleanser. After following the instructions and finally digging in, I found the chicken was poached to an almost collapsing degree of tenderness, falling to pieces even with just a flimsy plastic fork cutting into it. Both the meat and the still somewhat chewy rice were moist and flavorful, the herbs and spices of the broth having been fully infused. Not surprisingly, since we’re talking about street food, Khao Man Gai is pretty unimpressive visually — a lump of rice, slices of barely adorned poached chicken, and a small cup of clear broth — but once you start biting into it, it’s obvious why this dish is so popular. Each bite packs a punch of earthy salt, just a bit of heat from the chilis, and a hint of sugar from the viscous sweet and sour soybean sauce. I was skeptical of the point of the broth, but the small sips between bites really does elevate the meal, washing your mouth with umami and priming your tastebuds for the next delectable forkful. Khao Man Gai NY seriously needs to get a storefront, or at least a truck, because with winter coming and the street fairs winding down, I don’t want to have to wait another half a year to try this dish again.

Il Laboratorio Del Gelato:

The bright white interior of Il Laboratorio del Gelato shines out into the New York night.

The bright white interior of Il Laboratorio del Gelato shines out into the New York night.

My other major Labor Day excursion was to the Lower East Side, where I finally paid a visit to Il Laboratorio del Gelato. I’d been reading about this place for years now, constantly seeing it ranked on lists of the best ice cream or gelato in New York, and I’d even walked by it on occasion (staring longingly at it as I headed over to Clinton St. Baking Co., for example). Il Laboratorio del Gelato is located right on Houston, only a few blocks over from the Whole Foods Bowery. They certainly can’t be accused of false advertising — the decor is industrial, plain white paint and tile combined with stainless steel — you couldn’t give off a more scientific, laboratory vibe unless the staff was decked out in hazmat suits (fortunately, the friendly staff wear blue aprons and hats, so you know you’re getting gelato, and not a flu shot). Although ILDG is housed in a fairly large space, the majority of it is devoted to the process of making all that gelato, leaving only a few benches by the front windows for seating. And at least when I was there, the front of the store was packed to the gills with a long line of eager gelato-anticipants.

Inside you can see that the majority of the space is taken up by "lab" equipment.

Inside you can see that the majority of the space is taken up by “lab” equipment.

ILDG makes over 275 flavors of gelato, offering 48 at the start of business each day, so the diversity of choices coupled with the long line and lack of a visible menu (you can’t see the daily flavors until you reach the front) inevitably lead to a bit of choice anxiety. Even my good ol’ reliable web research couldn’t help me here, since the highly touted caramel was not being offered at the time. ILDG doesn’t make things any easier, since you’re only allowed 2 tastes per person, a meager amount in the face of the mountain of appetizing gelatos and sorbets. I understand the need for all the rules because of the popularity of the place and the sheer quantity of gelato flavors, but I did feel a bit stymied in my exploration of ILDG’s products. How am I supposed to know whether to get just two flavors, or three, or a shake?

I'm sorry, Baskin-Robbins, how many flavors do you have?

I’m sorry, Baskin-Robbins, how many flavors did you say you have?

48 flavors, and only 2 tastes -- it's basically another trial of Hercules.

48 flavors, and only 2 tastes — it’s basically another trial of Hercules.

Luckily, Il Laboratorio del Gelato has the goods to counterbalance all the rules and regulations. This was some of the best gelato I’ve had in Manhattan, and certainly the most innovative flavors I’ve seen (although I have my eye on the cornbread gelato over at Williamsburg’s Oddfellows). Jacob and I decided to get two small cups (with two flavors of gelato each) — one on the sweeter side, and one more fruity. I got the Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch and Mocha Chocolate Chip gelatos, and Jacob chose the Raspberry gelato and Green Apple sorbet (at the suggestion of our server).

The dessert duo: Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch on the left, and Mocha Chocolate Chip on the right.

The dessert duo: Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch on the left, and Mocha Chocolate Chip on the right.

The fruit selection: Raspberry  gelato on the left, and Green Apple sorbet on the right.

The fruit selection: Raspberry gelato on the left, and Green Apple sorbet on the right.

Both gelatos had great consistency — the sweeter, milkier gelatos were creamy and slightly melty, coating your tongue as they dissolved. The Mocha had a bold coffee flavor, with a smooth rich milk chocolate, and reminded me of chocolate covered espresso beans. I really loved the textural contrast of the Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch — the “crunch” seemed to come from crumbled amaretti cookies that were swirled into the airy hazelnut gelato base. The Raspberry was thick, smooth, with a fresh fruit taste, just a bit of tartness to contrast the sugar, but definitely still a gelato. The biggest surprise was the Green Apple sorbet, which I was prepared to be disappointed by. I ended up finding it the most interesting, and most satisfying flavor of the bunch. I had expected it to be tart like a Granny Smith apple, which I tend not to like (I’m a Honey crisp or Gala gal), or worst case scenario, like the fake sour green apple you encounter in candy and sugary liquors. But it lived up to the sorbet mantle — light, refreshing, with a pure, natural apple flavor and an almost crushed ice/granita texture. I can’t believe I’m saying this, as someone who will almost always choose the chocolate mousse over the fruit tart, but the Green Apple sorbet was the most memorable flavor for me, sticking in my mind even a week after my visit.

The rest of the weekend was filled with brunches, beer halls, indie films, frisbee in Central Park, and as many glorious catnaps as I could justify to myself. All in all, I think I managed to capture the distilled spirit of a New York summer — a mix of the transient with the established institution, a melting pot of cuisines and heritages, and the completely homegrown desire to sleep away the afternoon. If you can, try to make it out to Hester Nights in its last few weeks — I always think it’s worthwhile to see the innovative up-and-coming vendors in the area, and I was genuinely delighted to discover a number of new dishes I had never even heard of before. And I know I’ll be back to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, inquisitive ice cream ingester that I am. You just can’t throw down a 275-flavor gauntlet and not expect this Rocky Road Rambo to lock and load.

So with that, I bid adieu to the summer season. Goodbye heat, goodbye outdoor seating, goodbye sundresses, goodbye fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them. Hello pumpkin spice everything, hello leather jacket weather, hello mulled apple cider. Suddenly the leaves changing doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Hester Nights @ the Eventi Hotel

6th Ave between 29th and 30th Streets

http://www.hesterstreetfair.com/#!hester-nights/c7h0

Brooklyn Wok Shop

 182 N 10th St (btwn Bedford and Driggs Ave)

http://brooklynwokshop.com/

Khao Man Gai NY

https://www.facebook.com/KhaoManGaiNY

Il Laboratorio del Gelato

188 Ludlow St. (at East Houston) 

http://www.laboratoriodelgelato.com/

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Restaurant Week at Spice Market: Eastern Quotidian by Highly Trained Hands

2013-07-28 18.49.46

I’ve always been fascinated by fusion restaurants. They take a big risk by combining disparate cuisines, since it’s pretty easy to end up simply highlighting the worst parts of your original food cultures. Fusion is also one of those trends that many argue has been overdone, nearly guaranteeing a raised eyebrow if not a full-on eye-roll when you mention the hottest new fusion spot — oh right, we really needed someone to mash together Ethiopian and Ecuadorian food. (Wait, does that exist?)

I know that poorly executed fusion restaurants are out there, but I’ve yet to encounter one that truly disappointed me. I spent a number of birthday dinners in high school at Ruby Foo’s in Times Square, marveling at their takes on Chinese food made with a quarter of the grease used by my local takeout place. I even liked the few times I went to Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, first in Tampa, and later in Philadelphia. I’d never had Hawaiian food before, and I thought the Asian twist (logical, I suppose, given the geography and cultural heritage of Hawaii) worked as a great entry point into Hawaiian ingredients and preparations. I’ve been eager to try more traditional Hawaiian food since then (maybe even spam fried rice?), so if anyone has a recommendation for a spot in New York, I’d be very grateful.

When Summer Restaurant Week 2013 rolled around, I already had my eye on visiting one of Jean Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants. The man is a legend in the New York and world food scene, and what’s the point of Restaurant Week if not to briefly make reachable to the plebeian masses the haute cuisine of the upper crust? However, part of what made my Winter Restaurant Week meal at Kutsher’s Tribeca so satisfying was the way they reinvented familiar dishes (reuben spring rolls, anyone?), so rather than pick the more conventional Nougatine, I thought Vongerichten’s Spice Market might prove a more thrilling culinary adventure. And lucky for Jacob, his cousin Carolyn, and I, our Restaurant Week supper there last Sunday was exactly that.

 

First Impressions:

The modest exterior of Spice Market belies its intricately designed interior.

The modest exterior of Spice Market belies its intricately designed interior.

Spice Market is located in the heart of the Meatpacking District, caddy-corner to the Gansevoort Hotel. Walking up to the restaurant, I realized I had passed it a number of times, but never connected the space with the name. This is in part because of how unassuming the outside of Spice Market is — it’s housed in one of those nondescript Meatpacking former warehouses, built mainly of brick and wrought iron.

I'm pretty sure every multilevel restaurant needs to add a tower at the top of their staircase.

I’m pretty sure every multilevel restaurant needs to add a tower at the top of their staircase.

The interior, however, is a completely different story. Inspired by his experiences traveling through Asia, the aim of Spice Market is to apply classical French cooking techniques to popular Asian street food. The decor focuses mainly on this Eastern influence, blurring the lines between chic temple, nightclub, and opium den. The space is dominated by dark wood, vaulted ceilings, and Asian architectural features, from the multilevel, narrow staircase topped by what appears to be a bell tower (actually holding a lamp inside), to the draping of dark red and orange curtains all around, to the intricate wood carving that encloses the bar. The staff is dressed head-to-toe in orange Buddhist-esque robes, except for the white-and-orange-decked busboys (and the general manager, who wore a suit). Asian lanterns lend a soft glow to everything (hence my fuzzy photos), but at the same time you have the familiar exposed ceilings and pulsing music, leaving behind a zen setting for the louder tenor of the NY dining scene.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

 

I was first to arrive, so I made my way over to the bar and ordered a cocktail. Spice Market has a full bar with domestic and Indian beers and a variety of speciality drinks, created using housemade syrups and sodas. After conferring with the bartender, I went with the Passion Fruit Sangria (Gewurztraminer, Gran Gala, Blackberry, Orange). Jacob and Carolyn arrived soon after, and chose the Whiskey Passion Fizz (George Dickel No. 12, Passion Fruit, Chili, Ginger Ale) and Cucumber Chill (Dill-infused Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Cucumber, Lemon), respectively. I found my sangria light and refreshing (I’m obviously an ardent fan of the drink in general — Calle Ocho, anyone?), the white wine laying a more delicate base, and the Gran Gala (an orange liquer) mixing smoothly with the fruit components. The passion fruit itself wasn’t particularly prominent, aside from lending an overall tropical flair. I’d recommend it as a great drink for brunch, if you’re in the mood for something fun and fruity.

My Passion Fruit Sangria on the right, and Jacob's Whiskey Passion Fizz on the left. You can see a small glimpse of our orange-bedecked bartender in the background.

My Passion Fruit Sangria on the right, and Jacob’s Whiskey Passion Fizz on the left. You can see a small glimpse of our orange-bedecked bartender in the background.

Jacob’s Whiskey Passion Fizz had more of a kick to it than I expected (both in spice and strength), but I enjoyed it despite a dislike of both ginger ale and whiskey. Carolyn’s was my least favorite drink, although she was happy she picked it. She said it tasted like a pickle, which immediately made me wary, but when I took a sip I found it lacked the harsh vinegar quality I dislike so much, coming off more like cucumber water with a bit of a kick, with no real flavor of vodka at all. But let’s stop dilly-dallying with discussions of alcohol — the main attraction awaits.

The Food:

We were seated shortly after our set reservation time, and in general the staff was fairly attentive. Our waiter was happy to answer any and all of our questions at first, but he only appeared a few times to take our orders and check in at the entree stage. However, I saw the general manager walking around multiple times throughout the evening, scanning the floor and checking with tables, even adjusting a place setting once to make sure everything was aligned and straight. The food itself came very quickly, served family-style so that at one point we were almost overwhelmed by the influx of dishes. I was also happy to note the frequent refilling of our water glasses, a pet peeve of mine that pettily can strongly influence my overall impression of a meal.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Our meal started with a complimentary bowl of pappadum-type lentil crackers. I found the pappadums at most Indian restaurants to be either too bland and soft, or too burnt and smoky, but these were a different breed altogether. They were like lentil tortilla chips, thicker and crunchier, and more capable of scooping up the hot tomato chutney they were served with.

Both Jacob and I opted for the Restaurant Week menu, but Carolyn was more interested in Spice Market’s regular offerings. At first I was concerned, since some restaurants make everyone at the table opt into the RW menu if any diner chooses it, but our waiter quickly confirmed that Carolyn was fine ordering a la carte.

Carolyn chose the Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings and the Spicy Thai Slaw to start, and then the Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu as her entree. Jacob selected the Salmon Sashimi, followed by the Kimchi Fried Rice, and I ordered the Spiced Shrimp Broth, followed by the Wok Charred Daikon Cake. We all split two of the Restaurant Week desserts: the Black Sesame Cake and the Malted Chocolate Parfait.

The Spicy Thai Slaw Salad: not so spicy, but a refreshing way to start a meal.

The Spicy Thai Slaw Salad: not so spicy, but a refreshing way to start a meal.

The appetizers came out in a steady stream, starting with Carolyn’s salad. The Spicy Thai Slaw (with Asian pear, crispy shallots, and mint) was one of my favorite dishes of the night. A refreshing shredded cabbage salad, it had just a hint of heat that was balanced by the coolness of the mint and the sweetness of the Asian pear (similar in flavor to a mild apple). The crunch of the cabbage and the crispy shallots kept it interesting texturally, although by the time you reached the bottom of the bowl the salad was a little soggy from all of the pooled dressing.

Spicy Thai Chicken Wings -- these aren't kidding on the spice, but they'll put up a good fight against Buffalo Wild Wings.

Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings — these aren’t kidding on the spice, and they’ll put up a good fight against Buffalo Wild Wings.

The Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings (with sliced mango and mint) lived up to their name a little more. I’ve never been into wings, so this dish didn’t impress me all that much, but even as an outsider observer I could tell that the breading was truly crispy, and the meat was very tender and juicy. Much like the inclusion of the mint in the salad, here it worked with the mango to cool down the heat of the wings, which I found a little too spicy for my liking. If you are a wings fan, I’d definitely recommend giving this dish a go — it was lightly fried so that the crust gave great texture without veering into the extremes of either too crunchy or mushily falling off the meat.

Although Jacob and I were attempting to experience the majority of the Restaurant Week menu by splitting the dishes, we both found ourselves drawn to appetizers the other wouldn’t like. We tried to find common ground in the other two appetizers, but the Mixed Green Salad and Beef Satay just couldn’t stand up against our respective love of salmon and shrimp. So we gave each other a pass on the starters, and in retrospect it was a strong strategic move.

The Salmon Sashimi, delicately layered and covered in a creamy sauce.

The Salmon Sashimi, delicately layered and covered in a creamy sauce.

Jacob seemed to really enjoy his Salmon Sashimi (with Golden Garlic and Lemon Soy), which arrived in small slivers drizzled with a creamy sauce. I tried a piece (I’m trying to get on the raw fish bandwagon, one leg at a time, folks), and like my Seattle salmon encounter, I could tell the the fish was of a very high quality, even if the flavor didn’t do much for me. The sauce reminded me of scallion cream cheese — perhaps a vaguely Japanese nod towards bagels and lox?

The Spiced Shrimp Broth -- this photo doesn't do the depth of flavor of this soup proper justice at all.

The Spiced Shrimp Broth — this photo doesn’t do the depth of flavor of this soup proper justice at all.

Now I could go on and on about my Spiced Shrimp Broth (with glass noodles and herbs). If you’re a fan of shellfish, this was a mindblowingly good preparation of it, and has stuck with me out of all the dishes at Spice Market, even several days later. Truth be told, after being in New England this weekend, and Seattle just a few weeks ago, I was prepared to come back down to earth from shellfish heaven and relearn to be satisfied with New York’s pretty solid fish scene. But as an eternal shrimp lover, I couldn’t overlook this appetizer once I spotted it. This soup is like a punch in the mouth of shrimp — pure, luscious, somehow achieving the kind of deep flavor you usually have in a dense bisque, though this broth was very light (and bright pink). The bowl contained mostly long strings of the glass noodles with small chunks of shrimp at the bottom, making me think of pho but with a seafood twist (is there some Thai or Vietnamese non-coconut soup that I don’t know about? Please let me know, I will order it always). On top of the broth floated leaves of cilantro and basil, adding an herbal brightness to the natural umami of the shrimp. I legitimately could have had a gallon of this soup and left a happy camper.

 

The simple components of the Kimchi Fried Rice: beef, rice, kimchi. Still a solid dish, though.

The simple components of the Kimchi Fried Rice: beef, rice, kimchi. Still a solid dish, though.

However, this was just the beginning — next up, our entrees. Jacob’s Kimchi Fried Rice with Korean Beef came out first. You can see from the photo that the dish was heavier on the rice aspect than the beef. I found this especially disappointing, because the Korean beef was melt-in-your-mouth good. The shortribs were presented in a small rectangle lightly dusted with sesame seeds atop the rice, the individual strands of meat visible to the naked eye. Sticking a fork in, little chunks flaked away beautifully, like long-braised brisket. I can understand the restraint given how rich the beef was, but when you come across well done shortribs, it’s just hard to stop and savor the flavors laminating your tongue. The rice was nicely chewy, and had a bit of the pop from sour kimchi. It was much more subtle a taste than I expected, given my previous experiences with heavily pickled kimchi. The dish worked as a whole, but it was much more muted overall than I had anticipated, especially considering the limited and straightforward components of rice, beef, and slices of kimchi.

 

Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu -- intriguing and new, if a little much for a full entree.

Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu — intriguing and new, if a little much for a full entree.

Carolyn’s Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu in Black Bean Sauce lingered with me a bit more. Carolyn and I agreed that the tofu had a deep, smoky taste, but Jacob thought the tofu was only mildly flavored. Although I think smoked food can be hit or miss, I liked that the kitchen had achieved a burnt flavor for the tofu without altering the texture too much — this wasn’t charred to a crisp, but still the soft squares of tofu you find in miso soup. The pearl noodles were thick like udon, but not quite as long, and were tender from soaking up the moisture from the black bean sauce. The sauce had a great earthy flavor, full of fermented beans and infused with soy, coming off as just slightly sweet. I enjoyed the small bites I had, but I wouldn’t order it for my main course. I think a full bowl of it would end up being too cloyingly sweet and decadent.

 

The Wok Charred Daikon Cake -- redefining the idea of "cake" and unexpectedly addictive.

The Wok Charred Daikon Cake — redefining the idea of “cake” and unexpectedly addictive.

Last, but certainly not least, was my Wok Charred Daikon Cake (with scallions and peanuts). I was on a roll with my menu selections, because this ended up being my second favorite dish of our dinner, sliding in right behind the Spiced Shrimp Broth. I wasn’t sure exactly would arrive when I read the words “daikon cake” on the menu, and our waiter unfortunately didn’t give clarity. Knowing that daikon is a radish, I had to wonder if it would be some sort of tower of slices? The bowl of food that eventually arrived at our table was far from any definition of cake I’ve ever heard of — it looked more like a curry with a thick sauce, cubed pieces of unbelievably soft radish, slices of red chiles, scallions, and whole peanuts. Digging a little deeper while writing this post, it seems like (at least from Google image search) daikon cake is usually made from radish cooked and compressed into a square or rectangle. Spice Market’s take seemed to then deconstruct that cake, chopping it up into chunks, and folding it into a stew of sauce and vegetables. This gave the daikon pieces an almost eggplant-like texture, soft and succulent. While the rest of the dish verged on smooth and squishy, the peanuts were moist but still crunchy, which kept the texture from being too monotonous. The Thai theme comes out again in this dish, which I found reminiscent of a Thai curry in terms of the deep, layered flavors, and inclusion of peanuts. Salty, sweet, with just a tiny kick from the chile peppers, I just kept ladling more and more onto my plate.

I know this must sound highly suspicious coming from me, but dessert was kinda an afterthought for our dinner. After the stream of new exotic flavor pairings that had steamrolled across my tastebuds, I found our two desserts perfectly adequate, but far from showstoppers. I felt that the Black Sesame Cake (with green tea mousse and yuzu) was the lesser of the two dishes. Truth be told, I’ve had sesame desserts before — ice cream flavors and other versions of cakes, and I’ve never really gotten the appeal. I like sesame in savory dishes, but as a card-carrying chocoholic, it’s just never been sweet enough for me in a dessert setting.

 

The Black Sesame Cake -- with tasty shards of sesame brittle.

The Black Sesame Cake — with tasty squares of sesame brittle.

The cake arrived in a small bowl, a deep green square seated upon the green tea mousse, and topped with yuzu ice cream, shards of sesame brittle, and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds. The cake itself was a little dry, but the mousse and the yuzu ice cream added brighter flavors and a bit of moisture. Overall it just read too savory to me — I know green tea is not an unusual flavoring for Asian desserts, but I really only think of it in the context of a beverage, and while the citrusy taste of the yuzu was pleasing, I’m arbitrarily picky about fruit-based desserts.

 

The Malted Chocolate Parfait -- a delicious, if oddly American dessert.
The Malted Chocolate Parfait — a delicious, if oddly American dessert.

The Malted Chocolate Parfait (with caramel crumble and summer berries) was much more in my wheelhouse, and so it’s no surprise that I dug right into it. The malted chocolate came in the form of a mousse as the bottom layer of the parfait, topped with blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries, then the “caramel crumble” (basically a streusel topping), and finally vanilla ice cream and chocolate crunchies. I didn’t get much of a malted flavor, but as I’m not a fan of Whoppers, I wasn’t complaining. It was served in a small bowl, and I appreciated the modest portion size. Combined with the lightness of the mousse and ice cream, it was a good way to end the meal, with pure, fresh-tasting ingredients that didn’t weigh you down. After the variety of Asian-influenced dishes of the night, it was a little odd how All-American this seemed, from the fresh berries to the crumble. Overall the dessert was comforting, and I was glad I had it to contrast against the more exotic black sesame cake.

 

Final Thoughts:

My Restaurant Week trip to Spice Market was a fantastic dinner that had me trying new flavors, while still enjoying some well-executed combos I was familiar with. It’s a great bang-for-your-buck spot for Restaurant Week, since the menu doesn’t skimp on portions, and offers both dishes that appear on the regular menu, as well some RW exclusives. And when you take into account the caliber of the chef behind Spice Market, it’s pretty affordable in general (they offer a $25 lunch “bento box” prix fixe, and the tasting menu at dinner is only $48). I’m eager to go back and dive into the menu a bit more, since there were plenty of dishes that appealed to me, across all the categories, from appetizers to dessert (Ovaltine Kulfi — what is that, and can I eat it now?).

All in all, Spice Market gets a strong recommendation from me for good service, a trendy and fun vibe, and for offering genre-bending dishes that challenge more staid palates without pushing too far into exotic ingredients or spice levels. To me, that’s one of the best goals for fusion restaurants — to offer a smooth entryway for diners into new flavor combinations and cuisines through more well-known techniques. At Spice Market, Jean Georges gently coaxes his diners to step through those orange curtains and sample some street food from worlds beyond the NY dirty-water dogs and a bag from Nuts-4-Nuts. Sure, you’re missing the hustle and bustle of humanity from the markets of Asia, but maybe if Jean Georges does his job right, you’ll want to pay a visit someday and see just what inspired him in the first place.

 

Spice Market

403 W 13th St

New York, NY 10014

spicemarketnewyork.com

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/