Snackshots: Polar Vortex (Warm Chocolate Edition)

2014-01-03 15.23.59

Can you guess the theme of this post?

I think I’ve proven my commitment to dessert by now. It’s generally an easy guarantee to make that, much like the US Postal Service, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of light will stay this sweet seeker from the swift ingesting of a toothsome treat. But the weather gods tested my resolve this past week with the crushing blow of the Polar Vortex, plunging temperatures around the country and for once dissuading me from satisfying my cravings with an ice cream cone. With frozen dessert out of the way, I found myself falling back on an oldie-but-goody — the timeless allure of hot chocolate. As I battled with the windchill to avoid frostbite (although at least I was in a part of the country that could safely venture outside), I found a couple of a worthy warm chocolate treats to start the reheating process from the inside-out.

 

L.A. Burdick:

I'm dreaming of a white chocolate Christmas..,

I’m dreaming of a white chocolate Christmas..,

After returning to Hu Kitchen for a relatively healthy lunch, it was clear that Jacob and I needed some emergency chocolate, stat (I mean, what’s the point of a nutritious meal if you don’t immediately slather it in sugar?). Jacob suggested a trip to L.A. Burdick, yet another confectionary near his apartment (because ‘Wichcraft, Beecher’s, Maison Kayser and City Bakery aren’t enough for the neighborhood. Frickin’ Gramercy grumblegrumble).

I’d initially come across about this chocolate shop while researching the best hot chocolate in the city, but hadn’t managed to stop by last winter. The shop was started by an American named Larry Burdick, who became enamored with the chocolate he encountered during a trip to Switzerland and France. He started making chocolate in New York City, but Burdick and his family then moved to Walpole, NH and expanded the business, now operating cafes, restaurants, and even a grocery in Walpole, the Boston-metro area, and once more in NYC.

Every surface is piled high with chocolate-related goods.

Did you say you wanted chocolate? I think we might have some of that here…

The white chocolate version of the famous mice.

The white chocolate version of the famous mice.

Walking in, I couldn’t help but think of L.A. Burdick as a larger, more established version of one of my absolute favorite spots in Philly — the now-defunct Naked Chocolate (rest in peace), a fantastic chocolatier where I had my first taste of authentic European drinking chocolate. The New York location is a combination cafe and retail shop, with a few benches and tables up front, and the remaining space completely covered in chocolate products and paraphernalia. There are two counters inside — to the right, you can buy beverages and pastries, while on the left you can choose from a selection of their chocolate and bon bons, including their famous chocolate mice and chocolate penguins. In between the two are tables piled high with chocolate bars, gift sets, candy, and take-home hot chocolate mixes.

In the door, and straight to the beverage counter. Do not pass go, do not collect bon bons.

In the door, and straight to the beverage counter. Do not pass go, do not collect bon bons.

But with our feet demonstrably caked in slush, Jacob and I made a beeline for the drinks counter, quickly dismissing slices of cake or linzer torte in our quest for drinking chocolate. On Jacob’s previous visit he had tried the Burdick Blend Dark Chocolate (there are also milk and white chocolate blends), and though I was tempted by the other two, by this point I know Jacob’s preference for dark chocolate, and so was perfectly happy to try one of L.A. Burdick’s single-source varieties (ranging from Bolivia to Grenada). Now I know next-to-nothing about terroir, wine, chocolate or otherwise, so I let Jacob chose our source variety. He went with the Madagascar, because of some amazing Madagascan chocolate he’d had from Michel Cluizel’s shop.

I'm fairly certain they use this hot chocolate for the mustaches in the Got Milk? ads.

I’m fairly certain they use this hot chocolate for the mustaches in the Got Milk? ads.

Although I can’t compare our cup to the standard Burdick blends or the other source varieties (guess I’ll just have to make a return trip … or several), the hot chocolate ended up being a showstopper. We shared a large, which was a strong choice, since L.A. Burdick is not joking around when it comes to texture and flavor. This ain’t no powdery Swiss Miss packet. The chocolate is thick, nearly spreadable in consistency, coating your tongue and throat like the best cough drop you’ve ever had. The liquid is opaque, as if you were being served a warmed cup of melted chocolate ice cream. The flavor was complex, the bitterness from the high cacao percentage tempering the inherent sweetness of the milk.  L.A. Burdick’s hot chocolate is perhaps a little less intense than the hot chocolate at City Bakery, which basically serves you a cup of I-need-to-go-lie-down chocolate soup. However, while L.A. Burdick’s version is definitely not a casual , on-the-go-drink, it is a great way to experience and savor a high quality chocolate, and in these chilly months, to warm yourself up. Plus, they’ll throw a little liquor in there if you’re looking for a night-cap (or want to pre-game with a heavy dairy-dessert, whatever floats your boat).

You have to love a place that sells tiny chocolate penguins.

You just have to love a place that sells tiny chocolate penguins.

 

LeChurro:

LeChurro: a slim cafe to match their products.

LeChurro: a slim space to match their products.

A few nights later, it seemed like the air was only getting colder. Somehow I managed to convince Jacob to come up to my neck of the woods for once, to finally check an item off our endless list at the aptly named churro shop, LeChurro. Located on Lexington between 82nd and 83rd, LeChurro is a petite shop sitting right in between two subway stops. Although I rarely walk down that way, there was pretty good traffic during our visit, especially considering how chilly it was outside.

Part of the great LeChurro recipe, according to their wall mural.

Part of the great LeChurro recipe, according to their wall mural.

The small, boxy space is largely taken up by the counter and kitchen behind it, where churros are fried to order. The remaining area is taken up by a bench lining the north wall and a few small tables and chairs across from it. The south wall is lined with shelves filled with merchandise (both connected to churros and the kind of oddball knick-knacks you’d find at Urban Outfitters). The wall above the seating displays a large mural detailing “The Great LeChurro Recipe from Spain,” with cartoon illustrations of the ingredients and procedures of producing the perfect churro. The entire cafe gives off a quirky, tongue-in-cheek vibe which helps to mitigate the pretentious air that comes from running a Spanish churro-centric shop, especially one called LeChurro.

Ah yes, exactly as the Queen said during WWII.

Ah yes, exactly as the Queen said during WWII.

When we arrived the cashier was handing out free samples of their Spanish Thick Drinking Chocolate. Of course, it was nowhere near the caliber of L.A. Burdick’s rendition, but LeChurro is clearly going for a more down-to-earth, possibly multiple-source chocolate drink. Taken on its own, it was a rich, decadent hot chocolate, slightly thicker than what you’d get at a coffeehouse, and on the darker side of milk chocolate.

The menu offers iterations of churros, milkshakes, hot chocolates, and coffee and espresso. Within the churros you can get the normal long, straw of dough with a variety of dipping sauces, or bite-sized mini churros, or filled churros, which are circular churros covered in a sauce and then dipped in chocolate. They even have churro sundaes and savory churros (called “pizzos” and made up of mini churros stuffed with mozzarella and topped with marinara).

Our Cone of Churros, plus the freebies. Chocolate comes to those who wait.

Our Cone of Churros, plus the freebies. Chocolate comes to those who wait.

We ended up selecting the traditional “Cone of Churros” with Hazelnut Chocolate dipping sauce, because at this point my life, I’ve fully sold my soul to Nutella. LeChurro had been somewhat busy when I placed the order and paid, so I wasn’t surprised that there was a little delay in our churros’ arrival (after all, they’re frying to order). But then the store emptied out, and Jacob and I sat quietly waiting as nearly ten minutes passed with nary a Spanish pastry in sight. Finally I got up and asked (aka reminded) the cashier about it. Both he and the cook were very apologetic, having clearly forgotten our order completely. They went to work immediately, and gave us a few freebies to make up for it, so when we were finally served we got a couple more small tastes of the drinking chocolate, a dulce de leche filled churro, and two extra plain churros in our cone.

The churros flying solo.

The churros flying solo.

No surprise, the churros were fresh and warm, straight from the fryer and dusted in cinnamon sugar. At their core they have a flavor reminiscent of funnel cake, and the cinnamon sugar topping added just the barest hint of spice. I appreciated the crunchy outer layer and the airy interior, but considering how freshly made they were, these churros were just not that memorable. I actually much preferred our free filled churro, since there you had the textural contrast of the smooth chocolate coating, the sticky, gooey dulce de leche, and the cakey softness of the inner pastry. I much prefer this type of salty-sweet combo to the sea salt and caramel trend that continues to flood all dessert shops (I’m looking at you, 16 Handles). The extra samples of drinking chocolate were as tasty as the first ones we tried, but the stand-out liquid was actually the hazelnut dipping sauce, proving once again the all-powerful allure of warmed Nutella.

I could definitely see myself returning to LeChurro, albeit for a beverage rather than the churros themselves. The hot chocolate menu features a variety of flavor additions (including hazelnut), and I’d easily give into sampling one of the shakes or a frozen hot chocolate once we exit double-socks-triple-scarves territory.

 

I’d say both L.A. Burdick and LeChurro are spots to keep in your back pocket if you’re as much of a chocoholic as I am. I’m eager to go back to L.A. Burdick and explore some more single source varieties, especially since I’m still trying to expand my taste for dark chocolate. But it’s also nice to have LeChurro in my neighborhood, as a casual, spur of the moment kind of place that offers a dessert option beyond the endless froyo buffets. Although, now that the Polar Vortex has spun on, I’m kinda in the mood for some ice cream…

 

L.A. Burdick

5 East 20th Street

http://www.burdickchocolate.com/chocolateshop-cafe-nyc.aspx

LeChurro

1236 Lexington Avenue

http://lechurro.com/

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Snackshots Seattle, Part 1: A Fresh Food Fantasy at Pike Place Market

For someone who makes her bread and butter (or rather, is able to buy her bread and butter) from the entertainment industry, I’ve spent surprisingly little time on the West Coast. I’ve only been to California a handful of times, and never visited any of the other states west of Iowa. That is, until this past weekend, when I had the chance to visit my brother in his new digs in Seattle. As with many of my interests, my older brother Dan was a major influence on my passion for food. Up until June he lived on the UES near me (in fact, in the same apartment building, because we’re too cute like that), and one of my favorite parts of getting to know the neighborhood was exploring new restaurants and bars with him. So when I hopped on a plane on Friday to visit the Northwest for the first time, I believed my expectations of delicious overindulgence were reasonable. Little did I realize I was seriously underestimating our genetic predisposition for pie-hole stuffing. Suffice it to say that I have way more to talk about than can reasonably fit in one post. So, much like my last travel experience in Israel, I’m going to break up my trip into more manageable bites. First up, a look at Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market.

Walking up to one of the many entrances of Pike Place Market.

Walking up to one of the many entrances of Pike Place Market. This place is just enormous.

 

Beyond the amazing food I encountered at Pike Place, what struck me most was the easy comingling of obvious tourists (like myself) and the local crowd. Sure, there are kitschy shops peddling t-shirts and trinkets, but much of Pike Place Market is made up of serious local vendors selling fresh produce and homemade items. I kept describing it to Dan as a strange mix of NY’s Chelsea Market and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, somewhere between the higher-brow artisanal wares of Chelsea’s Ronnybrook Dairy and Eleni’s Cookies and the Amish shoo-fly pies and cheesesteaks down Liberty Bell way. And did I mention it’s huge? A sprawling, multi-floor, multi-block, and multi-street, partially open air market, with arms that snake out leading you down paths of flower and jerky vendors, or spice stalls and coffee sellers. Dan and I must have spent a good 3 hours there and never really explored anything beyond the ground level.

Pike Place Fish Market, already crowded with tourists eager to see some serious fish-tossing.

Pike Place Fish Market, already crowded with tourists eager to see some serious fish-tossing.

Soon after we entered we came upon the famous Pike Place Fish Market. The Fish Market is known for its tradition of throwing whole fish that customers have purchased from the back storage area to the fishmongers working the counter. An order will be yelled out — “Alaskan Salmon!” — and lightning quick a freaking whole carcass is tossed carefree up from the floor to the raised platform, where the fish are then butchered and wrapped. Tourists crowded around the stall to watch the performance, but after the first throw I turned my attention to the table across the way, which was laden down with all different types of dried fruit and vegetables. Dan got some fabulously sticky and sweet dried pineapple, but I was feeling more adventurous, and asked the woman behind the counter for something “good, but weird.”

My bag of dried okra, which at first glance looks a bit like dead grasshoppers. Yummier than appearance, I promise.

My bag of dried okra, which at first glance looks a bit like dead grasshoppers. Yummier than appearance, I promise.

She passed me a piece of dried okra, a vegetable I’m usually pretty ambivalent about. It was crunchy and salty, with a underlying freshness and a texture that reminded me of the dried greenbeans I’ve had from Fairway. I immediately bought a bag, completely enamored with this strange vegetable creation that was unlike anything I’d ever tried before. Why can’t you buy dried okra everywhere?

An ungodly amount of life-changing Rainier Cherries.

An ungodly amount of life-changing Rainier cherries.

 

I had a similar eye-opening experience when I tried Rainier cherries for the first time. I’ve always shied away from cherries, finding their tartness too aggressive. I also tend to dislike cooked fruit in desserts, so cherry pie or even the classic Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia aren’t really in my wheelhouse. But as we made our way through the market, an eager fruit vendor handing out slices of peach cut fresh from the fruit caught my eye, and I made my way over to him (hey, I’m never one to turn down a free sample). I can say without any doubt in my mind that that was the best peach I’ve ever tasted. It was luscious, velvety in texture, juicy and tender and exploding with natural sweetness. When I told this to the vendor, he insisted I try the Rainier cherries, proclamining them to be just as fresh as the peaches. And dagnabit, this guy was on the money. I found myself comparing the Rainier cherries to fresh grapes, with a soft and creamy flesh and a mild sweetness that was simply addictive. Dan bought a bag and we finished that day (even in the face of all of the other food we managed to fit in our stomachs).

The unfortunately lukewarm Plain Jane at Cinnamon Works.

The unfortunately lukewarm Plain Jane at Cinnamon Works.

 

After strolling through most of the top floor of the market, we made our way across the street to Post Alley, where most of the Market’s restaurants and shops can be found. Our attempt to go to Pike Place Chowder was thwarted by the outrageous line, so I guess I’ll just have to leave that for my next visit. We did manage to try a Plain Jane Cinnamon Roll at Cinnamon Works, a bakery that specializes in the cinnamon pastry diaspora (aka pull-apart bread, sticky buns, honey buns, etc). The Plain Jane had excellent flavors, but it was disappointingly room temperature, and you never want to eat an under-warmed cinnamon roll — it highlights the chewy, unforgiving nature of the batter. Next time I’m going to specifiy a fresh roll, or a reheated one.

The menu at the original Beecher's Handmade Cheese.

The menu at the original Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.

 

More importantly, I also paid a visit to the original location of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, so I could finally make a proper comparison to my lovely meal at Beecher’s NYC. The original Beecher’s location is significantly smaller than it’s NY outpost — most of the space is devoted to the actual production of cheese, which I suppose is getting your priorities straight. The retail area is dominated by the cheese counter and cafe menu prep stations — no restaurant/lounge here, just sandwiches, soups, and cheesy breadsticks. You can still peer down into the cheesemaking arena at the Original Beecher’s, but this time from milk-can stools at the cafe’s narrow ledge, the only area to eat their wares. After sampling Beecher’s signature crackers and cheeses, Dan and I decided to split the Flagship Sandwich, a caprese-style grilled cheese featuring Beecher’s Flagship cheddar, their Just Jack, the “Beecher’s spread” and tomato and basil.

Cheesemaking in action at Beecher's.

Cheesemaking in action at Beecher’s.

Our Flagship Sandwich -- look at that gooey cheese resisting separation.

Our Flagship Sandwich — look at that gooey cheese resisting separation.

 

I usually like my grilled cheese unadulterated, but the density and richness of the two cheddars was mitigated by the sharp savory basil taste and the moist tomato. The “Beecher’s spread,” mysterious and left unexplained, seemed to add a subtle bite of mustard. Thick white bread helped to hold the sandwich together, and was toasted to perfect golden-brown. Overall, the quality of cheese and food in general at the original Beecher’s was still stellar, but the creativity and diversity of choices on the menu at the NY outpost make me happy I live nearer to the East Coast option. Dammit, now I want that mushroom tart again.

The small sign announcing the entrance to the Crumpet Shop, tucked away from the noise of Post Alley.

The small sign announcing the entrance to the Crumpet Shop, tucked away from the noise of Post Alley.

 

Another shop of note is the Crumpet Shop, a small cafe hidden away upstairs in one of the buildings on Post Alley. Their menu is limited to three categories: the titular crumpets, scones, and looseleaf teas. However, there are seemingly endless variations within those sections, including both savory and sweet options. In all of my UK adventures, I’d actually never tried a crumpet before, due to my enduring love of a proper scone and my general ambivalence towards the crumpet’s North American cousin, the English Muffin. For those who have yet to encounter a crumpet, they’re traditional English griddle cakes, slightly crumbly and usually served warm with butter, jam or some other type of spread. Although I was tempted by The Crumpet Shop’s scones, I felt I should give the cafe’s namesake its due. Also, Dan was intent on having a crumpet, and at that point I had tried so many other treats that I couldn’t imagine having another pastry all to myself (well, that’s a bit of a lie … more on that in a bit).

On line for some serious crumpet action.

On line for some serious crumpet action.

The shop itself is charming, and I would recommend a stop in, especially if you don’t feel like dealing with all of the crowds of Pike Place Market proper. The entrance features the counter/kitchen where you place your order, plus bar seating along the wall. A small collection of tables are located just past the counter and down a few steps, where you can cool your heels for a bit and take a gander at the whimsical artwork and Alice in Wonderland murals that line the walls.

Our toasted crumpet, piled high with preserves.

Our toasted crumpet, piled high with preserves.

Dan and I split a crumpet with fresh raspberry preserves, very lightly toasted so that it was not quite browned, but still warm enough to gently melt the preserves into a luscious goo. Ultimately, I think I’m more of a clotted cream and scone gal — the texture of the crumpet and its straightforward yeasty flavor were fine, but far from revelatory. The most memorable part of the dish was the raspberry preserves, which were unbelievably fresh and pure in their flavor. I’m sure I’ll be repeating myself endlessly about this, but I was completely blown away by the quality of the basic ingredients of my Seattle meals. From fruits to vegetables to seafood, everything seemed like it had been hand-picked just for me.

The Donut Robot Mark II, hard at work.

The Donut Robot Mark II, hard at work.

 

I started out this post by talking about my exuberance over dried okra, so it seems only fitting to bookend the discussion by jumping to the other end of the spectrum — doughnuts. Dan was insistent that we pay a visit to the Daily Dozen Doughnut Co., a small counter not too far from the Pike Place Fish Market stall. We had actually passed by it when we first entered the market, but the line was absurdly long, so DDDC ended up being our last stop of the day. DDDC does one thing, and one thing only — make piping hot mini doughnuts to destroy your arteries and blow your mind. (They also sell espresso and coffee, because what else are you going to have with your doughnuts? Milk? What are you, a weirdo?) DDDC is a ridiculously small operation, considering the sheer quantity of mini-dos they churn out each day. With a small area in the back for prepping the batter and decorating the finished donuts, DDDC’s main attraction is the “Donut Robot, Mark II” a miracle of modern technology that squirts out two perfectly formed mini doughnut rings into a roiling river of oil. The rings of batter then travel along a conveyor belt, frying for the precisely the right amount of time before being slid out of the machine and onto the continuously growing pile of puffed perfection.

Henry Ford could never have imagined the gift he would give dessert lovers everywhere with his assembly line method.

Henry Ford could never have imagined the gift he would give dessert lovers everywhere with his assembly line method.

 

These bad boys, roughly the size of Entenmann’s mini powdered donuts, are only sold in multiples of 6, with any collection of toppings you desire. Aside from plain and powdered, you can also get chocolate frosted (with sprinkles), along with whatever special toppings they have for the day. We chose two plain, two cinnamon-dusted, and two coated in a maple glaze. I hate to veer into hyperbole, but these were actually the best donuts I’ve ever had, simply because they were the freshest, and the batter had such a pure sweet taste to it. Like the best version of funnel cake, with the right amount of crispness to the outside, while steamy, light and airy inside. The bag was still warm as I grabbed it, yet not a spot of grease transferred from the bottom to my hands. My favorite was the cinnamon sugar donut, the uniform coating achieved by the seller drops the donuts in a bag, tosses in some cinnamon sugar, and shakes. No fancy schmancy toppings or fillings, just old-fashioned, well-made, fresh from the fryer donuts. To be honest, you really can’t compare Daily Dozen Doughnut Co. to the Doughnut Plant — it’s like trying to compare a homemade brownie to a chocolate ganache cake from a high-end bakery. These establishments have two different goals. But if I grew in Seattle, I would have begged my parents to take me here on the weekends, and thoroughly thumbed my nose at the barely heatlamp-warmed measly offerings at Dunkin Donuts.

 

Pike Place Market is the closest to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market that I’ve found in the US. The mix of high-and-low-end vendors, the obvious plays towards tourist wallets combined with neighborhood shopping, and the unabashed delight in all that the local producers have to offer struck me as hewing closer to the Israeli model than Big Box Americana. Of course, it would be silly to ignore the fact that there is a Target just around the corner from Pike Place, and that the very first Starbucks (now a bonafide  international behemoth) is just down the row from Beecher’s. But my visit to Pike Place Market seemed to underscore the overall impression of Seattle. I felt like this is a city with a lot of pride, both in the larger sense of the Seattle itself, and the microcosms of each neighborhood. Fortunately, that pride is combined with a distinctly laidback, unself-conscious attitude. For me, that meant meeting a lot of people who wanted to share what they thought makes Seattle special, or what they themselves added to the culture, from hand crafted piggy banks to badass spice blends. So next time you’re in Seattle, pay a visit to Pike Place Market. Don’t worry that you’re buying into the tourist to-do list — there are so many layers to this locally-sourced onion, you can easily make your trip truly unique. I know I’ll be back — if only to finally get my hands on a bowl of that famous Pike Place Chowder!

The loosest definition of trail mix I've ever seen. Yes, that is a pile of meat and cheese.

The loosest definition of trail mix I’ve ever seen. Yes, that is a pile of meat and cheese.

Pike Place Market

1916 Pike Pl,

Seattle, WA 98101

pikeplacemarket.org

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give me your huddled masses yearning to eat treats…

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

Phoenician Fries from Ilili, spiced and smothered to perfection.

Phoenician Fries from Ilili, spiced and smothered to perfection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The lighter, sweeter Cinnamax.

The lighter, sweeter Cinnamax.

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


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

Ilili

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

http://www.ililinyc.com/

Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen

138 Willoughby Street (in Brooklyn)

http://mrsdorseyskitchen.com/

Mmm Enfes

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

https://twitter.com/MmmEnfes

Melt Bakery

132 Orchard St

http://www.meltbakery.com/

The Cellar at Beecher’s: Underground Dining, Top Floor Food

With the floral arrangements and questionably humorous Hallmark cards of Mother’s Day still nipping at our heels, it seems only fitting to take a moment to talk about my own mother. I’ll just come out and say it: I’m a mama’s girl. As the youngest child and only girl in my family, I suppose it’s pretty understandable. Once my mother got over the mania that came with being able to finally buy dresses and Osh Kosh jumpers galore, and I got over my intense resistance to wearing anything without pant legs (I had three older brothers — a bout of tomboyism was inevitable), we settled into a strong relationship that has supported me and shaped me immeasurably ever since. Now I could go and explain how my mother’s work as a writer has enabled me to pursue my own creative projects, or how her openness and generosity (we rock a huge First Seder guestlist) has informed my politics and worldview, but let’s be serious. For this blog I’m going to talk about how my mom taught me to love food.

I am fortunate to have grown up in a family that strove to eat dinner together every night. Because of this, my relationship with food has always been deeply connected to the ideas of unity and community. As we’ve all grown up, exploring new foods and restaurants has become almost a tradition in my household, from tasting menus to new sweet shops (my mother is an unrepentant chocoholic, and my father loves ice cream — surely this explains a lot about me). Not to mention the fact that when all her children were fully grown, my mom finally got the chance to cook dishes outside of the Venn Diagram of hot dogs/tuna fish/taco night. While I’ve certainly enjoyed some of the more refined dishes she’s made for my visits home, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the classics that graced our table while I was growing up.

One such staple was macaroni and cheese. Very, very occasionally we would have the Blue Box Kraft version, which I appreciate for its place in Americana (and for its blatant ploy to ensnare dino-obsessed kids like myself with its mascot Cheesasaurus Rex). But my mother’s homestyle mac is a different beast, and much preferred, in my opinion. First things first, my mother employs the larger penne or rigatoni noodles, to better soak up the cheese sauce, which combined Velveeta, American and cheddar cheeses. On top went a few single slices of American cheese, baked to a deep brown crust that nearly verged on burnt. Presented in the same ceramic bowl on each occasion, my family became immediately divided into two camps — those who preferred a serving with the crunchy top, and those who desired the softer bottom layer. My mom’s mac and cheese was tender, saucy rather than gooey, and to this day is my optimal version of mac and cheese.

In all my years of mac and cheese consumption, I have tried plenty of excellent varieties, from lobster to buffalo to truffle. But I had never encountered anything similar to my mother’s rendition. That is, until last week, when Jacob, Mike and I made our third Cheeseplorational inquiry to Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in the Flatiron.

Aw yeah, it’s time to talk about cheese again.

First Impressions:

The entrance on the corner of 20th and Broadway.

The entrance on the corner of 20th and Broadway.

I used to work in the Flatiron District, so I’d passed Beecher’s many times before ever stepping inside. The top floor is occupied by the cheese store, where you can try samples of their cheeses and accompaniments, as well as purchasing smaller snacks and takeout versions of the mac and cheese varieties they sell in their restaurant. There is a small cafe upstairs with seating, which offers views down into the industrial metal vats where some of the cheese is made. This glass-enclosed area takes up nearly a third of the store, and can even be viewed from the windows outside, so passersby can see Beecher’s cheesemongers hard at work.

Inside on the first floor -- you can see the huge metal cheesemaking vats on the left.

Inside on the first floor — you can see the huge metal cheesemaking vats on the left.

Downstairs in The Cellar

Downstairs in The Cellar

Down a quick flight of stairs near the entrance you’ll find The Cellar at Beecher’s, the small lounge and restaurant that offers lunch and dinner menus. The overall atmosphere of The Cellar is restrained yet playful. At the back of the room is a small bar that offers beer, wine, and specialty cocktails (whimsically named for historical personalities connected to the building Beecher’s is housed in). The rest of the tight space is taken up by armchairs with low tables, a larger communal table, and the more common two-tops and four-tops. It’s dimly lit, except for the highlighted paintings on the wall which feature animal and cheese related puns. Much like Murray’s Cheese Bar, I appreciated the sense of whimsy to balance out the intensity of the hip-lounge vibe.

Nothing like a good food pun to whet your appetite.

I like my animal themed paintings like I like my cheese — slightly nutty.

There are only a dozen or so tables in total, and despite our dining on a Monday night, the place was full and bustling. Although I had my eye on one of the neat booths built into the wall, the three of us squeezed into a table technically meant for two. As I glanced behind me, I suddenly realized the brick walls of the lounge were broken up by glass cases of cheese wheels on display. It turns out The Cellar is also where Beecher’s ages its “Flatiron Cheese,” a variety exclusive to the New York location. Talk about a good omen.

Close enough to touch.

Close enough to touch.

The Food:

Both Mike and Jacob had already been to Beecher’s several times (in fact, Jacob lives right around the corner, and one can only resist the siren call so often), so they warned me to stay away from the wine list. Luckily, I was in the mood for something lighter, since I was about to coat my tongue in curds and whey, so I opted for an Allagash White, one of my favorite summer beers. It ended up working perfectly with the meal, refreshing without being assertive and clashing with the food.

Jacob had been talking up Beecher’s “World’s Best Mac and Cheese” for months, so obviously that was the first item we ordered. We then made our way through the small but diverse menu, picking the Burrata & Anjou Pear Salad, the Mushroom Tart, and the Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate. When the food arrived, our waitress had the unexpectedly Tetrise-seque challenge of finagling all the plates onto our already crowded table of glasses and cutlery. While Beecher’s certainly gets credit for cutting down on our wait time by squeezing 3 people into a two-top, it ultimately made things more difficult for the service and our dining.

The Burrata and Anjou ... Salad? Questionably named but certifiably delicious.

The Burrata and Anjou … Salad? Questionably named but certifiably delicious.

The Burrata & Anjou Pear Salad came with sprigs of basil, sea salt, and several pieces of toast. I’d call it more of a deconstructed crostini than a salad, since the bread and burrata dominated more than the basil greens. (Or maybe I just have an overly provincial definition of salad in these wild days of culinary experimentation.) Regardless of naming practices, I found Beecher’s take on burrata to be much more successful than the one we tried at Murray’s Cheese Bar. The plate was presented with alternating slices of pear and burrata, which made it relatively easy to assemble (it would have been even easier if the kitchen had just done the work themselves, but I understand the impulse to avoid toast soggy with fruit/cheese juice. Gross.) The cheese was a little firmer, largely keeping its shape when lifted onto the bread. and the interplay of the crisp, sweet pear with the burrata cut through some of the richness of the cheese. The basil and sea salt worked to keep the dish savory, leading to a real progression of flavors across the tongue with each bite.

The Mushroom Tart -- handcrafted for the umami faithful.

The Mushroom Tart — handcrafted for the umami faithful.

The Mushroom Tart proved to be the unexpected hit dish of the night. Again, the menu’s description was a little misleading — Beecher’s seems to like deconstructing traditional presentations, so what actually ended up on our table was basically a stew of shiitake, crimini, and portabella mushrooms slightly overlapping a singular piece of pie crust. The stew was so intensely mushroomy, I was in fungus heaven, with rich wine-infused flavors that verged on a Marsala sauce. The mushrooms were tender but still had some heft to them, reminding me of the base for a mushroom bisque just before it’s been pureed. As for the crust, it was actually most reminiscent of a biscuit in texture, more crumbly than flaky. I liked the crust, but I would have been just as happy with just a bowl of the mushrooms. I went back for seconds and thirds, and found that the flavors were even more heightened when combined with the creamy sweetness of the sauce from the mac and cheese.

The lady of the hour -- "World's Best" Mac and Cheese.

The lady of the hour — “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese.

Speaking of, the “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese, although sporting a rather ostentatious name, turned out to be pretty damn delicious. As I mentioned earlier, I was struck by how similar Beecher’s approach to the dish was to my mother’s — using penne over elbow macaroni, with a white cheese sauce that was creamy rather than sticky. Beecher’s didn’t fully broil the top, which I was perfectly fine with, as a lifelong member of the pro-mac-underside club. I believe Beecher’s uses their flagship cheese, a cow’s milk variety of white American cheddar, mild with just a hint of tang that is barely detectable in their Mac and Cheese. It was served in a basic oval dish, and I appreciated the homestyle approach, not only for nostalgic reasons, but for how it fit into the overall vibe of The Cellar — down to earth but still informed. Based on the few cheese-centric restaurants I’ve been to, it seems like the each of the waitstaffs really love working at their restaurants. I can’t blame them, I’m pretty sure I’d be plenty happy surrounded by cheese and wine all day.

The Cheesemonger's Five Cheese Plate -- a strong showing with some highs and lows.

The Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate — a strong showing with some highs and lows.

Last, but far from least, was the Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate. In the chaos of trying to fit all of our dishes on the table, our waitress accidentally neglected to tell us which cheeses had been monged for our enjoyment. We managed to flag her down a few moments later for the full details. While I grabbed a takeaway menu on my way out of Beecher’s (including the cheeses offered at The Cellar), Artisanal still holds top prize for literally giving us a guide to our cheese plate. So based on my slightly hazy memories and the menu, here are the cheeses I believe we tried, clockwise from the top right: Pt. Reyes Cheese Co., Original Blue, cow, CA; Vermont Creamery, Bijou, goat, VT; Holland’s Family Cheese, Marieke Gouda, cow, WI; Cowgirl Creamery, Red Hawk, cow, CA; VT Shepherd, Queso del Invierno, sheep & cow, VT.

Like Murray’s the cheese and accompaniments were set out on a slate board, separated by pairing. I really liked the attention to detail that came with the pairing of each cheese with specific item, rather than giving us “some things that generally go well with lots of cheese.” The only general addition was the crackers, which were perfectly pleasant if unremarkable in flavor. Of the cheeses, the only one I’d tried before was Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, during a vacation in Napa a few years ago. I was very excited to see it on the menu, since it was one of the best cheeses I tasted in California (yes, my vacation involved a lot of cheese — no one is surprised), and remains one of my favorites to this day. I’ve had trouble finding Cowgirl’s products here in NY, so discovering that Beecher’s carries at least Red Hawk was fantastic news. Here’s hoping they have some other varieties as well.

Red Hawk is a rich cheese, smooth and soft to the point of being somewhat spreadable without being runny. It has a salty, earthy flavor, it was paired excellently with a grapefruit marmalade.

As with my previous cheese posts, I was happiest with the really funky cheeses, so I thought the Original Blue made a strong showing. This cheese is a pretty bold blue, so I’d recommend delaying your hot makeout sessions unless pairing it with Listerine. Perhaps in acknowledgment of a blue cheese lover’s likely singledom, Beecher’s chose to pair itwith fig jam, which showed up twice on our cheese plate (more successfully here than with the gouda).

The Marieke Gouda was a nice compromise between the attributes of young and older goudas. It had the buttery, caramel flavor of and older gouda, but was slightly softer than the chunky, dry and hard aged variety. Apparently, this cheese just won top prize at the 2013 US Championship Cheese Contest, and while I enjoyed it, I think I personally prefer the super-aged, crusty crystallized and crumbly type of gouda. The Marieke was also paired with the fig jam, which I didn’t think did much for the cheese.

The Queso del Invierno was my least favorite — I found it too mild in flavor. There was nothing bad about it, but I thought it really worked best as a vehicle for the candied nuts that were paired with it. I’m a little surprised, because it was the only cheese made of blended milks on our plate, but I could see it working best grated into a salad, or even to bolster the flavor of a macaroni and cheese.

My favorite cheese of the night was the Bijou Goat Cheese. It’s semi-soft to soft cheese, similar in texture to Red Hawk, holding its overall structure but featuring a paste-like interior. It had that grassy, goat cheese flavor with a good tang and some underlying sweetness, and came with honey with some honeycomb mixed into it. The honey perfectly complemented the cheese, heightening the sweetness while allowing the pungent goaty taste to still shine through.

Final Thoughts:

Now that I’ve been to a handful of cheese shops and restaurants in New York, I feel like I’m starting to zero in on the features that matter to me the most. While I still think that Artisanal had the best cheese plate and service, my meal at Beecher’s was more enjoyable on a dish by dish basis. A common thread in my most positive restaurant experiences (at least on this blog) is the low-key tone of the restaurants. I’d rather have a fun dining experience at a place with mediocre food than feel uncomfortable at an overly pretentious restaurant that serves the best Chilean Sea Bass you’ve ever tasted. The Cellar at Beecher’s took the cute milk-puns on the wall at Murray’s Cheese Bar and filled their lounge with it. The best part is that they’re not immediately apparent — a glance at the paintings might lead you to think they were generic art prints, but if you stop and actually look at them, you realize how silly the content is. The Cellar has the veneer of cool and classy, but underneath is the soul of the cheese nerds who want to share their curdly passion with you.

I’m bound to go back for the mushroom tart alone, but Beecher’s also offers a few more adventurous types of mac and cheese on The Cellar’s menu (curried cauliflower anyone?), so I’ll have to try out these parallel universe versions of my mother’s dish. If you’re game for a little tongue-in-cheek humor with a strong menu of cheesy delights, check out The Cellar. After all, I can’t invite everyone to my mother’s house for mac and cheese, so you might as well get the next best thing.

The Cellar at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese

Corner of Broadway & 20th St.

http://www.beechershandmadecheese.com