Defining Identity: Dinner at RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen

2014-06-28 17.50.51

 

Afloat in this nebulous sea of my mid-twenties, it seems somewhat hypocritical to make remarks about an identity crisis. I find I am still very much chipping away at the jagged piece of stone that is my public persona, slowly working my way through the marble to pick and choose among the quirks and traits I’m truly comfortable with (as well as the deficiencies I need to acknowledge and accept). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely become more confident in what makes me unique as an individual, and more importantly, to value that as something worth sharing with others. But it took a while to be all right with not just going with the crowd, for recognizing that your difference of opinion might actually add something to the discussion.

 

I think we sometimes forget that restaurants are run by people, and rather than being some autonomous hive-mind or giant Star Trek replicator (geekiness = one facet I am embracing), the people involved ultimately make decisions that craft a “personality” for the enterprise (yup, I went there). Granted, my view is only from the outside, but it seems like new restaurants have to go through the same sort of growing pains as everyone else, with a similar spectrum of awkwardness when it comes to adolescence. Some places are going to be that one cool kid who never had acne and went from Bar Mitzvah beefcake to senior prom king, but a lot of places have to reckon with getting food stuck in their braces for a few years before they bust out those shiny straight teeth.

 

I couldn’t help but feel like RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen in Tarrytown is in the midst of that growth spurt. I was there recently for a dinner, and found myself thoroughly enjoying the food, if a little uncertain of what tone the restaurant was trying to strike. It’s got a lot going for it, and I think has a huge amount of potential, once it settles on what crowd it wants to sit with at the cafeteria.

First Impressions:

Some of the outdoor seating on RiverMarket's huge patio -- this side unfortunately faces the train station and Tappan Zee Bridge.

Some of the outdoor seating on RiverMarket‘s huge patio — this side unfortunately faces the train station and Tappan Zee Bridge.

 

RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen is located in the Westchester town of Tarrytown. The restaurant sits only a few hundred feet from the Hudson, and is part of a huge redevelopment project along the waterfront, called the Hudson Harbor Complex. While the large patio offers lovely views of the river on one side, unfortunately if you turn the other way you have a nice panorama of the Tarrytown Metro North train station. Still, not all sidewalk seating in New York offers gorgeous vistas.

 

The "market" section of RiverMarket, where you can buy prepackaged goods and fresh produce from local sources.

The “market” section of RiverMarket, where you can buy prepackaged goods and fresh produce from local sources.

As the name implies, RiverMarket has both dining and retail components, with an overarching focus on locally sourced ingredients. Just inside the entrance to the restaurant is an area lined with shelves stocked full of locally-grown heirloom tomatoes, milk and cheese from Battenkill Dairy, and bread from the famed Balthazar Bakery, not to mention the NY-based wine and spirits sold just next door.

 

Inside the restaurant itself, a mish-mash of rustic and industrial chic.

Inside the restaurant itself, a mish-mash of rustic and industrial chic.

 

Walking further in takes you to the restaurant itself, which is decorated with a blend of rustic and industrial touches, combining wrought iron lighting fixtures and bar shelves with light wood tables and thick wooden beams suspended across the ceiling. This aesthetic, combined with the dress code for the staff (branded t-shirts with jeans), a classic rock soundtrack, and the robust craft beer selection, suggest that RiverMarket wants to be a slightly more upscale neighborhood spot. And I have no problem with that desire — I wish there were more spots like that in NY. The identity issues start when you pair the visual with the menu, which seems to have much loftier aspirations.

 

Our drinks for the night -- the Brooklyn cocktail on the right, and a Finger Lakes Riesling.

Our drinks for the night — the Brooklyn cocktail on the right, and the Red Newt Cellars Riesling.

 

It was yet again another birthday dinner (May/June are busy months in my family), but this time we were celebrating my father’s birthday — hence the Westchester locale. This time I was on my game and documented the drinks we ordered. My mother and I had glasses of the Red Newt Cellars Riesling, a wine from the Finger Lakes that was on tap at the bar, and ended up being a slightly sweet, clean tasting wine that paired well with my food. My father went for the Brooklyn Cocktail (Green Hook Ginsmiths Gin, Green Hook Ginsmiths Gin Liqueur, Angostura Bitters, Orange Peel), which I didn’t like, mostly because of the gin, but more importantly, he really enjoyed.

 

In what unfortunately ended up being a recurring theme for the evening, our server was initially confused and brought my dad a Brooklyn Brewery beer instead of his cocktail. She was very attentive and kind, but didn’t seem to know much about the menu. This meant she was perfectly happy to repeatedly go back and ask the chef to answer or confirm something, but didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in us about the staff’s ability to represent the restaurant. Then again, maybe we were snooty New York diners with unrealistically high expectations of servers. I think it’s hard to say where the line really is — I certainly don’t expect someone at the Olive Garden to know the intricacies of each pasta dish, but when your restaurant makes a big deal about where they source the ingredients, should the staff be required to know the ins and outs of those ingredients? Anyway, enough about the context, let’s get into the food itself.

The Food:

RiverMarket specializes in seasonal American fare, with some pasta and international influences thrown in (one might even say another example of California Cuisine). Pulling from the Hudson Valley and the Long Island Sound/Atlantic, there was unsurprisingly a fair amount of seafood, although through our collective orders we ended up running the gamut from starch to fish to fowl and beyond. To start, my mom got the RiverMarket Montauk Hardshell Lobster Bisque, I chose the Montauk Hardshell Lobster Salad, and my dad went with a half portion of the Green Herb Fettucine. Then for entrees  my mom got a half-portion of the Potato Gnocchi, my dad ordered the Grilled Block Island Harpoon-Caught Swordfish, and I had the Roast Hemlock Pasture-Raised Chicken. And because it’s not a meal with my parents without dessert (or a meal with me in general), we finished up with the Strawberry Shortcake and the RiverMarket Cookies and a Milkshake. And then I dearly wished I could walk back to the Upper East Side from there.

 

Our complimentary chunk of crusty bread. Narcissa wins this one with their mini boule.

Our complimentary chunk of crusty bread. Narcissa wins this one with their mini boule.

Things kicked off with a hearty slice of complimentary bread, presumably from Balthazar. It was an herbed loaf, rustic and crunchy, almost burnt on the outside. I still would rather have one of the Pepperidge Farm dinner rolls my mom would give us over a slice of Italian bread any day, but I guess that’s not really trendy.

 

The RiverMarket Montauk Hardshell Lobster Bisque, smooth and creamy, yet packed with flavor. Also a strong vote in favor of the merits of calamari.

The RiverMarket Montauk Hardshell Lobster Bisque, smooth and creamy, yet packed with flavor. Also a strong vote in favor of the merits of calamari.

We visited RiverMarket only a few weeks after our dinner at Narcissa, so a bit of comparison was inevitable. After the somewhat muddled lobster butter my mom had at Narcissa, I was glad that her appetizer had such a crustacean-packed punch. RiverMarket Montauk Hardshell Lobster Bisque (Warm seafood salad crostini) was a little worrying at first, arriving smooth and bright orange with nary a piece of lobster in sight. Even though it was a bisque, I thought there might be a few chunks of lobster on the crostini, but the wedge of bread was topped with herb-dusted circles of calamari instead. However, what the soup lacked in lobster meat, it more than made up for in flavor. This was the opposite of Narcissa’s lobster butter — pure, unadulterated lobster beaming directly from the broth to your tastebuds. The crostini was also a nice addition, the toasted bread soaking up the bisque while still retaining a bit of texture, so you had a lobster-carb hybrid. My mother doesn’t care for calamari, so I happily took them off her hands, since they were well-executed, just slightly chewy without veering into rubber territory, and full of flavor from the surrounding bisque and a light coating of red pepper and olive oil.

 

The RiverMarket Montauk Hardshell Lobster Salad, a true summer dish.

The Montauk Hardshell Lobster Salad, a true summer dish.

My appetizer ended up being my favorite dish of the night, and given the size, I might actually return and just have this as an entree. The Montauk Hardshell Lobster Salad (heirloom legumes, celeriac, avocado, orange citrus vinaigrette) was beautifully plated, very carefully bundled together in a layered tower of salad components. It featured an enormous quantity of lobster meat, with both a sizable claw and a tail that were only lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, and the orange citrus vinaigrette. The lobster was incredibly fresh, hitting that sweet spot of chewy, buttery, briny richness that epitomizes great shellfish. To be honest, I was pretty focused on the lobster when ordering, so I didn’t pay much attention to the heirloom legumes listed with it, but as a legume lover I was delighted to see a wide variety of beans, from butter beans to favas to these dark brown ones that looked like oversized black beans. They were all cooked al dente, soft without being mushy, and mixed in well with the assortment of greens, ripe avocado, and crunchy slivers of what I thought was carrots, but ended up being celeriac. The acid of the vinaigrette was the perfect way to bring the salad together and balance out the natural richness of the seafood. It just seemed like the ideal summer dish, fresh and bright and full of the season’s best.

 

The Green Herb Fettucine, with roughly formed but impressive handmade pasta and a pile of lamb on top.

The Green Herb Fettucine, with roughly formed but impressive handmade pasta, and a pile of lamb on top.

RiverMarket really has a handle on their pasta, as evidenced by my father’s continuing to reference his appetizer even days after our dinner. The Green Herb Fettucine (slow-braised hudson valley lamb ragú, fresh mint and olives) really bowled him over, specifically how fresh the noodles were. As with my lobster salad, this dish challenges the notion of “half-order” (or perhaps, implies a Godzilla-sized full portion), with a pile of verdant green strips of pasta topped with full chunks of lamb and a dousing of cheese. I was very impressed that the dish used pieces of lamb, rather than the shredded or ground meat you often find in ragus. It was braised to the point of holding its shape only until pressed upon by a fork, then falling to pieces. I actually think it’s a shame RiverMarket doesn’t have a lamb entree — I’d come back for a braised lamb shank or shoulder (maybe that’s more of a winter dish?). The fettucine itself was the thickest cut iteration I’ve ever seen, rustic and far from visually perfect, but infused with lots of great flavor. The whole thing was topped with stewed tomatoes, cheese, and a few olives to add some bite, and though my positivity towards olives is still very much a work in progress, I found myself enjoying them here, where they worked in contrast with the rest of the dish.

 

The Potato Gnocchi, another excellent pasta dish, if not exactly light fare.

The Potato Gnocchi, another excellent pasta dish, if not exactly light fare.

My mother was also very impressed with her pasta entree, the Potato Gnocchi (Stone Broke Farms 100% grass-fed beef bolognese, roasted hen of the woods mushrooms). She also ordered a half-portion, and wasn’t even able to finish that (fortunately, my father and I are card-carrying members of the Clean Plate Society). Like the fettucine, this was another bowl full of large pieces of pasta and a hefty allotment of meat. If Narcissa’s gnocchi were delicately browned pillows of starch, RiverMarket’s were the equivalent of Sock ‘Em Boppers — body-pillow-sized chewy, gooey bon bons. I feel like you don’t see Hen of the Woods Mushrooms on menus that often, so it was wonderful to have them paired here with the hearty ground beef. While this was definitely one of my favorite dishes of the night, it’s a bit of a gut bomb, so I can’t imagine actually having this as your full entree. I was more than happy to pick at my mom’s leftovers, but I’d recommend splitting it as an appetizer so you can enjoy the flavors without giving up all your stomach space to the gnocchi dumplings.

 

The Grilled Block Island Swordfish, unlike any piece of swordfish Ive

The Grilled Block Island Harpoon-Caught Swordfish, unlike any piece of swordfish I’ve had before.

Both my father’s and my entrees had the opportunity to be relatively light dishes, if you ignored the starch component. The Grilled Block Island Harpoon-Caught Swordfish (roasted peach and heirloom tomato salsa, pea tendrils, creamy hudson valley polenta) was a revelation. Usually I shy away from swordfish because I’ve only encountered it as thick-cut and treated like the steak of the sea, cooked medium-well so it’s tough and sort of bland. But RiverMarket’s version was sliced thin and cooked so that it was as tender and flaky as any piece of sea bass or snapper, yet still retained that meaty, umami taste. My dad had initially ordered it to try out the salsa, which fortunately lived up to expectations and had him raving about it, bite by bite. I liked the sampling I had, but I think I’m just relatively old-fashioned when it comes to salsas — I’d rather have a pico de gallo or salsa roja over non-tomato-fruit-focused variations. The last lighter component was the greens, which at first glance appeared to be spinach, but as with my parsley root at Narcissa, ended up being a vegetable homoglyph — these guys were pea tendrils, and had a slightly bitter taste that worked well with the sweet salsa. What turned this plate into a hefty meal was the underlying rectangle of über-buttery polenta, which almost reminded me of the outrageously rich grits you find at some southern restaurants. It was absolutely delicious, and worked well with the brighter flavors of the rest of the dish, but man was it filling.

 

The Roast Hemlock Pasture-Raised Chicken, the only real disappointment of the evening, due to underseasoning.

The Roast Hemlock Pasture-Raised Chicken, the only real disappointment of the evening, due to underseasoning.

The same thing happened with my Roast Hemlock Pasture-Raised Chicken (moroccan spices, lyonnaise potatoes, summer squash and asparagus salad, cardamom chicken jus), where the potatoes performed as a heavy anchor for the dish. I chose this dish on the server’s recommendation, and while it certainly wasn’t bad by any means, overall I was a little underwhelmed by it. I had expected the Moroccan spices to pack a punch, and while there was a bit of a warm cumin/cinnamon coating on the crisp and crackly skin of the chicken, the spices had failed to really permeate down into the meat itself. The bulk of the meat was also slightly on the dry side, except for the dark thigh meat, which I unfortunately had last because it was tucked underneath the rest of the chicken. This piece was rich and gamey and moist, and if I could, I’d tell the RiverMarket kitchen to drop the breast and make the dish entirely out of dark meat. The jus had good chicken flavor, although again I had trouble finding the cardamom in it, and we all know how I feel about cardamom, so this was a bit of a disappointment. My favorite part of the dish was probably the vegetable sides of summer squash and asparagus, which had soaked up all of the chicken juices, perhaps defeating their purpose but rendering them lip-smackingly delicious. My mother happily dug into the potatoes (a trade for the gnocchi, I guess), but I just wasn’t interested in them, finding them mushy and lacking the pop of the onions to break up their flavor. All in all, compared to the deft handling of the pasta and swordfish, the wimpy seasoning on the chicken just made it seem a little unattended to.

 

The adorably festive Strawberry Shortcake.

The adorably festive Strawberry Shortcake.

Now I’m never going to complain about oversized desserts, and RiverMarket definitely delivers on that front. My father got the Strawberry Shortcake, which is not listed on the website, suggesting it may not be a lock-in on the menu. Considering how much he enjoyed it, though, I think it’s worth making it a permanent addition. Since it was his birthday, the kitchen decorated the plate and, in an inspired move, put a candle in one of the fresh strawberries. I usually don’t go for strawberry shortcake because so often the “cake” is a bland poundcake with little flavor, leaving a soft texture throughout that I find monotonous (I’m a heterogeneous texture fan, okay?). RiverMarket’s version, however, was made of two real biscuits (short cakes, I guess) sandwiching fresh chantilly cream with macerated sliced strawberries, and a drizzle of caramel on top. The biscuits had real heft to them, with a crust that required a little bit of pressure to break through to the softer interior, and it was nice to have thick slices of strawberries so their unadulterated flavor could shine through. Of course, my favorite part was the fresh whipped cream (no shlag, but pretty damn good).

 

The RiverMarket Cookies and Milkshake -- sometimes all you need is simple, straightforward sugar.

The RiverMarket Cookies and Milkshake — sometimes all you need is simple, straightforward sugar.

But let’s be honest, the RiverMarket Cookies and a Milkshake (Espresso chocolate chip,‎ snickerdoodle, chocolate brownie, creamy vanilla thick shake) are way more my kind of dessert. They reminded me of the amazing Cookies and Milk plate you can get at Jane in SoHo (check it out if you’re unfamiliar, it is worth it to eat there just for the eventual dessert). RiverMarket gives you three piping hot cookies, warmed to the point that the chocolate chips in the espresso cookie have melted down to little puddles that require a fork to properly eat. Alongside this small bag of cookies is a tumbler of vanilla milkshake, simple and utterly satisfying in the way only comfort food can be. In fact, for all of my high-falutin’ talk of food, textures (not to mention RiverMarket’s own claims to regional sourcing), our server said the ice cream in the shake was probably regular ol’ Breyers, since they were out of the local creamery’s milk they typically use  to make the ice cream in house. Regardless of store-bought vs. hand-churned, the shake was tremendous — blended just to the point of still having real clumps of ice cream in the liquid, so you could sip it or attack it with a spoon, depending on your choice of strategy and level of desire for cookie-dunking. The chocolate brownie and the snickerdoodle were both solid cookies, but the espresso chocolate chip had wonderful soft-baked dough and gooey pools of chocolate with a real depth of flavor that contrasted with the straightforward vanilla shake. And I wasn’t upset about more whipped cream and chocolate syrup in my life. It looks like a small package, but this was actually a lot of dessert packed into a compact dish, and I’d happily go back to RiverMarket for a drink, some cookies and a shake to watch the sun set on the Hudson. Now those are some simple pleasures.

 

Final Thoughts:

 

I think when it comes down to it, RiverMarket is very close to being a slam-dunk. There are dishes that are less successful than others, but that’s true at any restaurant, and for the areas where they do excel, you’re getting large portions of great food for a pretty solid price. It seems like the easiest answer to RiverMarket’s highbrow/lowbrow identity problem is to be well-informed without adding pomp-and-circumstance. If a grounded, lowkey setting is your ideal, embrace that, but recognize that an emphasis on local sourcing means your staff should know those producers. They don’t have to be sommeliers or graduates from the CIA — in fact, I’d rather chat with a townie who’s invested in Tarrytown as their home.

 

It’s a small change that I hope will happen naturally, since RiverMarket appears to be a pretty popular place. I know I’d like to go back for brunch or lunch before the summer’s out, so I can enjoy the beautiful outdoor seating (and some more of that lobster). So if you’re coming north to enjoy a brief break from the hot concrete of Manhattan, consider jumping on the train to Tarrytown. You’re only a short hop away from RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen, where you can see what the Hudson Valley has to offer without emptying your wallet. It may still be in its gawky teenage years, but as a former awkward teen can attest, if you learn to appreciate strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses, you’re well on your way to a bright future.

 

RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen

127 W. Main St

Tarrytown, NY

http://rivermarketbarandkitchen.com/

Advertisements

Brief Bites: Taqueria Diana

2014-05-04 18.44.49

We Americans have an impressive habit of taking other countries’ holidays, removing all cultural significance, and replacing it with drinking. St. Patty’s is the obvious example, where the patron Saint of Ireland’s religious contributions are largely overshadowed (at least in NYC) by overflowing rivers of Guinness and Jameson flowing into the mouths of drunken revelers who wouldn’t know Erin if she was going bragh right in front of them.

Cinco de Mayo is another one of these appropriated holidays — take a moment, do you know what it celebrates? I’ll admit I didn’t know it myself until a few years ago, and only because the news was running stories about people’s ignorance. Mexican Independence? Nope, that’s on September 16th (and has an awesome subtitle of “Grito de Dolores” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grito_de_Dolores). End of the Mexican-American War? No to that as well. In fact, Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of the Battle of Puebla in 1862, where the Mexican army unexpectedly defeated the much stronger and larger French forces (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinco_de_Mayo).

So much like St. Patty’s, for most the holiday has become a celebration of inebriation — Cinco de Drinko, as it is actually advertised. I wish I could say that I celebrated in a more authentic spirit, but although I didn’t have any tequila, I did indulge in another American appropriation of Mexican heritage — gooey, cheesy, meaty nachos. That’s right, in this edition of Brief Bites we’re taking a trip to Nachotown, care of one of the most highly lauded NY spots, Taqueria Diana.

The Set Up:

Looking back from the cashier into the long, narrow space of Taqueria Diana.

Looking back from the cashier into the long, narrow space of Taqueria Diana.

Taqueria Diana is located right off of St. Mark’s Place on Second Ave, prime feeding grounds for pre-and-post bar-hopping NYU students. My NY dining list contains a disproportionate number of restaurants on St. Mark’s, since the street and surrounding blocks are packed to the brim with eclectic spots, from classics like Mamoun’s Falafel to Khyber Pass (serving Afghani food). In fact, Taqueria Diana is only a few blocks away from another California-Mexican taco spot, Otto’s Tacos, which I hope to cover in another post.

 

The view from the back of the restaurant, where there are just a few counters with stools.

The view from the back of the restaurant, where there are just a few counters with stools. You can see that cooking and prep make up most of the establishment.

I’d imagine real estate is at a premium in this area, so it should come as no shock that Taqueria Diana is only a step up from hole-in-the-wall-sized. Although there are a few bar-height counters and stools at the back of the restaurant, the space is dominated by the cooking/assembly/cashier counter. A small prep kitchen sits in the back. Unfortunately, I had brought 5 friends with me to Taqueria Diana, and we soon discovered that we’d have to take all of our food to go. For cheese-and-sauce heavy dishes like nachos, tacos, and quesadillas, that means cooling and congealing time. I say this having fully enjoyed the dishes I ate, but cautioning that an ideal Taqueria Diana experience should probably be capped at a group of 3.

 

The Bites:

Between the six of us we basically sampled all the categories on the menu — Jacob and I split the Pollo Nachos, Al Pastor Taco and Rajas Taco, Diana got the Al Pastor Nachos, Michael got a Pollo Burrito, and Dan and Laura split the Asada Nachos and a Pollo Quesadilla Suiza. We missed out on the straight-up Roast Chicken and assorted Sides, but covered all the proteins except for the Carnitas.

 

 

The impressive Pollo Nachos, visually underserved by the takeout container.

The impressive Pollo Nachos, visually underserved by the takeout container.

You should really look at Yelp for accurate pictures of the nachos, because the depth of the mountain of chips is hidden by their being crammed into a take-out box. Jacob’s and my Pollo Nachos (chicken, chips, black beans, cheese, salsa, with added guacamole) seemed to be an endless, delicious vortex of cheese, guacamole and beans. I was pleasantly surprised by the quantity and quality of the chicken, which I assume is the same meat as offered in the Roast Chicken section. It was mostly sizable hunks of dark meat, juicy and well-seasoned, discernibly more flavorful than your average slices of grilled chicken breast. These nachos were expertly put together, as evinced by the existence of still crispy chips within the pile of semi-liquid condiments. Speaking of which, Taqueria Diana offers a number of salsa and sauces with which to top your dishes, available in unlimited quantities if you can dine in. This adds another layer of customization to the nachos, allowing to select a protein, type of beans, add on crema or guac, and then top with the sauces of your choosing. Unfortunately, our grand plan of dining al fresco in the courtyard by St. Mark’s in the Bowery turned out to be flawed, as a brutal wind kicked up out of nowhere and left us shivering and shoveling Tex-Mex into our mouths. Jacob and I were so desperate to eat our food and get out of the cold that we failed to crack open even one of the sauces we’d thrown into our bag. Yet another reason to come back and dine in at Taqueria Diana. Honestly, though, I was very satisfied by their nachos. The chips were fresh and just slightly salty, the salsa was made of sweet tomatoes, the guacamole was smooth and rich with a strong avocado-forward flavor, and I even made an effort to up my spice tolerance the smallest bit by taking on the jalapenos. The only strange ingredient were rounds of raw carrot, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen on nachos before, and barely made an impact taste or texture-wise.

 

 

The sadly soggy Rajas and Al Pastor Tacos -- promising in notion but not made for transit.

The sadly soggy Rajas (on the bottom) and Al Pastor Tacos — promising in notion but not made for transit.

Alas, our tacos didn’t hold up nearly as well. They were composed of thin, possibly hand-formed tortillas that soaked through during the transit and nacho-consumption period, literally falling to pieces when first picked up. Of the two fillings, I preferred the Al Pastor Taco (spit-roasted pork, corn tortilla, salsa, onion, cilantro) to the Rajas Taco (Poblanos, Corn tortilla, salsa, onion, cilantro), because most of what I got out of the Rajas was the heat from the peppers (still not too good at that spice thing, I guess). Despite the descriptions on the menu, our tacos seemed to have different toppings, the Rajas getting cotija cheese and sliced radishes, while the Al Pastor had lime and what looks like a squash blossom of some sort. The fact that everything was mushed together and muddled by the take-out box — which proved beneficial to the nachos — here left me tasting only the most prominent elements of the tacos, which ended up mostly being the meat from the Al Pastor. Taqueria Diana does seem to have a gift for proteins, however, since the pork was just as juicy and flavorful as the chicken. Doing a comparison between the regularly cooked carnitas and the spit-roasted al pastor might be another reason to return.

I mean, look how badass that hunk of Al Pastor pork is -- worth another shot if eaten straight away.

I mean, look how badass that hunk of Al Pastor pork is — worth another shot if eaten straight away.

 

 

The Last Licks:

All in all, I’d fully endorse a visit to Taqueria Diana, and hope everyone takes this as a cautionary tale of how NOT to do so. Even with all of the mishaps and weather-related misfortunes, the food was fresh, abundant, and packed with flavor. Except for the more proportionate tacos, Taqueria Diana’s dishes can be easily shared, or serve as more than one meal — Diana couldn’t finish her nachos, and although I didn’t take a picture of it, the Quesadilla Suiza looked like an explosion of meat and cheese to put a Taco Bell Crunchwrap to shame (yes, I’m going to try one when I go back). I’m telling you now I plan on returning, possibly by myself to make sure I get a seat at the bar. I know it’s far from authentic fare, but there’s a good chance you’ll find me at Taqueria Diana on September 16th, celebrating Mexican Independence Day as any patriotic American should — by diving mouth-first into that big ol’ melting pot.

 

Taqueria Diana

129 Second Ave (between 7th and St. Mark’s)

http://www.taqueriadiana.com/

Edible Inquiries: Quiche v. Frittata

quiche-frittata-faceoff

There can be only one. (All credit for awesome art to Jeff Call)

Hello, and welcome to the first post of Edible Inquiries! I know I’ve been MIA for a little bit, but while work and life kept me away from the blog, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to spice up Experimental Gastronomy’s content a bit. So here I am introducing a brand new series — Edible Inquiries, where I take readers’ questions about food and try my best to research the answer. That’s right, I’ll scour the web and bring together questionable sources, in the name of food trivia and the possibility that some of this information might actually be verifiable. Maybe I’ll even crack a book or two. So please feel free to comment on the post, hit me up on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/experimentalgastronomyblog), or tweet me with your random queries (@MaggBo). I’ll still be doing restaurant and Oreo-related reviews, but hopefully Edible Inquiries can become a permanent addition to the roster at EG.

The opening volley came from my friend Stephen, who asked the age-old question — “what is the difference between a quiche and a frittata?”

Well, if we’re judging a book by it’s cover, the simple answer appears to be that a quiche has a crust, while a frittata does not. But don’t be so easily swayed, my friends — a trip into the history of each dish reveals disparities beyond what lies at the bottom of the plate.

Quiche (most notably, Quiche Lorraine) is generally considered a quintessentially French food, but its roots can be traced back to the German word “kuchen,” meaning “cake” (Wise Geek). As the name would imply, Quiche Lorraine originates from the border region of Alsace-Lorraine, which fellow Regents Global History alums will remember has traded hands between Germany and France many times. This frequent exchange of rulers meant that the now French region’s cuisine has major influence from German cooking (for example, it’s not uncommon to find sauerkraut and beer involved in Alsatian dishes) (France Property and Information).

 The first Quiche Lorraine was supposedly concocted in the German medieval kingdom of Lothringen (to be later renamed Lorraine when the French took back the region) (Food Reference). According to some sources, Charles III, Duke of Lorraine in the 16th century, regularly ate the dish, although the first print evidence of it doesn’t appear until the 19th Century, in Linnois’s l’Histoire de Nancy, where it is referred to as a seminal French dish (The French Training Site).

 The Ur-Quiche Lorraine was composed of ingredients that would be at the ready on a typical medieval French farm — eggs, cream, smoked chopped bacon or ham, and a crust made of bread dough (French training site). Eventually the bread dough was replaced by pate brisee (short crust pastry) or the pie crust we encounter today. Other variations like the addition of cheese, onions, and other types of meat came later. The dish crossed the Atlantic thanks to the great Julia Child, assuming its rank in American brunch in the 1970s, although in France it is generally served as an appetizer for lunch or dinner (Wise Geek).

 

Although in America we place our egg dishes on equal footing, the frittata has a comparatively lowly position in its native Italy than its courtly French cousin. According to DeLallo, the frittata is part of “cucina povera,” or humble, home-cooked food. Its name comes from the verb “to fry” or “friggere,” and is basically a kitchen-sink dish used in Italian households to use up leftovers. There’s an Italian phrase ““hai fatto una frittata,” which loosely translates to “you’ve made a mess,” suggesting that accuracy and delicacy are not top priorities when cooking a frittata.

 Since eggs were readily available for most people in Italy, there’s no one particular recipe for the original frittata. Some historians speculate that the earliest omelet-esque dishes may be from the Fertile Crescent, eventually spreading throughout Europe and North Africa (History of the Frittata), although others argue that frittatas predate the French omelet, arriving around the same time as the Spanish tortilla (not to be confused with the Mexican bread, a Spanish tortilla is pretty much the same as a frittata, except built around a filling of sliced potatoes) (Wise Geek). What separates the omelet from the frittata is largely the timing of the mix-in components — in an omelet, the eggs are cooked through, then the additional ingredients are placed in the middle and the omelet is folder over to cover them. In a frittata, the other ingredients are tossed in while the raw eggs are beaten, so they are dispersed throughout the dish. Traditional Italian frittatas contain “Italian sausage or ham, sweet peppers, fontina cheese, garlic, onions, salt, pepper and nutmeg” (Wise Geek). Another major difference is that, like a quiche, the frittata is eventually baked, then cut into individual slices for serving, either hot or cold (Wikipedia).

 So in many ways, the quiche and the frittata are strikingly similar. Both arose from common ingredients found in agrarian European households, both are intended to be sliced and eaten by multiple diners, both are open to plenty of mix-in interpretation, and both require at least some time in the oven. But although the crust may appear to be the defining difference, the true distinction between the two dishes lies in the filling. Quiches must be made out of a custard, which comes from the incorporation of some sort of dairy with eggs (traditionally heavy cream). A true frittata is prepared just with eggs as the base, making it lighter than its decadent French relative (Reluctant Gourmet).

 

Cut to the Chase, Lady!: Quiches are a richer French dish defined by the use of a custard (dairy + egg) base, with an optional crust, while Frittatas are Italian and have just a plain base of eggs. While quiches were served to royalty, Frittatas were a “leftover” meal home cooks threw together.

So there you have it, Stephen. In America, of course, we’ve basically removed all the class connotations with regards to our egg entrees, except the weird implication that quiche is an “unmanly dish” (thanks to the 80s bestseller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche). Next time you’re looking over a brunch menu, decide if you’re feeling particularly lactose-inclined before ordering. Regardless of what you pick, quiche or frittata, you’re basically eating a piece of history.

Like what you read? Got a question about cooking, dining, food or history? Comment, post or tweet and let me know your thoughts, and I’ll tackle it in another round of Edible Inquiries!

Sources:

Quiche:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiche

http://www.france-property-and-information.com/french_food.htm

http://www.foodreference.com/html/artquiche.html

http://www.regions-of-france.com/regions/lorraine/food-gastronomy/quiche-lorraine/

http://www.thefrenchtrainingsite.com/easy-french-recipes-french-facts-about-la-quiche-lorraine/

http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-quiche.htm

Frittata:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frittata

http://www.delallo.com/articles/la-frittata-egg-dish-endless-possibilities

http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-frittata.htm

http://kitchenproject.com/history/Fritatta/index.htm

http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/omelets-frittatas-or-quiche/

Brunch at Etta’s: Come for the Seafood, Stay for the Pie

2013-12-22 11.57.52

Back when I lived in Philadelphia during college, long before I had any idea what a restaurateur was, or that there could be such a thing as a restaurant empire, I knew the name Stephen Starr. I heard locals and upperclassmen talking about his numerous restaurants in Philly, covering cuisines from France (with a personal fave, Parc) to Japan (Pod), Cuba (Alma de Cuba), America (Jones) and beyond. In my four years, I managed to go to a few of his restaurants, but I knew plenty of people who made it a mission to hit the whole list. Since I graduated, Starr’s reach has expanded even further, with new restaurants in Philly, New York, DC, and even a couple in Florida.

The point is this — locally, Starr was a brand name in Philadelphia, and simply mentioning his ownership of a restaurant usually was enough to indicate it was worth trying (even if some were more successful than others). When researching restaurants in Seattle prior to my first trip, I kept coming up against another name that reminded me of Stephen Starr and his local reputation — Tom Douglas. (You could argue that a better model might be Mario Batali, since Douglas started as a chef, but I call nitpicking.)

Douglas owns 10 restaurants in Seattle, most of which are located downtown. According to our waitress, Douglas has received offers to open spots in other cities, but he always jokes that he likes to walk to work. He’s received the James Beard award for Northwest Chef in 1994, written several successful cookbooks, and started lines of spice rubs and soups (apparently sold at Costco).   I’d been hoping to try out one of his establishments my first trip out, but Dan had plenty of food suggestions before we even got to big name brands. Thankfully, we managed to sneak in a brunch at Douglas’s seafood restaurant near Pike Place Market, Etta’s.

 

First Impressions:

A peek into Etta's laid-back, approachable interior.

A peek into Etta’s laid-back, neighborly interior.

Etta’s was the second restaurant opened by Tom Douglas, after his inaugural foray, the Dahlia Lounge (located only a few blocks away). Etta’s immediately gives off a hip, casual tone through its combination of open, comfortable leather booths, warm woods, and beautiful, multicolored glass light fixtures hung throughout the restaurant. The space is split into two dining areas, one side holding the bar with larger booths, and the other filled with mostly tables. Pieces of art line the bright red walls, from portraits to scenes of Pike Place and other Seattle spots. Up by the entrance rests a small stack of Douglas’s cookbooks, and a selection of his “Rubs with Love,” which are for sale at the restaurant, or just next door at the Rub Shack takeout counter.

Note the rainbow of light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

Note the rainbow of light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

When I made the reservation the night before, the host had asked if we would mind throwing a chair at the end of a booth to fit everyone, but fortunately when we arrived they had a larger table ready for us. The service was speedy, and our waitress was very kind and happy to answer our myriad questions about the menu and the Douglas mini-empire.

Brightly colored walls and local art help promote a relaxed atmosphere near the bustle of Pike Place.

Brightly colored walls and local art help promote a relaxed atmosphere near the bustle of Pike Place.

 

The Food:

Although it features classic comfort food dishes, like corned beef hash and cinnamon french toast, Etta’s focus is seafood — no surprise with it sitting so close to the bay and Pike Place Market. With this in mind, both of my parents and Dan opted for the Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict. Leah and I went more land-based: she ordered the Etta’s Breakfast, and I gave into my well-established weakness for Mexican brunch with the Chorizo and Egg Tostadas. And of course, there was dessert. We all shared a piece of the famous Triple Coconut Cream Pie, world-renowned and sold at all of Douglas’s restaurants.

The Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict -- when eggs aren't decadent enough, add some shredded crab meat.

The Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict — when eggs aren’t decadent enough, add some shredded crab meat (and hollandaise, of course).

The Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict (house english muffin, spinach, crab-butter hollandaise) arrived simply plated and generously doused in hollandaise sauce. The english muffin, along with the rest of the baked goods offered at Etta’s, is sourced from Dahlia Bakery, the takeout offshoot of Dahlia Lounge (Douglas’s reach is far and wide), and you could tell this muffin was freshly made. The bread was plump and chewy, with a crunchy toasted top that held up well against the slathered crab-butter hollandaise. Thick shreds of crab meat poked out from under the egg, and while my mother thought the dungeness lacked flavor, my father and Dan seemed to really like it. For what it’s worth, the small bite I had seemed relatively crab-forward. All three agreed the eggs were well-executed, although I thought the ones on my mother’s plate were a little overdone and lacked my preferred level of yolk runniness.

Leah also seemed to enjoy the eggs in her Etta’s Breakfast (two eggs, ham, steak or bacon, home fries), which she got over medium. Now here there seemed to be some very loose yolks on display. Obviously, as a vegetarian, she opted out of the ham/steak/bacon option, getting a side a fruit instead. The only slip-up at Etta’s came from the homefries. Dan, of exceptionally sensitive palate, immediately detected that the potatoes had been fried in bacon-fat, which we confirmed with our waitress (though it doesn’t say this on the brunch plates descriptions, it is specified on the list of a la carte sides). The waitress was very apologetic, offering to bring Leah more fruit or bread. We all agreed it probably would have been best to comp us Leah’s dish (or the dessert) to make up for the mistake (since Leah was clearly going for a vegetarian option), but at least the staff at Etta’s admitted the error and was properly apologetic. As it happens, the potatoes were pretty tasty, cubed relatively small and with a snappy outer crust and starchy, soft interior.

The Chorizo and Egg Tostadas, one of my favorite dishes of my whole Seattle visit.

The Chorizo and Egg Tostadas, one of my favorite dishes of my whole Seattle visit.

I was a little nervous about foregoing the seafood option at a fish-centric restaurant, but my Chorizo and Egg Tostadas (gabino’s guacamole, roasted tomatillo salsa, cotija) sent me over the moon. I had been tempted by the shrimp and grits, but our waitress steered me to the tostada, explaining her love of the dish, and revealing that it was a much improved reworking of the previously lackluster Huevos Rancheros. Unlike the other brunch items, my dish arrived in a shallow oval bowl, inside of which were two 6-inch fried tortillas, sitting on a layer of mashed black beans, and topped with a scrambled egg/chorizo mix, shredded lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, cotija cheese, and a few sprigs of cilantro. I can’t go on enough about the one-two punch of flavor and textural contrast in this dish — the earthy black beans, the spicy chorizo bolstered by the creamy scrambled eggs, the refreshing lettuce and guacamole, the salt of the cotija and the crunch of the tortilla, it was just a savory, satisfying combination of the best of breakfast and lunch tastes. Boldly spiced and filling, it was an ample portion that stayed with me for the rest of the afternoon (well, the pie helped, too).

Triple Coconut Cream Pie: Say hello to the coconut king.

Triple Coconut Cream Pie: Say hello to the coconut king.

Speaking of, the Triple Coconut Cream Pie (with shaved white chocolate) definitely lived up to its reputation. This was a dessert I had read about on CakeSpy, had seen highlighted on Chase Sapphire commercials featuring the Top Chef Seattle winner, and had discovered endless rave reviews on Yelp and the Internet at-large. My mother and I had actually considered making it for our Jews-do-Christmas-Eve dinner (in fact, we ended up making Pecan Praline Bread Pudding, since the pie at Etta’s was too good to be topped). Now the triple aspect comes from the infusion of coconut throughout each structural element of the pie — there’s coconut in the crust, the pastry cream is half coconut and half cow’s milk, and the topping is coconut whipped cream (along with curls of shaved white chocolate and toasted coconut). As I mentioned before, this item is served at every Tom Douglas restaurant, and once you dig in, it’s clear why. If you’re a fan of coconut, this pie is manna from heaven. You can’t escape the flavor, and the pie itself is just a testament to the craft — a sweet, buttery crust that stands up against the filling, thick, decadent pastry cream strongly tasting of vanilla and coconut and perfectly eggy and custardy, leading you into the fresh whipped cream and the sweetness of the white chocolate. The toasted coconut gives the barest break from the sugar, and is the cherry on top of a beautifully composed dessert, from the delicately piped whipped cream to the stiff custard that clings to your fork like a great pudding. Yup, I bought the hype, I drank the Kool-aid, and where on Earth can I get a slice of this coconut nirvana on the East Coast?

 

Final Thoughts:

They even offer complimentary Swedish Fish at the front -- how can you beat that?

They even offer complimentary Swedish Fish at the front — how can you beat that?

I would definitely recommend a trip to Etta’s the next time you’re in Seattle. Not only does it offer a sampling of the Tom Douglas oeuvre, but you end up in a great location and get a satisfying meal to boot. My only gripe would be the mix-up that occurred with Leah’s dish, which could be easily remedied in the future with a few edits to the menu’s descriptions. I’m hoping I’ll get to try out some more Douglas ventures on my next visits — I’ve heard wonderful things about the Brave Horse Tavern, and Serious Pie (you know I have to see how Seattle pizza compares to NY dough). While Stephen Starr expands his gastronomic galaxy across the East Coast, I think it’s admirable you can’t separate Tom Douglas from Seattle. It makes me feel like I’m getting a taste of the city from a man who truly loves where he lives. I’m sure it’s just as much of a tourist-bid as the stalls in Pike Place, but for an out-of-towner just getting her bearings, I’ll buy into it, hook, line and sinker. Plus, the man just makes a damn fine piece of pie.

 

Etta’s

2020 Western Avenue

Seattle, WA 98121

http://tomdouglas.com/index.php?page=ettas

Brief Bites: 5oz Factory

2013-11-22 19.53.30

I’ve never actually been to Wisconsin, but people there seem to have their priorities in order. After all, this is the state that proudly declares itself “America’s Dairyland” on its license plates, and counts a foam wedge of cheese as acceptable haberdashery. Oddly enough, there seems to be a growing faction of Wisconsiners (Wisconsonians? Wisconsonites?) injecting a little Midwest into NYC, from the venerable Michael White to Gabe Stulman’s “Little Wisco” restaurant group. The latest entrant is the more casual sandwich/frozen custard shop 5oz Factory. It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that my interest was peaked by the promise of a grilled cheese and ice cream, so in this edition of Brief Bites, we check out if these cheeseheads live up to their reputation.

 

The Set Up:

The well-appointed but compact interior of 5oz Factory.

The well-appointed but compact interior of 5oz Factory. Note the adorable cow cutout scene in the bottom right window.

5oz Factory is located just northwest of Washington Square Park, and is clearly geared towards NYU students, a few of which Jacob and I saw during our meal. I had anticipated more of a cafe in the style of Wafels and Dinges, but I guess real estate is pretty pricey so near the park. 5oz Factory’s layout is pretty bare bones, mostly a sandwich/custard counter with a couple of tables  and stools lining the front window for dining in (although the staff preps everything as if it were for takeout). The shop’s interior design has a little more spark to it, however, featuring cutouts of cows, warm light wood, pastel colors, and bright mom’s kitchen-esque tiles on the back wall of the custard/sandwich prep space. I especially liked the window into the kitchen, which allows customers to see their “cheese melts” being assembled.

The back of the store features a view of the melt prep in action.

The back of the store features a view of the melt prep in action.

 

The Bites:

 

When we paid a visit, 5oz Factory seemed to be a bit in flux. Posted around the restaurant were signs with changes to the menu, featuring some seasonal additions, as well as some alternate recipes for the sandwiches (since writing, the website has finally updated their menu) The basic categories remained, however: Grilled Cheeses , Market Sides, and Frozen Custard. Jacob and I split the “5oz Factory Melt” and the “Short & Sweet” sandwiches, followed by a 5oz portion of frozen custard with a few toppings.

Our melts arrived snugly wrapped and labeled.

Our melts arrived snugly wrapped and labeled. The identifying stickers were on the bottom, holding the paper shut.

Though our order (both sandwiches and custard, which were placed separately) took a while to arrive, I was happy to see that our melts were well-griddled, dark brown and crusty without veering into burnt territory. They came wrapped in classic deli brown paper, and were taped shut with a sticker that denoted the sandwich’s name. Under the brown paper a layer of tin foil kept them warm, and I was happy to see the gooey, stringy mess of cheese that came from pulling apart the halves.

The 5oz Factory Melt, with the medley of cheeses seeping out from between the layers.

The 5oz Factory Melt, with the medley of cheeses seeping out from between the layers.

The 5oz Factory Melt (Cheddar, Swiss, Gruyere & Colby on Homestyle Brioche) is the straight-forward grilled cheese you’d largely expect it to be. I loved the combination of cheeses, the sweet nuttiness of the Gruyere standing out amongst the milder Swiss and Colby, and pleasantly intermingling with the salty sharpness of the Cheddar. While I thought the brioche was the perfect vehicle for our second sandwich, here I felt like the thick-sliced bread muscled in on the cheese. I was raised on thinner-style grilled cheese sandwiches, however, so it may just be a matter of personal preference. My perfect grilled cheese lets the sandwich filling shine, so I’d rather have a slimmer Pullman slice as the bookends to my melt.

 

The Short and Sweet --a rare instance of my enjoying pickles.

The Short and Sweet –a rare instance of my enjoying pickles.

While the 5oz Factory Melt was a solid, if slightly pedestrian dish, the shop’s sandwich-making skills really shined with the Short & Sweet (Horseradish Chive Havarti, Swiss, Roasted Mushrooms & Cornichons, Sprecher’s Black Bavarian Beer Braised Short Ribs on Brioche). I’ve waxed rhapsodic many a time about my newfound love of short ribs, and the meat showcased here had clearly been braised to juicy tenderness. What made this melt more successful than the basic grilled cheese was the strategic mixing of textures and flavors, from the shredded, moist short ribs with a hint of sweetness from the beer braise, to the earthy mushrooms and briny cornichons still giving a little crunch, to the gooey mess of the cheese, featuring herby spice from the Havarti and a smoother underlying Swiss. This may seem like a lot of disparate elements fighting for attention, but the sandwich was well constructed, so the dominant meat and cheese factors were highlighted by the other components. As I mentioned above, I was a big fan of the use of brioche in this melt. In this case you need the thick and toasted pieces to hold together the messy innards. (Examining the menu further, it seems that 5oz Factory offers only brioche, trenchers, and gluten-free bread for their melts, so of those options, brioche seems like the most obvious choice for both of our sandwiches.)

 

Our foray into 5oz Factory's frozen custard, piled high with stellar whipped cream.

Our foray into 5oz Factory’s frozen custard, piled high with stellar whipped cream.

Like Shake Shack, 5oz Factory offers their frozen custard in three forms: plain with optional toppings, spun into a shake, or blended with said toppings as a concrete (or “Moozy Muddle”). Looking over the Moozy Muddle menu, Jacob and I struggled to come to an accord about our desired toppings. The truth is, we have different priorities when it comes to ice cream-style desserts — Jacob wants a more straightforward, smoother product with an emphasis on the dairy, while I’ve always been a fan of as many mix-ins as possible (my McFlurry of choice features both M&Ms and Oreos, natch). We finally decided to forego the preset items and have a basic sundae. Aside from the standard chocolate and vanilla custard, 5oz Factory cycles through seasonal flavors, such as espresso, caramel, and peppermint. We opted for a swirl of vanilla and chocolate custard, topped with Ghiradelli chocolate sauce, caramel, and Organic Valley unsweetened whipped cream. Our server also tossed a few custom-made cowhead-shaped gummies on top.

A closer look at those cute cow gummies.

A closer look at those cute cow gummies.

Now as I mentioned in my review of the Shake Shack fries, Jacob is a connoisseur of the Shack menu, and a huge fan of their frozen custard. I, on the other hand, hold Rita’s to be the epitome of commercial custard. Rita’s tends to be slightly sweeter and thicker than Shake Shack’s offering, and I think I liked 5oz Factory’s custard more than Jacob because of this. The vanilla and chocolate flavor was stronger than the Shack’s more subtle taste, and I loved the texture of the custard, which verged on the chewiness of New England ice cream (no seriously, that’s a thing: http://sweets.seriouseats.com/2012/09/herrells-ice-cream-steves-boston-massachusetts-flavors.html). Surprisingly, the most memorable aspect of our dessert was the whipped cream. My unrepentant adoration of Reddi-whip generally sets a pretty low bar for me in terms of whipped cream flavor, but I could honestly discern a difference in quality by using the organic milk. Even though Organic Valley is sold in supermarkets and hardly straight off the farm, I could taste a real freshness in the cream, and you can tell from the picture that it looked more like homemade whipped cream than the kind squirted out the can and straight into your mouth at 3 in the morning (what? we all have our low moments).

 

The Last Licks:

I couldn’t tell you how closely 5oz Factory hews to the authentic Wisconsin experience, but I certainly appreciated the Midwestern charm of its offerings. It’s unfortunate that New York features such a high number of sandwich, grilled cheese, and frozen dessert purveyors, so you really have to offer a standout product to stick out of the crowd, and relying on home state pride doesn’t automatically guarantee superior quality. I’m not sure I’d recommend the shop as a destination spot for those farther afield in the city, but if you’re hanging around the NYU hub, 5oz Factory is a strong option for filling and hearty sandwiches and desserts. It’d probably be pretty nice to grab a custard in the summer and sit in the park, actually. Is 5oz Factory the next Melt Shop? Probably not. But I’d say that purely on the basis of dairy-use, they do their Cheesehead brethren proud.

 

5oz Factory

24 W. 8th St (between 5th and MacDougal)

http://5ozfactory.com/

 

More is Less: Choice Anxiety at Sembrado

2013-11-16 17.11.57

I’m definitely one of those people at restaurants. The talkers, the incessantly curious, the somewhat (hah) neurotic individuals who need to ask the waiter at least one question before ordering. I try to restrain myself from veering too far into obnoxious territory, but the truth is, my main motivation is curiosity. I may have previously studied the menu online, but when I get to the restaurant, I’d rather know what the staff who have seen the food cooked, and maybe even tasted a dish or two, think. Of course we may not have the same preferences, but the level of the server’s enthusiasm can speak volumes about the overall quality of a dish.

I write about service a lot on Experimental Gastronomy because I think it’s a crucial part of the dining experience. It’s part of the difference between a vending machine or a fast food drive-through and an actual restaurant where you interface with real people. That’s not to say that I expect white napkin service everywhere I go — sometimes a friendly smile from a coffee shop employee is all I need. But the best experiences are those where you feel like you’re in good hands, especially in unfamiliar territory, like our helpful waiter at Tamarind, or the extremely accommodating and generous staff at Barbuto. I bring this up because of a recent meal I had at Sembrado, one of the many new taquerias popping up in the East Village. Sembrado has a lot going for it, from location to the high pedigree of the chefs behind it. Despite all this, I found myself underwhelmed by dinner there, a bit at sea when facing down the menu. The food had a lot of potential, and to be fair, I might have just hit a bad shift. But at the end of our dinner, Jacob and I felt there was something missing, some pep or spark to elevate the meal, the lack of an unspoken element that might just have been a personal touch.

First Impressions:

Nice contrast of masculine mahogany and the groovy mural in the back.

Nice contrast of masculine mahogany and the groovy mural in the back.

Sembrado is a new taqueria from Danny Mena, previously of Hecho en Dumbo (where I once ate a great dinner), and featuring ice cream sundaes from Fany Gerson of summertime favorite La Newyorkina. Tacos seem to be the new hip food trend in the City, with shops popping up seemingly everyday (Tres Carnes, Otto’s, Mission Cantina, Taquitoria, to name just a few). Just a few blocks from Stuy Town, Sembrado has a rustic aesthetic, riding the line between industrial and hipster chic with some deliberately placed decorative flares, seen most clearly in the contrast of the exposed brick walls and back wall mural that seemed to be a psychedelic take on a fractal.

Overall, the space is pretty tight, dominated mostly by the bar/kitchen, the remaining area filled with two and four tops. Jacob and I stopped by after seeing a matinee at the Public Theater, so we came in at an off-time, 5pm on a Saturday afternoon. There were a few people at the bar, but we were the only people dining at that time.

Food:

The dinner menu at Sembrado, reminiscent of AYCE sushi menus.

The dinner menu at Sembrado, reminiscent of AYCE sushi menus.

After seating us and bringing around tap water, our waiter handed us the menus — long pieces of paper lined with boxes for you to mark (how many of each taco you want, if you want cheese added). Our waiter explained that the menu was typical of the items you’d find at any taqueria around Mexico City (slightly gussied up, of course — or at least hopefully so with New York City pricing). That meant traditionally-sized tacos that should be tackled with the strategic ordering of a variety of small plates.

Since we were eating during happy hour, we opted for the slightly discounted guacamole ($2 off dinner price), then started down the list of appetizers, tacos, and other assorted dishes. We ended up with the Tacos Al Pastor, Bistec, Pollo, Hongos, and Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana, along with the Bistec and Nopal Costras. And because through rain, sleet, hail or snow we order ice cream, Jacob and I split one of Ms. Gerson’s El Sundaes to finish out our meal.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole arrived in a small bowl framed by homemade tortilla “chips,” which upon the further arrival of our tacos, were revealed to be the house tortillas fried to a crisp. Because of this, the chips were very fresh, although because they were uncut, I felt the chip-to-dip ratio was uneven, requiring us to eventually ask for a refill. There was a deceptively ample amount of guacamole in the bowl, which I had initially viewed as skimpy for the normal $9 price tag. However, it was one of my favorite parts of our meal (I’m sure partially because I am an avocado fiend). This recipe was smooth, pebbled with tiny chunks of avocado, and though there were no tomatoes in it, it had a strong bite from the onions and cilantro. Jacob and I had a nice moment with our waiter, lamenting those unfortunate souls for whom cilantro tastes disgustingly soapy. When used liberally in a dish like this, cilantro really just brightens all the underlying flavors.

Topping options -- three salsas and a bowl of fresh onions and peppers.

Topping options — three salsas and a bowl of fresh onions and peppers.

In advance of our tacos, our waiter brought out a funky vessel holding four different condiments — three types of salsa and a mix of freshly chopped red onions and peppers. The salsas varied in heat and smokiness. One of them was made with a bit of beer, which lent a subtle malted flavor. My favorite was the really smoky salsa (top right in the photo), which reminded me of barbecue sauce, but Jacob preferred the milder beer-infused one on the bottom left. Unfortunately, this is where the trouble starts. When we were served these condiments, and then our tacos soon after, there was no instruction or suggestion of how to pair the two. Given the myriad combinations given five tacos and four condiments, a poor East Coast Jewish gal like me didn’t even know where to start. I ended up mainly dipping my chips into the salsas, because I didn’t want to ruin my experience by dousing a taco in the wrong sauce.

Our smorgasbord of tacos, clockwise from top left: Pollo, Al Pastor, Hongos, and Bistec.

Our smorgasbord of tacos, clockwise from top left: Pollo, Al Pastor, Hongos, and Bistec.

Because of this, I ate my tacos largely in their natural state, with just a bit of lime juice squeezed on top. For all of the varieties, the consistency of the tortillas was excellent — fresh, pliant and chewy, serving as an stable vehicle without distracting from the fillings. As for those, well, some were more successful than others. My least favorite was the Bistec (all natural flatiron steak), which arrived chopped and fully cooked, flying solo in its tortilla. The meat was a little on the dry side, and while I like steak as much as the next person (perhaps more, considering my ecstasy at Peter Luger), I much preferred the Bistec in Costra form, with the fat and salt of the cheese to contrast with it. The Pollo (all natural free range chicken breast) fared slightly better, the small chunks of meat juicier and flavored with a nice marinade. I would have preferred a little more char on the chicken, but perhaps my dissatisfaction was due to my own neglect of the salsas near me — a little smoky salsa might have elevated the chicken or steak. The Hongos (grilled portobello mushroom with epazote) was also served relatively plain, although the addition of epazote (a Central American herb) gave it another layer of flavor. Of course my love of mushrooms is a given at this point, and portobellos are a top tier variety for me (don’t get me started on Hen of the Woods #mushroomnerd), so it’s not that shocking that of the unadorned tacos, the Hongos would win out.

Pescado del Dia taco -- flying solo, but packing more of a flavor punch.

Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana taco — flying solo, but packing more of a flavor punch.

Both the Taco Al Pastor (spit grilled marinated pork, onions and cilantro) and the Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana (grilled market fish — fluke that day — in a classic Mexican salsa of chile serrano, tomato and onion) had a little more complexity in their preparation, and I thought this made them the best of the bunch. I’ve always avoided ordering tacos al pastor before because I mostly avoid pork, but I’m glad I tried it at Sembrado, since it ended up being my favorite taco. It seemed as though you could taste the long, steady spit-roasting of the meat, which was juicy and had a smoky, almost mole-ish flavor. (Wikipedia research reveals that the rotisserie style of cooking was likely introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century).  The fluke tasted the freshest of all the tacos, especially when the acidity of the tomatoes and the heat of the jalapenos hit my palate. Again, the addition of toppings here really filled out the profile of the taco, making it more memorable than the plainer steak and chicken.

The Costras, like the mutant child of a quesadilla and a tostada -- Bistec on the left, Nopal on the right.

The Costras, like the mutant child of a quesadilla and a tostada — Bistec on the left, Nopal on the right.

If I’m being honest, I think I prefer the slightly more casual menu at Oaxaca Taqueria. Without a bit of a tour guide on how to experience more authentic Mexican cuisine, I’d rather have the decisions already made for me with established combinations. So at Sembrado, I found myself enjoying the Costras (crisp caramelized cheese atop flour tortilla) more than the tacos. The Costras, which were pretty much open-faced quesadillas, just seemed more fully realized as a dish. Plus, who doesn’t like caramelized cheese? As I mentioned earlier, the Bistec shone a lot brighter in Costra form, its funky umami serving as a nice base for the cheese. But I especially liked the Nopal (grilled cactus pad), an ingredient that I’d seen before on menus but never tried. Like the fish taco, you could taste how fresh the nopales were, and I liked the way the vegetal flavor cut through the richness of the cheese.

We dabbled with getting a few more items, since all of these servings were palm-sized and split between two people, served as a relatively light dinner. No surprise, we quickly tossed aside any notions of further nutrition in favor of diving headfirst into a giant sundae. El Sundae has its own paper menu full of potential add-ons. You select vanilla, strawberry, or horchata ice cream as your base, select your preferred toppings, elect a salsa (Mexican hot fudge or goats milk caramel), choose si or no on whipped cream, and decide if you’ll shell out the extra $3 to make it a brownie sundae. Alas, Sembrado was out of vanilla on our visit, so we ordered the horchata ice cream, topped with Nueces Garapinadas (piloncillo candied pecans) and Chocolate (Mexican chocolate bits), covered in both “salsas”, whipped cream, and heck yeah we’re having the brownies.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

Well, the sundae we were served was pretty good, but there were a few stumbling blocks. I’ve only had horchata in its traditional form a few times, and found it to be like watered down rice pudding, but as a thick and creamy ice cream, it was a solid substitute for the vanilla, and a not too sweet base for the rest of the sugar-overloaded components. I’ll take whipped cream in any form from udder to pressurized Reddi-Whip can, so I was more than happy to chow down on that. As for our salsas? Well, the hot fudge was nowhere to be found, but the caramel sauce was sweet and syrupy. Much like with my dessert at Blue Duck Tavern, I’m not sure how one discerns goats milk caramel from plain ol’ cows milk, but I really enjoyed Sembrado’s version when combined with the candied pecans. In fact, the nuts and Mexican chocolate bits were very helpful in providing a bit of textural contrast, since much like the hot fudge, our brownies were mysteriously absent. I’m sure my vascular system was relieved to be saved that extra peak of blood sugar, and in the end we weren’t charged for them, but I was a little disappointed to miss out on what could have been a tremendous brownie sundae.

Final Thoughts:

There’s a concept in psychology called “choice anxiety,” which posits that though we think we want as many options as possible, in truth, people quickly get overwhelmed by having to make too many decisions. It’s similar to the Millenial “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out” — presented with a long list of choices, we often just opt out all together. We may think all-encompassing personal agency is the most satisfying route, but what we’re actually looking for is limited power, a dip in a pool just deep enough to let us kick a bit without fear of sinking.

I couldn’t help but think about choice anxiety after my dinner at Sembrado. Overall, it was a good, but not great meal, successful in some elements but a letdown in others. I can’t place all the blame on the service, either. Our waiter was friendly if a little removed from the situation, but I think part of the problem comes from the space Sembrado occupies on the casual/fine dining ladder. It seems to be riding a sort of middle ground — a little too expensive to be the kind of neighborhood taco joint that revels in its oil and fried fat content, but clearly trying to be more casual than the elevated Latin cuisine experiences I’ve had at Hecho en Dumbo or La Esquina. For the relatively uninitiated taco consumer, Sembrado’s menu can be overwhelming, prompting numerous questions — how many tacos should I get? What’s a good combination of tacos? Should I get cheese on some? All? None? I’m not saying Sembrado should abandon their check-off menus in favor of the hegemony of an executive chef’s tasting menu (I actually rather like the paper menus), but they might benefit from the addition of a section outlining some suggested combos. Creating a starting point for your diners gives them somewhere to jump off of, and admits that not everybody may be as in the know about authentic Mexico City tacos. Maybe I’m in the minority for wanting to learn while trying new foods, but for us curious culinary enthusiasts, Sembrado would stand out more if it were willing to teach.

Sembrado

432 E. 13th Street

http://sembradonyc.com/

Snackshots Providence: Off the Beaten Path

That’s right, we’re on the road again! This past weekend I hightailed it up to Providence, RI, to visit my college roommate Megan, who is currently attending Brown for grad school. Jacob split the cost of gas with me in order to visit his friend Sophie, a student at the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program and see her in a show.

Shockingly, most of the trip was spent making home-cooked food, but I thought I’d share some roadtrip highlights and the culinary efforts of Megan’s cohort. I suppose the lesson to be learned from all of this is that regardless of the amount of restaurants or shops I go to, I still measure my life in terms of the edible punctuation that pepper my days.

I usually take the bus when traveling, but my parents were generous enough to let me borrow the car for this trip north. Halfway up our portion of 95, hunger pangs called, and seeking to avoid Denny’s or McDonalds, we stumbled upon a local gem in Westbrook, CT — Cristy’s Family Restaurant.

2013-11-01 19.38.40

Living in Manhattan, it’s easy to forget that these kinds of places exist — the simple, American diner-style fare, kept alive by a steady stream of regulars. The restaurant was unassuming, with a small cafe area out front (featuring a new espresso/coffee counter), and the bar and dining room  to the right, adorned with dark wood and red pleather booths.

Old-fashioned aesthetic with a classic menu to boot.

Old-fashioned aesthetic with a classic menu to boot.

The menu featured your usual diner fare, from all-day breakfast to deli sandwiches and entrees of the hearty American meatloaf genre. But it was clear that Cristy’s is proud of their pancake-skills, with a fully separate menu touting 40 different varieties. We half-heartedly made an attempt at a healthy dinner by splitting a mushroom, avocado and cheddar omelet, but Jacob and I quickly decided that we needed to check these legendary pancakes out. On the recommendation of our waitress we ordered the seasonal Pumpkin-Apple pancake and the Banana Crunch pancake.

Our hefty omelet, literally smothered in a slice of cheese.

Our hefty omelet, literally smothered in a slice of cheese.

Our omelet was fairly standard, if nothing revelatory. The truth is that I’ll eat mushrooms and avocado under most circumstances, so I was perfectly satisfied. The only thing that was strange was the extra slice of American cheese the cook placed on top of the omelet. The cheese wasn’t of good enough quality (yes, I’m a cheese snob) to add anything to the dish except textural density. There was already cheese inside of the omelet, so the extraneous slice ended up just weighing the fluffy eggs down.

The Pumpkin-Apple Pancake -- pumpkin batter with a molten apple core.

The Pumpkin-Apple Pancake — pumpkin batter with a molten apple core.

The Banana Crunch pancake dwarfed Jacob's fist.

The Banana Crunch pancake dwarfed Jacob’s fist.

But enough chit-chat — let’s talk pancakes. When our plates arrived it was clear that these were not your average short stack. These bad boys were massive, nearly the size of a dinner plate and generously coated with powdered sugar. I was surprised by the construction of the Pumpkin-Apple, which was composed of a pumpkin batter and sliced apple filling. When ordering I had pictured a traditional pancake speckled with apple chunks and pockets of pumpkin puree, but this pancake was surprisingly apple-forward. I found that the pumpkin was very mild, almost lost among the sweetness of the apple interior. Perhaps if pumpkin puree had been incorporated into the filling as well as in the batter, it would have been more noticeable. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the dish — both pancakes were expertly cooked, without any burnt or overly dry spots. Between the two, I preferred the Banana Crunch, which was filled with sliced bananas and a (shockingly) crunchy granola. I really liked the interaction between the brown sugar of the granola and the banana, even if I had to admit I was basically having bananas foster masquerading as a breakfast food.

All told, our bill came to less than $15, another eye-opening shocker for NYC natives, and another strong reason for my recommendation. If you’re traveling through Connecticut on I-95, I’d definitely suggest foregoing the endless Dunkin Donuts and instead taking a walk in some Westbrookian shoes at Cristy’s. The staff was friendly, the prices were stellar, and the pancakes were out of this world.

Eventually we made it up to Providence, and Saturday morning Megan took me over to one of her new favorite brunch spots, Olga’s Cup and Saucer.

Inside Olga's, which has a bakery/coffee bar area as well as indoor and outdoor dining.

Inside Olga’s, which has a bakery/coffee bar area as well as indoor and outdoor dining.

Olga’s was absolutely adorable, the kind of brightly painted and happily staffed coffee bar and restaurant that you know is going to make for a good brunch experience. It actually reminded me a lot of Macrina Bakery in Seattle, with slightly more emphasis on a full restaurant menu. The weather was surprisingly mild and dry for Providence in the fall, so we scored a seat on the outdoor patio. Following Megan’s lead, I opted for the Tostada (which was a layered take on Huevos Rancheros, as far I could tell).

The Tostada at Olga's Cup and Saucer, a layered breakfast lasagna of tortilla, salsa and beans.

The Tostada at Olga’s Cup and Saucer, a layered breakfast lasagna of tortilla, eggs, salsa and beans.

The Tostada was composed of eggs, stewed black beans, and fresh pico de gallo layered between toasted tortillas, and came with breakfast sweet and normal potatoes. I asked for my eggs to be cooked over easy, and they arrived with yolks still soft and loose, spilling out and intermingling with the beans and juices from the salsa. The Tostada had all of the Latin flavors I love in Huevos Rancheros, with crispness from the shredded lettuce and a sprinkling of cilantro. I was also impressed by the dish Megan’s friend David ordered — Poached Eggs on Homemade Scallion-Cheddar Scones. The “scones” were basically biscuits, and the small taste I had made me regret not snagging some of the baked goods on display near the front door of Olga’s.

Finally got to have my Baingan Bhartha, after trying a new eggplant curry at Tamarind.

Finally got to have my Baingan Bhartha, after trying a new eggplant curry at Tamarind.

Garlic-onion Naan -- deadly for your breath, delightful for your stomach.

Garlic-onion Naan — deadly for your breath, delightful for your stomach.

We spent most of the weekend shuttling from Megan’s apartment to her friends’ around the corner, who happen to live above an Indian restaurant called Taste of India. It didn’t take much effort to convince me to have Indian for dinner on Saturday night, and I finally got to have the Baingan Bhartha that I was craving during my dinner at Tamarind. The food was pretty tasty, although I’ll admit that I’ve been slightly ruined by the experience I had at Tamarind. I think it’ll be a few more regular Indian meals before I forget how wonderful the curries and lamb chops were. However, the proprietors of Taste of India score points for taking care of their tenants — we got free vegetable pakoras for being part of the in-crowd (aka, for Megan’s friends paying rent on time).

The reason we were so centrally located for the weekend (aside from the ease of geography), was because Megan’s friend Justin was celebrating his birthday. His girlfriend Lauren had organized a game night on Saturday and breakfast brunch the next day, so the remaining food adventures of my trip are based around Justin’s apartment. First off, Megan and I baked a red velvet cake for the game night. Back in our halcyon college days, Megan and I had attempted to make a red velvet cake, which ended up measuring only about an inch in height (though it did taste quite good). Thankfully, our baking skills have come a ways since then, and Justin’s cake was significantly more respectable in dimension.

The naked red velvet cake.

The naked red velvet cake.

Festively frosted for Justin.

Festively frosted for Justin.

Along with organizing and cooking most of brunch, Lauren had also bought a number of craft beers to accompany our vigorous board-gaming (ain’t no birthday like a board game birthday). First up was the Brooklyn Brewery Silver Anniversary Lager, celebrating the brewery’s 25 years in business. I’m usually somewhat lukewarm on Brooklyn Brewery, but I actually really enjoyed this lager. My beer palate is fairly inexperienced, but I tasted some citrus notes, some woodsy hoppiness, and a little toasted quality.

Brooklyn Brewery Silver Anniversary lager.

Brooklyn Brewery Silver Anniversary lager.

Brunch on Sunday was pretty impressive, incorporating lots of bacon, eggs, french toast (with a berry compote and creme fraiche), fruit salad and the obligatory mimosas.

Damn, Lauren, way to bring the brunch.

Damn, Lauren, way to bring the brunch.

I manned the french toast station and succeeded in not burning the challah to pieces, but Lauren’s egg-bake was pretty much the highlight the meal, featuring eggs, bacon, peppers, onions, and a whole mess of cheese. To top it all off, she even got all the brunchees to wear plaid shirts in Justin’s honor (aka to make fun of him for his mono-patterned wardrobe of plaid and jeans).  By the end of the weekend, I had come to the conclusion that Lauren needs to plan everyone’s birthdays. Or at least just mine. Clearly Megan’s friends know how to do birthdays right.

It was a great roadtrip, slightly more homestyle than I initially anticipated, but I actually appreciated the break from the NY food scene. It was nice to cook a meal with friends, to try some out of the way spots, and visit Megan’s favorite local restaurants. I spend so much time running around New York trying to check off items on my endless lists, I found it really refreshing to have the sort of wake up call that there is some stellar food happening outside the Five Boroughs, from roadside diners to personal kitchens. It makes me want to bust out a map and take this show on the road on a national eating tour, but until I have the time and the money for that, I guess I’ll concentrate on the northern third of the I-95 corridor. After all, Jacob hasn’t been to Friendly’s yet, and what kind of sad excuse of a life is one without the beauty of Fribbles?