Brief Bites: Wafels and Dinges Cafe

2013-08-24 22.09.30

(Welcome to the inaugural edition of Brief Bites, in which I attempt to highlight one or two dishes and keep my word count to slightly less than Dostoevsky-levels. We’ll see how it goes.)

My best friend in 3rd grade was a girl named Kathlien, who had moved to Larchmont from Belgium a few years before we met. At that point, I couldn’t have pointed  Belgium out to you on a map, let alone tell you what Belgians ate, but Kathlien and I shared a common love of boxball, Barbies, and eating as many Girl Scout cookies as we sold, so I was basically a shining example of youthful multiculturalism. Eventually her parents’ careers took the family back to Ghent, and Kathlien and I grew up and apart. Perhaps my early brush with Belgian culture left me predisposed to view the country positively, but even now I can’t help but view Belgium with a kind of reverence. After all, this is the nation that lays claim to my favorite kind of beer (Belgian strong ales like Delirium Tremens), amazing waffles, delicious cookies (Biscoff), Godiva chocolate, and freaking french fries. Oh yeah, and they have some neat art and stuff, too (Rubens’ Prometheus Bound, anyone?).

So while this seemingly Willy-Wonka-wonderland of my favorite foods lies far across the vast Atlantic, the best I can do for now is sampling a bit of Belgian bravura at the new brick and mortar location of Wafels and Dinges, down at the bottom of the East Village on 2nd and Avenue B.

 

The Set Up:

A very official plaque establishing Wafels and Dinges as missionaries of the gospel of Belgian desserts.

A very official plaque establishing Wafels and Dinges as missionaries of the gospel of Belgian desserts.

Wafels and Dinges, known for besting Bobby Flay in a Waffle (er, wafel?) Throwdown (the victorious wafel is now on the menu), and for tempting the hearts and stomachs of many a drunken NYU student with their truck parked almost nightly near Astor Place, has been roving NY for over half a decade in cart and truck form. Their first permanent store opened last month, conveniently just a few steps away from the owner Thomas DeGeest’s East Village apartment. The sizable cafe occupies the corner of the block, and the open and airy space features the same tongue-in-cheek whimsy of their portable locations (such as a plaque on the front wall declaring this the “Belgian Ministry of Culinary Affairs: Department of Wafels”). The outer walls are basically all windows that can be opened up to the air, and the interior is decorated in an industrial style that mimics the look of the food trucks — yellow and black painted metal, unfinished steel, antique waffle irons hanging along the walls. A glass-enclosed kitchen/bar area occupies the front half of the store, with a collection of tables and chairs in the back. We happened to visit at the tail end of National Waffle Day (too late to catch the crowning of Mr. and Mrs. Wafel, alas), but the cafe was still decked out in plenty of cute blackboard drawings and taped-up artwork proclaiming wafel devotion. Aside from their food and drink offerings, the Wafels and Dinges cafe sells merchandise and house-endorsed items like speculoos spread, maple syrup, cookies and imported Belgian products.

The inside of the cafe is decked out in the familiar colors of the W&D trucks and carts.

The inside of the cafe is decked out in the familiar colors of the W&D trucks and carts. Note the glass-enclosed kitchen/bar area, where you can watch some wafelcraft in action.

Vibrant displays of dinge devotion next to the Mr. and Mrs. Waffle scorecard.

Vibrant displays of dinge devotion next to the Mr. and Mrs. Waffle scorecard.

 

The Bites:

The Wafels and Dinges cafe offers the same menu as found on their trucks, along with the shakes and sundaes, espresso drinks, and some savory wafels that are exclusive to the store (like the 2nd Street Salmon Special, which is like a bagel and lox platter, only on a waffle). Jacob and I decided to get a wafel (in honor of the holiday), and a milkshake to take advantage of the location’s offerings.

The variety of wafels -- Brussels on top, then Liege, then mini wafelini, and the Quarte and Stroopwafels on the bottom row.

The variety of wafels — Brussels on top, then Liege, then mini wafelini, and the Quarte and Stroopwafels on the bottom row.

 

We selected the Liege Wafel with Nutella and sliced bananas. Wafels and Dinges offers two main types of waffles: the Brussels waffle, which looks more like the familiar dining hall/IHOP model and is rectangular and airy, and the Liege waffle, which is thicker, less uniform in shape, chewier and denser (kinda like if Eggo waffles were artisanally-crafted). After selecting your wafel type, you then get to pick what kind of “dinges”, or toppings (ranging from dulce de leche to plain butter to walnuts), you’d like on your wafel — the first for free, and the rest come at an additional cost.

All hail our Liege, Lord of the nutella and bananas (nothing like a bad feudalism joke).

All hail our Liege, Lord of the Nutella and bananas (everyone loves a bad feudalism joke, right?).

I’ve actually never had the Brussels wafel, since the Liege is just so good. Unsurprisingly, this classic W&D menu item lived up to expectations — just as satisfying as the first one I ordered from the truck. Really, you can’t go wrong with a killer combo like chocolate and bananas. The contrast of the cold, freshly sliced bananas against the warmer smooth Nutella, and the chewy, slightly caramelized wafel made each bite a complex mishmash of temperature and texture. The only improvement would have come from warming the wafel more, or serving it fresh from the iron. Wafels and Dinges makes the wafels in batches that can sit out for a bit, depending on how busy the cafe is. The quality of the wafel is still superb even at room temperature, with strong vanilla and brown sugar flavors present in the batter, but had it arrived piping hot, the Nutella would have melted a bit and helped to bring the dish together more firmly.

Shake creation in action.

Shake creation in action.

We opted to go full-on Belgian for the milkshake, choosing the Spekuloos Shake, which features  W&D’s homemade Spekuloos ice cream mixed with crushed speculoos cookies. It’s served in a glass coated with speculoos spread, and topped with whipped cream, more cookie crumbles and a sprig of mint). For the uninitiated, spekuloos (or speculoos) are a type of spiced Belgian cookies that are traditionally made for the Feast of St. Nicholas around Christmastime, but are today more commonly served on Delta flights, in the form of complimentary packets of Biscoff cookies. Frequently light in color and oval-shaped, speculoos cookies have a similar flavor to gingerbread, but without the earthy intensity of cloves. The rise of the Nutella-like Biscoff spread (speculoos cookies crushed to a peanut butter consistency) has pushed the cookies more into the mainstream spotlight, to the point that Trader Joe’s sells its own version, in both cookie and spread form.

The Spekuloos Shake: an onslaught of sugary spice.

The Spekuloos Shake: an comely onslaught of sugary spice.

This shake is a triple punch of speculoos spice, so you’d better be a serious proponent of cookie butter allure if you opt to order it. Since we were splitting the shake, I didn’t find it too overwhelming, but if it were my sole dessert, I might have found it ultimately a little too one-note. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Biscoff, and the ingredients were all top notch — the fresh creamy ice cream, the sweet spread, and the thick whipped cream — but it was a bit of a sugar bomb. Both Jacob and I felt that the drink was a bit too thin, more milky than truly slurp-able, like a great milkshake should be (at least, if you’re a Fribble lover like me). While I’m not opposed to the idea of speculoos-flavored milk, I think a mix-in or two would have simultaneously made the shake more interesting to drink, and broken up the intensity of the cookie flavoring. Wafels and Dinges actually offers another shake with Spekuloos ice cream and fresh strawberries, and I think having chunks of fruit in the milkshake would better allow the ice cream’s distinct flavor to shine. The mint garnish was also a source of confusion. Visually appealing, the bright green leaves certainly popped against the beige shake and white whipped cream, but once you started actually drinking, the mint seemed a bit out of place — what are you supposed to do with it? Chew small bites in between sips? Maybe it’s a consequence of watching too many episodes of Chopped, but I don’t see the point of inedible garnishes. Especially because I think a mint-speculoos shake sounds like a delicious and more refreshing dessert than the original version we had.

 

The Last Licks:

All in all, the Wafels and Dinges cafe is definitely a destination worth traveling for. Rather than scouring the city for the trucks or carts, you can find all the dessert delights you want at this new location, served daily with a solid dose of whimsy, even when it’s not National Waffle Day. While the milkshake didn’t blow us out of the water, the wafels are consistently superior to any other contenders I’ve encountered, and I’ll be back to try out their savory varieties, and maybe a sundae (the Speculoos Split with caramelized bananas is calling to me). Our server even remembered our names as Jacob and I headed out into the night, thanking us for stopping by, and making me wish I lived just a bit closer and could become a W&D regular. It may not be the most authentic Belgian experience, but until I find myself in Bruges, I’ll think fondly of Kathlien and her home country’s amazing cuisine as I take an extended tour through the Wafels and Dinges menu.

 

Wafels and Dinges

209 East 2nd Street (corner of Avenue B)

http://www.wafelsanddinges.com

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Review: Burger Joint @ Le Parker Meridien — Secretly Unsatisfying

I don’t really understand the appeal of “secret” restaurants and bars in New York. For the most part, if a not-so-trendy nobody like me has heard of them, they can’t be much of a secret at all. The speakeasy fad with places like PDT (aka “Please Don’t Tell”) and Proletariat, or the “restaurant within a restaurant” motif of the basement brasserie of La Esquina (beneath the taco stand), seem to me to be just cheap ploys to up the buzz about your establishment without killing your advertising budget.

A “secret” restaurant that had been on my radar for a while is Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridien Hotel. I’d actually been to the hotel several times for brunch at their other restaurant Norma’s (great hot chocolate and crunchy french toast), which is located just off the lobby and proudly displayed without an entryway or door to block the view of the bustling dining room. In direct contrast to that is the hidden Burger Joint, which I had heard about from several people but never actually been able to locate on my jaunts to Norma’s. So when a recent Zagat article named Burger Joint as having one of the top burgers in NYC, I thought it might finally be time to check it out. With a motley crew (aka my past culinary cohorts Jacob, Laura, and my boyfriend Shaun) of tasting support in tow, we met up in the lobby of Le Parker Meridien, and set about trying to tease apart the legend of the not-so-secret Burger Joint.

First Impressions:

Across from Norma's is a roped off area outside a velvet curtain -- could Burger Joint be inside?

Across from Norma’s is a roped off area outside a velvet curtain — could Burger Joint be inside?

My friend Diana, who had previously been to Burger Joint, had mentioned the restaurant being behind a velvet curtain, and sure enough, directly across from Norma’s there was a wall bedecked in red velvet. While this certainly fits the upscale tone of the hotel, the curtain would ultimately prove pretty incongruous (and probably intentionally so) with the style of Burger Joint. A helpful member of the hotel staff guided the way to a long line that was sectioned off by ropes next to the curtain’s edge. This would lead to the only entrance/exit for Burger Joint. As we made our way closer to the restaurant, the classical veneer of Le Parker Meridien gave way to a pseudo down-home, almost aggressively casual style. A burger neon sign indicates the shift as you turn into the actual restaurant, a tiny hole in the wall type shop decked out in wood paneling, hand drawn signs, and very limited seating.

The line snaked back all the way from the counter inside.

The line snaked back all the way from the counter inside.

Burgers, this way -->

Burgers, this way –>

The walls were covered in prefabricated writing, and everything felt like it had been purposefully aged to affect a weathered, rustic quality. I couldn’t help but be reminded of pre-torn designer jeans, carefully shredded for the ultimate haphazard casual style. The not-so-subtle aim seemed to be to shake us fancypants urbanites out of our skyscraper stupor for some old-fashioned roadside diner cookin’. Between that and the gruff service (although I’ll give them some leeway considering we were there at a peak time), I was left with the impression of overly calculated cuteness.

Wood paneling, pre-fab writing on the walls, and slapdash handwritten menus taped up, Burger Joint artfully aims for nonchalance.

Wood paneling, pre-fab writing on the walls, and slapdash handwritten menus taped up, Burger Joint artfully aims for nonchalance.

The Food:

I’m not sure if the restrictive menu and no-nonsense attitude of the staff was a nod to the simplicity of the semi-rustic aesthetic, or to the no-BS New Yorker stereotype. Either way, you don’t have a lot of choice at Burger Joint. You can get a hamburger or a cheeseburger, with any, all, or none of the handful of toppings (lettuce, tomato, onions, mayo, etc), a side of fries, and soda or a vanilla milkshake. No, they don’t have chocolate ice cream, nor any type of flavored syrup, and no, there is not more than one type of cheese to top your burger with. Better than McDonalds, though, they will cook your burger to order (from rare to well done).

My group decided that, considering the hassle of waiting on line and scrambling for seats that we’d already gone through, it was worth it to go whole-hog on our orders. Ever the model of restraint, I ordered a cheeseburger with tomato and ketchup (I like tomatoes, deal with it), french fries, and a milkshake. Astonishingly, my check came out to close to $18. The similarities with ready-shredded designer clothes continued to mount.

Burger Joint does get points for efficiency, however. The entire food production operation takes place inside a tiny counter space, with one cashier and four or five other employees to prep and cook the orders and bus the restaurant. It probably took less than 10 minutes for all four of us to get our food, which isn’t half bad considering they cook the burgers to order on a small flat top.

A peek inside the small kitchen.

A peek inside the small kitchen.

Unfortunately, once we got our food, it became increasingly clear that Burger Joint is one of those places where there’s an unspoken surcharge for “the experience.” The only item that seemed to be equitable in the “bang-for-buck” category were the fries. The burgers and milkshakes were pretty small considering what I had paid for them. My cheeseburger was about the same size as what you’d get at a Burger King, and the milkshake was served in a 12 oz cup. Now this is probably the result of my American expectations of unreasonable portion size, but as Laura rightly pointed out, if I’m paying nearly $20 for not-so gourmet food, I would expect at least to get a fair amount of it. After all, I don’t think Mayor Bloomberg’s beverage ban applies to milkshakes.

My palm-size cheeseburger, pretty standard patty size, but small for the price.

My palm-size cheeseburger, pretty standard patty size, but small for the price.

The shake -- better for my health, but too small for my wallet. And the lone standout in price to portion ratio -- good ol' freedom fries.

The shake — better for my health, but too small for my wallet. And the lone standout in price to portion ratio — good ol’ freedom fries.

Okay, so if we not getting quantity for our money, are we getting quality? Yes and no. On the whole, everything was solid. I appreciated the fact that my burger was in fact cooked to medium rare — there was a nice pink center surrounded by a crispy cooked edge. And my toppings tasted fresh — I had a thick slice of tomato, and the cheese was a mild cheddar, so a step up from the hastily assembled toppings on the McDonald’s line. But there was nothing that really made the burger stand out. The meat had reasonable flavor, but no real depth to it, and I’m not sure I could articulate a real difference between some of the better bar burgers I’ve had in NY. Shaun, who is more of a hole-in-the-wall burger connoisseur, remarked that a really great “dive burger” carries with it the flavor of some of the seasoning from the surface it’s cooked on. And much like the prefabricated rustic-style walls, Burger Joint’s grill did not seem to have the caked-on-through-the-years grit and gristle that elevates a real down-and-dirty burger.

The same was largely true for the fries and the shake. The fries were crispy and well salted, but were just as much from a pre-cut frozen package as the ones you get at the drive-thru. And as someone with a rich history of milkshake drinking (doing well on a test in elementary school meant a trip to Baskin Robbins for a black and white shake), I found Burger Joint’s version to be about par for the course. The vanilla ice cream had good flavor, but nothing outstanding beyond what you’d get scooping out of a Breyer’s pint at home. This shake had no subtleties of vanilla bean richness, and because of its simplicity, no real contrasting tastes or textures. They do get credit for blending a thick shake, but man did I want some chocolate syrup to liven things up a bit.

Final Thoughts:

In the hierarchy of the dining scene, Burger Joint seems to sit in the “fast casual” category — offering a more unique experience than the average corporate-cut fast food franchise, but without table service or a wait staff. I accept that they’re not trying to compete with a gourmet burger like those at The Spotted Pig or The Little Owl, or even with a quality steakhouse burger like the one at the famed Peter Luger’s. Burger Joint is just trying to put out a straightforward, old-fashioned burger. Because of this, it seems fair to judge it against the other members of the fast casual burger club — places like Shake Shack or Bobby’s Burger Palace. And disappointingly, Burger Joint just doesn’t measure up to the standards of those contenders. You end up paying more for a sub-par meal, with none of the variety of topping and seasoning combinations you would get at Danny Meyer’s or Bobby Flay’s casual ventures. Burger Joint doesn’t even offer a vegetarian option.

Now you could make the argument that Burger Joint is hearkening back to a simpler era, a time before black bean burgers and sweet potato fries. But if the intention is to provide a contrast with the high-falutin environs of Le Parker Meridien surrounding it, Burger Joint needs to go all the way. Either offer a limited menu in a small space for a high price and make some mindblowing food, or admit the standard quality of your offerings and cut the prices a bit. Because I for one feel gipped when I have to pay extra for “the experience,” when said experience means a long wait, a crowded closet of a restaurant, a cash only requirement, and then the same kind of food I could make at my own backyard barbecue. I guess I just have to disagree with Zagat on this one — perhaps the real secret of Burger Joint is that it’s not actually worth all of the hype.

Burger Joint @ Le Parker Meridien Hotel
57th St between 6th and 7th Aves
http://www.parkermeridien.com/eat4.php