A Rustic Refresh: Back to Basics at Hu Kitchen

2013-10-20 13.39.34

I’m going to be straight with you guys — despite the decadent meals I detail on this blog, I am not the spry food-partier I once was. I can’t knock back a sleeve of Oreos like in my glory days, or pile on the greasy fried Japanese food without grimly acknowledging that I’ll all too likely to feel it in the morning. More than my inability to stay up late, my reluctance to ever set foot in Murray Hill for anything other than Indian food, or my growing acceptance of Snuggies as appropriate outerwear, the presence of “food hangovers” have signaled my arrival into adulthood. I may continue to stuff my face with funsize Halloween candy bars, but my body will no longer fully support me in that endeavor. It will make its displeasure known, from tummyaches to headaches and more.

I bring this all up because after a recent Saturday grease-fest, I found myself staggering about on Sunday begging for some reasonable grub to rebalance and refuel. I was meeting Jacob for lunch, and though he benefits from an iron-clad constitution, he was more than happy to try out a spot in Union Square I’d had my eye on for a while — the crunchy-granola, hippy-dippy, but still intriguing Hu Kitchen. And lucky for me, it proved to be just the kind of place a recovering foodie needs. File that away for future food comas.

 

First Impressions:

Just to be clear, they do not sell pet food here.

Just to be clear, they do not sell pet food here.

Hu Kitchen’s slogan is “Food for Humans”, which is prominently displayed on the outside of the cafe. The website explains that their focus is on unprocessed food, rather than espousing one particular “-ism” or diet, and this line-straddling approach is evident in the decor. Hu Kitchen struck me as part Chipotle, part Fern Gully, featuring black and steel countertops and flooring mixed with roughly hewn wooden tables and seating made out of tree trunks. At once industrial and natural, the restaurant emphasizes that it doesn’t want to ignore modern society or eating habits, but hopes to reintroduce the notion of natural as normal.

 

Looking back from the smoothie/juice/espresso bar to the other stations at Hu Kitchen.

Looking back from the smoothie/juice/espresso bar to the other stations at Hu Kitchen.

 

Hu Kitchen follows the market/cafe model, similar to Whole Foods, with a number of stations spread throughout the space. A smoothie/juice/espresso bar is positioned as you enter, for quick grab and go, or leisurely sipping at the handful of tables up front. Walking to the back you pass a fridge with prepackaged snacks and drinks (we tried some samples of grain-free chips), before hitting the hot bar, bowl, and prepared food stations. Most of the seating is on the second floor, where you can recline on any of the available stumps (or plastic chairs, if that’s more your thing).

Rustic hewn seating mixed with sleek glass and metal.

Rustic hewn seating mixed with sleek glass and metal. I guess sometimes you just want to sit on a stump.

 

The Food:

The ground rules going in.

The ground rules going in.

While Hu Kitchen doesn’t prescribe to one particular food system, they do have some specific guidelines for their dishes — they only serve natural, unprocessed food, with recognizable ingredients and as much certified organic as they can. The focus is mainly on vegetables, and there are vegan/vegetarian meat substitutes, but you can also get grass-fed beef or free-range chicken. Hu Kitchen’s menu is also largely gluten-free, since they mostly avoid grains, and their food is free of cane sugar — sweetened only with honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar. I’m telling you all of this to underscore how even with all these seemingly restricting rules, the food I had at Hu Kitchen was flat-out delicious.

 

A sample of Hu Kitchen's prepared foods, from vegetarian to gluten-free and the Venn Diagram space in between.

A sample of Hu Kitchen’s prepared foods, from vegetarian to gluten-free and the Venn Diagram space in between.

When I had initially scoped out the menu (my mama always said a good food nerd is a well-informed one), I had been drawn to the “Bowls” category, which allows you to choose a permutation from 3 different bases and 3 different toppings. But once I actually got there, the wide variety of prepared salads and sides on display in the prepared foods case drew my eyes. Jacob and I tried the Primal Kale Salad (org kale, org goji berry, sesame seed, org apple cider vinegar, unfiltered honey, shallot, garlic mustard powder) and the Curried Sweet Potato (org dried apricot, almond, org egg, scallion, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, turmeric, garam masala), both of which I would gladly hit up again on my next visit. But we decided to trust our instincts and investigate the possibilities of the bowls. I ordered the Root Veg Mash base with Thai Chicken on top, while Jacob went with the Organic Quinoa base with Roasted Wild Mushroom. The helpful staff was eager to point out favorites and explain the extras not mentioned on the menu, like the selection of “toppers” for the bowls, ranging from herbs like parsley and cilantro, to sauces like lime juice and sriracha, and a variety of nuts and seeds.

 

My bowl of Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken. Great flavors, lousy consistency combo.

My bowl of Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken. Great flavors, lousy consistency combo.

I ended up topping my Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken (org coconut milk, turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, basil) with more cilantro and lime juice. While I found both of the components of my bowl satisfying, I wouldn’t recommend this particular combination. The problem stems from the liquid content of the chicken, which is served in a coconut milk sauce. The root vegetable mash (sweet potatoes, parnsips, carrots, etc) has the consistency of smooth mashed potatoes, so the hot liquid from the chicken turned my bowl into more of a soup/stew concoction than I had hoped for. However, both the mash and the chicken were incredibly flavorful. I loved the tenderness of the meat, shredded and soft from the coconut milk, with the familiar interplay of woodsy sweetness from lemongrass and the bite of the turmeric and ginger. I would definitely get the mash again with a more solid topping (maybe even the roasted mushrooms Jacob got), since it tasted fresh and sweet, reminding me of the sweet potato casserole my mother serves at Thanksgiving. Adding the acidity from the lime juice topper definitely helped to cut through the richness of the dish, and I could see how adding some seeds or nuts would help to vary the texture.

 

Jacob's Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms bowl -- a slightly more successful combination.

Jacob’s Organic Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms bowl — just slightly on the dry side, but a bit more successful combo.

Jacob had a similar problem with his chosen combination, finding the Organic Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms (shiitake, portobello, button mushroom, carrot, garlic, shallot, thyme) in need of just a touch more moisture. I thought the quinoa was nicely cooked, soft without being too dry, and could see it as a better base for the Thai Chicken (we basically should have swapped combos). The mixture of mushrooms types lent the dish a solid variety of textures, the roasted mushrooms slightly caramelized, with aromatics from the garlic and shallots. The mushrooms are served out of a slowcooker that keeps them stewing in their own liquid, which gave them a nice soft feel and deep flavor.

Both of our bowls came with a small button of Hu grain-free bread, not much larger than an ice cube and resembling pumpernickel in color. I would guess it was made out of some sort of nutmeal or seeds, but I thought it was pretty tasty, if a bit dense. It had the nuttiness of hearty, rustic dark ryes like those from Scandinavia  I dipped it into my slushy bowl, and liked it even better when it had soaked up some liquid.

The portion size was perfect for a nice lunch, although I might opt for a side salad if looking for a more substantial dinner. After the previous day’s foray into grease and sugar, I really appreciated how my meal at Hu Kitchen filled me up without weighing me down. I fully plan on coming back to try out some of the prepared foods, and (of course) I’m interested in looking into some of their grain-free muffins and desserts.

Final Thoughts:

I’ve spoken before about the upsides and downsides of writing of a food blog — the expectation of having opinions on food means that you both get to enjoy being used as a resource, but also have to deal with the assumption that you will know and write about most everything you encounter. Thankfully, after over a year of writing Experimental Gastronomy, I’m still just as passionate about exploring and educating myself about dining and cooking. One unexpected side effect of blogging is how it has made me a literally conscious eater — I try to think critically about what I’m tasting (although I’ll readily admit to mindlessly stuffing my face plenty). Recently, this has pushed me towards being more mindful of what I’m eating day-to-day, as in what is the makeup of the foods I put into my body. I find myself curious about nutrition, food science, and food policy, and while I’m not going off the grid, so to speak (I wish I knew how to quit you, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups), I love finding places like Hu Kitchen that give me the tools to make better choices about my diet, even if it’s just one meal at a time. It’s nice to go to a place that reminds you that pure, natural ingredients can taste just as good as KFC, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of unfamiliar items like chia, hemp, or nutritional yeast. At Hu Kitchen, you can ease yourself along the spectrum from vegan to paleo to simply gastro-curious, from cashew creamed broccoli to plain ol’ chicken tenders. When you get right down to it, Hu Kitchen truly sticks to their slogan — it’s not fancy, it’s just food for humans.

 

Hu Kitchen

78 Fifth Ave (between 13th and 14th)

hukitchen.com

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

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

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

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

First Impressions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Food:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The partially deconstructed Smoke Salmon Benedict.

The partially deconstructed Smoke Salmon Benedict.

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

Lafayette Grand Cafe & Bakery

380 Lafayette St (corner of Great Jones)

http://lafayetteny.com/