The Struggle of the Slightly-Informed and Writing Resolutions

Mezzetim from Bustan. Really a promise of more food photos if you scroll past all the "thoughts" and "feelings."

Mezzetim from Bustan. Really a promise of more food photos if you scroll past all the “thoughts” and “feelings.”

Wow, it’s been a while since we’ve talked, hasn’t it? Hard to believe I’m actually sitting my butt down and writing a post for Experimental Gastronomy. But believe it, because I’m hoping to make this a regular recurring deal again. As I promised oh so many months ago, my intention is to have this blog evolve, since my own relationship with food has changed since EG’s inception way back in 2013. Food forms the basis of both my professional and academic pursuits, so it seems foolish to imagine that I could continue posting reviews and musings as just a passionate, fairly uninformed reader. However, before I start busting out new vocabulary (bottarga! torchon! and my favorite, chef de partie!), I want to take a step back into my comfort zone, aka, neuroticism, and talk about some of the pseudo-struggles that have come with my new perspective.

 

Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest of four kids, and the only girl, but I’ve never liked to argue. I’d guess that part of that comes from early formative experiences when my older brothers (the youngest of them 6 years my elder), tore apart my arguments for why I deserved a second chocolate chip cookie rather than them. With that background, perhaps it’s no surprise that I tend to default to avoiding confrontation if I’m not armed with a lot of facts and statistics. This might seem counterintuitive, since I was president of the Debate Club in high school, but actually that’s where I was most comfortable — I’d spend the week before each meeting studying up on the topic so I could make a coherent argument for my side.

 

This is actually a large factor for why I chose to go back to school (that, and a deep, abiding love for spiral notebooks). I found myself getting more and more passionate about issues of nutrition and food policy, but reluctant to take a public stand since my knowledge was limited to what I’d read on the Internet. Unlike many people in my generation, I don’t believe that having a Twitter handle means I’m a qualified expert. I’m hoping that with 3 or so years of NYU Food Studies education stuffed into my brain, I might actually be able to give a thorough answer when my friends and family members ask me about heirloom vegetables or GMOs.

 

Which brings me back to a current dilemma: what role does the informed friend or family member play in the lives of those around them? I was asked a number of times over the holidays about my opinions on factory farming, genetic modification, and organic food. In those cases, as with politics and religion, I feel like the best bet is to gently voice my opinions, but admit that I’m only about a hundredth more informed than the questioner at this point, and try to point them to resources with more information.

 

But what if you see someone making food choices in their life that you feel are less healthy, or even harmful? I really wrestle with this — I told people when I started reading more about the American food system and nutrition that I never want to be the obnoxious, preachy person off to the side. I went to high school with too many overly-vocal vegetarians to enter into that headspace. Food is so intensely personal for people, embedded with past experiences both positive and negative, and imbued with cultural resonance that draws the map we all navigate everyday. It’s nearly impossible to fully appreciate someone’s relationship with food without a deep knowledge of their background, and even then, we all have good and bad days. We’re usually witness to just a small sliver of an individual’s food choices — I recently realized that one of my friends only sees me in group settings where I tend to relax my general healthy food regimen — I have to wonder if she thinks I shovel Oreos and Peanut Butter M&Ms into my mouth 24/7, given how I behave around her. And that’s exactly the problem — I’m far from a paragon of Gwyneth Paltrow-esque purity. So who am I to clamber up on a high horse and raise an eyebrow when you pour yourself a glass of Crystal Light or bust open a box of Skinny Cow?

 

Do you only step in if you know there’s conclusive scientific evidence? Do I push for my relatives to buy organic milk to avoid antibiotics in their dairy? Do I become that person that sends around links to NPR articles about salmonella contamination in industrially-farmed chicken? Or is it the same as other taboo topics — in polite company, keep it to yourself? The Victorian version of food advocacy — speak only when spoken to? One of my cousins is a family doctor, and has to put up with us constantly having her check our throats whenever we sniffle slightly. But I’ve never seen her lay down the law on someone as they dive into their fifth helping of brisket during seder (that someone often times being me).

 

Beyond the initial question of whether to pipe up, even when I am directly asked questions about nutrition and the state of food production in America, I find myself being consciously tentative. One my greatest fears is to come off as patronizing, yet I hope someday to make educational media for mass audiences. How can I one day get up on a soapbox if I can’t negotiate the nuances of a conversation with a relative or friend? Does NYU offer a course on that?

 

Like most things in life, I guess it’s just going to be a messy, complex work in progress. In the meantime, let’s switch gears and get into a little food porn to lighten the mood.

 

Here’s a small sampling of deliciousness from the past couple of months:

 

First up, some bites from my very short trip to LA at the beginning of the month, where I reunited with my Gastronomic Life Partner Jacob for a whirlwind tour of old edible favorites and new discoveries.

Cape Cod Squash Rolls from Fishing with Dynamite -- just look at butter sheen!

Cape Cod Squash Rolls from Fishing with Dynamite — just look at butter sheen!

 

Right after I landed at LAX, we drove over to Manhattan Beach. My colleague Elena had basically insisted we visit Fishing with Dynamite, an elevated take on the seafood shack that had blown Elena away. Jacob and I were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the place — we ended up speaking to both the chef de cuisine and the sous chef over the course of our meal. One of the highlights was the Chef David’s Mom’s Cape Cod Squash Rolls, a sublimely simple dish, which was simultaneously unusual and nostalgic. Served with aromatic rosemary butter, the rolls came in a tiny cast iron skillet, shiny on top and tender, tinted slightly orange from the squash. I could have made a meal of this vegetal take on Parker House Rolls, but it was only the beginning of a smorgasbord of seafood and produce. I’m really hoping I can go back for dinner the next time I make it out west.

 

Just one portion of the extensive selection at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe.

Just one small portion of the extensive selection at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe.

Immediately after lunch, we went for dessert at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe in Santa Monica. I spent a good five minutes hemming and hawing over what to get out of the display case that was brimming with baked beauties. Ultimately, Jacob and I settled on the Buckwheat Apple Cake and the Chocolate Pudding.

Buckwheat Apple Cake and Chocolate Pudding from Huckleberry -- one side nutty and crumbly, the other rich and smooth.

Buckwheat Apple Cake and Chocolate Pudding from Huckleberry: one side nutty and crumbly, the other rich and smooth.

I really enjoyed the nuttiness that came from the buckwheat cake. I’d love to start baking with alternative flours this year, since it seems like they’re much more readily available than before. And the chocolate pudding? Decadent, rich, deeply dark chocolate plus homemade whipped cream? I don’t think I really have to say anything more.

 

Photographic evidence of the myth, the legend ... the Pizookie from BJ's.

Photographic evidence of the myth, the legend … the Pizookie from BJ’s.

My last LA pick is not from a hot-new-spot, does not feature any sort of kale, and is not a taco (although I did have an awesome sampler from Guisado’s while I was there). After hearing Jacob go on about it for years, I finally tried the fabled Pizookie from BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse. Faced with an expanded menu that touted an Oreo, Salted Caramel, or Triple Chocolate iteration, I opted for the original. I’ve gotta have a baseline, you know? For the similarly uninitiated, a Pizookie is a giant chocolate chip cookie baked in a cake tin, and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Imagine all your grocery store cookie cake dreams, warmed up and topped with your favorite substance on earth. So yeah, it was worth it.

 

Petite Shell's entrant into the chocolate rugelach game.

Petite Shell‘s entrant into the chocolate rugelach game.

Moving back to NY, we’re rounding out the round-up with some Jew-y foods. First is the Chocolate-Hazelnut Rugelach from brand-new bakery Petite Shell on the UES. Matt and I went there to check out their line-up of unusual rugelach flavors, which ranged from the trendy Dulce de Leche to the downright strange White Chocolate–Granny Smith Apple. But I wanted to focus on the Chocolate-Hazelnut, since that runs in direct competition to EG favorite Breads Bakery (Petite Shell also offers a babka, but I haven’t had the chance to check it out yet). So how does it stack up? Pretty close, but I think Breads edges a victory out. The Nutella-esque filling from Petite Shell was sweeter than Breads, and I missed the stronger cocoa notes of the first rugelach to open my eyes to the format’s potential. Petite Shell also fell down on service, but it was the first weekend they were open, so they may shape up in time.

 

The Bustan Shakshuka: worth a trip, especially on a wintry weekend morning.

The Bustan Shakshuka: worth a trip, especially on a wintry weekend morning.

Last but not least, we finally have another entrant to my NYC shakshuka talent competition, this time from the UWS’s Bustan. I went there for brunch with a couple of college friends and was blown away by the freshly baked flatbread (ain’t no pita in this joint). Bustan has an extensive brunch menu featuring sweet and savory dishes, and offers 6, count ‘em, 6 variations on shakshuka. I went with the classic, which featured perfectly runny yolks, a peppery and bright tomato sauce, and stewed bell peppers and onions. I’d still recommend Zizi Limona for the die-hard shakshuka fan, but Bustan gets close to the mark. Especially with that amazing flatbread hot out of the oven and slicked with oil.

 

I’ll end on the note of salivation-inducing carbs, as per usual. Here’s my promise to you — I’m not gonna let this blog linger. I can’t promise I’ll be consistent, or that this won’t end up as a place sometimes filled with the existential crises of a Food Studies student, but at least there will be new content. And as always, if you follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you’ll pretty much get just food photos, without all the annoying thoughts and context to accompany them. Stay tuned and stay hungry.

Bustan
487 Amsterdam Avenue
http://www.bustannyc.com

BJ’s Brewhouse and Restaurant
http://www.bjsrestaurants.com

Fishing with Dynamite
1148 Manhattan Avenue
Manhattan Beach, CA
http://www.eatfwd.com/

Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe
1014 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA
http://www.huckleberrycafe.com/

Petite Shell
1269 Lexington Ave

 

Hooked by Seattle’s Seafood: Dinner at Ray’s Boathouse

2013-12-20 20.36.20

Just before Christmas I headed back to Seattle, ostensibly to visit my brother and his fiancee, but really to get a sobering look at just how big my hair can get in the unending mist of the Pacific Northwest winter. If it wasn’t abundantly clear from my previous posts about Seattle, the city has a great food scene, especially when it comes to seafood, so I couldn’t help but jump at the chance to dig into at least a fish or two. My parents were along for the trip to see Dan and Leah’s new home city, so on my first night out we made our way over to Ballard to Ray’s Boathouse.

 

First Impressions:

Wait, tell me again -- who's boathouse are we going to?

Wait, tell me again — who’s boathouse are we going to?

Ray’s Boathouse is located in Ballard, an area historically known as the center of Seattle’s Scandinavian fishing and sailing community. The neighborhood even has a Nordic Heritage Museum, and on my previous trip Dan and I visited the annual Ballard Seafood Fest (remember, right before we ate D’Ambrosio gelato … which sounds gross in abstract, but was perfectly logical and delicious at the time). It should therefore come as no shock that Ray’s is located right on Puget Sound. It was dark by the time we arrived for dinner, but the back of the restaurant is lined with huge windows, allowing us to see the lights of a trawler passing by during our meal, its lights shimmering off the water and giving the barest glimpse of how beautiful the view must be during the warmer months.

Reverence for the past with photos of historic fishing crews ... and a giant ceramic fish.

Reverence for the past with photos of historic fishing crews … and a giant ceramic fish.

It’s impossible to miss Ray’s, due to the giant neon sign spelling out R-A-Y-S, a touch I initially thought was retro until I found out the boathouse dates back to 1952, and Ray himself built the sign. The interior still features authentic elements of a boathouse, with wood paneling all around, pictures of fishermen lining the walls, and even a giant ceramic fish at the top of the stairs. The first floor holds the main restaurant and bar, while a more casual cafe takes up the second floor.

The view from our booth, looking over towards the massive center bar.

The view from our booth, looking over towards the massive center bar.

Ray’s main dining room is grounded with an enormous bar in the center, blocked off from the rest of the restaurant by waist-high dividers. The design is casual, but refined, made up of leather half-moon booths along the inside wall and dark wood tables with deep brown leather chairs around them. You can’t help but feel a certain sense of timelessness — a kind of comfortable confidence that comes from a restaurant that’s been around the block a few decades.

 

The Food:

Ray’s Boathouse is a traditional seafood restaurant, offering the typical proteins based on seasonal, local fare, but updated to reflect current trends. But before we dive into the menu, that big ol’ bar in the middle of the restaurant lived up to expectation, at least from the drinks we ordered. My mother and I were boring and ordered glasses of Riesling, but the rest of our table went a little more off the beaten path, with Leah ordering a sparkling rose, Dan getting a cocktail called the Lido Deck (Aviation gin, cardamom, grapefruit, lime), and my dad going for the Anchors Away (Goslings Black Seal, Crème De Cassis, lime, ginger beer). You gotta love the nautical-themed cocktail list, and all the drinks were well-mixed and refreshing. I’m usually not a big gin person, but the combination of the acidity of the grapefruit and lime and the cardamom in the Lido Deck was really intriguing, at least for the small sip I had.

Now when my family goes out to dinner, especially if it’s a vacation dinner, things can get a little out of hand. After conferring with our very friendly and helpful server Jennifer, we decided to get two orders of the Warm Rosemary Gougeres for the table to start. My mother and I split the Chiogga Beet & Goat Cheese Salad, my father got a bowl of Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder, Dan started with the Local Albacore Poke, and Leah had Ray’s Seasonal Salad. Then, for our entrees, my dad and I got the Smoked Sablefish, Dan got the Sablefish in Sake Kasu, my mom chose the Wild Cedar Plank Salmon, and Leah got a vegetarian version of the Housemade Tajarin Pasta. Oh, and you know there’s dessert — we finished the meal with an order of the Peanut Butter Bomb, belatedly in honor of Dan’s birthday.

Our complimentary bread basket, playing coy with a few errant crackers sticking up.

Our complimentary bread basket, playing coy with a few errant crackers sticking up.

The complimentary bread was presented as a wrapped package, with a row of flatbread crisps arrayed upright in stegosaurus-style down the middle. Beneath the napkins were a few soft white rolls, along with fresh butter. The bread was standard, but not particularly memorable, especially when compared to the more robustly flavored gougeres to come.

 

The Warm Rosemary Gougeres, bite size pastries with unreal gruyere dipping sauce.

The Warm Rosemary Gougeres, bite size doughy pillows with unreal gruyere dipping sauce — cheez whiz for an individual with refined taste.

When the Warm Rosemary Gougeres (Housemade pastry puffs with melted gruyere dipping sauce) arrived, it immediately became apparent that we didn’t need two orders — there were probably ten little puffs in each bowl. The gougeres themselves reminded me of miniature popovers, airy and flaky on the inside, with a crusty exterior. They were buttery and sweet, with just a hint of rosemary. But the real standout portion of the dish was the gruyere sauce, a rich whallop of pure nutty gruyere flavor. My father described it as “elevated cheez whiz,” and it was almost a midway step to fondue, a smooth, creamy spread that managed to remain room temperature without congealing. I asked Jennifer how it was made, and she explained that it’s really just gruyere melted down (with a little bit of butter), then kept stabilized in pressurized canisters (like the ones they use to dispense whipped cream). Simple as that might seem, the cheese sauce was one of the best elements of the dinner for me.

 

The Chiogga Beet Salad -- delicately composed, but held back by clumpy goat cheese.

The Chiogga Beet Salad — delicately composed, if held back by clumpy goat cheese.

The Chiogga Beet and Goat Cheese Salad (mixed baby greens, white balsamic, Laura Chanel goat cheese, Oregon hazelnuts) turned out to be pretty similar to the salad I had at Fulton a month back. Not that I mind — I obviously love the combination of ingredients, or I wouldn’t order it over and over. I did like the plating more at Ray’s — the thin slices of beet on one side, and the dressed greens on the other, topped with a few clumps of goat cheese and sprinkling of hazelnuts. I love fresh goat cheese, especially in salads, but the sticky properties of the cheese make equal distribution across a dish difficult, and I found myself wishing for a bit more cheese. Still, this cheese had good flavor, and it was probably good to have only a small amount, considering the whole of my dinner. The nuts added a little crunch, especially useful paired with the beets, which were moist and mild, serving as a vehicle for the white balsamic.

 

The Local Albacore Poke -- a new dish for me that might have changed my mind about raw tuna.

The Local Albacore Poke — a new dish for me that might have changed my mind about raw tuna.

I’d never had poke before, but after Dan gave me a taste of his appetizer, I actually asked him if I could have a second bite. Poke is a Hawaiian raw fish salad, usually made of tuna marinated in a soy/salt/sesame/chili mixture. While I was a big tunafish sandwich fan growing up, I’m still hit-or-miss on the raw sashimi form, but the fish in Ray’s Local Albacore Poke (Sesame crackers, cilantro, lime) made me rethink my previous hangups. Again, Seattle knocks it out of the park on baseline, sea-sourced protein. The chunks of tuna were soft without being mushy, and I loved the acidity imparted by the cilantro and lime (and of course I’m always down for a great cracker). This dish made we want to seek out poke at other restaurants.

 

Ray's Pacific Northwest Chowder, with pillars of tempura fried clams rising out of the broth.

Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder, with pillars of tempura fried clams rising out of the broth.

I didn’t get to try Leah’s Ray’s Seasonal Salad (Sherry vinaigrette, radish, pumpkin seeds, aged cheddar), but I think she enjoyed it. I did have a chance to taste my father’s bowl of Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder (Tempura razor clams, smoked salmon, thyme, fingerling potatoes, fennel), which was a punch in the mouth of excellent seafood. The tempura-fried clams were an interesting addition, sticking up out of the bowl so the majority of the pieces stayed crunchy. Coming from the northeast and our endless iterations of New England Clam Chowder, it was cool to see a variation that played to the strengths of the West Coast.

 

The Wild Cedar Plank Salmon, cooked to my mother's specifications and a fine specimen of fish.

The Wild Cedar Plank Salmon, cooked to my mother’s specifications and a fine fish specimen.

Our entrees were all solid, satisfying contenders, although some dishes stood out more than others. I tried a bite of Leah’s Vegetarian Tajarin Housemade Pasta (mixed vegetables, mushrooms, Tutto Calabrian chiles, arugula, sherry sauce), mostly because I was curious about what “tajarin” looked like. It turned out to be a noodle somewhere in between fettuccine and linguini, and was well-made, soft but not too starchy. I also only had a small taste of my mom’s Wild Cedar Plank Salmon (White bean cassoulet, baby carrots, broccolini, garlic confit), since I’m still not a salmon convert. Like my previous experiences with salmon in Seattle, I could tell this was a great piece of fish, even if the flavor is not appealing to me. My mother had asked for the salmon to be a little more well-done than the barely medium it is usually served at, and was pleased by the way it arrived, fully cooked but not too dry. She also really loved the white bean cassoulet, especially the consistency of the beans, which still had a bit of snap to them. I enjoyed the vegetables, but personally fall more on the creamy-style beans, so I thought that here they detracted from the cassoulet.

 

The Smoked Sablefish, served with an addictive cilantro pesto.

The Smoked Sablefish, served with an addictive cilantro pesto.

While I enjoyed my dish as a whole, the most memorable elements of my Smoked Sablefish (roasted baby carrots, coriander, cilantro pesto, sautéed rainbow chard) were the accompanying vegetables (wow, I’m a boring adult, getting all excited about vegetables. Thank god I have dessert to talk about in a bit). That being said, this was again a high caliber fish, the flesh supple, gliding off with a swipe of my fork, and melting on the tongue. The smoked flavor was subtle, a little sweet rather than the harsher, ashy smokiness you get with barbecue sometimes. As with my mother’s salmon, the large cut of sablefish rested atop the accompaniments, in my case a bed of sauteed rainbow chard, cooked down to a velvety consistency, like a lighter creamed spinach. On the side were baby carrots, sweet and soft without falling into mush, resting in the cilantro pesto. The cilantro was prominent but not overwhelming, and I couldn’t get enough of the sauce, wanting to pour it over every piece of the dish. I ended up leaving a bit of the fish uneaten, but I literally scraped the pesto off my plate to get every last drop.

 

The Sablefish in Sake Kasu — tinged with Eastern flavors, but still grounded in Seattle’s local fish market.

The Sablefish in Sake Kasu — tinged with Eastern flavors, but still grounded in Seattle’s local fish market.

My overall favorite bite of the night was Dan’s Sablefish in Sake Kasu (jasmine rice, gingered bok choy, honey-soy). It was the only fish entree we had that was plated differently, this time in a large bowl, layered with the sake sauce at the base, followed by the rice, the bok choy, and the sablefish on top. The mix of honey, ginger and soy really woke up my tastebuds, and at least for the small taste I had, I found the powerful mix of salty, sweet and acidic highlighted the fish more than the smoked take I ordered. It’s hard to say how I would have felt eating a whole portion, but Dan polished his off and declared it his favorite plate as well.

Obviously this dessert was meant for Dan. Even if he didn't actually eat any of it.

Obviously this dessert was meant for Dan. Even if he didn’t actually eat any of it.

So we had to get dessert, right? I mean, how can you celebrate someone’s birthday (coughthatwasinNovembercough) without a candle-topped indulgence and some awkward staff/family singing? Dan was actually least invested in the dessert, which was mainly taken down by Leah, my mom and I. The surprisingly under-described Peanut Butter Bomb turned out to be a chocolate-coated hemisphere of peanut butter mousse with a graham cracker crust on the bottom and crushed peanuts on top, accompanied by a concord grape sorbet with chocolate sauce and crushed peanuts underneath it. The mousse itself was delicious, with a strong peanut flavor and a consistency close to cheesecake thickness. Despite not being that big of a “grape-flavored foods” person, I actually really liked the sorbet. Here it succeeded in evoking the nostalgia of a PB&J, providing a palate-cleansing freshness against the richness of the mousse and chocolate shell. Since it was a sorbet it had a light texture and was sweet, but not tooth-achingly so (don’t worry, the chocolate sauce on the bottom helped put the sugar over the top). The only disappointing aspect of the dish was the crust, which didn’t have much flavor and got soggy over time, eventually becoming lost among the more assertive elements of the dessert.

 

Final Thoughts:

I guess I should just say this once and for all, since presumably I’ll have the good fortune to visit Seattle many times over the next few years — Seattle just has amazing seafood. No bones about it, it brings serious game on the gill front. My dinner at Ray’s Boathouse was a satisfying, well-rounded meal, but I think as a visitor I’d rather go back and see what new innovations are being concocted at Tanglewood Supreme than go another round with Ray’s. What made the meal memorable was really the quality of the fish, like in Dan’s Poke and Sablefish, and the eye towards regional influences, like the Asian-inflected chowder. None of the dishes were showstoppers, but it was a comfortable environment with a courteous staff and a unique cocktail list. Looking at their cafe menu, I actually think I’d be more inclined to come back for a visit to the counter upstairs, to check out how the kitchen deals with more casual pub grub, like fish and chips or crab cakes.  Much like a classic steakhouse in New York, I think Ray’s Boathouse is the kind of restaurant to have in your back pocket — not necessarily a bucket-list destination, but an establishment where you know you’ll get a high grade meal and be treated right. Now if they’d only start selling that gruyere sauce separately, I’d keep the place in business single-handedly.

 

Ray’s Boathouse

6049 Seaview Avenue NW

Seattle, WA

http://www.rays.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/

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