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

 

Snackshots: Summer Desserts

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With the temperature rising, I can finally indulge in one of my favorite New York City activities — walking anywhere and everywhere I can. This has its pluses and minuses, since on the one hand, fresh air and a little cardio are good for the body, but on the other hand, traipsing about the city places me directly in the path of many dessert purveyors with offering designed explicitly to remove the health-benefits of my walks. Yeah, I know — this ain’t exactly a third world problem.

This exact scenario took place last weekend, when Manhattan was thrust full-force into summer and the thermometer climbed to the mid-80s. I spent most of the weekend walking around SoHo, Gramercy, and the UES, and found myself somehow checking two items off my Summer Sweets List, with a visit to Dominique Ansel Bakery and Sprinkles Ice Cream.

 

Peering back into the rear of Dominique Ansel Bakery, where a few tables (and the master chef himself0 were.

Peering back into the rear of Dominique Ansel Bakery, where a few tables (and the master chef himself0 were.

The visit to Dominique Ansel Bakery was an unexpected salve for fruitless apartment hunting, with the shop located just around the corner from the building I was visiting. After my time-delayed experience with the Cronut, I obviously couldn’t ignore the opportunity to try a fresh-from-the-oven Ansel creation (plus, Jacob my food enabler was with me and insisted we go). The store was larger than I anticipated, a narrow but deep space devoted to the retail area in the front (overflowing with full pastry cases), and with a few tables in the back (where Ansel was chatting with employees when we were there).

 

No cronuts, but plenty of other options at Dominique Ansel Bakery.

No cronuts, but plenty of other options at Dominique Ansel Bakery.

Our visit happened to be on the 1 year anniversary of the Cronut, and unsurprisingly they were already sold out by the time we arrived. (Although a table at the front of the store had four pristine Cronuts just sitting there, uneaten — is this the latest sign of the bourgeois 1% — leftover Cronuts?) To be honest, I was relieved that they were sold out, because it freed us up to order something else. We opted to go with the DKA — Dominique’s Kouign Amann, the pastry the bakery was best known for pre-Cronut-mania.

 

The DKA, approximately the same size as Levain cookie (or Jacob's fist).

The DKA, approximately the same size as Levain cookie (or Jacob’s fist).

The Kouign Amann (pronounced “Queen Ah-mann”) is a Northern French pastry from Brittany, little known outside of Quebec and France until Ansel brought his version to NY. The cashier told us that the DKA (“Tender, flaky, croissant-like dough with a caramelized crunchy crust”) is slightly smaller than the normal sweet, which is somewhat mitigated by its intense buttery richness. As Jacob described it, the DKA is like a hybrid croissant/elephant ear (or palmier). It’s made of laminated dough like a croissant (or Cronut, for that matter), but the caramelized sugar topping evokes the crunchy, crispy shatters of the palmier. I’m not really into palmiers, since I find most of them too dry, but here you got the best of both worlds. Biting into the DKA, you get the punch of sweetness from the sugar topping (and who doesn’t like crunchy sugar melting instantaneously on her tongue?), but then fall into the soft center of the pastry, so moist and butter-infused you might think there was some sort of marzipan or custard. But no, that’s just barely salted, straight up butter.

Is that custard inside? Nope, that's just straight-up buttery dough.

Is that custard inside? Nope, that’s just straight-up buttery dough.

Aside from the Cronut anniversary, our stop at Dominique Ansel Bakery was also just a few days after Ansel won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. It’s clear that he is an enormously talented innovator pushing the envelope in the field, but I was impressed by how simple yet beautifully-wrought the DKA was, since it’s a traditional pastry that relies on classic techniques. His classical chops might seem obvious given his background as executive pastry chef at Daniel (not to mention his newly minted award), but it was nice to know that Ansel is far more than just the Cronut-guy.

Would I still try a fresh-off-the-presses Cronut if offered? Absolutely, I mean c’mon, it’s fried croissant dough. But the next time I’m at Dominique Ansel Bakery, I won’t be upset if they’re already sold out. I’m more interested in what else is in the pastry case, and I’d recommend looking past the glittering tuiles and edible decorations for the more basic, rustic, perhaps classic but never old-fashioned options. I’ve got to see what this guy can do with an almond croissant.

 

 

Our Sprinkles Sundae in all its glory -- Banana Cupcake encasing a scoop of Rocky Road.

Our Sprinkles Sundae in all its glory — Banana Cupcake encasing a scoop of Rocky Road.

Round two is at another trendy spot — the new ice cream expansion of Sprinkles Cupcakes. Sprinkles Ice Cream just opened up a few weeks ago, next to the cupcake shop, with the Cupcake ATM in between. Although we all know I’m an ice cream fiend, I was slightly skeptical of Sprinkles Ice Cream, since it’s so easy to dilute the quality of your brand when you start expanding your offerings. Would the new homemade ice cream and cookies really measure up to the Sprinkles standard?

The space seems to be about the same size as the cupcake emporium next door, but with less seating and a nearly all white decor that evokes a 2001-esque space vibe. The confections are stored and assembled behind a semi-circular barrier, although there are glass peep-through windows that let you see the employees in action.

As with all good ice cream shops, the menu options range from reasonable to absurdly decadent (I’m looking at you, Ben & Jerry’s Vermonster). At Sprinkles you can get your normal scoops in a cup or waffle cone (even a red velvet waffle cone), and as with their cupcakes, the flavor options rotate daily. You can go for a regular sundae with the familiar sauces, toppings, etc, or a cookie/brownie sundae, a milkshake, malted or float. But then things begin to get a little more ridiculous — an ice cream sandwich with homemade cookies, or one made with two cupcake tops (including frosting), frozen hot chocolate, an affogato, or the beast that we split — the Sprinkles Sundae.

The eponymous sundae is comprised of a single scoop of ice cream between a cupcake top and bottom. That’s right — crack open a full-size cupcake and stick a scoop of ice cream right in its guts. Jacob and I shared one that featured a Banana Cupcake (banana cake with bittersweet dark chocolate frosting) sandwiching a scoop of Rocky Road (dense dark chocolate ice cream loaded with crunchy toasted almonds, homemade marshmallow cream and housemade chips made from bittersweet tcho chocolate). Boy oh boy, this was a homerun combination. The Banana Cupcake is Jacob’s favorite Sprinkles flavor, and as a huge banana fan, I totally get it. The cake was like fresh-baked banana bread, with a dense, moist crumb, the sweetness slightly tempered by the bittersweet chocolate frosting. The Rocky Road was gelato-like in richness and texture, slightly melty without falling totally into the soft-serve zone. My fears of brand dilution dissolved in the face of the quality ingredients evident in the individual components, strong enough to be separately identified within the mass of Rocky Road (everyone gets 2 tastes, so between Jacob and I we also sampled the excellent Red Velvet, PB Cup, and Coffee Fudge Almond). The best thing about the Sprinkles Sundae is that it totally solves my main hang-up on cupcakes (vs. slices of cake) — the too-often unbalanced ratio of frosting to cake, and the subsequent dryness of that cake. Having a scoop of ice cream in the middle ensures that each bite of cupcake will be moist, soft, and flavorful. I highly recommend the sundae we got (I mean, banana and chocolate, banana and almonds, banana and marshmallows — all strong duos, so no surprise that this combination worked well together), but I fully intend to return for more scoops from the Sprinkles shop. Plus they’ve got a pretzel peanut-butter cookie that this PB fiend can’t resist. There’s also a kids’ mini version of the Sprinkles Sundae, for those less-inclined to shoot their sugar levels skyward.

 

So now I have two good options for the rest of the summer — cool, refreshing ice cream from Sprinkles to escape the sunscorched sidewalk, and warm, buttery french pastries from Dominique Ansel to make those summer thunderstorms a little more tolerable. Neither of them is particularly conducive to my beach bod, but if we’re being straight with each other, this pasty-white gal ain’t doing that much tanning, anyway.

 

Dominique Ansel Bakery

189 Spring St (between Thompson and Sullivan)

www.dominiqueansel.com

 

Sprinkles Cupcakes, Ice Cream & Cookies

782 Lexington Ave (between 60th and 61st)

www.sprinkles.com

Restaurant Week Brunch at El Toro Blanco: Indulgent Mexican Comfort Food

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We now return to our regularly scheduled programming to bring you another NYC restaurant review. Just before Jacob left for his own Birthright trip, we snuck in a few Winter Restaurant Week meals, the first of which was at El Toro Blanco. Although it had been on my list for a while, I was especially drawn to the restaurant because it was one of the only establishments that offered a brunch option for RW, and how can you resist the dual siren call of Mexican brunch and a 3 course prefixe for $25? Plus, we had to make sure Jacob topped off his salsa quota before flying off to the lands of hummus and shawarma. And thanks to El Toro Blanco, he got to indulge in more than enough queso fresco before trading his tortilla for pita.

 

First Impressions:

The main dining space of El Toro Blanco made me think of a 1970s dream "man-cave."

The main dining space of El Toro Blanco made me think of a 1970s dream “man-cave.”

El Toro Blanco is one of those restaurants you’re bound to walk by a million times, since it’s located on 6th Ave, just off of Houston. Sitting on a wide block on the west side of the street, there was a small fenced-off area I assume is for outdoor dining in warmer weather, although on the blustery day we visited, I was happy to be seated inside. The interior of the restaurant is a open and full of light, thanks to the plate glass windows lining the front. There’s a bit of a 1970s living room vibe to the decor — lots of wood paneling, black bricks and orange leather, with some multicolored hanging lanterns and funky art on the wall (ranging from the Mexican flag to multiple paintings of bulls, or “toros”).

 

The main bar, with the small upstairs dining room above it.

The main bar, with the small upstairs dining room above it.

The main bar is directly across from the front door, but there’s another small bar just to the right as you enter, both offering seats for dining as well. When we first arrived at 12:30, the place was pretty empty, but by the end of our brunch it had filled up, with most of the space at the bar taken up by people both eating and drinking. We were led up to a table in the small upstairs section behind the main bar, which gave you a nice view of the dining room below, and was a little quieter until a large group of half-tipsy women took over the banquette tables across from us.

 

Our quiet little hideaway of tables, until the ladies brunch arrived.

Our quiet little hideaway of tables, until the ladies brunch arrived (after these guys left).

Overall the service was friendly if not overly attentive, probably because El Toro Blanco is such a popular spot. It’s clearly a trendy place that has high volume (and likely rowdy) brunches, so it’s no surprise that they’re happy to make suggestions, but hardly hang on your every word like our waiter at Ippudo. I should give credit to our hostess who offered us her advice on the best brunch dishes — we ended up ordering based on her suggestions, and her taste was impeccable.

 

The Food:

While there were a number of appealing drinks on the cocktail menu, Jacob and I opted for a dry brunch (let’s just say there was a raucous wine and cheese going away soiree for him the night before). El Toro Blanco’s Winter Restaurant Week brunch offered three courses for $25, with most of their regular offerings available on the RW menu. Based on our own Mexican brunch preferences, and the enthusiastic reviews from the hostess, Jacob started with the Costillas Empanadas, and I ordered the Oaxaqueño Tamale, a substitution from the main menu since they had run out of the special RW Elote Verde Tamale. For main courses Jacob got the Chilaquiles con Huevos, and I had the Huevos Rancheros Verdes, and for dessert Jacob chose the Cinnamon & Sugar Churros and I went with the Mexican Chocolate Cake. All of the portions were substantial and filling, leaving me very satisfied with the cost-to-plate ratio.

 

My substitue Oaxaquena Tamale -- unanticipated, but delicious.

My substitute  Oaxaqueno Tamale — unanticipated, but delicious.

The Elote Verde Tamale (fresh corn, roasted poblano chile, queso fresco, crema, green chile salsa) had piqued my interest, especially since I don’t have a lot of experience with green salsa. So even though I was disappointed to miss out on it, the Oaxaqueño Tamale (roasted chicken, plantain, red mole, queso cotija, crema) was a more than satisfying substitution. I almost always jump at the chance to have plantains (tostones, I love you), although here they mostly served as a textural element. The hefty, square tamale arrived absolutely slathered in red mole, which gave the entire dish a deep cocoa richness. Between that, the sweetness from the plantains, and the crema and cotija cheese, this was a pretty decadent start to the meal (and a good indication of what was to come). My fork sliced easily through the cornmeal wrapper into the interior of shredded chicken and cheese. I think the Elote Verde might have been a slightly lighter and spicier opening act, but I had no complaints about the deep flavor of its tamale understudy.

 

I mean, how can you go wrong with fried dough, meat and cheese?

The Costillas Empanadas — I mean, how can you go wrong with fried dough, meat and cheese?

Jacob’s Costillas Empanadas (slow roasted short rib, oaxaca cheese, ancho barbecue, crema) were more cleanly plated, two petite pockets of dough with just a small cup of sauce next to them. I can’t count the number of short rib dishes I’ve talked about on this blog, but I’m sure a quick search will give an overly detailed account of my love for this iteration of beef. I’d even venture that it has replaced brisket in the top spot (except for my mom’s Passover version, of course). El Toro Blanco presented another fine rendition of short rib, the meat tender and juicy, combining with the oaxaca cheese to evoke an upscale mexican cheeseburger. The dough shell was fried to golden-brown, crispy on the edges and chewy in the middle, its flavor subtle and mostly just a vehicle for the filling and the bbq dipping sauce, heavy on the smoky umami flavor and with just a bit of a kick from the ancho. While my tamale was good, these were really memorable empanadas, high quality and well worth returning for.

 

The Huevos Rancheros Verdes, a cornucopia of Mexican ingredients.

The Huevos Rancheros Verdes, a veritable cornucopia of Mexican ingredients.

Once we moved beyond the appetizers, the entrees and desserts were all versions of dishes I’d had before, but I was impressed by the precision and care which El Toro Blanco put into their cooking. Turns out I unintentionally ensured my opportunity to have green salsa by orering the Huevos Rancheros Verdes (corn tortillas, ham, refried pinto beans, sunny side up eggs green chile salsa, queso fresco, avocado, pico de gallo). What I like about huevos rancheros is that so many places add small, unconventional touches to their take on the dish, be it the meat or beans used, or even the plating. El Toro Blanco’s version starts with crispy corn tortillas on the bottom, hardy enough to hold up against the onslaught of sauces and cheeses, without being rock hard like a recent rendition I had to stab my way through at another brunch. The base was topped with sunny side up eggs and smothered in beans, green chile salsa, pico de gallo, and queso fresco. I had channeled a bit of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally when ordering, asking to sub the ham for chorizo, but to be honest, I didn’t even really notice the meat, except that it added a little heat and some textural density. Sure, it looks somewhat messy, but if you look closer you can see how everything is actually quite well-executed and composed. The eggs have crispy edges at the rim of the white, with soft domes of yolk just waiting to be broken and flood out onto the dish, the fresh cut tomatoes and onions split the tortillas in contrast to the vivid color of the salsa verde. I’m glad I did get to try El Toro Blanco’s salsa verde, which was bright and tart from the tomatillos, but I think I actually prefer having both red and green salsa on my eggs, like in Huevos Divorciados (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huevos_divorciados).

 

The Chilaquiles -- don't judge a book by its cover, this guy will hulk smash your hangover.

The Chilaquiles con Huevos — don’t judge a book by its cover, this guy will hulk smash your hangover.

While huevos rancheros is my go-to for Latin brunch, Jacob is a sucker for chilaquiles, so he was just as excited for his entree. El Toro Blanco’s Chilaquiles con Huevos (baked saucy nachos, guajillo salsa, fried eggs, melted mexican cheese, crema, avocado, pico de gallo) had the most interesting presentation of the meal, arriving in a little cast iron pan. One glimpse at the dish and it’s clear why it’s a perfect brunch item — it’s basically nachos + eggs, so plenty of carbs and cheese to sop up hangover ills. Despite the petite plating, this was a deceptively large portion, layer upon layer of chips divided by thick strands of mexican cheese mixed with crema, salsa, and pico de gallo, and then topped with a generous sprinkling of even more cotija, to fully ward off the lactose intolerant. You can’t even see the fried eggs in there, but believe me, the same creamy yolks were hiding in wait to spill out and put the whole dish over the top. While I enjoyed the tastes I had of Jacob’s dish, I found myself more eager to return to my own entree, overwhelmed by the carb and dairy bonanza of his tasty gut-bomb of a dish.

 

The Mexican Chocolate Cake

The Mexican Chocolate Cake with bonus matchstick churros.

It’s lucky that both Jacob and I are freaks of nature with secondary stomachs designed solely for dessert consumption, because after our mountains of cheese and salsa, there was still another course to come. There ended up being a fair amount of overlap between our desserts, each of our dishes highlighting chocolate, dulce de leche, and cinnamon-sugar flavors. My Mexican Chocolate Cake (matchstick churros & dulce de leche ice cream) came with mini churros (bonus!), and ended up being a more refined version of a lava cake. The cake itself was made of a moist crumb of rich chocolate with a hint of chili powder, totally covered in a thick chocolate sauce that made each forkful gooey. The dulce de leche ice cream was sweet without being overpoweringly sugary, and the mini churros gave a bit of a crunchy break to the other soft elements of the plate. Much like my huevos rancheros, this dessert wasn’t groundbreaking, but rather a familiar treat done very well.

 

And their big brothers, the Cinnamon Sugar Churros.

And their big brothers, the Cinnamon Sugar Churros, with addictive chocolate and dulce de leche sauces.

When Jacob’s Cinnamon & Sugar Churros (chocolate & dulce de leche sauces) came to the table, I initially thought he had gotten the short end of the stick (er, churro?), since there were only two pieces in the basket. Fortunately, much like his little pan of chilaquiles, these churros proved to be plenty filling. The two pieces were hefty logs of fried dough doused in cinnamon and sugar, each bite starting with a crisp and crunchy crust that gave way to an airy interior. I think I prefer these to the churros we had at LeChurro, although I may be inviting controversy by unfairly comparing Mexican and Spanish churros. I was largely swayed by the dipping sauces El Toro Blanco served with the churros. I found myself dipping and double dipping into the chocolate and dulce de leche sauces, long after Jacob had finished.

 

Final Thoughts:

It’s always nice to find a solid restaurant to add to your rotation, and I would say my RW brunch at El Toro Blanco earned it a spot. Aside from my tamale, none of the dishes were unknown territory for me, but all of them were well-seasoned and extremely generous in portion size. Sure, their regular menu is pricier than your average Mexican spot, but if the RW service is any indication, you certainly get your money’s worth. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to come back and try the rest of El Toro Blanco’s offerings, especially in the summer, when I can sit outside, sip a cocktail, and then walk all the way home after scaling a mountain of tortilla and cheese.

 

El Toro Blanco

257 Avenue of the Americas (off Houston)

eltoroblanconyc.com

When in Rome: “Industry Night” at Osteria Morini

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As a little kid, I always dreamed about being a grownup, and getting to decide exactly what I wanted to spend my money on. From the perspective of a child, it meant getting to buy as many Snickers and Whatchamacalits (a highly underrated candy, IMHO) as I could fit in my purse, seeing eight movies a week, and keeping up with my bimonthly subscriptions to Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-men. Yup, I was a pretty cool kid. The idea of “discretionary income” was an alien concept — all money is discretionary when your parents cover shelter, food and warmth, and your major concerns are pretty much confined to standardized tests and trying not to blow your allowance in one week.

I feel like most of my friends tended to spend what teenage money they had on largely the same type of stuff — slices of pizza, Starbucks lattes, songs from iTunes or videogames, and the occasional splurge on a pair of Converse or concert tickets. I’ve loved watching us all grow up and define our spending priorities — what makes the cut for a twenty-something devoting the majority of her budget to rent and utilities? These days, we all choose different indulgences, and frankly, I think we’re all justified to spend our money as we like. Most of my discretionary income goes towards eating, be it keeping my fridge stocked or hitting all the spots (and more) that appear on this blog. Could I be living on Cup of Noodle or PB&Js and be saving more than I am? Sure, but I’d like to believe that happiness should be a budget priority, too.

So although a certain black-hole of NYC dining expense is part of my standard arithmetic, I will also never turn down a good deal. Especially one of the caliber of “Industry Night” at Osteria Morini, a weekly pasta-themed bargain I took advantage of a couple snow storms back.

Osteria Morini is one of the more casual spots in chef Michael White’s Altamarea Group of high-end Italian restaurants, from sea-food centric Marea to his new steakhouse Costata, to the Midwestern-infused pizzeria Nicoletta. Even resting on the lower end of the affordability-scale, Osteria Morini is generally far from a cheap eat, and so when I heard about their “Industry Night” special, I jumped at the chance to finally try out one of White’s restaurants. The deal, running Monday nights from 9pm till close, discounts almost all of the pasta dishes down to $10 (from usually $20 or more), and offers bottles of Lambrusco for $28. Although you can’t get the pricier lasagna, risotto or polenta dishes, you still end up with about a dozen options of hand-made fresh pasta and stunning accompaniments.

So the Super Friends of Super Eating (aka, Mike, Jacob and I) assembled once more, and headed over to Osteria Morini, pretty damn hungry after waiting until 9pm to have some dinner (seriously, I don’t get how Europeans eat that late regularly).

 

First Impressions:

The warm and comfortable interior of Osteria Morini, complete with exposed brick walls.

The warm and comfortable interior of Osteria Morini, complete with exposed brick walls.

Osteria Morini is located on Lafayette, just half a block away from the Spring Street 6 train stop. The exterior balances on the edge of ostentatious, its name emblazoned on a large sign brightly lit in the winter evening gloom. Yet the interior is immediately recognizable as the understated Italian-American red-sauce joint, full of dark wood, accents of red on the walls and on the place settings and low-lighting that makes the case for intimacy amongst the hum of conversation and clinking of silverware.

 

A few retro postcards to make you miss the Old Country, plus the White House to make you love the New World.

A few retro postcards to make you miss the Old Country, plus the White House to make you love the New World.

A long bar takes up the front half of of the restaurant, starting a few feet from the entrance and running all the way back to the dining room. There are a few small tables wedged into the space across from the bar, an indication of the volume of diners Osteria Morini sees daily. The walls around the bar are covered in photos and framed retro postcards from America and Italy, while the dining room is adorned with home-style touches such as paintings and shelves lined with kitchen accoutrements, from wine glasses to pots and pans. We were seated at a banquet table in the back left corner of the restaurant, providing great views of both the bustling kitchen and the packed tables. Clearly this deal is not really “insider info” anymore (if it ever was).

The view from our table of the rest of the dining room.

The view from our table of the rest of the dining room.

A look back at the kitchen (and secret bread warming drawer).

A look back at the kitchen (and secret bread warming drawer).

The Food:

My first bottle of Lambrusco, and probably my last (though Jacob and Mike liked it).

My first bottle of Lambrusco, and probably my last (though Jacob and Mike liked it).

The game plan, as always, was drinking and overindulging in shared plates. With that in mind, we decided to make the most of Osteria Morini’s “Industry Night” deal, ordering some Lambrusco to start. I had never had Lambrusco, so deferred to Mike who picked a bottle of Fattoria Moretto off the wine list. This was my first sparkling red wine, lightly carbonated with a punch of sweetness at the start and tart acidity at the end. I’m glad I tried it, but I’m not sure I would order it again. I think I prefer my Prosecco and my Chianti in separate glasses.

At the suggestion of our server, we ordered a few starters to supplement our pastas, beginning with the Lamb Crudo Crostini and the Insalata Mista. For the pastas, we ordered the Stracci, the Tagliatelle, and the Spallina. I had just come off of splitting a Salty Pimp that afternoon with my mother (wow, that’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d write), so I opted out of dessert (ostensibly, though bites were had), but Jacob and Mike finished the meal with the Torta de Olio.

 

Excellent bread, but really, no olive oil?

Excellent bread, but really, no olive oil?

Our meal began with a basket of complimentary, thick cut focaccia. The bread was puffy and warm, pulled from a warmer drawer outside the kitchen and sliced just before it was served. You can see in the photo the crackly, salt-speckled crust and pillowy interior, leagues above the generic Italian bread thrown on the table at many restaurants. The only disappointment was that it was served solo — nary a pat of butter nor drop of olive oil in sight. I was perfectly happy to chow down on the bread, and maybe Michael White thinks it stands alone, but I’d like to try it with a bit of olive oil just for the sake of science.

 

The Lamb Crudo -- deceptively filling considering its petite size.

The Lamb Crudo — deceptively filling considering its petite size.

All of our food arrived pretty quickly, our appetizers appearing on the table before we’d even finished the bread. At first I was concerned about the portions of the Lamb Crudo (olive oil, chives), since the plating seemed to heavily favor the crostini over the meat. However, the richness of the tartare proved that the plate was balanced. Normally I’m not particularly into raw foods (see my gradual acclimation to sushi), but I am a big fan of lamb, so it seemed like a risk worth taking. I enjoyed the gaminess of the meat in contrast to the fresh herbs mixed in with it. The lamb was finely ground, giving it a soft, slippery mouthfeel that spread easily on the crostini. Osteria Morini earns more points in the bread box, since the slices were griddled instead of baked, preventing the almost-stale, cracker-like hardness that can come with bruschetta, when the bread just shatters in your mouth and spreads crumbs everywhere. Here the bread was thinly sliced, crunchy but still pliable, and a great vehicle for the crudo. All in all, I’m glad I tried it, although in terms of personal satisfaction, I’m not sure I would get it again. I definitely missed the caramelization and tender chew you get from cooked lamb, but maybe it’s simply a matter of me working my way up to the concept of raw proteins.

 

Our other appetizer was surprising in a different way -- imaginative, light and refreshing.

Our other appetizer was surprising in a different way — imaginative, light and refreshing.

I hate to sound like a broken record already (we haven’t even reached the entrees, Maggie!), but I was nervous about ordering the Insalata Mista (mixed greens salad, apples, seasonal vegetables, Morini vinaigrette) because of disappointing memories of Olive Garden lunches in my youth. Those salads were sad specimens of greenery, limp romaine lettuce topped with stale croutons, flavorless cucumbers, and a handful of grape tomatoes. However, the dish’s description suggested Osteria Morini had more up it’s salad sleeve, and sure enough, the Insalata Mista far exceeded expectations. It was a great mixture of greens — crunchy, chunky romaine intermingled with radicchio, some peppery arugula, and a little frisee. The sweet red apples were thinly sliced and tossed with the pomegranate seeds in between the vegetables, the whole shebang covered with a dressing that coated the salad without weighing it down, just the right mix of acid and sweet. Weird as it might be to say this, it was a memorable appetizer salad, a refreshing and light entryway into the heavier pasta course.

 

The Stracci, crippled by its plating.

The Stracci, crippled by its plating.

Our pasta dishes arrived basically at the same time, so I’ll tackle them in order of increasing favorability. The Stracci (wide ribbon pasta, braised wild mushrooms, rosemary oil) was the least favorite of our choices, although I think I enjoyed it more than Jacob and Mike. Unfortunately, the dish suffered due to its plating — the long pieces of pasta clumped together, like an overpacked container of chow fun noodles. Instead of distinct pieces of wide ribbon, you ended up getting small stacks of layered, slightly gluey pasta. It was clearly fresh and hand-made, but the delicacy of that craftsmanship was lost when piled in a small bowl, which made it difficult to get a bite that had all of the components of the dish in it, and led to the pasta generally overwhelming the rest of the ingredients. However, when tasted separately, the mushrooms were great, and pairing them with rosemary is always a dynamite combination. I especially appreciated the light sauce, considering the weight of the pasta, and the parmesan on top was deftly applied, although again it was hard to mix it into the bulk of the dish because of the mass of starchy noodles. It seems like simply plating the Stracci in a longer or more oval dish would make it far more successful, since the simple ingredient list seems geared to have the pasta shine.

 

The Tagliatelle -- Michael White's version of mama's bolognese.

The Tagliatelle — Michael White’s version of mama’s bolognese.

The Tagliatelle (ragù antica, parmigiano) had been highlighted in a couple of reviews of Osteria Morini that I read, so I pushed for us to order it. I’d wager this dish best captures the aim of Osteria Morini, at least on the pasta side — classic, homestyle cooking executed with real skill and presented in a pretty, if reserved manner. The Tagliatelle was pretty much an elevated bolognese, a simple but stellar display of familiar flavors. The antica ragu combines veal, pork and beef, crumbled into a classic base of tomatoes, onions, herbs and spices. Here, the wavy strands of pasta were the perfect vehicle, allowing a twirl of the fork to scoop up the chunky sauce into the little crevices between noodles. The fresh cheese on top added a nice salty addition to the meat and harmonized the elements of the dish. It seems obvious to say, but you don’t realize how shockingly refreshing authentic red sauce is until you take a break from the Prego jar. Jarred pasta sauce is so sweet, where as at Osteria Morini the sauce never overwhelms the palate — the natural sweetness of the tomatoes is balanced but their acidity and the floral herbs. It’s visually evident that the Tagliatelle was just a far more balanced plate, since you could see the nearly equal proportions of meat and sauce to noodles.

 

The Spallina -- double the ravioli, double the fun.

The Spallina — double the ravioli, double the fun.

As satisfying as the tasty, but recognizable Tagliatelle was, I enjoyed the Spallina (double ravioli, squacquerone cheese, rabbit, porcini) the most out of our pastas because it took an item  I knew (ravioli) and stuffed it with an unfamiliar filling. Rabbit seems to be increasingly popular on NYC menus these days, but I have only had it a handful of times in my life, so I leapt at the chance to try Osteria Morini’s take. I also felt it was the most visually appealing in terms of presentation. I don’t think I’d ever seen double ravioli before, so I was delighted to find our bowl filled with petite ravioli pillows with a divot in the middle, splitting up the pockets of rabbit, mushroom and squacquerone (a soft, spreadable cow’s milk cheese). The dish seemed to be drizzled in some sort of balsamic reduction, acidic with a hint of sweetness against the umami-forward filling of mushrooms and cheese. The rabbit was subtle, just a hint of gaminess. There just seemed to be a perfect ratio of filling to pasta, allowing both the interior and the exterior of the dish to shine. I would definitely order a bowl of the Spallina for myself over the other dishes — it was new and intriguing, but still somehow instantly familiar and comforting (probably the cheese, cheese makes everything comfy).

 

The Torta di Olio -- an ode to olive oil sure to satisfy fans.

The Torta di Olio — an ode to olive oil sure to satisfy fans.

Now I had every intention of abstaining from dessert, but damn, it’s hard to resist a piece of cake in front of you.  And the Torta di Olio (olive oil cake, citrus marmalade, ricotta crema, espresso gelato) was a pretty sexy looking specimen, a thick slice of golden cake glistening with mouthwatering  sheen. I’ve never really liked olive oil cakes, but Osteria Morini’s version almost made me a convert — it was like a thick slice of pound cake soaked in oil. The taste was clean and instantly recognizable, and while it still hasn’t won me over, this was clearly a well-done version of the dessert. The accompaniments ranged in texture and flavor, from the crunch of the nut crumble to the silky richness of the ricotta crema, to the potent bitterness of espresso gelato, flecked with visible bits of beans. Like the Tagliatelle and the Lamb Crudo, this was a case of a well-executed classic dish incorporating high quality ingredients. All three were satisfying, especially if you’re already a fan of the dishes in most iterations, but I found the more unconventional plates at Osteria Morini to be the most memorable.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, it’s hard to argue against the value of a deal like Osteria Morini’s “Industry Night,” and I’d happily come back another Monday to try some of the other pastas and appetizers. From the restaurant’s general atmosphere to the service and the food, everything felt approachable and relaxing, intended to remind the diners of a night out at the neighborhood trattoria. The only complaint I had (which happens at a lot of restaurants when you order a separate beverage) is that the staff could have been more attentive to our water glasses, but I’m an extraordinarily thirsty person, so this might not bother others as much. Basically, if you can splurge, go whole hog and visit Osteria Morini any night of the week — try the risotto and tell me how it is! But if you’re picking and choosing with your grownup indulgences, check out “Industry Night” on Mondays and have yourself a rustic, homey meal that won’t burn a hole in your wallet. That way you can still buy your weight in Snickers bars.

 

Osteria Morini

218 Lafayette St.

http://www.osteriamorini.com/

Restaurant Week at Spice Market: Eastern Quotidian by Highly Trained Hands

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I’ve always been fascinated by fusion restaurants. They take a big risk by combining disparate cuisines, since it’s pretty easy to end up simply highlighting the worst parts of your original food cultures. Fusion is also one of those trends that many argue has been overdone, nearly guaranteeing a raised eyebrow if not a full-on eye-roll when you mention the hottest new fusion spot — oh right, we really needed someone to mash together Ethiopian and Ecuadorian food. (Wait, does that exist?)

I know that poorly executed fusion restaurants are out there, but I’ve yet to encounter one that truly disappointed me. I spent a number of birthday dinners in high school at Ruby Foo’s in Times Square, marveling at their takes on Chinese food made with a quarter of the grease used by my local takeout place. I even liked the few times I went to Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, first in Tampa, and later in Philadelphia. I’d never had Hawaiian food before, and I thought the Asian twist (logical, I suppose, given the geography and cultural heritage of Hawaii) worked as a great entry point into Hawaiian ingredients and preparations. I’ve been eager to try more traditional Hawaiian food since then (maybe even spam fried rice?), so if anyone has a recommendation for a spot in New York, I’d be very grateful.

When Summer Restaurant Week 2013 rolled around, I already had my eye on visiting one of Jean Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants. The man is a legend in the New York and world food scene, and what’s the point of Restaurant Week if not to briefly make reachable to the plebeian masses the haute cuisine of the upper crust? However, part of what made my Winter Restaurant Week meal at Kutsher’s Tribeca so satisfying was the way they reinvented familiar dishes (reuben spring rolls, anyone?), so rather than pick the more conventional Nougatine, I thought Vongerichten’s Spice Market might prove a more thrilling culinary adventure. And lucky for Jacob, his cousin Carolyn, and I, our Restaurant Week supper there last Sunday was exactly that.

 

First Impressions:

The modest exterior of Spice Market belies its intricately designed interior.

The modest exterior of Spice Market belies its intricately designed interior.

Spice Market is located in the heart of the Meatpacking District, caddy-corner to the Gansevoort Hotel. Walking up to the restaurant, I realized I had passed it a number of times, but never connected the space with the name. This is in part because of how unassuming the outside of Spice Market is — it’s housed in one of those nondescript Meatpacking former warehouses, built mainly of brick and wrought iron.

I'm pretty sure every multilevel restaurant needs to add a tower at the top of their staircase.

I’m pretty sure every multilevel restaurant needs to add a tower at the top of their staircase.

The interior, however, is a completely different story. Inspired by his experiences traveling through Asia, the aim of Spice Market is to apply classical French cooking techniques to popular Asian street food. The decor focuses mainly on this Eastern influence, blurring the lines between chic temple, nightclub, and opium den. The space is dominated by dark wood, vaulted ceilings, and Asian architectural features, from the multilevel, narrow staircase topped by what appears to be a bell tower (actually holding a lamp inside), to the draping of dark red and orange curtains all around, to the intricate wood carving that encloses the bar. The staff is dressed head-to-toe in orange Buddhist-esque robes, except for the white-and-orange-decked busboys (and the general manager, who wore a suit). Asian lanterns lend a soft glow to everything (hence my fuzzy photos), but at the same time you have the familiar exposed ceilings and pulsing music, leaving behind a zen setting for the louder tenor of the NY dining scene.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

 

I was first to arrive, so I made my way over to the bar and ordered a cocktail. Spice Market has a full bar with domestic and Indian beers and a variety of speciality drinks, created using housemade syrups and sodas. After conferring with the bartender, I went with the Passion Fruit Sangria (Gewurztraminer, Gran Gala, Blackberry, Orange). Jacob and Carolyn arrived soon after, and chose the Whiskey Passion Fizz (George Dickel No. 12, Passion Fruit, Chili, Ginger Ale) and Cucumber Chill (Dill-infused Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Cucumber, Lemon), respectively. I found my sangria light and refreshing (I’m obviously an ardent fan of the drink in general — Calle Ocho, anyone?), the white wine laying a more delicate base, and the Gran Gala (an orange liquer) mixing smoothly with the fruit components. The passion fruit itself wasn’t particularly prominent, aside from lending an overall tropical flair. I’d recommend it as a great drink for brunch, if you’re in the mood for something fun and fruity.

My Passion Fruit Sangria on the right, and Jacob's Whiskey Passion Fizz on the left. You can see a small glimpse of our orange-bedecked bartender in the background.

My Passion Fruit Sangria on the right, and Jacob’s Whiskey Passion Fizz on the left. You can see a small glimpse of our orange-bedecked bartender in the background.

Jacob’s Whiskey Passion Fizz had more of a kick to it than I expected (both in spice and strength), but I enjoyed it despite a dislike of both ginger ale and whiskey. Carolyn’s was my least favorite drink, although she was happy she picked it. She said it tasted like a pickle, which immediately made me wary, but when I took a sip I found it lacked the harsh vinegar quality I dislike so much, coming off more like cucumber water with a bit of a kick, with no real flavor of vodka at all. But let’s stop dilly-dallying with discussions of alcohol — the main attraction awaits.

The Food:

We were seated shortly after our set reservation time, and in general the staff was fairly attentive. Our waiter was happy to answer any and all of our questions at first, but he only appeared a few times to take our orders and check in at the entree stage. However, I saw the general manager walking around multiple times throughout the evening, scanning the floor and checking with tables, even adjusting a place setting once to make sure everything was aligned and straight. The food itself came very quickly, served family-style so that at one point we were almost overwhelmed by the influx of dishes. I was also happy to note the frequent refilling of our water glasses, a pet peeve of mine that pettily can strongly influence my overall impression of a meal.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Our meal started with a complimentary bowl of pappadum-type lentil crackers. I found the pappadums at most Indian restaurants to be either too bland and soft, or too burnt and smoky, but these were a different breed altogether. They were like lentil tortilla chips, thicker and crunchier, and more capable of scooping up the hot tomato chutney they were served with.

Both Jacob and I opted for the Restaurant Week menu, but Carolyn was more interested in Spice Market’s regular offerings. At first I was concerned, since some restaurants make everyone at the table opt into the RW menu if any diner chooses it, but our waiter quickly confirmed that Carolyn was fine ordering a la carte.

Carolyn chose the Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings and the Spicy Thai Slaw to start, and then the Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu as her entree. Jacob selected the Salmon Sashimi, followed by the Kimchi Fried Rice, and I ordered the Spiced Shrimp Broth, followed by the Wok Charred Daikon Cake. We all split two of the Restaurant Week desserts: the Black Sesame Cake and the Malted Chocolate Parfait.

The Spicy Thai Slaw Salad: not so spicy, but a refreshing way to start a meal.

The Spicy Thai Slaw Salad: not so spicy, but a refreshing way to start a meal.

The appetizers came out in a steady stream, starting with Carolyn’s salad. The Spicy Thai Slaw (with Asian pear, crispy shallots, and mint) was one of my favorite dishes of the night. A refreshing shredded cabbage salad, it had just a hint of heat that was balanced by the coolness of the mint and the sweetness of the Asian pear (similar in flavor to a mild apple). The crunch of the cabbage and the crispy shallots kept it interesting texturally, although by the time you reached the bottom of the bowl the salad was a little soggy from all of the pooled dressing.

Spicy Thai Chicken Wings -- these aren't kidding on the spice, but they'll put up a good fight against Buffalo Wild Wings.

Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings — these aren’t kidding on the spice, and they’ll put up a good fight against Buffalo Wild Wings.

The Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings (with sliced mango and mint) lived up to their name a little more. I’ve never been into wings, so this dish didn’t impress me all that much, but even as an outsider observer I could tell that the breading was truly crispy, and the meat was very tender and juicy. Much like the inclusion of the mint in the salad, here it worked with the mango to cool down the heat of the wings, which I found a little too spicy for my liking. If you are a wings fan, I’d definitely recommend giving this dish a go — it was lightly fried so that the crust gave great texture without veering into the extremes of either too crunchy or mushily falling off the meat.

Although Jacob and I were attempting to experience the majority of the Restaurant Week menu by splitting the dishes, we both found ourselves drawn to appetizers the other wouldn’t like. We tried to find common ground in the other two appetizers, but the Mixed Green Salad and Beef Satay just couldn’t stand up against our respective love of salmon and shrimp. So we gave each other a pass on the starters, and in retrospect it was a strong strategic move.

The Salmon Sashimi, delicately layered and covered in a creamy sauce.

The Salmon Sashimi, delicately layered and covered in a creamy sauce.

Jacob seemed to really enjoy his Salmon Sashimi (with Golden Garlic and Lemon Soy), which arrived in small slivers drizzled with a creamy sauce. I tried a piece (I’m trying to get on the raw fish bandwagon, one leg at a time, folks), and like my Seattle salmon encounter, I could tell the the fish was of a very high quality, even if the flavor didn’t do much for me. The sauce reminded me of scallion cream cheese — perhaps a vaguely Japanese nod towards bagels and lox?

The Spiced Shrimp Broth -- this photo doesn't do the depth of flavor of this soup proper justice at all.

The Spiced Shrimp Broth — this photo doesn’t do the depth of flavor of this soup proper justice at all.

Now I could go on and on about my Spiced Shrimp Broth (with glass noodles and herbs). If you’re a fan of shellfish, this was a mindblowingly good preparation of it, and has stuck with me out of all the dishes at Spice Market, even several days later. Truth be told, after being in New England this weekend, and Seattle just a few weeks ago, I was prepared to come back down to earth from shellfish heaven and relearn to be satisfied with New York’s pretty solid fish scene. But as an eternal shrimp lover, I couldn’t overlook this appetizer once I spotted it. This soup is like a punch in the mouth of shrimp — pure, luscious, somehow achieving the kind of deep flavor you usually have in a dense bisque, though this broth was very light (and bright pink). The bowl contained mostly long strings of the glass noodles with small chunks of shrimp at the bottom, making me think of pho but with a seafood twist (is there some Thai or Vietnamese non-coconut soup that I don’t know about? Please let me know, I will order it always). On top of the broth floated leaves of cilantro and basil, adding an herbal brightness to the natural umami of the shrimp. I legitimately could have had a gallon of this soup and left a happy camper.

 

The simple components of the Kimchi Fried Rice: beef, rice, kimchi. Still a solid dish, though.

The simple components of the Kimchi Fried Rice: beef, rice, kimchi. Still a solid dish, though.

However, this was just the beginning — next up, our entrees. Jacob’s Kimchi Fried Rice with Korean Beef came out first. You can see from the photo that the dish was heavier on the rice aspect than the beef. I found this especially disappointing, because the Korean beef was melt-in-your-mouth good. The shortribs were presented in a small rectangle lightly dusted with sesame seeds atop the rice, the individual strands of meat visible to the naked eye. Sticking a fork in, little chunks flaked away beautifully, like long-braised brisket. I can understand the restraint given how rich the beef was, but when you come across well done shortribs, it’s just hard to stop and savor the flavors laminating your tongue. The rice was nicely chewy, and had a bit of the pop from sour kimchi. It was much more subtle a taste than I expected, given my previous experiences with heavily pickled kimchi. The dish worked as a whole, but it was much more muted overall than I had anticipated, especially considering the limited and straightforward components of rice, beef, and slices of kimchi.

 

Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu -- intriguing and new, if a little much for a full entree.

Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu — intriguing and new, if a little much for a full entree.

Carolyn’s Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu in Black Bean Sauce lingered with me a bit more. Carolyn and I agreed that the tofu had a deep, smoky taste, but Jacob thought the tofu was only mildly flavored. Although I think smoked food can be hit or miss, I liked that the kitchen had achieved a burnt flavor for the tofu without altering the texture too much — this wasn’t charred to a crisp, but still the soft squares of tofu you find in miso soup. The pearl noodles were thick like udon, but not quite as long, and were tender from soaking up the moisture from the black bean sauce. The sauce had a great earthy flavor, full of fermented beans and infused with soy, coming off as just slightly sweet. I enjoyed the small bites I had, but I wouldn’t order it for my main course. I think a full bowl of it would end up being too cloyingly sweet and decadent.

 

The Wok Charred Daikon Cake -- redefining the idea of "cake" and unexpectedly addictive.

The Wok Charred Daikon Cake — redefining the idea of “cake” and unexpectedly addictive.

Last, but certainly not least, was my Wok Charred Daikon Cake (with scallions and peanuts). I was on a roll with my menu selections, because this ended up being my second favorite dish of our dinner, sliding in right behind the Spiced Shrimp Broth. I wasn’t sure exactly would arrive when I read the words “daikon cake” on the menu, and our waiter unfortunately didn’t give clarity. Knowing that daikon is a radish, I had to wonder if it would be some sort of tower of slices? The bowl of food that eventually arrived at our table was far from any definition of cake I’ve ever heard of — it looked more like a curry with a thick sauce, cubed pieces of unbelievably soft radish, slices of red chiles, scallions, and whole peanuts. Digging a little deeper while writing this post, it seems like (at least from Google image search) daikon cake is usually made from radish cooked and compressed into a square or rectangle. Spice Market’s take seemed to then deconstruct that cake, chopping it up into chunks, and folding it into a stew of sauce and vegetables. This gave the daikon pieces an almost eggplant-like texture, soft and succulent. While the rest of the dish verged on smooth and squishy, the peanuts were moist but still crunchy, which kept the texture from being too monotonous. The Thai theme comes out again in this dish, which I found reminiscent of a Thai curry in terms of the deep, layered flavors, and inclusion of peanuts. Salty, sweet, with just a tiny kick from the chile peppers, I just kept ladling more and more onto my plate.

I know this must sound highly suspicious coming from me, but dessert was kinda an afterthought for our dinner. After the stream of new exotic flavor pairings that had steamrolled across my tastebuds, I found our two desserts perfectly adequate, but far from showstoppers. I felt that the Black Sesame Cake (with green tea mousse and yuzu) was the lesser of the two dishes. Truth be told, I’ve had sesame desserts before — ice cream flavors and other versions of cakes, and I’ve never really gotten the appeal. I like sesame in savory dishes, but as a card-carrying chocoholic, it’s just never been sweet enough for me in a dessert setting.

 

The Black Sesame Cake -- with tasty shards of sesame brittle.

The Black Sesame Cake — with tasty squares of sesame brittle.

The cake arrived in a small bowl, a deep green square seated upon the green tea mousse, and topped with yuzu ice cream, shards of sesame brittle, and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds. The cake itself was a little dry, but the mousse and the yuzu ice cream added brighter flavors and a bit of moisture. Overall it just read too savory to me — I know green tea is not an unusual flavoring for Asian desserts, but I really only think of it in the context of a beverage, and while the citrusy taste of the yuzu was pleasing, I’m arbitrarily picky about fruit-based desserts.

 

The Malted Chocolate Parfait -- a delicious, if oddly American dessert.
The Malted Chocolate Parfait — a delicious, if oddly American dessert.

The Malted Chocolate Parfait (with caramel crumble and summer berries) was much more in my wheelhouse, and so it’s no surprise that I dug right into it. The malted chocolate came in the form of a mousse as the bottom layer of the parfait, topped with blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries, then the “caramel crumble” (basically a streusel topping), and finally vanilla ice cream and chocolate crunchies. I didn’t get much of a malted flavor, but as I’m not a fan of Whoppers, I wasn’t complaining. It was served in a small bowl, and I appreciated the modest portion size. Combined with the lightness of the mousse and ice cream, it was a good way to end the meal, with pure, fresh-tasting ingredients that didn’t weigh you down. After the variety of Asian-influenced dishes of the night, it was a little odd how All-American this seemed, from the fresh berries to the crumble. Overall the dessert was comforting, and I was glad I had it to contrast against the more exotic black sesame cake.

 

Final Thoughts:

My Restaurant Week trip to Spice Market was a fantastic dinner that had me trying new flavors, while still enjoying some well-executed combos I was familiar with. It’s a great bang-for-your-buck spot for Restaurant Week, since the menu doesn’t skimp on portions, and offers both dishes that appear on the regular menu, as well some RW exclusives. And when you take into account the caliber of the chef behind Spice Market, it’s pretty affordable in general (they offer a $25 lunch “bento box” prix fixe, and the tasting menu at dinner is only $48). I’m eager to go back and dive into the menu a bit more, since there were plenty of dishes that appealed to me, across all the categories, from appetizers to dessert (Ovaltine Kulfi — what is that, and can I eat it now?).

All in all, Spice Market gets a strong recommendation from me for good service, a trendy and fun vibe, and for offering genre-bending dishes that challenge more staid palates without pushing too far into exotic ingredients or spice levels. To me, that’s one of the best goals for fusion restaurants — to offer a smooth entryway for diners into new flavor combinations and cuisines through more well-known techniques. At Spice Market, Jean Georges gently coaxes his diners to step through those orange curtains and sample some street food from worlds beyond the NY dirty-water dogs and a bag from Nuts-4-Nuts. Sure, you’re missing the hustle and bustle of humanity from the markets of Asia, but maybe if Jean Georges does his job right, you’ll want to pay a visit someday and see just what inspired him in the first place.

 

Spice Market

403 W 13th St

New York, NY 10014

spicemarketnewyork.com

Doughn’t Let the Name Fool You: Far from the Assembly Line at Doughnut Plant

After my recent post about Cronuts and croissants, it seems only fitting that I complete the set with a look at a doughnut shop. I’ve never really felt the urge to explore the doughnut options in New York — to be honest, doughnuts fall pretty low on my list of desired desserts. It’s probably due to my limited exposure growing up, where my doughnut encounters consisted of rec soccer game boxes of Dunkin Donuts’ Munchkins, Entenmann’s Pop ‘Ems, and the occasional cider doughnut on apple picking trips. My Californian friends tell me that doughnuts are a whole different story on the West Coast, and perhaps if I had grown up there, I would have at least had more of an appreciation for a solid deep-fried delicacy. But with the nearest Krispy Kreme location states away, I puttered along in ignorance. Believe me, I was perfectly happy taking those Pop ‘Ems down when the opportunity arose, but no doughnut had ever truly made me think twice about what I was biting into.

My first glimpse into the larger doughnut universe came during my first year working in New York. A coworker was gifted with a large box from Doughnut Plant, a decadent doughnuttery on the LES. He was generous enough to share his goodies with the office, and in doing so, unintentionally opened up a personal Pandora’s Box of possibilities for me. There was nary an oozing Boston Creme Pie or half-glazed cruller to be seen. Instead, square and round yeast and cake donuts with exotic flavors like Lavender, Blackberry, and Pistachio were laid out in neat rows before me,  and as I bit into a coconut cream doughnut, I suddenly found myself fervently wishing they would open up a shop closer to the office.

Well, owner Mark Israel must have somehow heard my prayer, because less than a year later Doughnut Plant opened up a second location nearby in the Chelsea Hotel. But hopeless fool that I am, it took two years and a different job in a different state for me to finally pay a visit to the actual bakery. This weekend I finally made good on that promise to myself, braving the heat (on a day that just demanded ice cream — but goddammit, I was doughnut-bound and determined) and finally finding my way inside this New York doughnutopia.

First Impressions:

Doughnut Plant has a pretty extensive history for a New York bakery. This is not some flash-in-the-pan out-of-town whippersnapper trying to stake a claim on the dessert scene. Mark Israel has a family history steeped in baking prowess, and the origin of Doughnut Plant’s menu stems from his grandfather’s doughnut recipe. According to their website, Doughnut Plant has existed since 1994, first as a bicycle-powered delivery service that catered to such clients as Dean & Deluca and Balducci’s.  The original standalone LES location opened up in 2000, and besides the Chelsea shop, there are nine Doughnut Plants in Japan and one in South Korea.

The entrance to the Chelsea Hotel Doughnut Plant, unfortunately hidden by construction.

The entrance to the Chelsea Hotel Doughnut Plant, unfortunately hidden by construction.

While the entrance to the shop is pretty obscured from the street by scaffolding, once you’re actually standing in front of the doors, it’s hard to resist the allure of the Chelsea Doughnut Plant. The decor suggests a tongue-in-cheek play on the bakery’s name, featuring the industrial wrought iron and steel bars of a manufacturing plant, contrasted with brightly colored doughnut-themed decorations along the walls. Walking in, you’re faced with a visual dichotomy — on the right side is the counter, all metal and dark colors and serious business, while on the left there are tables and chairs made of lighter wood, fanciful decorated doughnut pillows on the wall, and even benches along the wall have a doughnut design on them. It’s Henry Ford meets Willy Wonka. I find the balance of whimsy and serious craftsmanship immensely appealing — just like Beecher’s, I really appreciate a place that recognizes how food can (and should) make people happy, whether you’re cooking it or consuming it.

The barred service area -- these doughnuts mean business.

The barred service area — these doughnuts mean business.

In an ideal world, these doughnuts pillows would be edible, or at least scraff and sniff.

In an ideal world, these doughnuts pillows would be edible, or at least scratch-and-sniff.

The Food:

I mean, seriously, how do you choose?

I mean, seriously, how do you choose?

Doughnut Plant has a rotating selection of doughnuts, based both on seasonal and daily specials. The variety is almost overwhelming, and I found myself struggling to pick a few flavors to try. Luckily I wasn’t eating alone — you guessed it, Jacob was along for the ride, or rather, driving the car, since he was the one really keen to check out Doughnut Plant in the first place.

There are ostensibly four options at DP — cake doughnuts, yeast doughnuts, filled yeast doughnuts, and mini-filled doughnuts, called “doughseeds” (aka DP’s version of a Munchkin). However, this overlooks the monstrous cinnamon bun (which looked outrageously tempting and diabetic-coma-inducing), as well as the churros. But this was not the time for such distractions — we were there for doughnuts, and doughnuts alone. After a difficult deliberation (chocolate hazelnut? blueberry? chocolate chip?), we settled on the Tres Leches cake doughnut, the Valrhona Chocolate yeast donut, and the Peanut Butter and Blackberry Jam doughseed. Good thing I had a salad for lunch.

The Peanut Butter and Blackberry Jam Doughseed -- great for jam lovers, but not salty enough.

The Peanut Butter and Blackberry Jam Doughseed — great for jam lovers, but not salty enough.

I didn’t seriously dislike any of our purchases, but the Peanut Butter and Blackberry Jam was my least favorite. I was surprised by this because it seemed to have everything going for it — I tend to like yeast doughnuts more than cake, I’m a huge peanut butter person (if it’s natural pb), and I tend to enjoy jelly doughnuts (especially from Orwasher’s). The doughseed was about double the size of a Dunkin Donuts‘ Munchkin, covered in a peanut butter glaze and speckled with real peanut chunks. The jam inside is made in-house, and I thought this filling was the best part of the pastry. The jam had a real natural quality to it, fruity without being overly cloying. The yeasty dough was light and full of air pockets (as it was for the Valrhona), and the glaze had a solid peanut butter flavor. My disappointment stems from my hope for a real salty/sweet one-two punch from this doughnut. I was surprised by the peanut pieces coating the outside of the doughseed — while their crunch added an unexpected textural contrast, the pieces were not really salted, and just didn’t add a huge amount, flavor-wise. As Jacob said, “If I were a Top Chef judge, I’d definitely call them out — you already had the peanut butter glaze, why add the peanuts on top?” Fortunately, DP offers other doughnuts filled with their homemade jam, which I’m much more interested in trying than their other pb doughnuts on a return visit.

The Valrhona Chocolate yeast doughnut -- surprisingly light, considering its diameter.

The Valrhona Chocolate yeast doughnut — surprisingly light, considering its diameter.

Jacob had his eye on the Valrhona Chocolate, despite being a professed cake doughnut lover. (Only after I happened to check their website did I notice that DP also offers a cake version of the Valrhona doughnut, so obviously he’ll have to go back and try that.) DP does not skimp on portion size for their yeast doughnuts. While their cake donuts are the more familiar, Homer-Simpson-dunk-in-coffee sized treats, the DP yeast donuts appear to be about 1.5 times the size of your average Krispy Kreme. Thanks to Jacob’s fist comparison, you can see we’re talking a Levain cookie/scone sized doughnut. This beast of a baked good was completely coated in chocolate, with a white icing V denoting its flavor. However, we were both shocked to discover that the inside was plain ol’ regular yeast dough, not the fully chocolate experience we were expecting. I can’t really complain about that, since the inside was perfectly airy and chewy and worked as a great vehicle for the chocolate outer layer. The coating had a prominent  and deep cocoa flavor to it. I think I would have preferred a slightly more bitter, smokier chocolate for the icing, since the sweetness of the interior dough would seemingly have the capacity to mitigate a stronger dark chocolate. Maybe I should try the Blackout or Triple Chocolate next time for comparison.

The famed Tres Leches cake doughnut -- a more measured doughnut -- let it grow on you.

The famed Tres Leches cake doughnut — a more measured doughnut that grows on you.

While waiting in line to order, I overheard a man say that DP is known for their Tres Leches cake doughnuts. I’m happy to report that this doughnut deserves those accolades. It was the perfect combination of glaze and filling, decadent without being overbearing. Although the cake dough was a little firmer than you’d find in a slice of actual tres leches cake, DP pipes a filling of sweetened condensed milk in the middle of the doughnut, preventing the insides from becoming too dry and crumbly. Like the Valrhona doughnut, the Tres Leches is fully coated, this time in a milky, vanilla-tinged glaze. It was more subtle in taste than I expected, but that made me appreciate the artistry all the more. I found this doughnut the most successful of the bunch because of its distance from conventional glazed doughnuts. While all three of our picks were inventive and beautifully rendered, the Tres Leches stood out because it made you consider the makeup of the doughnut while you were eating it. I’m sure I’m overthinking it (because this whole blog is pretty much about overthinking food), but if Mark Israel’s aim is to make innovative doughnut flavors that give you pause, well, he hit a home run here.

Final Thoughts:

You can't avoid doughnut imagery in this place -- look down at the bench you're sitting on!

You can’t avoid doughnut imagery in this place — look down at the bench you’re sitting on!

All in all, that first Coconut Cream doughnut I experienced from Doughnut Plant may never be bested, due both to nostalgia and to the eye-opening push it gave me into the world of  exotic doughnuts. However, everything I tried at Doughnut Plant this time around was artfully executed, from unexpected flavor combinations to perfectly baked and fried yeast and cake dough. It’s just plain fun to walk in there and see all the doughnut-mania, and once you do you’ll pretty much be unable to resist the alluring rows of glazed and gleaming doughnuts, begging you to chomp down on them. These ain’t your momma’s doughnuts, and if you’re open to a postmodern pastiche of desserty decadence, then step right up and see what Mark Israel can do for you. You might just find that your favorite type of creme brulee is the deep-fried doughnut kind. For those with an adventurous sweet tooth, Doughnut Plant is definitely worth checking out.

Doughnut Plant

220 West 23rd Street, btwn 7th & 8th Aves.

http://doughnutplant.com

Afternoon Jam ‘Sesh

I know you were all concerned about the direction of this blog after my last post, but not to worry, this week I’ll be talking exclusively about food. Despite bold pronouncements of New Year’s resolutions to eat more greens and work on my willpower over Oreo temptations, this post puts me right back in my comfort zone of dessert. At least this time I can blame the wild wanderings of my hyperactive sweet tooth on someone else — my good friend Laura.  Laura is also a dessert devotee, but her most fervent affection lies in the realm of jam- and jelly-based confections. So when it came to a holiday gift for Laura, I attempted to think outside the box. Overly informed foodie that I am, I noted the number of bakeries and markets in our neighborhood that offer jam-filled sweets. And so partly inspired by The Grand Cookie Crawl, and partly inspired by my own sugar-related curiosity, I came up with the concept of a jam crawl through the Upper East Side. Obviously, Laura was very much in favor of my inundating her with jammy delights, and so off we went on our sticky adventure.

Baked by Butterfield, one of the bakeries I had singled out in my research (they advertise first as a donut bakery, before any other pastries), is unfortunately  closed on Sundays, so as a backup plan I stopped by my nearby Crumbs Bake Shop before my rendezvous with Laura. I picked her up a Raspberry Swirl cupcake, but since Crumbs is pretty old hat in New York at this point, I felt it was a mediocre placeholder. The Raspberry Swirl cupcake is a vanilla cake filled with raspberry preserves and topped with vanilla cream cheese and raspberry preserve swirled frosting. I’ve actually never had that Crumbs’ cupcake, but I do enjoy some of their other offerings from time to time — their cakes are a little dry for my taste, but I really like their buttercream.

Luckily, there were plenty of more deserving dishes in our near future. Once the cupcake was safely ensconced in Laura’s fridge, we set out on the real route. In my Googling I had discovered that as fate would have it, Laura’s apartment is within five blocks of some of the best jelly donuts in Manhattan. And so very quickly we arrived at our first stop — Eli’s Manhattan.

Eli’s Manhattan

Just one small section of Eli's Manhattan

Just one small section of Eli’s Manhattan

Eli’s is the east side counterpart of the famous Zabar’s. The market has several sections, from the restaurant/cafe TASTE, to the wine store WINE, to the kosher bakery and grocery departments. So, much like Zabar’s, they’ve got you covered from babkas to burgundies. The “jam pockets” at the small stand by the checkout initially caught Laura’s eye, but I insisted we venture further into the store, since it had been the promise of excellent jelly donuts that sent us here in the first place. Eventually we found them in the real bakery section, along with a smorgasbord of pastries — muffins, cakes, turnovers, croissants, anything you could think to pair with a cup of coffee, basically. After a bit of hemming and hawing, Laura decided on an apple turnover, insisting that the gooey inside was basically like eating apple jam. I decided not to argue since it was her holiday present, after all, but I picked up a jelly donut hole for myself, to see if it would live up to the hype.

Turnovers galore!

Turnovers galore! Yes, that’s french toast by the slice next to it, to give you a sense of the enormous variety available.

My little jelly donut hole, next to some iconic black and white cookies.

My little jelly donut hole, next to some iconic black and white cookies.

With uncharacteristic patience and restraint, we somehow decided to collect all the components of our jam fest before diving in, and so carefully stowed the Eli’s goodies and headed off to stop #2 — Butterfield Market.

Butterfield Market

Note the frozen yogurt bar right in the window.

Note the frozen yogurt bar right in the window.

I actually didn’t know that Butterfield Market existed until last week when I walked by it on the way to the subway. Unsurprisingly, I was most interested in Baked by Butterfield, located a few doors down, but the rest of the Market is still worth visiting. It reminded me of some of the smaller speciality markets throughout the city — there was a prepared foods counter full of options like freshly made chicken parmesan and pasta salad, a section with a small variety of interesting cheeses, some harder to find foreign crackers and cookies, locally produced dairy products, etc. However, Butterfield Market does stand out by offering a frozen yogurt and toppings bar, and by featuring select goodies from the bakery every day of the week. Alas, no donuts were on display (clearly a future review waiting in the wings), but amongst the packaged cookies and bars we found traditional Linzer bars, which Laura immediately snatched up. Her mother has an ancient family recipe for Linzer bars, and Laura was excited to compare them to this commercial variety.

2013-01-06 14.23.56

It’s the old-school crosshatching that makes it legit. And yes, raspberry was the jam of the hour.

With our anticipation mounting, we made our way just a few blocks over to our last stop — Orwasher’s Bakery.

Orwasher’s Bakery
2013-01-06 14.34.22
Orwasher’s has actually been on my “weird/wonderful food of NY” list for quite a while, since they are renowned for both their bread and their jelly donuts. Orwasher’s is nearly a century old, started in 1916 by Jewish immigrant Abraham Orwasher. While the company was sold outside of the family in 2009, it continues to supply a number of restaurants through the city with its artisanal breads. But we weren’t there for the raisin walnut pumperknickel. As Orwasher’s proudly boasts on their donut posters– “we be jammin’”.

The bakery itself is a nice size storefront, cozy but large enough to feature a small table or two if they wanted to.  Orwasher’s instead devotes its space to their retail offerings, including jams and nut butters (from Peanut Butter & Co., yes also on my list), artisan cheeses, coffee, different varieties of pickles, and of course bread and pastries. What sets these guys apart, however, is the way they approach their jelly donuts. Each donut is hand-filled to order, using these amazing looking “jam guns” to stuff the fluffy receptacles. They offer a rotating selection of preserves from Beth’s Farm Kitchen in the Hudson Valley (which they also sell by the jar). In our continuing loyalty to the raspberry, Laura selected the red raspberry filling, and I went with black raspberry for my donut (of course I had to get one of my own). We then let our jaws unattractively fall to the floor as the woman behind the counter shot up each of our donuts. Check and mate.

The jam options

The jam options

Unfilled donuts, and the ridiculous "jam-guns" in the background.

Unfilled donuts, and the ridiculous “jam-guns” in the background.

Laden down with our booty, we went back to Laura’s for the final scoring of the jam crawl. The bounty spread decadently before us, we dug in:

Jam to Jam Comparison

The fruits of our not so intensive labor. Clockwise from top left: Butterfield linzer bar, Crumbs cupcake, Orwasher's black raspberry donut, Eli's donut, Orwasher's red raspberry donut, Eli's apple turnover

The fruits of our not so intensive labor. Clockwise from top left: Butterfield linzer bar, Crumbs cupcake, Orwasher’s black raspberry donut, Eli’s donut, Orwasher’s red raspberry donut,                 Eli’s apple turnover

Laura set aside the Crumbs cupcake for a later dessert date, so her rankings were as follows: top pick Orwasher’s donut, followed by the Butterfield Linzer bar, and finally the Eli’s turnover. Unsurprisingly, the Linzer bar (which I also sampled) while well-made,  fell short of the family standard. I think for the most part it’s hard for a plastic-sealed product to seriously compete with anything home baked, especially since Laura’s mother is quite the cook.

Now onto my personal donut battle. Truth be told, it really wasn’t much of a fight. Perhaps I would have been happy with Eli’s contender if I didn’t have Orwasher’s to compare it to. I’m a fairly uneducated donut eater — I grew up with Dunkin Donuts, and despite the protestations of West Coast friends, find Dunkin a pretty inoffensive standard. Eli’s donut hole comes in at about 1.5 times the size of a Dunkin munchkin, but that seems to be because Eli’s is much lighter and puffier. One revelation from my donut adventure  is that Dunkin’s donuts are remarkably dense, which may be why they often form serious lumps in your stomach post-consumption.

Eli’s donut hole was covered with a fine layer of powdered sugar, and inside was filled with bright red raspberry jam. I appreciated the delicate handling of the powdered sugar — often after a bout with Entenmann’s or Dunkin I get concerned that I resemble a shaky-handed cocaine addict.  The filling was very tart, and it totally overwhelmed the mild vanilla flavor of the donut itself. I would probably have had a hard time eating a full size one, but overall Eli’s is solidly superior to a munchkin. The best bet would probably be to buy one in the morning, since I found my donut a little stiff on the outside, although the inside was still soft and pliable.

You can see the wrinkly texture of the outer layer, which was a little too chewy from sitting out too long.

You can see the wrinkly texture of the outer layer, which was a little too chewy from sitting out too long.

Orwasher’s is my real recommendation of the day. Even beyond the adorable novelty of the jam-guns and the fact that you get to embark on a choose-your-own-adventure, donut-edition, the quality of their product is superb. The black raspberry jam was slowly oozing out of my donut as I unwrapped it, revealing how decadently overstuffed the donut was. Unlike Eli’s classic white powdered sugar, Orwasher’s coats their donuts in granulated sugar, which I felt made more of a flavor impact overall, enhancing the dough’s buttery taste. The jam was well balanced and more deserving of being the star of the show, the tartness helping to combat the sweetness, and tasting much more like actual raspberries. One of the best consequences of the filled-to-order system is that the inside of the donut remains dry instead of slowly soaking up the jam and turning mushy (which happens with both munchkins and Eli’s donut hole). Overall, Orwasher’s donut reminded me of a well-made sandwich — you’re not likely to rave about the bread, but if it’s really good quality it heightens the whole taste experience of the sandwich. The only thing that would have made my donut better was it it had been warmed up slightly before being filled. I guess I’ll just have to go back and see if that’s possible.

All right, I'll make the pun -- talk about a donut jamboree!

All right, I’ll make the pun — talk about a donut jamboree!

Between the variety of filling options, the fresh-made ingredients, and the attentive staff, I would definitely recommend paying a visit to Orwasher’s. You can see in the pictures above what looks like a Boston Cream Pie donut, not to mention the assortment of cookies, and the rotating seasonal jams.

All in all, Laura seemed to enjoy our afternoon, so hopefully our jam crawl was a success. I certainly loved sampling new bakeries, and I’m always excited to explore more of my neighborhood. All three of our stops seemed like worthwhile places to take out-of-towners, but for a uniquely New York experience I’d suggest Orwasher’s over them all (I’d also pick Zabar’s over Eli’s for a must-go list, since Zabar’s just comes off as a kookier place). So if you’re itching for something with jam or jelly that isn’t toast or peanut butter, hopefully I’ve provided some viable alternatives. I just hope next year Laura isn’t expecting me to give her her own personal jam-gun.

Crumbs Bake Shop
(various locations throughout NYC, I went to 1418 Lexington Ave)
crumbs.com

Eli’s Manhattan
1411 3rd Avenue, New York, NY
elizabar.com

Butterfield Market
1114 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY
butterfieldmarket.com

Orwasher’s Bakery
308 East 78th Street, NY, NY  10075
orwashers.com