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

 
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Birthday Humble Tart: Dinner at Narcissa

The entrance to Narcissa, tucked back behind the hotel's more casual restaurant.

The entrance to Narcissa, tucked back behind the hotel’s more casual restaurant.

 

I’ll hit a month at my new job this week, and one of the biggest lessons so far has been how little I actually know about food. I suppose it’s all relative (aren’t most things in life?), since I probably know far more about the ins and outs of animation than my new coworkers. But here I am, very much an amateur enthusiast, surrounded by people who have worked in kitchens and front of the house, who can list grape varietals like the names of their nieces and nephews, and could discern a julienne from a brunoise simply by touch. It can be a little intimidating at times, but I generally try to operate with an awareness of my own ignorance. I’d rather be surprised and delighted by something new, rather than rely on incomplete information to make decisions that may prevent discovery.

 

This all came to mind when thinking back on my recent birthday dinner at Narcissa, a popular farm-to-table restaurant in the Standard East Hotel. When I mentioned to my brother where I would be dining, he said “oh, I guess California cuisine is your favorite, then?” I hemmed and hawed (I hate picking favorites), trying to qualify what appealed to me about Narcissa’s menu (the emphasis on vegetables, the seasonal quality, the unconventional flavor combinations), claiming that it was somehow totally different from the delightful birthday dinner I had at Barbuto last year. But what I really should have said was “maybe.” The truth is I didn’t know the definition of California cuisine (here’s what Wikipedia has to say), and even with a bit of Googling I wouldn’t put all my favorite eggs in that particular basket.

 

Eh, enough dithering about known unknowns (ain’t that a timely idiom?). Regardless of categorization, I had another fabulous birthday dinner with my parents. Narcissa is certainly a buzzed-about restaurant in NYC right now, and it was lovely to have it live up to, and then exceed the hype.

 

First Impressions:

 

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A view into the open kitchen at Narcissa.

As I mentioned above, Narcissa is located in the Standard East Hotel, which reopened last year after extensive renovations. The entrance to Narcissa is tucked back behind the more casual restaurant, Cafe Standard, which has sidewalk seating. Narcissa has outdoor seating as well, but it’s made up of a small patio behind the dining room, creating a little oasis from the bustle of the city. I imagine it’d be lovely to sit out there in the sunshine (especially now that the restaurant is serving brunch).

 

The unexpectedly angular dining room at Narcissa.

The unexpectedly angular dining room at Narcissa.

Once you make your way past Cafe Standard, you’re greeted with a doorway surrounded by greenery and topped with a placard that reads Narcissa on a background of rolling farmland. The restaurant sources many of its ingredients from the farm Locusts on Hudson, where the eponymous cow Narcissa lives. Step inside and you’ll find a large open kitchen immediately to your left, maybe half of the size of the whole dining room. I beat both of my parents to the restaurant, and enjoyed watching the cooking and prep in action. To the right is the bar and dining room, decked out in soft white, golds, light woods, and blue-and-yellow striped banquettes. There seemed to be a prevalence of diagonals, from the square space of the room distorted by acutely angled windows, to our table which was not round, but actually octagonal. This lends a modern air to the casual elegance of the decor, which otherwise is kind of rustic chic — wooden/wicker chairs, no tablecloths. The bar area is sizable in itself, taking up about a third of the dining room space, staffed by at least two bartenders at a time to handle the orders of the dozen seats at the bar, collection of tables nearby, and the customers in the dining room.

 

The staff was friendly and charming from the get-go, offering plenty of advice on cocktails, and ever ready with refilling our (perplexingly tiny) water glasses or fetching us more bread. Throughout the meal our waiter explained each dish to us, even identifying components when we were confused, and even snuck us a few extra treats by the end. My mom was intrigued by the Buttermilk Ice Cream included in the Summer Sundae, but we passed on ordering it, so our waiter brought a tiny sample of it with dessert, alongside the Sundae’s pineapple sorbet. This, combined with the speedy, yet never pushy, service (we were out of there within 2 hours), helped to set a festive and exploratory mood. Plus, I always get a little bit of a kick out of dining at places where they refold your napkin for you — it’s the type of silly decadence that makes eating out an “experience.”

 

 

The Food:
After doing my requisite research and soliciting suggestions from a coworker, I came to my dinner at Narcissa armed with a post-it note crammed with dishes. The bad news is that, as a restaurant focused on seasonal ingredients, many of those items hadn’t made the transition from the Winter to the Summer menu. The good news is the ones that really mattered did, and with a little deliberation and negotiation, my parents and I settled on a repast covering a whole host of both highlighted dishes and unknowns. We decided to start with the Rotisserie-Crisped Beets, the Crab Salad, and the Potato Gnocchi, then I ordered the Lacquered Duck Breast, my mother got the Maine Scallops, and my father chose the Steamed Black Bass, along with a side of Supergreen Spinach for us all to share. Dessert (aside from our ice cream/sorbet sampler) was the Bittersweet Chocolate Tart and the Apricot Tart Tatin.

 

Complimentary bread served as a boule already sliced into quarters. Fresh butter that is barely needed on the fresh herbed sourdough.

Complimentary bread served as a boule already sliced into quarters. Fresh butter that is barely needed on the fresh herbed sourdough.

Our dinner began with a small boule of complimentary herbed sourdough bread, sprinkled with rosemary and served with a side of soft butter. The bread was crusty and crackly on the outside, with a whole wheat interior that was airy and chewy. I was more than happy to eat a piece on its own, though I have no complaints about the creamy fresh butter accompanying it. The bread was also exactly the right type of solid dough to sop up the remaining sauce from the gnocchi after we’d torn through the appetizer’s contents.

 

 

Potato Gnocchi -- delicate bundles of starch just begging to be popped one by one.

Potato Gnocchi — delicate bundles of starch tucked underneath shaved parmesan.

Speaking of, the Potato Gnocchi (fava beans, ramps, parmesan) was a solid, straightforward dish, perfectly fine but paling in comparison with our other hors d’oeuvre. The individual pieces of pasta were excellent — delicate little pillows of potato that managed to be chewy without being gummy — and I felt these were the best component. The rest of the pieces were certainly fresh, with the whole fava beans adding a summery brightness, but the broth and the cheese proved a bit too salty for me, and brought down the overall impact of the combination.

 

 

The Crab Salad -- a case for the value of hearts of palm.

The Crab Salad — a case for the value of hearts of palm.

If I hadn’t been told to try the Crab Salad (blood orange, hearts of palm, hazelnuts), I probably would have made the mistake of passing it by on the menu, simply because up until this point in my life, I’ve never met a heart of palm I liked. Now thanks to Narcissa, I think I might give them another go. This is a salad in the sense of chicken or tuna salad — hunks of shredded dungeness crab meat stuffed into a petite pot with an overhanging lip, mixed with sliced hearts of palm, pieces of chopped blood orange and hazelnuts, and plenty of sliced basil and parsley on top. The crunch of the nuts and the hearts of palm paired well with the softer textures of the crab and blood orange, and the addition of citrus acidity is always great with seafood. This dish was not a flavor bomb by any means, more about the combination of the ingredients than a hearty slap of crabmeat. My mother was underwhelmed by it, but I thought it was a light dish with a combination of acid, herbs and briny seafood flavors to wake up my palate before the heavier entrees.

 

 

Forget Boston Market's chicken, Narcissa's Rotisserie Beets prove rotated roasting is hardcore delicious.

Forget Boston Market’s chicken, Narcissa‘s Rotisserie Beets prove rotated roasting is hardcore delicious.

Although I enjoyed the Crab Salad, the Rotisserie-Crisped Beets (bulgur salad, apples, creamed horseradish) were one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. This is one of the dishes that has gotten a tremendous amount of buzz, so I went in with fairly high expectations, only to have them blown to bits by the real McCoy. Now I should be up front and offer a disclaimer: because I’m an old lady at heart, I’m really into beets. Like eggplant level of love for them. So if you’re not a beet fan, you might not have the revelatory experience that I did, but I would be shocked if you still didn’t enjoy the crap out of this appetizer. As the name implies, this dish shows off the rotisserie oven that Narcissa is known for, with the beets roasted to a blackened crisp on the outside. From the photo you might think they’re crusted with something, but it’s actually just the charred exterior, creating a crunchy shell that holds a supple, deep violet beet flesh inside. Not surprisingly, the flesh is super-giving, your fork gliding through it. The bulger, apples and herbs add some bulk to the dish, all of which is served on a pool of creamed horseradish sauce. Once again, I found myself face-to-face with an ingredient I largely avoid. Horseradish means one thing to me — maror (bitter herbs) at Passover, where it’s sandwiched between two pieces of matzoh in an obligatory ritual I’d otherwise opt out of. But here the bite of the horseradish was softened by the cream, retaining enough power to counter the sweetness of the caramelized beets and raw apples chunks. Overall, it was a great showcase of the skill of the kitchen — taking something as mundane as beets and elevating it through basic techniques. This is actually a perfect example of what I love about the recent turn towards giving vegetables their due — maybe it’s because I’m becoming a lame-o adult who actually loves eating well-prepared veggies, but I think people in general would change their minds about brussels sprouts or beets if given the opportunity to have dishes like this one (or simply being exposed to better cooking options than just the pile of steamed vegetables sitting on your plate at Outback).

 

 

The Maine Scallops with somewhat muted lobster butter.

The Maine Scallops with somewhat muted lobster butter.

There was only a little bit of downtime before our entrees arrived. I had been tempted by both of my parents’ choices, since the dish I had eyed from all the reviews, the lamb loin, had not made it onto the summer menu. So once I had that out of the way, I zeroed-in on the Maine Scallops (asparagus, green garlic, potato puree, lobster butter), but that was my mother’s top pick, so I went with my other menu kryptonite, the duck breast. Her dish came with four sizable scallops, seared to an exquisite golden-brown on top, but still a pale off-white on the sides and interior. They were melt-in-your-mouth smooth, not really seasoned beyond basic salt and pepper. The lobster butter, which my mother had been especially excited about, seemed to be located in the sauce underneath, and had a surprisingly subtle flavor. I had expected it to be more like a bisque with a real lobster tang to it, but I can understand the restraint given the delicacy of scallops — you don’t want a taste as recognizable as lobster to overpower the main component of a dish. This entree seemed to be the most classically executed and plated dish, so the vegetables were straightforward but well-cooked, with shaved slivers of asparagus and a silky potato puree, and greens that the menu lists as green garlic, but I thought looked like fiddlehead ferns. Then again, what do I know, I’ve never actually tasted fiddleheads, so I couldn’t discern a difference based on flavor.

 

 

Our side of Supergreen Spinach, which cannot be accused of false marketing.

Our side of Supergreen Spinach, which cannot be accused of false marketing.

We also shared a side order of the Supergreen Spinach (potato chips). You can’t see it in this picture, but the dish totally lives up to its name — we’re talking Incredible Hulk bright green. The potato chip topping was a cute play on the common steakhouse sides, and I definitely enjoyed it, but I think it wasn’t particularly memorable outside of its gamma-irradiated hue. Just solid creamed spinach, and nowhere near as innovative a use of potato chips as the incorporation into the Cod Brandade at Picholine.

 

 

The Steamed Black Bass -- so good it inspire musical theater references.

The Steamed Black Bass — so good it inspires musical theater references.

My father’s Steamed Black Bass (french curry broth, eggplant, toasted almonds) also looked great to me because of the accompanying items (as I believe Julie Andrews sang, curry, eggplant and almonds are a few of my favorite things). I thought the plating of the dish was just gorgeous, with the fillets sitting firmly atop the little hill of vegetables, just slightly bowing to show how soft the flesh was. You don’t think of steaming as a particularly exciting cooking method, but here it prevented the skin from becoming too soggy while the fish meat was easy to flake away with your fork. Unlike the scallops, I thought the sauce defined the taste of the dish. The curry had a strong flavor without real heat to it, and the fish and eggplant pieces soaked it up easily. The toasted almonds mirrored the nuttiness of the curry, and gave a nice crunch to an otherwise pretty soft dish. I think I would have been plenty satisfied if I had ordered this dish, but having now tasted the duck, I’m going to struggle to try other entrees if I return to Narcissa.

 

 

The Lacquered Duck, a dish now in my lifetime hall of fame.

The Lacquered Duck, a dish now in my lifetime hall of fame.

The Lacquered Duck Breast (parsley root, melted leeks, rhubarb) was hands-down my favorite dish of the night, and no joke, I’ve been actually thought about this dish several times in the weeks since my birthday dinner. I adore duck, and this might truly be the best duck I’ve ever eaten. First things first, it was a massive duck breast — this duck had Double D’s, and was clearly very well fed. The “lacquered” crust (which Google tells me just means a sweet glaze that lends itself to caramelization and the appearance of a lacquer-like sheen) was shiny and gave the skin a crunchy, crackly texture, and its sweetness enhanced the gamey flavor of the duck meat underneath. There was a much appreciated hint of tartness from the rhurbarb, which was echoed by the acidity of the melted leeks, which were almost like a puree in texture. I’m not sure how great my breath smelled after finishing the leeks, but I thought they served a similar purpose to the horseradish sauce in our beet appetizer — the bite of the ingredient softened by its preparation. Cutting into the breast revealed a cross section of medium rare and bloody meat topped by a full layer of fat sitting just below the crust. I felt like I do when there’s a bit of fat on steak, and I tell myself I should just cut it off and avoid it. But what can you do when it’s an integral part of the duck breast makeup? So I demolished it. The dish also came with what I thought were parsnips, but now realize was actually parsley root, which looks similar but is less sweet, again a very interesting and intelligent strategy when paired with the delicious but sugary glaze on the breast. This dish was relatively simple in its components, but really unlike any preparation of duck I’ve had before, and I can’t get over how addictive the combination of the duck meat and that glaze was. I would seriously go back to Narcissa for the beets and the duck alone.

 

 

The Apricot Tart Tatin, visually stunning but too sweet for my taste.

The Apricot Tart Tatin, visually stunning but too sweet for my taste.

The desserts certainly didn’t lower the overall level of the meal, but they were just more pedestrian compared to the earlier standout dishes. I think my dad was a big fan of the Apricot Tart Tatin (goat milk ice cream, pepper caramel), but I ultimately found the dessert cloyingly sweet. I enjoy the traditional apple tart tatin, and I do like apricot and apricot-flavored things generally, but here the apricots were almost like ovals of marmalade in their consistency, completely cooked down and syrupy. The best part of the dish was the pepper caramel, which I’d vouch is superior to salted caramel. Rather than enhancing the sweetness through salt, I think the pepper provides an interesting contrast that confused my tongue a bit. Not to harp on one point, but it was the same deal as the horseradish sauce and the melted leeks, where a bit of savory flavor made me stop and think for a second about what I was eating, how all the components came together.

 

 

The Bittersweet Chocolate tart, an exercise in tempered sweetness.

The Bittersweet Chocolate tart, an exercise in tempered sweetness.

No surprise that the Bittersweet Chocolate Tart (curry-roasted bananas, espresso ice cream) was a little more up my alley. The outer shell was crisp, looking almost bruleed on top, and inside was a dark chocolate mixture somewhere between a molten lava cake and mousse. The sweetness was tempered in every element of this dessert, from the selection of a darker chocolate base for the tart, to using the bitterness of the espresso to tamp down the gelato’s sugar, to adding curry as a savory element to counter the caramelized bananas. Despite my prior misgivings over espresso gelato at Osteria Morini, I really liked Narcissa’s version, which I felt has less of a burnt tone to it. Add in the Oreo-like cookie crumbles strewn throughout the dish, and I was more than happy to blow out the candle and let this dessert cap off a remarkable birthday dinner.

Final Thoughts:

 

What impressed me most about Narcissa was the deft handling of a variety of preparations, from the more classical techniques and flavor profiles of European cuisines to more unusual takes on American dishes. My parents and I had three radically different entrees and all of them were stunning in their own regard. They really ran the gamut, from the playful and elegant plating, to the provocative pairings of savory and sweet — themes that were echoed in every course of our meal. With a lovely atmosphere, attentive service, interesting cocktails, and a progressive menu of fresh, seasonal farm-to-table food, I would strongly recommend Narcissa to anyone looking for an American restaurant with a global eye. Perhaps that’s even one definition of Californian cuisine?

 

Speaking of, I owe my brother an apology — on Narcissa’s own website, they claim to “marr[y] the clean flavors and impeccably-sourced ingredients of California cuisine with new techniques of roasting, rotisserie and slow-cooking.” So count that as yet another reason to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. Or rather, to stop talking and start eating.

 

Narcissa

21 Cooper Square (between 5th St. and Bowery)

http://www.narcissarestaurant.com/

Brief Bites: 5oz Factory

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

 

The Set Up:

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Bites:

 

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

Our melts arrived snugly wrapped and labeled.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

A closer look at those cute cow gummies.

A closer look at those cute cow gummies.

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

 

The Last Licks:

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

 

5oz Factory

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

http://5ozfactory.com/

 

More is Less: Choice Anxiety at Sembrado

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

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

First Impressions:

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

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

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

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

Food:

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

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

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

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

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The physically imposing El Sundae.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

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

Final Thoughts:

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

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

Sembrado

432 E. 13th Street

http://sembradonyc.com/

From Nostalgia to Next Steps: Vivoli Il Gelato at Macy’s Herald Square

One of the themes I hope I’ve expressed over the course of this blog is my personal belief in the value of context when it comes to food. While certain dishes can linger in your mind due to their astonishing flavor profile, more often than not, the nostalgia we feel towards a certain meal derives from our memories of the occasion — the company, the conversation, etc. Recent scientific studies have shown that context affects the experience of eating on the most basic levels, from the type of dish you use to the material of your utensils. The steak I had at Peter Luger was certainly outstanding, but what made that night so fun was the anticipatory glee of my friends, the quirky service, and the halo of legendary status that enshrouded the restaurant.

Context has everything to do with my memories of eating and drinking in Rome. After 3 months of living in increasingly damp and chilly Glasgow, I scheduled a weekend trip to Rome in the last few weeks of my semester abroad. By that point the Scottish winter was definitely settling in, with freezing rain and snow soaking through my inappropriately American sneakers and bestowing a malevolent and interminable frizz upon my scalp. With the bulk of my finals work behind me, I hopped aboard the Continental equivalent of the Chinatown bus — good ol’ RyanAir– and fled southeast. I distinctly remember walking through some ruins near the Roman Forum and seeing a small grove of orange trees in bloom, a physical symbol of the brightness and thriving life around me, far from the early sunsets and slush-slicked slopes of my dorm back at the University. And oh, did I gorge myself in Italy, seizing upon the fresh pasta, biting espresso, and of course, the gelato. Like many of my fellow tourists, I found a way to have gelato every day of my trip, reveling in the creamy thickness of each scoop, the richness of the slivered chocolate in the Stracciatella, the goopy caramel swirls. I know I didn’t hit the haute cuisine of Rome during my stay (in fact, I’m pretty sure I ate at many a restaurant the locals would sneer at), but by taking a step back to examine the context, my rapturous gastronomic experience is easily explained. It was a break, an escape in every sense of the word, from schoolwork, responsibilities, and endless cafeteria meat pies and curries. Add in the fact that I was basically surrounded by works by my favorite sculptor, Bernini, and you can understand why to this day I enthusiastically argue the merits of Rome, and continue to wish fervently for the chance for a return trip.

With this kind of overwhelmingly positive nostalgia, it’s no surprise that I hold the gelato I had in Italy in the highest esteem, upon a pedestal that may be too lofty to reach in reality. When I mentioned a new gelato place called Vivoli Il Gelato to Jacob a few weeks back, he excitedly asked if it was owned by the same cherished Vivoli he experienced in Florence. A quick bit of Googling revealed that indeed it was, and so of course we had to see how authentic Italian gelato would fare against the recent triumph of American-bred Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Could sourcing the homeland bring me back to the bliss of yester-year?

 

First Impressions:

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

Vivoli’s location is liable to make a New Yorker cringe. The gelateria is not tucked away in some hole-in-the-wall corner of Red Hook as the hip foodie might hope, but instead placed smack dab in tourist-filled Herald Square, on the sixth floor of the flagship Macy’s. I’ll admit to having a true distaste for the area, generally overflowing with sightseers stumbling from Penn Station to the Empire State Building, or minimizing available sidewalk space by lingering over the window displays. But if you struggle through the crowds and hop onto the elevators on the 34th St side of Macy’s, you’ll shoot up to the sixth floor and be treated to the gorgeous views that make up a large part of the appeal of Stella 34 Trattoria, the department store’s  mammoth new restaurant/cafe.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Stella 34 takes advantage of its height above the hustle and bustle, featuring a wide open, airy space decked out in swathes of white tile, accented by black chairs and benches. The bulk of the seating (both for table service and takeaway) is situated next to the giant windows looking east over Herald Square. It was a clear day when we visited, resulting in a ton of sunlight pervading every corner of the restaurant.

 

The Food:

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli's small corner of the cafe.

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli’s small corner of the cafe.

Along with Vivoli‘s gelato, Stella 34 Trattoria serves sandwiches, flatbreads, pizzas, salads, and pastries, and we couldn’t help but be inundated with the delicious smells of melting cheese and sizzling meat as we ate our gelato. It’s a great move by Macy’s, taking advantage of the relative dearth of high quality, quick-service restaurants near Penn Station. I would definitely meet someone at Stella 34 for a quick bite before hopping on a train or bus, or to warm up post harried holiday shopping come December.

A passel of possible scoops.

A passel of possible scoops.

But this visit was all about Vivoli, and the question of whether authentic Italian gelato can find a home in the pantheon of American commercialism. Vivoli’s section of the cafe is located on the opposite side of the seating area, facing out onto the houseware and dining department. The menu states that flavors change seasonally, but during our visit Vivoli had 13 options to choose from. All the gelati offered were renditions of Italian classics, from basic Crema (aka sweet cream) to Pistachio to Stracciatella. While Vivoli does not offer the physical evidence of the gelato making process, like Il Laboratorio (and therefore the slight air of mysterious sugar science), what they do provide is a clear-cut explanation of the natural and specialty-sourced ingredients in their gelato. The menu does not describe what each flavor is, but rather lists the ingredients that go into it. For example, the Pistachio is listed as “Bronte pistachios from Sicily, Italy, whole fresh milk, fresh eggs, sugar” (emphasis theirs).

The menu displayed by the gelato case -- it's all about the ingredients, baby.

The menu displayed by the gelato case — Vivoli lets their ingredients speak for themselves..

After some serious deliberation, we decided on the Bacio, the Croccante, the Fragola, and the Limon. Unsurprisingly, since the shop is located in a major tourist area, this is not inexpensive gelato. We opted to share the largest size, the Grande, which nets you up to 4 different flavors and costs $6.75 (full disclosure: we also just wanted to try as many flavors as possible). To be fair to Vivoli, though, you do end up with a sizable serving, and I thought there was more than enough for two people split. And as their spare ingredient list would suggest, you are getting a pretty damn high quality dolce for your dollars.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Limon, Bacio, Croccante, and Fragola.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Croccante, Bacio, Limon, and Fragola.

I was drawn to the Bacio (hazelnuts from italy, cocoa powder, whole milk, farm eggs, sugar) and the Croccante (almonds from italy, whole mlik, farm eggs, sugar) because of my gelato experiences in Seattle. After loving the Bacio di dama from D’Ambrosio Gelato, I was excited to see a similar profile at Vivoli. This flavor, however, was closer to frozen Nutella, with a deep cocoa taste and a nice crunch from the hazelnuts. I hate to say it, but I think I’m now a full-on chocolate/hazelnut convert — I still don’t particularly like hazelnuts on their own, but I’ve found I really enjoy the combination. The Bacio ended up being the knockout champ at Vivoli — with its decadent, dark cocoa plus the sweet, buttery bite of hazelnuts, I’m hoping that this is not one of the seasonal flavors that will get rotated out.

You may remember how I waxed rhapsodic over the Toasted Almond gelato I had at Fainting Goat Gelato in Seattle. I’m pretty sure I will now eat anything that is almond-related or almond-adjacent, so it’s no surprise that I was thoroughly satisfied by the Croccante. It was my second favorite behind the Bacio, just absolutely fantastic — delicate almond flavor, creamy texture, sweet without coating your teeth in sugar.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

The Fragola (fresh strawberry, sugar, water) and Limon (fresh lemons, sugar, water) were actually sorbets, since a sorbet is defined by the lack of dairy. Both had the strong, natural taste of their base fruit ingredients. Of all the gelati we tried, the Limon had the least creamy consistency, reminding me of the Italian ices I used to buy at local pizzerias growing up (but with way fewer additives). It was very fresh, and extremely tart, tasting pretty much like frozen lemonade. It was refreshing in small doses, but despite Jacob and my deep devotions to dessert (and cleaning our plates like good children), we actually left a bit of this in the cup, finding it just a little too overpowering in the end.

Jacob had declared that the Fragola gelato he had in Italy was unreal, so that was the one flavor I knew we were going to order going in. It reminded me of Yoplait strawberry yogurt, if Mr. Yoplait himself had picked the strawberries from the vine and hand-crafted the dish for you. Although I love strawberries themselves, I’m usually a little more tentative about strawberry ice cream, generally avoiding the pink stripe in the rare occasions I have to eat Neapolitan. However, I will admit that this was definitely a superior product. I didn’t regret ordering it, but I would probably opt for another one of the sorbets next time around, especially because I expect the sorbet selection will be the part of the menu most dependent on the season.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Visiting Vivoli Il Gelato was a great exercise in contrast after so recently experiencing Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Both companies make an exceptional product, but Vivoli is much more mainstream, making traditional flavors with simple ingredients, rather than the mad scientist approach of Il Laboratorio (although I suppose that’s just something to take for granted, considering their name). While I can’t speak to the consistency of Vivoli compared to their native production in Florence, their gelato I had in New York was impressive in both execution and taste. It makes me curious about the rest of the offerings at Stella 34 Trattoria, and if they meet the high mark set by Vivoli.

Can any new experience truly surpass the heady heights of a cherished memory? Perhaps we shouldn’t aim as high as that — maybe it’s enough to be content with making some wonderful new ones. Carpe diem, or carpe gelato, in this case. And maybe there’s some merit to stripping off our jaded New Yorker coats once in a while to bask in the bliss of touristy ignorance. So if you have a bit of shopping to do, you might as well taste some superb gelato at Vivoli while you’re at it. Sure, you may have to be shell out a few more bucks per scoop, but just imagine that you’re taking a trip to Italy and have to deal with the Euro exchange rate. At least this time you’re saving the cost of a flight.

 

Vivoli Il Gelato (at Stella 34 Trattoria)

Macy’s Herald Square

151 W. 34th St., Sixth Fl.

http://www.patinagroup.com/restaurant.php?restaurants_id=139

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

The Blue Duck Tavern: Exceptional Food, Exceptional Service

This is the part where I give you all the excuses for the lateness of this post, such as the fact I was down in DC for the weekend (hence the Chesapeakean restaurant review), or that the movie I worked on, EPIC, is coming out this week (go see it — it’s a fun family movie, it’s beautiful, and it’s even got Beyonce in it. Seriously, what are you waiting for?). But enough of that. You’re here to read about food, so let’s cut the chit chat.

I spent this past weekend in DC with my immediate family — a lovely, if brief family reunion that largely revolved around the meals we were eating. I’m starting to discover the unexpected downside of amateur food blogging — a lot of my friends and family expect that I’ll write about whatever restaurant we happen to be in. Obviously this isn’t a real burden (children starving in Africa, etc), and a fair amount of the time they’re right, since I don’t eat out all that often (pretty much just the once a week that feeds this blog). So when my oldest brother Charles, the DC resident, suggested the Blue Duck Tavern for dinner on Friday night, the rest of my family turned to me and said “so you’re writing about this for your blog, right?” With all eyes on me, I had no choice but to oblige. Hopefully this review lives up to their expectations.

 

First Impressions:

The view looking back from our table to the front entrance.

The view looking back from our table to the front entrance.

 

The Blue Duck Tavern is located in the Park Hyatt in the Foggy Bottom Neighborhood of DC. The hotel’s architecture seemed focused on clean lines, big windows, high ceilings, and metal, but the interior of the restaurant featured more rustic touches like plain wooden tables and chairs, and a lovely bricklaid outdoor patio with a fountain. The restaurant serves American cuisine with a focus on farm-to-table ingredients cooked in classic styles, like braising and roasting.

The open staff pantry and kitchen, with the all the dirty work on display.

The open staff pantry and kitchen, with the all the dirty work on display.

 

One of the most interesting elements was the open staff pantry and kitchen which connects the bar area of the restaurant to the dining room. During our meal I saw various staff plucking herbs and vegetables out of the pantry, and got to briefly watch my dessert being assembled. My 3 year old niece loved being able to watch the chefs at work (especially when they were scooping ice cream).

Dessert in progress -- can I get one of these setups for my apartment?

Dessert in progress — can I get one of these setups for my apartment?

 

BDT gets extremely high marks for service. I wasn’t planning on eating at any place fancier than a Chipotle, so I found myself woefully underdressed for our dinner, rocking jeans and a Penn Class of 2010 sweatshirt (go Quakers!). However, our wonderful server Mike and the rest of the staff treated us just as politely and attentively as any of the more finely coiffed diners. It might have helped that we were dining pretty early, around 5:30pm, but I’d like to think that BDT just prizes itself on exceptional customer service. Certainly they bent over backwards to accomodate us, from giving my niece “plain twisty noodles on a plate” (her direct quote) to switching my drink order from a glass of Riesling to Viognier (a great, underappreciated white wine variety if you ask me). Throughout the entire meal Mike was happy to explain any piece of the menu and offer his recommendations on serving size and side dishes. It was a level of service I’ve only encountered at the highest level of fine dining, but here was paired with a more low key approach that fosters a sense of high caliber family dining.

 

The Food:

Just like the service, the food at Blue Duck Tavern is straightforward and well-executed. This is not the realm of modernist gastronomy — you won’t find any foams or maltodextrin, just farm fresh ingredients cooked in classic fashion. Since there were 8 of us ordering, I was almost overwhelmed by the variety and multitude of dishes we tried, so my commentary might be somewhat limited. There’s also the problem unique to my family that we all eat unhealthily quickly, so snagging a taste of everyone’s dish requires catlike reflexes.

One of many complimentary bread baskets, already largely demolished by my family.

One of many complimentary bread baskets, already largely demolished by my family.

 

Our meal started with a we’ll-show-Olive-Garden endless bread basket of white and multigrain sourdough, served with fresh butter. I preferred the multigrain, which was chock full of various seeds and had a great toasted, rye flavor.

Mike informed us that the best strategy at BDT is to plan on a family style meal, since many of the entree portions fall on the generous side. With that in mind, we each ordered appetizers — ending up with groupings of the Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, the Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad, and the House Smoked Trout.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, a delicate presentation that belies the richness of the dish.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, a rustic presentation that belies the delicate balance of the dish.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart came with goat cheese and bitter greens, and was pretty much a decadent quiche with a buttery, flaky crust. The chard and the greens helped to temper the richness of the goat cheese, and I appreciated the contrasting bite of the onion. Although I had assumed this would be my favorite appetizer (plying me with cheese and pastry is like offering Buster Bluth several flavors of juicebox), I actually ended up liking my salad more.

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The Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad — crunchy, creamy, and making me rethink my position on brussels sprouts.

The Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad was served with walnuts, parmesan cheese, and a creamy dressing. It was salty, with a strong parmesan taste, but nicely balanced with by the inclusion of  apple pieces for sweetness. Garlic croutons, radicchio, walnuts and the parsley added texture to the dish, so it was alternately crunchy and soft, depending on your bite. I don’t usually like brussel sprouts, but the combination of flavors and textures, plus the delicious dressing made me scarf it down.

The Smoked Trout -- not my slice of fish, but my father and brother enjoyed it.

The Smoked Trout — not my slice of fish, but my father and brother enjoyed it.

It will come as no surprise that my least favorite appetizer was the Smoked Trout, served with potato salad, ramps, and spiced pecan. As I’ve mentioned previously, I am an embarrassment to my family and my heritage with my distaste for smoked fish (luckily I have the Jewish guilt gene in spades). However, I found BDT’s smoked trout more mild — the dominant taste coming off less briny and smoky and more fresh fish.  The dish came with a creamy sauce and new potatoes that were soft without being mushy.

 

We supplemented our main course orders with several sides to share. The Blue Duck Tavern is one of Charles’s favorite restaurants in DC, so he had plenty of suggestions for slam-dunk side dishes. Based on his recommendation, we ordered the Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, the Hand Cut Triple Fries, and the Creamy Stone Ground Grits with Red-Eye Gravy. For entrees we got the Braised Beef Rib, the Wood-Fired Wagyu Culotte of Beef, the Buttermilk Poached Chicken, the Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops, and the Wood Oven-Roasted Baby Vegetables. Oh, and our plain twisty noodles of course.

The Braised Beef Rib -- a family favorite, except for this black sheep.

The Braised Beef Rib — a family favorite, except for this black sheep.

Consensus was that the Braised Beef Rib was the prize dish, although iconoclastic rebel that I am (not), I actually like the Wagyu more. The Rib came with housemade steak sauce, and was cooked to the point of falling-apart tenderness. It had a strong beef flavor, slightly smoky. I’m going to play the Momma’s girl card and say that in terms of brisket, I either like my mother’s sliced brisket (a Seder requirement, natch), or the more intense smoky and flaky BBQ brisket (in NY, Dinosaur BBQ serves my favorite, although there are some new competitors I need to try).

The Wagyu Culotte -- better than a lot of cuts of meat I've had at steakhouses.

The Wagyu Culotte — better than a lot of cuts of meat I’ve had at steakhouses.

The Wagyu Culotte was served with a charred onion vinaigrette, and it was a wonderfully flavorful piece of meat, cooked perfectly to medium rare and slice thinly. My own personal entree was the scallops, but if I had the chance to go back to BDT, I would probably opt for the Culotte as my next choice.

Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops -- fresh, salty, and with a hint of bacon.

Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops — fresh, salty, and with a hint of bacon.

As a sucker for scallops (they’re hands down my favorite seafood), I was absolutely delighted by my order. The menu lists them as coming with spring vegetables, sea beans, and bacon, but I’m fairly certain the bacon was only used to cook the scallops in. Overall it was a very light, but satisfying dish — the scallops were cooked to the perfect texture, soft but not rubbery, and the bacon added a rich, salty flavor. The most prominent of the vegetables were peas, which I’m pretty ambivalent about in general, but here were elevated again by the dish’s sauce, a thin, bright liquid that made the veggies shine.

Speaking of veggies, the Wood Oven-roasted Baby Vegetables was a solid, if not particularly exciting dish. It was served with fresh herbs, Meyer lemon and crispy garlic, and I was excited to see a fiddlehead fern or two throughout the farro. I found the farro a bit too crunchy — I like my farro to have a little bit of firmness to it, but I almost thought the grain was actually wheatberries instead (I am an obscure grains nerd — let’s talk about millet!).

The Buttermilk Poached Chicken -- beautifully arrayed but underseasoned.

The Buttermilk Poached Chicken — beautifully arrayed but underseasoned.

The Poached Chicken was the most disappointing dish. Poached in buttermilk and served with preserved lemon and pistachio spring fricasse (according to the menu — I’m actually not really sure what those three nouns mean collectively), it seemed to have the potential to have a wonderful contrast of flavors and textures. Unfortunately, while poached to the right soft consistency, the meat was relatively bland in flavor. The chicken was also the largest portion, which seemed like an attempt to make up for the lack of spark in the dish.

The Wild Mushrooms -- no Beecher's Mushroom Tart, but still very much worth ordering.

The Wild Mushrooms — no Beecher’s Mushroom Tart, but still very much worth ordering.

Luckily the side dishes more than made up for the lesser entrees. The wild mushrooms were sauteed with garlic and parsley and served with olive oil croutons, leaving them delicate and well-balanced in flavor, with the earthy mushroom taste balanced by the sharper garlic. It’s hard to top the mushroom tart I had at Beecher’s, but Blue Duck Tavern’s rendition had significantly more depth of flavor than the average side of mushrooms at a steakhouse.

The BDT Triple Cut Fries -- at first glance, they almost look like churros.

The BDT Triple Cut Fries — at first glance, they almost look like churros.

The BDT fries were possibly the thickest cut steak fries I’ve ever since, cooked three ways before arriving at our table. The triple baked technique yielded a crisp outside with a thick, starchy center. Although I’m a big fan of thick cut fries, I actually found the crisp to starch ratio too heavily weighted towards the less-cooked innards. BDT serves their fries with a garlic aioli (this seems to be a common pairing these days), but I’m more of a plain jane ketchup gal when it comes to my taters.

The Creamy Stone Ground Grits -- the stealth side that stole my heart.

The Creamy Stone Ground Grits — the stealth side that stole my heart.

The dark horse side dish Creamy Stone Ground Grits ended up being one of my favorite components of the whole meal. Incorporating smoked gouda, full kernels of corn, and the espresso-infused Red-Eye gravy, the grits had a smoky, earthy flavor punctuated by the richness of the cheese and sweet corn. The use of espresso in the gravy helped to deepen the flavors, much like the addition of hot coffee can elevate a chocolate cake. I tend to lean to oatmeal when I think of porridges, but maybe it’s just because I hadn’t had grits like these before.

 

Let’s be frank with each other — everyone was expecting this meal to end in dessert. With my family, turning down a proffered dessert menu is a suspicion-inducing faux paus (What do you mean you don’t want some dessert? Are you all right? Let me feel your forehead.). Fortunately, the Blue Duck Tavern, in true reverence of American eating, happily indulges our national (and familial) sweet tooth. It was actually hard to pick between the assortment of cakes, tarts, pies, cookies, and homemade ice cream and sorbets, but we ultimately decided on Milk Chocolate Banana S’mores, Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream, and Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat’s Milk Caramel. It was especially hard to turn down the La Colombe Espresso Creme Brulee, which magically manages to combine both my favorite coffee (La Colombe is a Philly-based company) and my favorite non-chocolate dessert. Guess I’ll just have to add that to my return trip order.

You can see how dark the chocolate is in the Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream.

You can see how dark the chocolate is in the Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream.

The Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat's Milk Caramel -- a milder ice cream that highlights the sweetness of the caramel.

The Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat’s Milk Caramel — a milder ice cream that highlights the sweetness of the caramel.

 

The ice creams were delicious — the Chocolate Brownie had a strong dark chocolate flavor, and the Honey Vanilla was mildly sweet and mostly tasted of fresh vanilla bean. I’m not sure what the goat’s milk base added to the caramel, but it was still a lovely accompaniment to the vanilla ice cream.

The Milk Chocolate Banana S'Mores -- an over the top version of a classic, aka my favorite type of dessert.

The Milk Chocolate Banana S’Mores — an over the top version of a classic, aka my favorite type of dessert.

 

My personal order was the S’Mores, which I shared with my mother. The dish arrived as a giant homemade marshmallow atop a milk chocolate and banana mousse mold, with graham cracker crumbs and bruleed banana pieces on the bottom, topped with a cruncy banana chip. The mousse actually had a very mild milk chocolate flavor, with the freshness of the banana really shining in the dish. The marshmallow was just melted enough to keep it’s shape as my fork sliced through it, but remained sticky and gooey as it mingled with the different pieces of the dish. Upscale, but homey, BDT hit a homerun with this dish in both flavor and execution, serving as a perfect indication of the overall vibe of the restaurant.

 

Final Thoughts:

My meal at the Blue Duck Tavern was a fantastic experience, from start to finish. The quality of service, the unpretentious yet meticulous decor and cooking, and the diversity and freshness of the foods offered left everyone at my table satisfied, from grandchild to grandparent. It’s pretty impressive that a restaurant my brother Charles, who avoids most vegetables, considers a favorite, also offers a multitude of vegetarian options that are just as thoughtful and impressive as their carnivorous fare. BDT was strong from the complimentary bread basket to the final bite of dessert, but perhaps more impressive was the deep knowledge of the staff and their willingness to accommodate any and all requests. Here we were, a party of 7 and a toddler, a few of us verging on shlubby in appearance, and to Mike and the rest of the staff we could have been the Rockefellers. Each person we interacted with was professional, courteous, and never aloof. If you visit the Blue Duck Tavern, count on a lovely dining experience, well-curated for the palate and with a personal touch. I know I’ll stopping by next time I get the chance. I’ll just make sure I leave my sweatshirt at home.

The Blue Duck Tavern

24 & M STREETS, NORTHWEST, WASHINGTON, D.C.

http://www.blueducktavern.com/gallery/blueduck/home.html