Hundred Acres: A Brunch to Make Eeyore Smile

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Growing up as the youngest child, it wasn’t until my nieces and nephew were born that I got to see my parents interact with little kids. Now I already think my parents are incredible people, but experiencing them as grandparents has been an unexpected gift. We spend all our lives eager to grow up, to be treated as an adult, it’s a wonder to step back and see my parents engage with my little nieces and nephew, totally stripped of adult pretense, lying on the floor making funny faces and singing silly songs for the singular goal of evoking a smile. It also has brought to light my parents’ deeply held convictions on children’s media, like their disappointment with Frozen and their great love for classics like Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street (sorry Bubble Guppies, you just can’t measure up to King Friday).

I bring this up because prior to my niece Riley’s birth, I had no idea that my mother was such a huge fan of Winnie the Pooh. But once Riley was old enough to keep her attention on more than a bottle, she was listening to “The Wonderful Thing about Tiggers” and watching The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Despite the difficulty of locating that movie on DVD (damn Disney vault), the amazing thing is the staying power of the Pooh franchise — toys, shampoos, clothing, it’s basically everywhere. So you can imagine when I heard the name Hundred Acres, I assumed this would be an Alice’s Teacup-type endeavor with Piglet tablecloths and Kanga and Roo wallpaper.

As it happens, Hundred Acres is not connected to Winnie the Pooh in any substantial way. But the rustic vibe, the welcoming atmosphere, and the approachable but inventive brunch dishes evoke the low key joy of A. A. Milne’s stories. You may not be able to get a jar of “hunny” at Hundred Acres, but I have a feeling a certain bear would be more than happy with the options.

 

First Impressions:

The front dining room of Hundred Acres, full of homey accents.

The front dining room of Hundred Acres, full of homey accents.

I’d heard about Hundred Acres as part of a trio of highly regarded spots (sister restaurants Five Points and Cookshop) that are all known for their brunches. Eager to take a break from tax season, my mother asked to try a new brunch place, and with her affinity for Winnie the Pooh in mind, I couldn’t resist checking out Hundred Acres.

The restaurant is down on MacDougal in the West Village, just removed enough from the hustle and bustle of Houston to make it feel like a part of the neighborhood. The forest green facade is made up of a series of French doors that offer open-air dining when the weather is warm enough, although it was still too blustery on the day we visited. Fortunately, even closed the doors provide a lot of natural light, helping the front dining room to feel bright and inviting.

 

Looking back towards the rear dining room, you can see some of the decorations on the walls.

Looking back towards the rear dining room, you can see some of the decorations on the walls.

The woodland theme is carried through to the interior of Hundred Acres, where deep, rich wood paneling leads up to soft green paint on the walls of the dining room. The farmstead home effect continues with the beaten metal columns, pale granite tables, and simple white light fixtures. The bar is decked out from floor to ceiling in white tiles you might find in any home kitchen, and the walls are decorated with framed paintings, photographs, and bookshelves full of wine bottles and other assorted dining paraphernalia. Although Hundred Acres has two dining rooms and seats at the bar, we were lucky to have made a reservation, since there was already a line of people waiting outside when my mother and I arrived. Clearly this place has earned its reputation as a brunch hot spot.

 

The Food:

 

As is very popular in the NY dining scene these days, Hundred Acres features a “market-driven” menu that changes frequently due to the availability of ingredients (the most recent menu I checked features the hot spring commodity, ramps). However, the standard, favorite dishes that I had read about before our brunch were still on the menu, so my mother and I got to test the validity of prior reviews. I really appreciated the input of our waiter, who opened up our meal by highlighting some of the most popular dishes, and his own personal suggestions. Through his guidance, we opted to start with the “Gooey Cinnamon Rolls,” then I ordered the Baked Eggs, while my mom got the Goat Cheese-Sage Bread Pudding.

 

The Gooey Cinnamon Rolls -- dense pockets of cinnamon sugar await you.

The Gooey Cinnamon Rolls — dense pockets of cinnamon sugar await you.

The Gooey Cinnamon Rolls arrived shortly after we put in our order, served in a rounded metal plate. The 3 large rolls were still warm, nestled together and coated with a vanilla glaze. My mother wanted a bit more icing on top, to hew closer to the Cinnabon ideal, but considering the sticky innards, I thought they were plenty gooey (who am I kidding, like I would have complained about more icing). The roll itself was outrageously fluffy, with that almost taffy-like yeasted quality of good challah or brioche, which requires a little extra effort to pull apart. The interior was threaded with cinnamon sugar, eggy and moist, especially at the very core, which everyone knows is the best part of any cinnamon roll. Here the icing and cinnamon sugar collect and soak into the dough, leaving you with a near equal topping-to-bread ratio. How could any self-respecting pastry fan resist? I was very tempted to dive headfirst into the third cinnamon roll, but my mother, generous soul that she is, suggested we take it home to my father. This ended up being a wise strategy, since our entrees were still to come, and turned out to be more than enough food on their own.

 

The messy-looking, but entirely satisfying Baked Eggs.

The messy-looking, but entirely satisfying Baked Eggs.

The first thing that caught my eye when looking at the Hundred Acres menu was the Chilaquiles, since I had so recently experienced a great rendition at El Toro Blanco. But when I asked our waiter about his thoughts on the dish, he steered me towards the Baked Eggs (black beans, grilled poblano chiles, pickled onions, jalapeño peppers, cheddar cheese) instead, saying they were more unconventional. This turned into a brief discussion of what we all look for in a brunch. While there are definitely times that I just want a basic stack of pancakes, most of the time I’d like to have a brunch dish that I couldn’t make easily at home, which makes me reach for the benedicts and huevos rancheros over a simply garden omelet. It turns out he was spot on in this recommendation, because a woman at the table next to us got the Chilaquiles, and while they looked good enough to try on a return trip, I was surprised and delighted by the Baked Eggs. The dish placed in front of me was pretty different from what I had anticipated. The eggs were served in a ceramic casserole, the edges crusted with cheesy black bean sauce on which the eggs themselves floated just below the surface. I thought there would have been more heat from the peppers, but they really just served to add a bit of pop to the creamy beans and rich yolks, helped out by the acidity from the pickled onions. The eggs were perfectly cooked, held together by the crown of cheddar cheese but splitting into orange puddles of luscious yolk when pierced. The only thing I would change about this dish woudl be the addition of some textural variation — something to add a little crunch to the largely soft, soupy mixture. Even something as little as serving it with toast or a grilled tortilla to scoop it up would make the Baked Eggs a little more cohesive to me.

 

Don't be fooled by all the spinach, there's a hunk of decadent Goat Cheese-Sage Bread Pudding underneath it all.

Don’t be fooled by all the spinach, there’s a hunk of decadent Goat Cheese-Sage Bread Pudding underneath it all.

If the Baked Eggs were somewhat unconventional, the Goat Cheese-Sage Bread Pudding (poached eggs, wilted spinach, lemon butter) really goes out on a limb. First of all, it’s a savory bread pudding, which you don’t see very often, and second, as our waiter described, the pudding is used as a the base for an Eggs Benedict. When it arrived on our table, I was relieved to see the portion size was ample without being excessive, because one look at the dish tells you how rich it is. If we’re going to be nit-picky, it’s really a take on Eggs Florentine, since the only thing between the eggs and the bread pudding base was spinach (rather than meat). But I’m not complaining, since I prefer Eggs Florentine anyway, and I’m a sucker for bread pudding in any and all forms. As with my dish, the eggs were perfectly cooked, little poached packages waiting to be opened t0 reveal a gooey liquid yolk and soft, but still firm white exterior. The pudding itself had a nice crust on the top and bottom, and a custardy, chewy interior like great french toast. My mother was wary to order the bread pudding because she’s not a huge sage fan, but thankfully the herb is delicately employed, mostly there to add slight woodsy and peppery notes to keep the pudding on the savory side. This provides a much-needed break from the sweet, fatty lemon butter and goat cheese. Odd as it might be to say, the spinach was also a highlight of the dish, only slightly wilted so it stood up against the eggs and still had a bit of texture. My Popeye-like love of spinach will make me eat it in any form, but it’s a welcome delight to find a version somewhere in between raw and the sad-sack mushy sautéed spinach you find in most Eggs Florentine.

 

Final Thoughts:

Although both of our dishes felt decadent (not to mention eating the Gooey Cinnamon Rolls beforehand), my mother and I agreed that we left Hundred Acres satisfied but not overstuffed, a testament to the thoughtful portion size and quality ingredients.

Overall, Hundred Acres is an inviting, homestyle spot — clean, bright and staffed by a friendly, knowledgeable crew. They offer items to satisfy those looking for American classics, as well as some unique twists on brunch that take advantage of seasonality and an adventurous palate.  I definitely plan on returning for brunch, and maybe dinner as well, since there were plenty of dishes on the menu I’d be game to try. From the decor to the dishes, Hundred Acres makes you feel like you’re in an elevated version of a country inn, sitting down to a meal maybe just a little bit away from the type of place Christopher Robin might call home.

 

Hundred Acres

38 MacDougal St. (between Prince and Houston)

http://hundredacresnyc.com/

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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/

 

There’s a Dreidel in my Dressing! — It’s Thanksgivukkah 2013!

I’ve got a couple more reviews waiting in the wings, but to tide you over I thought I’d upload a dash of holiday food porn. I rarely get to cook for more than myself (except for the cartloads of cookies I unload on my coworkers), so I leapt at the chance to take on Thanksgiving. With much-needed support and advice from my mother, and some excellent additions from my friend Sarah, we managed to pile the table high with festive mains, sides, and desserts. Here’s a visual rundown of Thanksgiving:

Appetizers

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Up first, the Mushroom Galette, my favorite new recipe of the holiday. Cremini and shiitake mushrooms, onions, herbs, and fresh Humboldt Fog goat cheese. Definitely getting added to my go-to hors d’d’oeuvres list.

Clockwise from the bottom left: Aged Gouda, Double Creme Brie, three types of British cheddar, herbed goat cheese, and Stilton.

Clockwise from the bottom left: Aged Gouda, Double Creme Brie, three types of British cheddar, herbed goat cheese, and Stilton. Homemade pita chips for the dip in the top left corner.

To add cheese to our cheese, we had a variety of different types from Trader Joe’s, ranging from aged Gouda to Stilton. I’m usually not a big brie person, but this was great, especially when combined with the sliced apples. Not pictured here is the Roasted Eggplant and Red Pepper Dip, which took forever to make but turned out pretty great, and the mulled wine, which was a huge hit with my non-red-wine drinking mother.

Sides:

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I’ve been absolutely obsessed with brussels sprouts after having Ilili’s version, so I was tempted to make their recipe, but ended up going up with straightforward roasting with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Challah-Apple Stuffing on the bottom left, with the turkey photobombing in the top right.

Challah-Apple Stuffing on the bottom left, with the turkey photobombing in the top right.

The Challah-Apple Stuffing changed the way I view stuffing. My mother is a big proponent of the basic Pepperidge Farm rendition, but when Buzzfeed posted that recipe, I couldn’t resist. Turns out much like with challah french toast, the eggy, chewy bread is a fantastic base for stuffing (or dressing here,I guess). You know it’s a good dish when you’ll eat the leftovers cold straight out of the tupperware.

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Sarah brought a great cold quinoa salad, and a whole mess of cornbread I’ll be working my way through this week. If you look closely, you can just see the whole kernels in the slices.

Desserts

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Impressive, no?

Now this is where we get serious. If it wasn’t evident from the family meals I’ve written about before, we are a group with a serious sweet tooth, and Thanksgiving is just an excuse to bake every cookie and bar we can think of. Oh, and pies. Because it’s unAmerican to have Thanksgiving without pie.

From left to right: Linzer, Cranberry White Chocolate, Oatmeal Raisin. (And Sarah's Snickerdoodles to the side).

From left to right: Linzer, Cranberry White Chocolate, Oatmeal Raisin. (And Sarah’s Snickerdoodles to the side).

My mother really outdid herself on the treat front, from old standbys like Chocolate Chip Cookies and Oatmeal Raisin, to new attempts like Linzer cookies and Cookie Butter Bars.

Cookie Butter Bars -- just as outrageous as they sound.

Cookie Butter Bars — just as outrageous as they sound.

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I tried a new recipe for Pumpkin Loaf, and I think the secret ingredient of coconut oil really helped to deepen the flavor without making the loaf too tropical.

Pies on pies: Apple in the foreground, and Pecan behind.

Pies on pies: Apple in the foreground, and Pecan behind.

And of course, the knockout champs of the dessert round — Apple and Pecan pies. My mother used the Pioneer Woman’s Dreamy Apple Pie recipe, sans the pecans in the crust, since they had been used up in the other pie.

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Here’s the whole tablescape, featuring the traditional family gingerbread house (and a repurposed turkey Beanie Baby from my youth).

As expected, there was too much cheese, too much wine, and too much sugar, and I ate myself silly and reached new heights of insulin-endangerment. But more important than the food was the family, and you can never have too much of that. Hope you all had as lovely a Thanksgiving as I did!

Vox Populi: Spuds 2.0 Unveiled at Shake Shack

Although the title implies I’m going to be talking about Shake Shack, I promise that no hamburgers were consumed in the making of this post. After my killer dinner at Peter Luger, I’m letting the dust settle a bit before breaking into beef again. If you’re really curious, I do like the Shackburger, but this time around we’re going to focus on some of the lesser known elements of the menu.

If you haven’t heard, Danny Meyer recently admitted a gap in the Shake Shack menu, a crack in the metaphorical frozen custard concrete of the brand. Granted, he only admitted that flaw by immediately offering a new solution, but who would expect any less from the Sultan of Shack?

The issue: the Shack’s french fries, a quintessential part of any fast food meal, and a topic of some controversy in the food blogosphere. Prominent food writers like Ed Levine of Serious Eats had bemoaned the Shack’s cooked-from-frozen crinkle cuts, limp and generic in the face of Meyer’s ethos of heightening fast food with fresh ingredients and quality service. Personally, I’d never given much thought to the fries at Shake Shack. I’m actually pretty ambivalent about the restaurant on the whole — I know both people who actively dislike it, and some diehard fans who rack up multiple visits in a week. I can vouch that I’ve never had a bad meal there, but I’ve probably only been a handful of times since they opened their first shop in 2004. Casting a more contemplative eye towards the fries, however, I do tend to agree with the critics. As a potato enthusiast, I liked the old Shack fries because of a certain level of nostalgia (they reminded me of the Ore-Ida frozen fries my parents would occasionally serve as a dinner treat), but the truth is that they were substandard given the care put into the rest of the dishes Shake Shack offers. Yes, the crinkle cut fries had merit, since frying from frozen guarantees a consistent level of quality. But it also means that the flavor potential is capped — you’re never going to achieve the freshness you’d get from newly cut potatoes straight out of the fryer.

And so, 9 years after opening, Shake Shack admitted that they really had been listening. As they proudly announced on their website (http://www.shakeshack.com/2013/08/06/fresh-cut-fries-debut-at-ues-shake-shack/), they are, as of last week, serving fresh cut, never frozen, skin-on fries. It was revealed that the Upper East Side location served as the test kitchen, the staff spending countless hours training before opening each day. Right now you can only get the new fries at the UES branch, leaving a strange potato-paradox of past and present iterations coexisting in Manhattan, the crinkle and the fresh-cut fries simultaneously available with only a cross-town bus ride between them.

As it happens, despite living on the UES for 3 years, I’d actually never been to the Shake Shack up by me (I’ve visited their Upper West, Times Square, and Madison Square Park locations), so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to check out my local shop and be overly judgmental about some side dishes.

 

First Impressions:

The familiar logo at the entrance to the UES Shake Shack.

The familiar logo at the entrance to the Upper East Side Shake Shack.

The UES Shake Shack is on 86th Street between 3rd and Lex, so it’s nearly impossible to avoid walking by unless you’re a hermit who never leaves the neighborhood. The entrance features the familiar prominent plate glass windows, metallic lettering, and green neon fixtures of the rest of the chain’s locations. The restaurant itself is below street level, along with the outdoor plaza next door, which is technically open to the public but seems pretty much exclusively used by Shake Shack customers. Inside you’re greeted with the same pseudo-industrial aesthetic I noticed at BurgerFi — plain planks of wood siding and tables, green plastic chairs, and cool metal surfaces.

Looking down into the public plaza that also serves as an outdoor dining  area.

Looking down into the public plaza that also serves as an outdoor dining area.

The restaurant was in full-on fry propaganda mode. Outside, the windows had signs announcing “fresh cuts,” and the normal burger-shaped neon sign had been swapped for a new icon displaying a cup of fries. Inside, all of the employees were decked out in brand new green shirts with the same fry-cup design, topped with the caption “We Heard.” The Specials chalkboard near the menu featured the following message (note the hashtag), and there were announcement flyers detailing the new fries prominently displayed near the registers.

Did we mention we have new french fries?

I’m not sure if you knew, but Shake Shack has new fries.

No seriously, they're brand new.

No seriously, they’re brand new. But they’re keeping it kind of on the DL, hush-hush, you know?

I figured that as long as I was being adventurous, I might as well take a chance on Shake Shack’s vegetarian option, the ‘Shroom Burger, to make sure I ingest as many fried foods in one sitting as possible. Luckily, Jacob was there to split my order of fries, and he also opted for a non-hamburger item, choosing the Chicken Dog with Shack-Cago style fixings. Post meal, because somehow we weren’t totally stuffed, we also split a Single Concrete of Vanilla/Chocolate swirl with Chocolate Truffle Cookie Dough.

 

The Food:

Our overflowing tray of the new fries -- golden-brown, crispy, and a major improvement.

Our overflowing tray of the new fries — golden-brown, crispy, and a major improvement.

First things, first — the fries. In my review of BurgerFi, the french fries ended up being the standout dish of the meal — my preferred medium-cut with good crisp and a bit of skin still on. Shake Shack’s new fries are very much of the same spirit, except thinner-cut. They completely lived up to the advertising copy — thin, starchy, salty, with obvious skin on at least one side of each fry, and a discernibly fresh potato flavor. None of the fries were limp or soggy, nor did I find any blackened burnt sticks, an impressive feat given the relative inexperience of the kitchen. Our generous portion seemed to be the norm as I watched other orders being filled, and because the fries are now thinner, I think it’s better bang for your buck than the chunkier old crinkle-cuts. Overall, I was impressed by the consistency of the fries, and the streamlined service the staff at Shake Shack had already conformed to — they had upwards of 5 people working the fry line during my visit (only a few days after initiating Operation: New Fries). It’s definitely a positive change for Shake Shack, especially because it’s more in line with their ethos of conscious fast food.

The fry line in action -- there are at least three people farther down the row working the friers.

The fry line in action — there are at least three people farther down the row working the friers.

The 'Shroom Burger, a vegetarian, if not exactly "lighter" option at Shake Shack.

The ‘Shroom Burger, a vegetarian, if not exactly “lighter” option at Shake Shack.

Unfortunately, I think there is still room for improvement in the vegetarian section of their menu. The ‘Shroom Burger (Crisp-fried portobello mushroom filled with melted muenster and cheddar cheese, topped with lettuce, tomato and ShackSauce) came out looking like a thick hockey-puck of crispy fried breading, like someone had tried to surreptitiously replace a beef patty with a monstrous mozzarella stick (on second thought, that doesn’t sound half bad). Although it plainly states on the menu that it’s a fried mushroom, in my head I had just skipped over that fact, imaging a vegetarian take on a Midwestern Juicy Lucy (a burger stuffed with cheese) with the portobello meat as the main attraction. The ‘Shroom comes with the same fixins’ as a regular Shackburger, and I while found the trademark Shacksauce paired well with the salty layer of fried crust,  I felt the sauce’s tanginess clashed with the mushroom flesh once I made it deeper into the patty.

Biting into the 'Shroom Burger, you're met with a oozing onslaught of hot cheese. Delicious, but slightly dangerous .

Biting into the ‘Shroom Burger, you’re met with a oozing onslaught of hot cheese. Delicious, but slightly dangerous .

As Jacob had warned, biting into the fried ball yielded a cascade of gooey molten cheese, so proceed with caution lest you burn your tongue. The muenster and cheddar were a great combination — once I was past the middle of the patty, and had mostly leftover cheese and naked mushroom flesh, that’s when I thought the dish really succeeded, with a strong flavor from the portobello shining through. Ultimately, I found the breading merely a distraction from the merits of the burger, unnecessary especially considering the lovely potato bun that Shake Shack uses for its sandwiches. The breading was salty and overwhelming, distracting from the inherent umami combination of the mushroom, tomato, and cheeses. I’d rather Shake Shack take their Shackburger and just sub the beef for a couple portobello caps, or even make a ground up mushroom burger and stuff that with cheese, rather than hiding the pleasure of flavorful fungi behind a mask of crowd-pleasing battered breading.

The Chicken Sausage Dog, piled high with all the Shack-Cago trimmings.

The Chicken Sausage Dog, piled high with all the Shack-Cago trimmings.

Jacob seemed to enjoy his Chicken Sausage Dog (Shake Shack chicken, apple and sage sausage), which was topped with the Shack-cago Dog fixings (Rick’s Picks Shack relish, onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper, celery salt and mustard). I thought the sausage itself was great — don’t expect it to taste like a hot dog, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the interplay of the sweet apple and the earthy, herbal sage. I found the toppings to be a bit overwhelming, however. Maybe I’m just a fuddy-duddy when it comes to hot dogs — gimme some ketchup, maybe some mustard, and I’m all set. Here I was disappointed by how the pickles and celery salt overpowered the subtle sausage flavors with their intense vinegar bent.

Our swirled Vanilla/Chocolate Concrete with Chocolate Truffle Dough. Take that, Dixie Cup!

Chocolate custard with dark chocolate truffle pieces — proof positive you can never have too much chocolate.

I feel like I barely have to give a review of the Concrete, because most of the time I find Maggie + ice cream = immense satisfaction, and this is just another proof of the validity of that equation. But I do think I should mention that while BurgerFi wins the french fry race in my heart (because of their slightly thicker-cut fries), Shake Shack has a lock on the frozen custard competition. Both the vanilla and the chocolate flavors were smoothy, creamy, and tasted exactly like what they claimed to be (some might think this would be obvious, but some frozen dessert shops, like Tasti D-Lite, offer vanilla and chocolate flavors that are somewhat different, but definitely don’t taste like a chocolate bar or a vanilla bean. It’s more of a “flavor A” or “flavor B” scenario). The texture of Shake Shack’s custard is somewhere between Mr. Softee’s soft-serve and Rita’s frozen custard. The Chocolate Truffle Cookie Dough was misleading, because it seemed just like small chunks of chocolate truffles (I’m pretty sure truffles aren’t baked anyway, so using the term dough seems unnecessary), but regardless of nomenclature, they were delicious —  rich, dense, dark chocolate, just chewy enough to linger on your tongue as the custard melted away. My only complaint is that the truffle pieces were few and far between — I could have doubled down on those truffles, easy-as-pie (or custard, I suppose).

 

Final Thoughts:

Shake Shack’s empire is expanding exponentially these days, with new locations popping up both around the country (Washington DC and Boston this summer, Las Vegas in 2014), and around the world (London and Istanbul in just the past few months). With all of this growth, it’s gratifying to see that the company is still looking for new ways to improve their offerings. It still makes a difference what people are saying about their food, beyond focus groups and market tests. Will these french fries ever win a worldwide competition? Hardly — you’re better off checking our Pommes Frites down in the East Village if you want some hardcore fry action. But if you’re in Shake Shack, contemplating your options, pick up a side order — they’ll put Mickey D’s fries to shame.

I don’t doubt that once Shake Shack rolls out these new fries to all their locations, there will hardly be the same level of quality assurance. But the initial impulse comes from the right place. Yes, this is a fast food chain, yes, it’s a corporate monolith (although not faceless like McDonalds, thanks to Danny Meyer), and yes, there may even be a bit of disappointing discarding of principles in the face of business decisions (such as Chipotle’s new investigation into using antibiotic-treated meat). But for now, as Shake Shack is so proudly shouting out to the world, what the people want, the people will get. Maybe if we use our mouths as more than hamburger-receptacles,  it could lead to more changes, like a few more vegetarian options on the  menu. Danny Meyer’s aiming to empower, so  speak up, the Shack‘s all ears.

Shake Shack

(Multiple locations, new fries only at 154 E. 86th St)

http://www.shakeshack.com/

Snackshots Seattle, Part 1: A Fresh Food Fantasy at Pike Place Market

For someone who makes her bread and butter (or rather, is able to buy her bread and butter) from the entertainment industry, I’ve spent surprisingly little time on the West Coast. I’ve only been to California a handful of times, and never visited any of the other states west of Iowa. That is, until this past weekend, when I had the chance to visit my brother in his new digs in Seattle. As with many of my interests, my older brother Dan was a major influence on my passion for food. Up until June he lived on the UES near me (in fact, in the same apartment building, because we’re too cute like that), and one of my favorite parts of getting to know the neighborhood was exploring new restaurants and bars with him. So when I hopped on a plane on Friday to visit the Northwest for the first time, I believed my expectations of delicious overindulgence were reasonable. Little did I realize I was seriously underestimating our genetic predisposition for pie-hole stuffing. Suffice it to say that I have way more to talk about than can reasonably fit in one post. So, much like my last travel experience in Israel, I’m going to break up my trip into more manageable bites. First up, a look at Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market.

Walking up to one of the many entrances of Pike Place Market.

Walking up to one of the many entrances of Pike Place Market. This place is just enormous.

 

Beyond the amazing food I encountered at Pike Place, what struck me most was the easy comingling of obvious tourists (like myself) and the local crowd. Sure, there are kitschy shops peddling t-shirts and trinkets, but much of Pike Place Market is made up of serious local vendors selling fresh produce and homemade items. I kept describing it to Dan as a strange mix of NY’s Chelsea Market and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, somewhere between the higher-brow artisanal wares of Chelsea’s Ronnybrook Dairy and Eleni’s Cookies and the Amish shoo-fly pies and cheesesteaks down Liberty Bell way. And did I mention it’s huge? A sprawling, multi-floor, multi-block, and multi-street, partially open air market, with arms that snake out leading you down paths of flower and jerky vendors, or spice stalls and coffee sellers. Dan and I must have spent a good 3 hours there and never really explored anything beyond the ground level.

Pike Place Fish Market, already crowded with tourists eager to see some serious fish-tossing.

Pike Place Fish Market, already crowded with tourists eager to see some serious fish-tossing.

Soon after we entered we came upon the famous Pike Place Fish Market. The Fish Market is known for its tradition of throwing whole fish that customers have purchased from the back storage area to the fishmongers working the counter. An order will be yelled out — “Alaskan Salmon!” — and lightning quick a freaking whole carcass is tossed carefree up from the floor to the raised platform, where the fish are then butchered and wrapped. Tourists crowded around the stall to watch the performance, but after the first throw I turned my attention to the table across the way, which was laden down with all different types of dried fruit and vegetables. Dan got some fabulously sticky and sweet dried pineapple, but I was feeling more adventurous, and asked the woman behind the counter for something “good, but weird.”

My bag of dried okra, which at first glance looks a bit like dead grasshoppers. Yummier than appearance, I promise.

My bag of dried okra, which at first glance looks a bit like dead grasshoppers. Yummier than appearance, I promise.

She passed me a piece of dried okra, a vegetable I’m usually pretty ambivalent about. It was crunchy and salty, with a underlying freshness and a texture that reminded me of the dried greenbeans I’ve had from Fairway. I immediately bought a bag, completely enamored with this strange vegetable creation that was unlike anything I’d ever tried before. Why can’t you buy dried okra everywhere?

An ungodly amount of life-changing Rainier Cherries.

An ungodly amount of life-changing Rainier cherries.

 

I had a similar eye-opening experience when I tried Rainier cherries for the first time. I’ve always shied away from cherries, finding their tartness too aggressive. I also tend to dislike cooked fruit in desserts, so cherry pie or even the classic Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia aren’t really in my wheelhouse. But as we made our way through the market, an eager fruit vendor handing out slices of peach cut fresh from the fruit caught my eye, and I made my way over to him (hey, I’m never one to turn down a free sample). I can say without any doubt in my mind that that was the best peach I’ve ever tasted. It was luscious, velvety in texture, juicy and tender and exploding with natural sweetness. When I told this to the vendor, he insisted I try the Rainier cherries, proclamining them to be just as fresh as the peaches. And dagnabit, this guy was on the money. I found myself comparing the Rainier cherries to fresh grapes, with a soft and creamy flesh and a mild sweetness that was simply addictive. Dan bought a bag and we finished that day (even in the face of all of the other food we managed to fit in our stomachs).

The unfortunately lukewarm Plain Jane at Cinnamon Works.

The unfortunately lukewarm Plain Jane at Cinnamon Works.

 

After strolling through most of the top floor of the market, we made our way across the street to Post Alley, where most of the Market’s restaurants and shops can be found. Our attempt to go to Pike Place Chowder was thwarted by the outrageous line, so I guess I’ll just have to leave that for my next visit. We did manage to try a Plain Jane Cinnamon Roll at Cinnamon Works, a bakery that specializes in the cinnamon pastry diaspora (aka pull-apart bread, sticky buns, honey buns, etc). The Plain Jane had excellent flavors, but it was disappointingly room temperature, and you never want to eat an under-warmed cinnamon roll — it highlights the chewy, unforgiving nature of the batter. Next time I’m going to specifiy a fresh roll, or a reheated one.

The menu at the original Beecher's Handmade Cheese.

The menu at the original Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.

 

More importantly, I also paid a visit to the original location of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, so I could finally make a proper comparison to my lovely meal at Beecher’s NYC. The original Beecher’s location is significantly smaller than it’s NY outpost — most of the space is devoted to the actual production of cheese, which I suppose is getting your priorities straight. The retail area is dominated by the cheese counter and cafe menu prep stations — no restaurant/lounge here, just sandwiches, soups, and cheesy breadsticks. You can still peer down into the cheesemaking arena at the Original Beecher’s, but this time from milk-can stools at the cafe’s narrow ledge, the only area to eat their wares. After sampling Beecher’s signature crackers and cheeses, Dan and I decided to split the Flagship Sandwich, a caprese-style grilled cheese featuring Beecher’s Flagship cheddar, their Just Jack, the “Beecher’s spread” and tomato and basil.

Cheesemaking in action at Beecher's.

Cheesemaking in action at Beecher’s.

Our Flagship Sandwich -- look at that gooey cheese resisting separation.

Our Flagship Sandwich — look at that gooey cheese resisting separation.

 

I usually like my grilled cheese unadulterated, but the density and richness of the two cheddars was mitigated by the sharp savory basil taste and the moist tomato. The “Beecher’s spread,” mysterious and left unexplained, seemed to add a subtle bite of mustard. Thick white bread helped to hold the sandwich together, and was toasted to perfect golden-brown. Overall, the quality of cheese and food in general at the original Beecher’s was still stellar, but the creativity and diversity of choices on the menu at the NY outpost make me happy I live nearer to the East Coast option. Dammit, now I want that mushroom tart again.

The small sign announcing the entrance to the Crumpet Shop, tucked away from the noise of Post Alley.

The small sign announcing the entrance to the Crumpet Shop, tucked away from the noise of Post Alley.

 

Another shop of note is the Crumpet Shop, a small cafe hidden away upstairs in one of the buildings on Post Alley. Their menu is limited to three categories: the titular crumpets, scones, and looseleaf teas. However, there are seemingly endless variations within those sections, including both savory and sweet options. In all of my UK adventures, I’d actually never tried a crumpet before, due to my enduring love of a proper scone and my general ambivalence towards the crumpet’s North American cousin, the English Muffin. For those who have yet to encounter a crumpet, they’re traditional English griddle cakes, slightly crumbly and usually served warm with butter, jam or some other type of spread. Although I was tempted by The Crumpet Shop’s scones, I felt I should give the cafe’s namesake its due. Also, Dan was intent on having a crumpet, and at that point I had tried so many other treats that I couldn’t imagine having another pastry all to myself (well, that’s a bit of a lie … more on that in a bit).

On line for some serious crumpet action.

On line for some serious crumpet action.

The shop itself is charming, and I would recommend a stop in, especially if you don’t feel like dealing with all of the crowds of Pike Place Market proper. The entrance features the counter/kitchen where you place your order, plus bar seating along the wall. A small collection of tables are located just past the counter and down a few steps, where you can cool your heels for a bit and take a gander at the whimsical artwork and Alice in Wonderland murals that line the walls.

Our toasted crumpet, piled high with preserves.

Our toasted crumpet, piled high with preserves.

Dan and I split a crumpet with fresh raspberry preserves, very lightly toasted so that it was not quite browned, but still warm enough to gently melt the preserves into a luscious goo. Ultimately, I think I’m more of a clotted cream and scone gal — the texture of the crumpet and its straightforward yeasty flavor were fine, but far from revelatory. The most memorable part of the dish was the raspberry preserves, which were unbelievably fresh and pure in their flavor. I’m sure I’ll be repeating myself endlessly about this, but I was completely blown away by the quality of the basic ingredients of my Seattle meals. From fruits to vegetables to seafood, everything seemed like it had been hand-picked just for me.

The Donut Robot Mark II, hard at work.

The Donut Robot Mark II, hard at work.

 

I started out this post by talking about my exuberance over dried okra, so it seems only fitting to bookend the discussion by jumping to the other end of the spectrum — doughnuts. Dan was insistent that we pay a visit to the Daily Dozen Doughnut Co., a small counter not too far from the Pike Place Fish Market stall. We had actually passed by it when we first entered the market, but the line was absurdly long, so DDDC ended up being our last stop of the day. DDDC does one thing, and one thing only — make piping hot mini doughnuts to destroy your arteries and blow your mind. (They also sell espresso and coffee, because what else are you going to have with your doughnuts? Milk? What are you, a weirdo?) DDDC is a ridiculously small operation, considering the sheer quantity of mini-dos they churn out each day. With a small area in the back for prepping the batter and decorating the finished donuts, DDDC’s main attraction is the “Donut Robot, Mark II” a miracle of modern technology that squirts out two perfectly formed mini doughnut rings into a roiling river of oil. The rings of batter then travel along a conveyor belt, frying for the precisely the right amount of time before being slid out of the machine and onto the continuously growing pile of puffed perfection.

Henry Ford could never have imagined the gift he would give dessert lovers everywhere with his assembly line method.

Henry Ford could never have imagined the gift he would give dessert lovers everywhere with his assembly line method.

 

These bad boys, roughly the size of Entenmann’s mini powdered donuts, are only sold in multiples of 6, with any collection of toppings you desire. Aside from plain and powdered, you can also get chocolate frosted (with sprinkles), along with whatever special toppings they have for the day. We chose two plain, two cinnamon-dusted, and two coated in a maple glaze. I hate to veer into hyperbole, but these were actually the best donuts I’ve ever had, simply because they were the freshest, and the batter had such a pure sweet taste to it. Like the best version of funnel cake, with the right amount of crispness to the outside, while steamy, light and airy inside. The bag was still warm as I grabbed it, yet not a spot of grease transferred from the bottom to my hands. My favorite was the cinnamon sugar donut, the uniform coating achieved by the seller drops the donuts in a bag, tosses in some cinnamon sugar, and shakes. No fancy schmancy toppings or fillings, just old-fashioned, well-made, fresh from the fryer donuts. To be honest, you really can’t compare Daily Dozen Doughnut Co. to the Doughnut Plant — it’s like trying to compare a homemade brownie to a chocolate ganache cake from a high-end bakery. These establishments have two different goals. But if I grew in Seattle, I would have begged my parents to take me here on the weekends, and thoroughly thumbed my nose at the barely heatlamp-warmed measly offerings at Dunkin Donuts.

 

Pike Place Market is the closest to Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market that I’ve found in the US. The mix of high-and-low-end vendors, the obvious plays towards tourist wallets combined with neighborhood shopping, and the unabashed delight in all that the local producers have to offer struck me as hewing closer to the Israeli model than Big Box Americana. Of course, it would be silly to ignore the fact that there is a Target just around the corner from Pike Place, and that the very first Starbucks (now a bonafide  international behemoth) is just down the row from Beecher’s. But my visit to Pike Place Market seemed to underscore the overall impression of Seattle. I felt like this is a city with a lot of pride, both in the larger sense of the Seattle itself, and the microcosms of each neighborhood. Fortunately, that pride is combined with a distinctly laidback, unself-conscious attitude. For me, that meant meeting a lot of people who wanted to share what they thought makes Seattle special, or what they themselves added to the culture, from hand crafted piggy banks to badass spice blends. So next time you’re in Seattle, pay a visit to Pike Place Market. Don’t worry that you’re buying into the tourist to-do list — there are so many layers to this locally-sourced onion, you can easily make your trip truly unique. I know I’ll be back — if only to finally get my hands on a bowl of that famous Pike Place Chowder!

The loosest definition of trail mix I've ever seen. Yes, that is a pile of meat and cheese.

The loosest definition of trail mix I’ve ever seen. Yes, that is a pile of meat and cheese.

Pike Place Market

1916 Pike Pl,

Seattle, WA 98101

pikeplacemarket.org

 

Picking Through the Pop-Ups: Mad. Sq. Eats

I’m a big fan of options — that’s why I love appetizer platters, buffets, and ice cream flavors with lots of mix-ins. I’d rather try a chicken finger/mozzarella stick/pig-in-blanket combo than munch through a bowl of boring popcorn, and give me Phish Food over plain jane vanilla any day of the week. Because of this, I’m always curious to check out the newest crop of pop-up food events in New York.

The term “pop-up” refers to short-term food projects that take over a public space, such as the Kubbeh Project that took place at Zucker’s Bakery earlier this year (which closed literally as I returned from Israel), or YUJI Ramen, the latest installation that is all the rage at the Whole FoodsSmorgasburg at Bowery.” Pop-up restaurants can serve to showcase the talents of a specific chef, or just simply explore the potential of a certain concept. The scene has seemingly exploded over the past few years, expanding to encompass not only established restaurants, but also food trucks and catering vendors through stalls at farmer’s markets and festivals. I got a small taste of some of the newer players on the pop-up scene last week when Jacob and I managed to sneak in  a visit to Mad Sq. Eats, on the last night before it closed up shop for the summer.

The entrance to Mad Sq. Eats, plenty busy on its final night.

The entrance to Mad Sq. Eats, plenty busy on its final night.

Mad Sq. Eats is a semi-annual, month-long pop-up food market that takes place next to Madison Square Park in the spring and the fall. Both established brick-and-mortar restaurants and relatively small-scale vendors are featured at MSE, and the makeup of the festival not only changes year to year, but also between seasons. This time around, the cuisines offered ran the gamut from East Asian to pizza to barbecue, and despite MSE being located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, there were vendors representing at least Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, if not all the boroughs. Some of the booths offered multiple dishes, while others stuck to variations of just one concept, like meatballs or arancini.

When Mad Sq Eats comes around again next fall, I’d definitely recommend trying to hit the festival in the middle of the month. There were significant negative consequences for visiting on the last day. First — the crowds. MSE is located in the tiny public space between Broadway and Fifth, just west of the park, and when we arrived around 7:45pm on Friday, it was overflowing with people perusing the vendors, waiting on lines, and trying to find a spot at one of the handful of tables set up in the middle of the market. Then, once Jacob and I had made the circuit and decided what we wanted to try, we discovered that our first choice, La Sonrisa Empanadas, was already completely sold out, with more than an hour before closing time. Refusing to be deterred, we quickly pivoted, deciding to take charge of our foodie fate by dividing and conquering. I hopped on line at Ilili’s booth, and Jacob headed down the row to Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen.

Give me your huddled masses yearning to eat treats...

Give me your huddled masses yearning to eat treats…

Ilili is a Lebanese/Mediterrean restaurant in the Flatiron that I’ve happily made multiple trips to. In fact, when I visited Mad Sq. Eats last fall I ended up ordering and loving the lamb shoulder shawarma sandwich. After the egregious lack of empanadas, I almost gave in and just ordered the shawarma again, but I convinced myself not to miss out on an opportunity to try something new, so I went with the Phoenician Fries, on Jacob’s recommendation. The lucky duck lives only a few blocks away from Madison Square (yes, and he’s close to Beecher’s — talk about unfair), so he’d already been to MSE a couple of times this May.

Phoenician Fries from Ilili, spiced and smothered to perfection.

Phoenician Fries from Ilili, spiced and smothered to perfection.

The Phoenician Fries were handcut and fried to order, covered in sumac, salt, Aleppo pepper, and garlic whip. They arrived looking pretty much like Middle Eastern cheese fries. Although I’ve previously stated my preference for ketchup over the trendier aioli, in this case I found the garlic whip absolutely addictive. The sumac and salt added a little bite to contrast against the creamy sauce, and the fries were perfectly crisp and crunchy due to being hot out of the oil. You can find these spiced spuds on Ilili’s restaurant menu year-round, and considering their generous brunch prix-fixe, I wouldn’t be surprised if we coincidentally crossed paths sometime in the near future.

While I was salivating over our fries, Jacob was off at Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen procuring one of their specialty grilled cheese sandwiches. The vendor dubs itself a “grilled cheese bar,” and until this week was a Brooklyn-based startup that existed solely at  pop-up events like MSE. As of this Monday, however, Mrs. Dorsey’s has a found a storefront, so kudos to them on entering the permanent NY food scene. We chose a cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese, served on panini-pressed sourdough. It was far from a classic grilled cheese, but the sharpness of the cheddar mingled well with the smokier gouda, and the bread had a nice toasty crunch to it. The major detractor was the fact that the sandwich was not cooked for long enough, leaving the cheese warmed, but basically unmelted. Overall, It was a perfectly serviceable grilled cheese made with quality components, but nothing beyond what I could have made in my own kitchen. I’m not giving up on Mrs. Dorsey’s, however, since their catering menu is more varied and creative in its sandwich selection (such as the Jam Goat, featuring goat cheese and strawberry preserves). We’ll have to see where their new store is located, and what they’ll be serving.

The cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese from Mrs. Dorsey's Kitchen. Strong cheese, but not as melted as it needed to be.

The cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese from Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen. Strong cheese, but not as melted as it needed to be.

The display case at Mmm Enfes, full of buttery, stuffed pastries.

The display case at Mmm Enfes, full of buttery, stuffed pastries.

The other “main course” of our meal came from Mmm Enfes, a Turkish street food and pastry shop in Midtown West. We got two of the varieties of gozleme, a Turkish flatbread stuffed with meat and/or vegetables and cheese. We opted for the chicken and mushroom and the spinach and feta. The gozlemes reminded me of a hybrid between a stuffed naan and the flat laffa bread I had in Israel. The flatbreads were heated and then rolled like crepe, with the same slight sweetness and eggy flavor. The filling of chicken and mushroom was slightly dry and crumbly, and was heavily spiced, leaving me pretty thirsty. I found the spinach and cheese gozleme much more successful. The sweeter bread paired wonderfully with the salty cheese and the faint bitterness of the spinach, coming off like the wrap version of a quiche.

The chicken and mushroom gozleme, a little dry without a binder like cheese.

The chicken and mushroom gozleme, a little dry without a binder like cheese.

The spinach and feta gozleme, which I thought was superior due to the moister filling and stronger flavors.

The spinach and feta gozleme, which I thought was superior due to the moister filling and stronger flavors.

 

There’s really no point in a disclaimer anymore. Obviously I got dessert, and everyone expects me to rave about it. Well, I’m not going to disappoint you. We chose to visit Melt Bakery’s cart for some of their signature ice cream sandwiches. Melt, located on the LES, is “New York’s First Ice Cream Sandwich Store.” They make both the cookies and the ice cream that have made their creations infamous amongst ice cream devotees such as myself (it’s a wonder I haven’t given myself a lactose allergy at this point). Melt’s menu changes daily, so while Jacob had already gotten to try their Lovelet sandwich (red velvet cookies with cream cheese ice cream, dammit), I wasn’t given that option. I wasn’t too bitter, however, because I was able to order the Cinnamax, a snickerdoodle/cinnamon ice cream sandwich. Jacob chose the Morticia, featuring malted chocolate rum ice cream between two crackly chocolate cookies. As shown by the fist-to-sandwich comparison photo below, these sandwiches were actually smaller than Levain’s cookies, but I took that as a positive. The ice cream was full and creamy, and the cookies definitely didn’t skimp on the butter, so it was good not to have too large a serving of such a rich dessert, especially after our frie, cheese, and pastry dinner.

Melt's sandwiches are about the size of a classic Chipwich.

Melt’s sandwiches are about the size of a classic Chipwich. Shown here, Jacob’s deeply chocolate Morticia.

 I’m one of those people who simply cannot have enough cinnamon in things, to the point where I top my fake-o cappuccinos ($3 hand-frother off of Amazon, aka food-nerd present from the best mom ever!) of drip coffee and almond milk with a liberal shaking of cinnamon. So anything cinnamon bun or oatmeal raisin themed in the ice cream department is going to be right up my alley. The Cinnamax definitely satisfied my recurrent cinnamon craving, but I ultimately found the Morticia more satisfying. Where the Cinnamax falters is the similarity of flavors between the snickerdoodle and the cinnamon ice cream. While the cookies were soft and made it easy to keep the sandwich intact (a crucial component of a strong ice cream sandwich), in the end it was a very single-note dessert.

The lighter, sweeter Cinnamax.

The lighter, sweeter Cinnamax.

 Jacob’s Morticia, on the other hand, had a variety of different textures and flavors throughout it. The cookies were just as crackly as advertised, breaking off more readily than the chewier snickerdoodles, which made for a messier eating experience for sure. However, they had a rich dark cocoa flavor, which played off the sugary malt and rum tastes of the ice cream, and overall I enjoyed the textural contrast of the cookie vs. filling, as sticky as my hands got eating it. Somehow I found it more refreshing than the Cinnamax, although I’m not sure I would opt to order either flavor again if I visit Melt Bakery’s store downtown. I’m still holding out for the Lovelet, or the peanut butter/banana themed Elvis.


Even though my visit to Mad Sq Eats had its ups and downs, I fully recommend checking it out next fall. It’s wholly unique experience, like an artisanal version of the mall food court, where the prices are slightly higher and the food is infinitely better. It’s a wonderful chance to sample some up-and-coming and off-the-beaten path vendors, not to mention a delicious opportunity to support small businesses. I’m planning to make the trip to Hester Nights (Thursdays at the Eventi Space through September), and hopefully I’ll check out the Smorgasbar down at South Street Seaport. And hopefully when I head back to Mad Sq Eats in the fall, I may finally be able to try those empanadas.

Ilili

236 5th Ave (between 27th and 28th)

http://www.ililinyc.com/

Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen

138 Willoughby Street (in Brooklyn)

http://mrsdorseyskitchen.com/

Mmm Enfes

70 W. 39th St (corner of 6th Ave)

https://twitter.com/MmmEnfes

Melt Bakery

132 Orchard St

http://www.meltbakery.com/

The Cellar at Beecher’s: Underground Dining, Top Floor Food

With the floral arrangements and questionably humorous Hallmark cards of Mother’s Day still nipping at our heels, it seems only fitting to take a moment to talk about my own mother. I’ll just come out and say it: I’m a mama’s girl. As the youngest child and only girl in my family, I suppose it’s pretty understandable. Once my mother got over the mania that came with being able to finally buy dresses and Osh Kosh jumpers galore, and I got over my intense resistance to wearing anything without pant legs (I had three older brothers — a bout of tomboyism was inevitable), we settled into a strong relationship that has supported me and shaped me immeasurably ever since. Now I could go and explain how my mother’s work as a writer has enabled me to pursue my own creative projects, or how her openness and generosity (we rock a huge First Seder guestlist) has informed my politics and worldview, but let’s be serious. For this blog I’m going to talk about how my mom taught me to love food.

I am fortunate to have grown up in a family that strove to eat dinner together every night. Because of this, my relationship with food has always been deeply connected to the ideas of unity and community. As we’ve all grown up, exploring new foods and restaurants has become almost a tradition in my household, from tasting menus to new sweet shops (my mother is an unrepentant chocoholic, and my father loves ice cream — surely this explains a lot about me). Not to mention the fact that when all her children were fully grown, my mom finally got the chance to cook dishes outside of the Venn Diagram of hot dogs/tuna fish/taco night. While I’ve certainly enjoyed some of the more refined dishes she’s made for my visits home, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the classics that graced our table while I was growing up.

One such staple was macaroni and cheese. Very, very occasionally we would have the Blue Box Kraft version, which I appreciate for its place in Americana (and for its blatant ploy to ensnare dino-obsessed kids like myself with its mascot Cheesasaurus Rex). But my mother’s homestyle mac is a different beast, and much preferred, in my opinion. First things first, my mother employs the larger penne or rigatoni noodles, to better soak up the cheese sauce, which combined Velveeta, American and cheddar cheeses. On top went a few single slices of American cheese, baked to a deep brown crust that nearly verged on burnt. Presented in the same ceramic bowl on each occasion, my family became immediately divided into two camps — those who preferred a serving with the crunchy top, and those who desired the softer bottom layer. My mom’s mac and cheese was tender, saucy rather than gooey, and to this day is my optimal version of mac and cheese.

In all my years of mac and cheese consumption, I have tried plenty of excellent varieties, from lobster to buffalo to truffle. But I had never encountered anything similar to my mother’s rendition. That is, until last week, when Jacob, Mike and I made our third Cheeseplorational inquiry to Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in the Flatiron.

Aw yeah, it’s time to talk about cheese again.

First Impressions:

The entrance on the corner of 20th and Broadway.

The entrance on the corner of 20th and Broadway.

I used to work in the Flatiron District, so I’d passed Beecher’s many times before ever stepping inside. The top floor is occupied by the cheese store, where you can try samples of their cheeses and accompaniments, as well as purchasing smaller snacks and takeout versions of the mac and cheese varieties they sell in their restaurant. There is a small cafe upstairs with seating, which offers views down into the industrial metal vats where some of the cheese is made. This glass-enclosed area takes up nearly a third of the store, and can even be viewed from the windows outside, so passersby can see Beecher’s cheesemongers hard at work.

Inside on the first floor -- you can see the huge metal cheesemaking vats on the left.

Inside on the first floor — you can see the huge metal cheesemaking vats on the left.

Downstairs in The Cellar

Downstairs in The Cellar

Down a quick flight of stairs near the entrance you’ll find The Cellar at Beecher’s, the small lounge and restaurant that offers lunch and dinner menus. The overall atmosphere of The Cellar is restrained yet playful. At the back of the room is a small bar that offers beer, wine, and specialty cocktails (whimsically named for historical personalities connected to the building Beecher’s is housed in). The rest of the tight space is taken up by armchairs with low tables, a larger communal table, and the more common two-tops and four-tops. It’s dimly lit, except for the highlighted paintings on the wall which feature animal and cheese related puns. Much like Murray’s Cheese Bar, I appreciated the sense of whimsy to balance out the intensity of the hip-lounge vibe.

Nothing like a good food pun to whet your appetite.

I like my animal themed paintings like I like my cheese — slightly nutty.

There are only a dozen or so tables in total, and despite our dining on a Monday night, the place was full and bustling. Although I had my eye on one of the neat booths built into the wall, the three of us squeezed into a table technically meant for two. As I glanced behind me, I suddenly realized the brick walls of the lounge were broken up by glass cases of cheese wheels on display. It turns out The Cellar is also where Beecher’s ages its “Flatiron Cheese,” a variety exclusive to the New York location. Talk about a good omen.

Close enough to touch.

Close enough to touch.

The Food:

Both Mike and Jacob had already been to Beecher’s several times (in fact, Jacob lives right around the corner, and one can only resist the siren call so often), so they warned me to stay away from the wine list. Luckily, I was in the mood for something lighter, since I was about to coat my tongue in curds and whey, so I opted for an Allagash White, one of my favorite summer beers. It ended up working perfectly with the meal, refreshing without being assertive and clashing with the food.

Jacob had been talking up Beecher’s “World’s Best Mac and Cheese” for months, so obviously that was the first item we ordered. We then made our way through the small but diverse menu, picking the Burrata & Anjou Pear Salad, the Mushroom Tart, and the Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate. When the food arrived, our waitress had the unexpectedly Tetrise-seque challenge of finagling all the plates onto our already crowded table of glasses and cutlery. While Beecher’s certainly gets credit for cutting down on our wait time by squeezing 3 people into a two-top, it ultimately made things more difficult for the service and our dining.

The Burrata and Anjou ... Salad? Questionably named but certifiably delicious.

The Burrata and Anjou … Salad? Questionably named but certifiably delicious.

The Burrata & Anjou Pear Salad came with sprigs of basil, sea salt, and several pieces of toast. I’d call it more of a deconstructed crostini than a salad, since the bread and burrata dominated more than the basil greens. (Or maybe I just have an overly provincial definition of salad in these wild days of culinary experimentation.) Regardless of naming practices, I found Beecher’s take on burrata to be much more successful than the one we tried at Murray’s Cheese Bar. The plate was presented with alternating slices of pear and burrata, which made it relatively easy to assemble (it would have been even easier if the kitchen had just done the work themselves, but I understand the impulse to avoid toast soggy with fruit/cheese juice. Gross.) The cheese was a little firmer, largely keeping its shape when lifted onto the bread. and the interplay of the crisp, sweet pear with the burrata cut through some of the richness of the cheese. The basil and sea salt worked to keep the dish savory, leading to a real progression of flavors across the tongue with each bite.

The Mushroom Tart -- handcrafted for the umami faithful.

The Mushroom Tart — handcrafted for the umami faithful.

The Mushroom Tart proved to be the unexpected hit dish of the night. Again, the menu’s description was a little misleading — Beecher’s seems to like deconstructing traditional presentations, so what actually ended up on our table was basically a stew of shiitake, crimini, and portabella mushrooms slightly overlapping a singular piece of pie crust. The stew was so intensely mushroomy, I was in fungus heaven, with rich wine-infused flavors that verged on a Marsala sauce. The mushrooms were tender but still had some heft to them, reminding me of the base for a mushroom bisque just before it’s been pureed. As for the crust, it was actually most reminiscent of a biscuit in texture, more crumbly than flaky. I liked the crust, but I would have been just as happy with just a bowl of the mushrooms. I went back for seconds and thirds, and found that the flavors were even more heightened when combined with the creamy sweetness of the sauce from the mac and cheese.

The lady of the hour -- "World's Best" Mac and Cheese.

The lady of the hour — “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese.

Speaking of, the “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese, although sporting a rather ostentatious name, turned out to be pretty damn delicious. As I mentioned earlier, I was struck by how similar Beecher’s approach to the dish was to my mother’s — using penne over elbow macaroni, with a white cheese sauce that was creamy rather than sticky. Beecher’s didn’t fully broil the top, which I was perfectly fine with, as a lifelong member of the pro-mac-underside club. I believe Beecher’s uses their flagship cheese, a cow’s milk variety of white American cheddar, mild with just a hint of tang that is barely detectable in their Mac and Cheese. It was served in a basic oval dish, and I appreciated the homestyle approach, not only for nostalgic reasons, but for how it fit into the overall vibe of The Cellar — down to earth but still informed. Based on the few cheese-centric restaurants I’ve been to, it seems like the each of the waitstaffs really love working at their restaurants. I can’t blame them, I’m pretty sure I’d be plenty happy surrounded by cheese and wine all day.

The Cheesemonger's Five Cheese Plate -- a strong showing with some highs and lows.

The Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate — a strong showing with some highs and lows.

Last, but far from least, was the Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate. In the chaos of trying to fit all of our dishes on the table, our waitress accidentally neglected to tell us which cheeses had been monged for our enjoyment. We managed to flag her down a few moments later for the full details. While I grabbed a takeaway menu on my way out of Beecher’s (including the cheeses offered at The Cellar), Artisanal still holds top prize for literally giving us a guide to our cheese plate. So based on my slightly hazy memories and the menu, here are the cheeses I believe we tried, clockwise from the top right: Pt. Reyes Cheese Co., Original Blue, cow, CA; Vermont Creamery, Bijou, goat, VT; Holland’s Family Cheese, Marieke Gouda, cow, WI; Cowgirl Creamery, Red Hawk, cow, CA; VT Shepherd, Queso del Invierno, sheep & cow, VT.

Like Murray’s the cheese and accompaniments were set out on a slate board, separated by pairing. I really liked the attention to detail that came with the pairing of each cheese with specific item, rather than giving us “some things that generally go well with lots of cheese.” The only general addition was the crackers, which were perfectly pleasant if unremarkable in flavor. Of the cheeses, the only one I’d tried before was Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, during a vacation in Napa a few years ago. I was very excited to see it on the menu, since it was one of the best cheeses I tasted in California (yes, my vacation involved a lot of cheese — no one is surprised), and remains one of my favorites to this day. I’ve had trouble finding Cowgirl’s products here in NY, so discovering that Beecher’s carries at least Red Hawk was fantastic news. Here’s hoping they have some other varieties as well.

Red Hawk is a rich cheese, smooth and soft to the point of being somewhat spreadable without being runny. It has a salty, earthy flavor, it was paired excellently with a grapefruit marmalade.

As with my previous cheese posts, I was happiest with the really funky cheeses, so I thought the Original Blue made a strong showing. This cheese is a pretty bold blue, so I’d recommend delaying your hot makeout sessions unless pairing it with Listerine. Perhaps in acknowledgment of a blue cheese lover’s likely singledom, Beecher’s chose to pair itwith fig jam, which showed up twice on our cheese plate (more successfully here than with the gouda).

The Marieke Gouda was a nice compromise between the attributes of young and older goudas. It had the buttery, caramel flavor of and older gouda, but was slightly softer than the chunky, dry and hard aged variety. Apparently, this cheese just won top prize at the 2013 US Championship Cheese Contest, and while I enjoyed it, I think I personally prefer the super-aged, crusty crystallized and crumbly type of gouda. The Marieke was also paired with the fig jam, which I didn’t think did much for the cheese.

The Queso del Invierno was my least favorite — I found it too mild in flavor. There was nothing bad about it, but I thought it really worked best as a vehicle for the candied nuts that were paired with it. I’m a little surprised, because it was the only cheese made of blended milks on our plate, but I could see it working best grated into a salad, or even to bolster the flavor of a macaroni and cheese.

My favorite cheese of the night was the Bijou Goat Cheese. It’s semi-soft to soft cheese, similar in texture to Red Hawk, holding its overall structure but featuring a paste-like interior. It had that grassy, goat cheese flavor with a good tang and some underlying sweetness, and came with honey with some honeycomb mixed into it. The honey perfectly complemented the cheese, heightening the sweetness while allowing the pungent goaty taste to still shine through.

Final Thoughts:

Now that I’ve been to a handful of cheese shops and restaurants in New York, I feel like I’m starting to zero in on the features that matter to me the most. While I still think that Artisanal had the best cheese plate and service, my meal at Beecher’s was more enjoyable on a dish by dish basis. A common thread in my most positive restaurant experiences (at least on this blog) is the low-key tone of the restaurants. I’d rather have a fun dining experience at a place with mediocre food than feel uncomfortable at an overly pretentious restaurant that serves the best Chilean Sea Bass you’ve ever tasted. The Cellar at Beecher’s took the cute milk-puns on the wall at Murray’s Cheese Bar and filled their lounge with it. The best part is that they’re not immediately apparent — a glance at the paintings might lead you to think they were generic art prints, but if you stop and actually look at them, you realize how silly the content is. The Cellar has the veneer of cool and classy, but underneath is the soul of the cheese nerds who want to share their curdly passion with you.

I’m bound to go back for the mushroom tart alone, but Beecher’s also offers a few more adventurous types of mac and cheese on The Cellar’s menu (curried cauliflower anyone?), so I’ll have to try out these parallel universe versions of my mother’s dish. If you’re game for a little tongue-in-cheek humor with a strong menu of cheesy delights, check out The Cellar. After all, I can’t invite everyone to my mother’s house for mac and cheese, so you might as well get the next best thing.

The Cellar at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese

Corner of Broadway & 20th St.

http://www.beechershandmadecheese.com