Be Careful What You Wish For

Hi Guys — I kinda owe you all an apology. See, when I was starting this blog, I promised myself I wasn’t going to be one of those annoying bloggers who just stops updating without a word, leaving her readers wondering if the writer was carried off by coyotes. Well, I’m happy to report that my days have been coyote-free, but not that free of much else.

Life’s been pretty crazy recently, and I find myself with a surplus of happiness and fulfillment, but a real deficit of time. My new job at the James Beard Foundation gives me ample opportunity to explore the wonderful world of food and write about it (please visit our blog Delights & Prejudices, if you’re so inclined), but I’m still very much getting into the swing of things. And considering that I’ll be starting school at night come Labor Day, well, I think the most honest and fair thing I can do is admit that I won’t be able to update Experimental Gastronomy as regularly. This is not the end, I promise you that. I mean, it’s not like I’m going to stop documenting my addiction to ice cream and eggplant (not together though, because ew). But I have a feeling that working and learning about food will unexpectedly translate into eating out less. So I guess both you and I will have to learn to savor each meal a little more.

So if you’re willing to go on this irregularly scheduled journey with me, I can’t thank you enough. I’m hoping that the more I learn, the more I’ll be able to share, from photos of outrageous desserts to discussions of issues of food policy, culture, and history. If you’re the impatient type and eager for some slightly more instant gratification, feel free to check out my comings and goings on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

In the meantime, here are some of my favorite dishes and bites from the summer:

 

The Tater Pie from Jeremys

The Tater Pie from Jeremy’s Ale House. A brunch-exclusive cardiac threat.

This, my friends, is a Tater Pie from Jeremy’s Ale House at Southstreet Seaport. Tater tots, American cheese, beef chili, and a fried egg to seal the deal. And this was just part of a heart attack brunch of fried seafood glory we had for my friend Laura’s (of jam fame) birthday.

 

 

Uovo from SD26, perhaps the best definition of "luxury item."

Uovo from SD26, perhaps the best definition of “luxury item.”

Outrageous Uovo (soft egg yolk filled raviolo with truffle butter) from SD26, just above Madison Square Park. This was my appetizer during a Restaurant Week Lunch with my parents, and it is every bit as decadent as you would expect from that description. The raviolo was constructed from freshly house-made dough, so thin and delicate you can see the bulk of the egg yolk shimmering through the top. A light puncturing with my fork let the soft yolk ooze out, mixing in with the dense ricotta-spinach filling and the truffle butter sauce at the bottom of the dish. I chose SD26 for Restaurant Week precisely because of this dish, which I saw Odette Fada cook on Top Chef Masters. If you can find an excuse, go and try this dish out — it actually lives up to the hype.

 

 

House Special Pan Fried Dumplings from Nom Wah Tea Parlor, one delicious part of their extensive dim sum menu.

House Special Pan Fried Dumplings from Nom Wah Tea Parlor, one delicious part of their extensive dim sum menu.

 

Prosperity Dumplings

Prosperity Dumpling‘s take on pan fried pork — very cost effective, if not the highest quality ingredients.

 

Heres

And here’s are Prosperity Dumpling‘s boiled shrimp dumplings, available in small or large piles. Proceed with caution, 10 dumplings is actually a substantial amount of wonton wrapper.

In our continuing run of use-a-gift-as-an-excuse-to-eat, Laura treated me to a Chinatown dumpling crawl for my birthday. The summer was so busy we didn’t actually get to do it until it was closer to her birthday than mine, but it was still a wonton wonderland of an afternoon. My favorite was the House Special Pan Fried Dumplings (Pork and shrimp dumpling in a homemade wheat wrapper and pan fried) from Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a Chinatown dim sum institution. We had just come from Prosperity Dumpling, where you can get an absurd quantity of dumplings for pennies (we had 10 shrimp dumplings for $3.50, and 4 fried pork & chive dumplings for $1). Prosperity is definitely more bang for your buck, but the dumplings you get at Nom Wah are clearly of a higher quality. Not that I have a huge amount of experience with pork, but even a neophyte like me could pick out a discernible improvement in flavor at Nom Wah compared to Prosperity’s pork & chive entry, and the extra small shrimp (that is their classification, apparently) in our mountain of shrimp dumplings couldn’t hold a candle to the actual chunks of larger shrimp in Nom Wah’s House Special. I also got to try my first soup dumplings at Nom Wah, and I’m eager to go back and have more, not to mention explore the rest of the diverse dim sum menu.

 

Xian Famous Foods Spicy and Sour Lamb Dumplings. Less mainstream, but still leaving quite the impression.

Xi’an Famous Foods’ Spicy and Sour Lamb Dumplings. Less mainstream, but a must for lamb fans.

We finished up our dumpling tour at Xi’an Famous Foods, with a slightly less mainstream pick of Spicy and Sour Lamb Dumplings (Classic boiled dumplings stuffed with lamb meat, smothered in their signature spicy and sour sauce). I wanted to visit Xi’an because I had heard about their Spicy and Tingly Lamb Face Salad (still on my list), and as a lamb aficionado, I couldn’t pass up the chance to have lamb dumplings. These are probably tied with Nom Wah’s House Special for my favorite, because of the variety of flavors and the complexity of the dish. The lamb had some depth to it, clearly not just sausage meat, which worked with the brightness of the cilantro and chopped cucumber sprinkled on top of it. The sauce was reminiscent of hot and sour soup, with a little more punch to it that left a little tingle on my lips. According to their website they’re opening up a new location on the UES, around the corner from my synagogue, so I’ll be able to do my Jewish New Yorker duty and have a little Chinese nosh after temple.

 

My parents and I ended up bookending Restaurant Week, since we also (completely accidentally) visited a participating spot near the beginning of the discount’s run. We were looking to have a meal up by my apartment, and so booked a table at The Writing Room. The Writing Room opened in the old Elaine’s space, but unlike its predecessor, the emphasis is very much on the food over the scene. That’s not to say that the restaurant is visually unappealing — it’s actually very nicely appointed, with a modern cum steampunk aesthetic, featuring a black and white newsprint color palette, Edison bulbs in wrought iron fixtures, and nods to journalism with newspaper racks up front, a card catalogue wall along the back, and a smaller rear dining room decorated and appropriately called “the library.” As it happened, we got a glimpse of the old Elaine’s celebrity magnetism, as NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton was seated in the library during our meal.

 

The Writing Room Fried chicken: An impressive balance of crunchy crust to moist interior.

The Writing Room’s Fried Chicken: An impressive balance of crunchy crust to moist interior, plus a bangin’ biscuit.

 

Check out the side of Smoky Grits at the Writing Room for a delicious dose of Southern-inflected arterial clogging.

Check out the side of Smoky Grits at The Writing Room for a delicious dose of Southern charm.

As for the food itself, I would recommend checking The Writing Room out for their bread program, and for their Southern-inflected menu items. Out of all the dishes we had, the standouts were my father’s Fried Chicken (Cole Slaw, Buttermilk Biscuit), and the side of Smoked Corn Grits. The breading on the chicken was gorgeous, shattering as you bit into it, buttery and salty without being too greasy. The breast was pretty good, but the drumstick took the cake for me, the meat moist in contrast to the crisp coating. The biscuit was as superb as the complimentary home-made Parker House rolls that are served at the start of the meal, like an upscale version of Cracker Barrel’s biscuits (and I mean that as a huge compliment). As for the grits, they were chock full of real corn kernels, with the smoky flavor present but not overpowering the dish, and the grits having just enough heft to them to achieve a mashed potato-like texture. So if you’re willing to double down on carbs, check out The Writing Room — I’m planning on returning for brunch, because I bet they make a mean french toast.

 

Thanks for sticking with me as Experimental Gastronomy enters its tumultuous blogdolesence. It’s been a fantastic ride for me so far, and I’m hoping that diversifying what I write about will make this project even more interesting. Don’t worry though, I’m not giving up my side career as a food porn purveyor. As I mentioned above, keep track of my on-the-go snackshots via Instagram or Twitter, or my commentary on labneh, tetrapak wines, and more at Delights & Prejudices. It’s a long term goal to find a way to work Oreos into their blog content.

 

Jeremy’s Ale House

228 Front St.

www.jeremysalehouse.com/

 

SD26

19 East 26th St.

http://www.sd26ny.com/

 

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

13 Doyers St.

https://nomwah.com/

 

Prosperity Dumpling

46 Eldridge St

http://prosperitydumpling.com/

 

Xi’an Famous Foods (multiple locations in NYC)

http://xianfoods.com/

 

The Writing Room

1703 2nd Ave (between 88th and 89th)

http://www.thewritingroomnyc.com/

 

Defining Identity: Dinner at RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen

2014-06-28 17.50.51

 

Afloat in this nebulous sea of my mid-twenties, it seems somewhat hypocritical to make remarks about an identity crisis. I find I am still very much chipping away at the jagged piece of stone that is my public persona, slowly working my way through the marble to pick and choose among the quirks and traits I’m truly comfortable with (as well as the deficiencies I need to acknowledge and accept). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve definitely become more confident in what makes me unique as an individual, and more importantly, to value that as something worth sharing with others. But it took a while to be all right with not just going with the crowd, for recognizing that your difference of opinion might actually add something to the discussion.

 

I think we sometimes forget that restaurants are run by people, and rather than being some autonomous hive-mind or giant Star Trek replicator (geekiness = one facet I am embracing), the people involved ultimately make decisions that craft a “personality” for the enterprise (yup, I went there). Granted, my view is only from the outside, but it seems like new restaurants have to go through the same sort of growing pains as everyone else, with a similar spectrum of awkwardness when it comes to adolescence. Some places are going to be that one cool kid who never had acne and went from Bar Mitzvah beefcake to senior prom king, but a lot of places have to reckon with getting food stuck in their braces for a few years before they bust out those shiny straight teeth.

 

I couldn’t help but feel like RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen in Tarrytown is in the midst of that growth spurt. I was there recently for a dinner, and found myself thoroughly enjoying the food, if a little uncertain of what tone the restaurant was trying to strike. It’s got a lot going for it, and I think has a huge amount of potential, once it settles on what crowd it wants to sit with at the cafeteria.

First Impressions:

Some of the outdoor seating on RiverMarket's huge patio -- this side unfortunately faces the train station and Tappan Zee Bridge.

Some of the outdoor seating on RiverMarket‘s huge patio — this side unfortunately faces the train station and Tappan Zee Bridge.

 

RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen is located in the Westchester town of Tarrytown. The restaurant sits only a few hundred feet from the Hudson, and is part of a huge redevelopment project along the waterfront, called the Hudson Harbor Complex. While the large patio offers lovely views of the river on one side, unfortunately if you turn the other way you have a nice panorama of the Tarrytown Metro North train station. Still, not all sidewalk seating in New York offers gorgeous vistas.

 

The "market" section of RiverMarket, where you can buy prepackaged goods and fresh produce from local sources.

The “market” section of RiverMarket, where you can buy prepackaged goods and fresh produce from local sources.

As the name implies, RiverMarket has both dining and retail components, with an overarching focus on locally sourced ingredients. Just inside the entrance to the restaurant is an area lined with shelves stocked full of locally-grown heirloom tomatoes, milk and cheese from Battenkill Dairy, and bread from the famed Balthazar Bakery, not to mention the NY-based wine and spirits sold just next door.

 

Inside the restaurant itself, a mish-mash of rustic and industrial chic.

Inside the restaurant itself, a mish-mash of rustic and industrial chic.

 

Walking further in takes you to the restaurant itself, which is decorated with a blend of rustic and industrial touches, combining wrought iron lighting fixtures and bar shelves with light wood tables and thick wooden beams suspended across the ceiling. This aesthetic, combined with the dress code for the staff (branded t-shirts with jeans), a classic rock soundtrack, and the robust craft beer selection, suggest that RiverMarket wants to be a slightly more upscale neighborhood spot. And I have no problem with that desire — I wish there were more spots like that in NY. The identity issues start when you pair the visual with the menu, which seems to have much loftier aspirations.

 

Our drinks for the night -- the Brooklyn cocktail on the right, and a Finger Lakes Riesling.

Our drinks for the night — the Brooklyn cocktail on the right, and the Red Newt Cellars Riesling.

 

It was yet again another birthday dinner (May/June are busy months in my family), but this time we were celebrating my father’s birthday — hence the Westchester locale. This time I was on my game and documented the drinks we ordered. My mother and I had glasses of the Red Newt Cellars Riesling, a wine from the Finger Lakes that was on tap at the bar, and ended up being a slightly sweet, clean tasting wine that paired well with my food. My father went for the Brooklyn Cocktail (Green Hook Ginsmiths Gin, Green Hook Ginsmiths Gin Liqueur, Angostura Bitters, Orange Peel), which I didn’t like, mostly because of the gin, but more importantly, he really enjoyed.

 

In what unfortunately ended up being a recurring theme for the evening, our server was initially confused and brought my dad a Brooklyn Brewery beer instead of his cocktail. She was very attentive and kind, but didn’t seem to know much about the menu. This meant she was perfectly happy to repeatedly go back and ask the chef to answer or confirm something, but didn’t inspire a lot of confidence in us about the staff’s ability to represent the restaurant. Then again, maybe we were snooty New York diners with unrealistically high expectations of servers. I think it’s hard to say where the line really is — I certainly don’t expect someone at the Olive Garden to know the intricacies of each pasta dish, but when your restaurant makes a big deal about where they source the ingredients, should the staff be required to know the ins and outs of those ingredients? Anyway, enough about the context, let’s get into the food itself.

The Food:

RiverMarket specializes in seasonal American fare, with some pasta and international influences thrown in (one might even say another example of California Cuisine). Pulling from the Hudson Valley and the Long Island Sound/Atlantic, there was unsurprisingly a fair amount of seafood, although through our collective orders we ended up running the gamut from starch to fish to fowl and beyond. To start, my mom got the RiverMarket Montauk Hardshell Lobster Bisque, I chose the Montauk Hardshell Lobster Salad, and my dad went with a half portion of the Green Herb Fettucine. Then for entrees  my mom got a half-portion of the Potato Gnocchi, my dad ordered the Grilled Block Island Harpoon-Caught Swordfish, and I had the Roast Hemlock Pasture-Raised Chicken. And because it’s not a meal with my parents without dessert (or a meal with me in general), we finished up with the Strawberry Shortcake and the RiverMarket Cookies and a Milkshake. And then I dearly wished I could walk back to the Upper East Side from there.

 

Our complimentary chunk of crusty bread. Narcissa wins this one with their mini boule.

Our complimentary chunk of crusty bread. Narcissa wins this one with their mini boule.

Things kicked off with a hearty slice of complimentary bread, presumably from Balthazar. It was an herbed loaf, rustic and crunchy, almost burnt on the outside. I still would rather have one of the Pepperidge Farm dinner rolls my mom would give us over a slice of Italian bread any day, but I guess that’s not really trendy.

 

The RiverMarket Montauk Hardshell Lobster Bisque, smooth and creamy, yet packed with flavor. Also a strong vote in favor of the merits of calamari.

The RiverMarket Montauk Hardshell Lobster Bisque, smooth and creamy, yet packed with flavor. Also a strong vote in favor of the merits of calamari.

We visited RiverMarket only a few weeks after our dinner at Narcissa, so a bit of comparison was inevitable. After the somewhat muddled lobster butter my mom had at Narcissa, I was glad that her appetizer had such a crustacean-packed punch. RiverMarket Montauk Hardshell Lobster Bisque (Warm seafood salad crostini) was a little worrying at first, arriving smooth and bright orange with nary a piece of lobster in sight. Even though it was a bisque, I thought there might be a few chunks of lobster on the crostini, but the wedge of bread was topped with herb-dusted circles of calamari instead. However, what the soup lacked in lobster meat, it more than made up for in flavor. This was the opposite of Narcissa’s lobster butter — pure, unadulterated lobster beaming directly from the broth to your tastebuds. The crostini was also a nice addition, the toasted bread soaking up the bisque while still retaining a bit of texture, so you had a lobster-carb hybrid. My mother doesn’t care for calamari, so I happily took them off her hands, since they were well-executed, just slightly chewy without veering into rubber territory, and full of flavor from the surrounding bisque and a light coating of red pepper and olive oil.

 

The RiverMarket Montauk Hardshell Lobster Salad, a true summer dish.

The Montauk Hardshell Lobster Salad, a true summer dish.

My appetizer ended up being my favorite dish of the night, and given the size, I might actually return and just have this as an entree. The Montauk Hardshell Lobster Salad (heirloom legumes, celeriac, avocado, orange citrus vinaigrette) was beautifully plated, very carefully bundled together in a layered tower of salad components. It featured an enormous quantity of lobster meat, with both a sizable claw and a tail that were only lightly seasoned with salt, pepper, and the orange citrus vinaigrette. The lobster was incredibly fresh, hitting that sweet spot of chewy, buttery, briny richness that epitomizes great shellfish. To be honest, I was pretty focused on the lobster when ordering, so I didn’t pay much attention to the heirloom legumes listed with it, but as a legume lover I was delighted to see a wide variety of beans, from butter beans to favas to these dark brown ones that looked like oversized black beans. They were all cooked al dente, soft without being mushy, and mixed in well with the assortment of greens, ripe avocado, and crunchy slivers of what I thought was carrots, but ended up being celeriac. The acid of the vinaigrette was the perfect way to bring the salad together and balance out the natural richness of the seafood. It just seemed like the ideal summer dish, fresh and bright and full of the season’s best.

 

The Green Herb Fettucine, with roughly formed but impressive handmade pasta and a pile of lamb on top.

The Green Herb Fettucine, with roughly formed but impressive handmade pasta, and a pile of lamb on top.

RiverMarket really has a handle on their pasta, as evidenced by my father’s continuing to reference his appetizer even days after our dinner. The Green Herb Fettucine (slow-braised hudson valley lamb ragú, fresh mint and olives) really bowled him over, specifically how fresh the noodles were. As with my lobster salad, this dish challenges the notion of “half-order” (or perhaps, implies a Godzilla-sized full portion), with a pile of verdant green strips of pasta topped with full chunks of lamb and a dousing of cheese. I was very impressed that the dish used pieces of lamb, rather than the shredded or ground meat you often find in ragus. It was braised to the point of holding its shape only until pressed upon by a fork, then falling to pieces. I actually think it’s a shame RiverMarket doesn’t have a lamb entree — I’d come back for a braised lamb shank or shoulder (maybe that’s more of a winter dish?). The fettucine itself was the thickest cut iteration I’ve ever seen, rustic and far from visually perfect, but infused with lots of great flavor. The whole thing was topped with stewed tomatoes, cheese, and a few olives to add some bite, and though my positivity towards olives is still very much a work in progress, I found myself enjoying them here, where they worked in contrast with the rest of the dish.

 

The Potato Gnocchi, another excellent pasta dish, if not exactly light fare.

The Potato Gnocchi, another excellent pasta dish, if not exactly light fare.

My mother was also very impressed with her pasta entree, the Potato Gnocchi (Stone Broke Farms 100% grass-fed beef bolognese, roasted hen of the woods mushrooms). She also ordered a half-portion, and wasn’t even able to finish that (fortunately, my father and I are card-carrying members of the Clean Plate Society). Like the fettucine, this was another bowl full of large pieces of pasta and a hefty allotment of meat. If Narcissa’s gnocchi were delicately browned pillows of starch, RiverMarket’s were the equivalent of Sock ‘Em Boppers — body-pillow-sized chewy, gooey bon bons. I feel like you don’t see Hen of the Woods Mushrooms on menus that often, so it was wonderful to have them paired here with the hearty ground beef. While this was definitely one of my favorite dishes of the night, it’s a bit of a gut bomb, so I can’t imagine actually having this as your full entree. I was more than happy to pick at my mom’s leftovers, but I’d recommend splitting it as an appetizer so you can enjoy the flavors without giving up all your stomach space to the gnocchi dumplings.

 

The Grilled Block Island Swordfish, unlike any piece of swordfish Ive

The Grilled Block Island Harpoon-Caught Swordfish, unlike any piece of swordfish I’ve had before.

Both my father’s and my entrees had the opportunity to be relatively light dishes, if you ignored the starch component. The Grilled Block Island Harpoon-Caught Swordfish (roasted peach and heirloom tomato salsa, pea tendrils, creamy hudson valley polenta) was a revelation. Usually I shy away from swordfish because I’ve only encountered it as thick-cut and treated like the steak of the sea, cooked medium-well so it’s tough and sort of bland. But RiverMarket’s version was sliced thin and cooked so that it was as tender and flaky as any piece of sea bass or snapper, yet still retained that meaty, umami taste. My dad had initially ordered it to try out the salsa, which fortunately lived up to expectations and had him raving about it, bite by bite. I liked the sampling I had, but I think I’m just relatively old-fashioned when it comes to salsas — I’d rather have a pico de gallo or salsa roja over non-tomato-fruit-focused variations. The last lighter component was the greens, which at first glance appeared to be spinach, but as with my parsley root at Narcissa, ended up being a vegetable homoglyph — these guys were pea tendrils, and had a slightly bitter taste that worked well with the sweet salsa. What turned this plate into a hefty meal was the underlying rectangle of über-buttery polenta, which almost reminded me of the outrageously rich grits you find at some southern restaurants. It was absolutely delicious, and worked well with the brighter flavors of the rest of the dish, but man was it filling.

 

The Roast Hemlock Pasture-Raised Chicken, the only real disappointment of the evening, due to underseasoning.

The Roast Hemlock Pasture-Raised Chicken, the only real disappointment of the evening, due to underseasoning.

The same thing happened with my Roast Hemlock Pasture-Raised Chicken (moroccan spices, lyonnaise potatoes, summer squash and asparagus salad, cardamom chicken jus), where the potatoes performed as a heavy anchor for the dish. I chose this dish on the server’s recommendation, and while it certainly wasn’t bad by any means, overall I was a little underwhelmed by it. I had expected the Moroccan spices to pack a punch, and while there was a bit of a warm cumin/cinnamon coating on the crisp and crackly skin of the chicken, the spices had failed to really permeate down into the meat itself. The bulk of the meat was also slightly on the dry side, except for the dark thigh meat, which I unfortunately had last because it was tucked underneath the rest of the chicken. This piece was rich and gamey and moist, and if I could, I’d tell the RiverMarket kitchen to drop the breast and make the dish entirely out of dark meat. The jus had good chicken flavor, although again I had trouble finding the cardamom in it, and we all know how I feel about cardamom, so this was a bit of a disappointment. My favorite part of the dish was probably the vegetable sides of summer squash and asparagus, which had soaked up all of the chicken juices, perhaps defeating their purpose but rendering them lip-smackingly delicious. My mother happily dug into the potatoes (a trade for the gnocchi, I guess), but I just wasn’t interested in them, finding them mushy and lacking the pop of the onions to break up their flavor. All in all, compared to the deft handling of the pasta and swordfish, the wimpy seasoning on the chicken just made it seem a little unattended to.

 

The adorably festive Strawberry Shortcake.

The adorably festive Strawberry Shortcake.

Now I’m never going to complain about oversized desserts, and RiverMarket definitely delivers on that front. My father got the Strawberry Shortcake, which is not listed on the website, suggesting it may not be a lock-in on the menu. Considering how much he enjoyed it, though, I think it’s worth making it a permanent addition. Since it was his birthday, the kitchen decorated the plate and, in an inspired move, put a candle in one of the fresh strawberries. I usually don’t go for strawberry shortcake because so often the “cake” is a bland poundcake with little flavor, leaving a soft texture throughout that I find monotonous (I’m a heterogeneous texture fan, okay?). RiverMarket’s version, however, was made of two real biscuits (short cakes, I guess) sandwiching fresh chantilly cream with macerated sliced strawberries, and a drizzle of caramel on top. The biscuits had real heft to them, with a crust that required a little bit of pressure to break through to the softer interior, and it was nice to have thick slices of strawberries so their unadulterated flavor could shine through. Of course, my favorite part was the fresh whipped cream (no shlag, but pretty damn good).

 

The RiverMarket Cookies and Milkshake -- sometimes all you need is simple, straightforward sugar.

The RiverMarket Cookies and Milkshake — sometimes all you need is simple, straightforward sugar.

But let’s be honest, the RiverMarket Cookies and a Milkshake (Espresso chocolate chip,‎ snickerdoodle, chocolate brownie, creamy vanilla thick shake) are way more my kind of dessert. They reminded me of the amazing Cookies and Milk plate you can get at Jane in SoHo (check it out if you’re unfamiliar, it is worth it to eat there just for the eventual dessert). RiverMarket gives you three piping hot cookies, warmed to the point that the chocolate chips in the espresso cookie have melted down to little puddles that require a fork to properly eat. Alongside this small bag of cookies is a tumbler of vanilla milkshake, simple and utterly satisfying in the way only comfort food can be. In fact, for all of my high-falutin’ talk of food, textures (not to mention RiverMarket’s own claims to regional sourcing), our server said the ice cream in the shake was probably regular ol’ Breyers, since they were out of the local creamery’s milk they typically use  to make the ice cream in house. Regardless of store-bought vs. hand-churned, the shake was tremendous — blended just to the point of still having real clumps of ice cream in the liquid, so you could sip it or attack it with a spoon, depending on your choice of strategy and level of desire for cookie-dunking. The chocolate brownie and the snickerdoodle were both solid cookies, but the espresso chocolate chip had wonderful soft-baked dough and gooey pools of chocolate with a real depth of flavor that contrasted with the straightforward vanilla shake. And I wasn’t upset about more whipped cream and chocolate syrup in my life. It looks like a small package, but this was actually a lot of dessert packed into a compact dish, and I’d happily go back to RiverMarket for a drink, some cookies and a shake to watch the sun set on the Hudson. Now those are some simple pleasures.

 

Final Thoughts:

 

I think when it comes down to it, RiverMarket is very close to being a slam-dunk. There are dishes that are less successful than others, but that’s true at any restaurant, and for the areas where they do excel, you’re getting large portions of great food for a pretty solid price. It seems like the easiest answer to RiverMarket’s highbrow/lowbrow identity problem is to be well-informed without adding pomp-and-circumstance. If a grounded, lowkey setting is your ideal, embrace that, but recognize that an emphasis on local sourcing means your staff should know those producers. They don’t have to be sommeliers or graduates from the CIA — in fact, I’d rather chat with a townie who’s invested in Tarrytown as their home.

 

It’s a small change that I hope will happen naturally, since RiverMarket appears to be a pretty popular place. I know I’d like to go back for brunch or lunch before the summer’s out, so I can enjoy the beautiful outdoor seating (and some more of that lobster). So if you’re coming north to enjoy a brief break from the hot concrete of Manhattan, consider jumping on the train to Tarrytown. You’re only a short hop away from RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen, where you can see what the Hudson Valley has to offer without emptying your wallet. It may still be in its gawky teenage years, but as a former awkward teen can attest, if you learn to appreciate strengths and acknowledge your weaknesses, you’re well on your way to a bright future.

 

RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen

127 W. Main St

Tarrytown, NY

http://rivermarketbarandkitchen.com/

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/

Pushing at the Edges: Zizi Limona

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I celebrated my birthday this past week, and looking back at the year that was, it’s hard not to think of the old adage of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’ve got a lot of new, exciting developments in my life, from changing jobs to my upcoming enrollment in grad school. But as food shifts from passion to profession for me, I’m noticing more than ever my palate’s internal tug-of-war between my desire for new tastes and experiences and my lifelong devotion to those comfort foods that evoke contentment and simple satisfaction.

 

So in a way it’s fitting that one of my last meals as a 25-year-old was at Zizi Limona, a restaurant that bills itself as “Mediterranean Home Cooking,” and was called “Grandma’s Middle Eastern kitchen” in one review. My brunch at Zizi Limona was the perfect combination of the traditional and the innovative, taking me back a little over a year to the scents and flavors of my Birthright trip to Israel, while also introducing me to a take on falafel that I’m pretty sure would leave the cooks at our kibbutzim scratching their heads. This is exactly the reason to get yourself over to Williamsburg and check this place out. You’ve got safe bets and experimental options aplenty, catering to any type of bruncher (or dinner-er … diner) you might have in your posse.

 

First Impressions:

Mismatched chairs, brick and wood covered walls, and Mediterranean goods for sale say a lot about Zizi Limona's vibe before you even crack a menu.

Mismatched chairs, brick and wood covered walls, and Mediterranean goods for sale say a lot about Zizi Limona’s vibe before you even crack a menu.

The trip to Zizi Limona was instigated by my belated birthday present to my Gastronomic Life Partner Jacob — a tour of the Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory. I could spend an entire separate post on that experience, but I’d rather just tell you to go. It’s very affordable, and aside from starting at 10am on a weekend, definitely a memorable experience. It’s worth every dollar for the amount of high quality dark chocolate you get to put in your face, plus you learn far more about the art of chocolate-making than I did at the “factory tour” at Hershey Park.

 

However, after our blood sugar levels dropped from their Mast-induced highs, Jacob and I found ourselves in the brunch mecca of Williamsburg with a desperate craving for non-cacao-based dishes. Neurotic that I am, I had of course researched our options, and landed upon Zizi Limona, a restaurant that had been on my radar for a few years after reading raves about its sandwiches and spreads.

 

The other side of the dining room, with the tiled bar and hanging pewter pitchers for brewing Turkish coffee.

The other side of the dining room, with the tiled bar and hanging pewter pitchers for brewing Turkish coffee.

Zizi Limona is an establishment with personality, to be sure. This is immediately apparent from the vibrantly green exterior topped by a red-and-green striped awning. Peering inside reveals a single, light-filled dining room constructed out of a variety of woods and exposed brick. This orchestrated mishmash of decor continues throughout the space, from the collection of non-matching tables and chairs, to the multicolored painted tiles on the small bar. Behind the bar are multiple shelves brimming with wine and beer bottles, and the wall across from it holds shelves stuffed with regional speciality products, like Turkish coffee, spice mixes, and date molasses. Speaking of Turkish coffee, Jacob (recently back from a trip to the country) noted that Zizi Limona hangs pewter vessels over the bar, to be used in the traditional method of brewing the coffee. We sat at one of the handful of outdoor tables, also made up of an assortment of styles, sizes, and seating arrangements. In fact, the only consistency I saw came in the table setting — all of our flatware and dishes was of the same set. I would venture that Zizi Limona is trying to emphasize a “restaurant next door” persona, quirky, eclectic, but accessible.

 

 

The Food:

 

That’s actually a pretty apt description of Zizi Limona’s menu, as well. The menu denotes vegan and gluten-free foods, but also carries the warning: “to keep our food balanced the only possible substitutions are listed.” Grandma’s only doing so much for your picky palate, kiddo. After struggling to narrow down our choices, Jacob and I chose to split an order of Aunt Trippo’s Falafel, followed by the Challah Sandwich for him, and the Shakshuka for me. Jacob almost ordered the Sabih (sic) Croissant (he does love his sabich), but drawn to the Challah by the promise of a more egg-forward, brunchy dish.

 

Complimentary spiced popcorn -- not as good as the pita and tahini to come but I'm never one to turn down free carbs.

Complimentary spiced popcorn — not as good as the pita and tahini to come but I’m never one to turn down free carbs.

Our meal started with a complimentary bowl of popcorn sprinkled liberally with Spanish Paprika. I would have preferred the pita and tahini bread basket outlined in the Serious Eats review I read, but in hindsight the popcorn was a nice entrée into brunch — heavily spiced, with lots of smoky flavor and salty, but not greasy or oily, which meant it didn’t make a serious dent in my stomach.

 

Aunt Trippos Falafel, the Aggro Crag of chickpea appetizers.

Aunt Trippos Falafel, the Aggro Crag of chickpea appetizers.

Aunt Trippo’s Falafel (pickles, smoked tomato, curry yogurt/tahini) was unlike any falafel dish I’ve seen before — tiny fried chickpea balls, each about the size of a large marble, plated atop a curried tahini sauce, then piled high with a smoked tomato chutney, charred shallots, and pickled cabbage. The falafel themselves were a little on the dry side, but had nice mix of basic chickpea flavor and fragrant spices like cumin and coriander, and the crunchy outer crust provided textural contrast with the tahini and the chutney. I really enjoyed both of the sauce elements — the curry-infused tahini was not as assertively sesame-y as some versions, its spices marrying well with those incorporated with the falafel, reminding me somewhat of Indian pakoras. The tomato chutney, chunky enough to stab with your fork and smokey and speckled with peppers,  turned out to be serious foreshadowing for my shakshuka. Overall, the dish was unfamiliar but satisfying, grounded in the traditional combination of falafel with vegetables and tahini, but taken to new corners of the globe through its spices and format, a tangle of tastes and textures that is far from Taim’s pita pocket, but still quite delicious.

 

 

Zizi Limona's Shakshuka, the best specimen I've tried outside of Eretz Yisrael.

Zizi Limona‘s Shakshuka, the best specimen I’ve tried outside of Eretz Yisrael.

Now as you know, I fell in love with shakshuka in Jaffa, care of licensed practitioner Dr. Shakshuka. Since I got back from Birthright I haven’t really found an iteration that lived up to the Doc’s, most of them mere echoes of the soupy, stewy, umami bomb of a skillet I had in Israel. But Zizi Limona’s Shakshuka (Two eggs poached in tomato stew with smoked eggplant, tahini, and cilantro) comes closest to reaching that high bar. As it happens, the owners of Zizi Limona come from Hummus Kitchen and Hummus Place, two restaurants where I’d been reasonably satisfied, if not bowled over, by the shakshuka. Apparently it took a meeting of the minds to crack the eggy code. What brought me back to Jaffa was the inclusion of the smoked eggplant, adding a deep, earthy flavor that cut through the richness of the perfectly cooked eggs, and fought for dominance with the alternately sweet and savory tomato stew. I really appreciated the wide variety of flavors that intermingled in this dish, from the bright cilantro to the nutty tahini, the acidity of the tomatoes to the mild bite of the onions. After breaking the eggs, the texture was pretty much like a sauce, but as with the falafel there were substantial chunks of tomato strewn throughout, thickened by the mixing with the unctuous eggplant. I sopped up the shakshuka with the same pita we had been given with the falafel — a fluffy disk of warm, soft dough, sturdy enough to handle the soupy shakshuka but still chewy and light on its own. The dish was a very filling, but wholesome lunch that took me back to that outdoor table in Jaffa — albeit, with a slightly different vibe, as a number of hip Brooklyn stereotypes strolled by us on a Sunday morning. But the stew itself evoked enough nostalgia to make me place Zizi Limona’s shakshuka at the top of my stateside list.

 

The monster Challah Sandwich, not quite the eggy dish Jacob was aiming for.

The ginormous Challah Sandwich — all about the bread, at the unfortunate expense of its filling.

Unfortunately, I felt like the Challah Sandwich (omelette, charred veggies, harissa) was the weakest dish of our brunch, although it was it was by no means a bad sandwich. Our waiter had called it the “heavier” of the two when comparing the Challah and Sabih Croissant, and it was easy to see why he felt that way: this was definitely a monster of a sandwich,  with two thick, almost Texas Toast-style slices of toasted challah encasing an egg patty, harissa, tahini, and a bounty of grilled vegetables. It came with pickles, yogurt, and some sort of lemon sauce on the side, which tasted like curd but had the appearance of applesauce. Despite all its promise, I found myself disappointed by the sandwich. It ended up being almost entirely about the challah and vegetables, which would have been fine if the challah had matched the standard set by the pita. But it was the kind of white-bread-esque challah I find underwhelming except when employed as the base for french toast. See, I grew up eating Zomicks, a local brand of challah that has a supremely sweet eggy dough, with their best loaves possessing a pliant, even bouncy texture as you tear into them (leading to the occasional smushing as you try to slice them). If you haven’t encountered Zomicks, seek thee out the diamond in the rough.

 

As for the filling, after the care and subtlety of our other two dishes, I was surprised by how bland the Challah Sandwich was. The grilled vegetables had a nice amount of char to them, but the eggs that Jacob had wanted so badly were anonymous in the sandwich, reminding me of the kind of generic patty of premixed omelet you’d find in a cafeteria. The tahini was creamy, but there was none of the punch of a good harissa. Jacob ended up opening up the sandwich to eat it with a knife and fork by the end of our meal, and I found myself happiest with the dish when I used the challah to soak up more of my leftover shakshuka.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I was more than satisfied with Zizi Limona — it’s got a great, laid back atmosphere, helpful servers, and Mediterranean-inflected food that is playful without neglecting its roots. I fully intend on returning to try some of the meat dishes like the shawarma, or come back for lunch for the infamous Sabih Croissant to take another stab at Zizi’s sandwiches. Although I’ll admit it’s going to be a struggle to order anything besides the shakshuka, so maybe I’ll just have to visit enough to quench my stewed-egg-longings.

 

I’ve spoken before about authenticity, and the more I explore cooking and dining, the less stake I put in it (at least in this city of Ramen Burgers and General Tso-boys). My point is that, at least in my case, sometimes you can have it all — the genre-bending and the classic fare, the loves both old and new. I fell in love with Mediterranean food over the past year (as mentioned over and over and over on this blog), but hummus has been my homeboy for at least a decade. I kinda like that I’m the girl who tries chicken hearts on rosemary skewers, but is also desperate to find the new Reeses Cup Oreos (seriously, anybody seen ‘em?). Maybe the whole point of exploring food, or growing up, is not to “put away childish things,” but rather to realize that your experiences lie on a spectrum that widens as you age. By trying new things and challenging myself, I push the outer limits of that spectrum, but that means there is always room for Archie comics and the Atlantic, for blue Cookie Monster ice cream and Durian Banana Sorbet, for Mickey Mouse pancakes and for damn fine shakshuka. Almost makes me glad I’m getting older.

 

Zizi Limona

129 Havemeyer, Brooklyn, New York

http://zizilimona.com/

Brief Bites: Taqueria Diana

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We Americans have an impressive habit of taking other countries’ holidays, removing all cultural significance, and replacing it with drinking. St. Patty’s is the obvious example, where the patron Saint of Ireland’s religious contributions are largely overshadowed (at least in NYC) by overflowing rivers of Guinness and Jameson flowing into the mouths of drunken revelers who wouldn’t know Erin if she was going bragh right in front of them.

Cinco de Mayo is another one of these appropriated holidays — take a moment, do you know what it celebrates? I’ll admit I didn’t know it myself until a few years ago, and only because the news was running stories about people’s ignorance. Mexican Independence? Nope, that’s on September 16th (and has an awesome subtitle of “Grito de Dolores” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grito_de_Dolores). End of the Mexican-American War? No to that as well. In fact, Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of the Battle of Puebla in 1862, where the Mexican army unexpectedly defeated the much stronger and larger French forces (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinco_de_Mayo).

So much like St. Patty’s, for most the holiday has become a celebration of inebriation — Cinco de Drinko, as it is actually advertised. I wish I could say that I celebrated in a more authentic spirit, but although I didn’t have any tequila, I did indulge in another American appropriation of Mexican heritage — gooey, cheesy, meaty nachos. That’s right, in this edition of Brief Bites we’re taking a trip to Nachotown, care of one of the most highly lauded NY spots, Taqueria Diana.

The Set Up:

Looking back from the cashier into the long, narrow space of Taqueria Diana.

Looking back from the cashier into the long, narrow space of Taqueria Diana.

Taqueria Diana is located right off of St. Mark’s Place on Second Ave, prime feeding grounds for pre-and-post bar-hopping NYU students. My NY dining list contains a disproportionate number of restaurants on St. Mark’s, since the street and surrounding blocks are packed to the brim with eclectic spots, from classics like Mamoun’s Falafel to Khyber Pass (serving Afghani food). In fact, Taqueria Diana is only a few blocks away from another California-Mexican taco spot, Otto’s Tacos, which I hope to cover in another post.

 

The view from the back of the restaurant, where there are just a few counters with stools.

The view from the back of the restaurant, where there are just a few counters with stools. You can see that cooking and prep make up most of the establishment.

I’d imagine real estate is at a premium in this area, so it should come as no shock that Taqueria Diana is only a step up from hole-in-the-wall-sized. Although there are a few bar-height counters and stools at the back of the restaurant, the space is dominated by the cooking/assembly/cashier counter. A small prep kitchen sits in the back. Unfortunately, I had brought 5 friends with me to Taqueria Diana, and we soon discovered that we’d have to take all of our food to go. For cheese-and-sauce heavy dishes like nachos, tacos, and quesadillas, that means cooling and congealing time. I say this having fully enjoyed the dishes I ate, but cautioning that an ideal Taqueria Diana experience should probably be capped at a group of 3.

 

The Bites:

Between the six of us we basically sampled all the categories on the menu — Jacob and I split the Pollo Nachos, Al Pastor Taco and Rajas Taco, Diana got the Al Pastor Nachos, Michael got a Pollo Burrito, and Dan and Laura split the Asada Nachos and a Pollo Quesadilla Suiza. We missed out on the straight-up Roast Chicken and assorted Sides, but covered all the proteins except for the Carnitas.

 

 

The impressive Pollo Nachos, visually underserved by the takeout container.

The impressive Pollo Nachos, visually underserved by the takeout container.

You should really look at Yelp for accurate pictures of the nachos, because the depth of the mountain of chips is hidden by their being crammed into a take-out box. Jacob’s and my Pollo Nachos (chicken, chips, black beans, cheese, salsa, with added guacamole) seemed to be an endless, delicious vortex of cheese, guacamole and beans. I was pleasantly surprised by the quantity and quality of the chicken, which I assume is the same meat as offered in the Roast Chicken section. It was mostly sizable hunks of dark meat, juicy and well-seasoned, discernibly more flavorful than your average slices of grilled chicken breast. These nachos were expertly put together, as evinced by the existence of still crispy chips within the pile of semi-liquid condiments. Speaking of which, Taqueria Diana offers a number of salsa and sauces with which to top your dishes, available in unlimited quantities if you can dine in. This adds another layer of customization to the nachos, allowing to select a protein, type of beans, add on crema or guac, and then top with the sauces of your choosing. Unfortunately, our grand plan of dining al fresco in the courtyard by St. Mark’s in the Bowery turned out to be flawed, as a brutal wind kicked up out of nowhere and left us shivering and shoveling Tex-Mex into our mouths. Jacob and I were so desperate to eat our food and get out of the cold that we failed to crack open even one of the sauces we’d thrown into our bag. Yet another reason to come back and dine in at Taqueria Diana. Honestly, though, I was very satisfied by their nachos. The chips were fresh and just slightly salty, the salsa was made of sweet tomatoes, the guacamole was smooth and rich with a strong avocado-forward flavor, and I even made an effort to up my spice tolerance the smallest bit by taking on the jalapenos. The only strange ingredient were rounds of raw carrot, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen on nachos before, and barely made an impact taste or texture-wise.

 

 

The sadly soggy Rajas and Al Pastor Tacos -- promising in notion but not made for transit.

The sadly soggy Rajas (on the bottom) and Al Pastor Tacos — promising in notion but not made for transit.

Alas, our tacos didn’t hold up nearly as well. They were composed of thin, possibly hand-formed tortillas that soaked through during the transit and nacho-consumption period, literally falling to pieces when first picked up. Of the two fillings, I preferred the Al Pastor Taco (spit-roasted pork, corn tortilla, salsa, onion, cilantro) to the Rajas Taco (Poblanos, Corn tortilla, salsa, onion, cilantro), because most of what I got out of the Rajas was the heat from the peppers (still not too good at that spice thing, I guess). Despite the descriptions on the menu, our tacos seemed to have different toppings, the Rajas getting cotija cheese and sliced radishes, while the Al Pastor had lime and what looks like a squash blossom of some sort. The fact that everything was mushed together and muddled by the take-out box — which proved beneficial to the nachos — here left me tasting only the most prominent elements of the tacos, which ended up mostly being the meat from the Al Pastor. Taqueria Diana does seem to have a gift for proteins, however, since the pork was just as juicy and flavorful as the chicken. Doing a comparison between the regularly cooked carnitas and the spit-roasted al pastor might be another reason to return.

I mean, look how badass that hunk of Al Pastor pork is -- worth another shot if eaten straight away.

I mean, look how badass that hunk of Al Pastor pork is — worth another shot if eaten straight away.

 

 

The Last Licks:

All in all, I’d fully endorse a visit to Taqueria Diana, and hope everyone takes this as a cautionary tale of how NOT to do so. Even with all of the mishaps and weather-related misfortunes, the food was fresh, abundant, and packed with flavor. Except for the more proportionate tacos, Taqueria Diana’s dishes can be easily shared, or serve as more than one meal — Diana couldn’t finish her nachos, and although I didn’t take a picture of it, the Quesadilla Suiza looked like an explosion of meat and cheese to put a Taco Bell Crunchwrap to shame (yes, I’m going to try one when I go back). I’m telling you now I plan on returning, possibly by myself to make sure I get a seat at the bar. I know it’s far from authentic fare, but there’s a good chance you’ll find me at Taqueria Diana on September 16th, celebrating Mexican Independence Day as any patriotic American should — by diving mouth-first into that big ol’ melting pot.

 

Taqueria Diana

129 Second Ave (between 7th and St. Mark’s)

http://www.taqueriadiana.com/

Vatan: An All-You-Can-Eat Cultural Vacation

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — one of the things I love most about food is the way it brings people together. I often get asked about my favorite restaurants, or the best thing I ever ate, and I struggle to come up with answers, because most of my favorite meals are memorable because of the company I had while eating them. I’ll never forget my birthday dinner at Barbuto, because my family was there to pass around plates and encourage me to take a picture with Jonathan Waxman. I’ll always recommend Pike Place to visitors in Seattle because Dan showed me his favorite stalls and forced endless quantities of fresh fruit on me. And amazing as the steak at Peter Luger was, what made it special was the anticipation by the bar with my friends, and the collective moans as we dove headfirst into meaty glory (and that schlag, oh boy).

My recent dinner at Vatan is another perfect example of the joy of sharing a new experience. It reunited most of the Peter Luger crew for another group gorging, this time on vegetarian Indian food, and once again the most memorable thing for me was the happy joking that devolved into studious silence as we got busy stuffing our faces. Is Vatan the best Indian food I’ve ever had? No, it was pretty good but not life-altering. But is it a restaurant I’d recommend? Absolutely, because from the decor to the service, Vatan is about the experience of the meal itself more than the food on your plate. Come in with an empty stomach and some buddies, and you’ll definitely have a great time.

 

First Impressions:

I heard about Vatan from a couple of coworkers in my carpool, who raved about the stomach-stretching piles of Indian food available to you as a prix-fixe, all you can eat dinner for a mere $30. They warned that it would be kitschy, and not to be dissuaded by the “Epcot India” decor. That particular description proved immediately apparent as we approached Vatan. The restaurant sits right on the divide between Curry Hill and the brotown epicentre of Kips Bay/Murray Hill. It’s located on 3rd Avenue, off the main Lexington stretch of Indian restaurants, and just next door is a bar/restaurant featuring an open air rooftop overflowing with drunk twenty-somethings on the warm night we visited. Next to that, it’s hard not to view Vatan’s exterior as over-the-top, featuring a large sign, tiled panels, terracotta awnings, and a large sculpture of an elephant. And that’s got nothing on what it’s like inside.

 

The view from just inside the entrance to Vatan - note the painted clouds in the sky.

The view from just inside the entrance to Vatan – note the painted clouds in the sky.

Entering the restaurant you’re greeted with two floors of Indian fantasy, from the ceiling painted powder blue and dotted with clouds, to the fake Banyan trees “growing” out of the walls, to thatched-roof enclosures where the dining tables sit. Oh, and don’t forget the giant statue of the Hindu god Ganesh in the recessed area of the back wall. We were seated upstairs, under a row of thatched roofs at a Western-style table, but across from us (and downstairs as well), there were a few low tables that required removing your shoes and sitting cross-legged (I was actually a little bummed we didn’t get to sit there).

 

The view from the second floor, where we were seated, with an intrusive Banyan tree to the left.

The view from the second floor, where we were seated, with an intrusive Banyan tree to the left.

Our table underneath a series of thatched roofs.

Our table underneath a series of thatched roofs, where everyone mugs for the camera.

The staff is dressed in what the back of the menu describes as “ethnic garb and jewelery  … traditionally worn during the festivals and fairs in India,” regardless of ethnic background (most, but not all of the servers appeared to be of Indian descent), and everything (except the surprisingly cheap wine) is served in beaten metal containers. With the exception of dealing with our check (and we were all using credit cards, so it’s not surprising), the service was speedy and responsive, our server taking the time to explain all the dishes and replenish any items we wanted more of. Speaking of which, let’s take a look at Vatan’s menu.

 

The Food:

Meals at Vatan are split into three courses — an appetizer thali, entree thali, and dessert and chai. You have the option to order “refills” of any item you encounter, from a second bowl of rice to another full course of appetizers, at any point in the meal (feel like more samosas while drinking your chai, no problem). Thali, which means “plate” in Hindi, refers to the Indian version of a smorgasbord, where a variety of dishes are served all together in small bowls (katori) on a metal tray (the “thali” itself). I had my first thali at the Curry Hill South Indian restaurant Anjappar, which is only a block from Vatan, and highly recommended (although you order a la carte there). This style of service is perfect for someone like me, who loves sampling lots of different dishes. Given the wide variety of foods I encountered at Vatan, it would take far too long to cover each and every item, so I’ll just highlight a few stand-outs.

 

Complimentary puffed lentil snacks, which seem somewhat unnecessary given all that's to come.

Complimentary puffed lentil snacks, which seem somewhat unnecessary given all that’s to come.

Meal accompaniments -- red and green chutneys, pickled vegetables, raita, and fried garlic.

Meal accompaniments — red and green chutneys, pickled vegetables, raita, and fried garlic.

Our dinner began with a small bowl of puffed lentil snacks in different shapes and sizes. I suppose you could reorder these as well, but I’d caution against it, given the deluge of vegetarian options coming your way. Upon seeing our appetizer thali, I honestly believed I’d be able to take down several helpings, but all credit to Vatan, these were deceptively filling portions. Along with our thali came the accompaniments for the entire meal, with red and green sauces of different spice levels, raita yogurt sauce, pickled vegetables, and tiny slivers of fried garlic (which I tucked into in full vampire-defense mode).

 

The appetizer thali, so much more than Swanson:

The appetizer thali, so much more than Swanson. Clockwise, from top left: Chana Masala, Samosas, Muthia (steamed flour with spinach), Ragda Patis (potato cutlet in white bean sauce), Khaman (puffed cream of wheat flour cakes), Batatavada, Mirchi Bhajia, and Sev Puri.

The appetizer thali was a rectangular steel tray, almost like a fancy TV dinner tray. Our server noted which of the items included would be spicy, to give us a sense of what level of heat to order for our entree. For example, in the middle of the tray were Mirchi Bhajia, “fried hot peppers with Garam Masala,” that certainly lived up to their description. Since I’m determined to improve my resistance to spicy foods, I gamely took a bite of the pepper, at first pleasantly surprised by the snap of the vegetable against the soft fried exterior. Maybe I was actually getting better at this, I briefly contemplated, before the heat exploded in my mouth on the backend. Thankfully, the Sev Puri (potatoes, garbanzo beans, yogurt, and chutney filled in a crispy bread) was located just next to the hot pepper, so I could douse my tongue in the cool yogurt. I did end up ordering a second round of one spicy item, the Batatavada (fried potato balls in chickpea flour batter), which I loved dipping into the Chana Masala (garbanzo beans with onions and coriander) and the red chutney. And of course our table opted to get more Samosas (triangular savory pastries filled with spicy potatoes and green peas), since it’s hard to resist the allure of crunchy puff pastry with a lightly spiced and creamy interior.

The "entree complements" of Khichdi, Kadhi, and Pulao.

The “entree complements” of Khichdi, Kadhi, and Pulao.

Already feeling slightly overstuffed, we were soon faced with the entree thali, this time a circular steel tray like the one I had at Anjappar. Emboldened by my love of the Batatavada, I had opted to go for medium spice over mild, and I am happy to report that I actually enjoyed the small kicks of spice I stumbled upon throughout the course. I may not be downing sriracha left and right like some people I know (coughDianacough), but hopefully I’m making progress towards not trembling in fear of the occasional jalapeno in my food. The entree course also comes with a set of “entree complements” for the table, featuring Pulao (boiled white rice with peas), Kadhi (soup with yogurt and chickpea flour in authentic spices), and one of my favorite items of the whole night, Khichdi (lentils mixed with rice and assorted vegetables). The Khichdi had a texture close to mashed potatoes, softly melting in your  mouth, except for the random bite of a piece of vegetable. Our server suggested pouring a bit of the Kadhi on top of the Khichdi, which upped the richness another several levels, although I think I prefer the lentil-rice on its own. I’m actually tempted to look up a recipe and see if I can make it at home — although Vatan is vegetarian, I could see this going great with a roast chicken or steak.

 

Oh, it only continues with the entree thali.

Oh, it only continues with the entree thali. Clockwise, from top left: Chole (chickpeas cooked with tamarind and garam masala), Ful-Cobi, Bhaji, Batakanu Sak (potatoes cooked in a mild red gravy), Puri, Papadam, Toor Dal, and Kheer.

The entree thali had a number of dishes that seemed to be regional iterations of my usual Indian food orders, like the Bhaji (sauteed spinach and corn), which reminded me of Palak, or the Ful-Cobi (cauliflower and green peas sauteed in a savory sauce), which didn’t seem super far off from Aloo-Gobi. Considering how most of the dishes were new to me, it was nice to see the familiar shapes of Puri (puffed whole wheat bread) and Papadam (thin lentil wafers) — no one is surprised that Maggie is well-versed in regional bread types. Although I stand by naan as my number one Indian carb of choice, Vatan’s mini-puris were probably the best I’ve come across, small puffed domes of dough, slightly sweet and though very airy, considerable enough to scoop up the curries. It is also worth mentioning here that aside from the singular spoon give to handle the Toor Dal (boiled lentils cooked with Indian spices), you’re largely expected to tackle the dishes at Vatan with your hands. It makes me curious about the prevalence of eating utensils worldwide — is it largely a western phenomenon? Where did the fork come from? (Clearly this is a case for Edible Inquiries!)

While I enjoyed the items in my entree thali possibly even more than those in the appetizer round, I only ended up reordering one dish (partially due to my stomach nearly exploding, but mostly because of taste) — the Kheer (rice pudding with saffron and dry fruits). Kheer is hands-down one of my favorite desserts in the world, because it combines my love of rice pudding (old lady, remember?) with the slightly unexpected savory flavors of saffron and cardamom. Vatan’s version was stellar, with a heavy dusting of cinnamon on top, the cardamom and saffron present but only lightly applied, and the texture dotted with rice grains but not too clumpy. My favorite variety of Kheer also has pistachios in it, but I couldn’t fault Vatan for leaving it out of their recipe, since generosity was certainly in abundance across the board.

 

Our petite dessert course, compared to the rest of dinner -- Mango ice cream and Masala Chai.

Our petite dessert course, compared to the rest of dinner — Mango ice cream and Masala Chai.

We finished our meal with a round of dessert, miniscule when compared to the previous courses. A small dish of mango ice cream and a petite ceramic mug of Masala Chai (Indian tea cooked with cardamom, ginger and milk) were placed in front of each person. A digestive aid and breath freshening mixture, called Mukhwas, was served for the table. Mukhwas is a mixture of seeds and nuts, and I tried a spoonful, but found it overwhelmingly flavored with anise, which I just can’t stand. Looks like I’ll have to go to my good ol’ American Tums for digestive relief. Ever my father’s daughter, I dutifully ate up my mango ice cream, although I opted to end my meal with my Kheer refill and cup of Chai. I love drinking the straight-up black tea versions of chai, so having it with milk was a real treat, and takes me back to senior year of college, where I harbored a semi-worrisome addiction to Starbucks Chai lattes. We all got two cups of Vatan’s Masala Chai, and I added sugar to the first cup, but found after gulping down my Kheer, I actually prefered the unsweetened Chai for my second cup, which allowed me to pay more attention to the nuances of the spice mix in the tea.

 

Final Thoughts:

 

I feel as though I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg on my meal at Vatan. There are just too many elements to explore, from the various levels of heat in the dishes, to the worth of reordering specific items, to how to properly strategize your meal as a whole. Regardless of the minutiae, however, I would recommend Vatan for both native New Yorkers and visitors. Sure, you’re getting a little bit of schtick, but no more than the surly song-and-dance you’d find at Katz’s (and maybe just a teensy bit more than the Brooklyn brusqueness of Peter Luger). And for all the over-the-top decorations and costumes, you get more than your money’s worth of well-cooked food. Having never been to India, I can’t speak to Vatan’s authenticity in its recipes, but for a casual lover of Indian food, I was pleased with the familiar flavors and delighted by the items I was trying for the first time. Vatan is definitely a great spot for large groups (it seemed like there were several families celebrating special occasions), but it never got too raucous on the Saturday night we were there. So limber up your jaw, loosen your belt, and buy a ticket on the Ganesh Express to Vatan — there’s an endless train of thalis calling your name.

 

Vatan

409 3rd Ave (near 29th St.)

http://www.vatanny.com/

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

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

 

First Impressions:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The Food:

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

 

My substitue Oaxaquena Tamale -- unanticipated, but delicious.

My substitute  Oaxaqueno Tamale — unanticipated, but delicious.

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

 

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

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

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

 

The Huevos Rancheros Verdes, a cornucopia of Mexican ingredients.

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

The Mexican Chocolate Cake

The Mexican Chocolate Cake with bonus matchstick churros.

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

 

And their big brothers, the Cinnamon Sugar Churros.

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

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

 

Final Thoughts:

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

 

El Toro Blanco

257 Avenue of the Americas (off Houston)

eltoroblanconyc.com