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/

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More is Less: Choice Anxiety at Sembrado

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

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

First Impressions:

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

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

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

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

Food:

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

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

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

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

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The physically imposing El Sundae.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

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

Final Thoughts:

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

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

Sembrado

432 E. 13th Street

http://sembradonyc.com/

Dinner at Slide: Some Solace for the Indecisive

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Despite being the youngest child in my family, I’ve come to be a big fan of sharing, at least when it comes to food. As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, I really like options, and I usually find myself torn between at least two items when faced with a menu. Fortunately, my parents have always been big on sharing their dishes, often sketching out a strategy based on whether my father will eventually switch plates with my mother, or whether my mother will order something my father doesn’t mind finishing up (he’s a big supporter of Truman’s clean plate doctrine). Now that I’m an adult with a gradually expanding palate, every time I eat with my parents I get to join in on this delicate dance of gustatory genuflection, and I jump at the opportunity to share dishes when dining with friends.

If it wasn’t obvious from the myriad posts in which he has appeared as my culinary compadre, Jacob is also a firm believer in the advantages of strategic shared ordering. Our recent dinner at Slide provided a stress-inducingly long list of bite-size burgers to choose from, but I was happily secure in the fact that I’d get to knock at least two of the offerings off my list before the check arrived.

 

First Impressions:

The front bar area of Slide, facing out onto Bleecker St.

The front bar area of Slide, facing out onto Bleecker St.

Slide, a restaurant specializing in (you guessed it) sliders, is located on Bleecker St., where it seems I spend most of my time these days. It’s only a block or two down from Bantam Bagels, actually, taking up a narrow but very deep space near the corner of Sullivan St. The restaurant has a very lounge-like vibe to it, with a semi-circular bar taking up the majority of the front space, and featuring windows that open out to Bleecker so patrons at the high tables placed in the bar area can people-watch. Moving back towards the rear of the restaurant, the space is softly lit and decked out in cool colors, dark wood tables, and heavy curtains.

 

Walking back from the noise of the street, the soft-lit dining room has a distinct lounge quality to it.

Walking back from the noise of the street, the soft-lit dining room has a distinct lounge quality to it.

The rock garden and fountain at Slide, an unexpected respite from the urban bustle.

The rock garden and fountain at Slide: slightly aesthetically incongruous, but still a nice respite from the urban bustle.

We elected to sit outside, and so were led back to a beautiful fountain and rock garden-set patio. There were some odd Greco-Roman elements strewn about (Jacob sat directly in front of a disgruntled looking bust), but it was nice to have a small piece of greenery back away from the hum of the city street. The only downside was the small size of the patio, which was packed to the brim with tables. This required a bit of maneuvering on the staff’s part. I understand the appeal of having more tables to turn more business, but it might make more sense for Slide to take out a few of the two-tops and not have to worry about anyone falling into the fountain.

 

The Food:

Slide has a good deal of variety on its menu, although you could argue that the pan-global approach is a little disorienting considering the main draw of the place is ostensibly burgers. I guess I’d describe the offerings as eclectic international pub food, whatever that means. The appetizers include items like gorgonzola-stuffed figs, ceviche, and Thai lettuce wraps  (though as someone who just espoused the value of options, maybe I shouldn’t complain). They also serve some salads and non-sandwich entrees, but for the first visit, you really can’t walk into a place called Slide and not order the sliders.

The sliders section of the menu is equally diverse, ranging from beef to veal to  salmon, veggie burger, mushroom, grilled cheese, chicken & waffles, and more. After some serious deliberation (including weighing the merits of some of the combo slider entrees, which give you hodgepodge of sliders from three dishes), Jacob and I decided on the Smoked Duck and the Cheese Steak Korean Bulgogi, with a side of Parmesan, Garlic & Herb Wedge Fries. Oh, did I not mention the variety of spuds and sides you can also pick from? It’s like a middle-school word problem prompting you to use factorials.

The Parmesan Garlic Wedges, an iceberg of starch with an surprising amount hiding below the surface of the tin cup.

The Parmesan, Garlic & Herb Wedges, an iceberg of starch with an surprising amount hiding below the surface of the tin cup.

The fries were served in what turned out to be a surprisingly deep metal cup, topped with a high-hat of parmesan shreds, rosemary and garlic. When we eventually made it to the bottom of the cup, there was a small mountain of herbal dust and debris. The wedges were thick-cut (my personal favorite cut of fry), and were of varying sizes, from steak fry to tater-tot in scope. The potatoes had a taut, crisp skin to them, bright with the cheese and herb seasoning, and eventually giving way to the soft, starchy interior. Even though Jacob generally prefers thinner-cut fries (ala the new spuds at Shake Shack), he and I both found the preparation of the wedges totally addictive.

The Smoked Duck Slider -- a great set of components tripped up by execution.

The Smoked Duck Slider — a great set of components tripped up by execution.

Our sliders arrived on wooden planks with three small divots that cup the bottom bun of each slider. I realized when the Smoked Duck (w/ duck fat chips, blackberry chutney & parmesan bun) arrived that I had misunderstood our server’s description of the burger. I thought the duck fat chips meant that the meat had been formed into chip shapes and then fried, imagining a chicken parmesan-type patty that sounded like a high-risk experiment in cholesterol elevation, but one that I was willing to undergo in the name of science. I was relieved (if slightly disappointed) to discover that the duck fat chips were in fact, potato chips fried in duck fat, nestled beneath a regular old ground duck patty. Above the patty rested the chutney, and the bun sported the same hillock of cheese strands as our fries. I really enjoyed the individual pieces of this slider, but overall felt that flaws in its constructions kept the parts greater than the whole. The duck meat was moist, if not as smokey as I would have thought from its title, but when paired with the blackberry chutney, you had a sour-sweet-fatty combination that was reminiscent of the turkey-cranberry Thanksgiving flavors. I liked the sharpness of the parmesan to highlight the brioche bun, but I think I would have preferred if the cheese had been baked into the bread, since it haphazardly slid off as you progressed through the burger. The chips were a great idea, and ever since I had a “crunchified” burger at Bobby’s Burger Palace, I’ve been a fan of adding in a little textural contrast to a burger with more oomph than crunchy romaine. Unfortunately, but placing the Pringles-thin chips beneath the meat, the juices from the duck soaked into them and removed all semblance of crispness. Ultimately you were left with a fresh but soft bun, soft duck meat, soft chutney, and a soggy chip — great flavors on their own, but somewhat one-note as a full sandwich.

The Cheese Steak Bulgogi slider -- Philly meets Seoul, with some low-level kimchi.

The Cheese Steak Korean Bulgogi slider — Philly meets Seoul, with some low-level kimchi.

The Cheese Steak Korean Bulgogi (w/ pepper-jack & kimchi pickle) was definitely our preferred slider of the night. Instead of coming as a patty, the beef was served in a bundle of thin sliced cheesesteak fashion, although obviously made up of much higher quality meat. As a Philly cheesesteak vet (with strong opinions), cheese whiz or provolone would have been a more authentic topper, but I found that the pepper-jack melded well with the Bulgogi marinade (bulgogi seasoning usually incorporates ingredients with heavy umami, like soy sauce, mushrooms, sesame oil, plus bbq elements like sugar, garlic, pepper, etc). The Korean seasoning gave the meat great depth of flavor, the umami-punch of the beef counterbalanced by the saltiness of the cheese and the kimchi. I was surprised by how mild the pickle was — I’m not usually into pickles of any type, and have had much more powerful kimchi before — but I didn’t mind the pickles at Slide because they mostly seemed like vinegar-dipped cucumber. The Cheese Steak ended up being the opposite of the Duck slider — here, the individual pieces were all pretty good, but not spectacular, but the combination of tastes and textures turned out to be far more successful. The only thing I would add to the slider would be some sort of sliced onions, to add a bit of acidity to the dish and more completely harken back to classic Philly steaks.

 

Final Thoughts:

Slide is definitely a great spot for dabbler dining. It seems best suited to larger groups (ideally in multiples of 3) who are willing to share their entrees, especially if you can work out an effective slider-bartering system. With a wide-ranging menu to suit most tastes, Slide can seem a bit scatter-brained, but the kitchen turns out some solid fare on the more basic offerings, like good ol’ beef for your protein, and a well-seasoned side of fries. I’d like to come back and try some of the other items on the menu, but when I do I’ll probably opt for one safer choice and one more adventurous, and maybe I’ll see how their special menu of spiked milkshakes stands up. So check out Slide if you’re looking to leave behind your humdrum, full size hamburger lifestyle for a day. You’ve got plenty of options to explore, and hopefully a trusted companion to walk through the high and low bites of the menu.

 

Slide

174 Bleecker St. (corner of Sullivan St.)

sliderestaurant.com

Summer Restaurant Week Lunch: A Sophisticated Treat at Boulud Sud

2013-08-16 12.09.31

I’ve always felt there’s something inherently decadent in a fancy weekday lunch. Maybe it’s a holdover from my childhood, a memory of “take-your-daughter-to-work-days” when my parents would whisk me away from the doldrums of elementary school to the magic and wonder of the Big City. Or maybe it’s the lack of a corporate charge card — even as a working adult the business lunches have been pretty few and far between, special occasions that are to be savored, the rare respite from bag lunches or trips to the corner bodega’s chopped salad bar. During those special lunches I always feel like I’m part of the in-crowd, an exclusive club of diners with larger wallets and looser office rules, allowed to while away the afternoon sipping Chiraz and munching on delicately toasted crostinis.

This past week I had the chance to dip my toes in those elusive waters once again, when my office closed for a full Summer Friday. Instead of reverse commuting to Connecticut, I would actually spend a weekday in Manhattan, and dammit, I was going to take advantage of that. Fortunately, it was also the last day of Summer Restaurant Week, so Jacob, Sarah and I decided to check out the RW lunch deal at Boulud Sud.

 

First Impressions:

The simple and refined entrance to Boulud Sud, a good indication of the decor to come.

The simple and refined entrance to Boulud Sud, a good indication of the decor to come.

Boulud Sud is one piece of Daniel Boulud’s mini empire of restaurants and shops, spanning the globe from his high-end flagship restaurant Daniel in NY, to versions of his more affordable French-inflected restaurants like Cafe Boulud and Bar Boulud, found both in NY and more exotic locales such as London, Singapore, and Beijing. Although all of Boulud’s restaurants are based in his background of French cooking, Boulud Sud is defined by an emphasis on Mediterranean flavors, including a wide range of regional influences from the Riviera to North Africa to Turkey and the Middle East.

Looking through one of the large plate glass windows that make up the front of the restaurant.

Looking through one of the large plate glass windows that make up the front of the restaurant.

I’m lucky enough to have previously dined at Daniel for my mother’s birthday, and even though I was far less pretentiously critical about food back then, I recall being bowled over by the service and the quality of the food. For the most part it was more traditional French cuisine, and so when choosing another Boulud restaurant to visit for RW, I wanted to try to emulate my experience at Jean Georges’ Spice Market and see how Boulud would handle the flavor profiles of non-native cultures. Given my recent trip to Israel and growing appreciation for Mediterranean cuisines, Boulud Sud seemed like an obvious choice.

Boulud Sud is located right off of Lincoln Center, on 64th St between Broadway and Central Park West, and is housed in the same building as two of Boulud’s other endeavors — the casual Bar Boulud and the eat-in/take-out market Epicerie Boulud. These restaurants are also just across the street from Picholine (the high-end restaurant by Terrance Brennan of Artisanal fame) and a location of the Atlantic Grill, making this a bit of a powerhouse corner of the Upper West Side.

The view from the bar into the rest of the dining room, where you can see the regional paintings on the walls.

The view from the bar into the rest of the dining room, where you can see the regional paintings on the walls.

The restaurant’s aesthetic is modern restraint, the outside decorated with a plain sign, a large steel door, and huge plate glass windows that allow lots of sunlight. Inside, Boulud Sud features a soft, cool color palette, heavy on slate grey, chocolate brown, and sunflower yellow, with green-tinted water glasses on the basic wooden table tops. The modern metallic chairs actually reminded me of the types I’d see in the conference rooms at my middle school, oddly inelegant considering the rest of the delicate decor. The dining room itself is relatively small, perhaps due to the conglomeration of 3 restaurants in one building, but this adds a level of intimacy, aided by the soft lighting and softer music, a bit of a respite from the louder soundtracks and lackluster acoustics of some of New York’s other trendy restaurants. The brown and taupe walls are covered with paintings of Mediterranean land and seascapes, except for the majority of the inner side of the restaurant, which is dominated by a huge open kitchen. As commonplace as open kitchens seem to be these days, I admit I still really enjoy a tableside view of chefs in action (maybe it’s my slight addiction to Chopped). There were several times during our lunch that we would stop and try to figure out which dish the chefs were working on, from stirring massive stockpots to food processing the heck out of some yogurt sauce.

Looking back from our table into the large open kitchen of Boulud Sud, which takes up most of the back wall.

Looking back from our table into the large open kitchen of Boulud Sud, which takes up most of the back wall.

 

The Food:

As was discussed in my Peter Luger review, I like to do a bit of research before going to a restaurant. I’ve always been a planner, and I try to avoid making poor decisions based on haste and fluster in the face of an impatient waiter. I leave the spontaneity to new Oreo products and ice cream flavors. Part of the decision to go to Boulud Sud for Restaurant Week was based on the menu on their website, and I also poked around on Google to see if anyone had already reviewed their lunch offerings. Unfortunately, the menu had changed since the beginning of Restaurant Week (which confusingly takes place over a month), and while most of the entree choices were the same, the appetizer and dessert segments of the menu were dramatically different. Perhaps it’s a matter of seasonal/market ingredients, but I was bummed because I had been looking forward to a specific Middle Eastern flatbread appetizer one blogger had raved about. Overall, we still had a great lunch, but it was slightly more improvisational than I had anticipated.

Faced with the unfamiliar menu, I chose the Summer Chicory Salad to start, while Jacob and Sarah picked the Ouzu Cured Salmon. Then Sarah and I both went with the Spiced Lamb Burger as a main, and Jacob got the Za’atar Spiced Merlu. Sarah and I finished our meals with the Chocolate Panna Cotta, and Jacob chose the Housemade Cremes Glacees (Chef’s Daily Ice Cream Selection).

The complimentary olive oil and bread -- way more than your average throwaway bread basket.

The complimentary olive oil and bread — way more than your average throwaway bread basket.

The meal began with complimentary bread and olive oil. The olive oil was clearly of extremely high quality, and was poured table-side into a small saucer with slivers of garlic and rosemary sprigs on the bottom. We were given two types of bread — slices of standard rustic Italian bread baked with olives, and pieces of focaccia that seemed to be topped with oregano and tiny pieces of sun-dried tomatoes. I generally have an aversion to olives (I find the flavor utterly pervasive in dishes), but this bread was so soft and fresh I ended up eating multiple pieces (luckily the olives were relatively few and far between). Focaccia is one of my favorite types of bread, so I took more than my fair share out of our bread basket. Both types of bread had a great, springy chew to them, and they soaked up the oil as we all greedily dunked again and again. Fortunately, our waiter noticed our empty tray almost immediately and promptly asked if we’d like some more (cue impolite nods with crumb-filled mouths). The service at Boulud Sud is quite fast, so before we had even finished our second tray of bread, our appetizers arrived.

My literally bitter/sweet Summer Chicory Salad.

My literally bitter/sweet Summer Chicory Salad.

The Summer Chicory Salad (Capers, Golden Raisins, Red Wine Vinaigrette) was a nice-sized portion, especially when placed next to the Ouzu Salmon, which seemed a little skimpy in comparison. Although I’ve tried New Orleans chicory coffee, I’d actually never encountered the green in the flesh (er leaf, I guess). It turns out chicory looks a lot like arugula, and has a similar peppery, bitter taste. When combined with the radicchio that made up the rest of the roughage, I found the base of the salad a little too bitter for my tastes. Fortunately, the rest of the components served to brighten the dish, from the sweet golden raisins to the thin slices of cheese I would wager was Pecorino. The red wine vinaigrette and the capers were more subtly present, and I thought the small crouton cubes added a nice crunch component while avoiding soaking up too much of the dressing. When I managed to get all the salad’s ingredients into one bite, it was actually a pleasantly floral combination.

The Ouzu Salmon - still not my cup of tea, but pretty to look at.

The Ouzu Cured Salmon – still not my cup of tea, but pretty to look at.

I’m starting to think I should just force myself to like salmon, since I seem to encounter it at nearly every new restaurant I try. My untrained palate couldn’t detect a strong ouzu flavor to the Ouzu Cured Salmon (Whole Wheat Bulgur, Cucumber, Dill Yogurt). If you’re curious, ouzu is an anise-flavored aperitif that is extremely popular in Greece and Cyprus. I’ve never warmed to the taste of anise or anything on the fennel/licorice spectrum (Red Vines only, please), so you would think the combination of salmon and anise would be pretty repugnant to me. Actually, I found the fish very fresh, and fairly similar in flavor to the lox my mother serves alongside the basket of bagels on Sundays. The overall plating of the dish is what impressed me most (in fact, most of the dishes in our meal were very elegantly laid out). The dish came off as bright and summer-y with a great contrast of colors in the bright pink radishes, the orange-ish salmon, and the green dill yogurt and cucumber. I thought the accompaniments shone brightest in this dish — the bulgur had a nicely chewy texture that played off the softer salmon, cucumber and yogurt. The sauce ended up approximating the flavors of the tzatziki spread on my burger, a standout element there as well.

The Spiced Lamb Burger ultimately reminded me of a high quality American take on shawarma.

The Spiced Lamb Burger ultimately reminded me of a high quality American take on shawarma.

Although I had been tempted by the Ratatouille and Hand-rolled Ricotta Cavatelli on the menu, I ultimately had to go with the Spiced Lamb Burger (Harissa, Eggplant, Tzatziki, Sweet Potato Chips) because it received high praise from the review I had read. The burger came served simply on a slate board, with the chips to one side and a small bowl of good ol’ Heinz ketchup on the other. Given the exotic spices included in the dish, the ketchup seemed a bit incongruous, but I guess I can’t really complain given my traditionalist views of hot dog toppings. The Lamb burger was served on an excellent soft brioche bun. I usually lean towards the potato bun for burgers, but unsurprisingly, Boulud Sud uses great bread that held its own as much as it could against the juiciness of the burger and its toppings. I also admired the fact that Boulud Sud recommends a more undercooked lamb burger — most places will suggest cooking the patty to at least fully medium, but at lunch the waiter suggested I go with my usual burger choice, medium rare. The burger arrived fully pink in the middle, the finely ground meat moist and flavorful. Although there was a lot of interplay between the harissa and the tzatziki, I never lost the taste of the lamb in the jumble. Harissa is a hot chili sauce from Tunisia made mainly of piri piri, serrano and other chili peppers, garlic paste, coriander, chili powder, and an oil. In this case the harissa added a little kick to the meat, but I wasn’t put off by the spice, since it was mitigated by the silky eggplant pieces and the cool tzatziki spread placed underneath the patty. The only downside is that all of these spreads and oily eggplant pieces meant the burger eventually started falling apart as I worked my way through it, leading to a fork-and-knife situation by the end of the course. I enjoyed each bite as I went, so I didn’t really mind, but it seems obvious to me that you can’t load down a bun with chili sauce, yogurt, oily eggplant and a burger patty and expect it to really hold together. This was still the best lamb burger I’ve had — putting Bareburger’s dry patty to shame for sure, but overall I prefer other proteins if I’m going to have a burger. A rack of lamb, or a lamb stew captures the succulence of the meat far better. The most disappointing aspect of the dish was the sweet potato chips. Sweet potatoes are one of my all time favorite foods, so I was let down by the lack of distinct sweet potato flavor in the chips — they mostly tasted of the seasoning (maybe za’atar?), and considering the caliber of the vegetables in the appetizers, these chips were really only adequate.

My favorite dish of the meal -- Za'atar Spiced Merlu.

My favorite dish of the meal — Za’atar Spiced Merlu.

While the Lamb Burger had elements of Boulud Sud’s Mediterranean inspiration, the truly distinctive dish I should have gotten was Jacob’s Za’atar Spiced Merlu (Rice Pilaf, Eggplant, Lemon Tahini). The small bites I had of his dish were my favorite of the whole meal, which is crazy considering how impressed I was with my dessert (and dessert in general, frankly). Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend mixing dried herbs, sesame seeds, sumac, and salt. Like Indian curry powders or garam masala, the exact specifics of a za’atar recipe are family secrets that vary from chef to chef and culture to culture — Lebanese za’atar is different from Israeli za’atar, which is different from Jordanian za’atar — although common components are thyme, marjoram, oregano, and sage. The merlu (which Wikipedia suggests is the French term for the white fish hake) sported a thick top crust of the za’atar, to the point where you could easily spot the sesame seeds and reddish tinge from the sumac. The fish was perfectly cooked, flaking off in small slices and serving as a buttery base for all the seasonings. The dish was topped with cilantro, liberally applied to avoid overpowering the entree while still adding another level of complexity, especially working in concert with the brightness of the lemon tahini in accentuating the sesame in the za’atar. The rice pilaf on the bottom was soft, but not goopy, with enough heft to it to combat the tenderness of the other components, from the fattier eggplant to the smooth fish flesh. Overall, it was just a remarkably well seasoned, fresh dish that was distinctive and memorable, standing out above Sarah and my well-executed, if somewhat more familiar Lamb Burger. I think if I went back for the regular menu at Boulud Sud, I would lean towards the seafood dishes, which highlight Boulud’s deftness as a French chef to elevate the bounty of the Mediterranean Sea.

 

The Housemade Ice Creams from left to right: Dulce de Leche, Rose-Marzipan, and Rhubarb Gelatos.

The Housemade Ice Creams from left to right: Dulce de Leche, Rose-Marzipan, and Rhubarb Gelatos.

The desserts suggest that Boulud’s pastry chef is pretty damn deft as well. The ice creams of the day were Rhubarb, Dulce de Leche, and Strawberry Gelato, but we were intrigued by the Rose-Marzipan Gelato mentioned in the Orange Cloud dessert (although I wasn’t particularly interested in the dessert I was curious about how one creates an “orange cloud”), and so asked if we could sub it in for the more mundane strawberry. The restaurant happily complied, although they neglected to tell us this fact until we asked after receiving our check (our waiter was very apologetic afterwards). So while eating, our uninentionally enforced detective work led us to conclude we had indeed been given the Rose-Marzipan, but it did not taste strongly of rose or marzipan. There was the generic sweetness I expect from rosewater, but I was surprised at how muted the almond flavor was, especially considering the recent spate of almond/marzipan desserts I’ve tried where the marzipan nearly punches you in the mouth. The other two gelatos were much more successful — the rhubarb tasted like it had just been plucked from the market, with its trademark tartness. Sweets monster that I am, I loved the dulce de leche, which was achieved the classic powerful sweetness without veering into the cloying quality of some of the newer trendy salted caramel ice creams. Although the plating was not the explosion of artistic flourishes that my panna cotta was, I appreciated the clean lines of the small (but deceptively full) metal cups of gelato, served with a few small sugar cookies baked with pine nuts. The Boulud take on Pignoli cookies tasted less pine-nutty and more just like the powdered sugar on top, but they were a nice complement when paired with the rhubarb gelato.

The Chocolate Panna Cotta -- lovely to look at, even better to eat.

The Chocolate Panna Cotta — lovely to look at, even better to eat.

As I alluded to before, the Chocolate Panna Cotta (Caramel, Raspberry Foam, Chocolate Sorbet) arrived in front of me demanding attention. The plate was splashed with a collection of bright and dark colors, soft and crunchy textures, and a range of flavors from bitter to sugar-overload sweet. The Raspberry Foam’s taste was just as strong as its nearly blood red color — concentrated and very sweet, but in a natural, “Jolly Rancher ain’t got nothing on this” way. I loved dipping the fresh raspberries in the foam to pump up the fruit’s flavor. The cookie crumble spread across the dish reminded me of both Oreo crumbs and the cookie crunchies that split the two layers of a Carvel ice cream cake (obviously, either way, I was in heaven), while the yellow pieces evoked Rice Krispies or petite pieces of Cap’n Crunch. There were also miniature squares of what tasted like a rich caramel blondie — and all this before you even get to the panna cotta or sorbet. The panna cotta was set beautifully, holding its shape as I swiped spoonful after spoonful. It seemed to be made of dark chocolate, its relative mildness only apparent in contrast to the intense bittersweet darkness of the Chocolate Sorbet, which was so dense and rich it seems impossible that it wasn’t made with dairy. This was just a fantastic melange of flavors and textures — you had some acidity from the fruit, intense richness from the panna cotta and the sorbet, some sweetness from the crunchies, and some saltiness from the caramel — overall, it was a multilayered, extremely satisfying dessert, coming as a bit of a surprise considering the relatively mundane description.

 

Final Thoughts:

While I would say on the whole my meal at Spice Market was a more exciting culinary adventure, my Restaurant Week lunch at Boulud Sud was in no way less memorable. It was exciting to dabble in a world of leisurely weekday repasts, to people-watch the upscale tourists and NY natives murmur over the soft jazz and elegantly plated fare. The food was excellently executed and well-seasoned (I might give more of a rave if I had ordered the merlu myself), if not as daring as I had initially expected, but I think I’d like to explore the rest of Boulud Sud’s regular menu on another visit, maybe even for dinner.

As I stumble my way through my mid-twenties, one of the things that has become increasingly clear to me is the importance of the ritual. The memories of those special city lunches with my parents held aloft in my mind linger because they were a break from the routine, something my classmates didn’t get to experience — a secret shared by only a select few. I’m grateful to have discovered that that magical quality remains as you get older — it’s just a matter of savoring those less common opportunities. My lunch at Boulud Sud was a prime example of this — surrounded by friends, playing sanctioned hooky, it seemed like an embarrassment of riches. So if you have the chance to escape the office for some noontime noshing, I’d suggest giving Boulud Sud a try. Its relaxing, classic environment, attentive service, and comfortably transcultural fare present a lovely meal, while also allowing you to relish having the opportunity in the first place.

Boulud Sud

20 W 64th St (Between Broadway and Central Park West)

http://www.bouludsud.com