Tamarind: Discovery through Dining

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I’ve been living in New York for nearly three years now, and yet I still find myself marveling at the sheer diversity of people and cultures surrounding me. As I said in my review of Lafayette, I make a concerted effort to branch out and try different cuisines and new dishes. But with each new menu, I realize just how much I have barely dipped my big toenail into the ocean of multicultural options. A recent article by Robert Sietsema (formerly of the Village Voice, now at Eater) got me thinking about the living, breathing organism that is regional food. Our definitions of ethnic cuisines are largely gross generalizations derived from the particular geographic backgrounds of the immigrants that happened to find a home here in America, and the ways their culinary heritage evolved in that new homeland.  For example, the Italian food of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx is predominantly influenced by the surge of Southern Italians making their way to the US in the 19th century, and what we call New York pizza is a glorious cheesy American mutation of their native flatbreads. But as geopolitical tides ebb and flow, so do the waves of immigration, leading to new proliferations of previously unfamiliar regional cooking to an area, like the recent rise of Filipino or Laotian restaurants in NYC. Even those cuisines an adventurous New York eater might think he or she has a handle on, such as Thai or Chinese, can easily puzzle and perplex with new focuses on areas like Isaan (the northeast plateau of Thailand) or Sichaun (a province in southwestern China).

The more I think about my recent dinner at Tamarind in the Flatiron District, the more I realize how much of an exercise in this kind of regional nuance it was. I count Indian as one of my favorite cuisines, but as I try to move beyond the safety net of the dishes I know and love, I’m discovering that what I think of as “Indian food” is pretty much equivalent to believing that Shake Shack covers the entirety of American cuisine. As an intellectually, but perhaps more importantly, lingually curious individual, I can barely contain my excitement over the possibilities of new restaurants offering unfamiliar specialities. Fortunately, for those with a more cautious palate, Tamarind offers exactly the kind of friendly, refined cooking to comfortably guide its diners through the hills and valleys of the sub-continental culinary landscape.

 

First Impressions:

Tamarind's elegant, modern setting, with cultural aesthetic accents.

Tamarind’s elegant, modern setting, with cultural aesthetic accents.

 

Tucked away on 22nd Street between Park Ave South and Broadway, Tamarind is only a few steps from the 6 train, but feels a little more removed from the Flatiron hustle and bustle. Along with the main restaurant, there is a small adjacent tearoom, offering afternoon tea service, as well as a la carte sandwiches and small dishes. Both spaces feature the modern restrained aesthetic of fine dining with accents of Indian heritage, such as the banquets draped in cool green, blue and white stripes contrasted with a large wrought iron gate mounted on the wall by the bar. The bar area is softly lit and narrow, the tightness accentuated by the row of tables across from the bar itself. Walking back, you pass the kitchen, where plate glass windows afford views of massive tandoors, the traditional cylindrical clay ovens used for baking, as well as the more familiar flattop and prep stations.

A glimpse into the kitchen, with three large tandoor ovens in action.

A glimpse into the kitchen, with three large tandoor ovens in action.

The main dining room has high-ceilings, and presumably would be airy and spacious if it didn’t suffer from the same frustrating overcrowding I’ve found at NY restaurants across the range of price points. Not only does this make service difficult, as waiters strive to avoid bumping elbows with clustered patrons, but often the tables are far too small for the dining party’s size. I understand the need to maximize the amount of people you can serve per seating, but negotiating the plates and fearing the accidental wrath of my elbows should not be a concern when dining, especially at a fancier restaurant like Tamarind (and with a cuisine like Indian that often features small side components like rice, bread, and sauces like raita). I wondered if the larger tables sectioned off by what appeared to be the Indian version of a sukkah had a better diner to table proportion, since the walled off booths seemed to have a bit more breathing room. Hopefully you can request these tables when making a reservation, which I would definitely recommend for a little more spacious, VIP-like setting.

Partitioned booths line the sides of the main dining room.

Partitioned booths line the sides of the main dining room.

 

The Food:

Tamarind’s extensive menu was almost too much for me to handle, and I mean that in the best way possible. I have a few go-to Indian dishes, but here I was torn between trying elevated versions of my favorites, and diving deep into new territories with the presumably trusty hands of highly regarded chefs (the downtown location, Tamarind Tribeca, has a Michelin star). Luckily, our waiter was very attentive, and perfectly happy to answer any and all of our myriad questions.

The complimentary amuse bouche, seemingly more Italian than Indian in flavoring, but delightful nonetheless.

The complimentary amuse bouche, seemingly more Italian than Indian in flavoring, but delightful nonetheless.

After ordering the wine to go with our meal (Viognier, one of my favorite whites), we were served a complimentary amuse bouche of a small rectangle of puff pastry filled with mozzarella and tomato. The dough was similar to phyllo (in fact, my aunt said it reminded her of a boureka), and was delicately spiced to highlight the tomato filling. Other reviews I’ve read suggest that Tamarind usually uses this as the opening dish, but changes the fillings and sauces. Our pastry came with a ginger garlic dipping sauce, which was tangy without being too spicy.

We struggled to select our dishes, but finally opted to start with the Nawabi Shami Kabab, the Hara Bhara Kabab, and the special shrimp appetizer of the day. For entrees my aunt chose the Shrimp Caldin, my uncle the Malai Halibut, and I picked the Masaledar Chop. All of us being big eggplant fans, we also ordered the Bhagarey Baingan, not to mention sides of Lemon Rice, Kheera Raita, and a bread basket split between Kulcha and the restaurants special Nan-e-Tamarind. (If you were wondering, yes, I not only got a great meal out of this dinner, but I had a nice doggy-bag to take home with me.)

Nawabi Shami Kababs -- the finest ground lamb I've ever eaten, but a little one-note in seasoning.

Nawabi Shami Kababs — the finest ground lamb I’ve ever eaten, but a little one-note in seasoning.

Two of our appetizers were cooked as round patties, but they could not have been more different in taste. The Nawabi Shami Kabab (Grilled lamb patties with chickpea lentils, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and garlic) was made of very finely ground lamb meat, which lent it an incredible soft texture. I really liked the way the meat melted on my tongue, coating it with the warm spices. Those spices ended up being similar to the marinade for my lamb chops, but I found here them a little too overpowering, hiding some of the funkiness of the meat itself. The dish was served with two sauces: a cooler green chutney and a spicier ginger-filled red sauce, along with carrots and lettuce. Although I enjoyed all three of our appetizers, I found the Nawabi the least successful of the three. Without the textural contrast that I got from the lamb chops, the seasoning here became a little monotone after a while, especially in contrast to the spinach patties.

The Shrimp Special Appetizer -- basically tikka masala, but a well-executed version of that.

The Shrimp Special Appetizer — basically tikka masala, but a well-executed version of that.

The Shrimp Special featured three jumbo prawns in a creamy and peppery tomato-based sauce. It ultimately reminded me of the ubiquitous tikka masala curry, mild but with a slight bite of the pepper. The shrimps were perfectly cooked, having a great snap to them without being gummy. I enjoyed this dish because of the familiar flavors, but I didn’t feel like it was anything new from the offerings at my local Indian haunts.

 

The Hara Bhara Kabab -- spinach patties where the flavors were as deep as the color.

The Hara Bhara Kabab — spinach patties where the flavors were as deep as the color.

The Hara Bhara Kabab (Spinach and cheese cakes flavored with whole spices) was my favorite appetizer of the night. The dark green spinach was mixed with paneer and seared on both sides, adding a crunchy outer sheen that gave way to the soft leaves and cheese. The bitterness of the greens played off the saltiness of the paneer, and I found the seasoning kept the contrast going bite after bite. Again the dish was served with two sauces — a creamy orange and a more viscous, syrupy red sauce. I would definitely consider ordering this again for myself, although having all three patties might weigh you down a bit in the face of the entrees to come.

 

Shrimp Caldin with some Lemon Rice -- a slight twist on a regional specialty.

Shrimp Caldin with some Lemon Rice — a slight twist on a regional specialty.

My aunt had chosen the Shrimp Caldin (A Goan specialty. Prawns in coconut sauce with mustard seeds, cumin, curry leaves and coriander) on the strong recommendation of our waiter, and although she was underwhelmed by the dish, I was very happy she picked it, precisely because I had never heard of Goan food before. A little Wikipedia delving reveals that Goa is the smallest state in India, located on the western coast, along the Arabian Sea. Not surprisingly, as a coastal region, Goan cuisine is known for its seafood curries, and its food frequently makes use of coconut oil and coconut milk, as we clearly see on display in this dish. Caldin is traditionally a mild, bright yellow curry based in coconut milk and vegetables. Tamarind’s take took a step away from tradition, the shrimp arriving in a lighter green bath of sauce. The prawns were smaller than the monsters in our appetizer, but you could argue that there were more in the dish, so it balanced out. From the description I had expected the curry to taste like Korma, a rich curry thickened with coconut milk and yogurt. However, the Shrimp Caldin was much lighter in both texture and flavor, the sharpness of the mustards seeds, and the toasted flavors of the cumin and coriander asserting themselves first, with the coconut milk appearing more as a subtle aftertaste. As with most of the proteins we tasted at Tamarind, the shrimp were very well executed. I really enjoyed the deft handling of the coconut milk balanced with the spices, but I wish there had been some vegetables mixed into the curry to add texture and a bit more depth to the dish.

 

The supremely tender Malai Halibut.

The supremely tender Malai Halibut.

My uncle’s Malai Halibut (Halibut flavored with mace and cardamom in a coconut ginger sauce) was listed on the menu as the Grand Prize Winner of the 2004 USA Fish Dish Awards, and from the bit I tasted, I thought it was a well-deserved victory. Unlike the Shrimp Caldin, coconut took center stage with this dish, the tropical flavoring mellowing out the nuttier influences of mace and cardamom. I had only small tastes of my aunt’s and uncle’s dishes because I was so enraptured with my own entree, but the small bite I got of the Halibut was pretty superb. A quick glance at the fish indicates how soft the flesh was — my fork swiped through the fish like a knife through hot butter. It flaked ever so delicately and worked as a luscious base for the more flavor-forward ginger and coconut sauce.

 

The Masaledar Chop -- frankly, some of the best lamb chops I've had in a while.

The Masaledar Chop — frankly, these were some of the best lamb chops I’ve had in a while.

All three of us agreed that my Masaledar Chop (Lamb chops marinated in nutmeg, cinnamon and aromatic Indian spices) was the champion main course of the night. I had decided early on that I wanted something from the Tandoor section of the menu. I figured Tamarind would be the perfect place to see traditional tandoori cooking in action, since often the dishes you encounter at neighborhood Indian restaurants are over-baked, dry and flavorless. Initially I leaned towards getting the lamb kabobs, wanting to avoid something so seemingly mundane as lamb chops, but once again our waiter came to the rescue and steered me away from the kabobs, explaining that though they were certainly good, the lamb chops are one of the most popular dishes on the menu, as well as being one of his personal favorites. It seems I fall into that category of strong supporters as well. The dish arrived with three sizable chops, the meat reddish-brown and slightly charred at the edges like a good hamburger, with glistening, marbled fatty edges that melted in your mouth and gave way to slightly chewy, just medium meat that reminded me of chai in its seasoning. A spinach/potato pancake and a small collection of green beans and carrots accompanied the dish, along with another duo of sauces, this time appearing in the form of a white raita-esque sauce, and a red sauce that reminded me of currywurst ketchup.  Looking over the menu description, it’s no surprise that I was so enthralled with this entree — I jump at the chance to have lamb whenever I can, and I’m one of those gross people who can never have enough of the warm autumn spices of cinnamon and nutmeg (give me all the pumpkin spice lattes you got). To be honest, I think I’d rather have this preparation over the rosemary and mint jelly classic European style, especially when the simple baking in the tandoor is so brilliantly executed, leaving you with a tender, moist chop that explains why the technique is so popular and prominent in Indian cuisine.

The Bhagarey Baigan (Japanese eggplant cooked in an aromatic sauce with peanuts, sesame seeds and coconut) proved to be another new regional discovery for me. The dish that arrived at our table was completely different from what I had anticipated, due to my misreading of the menu (and since it arrived slightly later, I of course neglected to take a photo — oops). I assumed that we were getting Baingan Bharta, a vegetarian favorite of mine that is pretty much an Indian version of baba ghanous — a roasted eggplant curry that is cooked down to puree consistency. Bhagarey Baigan, on the other hand, is a Hyderbadi curry, traditionally employing stuffed pieces of eggplant and incorporating peanuts into the masala (for the geographically curious, Hyderbad is the capital city of the southeastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh). The Tamarind version had large chunks of Japanese eggplant, cooked to the point of there being just a bit of tension to the outer skin, with a nearly liquid soft interior that oozed out to mix with the sauce. I mostly ate this for lunch the next day, which I think improved the dish even further by allowing the flavors to stew and grow stronger. The nutty peanuts helped to brighten the smoky overtones of the eggplant, and while I think I still prefer Baingan Bharta, I’d gladly try Bhagarey Baigan again if given the opportunity.

The raita, tucked away between our wine glasses.

The Kheera Raita, tucked away between our wine glasses.

Our basket of Nan-E-Tamarind and Kulcha, constantly tempting my willpower.

Our basket of Nan-E-Tamarind and Kulcha, constantly tempting my willpower.

I barely touched the Lemon Rice (Lemon flavored basmati rice with curry leaves and mustard seeds) and Kheera Raita (Yogurt with grated cucumber), since I was plenty happy with the sauces on my own plate, but the small samples I had were well-executed, mild in flavor to blend with the entrees. Now obviously we all know how I feel about bread, and Naan is one of the dangerous things to put in front of me — I can inhale a basket of that stuff with little thought of the amount of butter and carbs I’ve just wolfed down, no dip or sauce necessary. From the menu description, I expected the Nan-e-Tamarind (Bread filled with dry fruits, nuts, and raisins) to be like trail mix baked into bread, but in fact the stuffing ingredients had been blended into a bright orange paste. While I might have enjoyed it more as a snack on its own, I found it to be a bit too sweet to go along with dinner. I much preferred our other bread order, the Kulcha (Prepared with onion and black pepper). I had never heard of Kulcha before (most of my non-naan forays have involved Roti or Paratha), and to be honest, if I hadn’t checked the menu, I would have thought it was just another stuffed piece of naan. Again, a little research uncovers that Kulcha is a Punjabi variant of naan, made with maida (and Indian flour resembling cake flour) and always featuring some sort of filling. The pieces we had were overflowing with large pieces of caramelized onion and flecks of black pepper. Although ordering the Kulcha ups your risk of bad breath, for naan lovers it is an intriguing sidestep, incorporating new spices and flavors into a fluffy format I personally can’t get enough of.

For dessert (yes, that inclination runs in the family), we split an order of the Rice Pudding (Basmati rice cooked with milk and caramelized pistachios). Kheer, or Indian rice pudding, is my favorite dessert of the cuisine, even above kulfi (Maggie picks something over ice cream? Blasphemy!). I love the interplay of cardamom with the creamy dairy-based pudding, and Tamarind serves a great rendition. The dish was thicky without veering into cottage-cheese territory, the rice grains adding a little bit of texture as a vehicle for the deftly employed spice blend of sweet pistachios and cardamom.

 

Final Thoughts:

People complain that our world is getting smaller — that because of the Internet, everyone’s watching the same TV shows, eating the same Hot Pockets, and gradually losing our individuality. However, I have to believe that, at least when it comes to food, all this coming together is actually expanding our horizons. I find the growing influence of regional Asian cooking in the New York food scene thrilling, and pop-ups like Khao Man Gai NY and new bakery O Merveilleux (specializing in one particular traditional Belgian dessert) only spur my enthusiasm to uncover new tastes and techniques. Best of all, I love the way these unfamiliar names and ingredients drive me to learn more about a country’s history and geography. Prior to this post, I couldn’t have told you where Goa or Hyderbad was, or that the Portuguese colonized Goa in the 16th century, and ruled it until 1961.

While I think pushing your dining frontiers is a habit to be encouraged across the board, eating at a place like Tamarind certainly makes the journey easier. The open views of the kitchen speak to the larger philosophy of the restaurant, striving to provide insight into the nuances of Indian cuisine through attentive and well-informed service and cooking. Although I am always game to have Indian food at any price point, the wonderful dishes I had at Tamarind make me want to explore other fine dining Indian spots like Junoon, and the downtown location of Tamarind. Much like my experience at Spice Market, based on this dinner, I would recommend Tamarind both to Indian enthusiasts and the less initiated. It’s worth every penny to be served by a staff eager to show off their chops (both literal and figurative), while keeping your comfort level and preferences in mind. Personally, I can’t wait to go back to Tamarind for Restaurant Week, hopefully with a little more Wikipedia research under my belt, in order to better plunge forward into the delicious unknown.

 

Tamarind

41-43 East 22nd Street (between Park Ave South and Broadway)

http://www.tamarindrestaurantsnyc.com/

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Brief Bites: Bantam Bagels

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I’ll just come out and say it: I’m a bagel snob. I don’t think I ate a Thomas’ Bagel until I was in college, and was stunned at the measly, barely-risen dough that sat comfortably in the palm of my hand. Where were the yeasty, chewy hulks of carbohydrates of my youth? The lump of cinnamon raisin dough with a solid schmear of cream cheese my father had so lovingly quartered and wrapped up for my lunches? Those staples of the kiddush luncheons after Sunday school, mini bagels piled high and awaiting the tiny, grape juice-stained hands of ravenous pre-bar-mitzvot?

What I’m saying is, I’ve got high standards when it comes to bagels. However, as explored before, I have a serious weakness for food innovation, especially those involving miniaturization and fusion. So when I read that the folks at Bantam Bagels were taking the jelly-filled munchkin approach to bagel dough, I knew I’d have to check them out in person.

The Set Up:

Bantam Bagels is a relative newcomer to the single-dish segment of the New York food scene (this is the city, after all, that has stores solely dedicated to Rice Krispy treats, meatballs, mac & cheese, and rice pudding). The shop is located on Bleecker Street, just down the block from Murray’s Cheese Bar, and the similarly unilaterally-focused Risotteria. It’s an area that has always brimmed with restaurant and bar options, but as of late seems to be undergoing a bit of a real estate revival, with Bantam, London Candy Company, and Sugar and Plumm all opening within a few weeks of each other. It’s understandable, given all the foot traffic that moves through there, from tourists checking out the Greenwich/West Village neighborhoods to students and NY natives popping into venues like the Peculier Pub or Le Poisson Rouge for shows and specials.

Considering their petite product, perhaps the store is actually appropriately sized.

Considering their petite product, perhaps the store is actually appropriately sized.

However, access to such prime levels of foot traffic may come at a cost. Unlike the relatively luxurious cafe space of Wafels & Dinges, Bantam Bagels is a purely take-away operation, the retail area of the shop barely holding the small line of people in front of us as we entered. Peering back beyond the counter, it’s clear that the bulk of the space is taken up by the kitchen, with room up front for only a small cooler for drinks, shelves for display bantams, and a counter by the window if you want to eat standing inside. The small shop is decked out in the red and black motif of the Bantam Bagels logo, the only real decoration coming from the branded merchandise placed high above the server on the right hand side of the store. Bantam’s only a few weeks old, having opened in early September, so they may still be developing their aesthetic beyond their menu items.

The Bites:

What Bantam lacks in space, it makes up for in variety -- myriad mini bagel balls on display.

What Bantam lacks in space, it makes up for in variety — myriad mini bagel balls on display.

The idea behind Bantam Bagels is to miniaturize and invert the traditional bagel-spread structure. As donut holes are to the donut, bantams are to the classical bagel. The balls are made of different types of dough and stuffed with a variety of corresponding fillings, from the familiar Plain Bantam (“plain bagel filled with plain cream cheese, butter, or peanut butter”) to the more experimental Summerberry Shortcake (“freshly picked blueberry bagel filled with sweet strawberry cream cheese”). A single bantam  will run you $1.35, but it’s a better deal to sample a variety of flavors by getting one of the exponentially larger orders of 3, 6, or 12 (they go up to an order of 40 bantams before you get into catering territory, but small as they are, even a diehard bagel-eater might struggle to house 40 of these guys).

Even more flavors -- bit of a bagel bonanza!

Even more flavors — just imagine taking 40 of these bad boys down.

Laura was gracious enough to be my intrepid companion for the day, so we decided to split an order of 12, attempting to run the gamut of savory and sweet. We ended up ordering the “Bantam of the Month,” which for September was The Bleecker Street, as well as the Everything Bantam, the Grandma Jojo, the Hot Pretzel, the French Toast, and the Boxed Lunch.

Our order neatly packaged and ready to be torn into.

Our order, neatly packaged and ready to be torn into.

As an evolution of the medium, Bantam Bagels does succeed in evoking the texture of a classic NY bagel. The small size (roughly the same as Dunkin Donuts munchkin) allows for even baking, creating a crisp crust that gives way to the chewy dough center. Although both Laura and I had expected the bantams to be slightly larger, closer to the Doughseed at Doughnut Plant, we agreed that the proportion of dough to filling was perfect, preventing the unfortunate cream-cheese with a side of bagel over-schmearing you occasionally receive from unmotivated deli staff. I would say the bantams are optimally two-bite treats, in order to properly savor the interplay of filling and dough.

As we paid for our box, the cashier cautioned that we should bite into the bantam at the spot where the small dollop of filling pokes through, so as to prevent the ball from collapsing and spilling filling all over you. Laura and I managed to get through our order without any major spread situations, however, the Bantam employee neglected to mention the danger of the powdered sugar on the French Toast bantam, which ended up coating every piece of our clothing that it touched.

Breakdown by bantam -- duos starting from top left: Everything, Boxed Lunch, French Toast, Grandma Jojo, Hot Pretzel, and the Bleecker Street.

Breakdown by bantam — duos starting from top left: Everything, Boxed Lunch, French Toast, Grandma Jojo, Hot Pretzel, and the Bleecker Street.

Speaking of which, let’s dive into our Bantam selection. The French Toast (“cinnamon-nutmeg egg bagel filled with buttery maple syrup cream cheese”) was overpowered by the sweetness of the spread and the large amount of powdered sugar. The spices of the bagel dough were lost amongst the stronger flavors of the filling, and both Laura and I agreed it lacked the eggy-moistness that typifies real french toast.

The Everything Bantam (“everything bagel filled with plain cream cheese”) was solid, if predictable. If you’re unsure of Bantam’s take on the bagel physiognomy, try this out to get a good sense of the spread-to-bagel proportions. Bantam has a good, springy dough, a well-measured portion of spices to evoke the “everything bagel” taste, and your familiar type of Philadelphia cream cheese.

As a hardcore fan of both peanut butter and jam-filled things, Laura had been very excited to get the Boxed Lunch (“plain bagel topped with crushed, roasted peanuts and filled with peanut butter and sweet strawberry jam”). I was also very intrigued by this particular bantam, since it veered the closest to dessert of our order. Unfortunately, the reality of the Boxed Lunch could not meet our lofty expectations. The peanut topping didn’t provide much of a textural contrast, and like the French Toast bantam, the plain bagel exterior was no match for the sugary insides. Laura and I felt like we’d just be better off getting a plain PB&J on sliced bread, since the bagel aspect added no real discernible advantage.

Ultimately, both Laura and I agreed that the more savory bantams were more successful. We appreciated the simplicity of the Hot Pretzel (“pretzel bagel topped with sea salt crystals, filled with dijon and sharp cheddar cream cheese”), which nailed the snappy outer layer of a soft pretzel and had a filling that reminded me of the beer cheese dip that accompanied our monster pretzel at Reichenbach. The Bleecker Street (“pizza dough bagel topped with a thin slice of pepperoni and filled with marinara mozzarella cream cheese”) was a little more divisive, although the issue was more with my personal dislike of pepperoni than the bantam’s flavor profile.

I can’t say I tasted much of a difference in the bagel dough between the Bleecker and the Grandma Jojo (“Italian spiced bagel topped with a thinly sliced, marinated tomato and filled with fresh basil pesto cream cheese”), but the pesto-tomato combination made this bantam the winner of the bunch. Both the Bleecker and the Grandma Jojo summoned up some solid nostalgic longings for pizza bagels, and stood apart from their bagel roots in the best way. Their fillings had the base richness of cream cheese that was subtly highlighted by herbs and spices, and worked harmoniously alongside the dough and toppings.

The Last Licks:

While Laura and I were a bit disappointed with the sweeter half of our Bantam Bagels order, overall I think the concept has some merit. It really depends on your expectations going in — if you’re looking to experiment and try some wacky takes on bagel flavor combinations, be bold and go for the oddball bantams like the olive-and-feta infused Athena or the Cookies and Milk. It was fun to take a leap, and I thought the bantams stretching furthest from the flavor norm were the most memorable. I’m hoping that they’ll continue to explore some of the more exotic culinary strains — I’ll come back to Bantam if they go into Indian or East Asian territories, or maybe some south of the border flair. For the moment, however, I think I’ll stick to buying full-size bagels at my usual bakery. Bantam Bagels should be commended for finding a way to make a NY mainstay into something new, but for this native they need to push the envelope more to move from a novelty to a necessity.

Bantam Bagels

283 Bleecker Street (between Jones St and 7th Ave South)

http://www.bantambagels.com

Vox Populi: Spuds 2.0 Unveiled at Shake Shack

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

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

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

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

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

 

First Impressions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did we mention we have new french fries?

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

No seriously, they're brand new.

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

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

 

The Food:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Final Thoughts:

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

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

Shake Shack

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

http://www.shakeshack.com/

A Tale of Two Bakers: Dominique Ansel’s Cronut v. Breads Bakery

All right, my friends, it’s time for a croissant cagefight, a donut deathmatch. We’re talking full on pastry prizefighting. In this corner we have … the up-and-comer, the hot new hybrid, the latest culinary craze to hit Manhattan — Dominique Ansel’s one and only Cronut! And in the other corner … the tried and true technician, the desert darkhorse, the archetypal archduke of allspice — Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant. It’s a throwdown for the ages, and the only type of warfare I readily endorse. So (in what must be a violation of a trademarked catchphrase) … let’s get ready to crumble!

Dominique Ansel Bakery‘s The Cronut:

For those who may be unaware of the Cronut Mania overtaking Manhattan at the moment, here’s a bit of context. Dominique Ansel, formerly of the Michelin-starred Daniel, and currently one of the top pastry chefs in America, recently devised a new form of pastry. His personal Frankenstein’s monster is a half-donut, half croissant hybrid, and therefore was christened The Cronut. Arriving last month, the pastry swiftly sent shockwaves through New York’s foodie scene, eliciting the kind of fervor that might seem more reasonable at a Twilight premiere. Lines began to form at Ansel’s Lower East Side bakery, and as they stretched longer and arrived earlier, Ansel had to start instituting rules (outlined on the “Cronut 101” page of their website — yes, this exists). The bakery can only produce between 200-250 cronuts each day, so customers were limited to only two per in-store purchase, six if you manage to get on the pre-order list — which won’t happen, because they’re already full. Oh, and if you want that in-store Cronut? Better gird your loins and bring some energy drinks along — you’re lining up at 6am for that buttery bad boy. The bakery opens at eight, so pack a sudoku book or two.

None of the above is a joke — this hyperbolic hysteria is actually happening each day in downtown Manhattan. A Cronut black market has developed, with seemingly otherwise unemployed and endlessly patient people offering hand-delivered Cronuts for those willing to shell out nearly 10 times the store price (one Cronut retails for about $5, on Craigslist people are asking for upwards of $50 a delivery, depending on the neighborhood).

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

 

I received my Cronut secondhand as well, but never fear, I did not sink so low as to entrust my dessert delivery to a complete stranger. A good friend and fellow foodie Randeep decided to endure the line and get a Cronut the oldfashioned way (well, the month-old-fashioned way, I guess), and was generous enough to let me buy his second pastry off him. So full disclosure: the Cronut I tasted was a day old. I did my best to reheat it in the toaster oven at work, but I recognize that my views are tainted by the ravages of time upon those delicate layers of dough.

The Cronut carrying case -- classy packaging, or commercial ploy?

The Cronut carrying case — classy packaging, or commercial ploy?

 

The Cronuts are packaged in a golden, pyramidal box, which could be viewed as either a way to placate the masses and elevate the experience (this is no Krispy Kreme donut, mon ami), or as an over-the-top, eye-roll inducing display of food fetishism. Guess which camp I fall into? Look, I know I’m one to talk in my glass house of Oreo and Levain cultism, but I sometimes I find the spectacle of food presentation a little unnecessary. I’m all for molecular gastronomy and innovative plating, but I don’t think the way you package a baked product needs to be any fancier than a white cardboard box. The beauty of Dominique Ansel’s Cronut is in the design of the pastry itself. The gold box adds a layer of pomp and circumstance that feels like a poor play to make me feel like the Cronut unboxing should be an event in itself.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

 

Thankfully, as I alluded to above, the Cronut itself is a gorgeous display of craftsmanship. Even after a day of marinating in its own creamy innards, the layers of flaky dough were still distinct. Golden-brown and crispy on the outside, with a soft yellow, multilayered inside reminiscent of the croissant-side of its family, the pastry cream was still soft and oozing from the crevices. Cronut 1.0 was flavored vanilla rose, but Ansel is rolling out new flavors each month, so my June Cronut was lemon maple. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a lemon person, so I wish I had gotten to try the Cronut in its initial form.

Inside you can see the distinct layers of dough, and the cream oozing between them.

Inside you can see the distinct layers of dough, and the cream oozing between them.

According to Ansel’s website, the Cronuts are first fried in grapeseed oil, then rolled in sugar and filled with pastry cream, completing their donutification. This means that when you bite into the Cronut, the dominant flavor is that of the cream filling instead of the dough itself. For June’s iteration, the foremost taste is strongly lemon, with a hint of vanilla from the surrounding dough. I struggled to find any maple flavor at all, although it may serve mainly as a sweetener. A day after it was baked, the Cronut had indeed lost some of the lightness in the pastry, but you could still see the wafer thin and springy layers as you tore into them. The overall impression I got was one of eating a deep-fried croissant, perhaps because the basic architecture of the dessert was born from a croissant. I’m not sure what could have brought the Cronut closer to its donut heritage — perhaps its best thought of as a croissant adopted and raised from birth by donut parents.

All in all, while I applaud Dominique Ansel’s creativity and devotion to raising the pastry game, I think I’d rather try one of his takes on a more traditional dessert, like his highly regarded Kouign Amman (which was previously the most popular item on the Bakery’s menu).

 

 

Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant (and more):

2013-06-08 11.40.56

Our other contender comes from Breads Bakery, down in Union Square. Breads is relatively new to the New York scene, opening in the beginning of 2013 as the first American outpost of the popular Lehamim Bakeries in Tel Aviv (Lehamim means “breads” in Hebrew). Located just off Union Square on East 16th St, Breads seems to still be flying just under the radar, despite earning the accolade of baking the “best babka in NY” from New York Magazine. When I visited the bakery/cafe last Saturday, I found a steady stream of customers but plenty of space to linger, sit and sample the menu.

Inside Breads -- the dessert and bread counter located up front, and the coffee is in the back.

Inside Breads — the dessert and bread counter located up front, and the coffee is in the back.

Breads offers both savory and sweet goods, with their loaves of various breads and baked items at the front counter, a coffee bar and selection of salads and sandwiches in the back, a small seating area in the middle. They win major points for an enthusiastic staff — everyone I talked to was willing to explain the menu and offer their own recommendations. Plus, you gotta love a place that not only offers free samples as you walk in, but also constantly replenishes the supply and rotates the sample selection. In the time I was there I got to try a fresh hard and crusty baguette, a boureka, and some onion bread.

A small sample of Breads baked goods.

A small sample of Breads baked goods. Note the rugelach on the left.

I didn’t get to test New York Magazine’s assertion this go-round, but I did buy a piece of rugelach, the other item Breads is well-known for. Both the rugelach and the babka are loaded up with a Nutella/Belgian chocolate filling, and covered with a sugar syrup after emerging from the oven, leaving a soft, flaky crust.

2013-06-08 12.31.33

Breads‘ rugelach, bringing me back to my days in Jerusalem.

My typical preference for babka or rugelach is cinnamon over chocolate, but man this was one phenomenal rugelach. You can detect just a hint of nuttiness in the filling, but the dominant flavor is the rich Belgian chocolate, similar to a ganache in texture. The dough is flaky on the outside, but yeasty within, the filling and the sugar glaze keeping it moist (and lingering on your fingers). Breads’ rendition reminded me of the personal-paradigm-shifting rugelach I had at Marzipan in Jerusalem. Maybe it’s because the chef behind Breads Bakery is Uri Scheft, a Danish-Israeli with an eye towards twisting up traditional breads, but a reverence for tradition with Jewish staples. For example, along with the dark Scandanavian rye loaves that fill the baskets at Breads, Scheft bakes up challah each weekend for Shabbat.

 

The flat but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

The flat, but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

But the more appropriate dish for Cronut comparison (Cro-comp?) is Breads’ version of an Almond Croissant, which Jacob selected. (Again, the lucky duck lives in the neighborhood — clearly I need to move to Gramercy.) While almond croissants are one of Jacob’s favorite pastries, I’ve only had a handful in my life, probably due to the poor quality of most of the ones you find at the local Starbucks or Au Bon Pain. Much like my rugelach experience, however, Breads’ take on an almond croissant proved eye-opening.

The pictures featured on Breads’ website show a familiarly puffy pastry, but the almond croissants we encountered at the bakery were the flattest I’d ever seen. However, the croissant was clearly baked with care, golden-brown with some slightly burnt areas near the edges. It appeared to be double-braided, almost like a challah loaf, and had marzipan piped on top, beneath a dusting of powdered sugar and sliced almonds. The first bite revealed that marzipan also filled the middle of the croissant. More viscous than the pastry cream in the Cronut, I strongly preferred Breads’ filling, since it gave a moistness to the croissant dough but held the whole pastry together, making it easier to eat overall. The lemon maple cream of the Cronut squirted out with each bite, leaving you with pastry cream on your hands and face. The more stable marzipan also allowed the taste of the dough to have more of a presence on your tongue. It made the almond flavor purer and more natural tasting than the common almond croissant, which tend to be differentiated from their original brethren simply by tossing a few almonds on top.

 

All in all, the Cronut and Almond Croissant fared equally on dough texture, but Breads wins out because of the basic architecture of its dessert. I think you need the integrity of a yeast donut to properly handle the pastry cream. In fact, most of the cream-filled desserts I can think of have a certain amount of heft to the surrounding baked dough — eclairs, cupcakes, even twinkies have a stronger structural base compared to the airyness of croissant layers. While the frying of the Cronut solidifies the dough a bit more after baking, the pastry cream doesn’t get absorbed by the Cronut, making the process of eating it a messier experience than its elegant appearance would suggestion. In the end, I sampled all three of these pastries long after they had been baked. Although the Cronut suffered the longest delay, even my friend who tried it fresh out of the fryer concurred that it was good, but not really worth all the hype. I’m happy for Dominique Ansel to get the business, because I honestly believe he’s pushing the industry forward, but on a blow-by-blow count, Breads Bakery wins in a knockout. The newest eye-catching, show-stopping fad can be pretty thrilling at the time, but sometimes all you need is a small tweak to familiar formulas to really be memorable.

Bottom line? If you can find your way to a Cronut with little hassle or time investment, give it a shot — it’s definitely a beauty to behold. But feel free to sleep in on Saturday morning if getting up at 5 sounds awful — Breads Bakery will be there, open until late and inviting you to sample and revel in some rich rugelach or commendable croissants.

 

Dominique Ansel Bakery

189 Spring Street (between Sullivan and Thompson)

http://dominiqueansel.com/

Breads Bakery

18 E 16th St.

breadsbakery.com