Snackshots Labor Day: Summer Sweet and Savory

Oh, Summer. Can you truly be over? I feel the lingering urges to dip my toes into briney/chlorinated depths, to slather myself in UVA/UVB/UHF/USB SPF 5000 and throw my epidermal health to the wind, and to challenge the physical limits of hot dog consumption. But Labor Day has indeed come and gone, and soon enough the New York winds throw a chill down your shirt collar, the leaves will swirl in eddies around Park Avenue, and the brisk fall air will leave the streets smelling of boring, everyday garbage — the faint, mystifying odor of urine simply a memory of the previous July.

With the specter of Fall looming over me, I resolved to spend the Labor Day long weekend as any good New Yorker should (well, those of us without access to the Hamptons) — eating and walking around the city. In case you were convinced that aside from food nerdery, I someone manage to pass off as “hip” or “with it”, please don’t fret — my solo hours in transit around Manhattan were accompanied by a truly dorky BBC podcast about the history of world religions. Aw yeah, just call me a modern day Fonz. Or the female equivalent (Fonzette?).

So here’s a brief look at the surprisingly eclectic mix of edibles I had during the last few days of summer. I’ve since traded in my white dresses for a white napkin, and now that bikini season is over, we can breathe a sigh of relief and look ahead to the gorging orgies of Halloween and Thanksgiving to come.

Hester Nights:

Hester Nights at the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel.

Hester Nights at the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel.

First up, I wanted to highlight my trip to Hester Nights, an event that is actually still going on for a few more weeks at the Eventi Hotel near Herald Square. Hester Nights is part of the Hester Street Fair, a food and craft market that takes place during summer weekends down on the Lower East Side. In addition to those daytime markets, the organizers also set up a smaller event each Thursday night slightly farther uptown, in the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel. Called Hester Nights, the series runs from May until late September, and features around 12-15 vendors from the Street Fair, cycling weekly.

One side of the row of vendors at Hester Nights, where you can buy pizza, tacos, or South African jerky.

One side of the row of vendors at Hester Nights, where you can buy pizza, tacos, or South African jerky.

While Hester Nights has many similarities to Mad Sq Eats, thankfully on the Thursday Jacob and I went, it was a substantially calmer environment. This may be the product of it being located more off the beaten path, or perhaps because it’s later in the summer and near the end of Hester Nights’ run, or simply because there were fewer vendors in a larger space. I’d actually been to the Eventi pavilion before for drinks — the hotel itself has a great indoor/outdoor pseudo foodcourt called Foodparc & Beerparc, offering burgers, hot dogs, fried seafood, and beer and wine. The outdoor space is dominated by a large fountain in the middle, but there are also a good number of tables and benches, plus a giant video screen on the wall of the building behind the hotel (we visited on Michael Jackson’s birthday, so our meal was accompanied by an unexpected MJ concert soundtrack).

The menu at Brooklyn Wok Shop's stall: a deluge of dim sum.

The menu at Brooklyn Wok Shop‘s stall: a deluge of dim sum.

There was a nice variety of vendors that night, offering eclectic foods from South African jerky to Brazilian cheese bread, gnocchi, waffles, and tacos. Jacob and I decided on an Asian flavor to our meal, and ended up getting Duck Confit Dumplings from the Brooklyn Wok Shop, and Khao Man Gai from Khao Man Gai NY, whose stalls were conveniently located next to each other.

The diverse dumplings on display.

The diverse dumplings on display.

Brooklyn Wok Shop has a brick and mortar location in Williamsburg, where they offer the dim sum menu they had at Hester Nights, plus a larger selection of rice and noodle dishes. After tasting the Duck Confit Dumplings, I would definitely consider paying the restaurant a visit. It’s exactly the kind of Asian fusion I love — retaining the flavor palate of more traditional Eastern cuisines while stirring the pot with classical Western dishes. The rest of the menu at the Hester Nights stall ran the gamut from familiar to off-the-wall — crab rangoon wontons, roasted cauliflower and eggplant, roast pork, and pastrami dumplings — making picking just one dish difficult, but both Jacob and I are suckers for duck, so the idea of tiny pouches of duck confit seemed irresistible.

The Duck Confit Dumplings -- delicately wrapped, but bursting with flavor.

The Duck Confit Dumplings — delicately wrapped, but bursting with flavor.

The Duck Confit Dumplings (fresh shiitakes, cabbage, hoisin dipping sauce) were also the only non-fried item on the menu, and I while I’m certainly a fan of fried food, I appreciated the lightness of the preparation considering the dumplings’ filling. The simply plated dish (this is a food fair, after all) came with four steamed dumplings slathered with hoisin sauce and chopped cilantro. Overall, it was a pleasant appetizer, the portion size and delicate quality of the wrapper dough playing off the fatty confit filling. I wish I had taken more dipping sauce, because you really can’t go wrong with hoisin and duck, but the dumplings really held their own, even without their accompaniments. While this was a great size for a starter, to make a full meal of it, you’d probably need two or three orders between two people. But with the right strategy, a trip to Brooklyn Wok Shop could yield a pretty exotic international tour of flavors without weighing down your stomach or your wallet.

Khao Man Gai NY, offering the best Thai dish you've never heard of.

Khao Man Gai NY, offering the best Thai dish you’ve never heard of (note the sign in the upper left for an introduction).

For our main course Jacob and I chose Khao Man Gai NY, which makes one dish, and one dish only — Khao Man Gai, of course (they also sell some Thai teas, but no other food). Although not well-known in the US, it turns out the dish is one of the most popular street foods in Thailand. KMGNY only operates out of a stall at markets like Hester Nights, but they have a great sales pitch, displaying a sign that fully explains the dish, and offering tastes by the spoonful. Once I tried the sample, I immediately knew I had to get the full dish. Khao Man Gai, at least as prepared by KMGNY, is “Organic Chicken poached with garlic, ginger and Thai herbs, with Thai jasmine rice cooked with the poaching liquid and herbs, served with a soup for sipping between bites, and a sauce of fermented soybean, garlic, ginger, simple syrup, vinegar, and chilis.”

Khao Man Gai -- some assembly required.

Khao Man Gai — some assembly required.

We were served a plate full of chicken and rice, with sauce and a cup of broth on the side, and given specific instructions on how to appropriately tackle Khao Man Gai. To be properly enjoyed, the sauce must be dumped onto the chicken, so it coats the meat and soaks into the rice, and the soup is to be sipped in between bites to act as a palate cleanser. After following the instructions and finally digging in, I found the chicken was poached to an almost collapsing degree of tenderness, falling to pieces even with just a flimsy plastic fork cutting into it. Both the meat and the still somewhat chewy rice were moist and flavorful, the herbs and spices of the broth having been fully infused. Not surprisingly, since we’re talking about street food, Khao Man Gai is pretty unimpressive visually — a lump of rice, slices of barely adorned poached chicken, and a small cup of clear broth — but once you start biting into it, it’s obvious why this dish is so popular. Each bite packs a punch of earthy salt, just a bit of heat from the chilis, and a hint of sugar from the viscous sweet and sour soybean sauce. I was skeptical of the point of the broth, but the small sips between bites really does elevate the meal, washing your mouth with umami and priming your tastebuds for the next delectable forkful. Khao Man Gai NY seriously needs to get a storefront, or at least a truck, because with winter coming and the street fairs winding down, I don’t want to have to wait another half a year to try this dish again.

Il Laboratorio Del Gelato:

The bright white interior of Il Laboratorio del Gelato shines out into the New York night.

The bright white interior of Il Laboratorio del Gelato shines out into the New York night.

My other major Labor Day excursion was to the Lower East Side, where I finally paid a visit to Il Laboratorio del Gelato. I’d been reading about this place for years now, constantly seeing it ranked on lists of the best ice cream or gelato in New York, and I’d even walked by it on occasion (staring longingly at it as I headed over to Clinton St. Baking Co., for example). Il Laboratorio del Gelato is located right on Houston, only a few blocks over from the Whole Foods Bowery. They certainly can’t be accused of false advertising — the decor is industrial, plain white paint and tile combined with stainless steel — you couldn’t give off a more scientific, laboratory vibe unless the staff was decked out in hazmat suits (fortunately, the friendly staff wear blue aprons and hats, so you know you’re getting gelato, and not a flu shot). Although ILDG is housed in a fairly large space, the majority of it is devoted to the process of making all that gelato, leaving only a few benches by the front windows for seating. And at least when I was there, the front of the store was packed to the gills with a long line of eager gelato-anticipants.

Inside you can see that the majority of the space is taken up by "lab" equipment.

Inside you can see that the majority of the space is taken up by “lab” equipment.

ILDG makes over 275 flavors of gelato, offering 48 at the start of business each day, so the diversity of choices coupled with the long line and lack of a visible menu (you can’t see the daily flavors until you reach the front) inevitably lead to a bit of choice anxiety. Even my good ol’ reliable web research couldn’t help me here, since the highly touted caramel was not being offered at the time. ILDG doesn’t make things any easier, since you’re only allowed 2 tastes per person, a meager amount in the face of the mountain of appetizing gelatos and sorbets. I understand the need for all the rules because of the popularity of the place and the sheer quantity of gelato flavors, but I did feel a bit stymied in my exploration of ILDG’s products. How am I supposed to know whether to get just two flavors, or three, or a shake?

I'm sorry, Baskin-Robbins, how many flavors do you have?

I’m sorry, Baskin-Robbins, how many flavors did you say you have?

48 flavors, and only 2 tastes -- it's basically another trial of Hercules.

48 flavors, and only 2 tastes — it’s basically another trial of Hercules.

Luckily, Il Laboratorio del Gelato has the goods to counterbalance all the rules and regulations. This was some of the best gelato I’ve had in Manhattan, and certainly the most innovative flavors I’ve seen (although I have my eye on the cornbread gelato over at Williamsburg’s Oddfellows). Jacob and I decided to get two small cups (with two flavors of gelato each) — one on the sweeter side, and one more fruity. I got the Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch and Mocha Chocolate Chip gelatos, and Jacob chose the Raspberry gelato and Green Apple sorbet (at the suggestion of our server).

The dessert duo: Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch on the left, and Mocha Chocolate Chip on the right.

The dessert duo: Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch on the left, and Mocha Chocolate Chip on the right.

The fruit selection: Raspberry  gelato on the left, and Green Apple sorbet on the right.

The fruit selection: Raspberry gelato on the left, and Green Apple sorbet on the right.

Both gelatos had great consistency — the sweeter, milkier gelatos were creamy and slightly melty, coating your tongue as they dissolved. The Mocha had a bold coffee flavor, with a smooth rich milk chocolate, and reminded me of chocolate covered espresso beans. I really loved the textural contrast of the Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch — the “crunch” seemed to come from crumbled amaretti cookies that were swirled into the airy hazelnut gelato base. The Raspberry was thick, smooth, with a fresh fruit taste, just a bit of tartness to contrast the sugar, but definitely still a gelato. The biggest surprise was the Green Apple sorbet, which I was prepared to be disappointed by. I ended up finding it the most interesting, and most satisfying flavor of the bunch. I had expected it to be tart like a Granny Smith apple, which I tend not to like (I’m a Honey crisp or Gala gal), or worst case scenario, like the fake sour green apple you encounter in candy and sugary liquors. But it lived up to the sorbet mantle — light, refreshing, with a pure, natural apple flavor and an almost crushed ice/granita texture. I can’t believe I’m saying this, as someone who will almost always choose the chocolate mousse over the fruit tart, but the Green Apple sorbet was the most memorable flavor for me, sticking in my mind even a week after my visit.

The rest of the weekend was filled with brunches, beer halls, indie films, frisbee in Central Park, and as many glorious catnaps as I could justify to myself. All in all, I think I managed to capture the distilled spirit of a New York summer — a mix of the transient with the established institution, a melting pot of cuisines and heritages, and the completely homegrown desire to sleep away the afternoon. If you can, try to make it out to Hester Nights in its last few weeks — I always think it’s worthwhile to see the innovative up-and-coming vendors in the area, and I was genuinely delighted to discover a number of new dishes I had never even heard of before. And I know I’ll be back to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, inquisitive ice cream ingester that I am. You just can’t throw down a 275-flavor gauntlet and not expect this Rocky Road Rambo to lock and load.

So with that, I bid adieu to the summer season. Goodbye heat, goodbye outdoor seating, goodbye sundresses, goodbye fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them. Hello pumpkin spice everything, hello leather jacket weather, hello mulled apple cider. Suddenly the leaves changing doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Hester Nights @ the Eventi Hotel

6th Ave between 29th and 30th Streets

http://www.hesterstreetfair.com/#!hester-nights/c7h0

Brooklyn Wok Shop

 182 N 10th St (btwn Bedford and Driggs Ave)

http://brooklynwokshop.com/

Khao Man Gai NY

https://www.facebook.com/KhaoManGaiNY

Il Laboratorio del Gelato

188 Ludlow St. (at East Houston) 

http://www.laboratoriodelgelato.com/

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Domo Arigato, Mr. Daido (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat All the Fried Food)

Now that the countdown to Christmas has turned to a mere handful of hours, we’ve officially reached the apex of that time of year when calorie counts break down and anything we’d already consider decadent is battered, fried, and topped with ice cream (aka the parallel universe known as November through January in America). I can’t tell you the amount of buttered, dipped, iced, or glazed things I’ve consumed in the past few weeks (not that I was much of a poster child for moderation before that). And so with holiday fast approaching, and my willpower at its annual low, I find myself recounting yet another chapter in the tale of The Demise of Maggie’s Cholesterol. Let’s dig in:

As my previous post discussed, one of the reasons I actually like the holiday season (inflatable lawn ornaments aside) is the emphasis on tradition. Chanukah may only be a minor festival in Judaism, but there are certain habits and rituals that my family and I use to mark the occasion, and that’s what truly makes it significant for me. This past weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to join in a tradition of my friends Laura and Steven — a day of cooking and eating Japanese food. This tradition isn’t necessarily holiday-season-bound for them, but being included at this time of year made me feel like a kid being asked up to the grownups’ table for the first time, and that table was covered in fried dumplings.

For at least as long as I’ve known them, Laura and Steven have been going to this Japanese market in White Plains called Daido. For years it was a mythical place for me, where the strange candies like Koala’s March and Pocky in Laura’s lunch bag came from, but lacking in a real geographical location. Of course, when we actually went there on Saturday I realized I’ve driven by it literally hundreds of times (in my defense, there is poor signage!). Aside from supplying unique desserts for their lunchboxes, Laura and Steven would occasionally go to Daido to pick up a hodgepodge of dumplings, croquettes, noodles and meat for their ritual fried feast. Basically, I was prepping myself for a meal at a Japanese Cracker Barrel (and if you think I’m referring to the cheese company, then you’ve never had the joy of highway rest stop chicken fried chicken, and I’m sorry for your loss).

The rather unassuming entrance to Daido

The rather unassuming entrance to Daido

Daido was larger than I anticipated, given the specialty markets I’ve been to in NY. While certainly no Super Stop ‘n’ Shop, Daido had enough room for 5 or 6 aisles, plus a meat, frozen, and produce section. Not to mention the small Parisienne bakery (what?) near the registers.

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Oh, you know, in case I want to throw a croissant in with my udon noodles.

Oh, you know, in case I want to throw a croissant in with my udon noodles.

One of my weirder interests is my fascination with foreign fast food (much like my fascination with foreign public transit systems — you know what, the mundane stuff can tell you a lot about a culture), so if I’d had more time I would have roamed the aisles to really explore all the strange frozen meals and snacks. But we were on a mission, and the first step was procuring rice balls. I was told rice balls are to be eaten in the car immediately after checkout and before going home, as a prelude to the main event. Some eating before our eating? I am fine with that.

Rice balls in their native habitat. There were probably six or seven types available.

Rice balls in their native habitat. There were probably six or seven types available.

Despite multiple efforts on my part, I remain not a huge fan of sushi, so I was a little reluctant to dive into the rice ball world of salmon roe and seared tuna. Laura, Steven, and my friend Sarah (of Thanksgiving dessert amazingness fame) were kind enough to guide me to the tuna/mayo rice ball. Comforted by the safety of that purchase, I went out on a limb for my second rice ball and picked out kelp, an admittedly odd combination. Then Steven and Laura went off to pick out the necessities for dinner, and Sarah and I wandered the aisles as she picked up some wasabi-flavored rice crackers and I scanned the cookies. While I didn’t find any Japanese Oreo products, Sarah and I stumbled upon the terribly unfortunately named Couque D’Asses. Predictably, a quick search on the internet leads to many other bloggers with the same juvenile reactions we had, but not explanation of what these Japanese confectioners were going for.  Even Google Translate just explains it as “Biscuit of Asses.” Clearly we had to buy it. I’m disappointed to report that these cookies had no clear connection to either donkeys or bottoms — it ended up just being a delicate chocolate-filled wafer cookie that tasted like a mild Milano. So I guess kudos to Pepperidge Farm for winning the “classiness” competition, simply by not trying?

I'm sensing a strangely incongruous Francophone trend, here...

I’m sensing a strangely incongruous Francophone trend, here…

Once all our comestibles were purchased, we headed back to the car to commence stage one of our day of eating: rice ball consumption. Little did I realize there is a specific procedure for prepping the ball, which Laura walked me through. First, remove the rice ball from the plastic, then carefully slide the separately packaged seaweed wrapper out (careful not to tear it), and finally, rewrap the rice ball in the seaweed. Then stuff it in your face as quickly as possible, because these things are unfairly delicious. The first few bites are mainly sticky rice, but eventually the filling in the center is revealed. The tuna/mayo was nothing special visually, but I was surprised by the kelp — it was almost a paste in consistency, as opposed to the strings of seaweed like material I thought I would be eating.

A riceball, properly assembled.

A rice ball, properly assembled.

The tuna-mayo filling looked like, well, tuna and mayo.

The tuna/mayo filling looked like, well, tuna and mayo.

It’s hard to describe why I liked the rice balls so much, since the flavors were straightforward. The tuna/mayo tasted pretty much like the tuna sandwiches my dad would pack in my lunchbox for school, and the kelp tasted mostly of salt and “beach grit,” if that makes any sense (although oddly, I found it pretty satisfying and would get it again). Perhaps I liked it because rice balls focus on the elements of sushi I actually enjoy — the well-cooked sticky rice contrasting with the salty pucker of the seaweed wrapper. Now that I’ve tried them, I actually do want to be a bit more adventurous with my next sampling, so I need to see if there are any Daido equivalents in Manhattan.

Reasonably full of starch for the moment, we returned to Steven’s house, where the chef and sous-chef set up shop in the kitchen and the guests settled in to watch the mandatory holiday viewing of Love Actually. While awaiting the main course we tried the Couque D’Asses and an equally odd American snack — Pizzeria Combos. This was probably the third time in my life that I’ve eaten Combos, but I was floored by these. Not because of some outstanding salivary experience, but because they don’t taste like pizza — THEY TASTE LIKE A PIZZERIA. Some magical food scientists distilled the olfactory sensations of being in a pizza shop and shoved it into a pretzel crust. It was mind boggling, and makes me glad that I neglected to look at the ingredient list.

In the kitchen, Laura and Steven were contending with hot oil and boiling water as they got our dinner together. The menu consisted of an assortment of items to be refried: shrimp shumai, shrimp spring rolls, chicken and shrimp dumplings, calimari, and vegetable croquettes (okay, so not my best attempt at keeping kosher, I admit). Add to that shrimp wontons, rice, yakisoba noodles, seared tuna, and the collection of random desserts, and well, you know why I was basically in a coma for the rest of the day.

Chef and sous-chef braving oil burns for our future satisfaction

Chef and sous-chef braving oil burns for our future satisfaction

My favorite part was probably the fact that Steven has all the paraphernalia, from rice bowls to real chopsticks — not just the remnants of your takeout collection. We all sat on the floor around the living room coffee table to eat, and while I definitely felt super not Japanese, it was fun to attempt a nod to the culture of the cuisine.

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Oh god, look at that beautiful, massive plate of fried things, top left.
Only a small portion of the full dessert options -- Koala's March (chocolate filled little marsupial cookies), chocolate/animal cracker like mushrooms, and strawberry candies

Only a small portion of the full dessert options — clockwise from top: Koala’s March (chocolate filled little marsupial cookies), chocolate/animal cracker like mushrooms, and strawberry candies

Overall, while totally delicious, the meal ended up being a little heavy for me. I hate to admit it, but I think my stomach is not the steel-girded machine it used to be. My favorite dishes were the vegetable croquettes (like a hash brown with peas), and the yakisoba noodles. Mostly it was just a really wonderful day of sharing in someone else’s foodie ritual. Between Colin Firth speaking in broken Portuguese and nibbles on Koala’s March, somehow the holiday spirit snuck in, without a Christmas ornament or menorah in sight. Sometimes friends and good food is really all you need. Oh, and Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters. That’s like, a basic requirement.

Nippan Daido, USA

522 Mamaroneck Avenue,

White Plains, NY 10605