Birthday Humble Tart: Dinner at Narcissa

The entrance to Narcissa, tucked back behind the hotel's more casual restaurant.

The entrance to Narcissa, tucked back behind the hotel’s more casual restaurant.

 

I’ll hit a month at my new job this week, and one of the biggest lessons so far has been how little I actually know about food. I suppose it’s all relative (aren’t most things in life?), since I probably know far more about the ins and outs of animation than my new coworkers. But here I am, very much an amateur enthusiast, surrounded by people who have worked in kitchens and front of the house, who can list grape varietals like the names of their nieces and nephews, and could discern a julienne from a brunoise simply by touch. It can be a little intimidating at times, but I generally try to operate with an awareness of my own ignorance. I’d rather be surprised and delighted by something new, rather than rely on incomplete information to make decisions that may prevent discovery.

 

This all came to mind when thinking back on my recent birthday dinner at Narcissa, a popular farm-to-table restaurant in the Standard East Hotel. When I mentioned to my brother where I would be dining, he said “oh, I guess California cuisine is your favorite, then?” I hemmed and hawed (I hate picking favorites), trying to qualify what appealed to me about Narcissa’s menu (the emphasis on vegetables, the seasonal quality, the unconventional flavor combinations), claiming that it was somehow totally different from the delightful birthday dinner I had at Barbuto last year. But what I really should have said was “maybe.” The truth is I didn’t know the definition of California cuisine (here’s what Wikipedia has to say), and even with a bit of Googling I wouldn’t put all my favorite eggs in that particular basket.

 

Eh, enough dithering about known unknowns (ain’t that a timely idiom?). Regardless of categorization, I had another fabulous birthday dinner with my parents. Narcissa is certainly a buzzed-about restaurant in NYC right now, and it was lovely to have it live up to, and then exceed the hype.

 

First Impressions:

 

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A view into the open kitchen at Narcissa.

As I mentioned above, Narcissa is located in the Standard East Hotel, which reopened last year after extensive renovations. The entrance to Narcissa is tucked back behind the more casual restaurant, Cafe Standard, which has sidewalk seating. Narcissa has outdoor seating as well, but it’s made up of a small patio behind the dining room, creating a little oasis from the bustle of the city. I imagine it’d be lovely to sit out there in the sunshine (especially now that the restaurant is serving brunch).

 

The unexpectedly angular dining room at Narcissa.

The unexpectedly angular dining room at Narcissa.

Once you make your way past Cafe Standard, you’re greeted with a doorway surrounded by greenery and topped with a placard that reads Narcissa on a background of rolling farmland. The restaurant sources many of its ingredients from the farm Locusts on Hudson, where the eponymous cow Narcissa lives. Step inside and you’ll find a large open kitchen immediately to your left, maybe half of the size of the whole dining room. I beat both of my parents to the restaurant, and enjoyed watching the cooking and prep in action. To the right is the bar and dining room, decked out in soft white, golds, light woods, and blue-and-yellow striped banquettes. There seemed to be a prevalence of diagonals, from the square space of the room distorted by acutely angled windows, to our table which was not round, but actually octagonal. This lends a modern air to the casual elegance of the decor, which otherwise is kind of rustic chic — wooden/wicker chairs, no tablecloths. The bar area is sizable in itself, taking up about a third of the dining room space, staffed by at least two bartenders at a time to handle the orders of the dozen seats at the bar, collection of tables nearby, and the customers in the dining room.

 

The staff was friendly and charming from the get-go, offering plenty of advice on cocktails, and ever ready with refilling our (perplexingly tiny) water glasses or fetching us more bread. Throughout the meal our waiter explained each dish to us, even identifying components when we were confused, and even snuck us a few extra treats by the end. My mom was intrigued by the Buttermilk Ice Cream included in the Summer Sundae, but we passed on ordering it, so our waiter brought a tiny sample of it with dessert, alongside the Sundae’s pineapple sorbet. This, combined with the speedy, yet never pushy, service (we were out of there within 2 hours), helped to set a festive and exploratory mood. Plus, I always get a little bit of a kick out of dining at places where they refold your napkin for you — it’s the type of silly decadence that makes eating out an “experience.”

 

 

The Food:
After doing my requisite research and soliciting suggestions from a coworker, I came to my dinner at Narcissa armed with a post-it note crammed with dishes. The bad news is that, as a restaurant focused on seasonal ingredients, many of those items hadn’t made the transition from the Winter to the Summer menu. The good news is the ones that really mattered did, and with a little deliberation and negotiation, my parents and I settled on a repast covering a whole host of both highlighted dishes and unknowns. We decided to start with the Rotisserie-Crisped Beets, the Crab Salad, and the Potato Gnocchi, then I ordered the Lacquered Duck Breast, my mother got the Maine Scallops, and my father chose the Steamed Black Bass, along with a side of Supergreen Spinach for us all to share. Dessert (aside from our ice cream/sorbet sampler) was the Bittersweet Chocolate Tart and the Apricot Tart Tatin.

 

Complimentary bread served as a boule already sliced into quarters. Fresh butter that is barely needed on the fresh herbed sourdough.

Complimentary bread served as a boule already sliced into quarters. Fresh butter that is barely needed on the fresh herbed sourdough.

Our dinner began with a small boule of complimentary herbed sourdough bread, sprinkled with rosemary and served with a side of soft butter. The bread was crusty and crackly on the outside, with a whole wheat interior that was airy and chewy. I was more than happy to eat a piece on its own, though I have no complaints about the creamy fresh butter accompanying it. The bread was also exactly the right type of solid dough to sop up the remaining sauce from the gnocchi after we’d torn through the appetizer’s contents.

 

 

Potato Gnocchi -- delicate bundles of starch just begging to be popped one by one.

Potato Gnocchi — delicate bundles of starch tucked underneath shaved parmesan.

Speaking of, the Potato Gnocchi (fava beans, ramps, parmesan) was a solid, straightforward dish, perfectly fine but paling in comparison with our other hors d’oeuvre. The individual pieces of pasta were excellent — delicate little pillows of potato that managed to be chewy without being gummy — and I felt these were the best component. The rest of the pieces were certainly fresh, with the whole fava beans adding a summery brightness, but the broth and the cheese proved a bit too salty for me, and brought down the overall impact of the combination.

 

 

The Crab Salad -- a case for the value of hearts of palm.

The Crab Salad — a case for the value of hearts of palm.

If I hadn’t been told to try the Crab Salad (blood orange, hearts of palm, hazelnuts), I probably would have made the mistake of passing it by on the menu, simply because up until this point in my life, I’ve never met a heart of palm I liked. Now thanks to Narcissa, I think I might give them another go. This is a salad in the sense of chicken or tuna salad — hunks of shredded dungeness crab meat stuffed into a petite pot with an overhanging lip, mixed with sliced hearts of palm, pieces of chopped blood orange and hazelnuts, and plenty of sliced basil and parsley on top. The crunch of the nuts and the hearts of palm paired well with the softer textures of the crab and blood orange, and the addition of citrus acidity is always great with seafood. This dish was not a flavor bomb by any means, more about the combination of the ingredients than a hearty slap of crabmeat. My mother was underwhelmed by it, but I thought it was a light dish with a combination of acid, herbs and briny seafood flavors to wake up my palate before the heavier entrees.

 

 

Forget Boston Market's chicken, Narcissa's Rotisserie Beets prove rotated roasting is hardcore delicious.

Forget Boston Market’s chicken, Narcissa‘s Rotisserie Beets prove rotated roasting is hardcore delicious.

Although I enjoyed the Crab Salad, the Rotisserie-Crisped Beets (bulgur salad, apples, creamed horseradish) were one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. This is one of the dishes that has gotten a tremendous amount of buzz, so I went in with fairly high expectations, only to have them blown to bits by the real McCoy. Now I should be up front and offer a disclaimer: because I’m an old lady at heart, I’m really into beets. Like eggplant level of love for them. So if you’re not a beet fan, you might not have the revelatory experience that I did, but I would be shocked if you still didn’t enjoy the crap out of this appetizer. As the name implies, this dish shows off the rotisserie oven that Narcissa is known for, with the beets roasted to a blackened crisp on the outside. From the photo you might think they’re crusted with something, but it’s actually just the charred exterior, creating a crunchy shell that holds a supple, deep violet beet flesh inside. Not surprisingly, the flesh is super-giving, your fork gliding through it. The bulger, apples and herbs add some bulk to the dish, all of which is served on a pool of creamed horseradish sauce. Once again, I found myself face-to-face with an ingredient I largely avoid. Horseradish means one thing to me — maror (bitter herbs) at Passover, where it’s sandwiched between two pieces of matzoh in an obligatory ritual I’d otherwise opt out of. But here the bite of the horseradish was softened by the cream, retaining enough power to counter the sweetness of the caramelized beets and raw apples chunks. Overall, it was a great showcase of the skill of the kitchen — taking something as mundane as beets and elevating it through basic techniques. This is actually a perfect example of what I love about the recent turn towards giving vegetables their due — maybe it’s because I’m becoming a lame-o adult who actually loves eating well-prepared veggies, but I think people in general would change their minds about brussels sprouts or beets if given the opportunity to have dishes like this one (or simply being exposed to better cooking options than just the pile of steamed vegetables sitting on your plate at Outback).

 

 

The Maine Scallops with somewhat muted lobster butter.

The Maine Scallops with somewhat muted lobster butter.

There was only a little bit of downtime before our entrees arrived. I had been tempted by both of my parents’ choices, since the dish I had eyed from all the reviews, the lamb loin, had not made it onto the summer menu. So once I had that out of the way, I zeroed-in on the Maine Scallops (asparagus, green garlic, potato puree, lobster butter), but that was my mother’s top pick, so I went with my other menu kryptonite, the duck breast. Her dish came with four sizable scallops, seared to an exquisite golden-brown on top, but still a pale off-white on the sides and interior. They were melt-in-your-mouth smooth, not really seasoned beyond basic salt and pepper. The lobster butter, which my mother had been especially excited about, seemed to be located in the sauce underneath, and had a surprisingly subtle flavor. I had expected it to be more like a bisque with a real lobster tang to it, but I can understand the restraint given the delicacy of scallops — you don’t want a taste as recognizable as lobster to overpower the main component of a dish. This entree seemed to be the most classically executed and plated dish, so the vegetables were straightforward but well-cooked, with shaved slivers of asparagus and a silky potato puree, and greens that the menu lists as green garlic, but I thought looked like fiddlehead ferns. Then again, what do I know, I’ve never actually tasted fiddleheads, so I couldn’t discern a difference based on flavor.

 

 

Our side of Supergreen Spinach, which cannot be accused of false marketing.

Our side of Supergreen Spinach, which cannot be accused of false marketing.

We also shared a side order of the Supergreen Spinach (potato chips). You can’t see it in this picture, but the dish totally lives up to its name — we’re talking Incredible Hulk bright green. The potato chip topping was a cute play on the common steakhouse sides, and I definitely enjoyed it, but I think it wasn’t particularly memorable outside of its gamma-irradiated hue. Just solid creamed spinach, and nowhere near as innovative a use of potato chips as the incorporation into the Cod Brandade at Picholine.

 

 

The Steamed Black Bass -- so good it inspire musical theater references.

The Steamed Black Bass — so good it inspires musical theater references.

My father’s Steamed Black Bass (french curry broth, eggplant, toasted almonds) also looked great to me because of the accompanying items (as I believe Julie Andrews sang, curry, eggplant and almonds are a few of my favorite things). I thought the plating of the dish was just gorgeous, with the fillets sitting firmly atop the little hill of vegetables, just slightly bowing to show how soft the flesh was. You don’t think of steaming as a particularly exciting cooking method, but here it prevented the skin from becoming too soggy while the fish meat was easy to flake away with your fork. Unlike the scallops, I thought the sauce defined the taste of the dish. The curry had a strong flavor without real heat to it, and the fish and eggplant pieces soaked it up easily. The toasted almonds mirrored the nuttiness of the curry, and gave a nice crunch to an otherwise pretty soft dish. I think I would have been plenty satisfied if I had ordered this dish, but having now tasted the duck, I’m going to struggle to try other entrees if I return to Narcissa.

 

 

The Lacquered Duck, a dish now in my lifetime hall of fame.

The Lacquered Duck, a dish now in my lifetime hall of fame.

The Lacquered Duck Breast (parsley root, melted leeks, rhubarb) was hands-down my favorite dish of the night, and no joke, I’ve been actually thought about this dish several times in the weeks since my birthday dinner. I adore duck, and this might truly be the best duck I’ve ever eaten. First things first, it was a massive duck breast — this duck had Double D’s, and was clearly very well fed. The “lacquered” crust (which Google tells me just means a sweet glaze that lends itself to caramelization and the appearance of a lacquer-like sheen) was shiny and gave the skin a crunchy, crackly texture, and its sweetness enhanced the gamey flavor of the duck meat underneath. There was a much appreciated hint of tartness from the rhurbarb, which was echoed by the acidity of the melted leeks, which were almost like a puree in texture. I’m not sure how great my breath smelled after finishing the leeks, but I thought they served a similar purpose to the horseradish sauce in our beet appetizer — the bite of the ingredient softened by its preparation. Cutting into the breast revealed a cross section of medium rare and bloody meat topped by a full layer of fat sitting just below the crust. I felt like I do when there’s a bit of fat on steak, and I tell myself I should just cut it off and avoid it. But what can you do when it’s an integral part of the duck breast makeup? So I demolished it. The dish also came with what I thought were parsnips, but now realize was actually parsley root, which looks similar but is less sweet, again a very interesting and intelligent strategy when paired with the delicious but sugary glaze on the breast. This dish was relatively simple in its components, but really unlike any preparation of duck I’ve had before, and I can’t get over how addictive the combination of the duck meat and that glaze was. I would seriously go back to Narcissa for the beets and the duck alone.

 

 

The Apricot Tart Tatin, visually stunning but too sweet for my taste.

The Apricot Tart Tatin, visually stunning but too sweet for my taste.

The desserts certainly didn’t lower the overall level of the meal, but they were just more pedestrian compared to the earlier standout dishes. I think my dad was a big fan of the Apricot Tart Tatin (goat milk ice cream, pepper caramel), but I ultimately found the dessert cloyingly sweet. I enjoy the traditional apple tart tatin, and I do like apricot and apricot-flavored things generally, but here the apricots were almost like ovals of marmalade in their consistency, completely cooked down and syrupy. The best part of the dish was the pepper caramel, which I’d vouch is superior to salted caramel. Rather than enhancing the sweetness through salt, I think the pepper provides an interesting contrast that confused my tongue a bit. Not to harp on one point, but it was the same deal as the horseradish sauce and the melted leeks, where a bit of savory flavor made me stop and think for a second about what I was eating, how all the components came together.

 

 

The Bittersweet Chocolate tart, an exercise in tempered sweetness.

The Bittersweet Chocolate tart, an exercise in tempered sweetness.

No surprise that the Bittersweet Chocolate Tart (curry-roasted bananas, espresso ice cream) was a little more up my alley. The outer shell was crisp, looking almost bruleed on top, and inside was a dark chocolate mixture somewhere between a molten lava cake and mousse. The sweetness was tempered in every element of this dessert, from the selection of a darker chocolate base for the tart, to using the bitterness of the espresso to tamp down the gelato’s sugar, to adding curry as a savory element to counter the caramelized bananas. Despite my prior misgivings over espresso gelato at Osteria Morini, I really liked Narcissa’s version, which I felt has less of a burnt tone to it. Add in the Oreo-like cookie crumbles strewn throughout the dish, and I was more than happy to blow out the candle and let this dessert cap off a remarkable birthday dinner.

Final Thoughts:

 

What impressed me most about Narcissa was the deft handling of a variety of preparations, from the more classical techniques and flavor profiles of European cuisines to more unusual takes on American dishes. My parents and I had three radically different entrees and all of them were stunning in their own regard. They really ran the gamut, from the playful and elegant plating, to the provocative pairings of savory and sweet — themes that were echoed in every course of our meal. With a lovely atmosphere, attentive service, interesting cocktails, and a progressive menu of fresh, seasonal farm-to-table food, I would strongly recommend Narcissa to anyone looking for an American restaurant with a global eye. Perhaps that’s even one definition of Californian cuisine?

 

Speaking of, I owe my brother an apology — on Narcissa’s own website, they claim to “marr[y] the clean flavors and impeccably-sourced ingredients of California cuisine with new techniques of roasting, rotisserie and slow-cooking.” So count that as yet another reason to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. Or rather, to stop talking and start eating.

 

Narcissa

21 Cooper Square (between 5th St. and Bowery)

http://www.narcissarestaurant.com/

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The Grand Cookie Crawl: Bouchon Bakery

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I have to apologize. I’ve been so busy filling my time and stomach with nachos and ice cream, I’ve neglected one of my most important missions — to wade through the endless morass of New York’s chocolate chip cookies for your edification and sanity. After far too long a hiatus, I bring you another entry in the annals of the Grand Cookie Crawl (and as a bonus, this one features pretender to the Oreo throne)!

In the waning days of freedom of my inter-job NYC staycation, I had the fortune of going to a taping of the Daily Show with (who else) Jacob, and so after an exhausting 90 minutes of sitting and laughing loudly, we obviously were in dire need of sustenance … made completely of sugar. So we trekked up Broadway to Columbus Circle, to sample the wares at Bouchon Bakery.

Bouchon Bakery is famed chef Thomas Keller’s ode to French boulangeries. Keller is the chef/owner behind 8 restaurants in the US, including renowned California restaurants The French Laundry and Ad Hoc, and NY hot spot Per Se (located next to Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center). Not impressed enough? Keller has seven Michelin Stars, and according to his bio is the only American-born chef to hold multiple 3-star ratings by the Michelin Guide. I’ve yet to be able to visit one of his restaurants, but with Bouchon Bakery much more within reach, I was determined to try whatever of Keller’s output I could get access to.

 

 

First Impressions

 

The soft white and pastel paint of Bouchon Bakery are a nice break from the mall's metal and glass architecture.

The soft white and pastel paint of Bouchon Bakery are a nice break from the mall’s metal and glass architecture.

Located in the “Shops at Columbus Circle” (aka the Time Warner Center) just down the hall from Per Se, this location of Bouchon Bakery (there’s another in 30 Rock) is, well, kind of just a fancy mall bakery. When you get down to brass tax, the Time Warner Center is just a glitzy, glass and metal version of many of the upscale malls you can find in America. It’s anchored by the pedigree of high-caliber restaurants like Per Se and priciest-meal-in-NYC sushi heaven Masa, but look past them and you’ll find plenty of familiar faces, from Sephora and Williams Sonoma to Swarovski and even the Art of Shaving. So you can’t really fault Bouchon Bakery for fitting into this mold, restrained in both its physical and aesthetic footprints.

 

 

The large selection of baked goods helps, too.

The large selection of baked goods helps, too. That’s right, those macarons come in regular and SUPER-SIZED.

The space is fairly generic at first glance — a counter with refrigerated cases facing out towards a cluster of metal tables and chairs. Small touches evoke a French influence, from the delicate palette of pastel greens and pinks in the Bouchon Bakery logo and menus (not to mention the literally French quotes on the wall), to the chalkboard menus, to the retro light fixtures hanging above the baked goods. Speaking of, there were still a good amount of options at 7:30pm, including a wide variety of macarons (small and giant-sized), cookies, and traditional pastries. Bouchon Bakery also offers a small selection of savory items with sample versions displayed, leaving me vaguely disgusted by a bowl of soup that had to be on the verge of entirely congealed. When you get close to dinner, I’d suggest skipping the Bakery counter in favor of the recently opened cafe, which has a more robust menu, and probably doesn’t leave its soup out for hours.

Undeterred by sludgy soups, Jacob and I went for a selection of the Bouchon Bakery classics — a Chocolate Chip Cookie, a TKO (Thomas Keller Oreo, chosen for obvious reasons), and the eponymous Bouchon (which Jacob makes everyone try).

 

 

The Cookies:

 

The eponymous Bouchon, an elegantly cork-shaped ... fancy fudge cake.

The eponymous Bouchon, an elegantly cork-shaped … fancy fudge cake.

We’ll start with Bouchon Bakery’s namesake, the Bouchon. The word means “cork” in French, which explains its shape, but belies its heft. This is no crumbly, air-filled confection — it’s basically a dense, fudgy chocolate chocolate cake, made out of such a dark cocoa powder it’s nearly black (suggesting dutch-, or even ultra-dutch-processed cocoa). The taste was reminiscent of a box brownie mix, and I mean that in the best way possible — chewy and rich rather than cakey, the outside made of a crisp, thin skin giving way to a moist interior crumb. I certainly enjoyed the Bouchon, but found it almost too much even at such a small size. I’d love to pair it with a scoop of ice cream to vary up the texture a bit.

 

 

The TKO, for the discerning eater who doesn't claim Oreos as her kryptonite (aka, not me).

The TKO, for the discerning eater who doesn’t claim Oreos as her kryptonite (aka, not me).

Now as we know I’m a skeptic when it comes to Oreo-imitators. I’ll use Joe-Joes in baked goods in the place of Oreos, but if I’m chowing down on just the cookies, get those Newman-o’s away from my face. However, a simple Google search of “Bouchon TKO” will yield endless blog posts naming the cookie as “to die for,” “amazing” and a “more sophisticated” take on an Oreo. Occasionally I like to pretend I’m more than a 5-year with her hand in the cookie-jar when it comes to dessert, so I stuffed down my trepidation and made the ultimate sacrifice of eating an artisanal cookie.

Sadly, my friends, Nabisco’s dodgy ingredient list still wins the day. I found myself perplexingly disappointed by how, well, fresh the TKO was. The scalloped wafer cookies were made with the same uber-dark cocoa powder as employed in the Bouchon, which was evocative of Oreos, at least in appearance. The flavor of the cookies, however, was too intensely chocolatey, and there was a strange smoky/salty aftertaste that left Jacob semi-convinced Keller uses bacon in his cookies. The filling was a white chocolate buttercream, far too soft to stand up again the rigid wafers, so that with each bite I found the cream squeezing out the sides and into my hands. Again, the definitive white chocolate flavor was a step away from the unmistakable but somewhat anonymously sweet taste of Oreo creme. As so often happens, this was really a case of subverted expectations. Had I been given a TKO without knowing its name or inspiration, I probably would have happily dug in — to Keller’s credit, it’s a visually appealing cookie, well-made with high quality ingredients. But with the weight of Oreo reverence already tipping the scales, it’s no surprise that personally, the TKO didn’t stand a chance.

 

 

Bouchon Bakery's Chocolate Chip Cookie, simple, staid, classic, and pretty damn tasty.

Bouchon Bakery‘s Chocolate Chip Cookie, simple, staid, classic, and pretty damn tasty.

The reverse situation happened to me while eating the Chocolate Chip Cookie. It had mostly been an afterthought — an obligation for covering the Grand Cookie Crawl, and nowhere near as exciting as the new, shiny, unfamiliar Bouchon and TKO. But of course, it’s the underdog that steals first place. Bouchon’s Chocolate Chip Cookie is roughly the same size and shape as the ones at City Bakery and Jacques Torres — wide, thin, golden brown in hue. Bouchon uses semi-sweet chocolate chunks, and through the mystery of cookie chemistry, these chunks maintain a semi-solid state well after cooling (these cookies were sitting under heat lamps in a case, rather than warmed like JT’s). As you split the cookie, these pockets of gooey chocolate ripped open and oozed outward (although not quite the deluge of Levain‘s entry). I’ve come to the conclusion that the quality of the chocolate chips is not a huge priority for me when it comes to these cookies. Nestle semi-sweet or Guittard 80%, I’ll take either if given a properly executed dough. And Bouchon delivers exactly that — a cookie base with a crispy exterior but chewy inside, and strong notes of caramelized brown sugar and vanilla. To me, a good chocolate chip cookie baker isn’t afraid of his eaters encountering the stray chip-less bite, because the dough can stand on its own (sometimes I search through my mother’s batches for a chip-free runt of the litter, because her recipe is that good).

 

 

Final Verdict:

 

I’m still waiting for the cookie that can unseat Levain, and I’m not sure I’ll find it in NY. Anyone who thinks their favorite can topple those UWS behemoth baked goods, please let me know. I’m very much game for the challenge. However, I would slide Bouchon’s Chocolate Chip Cookie in above City Bakery’s (and Jacques Torres), because it had the killer combo of texture and flavor. Certainly I’d recommend Bouchon’s drop cookies over the TKO, although I’ll allow that others may be able to look beyond the paragon of packaged cookies and appreciate the subtlety of Keller’s ode to the childhood classic. I do want to try his take on a Nutter Butter, since I’m much more open-minded when it comes to peanut butter-based desserts. I’d also like to return for more items in the vein of the Bouchon, to see how Keller does with his takes on more traditional French pastries and cakes (those eclairs were calling out to me).

Considering its surroundings and pedigree, Bouchon Bakery is relatively unpretentious, and worth a visit if only for the variety of its menu, and the lovely view out onto Columbus Circle. Does it have the local, down-home vibe of a place like Levain? Of course not, it’s in a mall, after all. But if you can look beyond the brand, Bouchon Bakery does offer more than one spoonful of sugar to make your post-shopping credit card bill just a little bit easier to swallow.

 

Bouchon Bakery

Ten Columbus Circle, Third Floor

New York, NY 10019

http://bouchonbakery.com/

Snackshots: Summer Desserts

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With the temperature rising, I can finally indulge in one of my favorite New York City activities — walking anywhere and everywhere I can. This has its pluses and minuses, since on the one hand, fresh air and a little cardio are good for the body, but on the other hand, traipsing about the city places me directly in the path of many dessert purveyors with offering designed explicitly to remove the health-benefits of my walks. Yeah, I know — this ain’t exactly a third world problem.

This exact scenario took place last weekend, when Manhattan was thrust full-force into summer and the thermometer climbed to the mid-80s. I spent most of the weekend walking around SoHo, Gramercy, and the UES, and found myself somehow checking two items off my Summer Sweets List, with a visit to Dominique Ansel Bakery and Sprinkles Ice Cream.

 

Peering back into the rear of Dominique Ansel Bakery, where a few tables (and the master chef himself0 were.

Peering back into the rear of Dominique Ansel Bakery, where a few tables (and the master chef himself0 were.

The visit to Dominique Ansel Bakery was an unexpected salve for fruitless apartment hunting, with the shop located just around the corner from the building I was visiting. After my time-delayed experience with the Cronut, I obviously couldn’t ignore the opportunity to try a fresh-from-the-oven Ansel creation (plus, Jacob my food enabler was with me and insisted we go). The store was larger than I anticipated, a narrow but deep space devoted to the retail area in the front (overflowing with full pastry cases), and with a few tables in the back (where Ansel was chatting with employees when we were there).

 

No cronuts, but plenty of other options at Dominique Ansel Bakery.

No cronuts, but plenty of other options at Dominique Ansel Bakery.

Our visit happened to be on the 1 year anniversary of the Cronut, and unsurprisingly they were already sold out by the time we arrived. (Although a table at the front of the store had four pristine Cronuts just sitting there, uneaten — is this the latest sign of the bourgeois 1% — leftover Cronuts?) To be honest, I was relieved that they were sold out, because it freed us up to order something else. We opted to go with the DKA — Dominique’s Kouign Amann, the pastry the bakery was best known for pre-Cronut-mania.

 

The DKA, approximately the same size as Levain cookie (or Jacob's fist).

The DKA, approximately the same size as Levain cookie (or Jacob’s fist).

The Kouign Amann (pronounced “Queen Ah-mann”) is a Northern French pastry from Brittany, little known outside of Quebec and France until Ansel brought his version to NY. The cashier told us that the DKA (“Tender, flaky, croissant-like dough with a caramelized crunchy crust”) is slightly smaller than the normal sweet, which is somewhat mitigated by its intense buttery richness. As Jacob described it, the DKA is like a hybrid croissant/elephant ear (or palmier). It’s made of laminated dough like a croissant (or Cronut, for that matter), but the caramelized sugar topping evokes the crunchy, crispy shatters of the palmier. I’m not really into palmiers, since I find most of them too dry, but here you got the best of both worlds. Biting into the DKA, you get the punch of sweetness from the sugar topping (and who doesn’t like crunchy sugar melting instantaneously on her tongue?), but then fall into the soft center of the pastry, so moist and butter-infused you might think there was some sort of marzipan or custard. But no, that’s just barely salted, straight up butter.

Is that custard inside? Nope, that's just straight-up buttery dough.

Is that custard inside? Nope, that’s just straight-up buttery dough.

Aside from the Cronut anniversary, our stop at Dominique Ansel Bakery was also just a few days after Ansel won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. It’s clear that he is an enormously talented innovator pushing the envelope in the field, but I was impressed by how simple yet beautifully-wrought the DKA was, since it’s a traditional pastry that relies on classic techniques. His classical chops might seem obvious given his background as executive pastry chef at Daniel (not to mention his newly minted award), but it was nice to know that Ansel is far more than just the Cronut-guy.

Would I still try a fresh-off-the-presses Cronut if offered? Absolutely, I mean c’mon, it’s fried croissant dough. But the next time I’m at Dominique Ansel Bakery, I won’t be upset if they’re already sold out. I’m more interested in what else is in the pastry case, and I’d recommend looking past the glittering tuiles and edible decorations for the more basic, rustic, perhaps classic but never old-fashioned options. I’ve got to see what this guy can do with an almond croissant.

 

 

Our Sprinkles Sundae in all its glory -- Banana Cupcake encasing a scoop of Rocky Road.

Our Sprinkles Sundae in all its glory — Banana Cupcake encasing a scoop of Rocky Road.

Round two is at another trendy spot — the new ice cream expansion of Sprinkles Cupcakes. Sprinkles Ice Cream just opened up a few weeks ago, next to the cupcake shop, with the Cupcake ATM in between. Although we all know I’m an ice cream fiend, I was slightly skeptical of Sprinkles Ice Cream, since it’s so easy to dilute the quality of your brand when you start expanding your offerings. Would the new homemade ice cream and cookies really measure up to the Sprinkles standard?

The space seems to be about the same size as the cupcake emporium next door, but with less seating and a nearly all white decor that evokes a 2001-esque space vibe. The confections are stored and assembled behind a semi-circular barrier, although there are glass peep-through windows that let you see the employees in action.

As with all good ice cream shops, the menu options range from reasonable to absurdly decadent (I’m looking at you, Ben & Jerry’s Vermonster). At Sprinkles you can get your normal scoops in a cup or waffle cone (even a red velvet waffle cone), and as with their cupcakes, the flavor options rotate daily. You can go for a regular sundae with the familiar sauces, toppings, etc, or a cookie/brownie sundae, a milkshake, malted or float. But then things begin to get a little more ridiculous — an ice cream sandwich with homemade cookies, or one made with two cupcake tops (including frosting), frozen hot chocolate, an affogato, or the beast that we split — the Sprinkles Sundae.

The eponymous sundae is comprised of a single scoop of ice cream between a cupcake top and bottom. That’s right — crack open a full-size cupcake and stick a scoop of ice cream right in its guts. Jacob and I shared one that featured a Banana Cupcake (banana cake with bittersweet dark chocolate frosting) sandwiching a scoop of Rocky Road (dense dark chocolate ice cream loaded with crunchy toasted almonds, homemade marshmallow cream and housemade chips made from bittersweet tcho chocolate). Boy oh boy, this was a homerun combination. The Banana Cupcake is Jacob’s favorite Sprinkles flavor, and as a huge banana fan, I totally get it. The cake was like fresh-baked banana bread, with a dense, moist crumb, the sweetness slightly tempered by the bittersweet chocolate frosting. The Rocky Road was gelato-like in richness and texture, slightly melty without falling totally into the soft-serve zone. My fears of brand dilution dissolved in the face of the quality ingredients evident in the individual components, strong enough to be separately identified within the mass of Rocky Road (everyone gets 2 tastes, so between Jacob and I we also sampled the excellent Red Velvet, PB Cup, and Coffee Fudge Almond). The best thing about the Sprinkles Sundae is that it totally solves my main hang-up on cupcakes (vs. slices of cake) — the too-often unbalanced ratio of frosting to cake, and the subsequent dryness of that cake. Having a scoop of ice cream in the middle ensures that each bite of cupcake will be moist, soft, and flavorful. I highly recommend the sundae we got (I mean, banana and chocolate, banana and almonds, banana and marshmallows — all strong duos, so no surprise that this combination worked well together), but I fully intend to return for more scoops from the Sprinkles shop. Plus they’ve got a pretzel peanut-butter cookie that this PB fiend can’t resist. There’s also a kids’ mini version of the Sprinkles Sundae, for those less-inclined to shoot their sugar levels skyward.

 

So now I have two good options for the rest of the summer — cool, refreshing ice cream from Sprinkles to escape the sunscorched sidewalk, and warm, buttery french pastries from Dominique Ansel to make those summer thunderstorms a little more tolerable. Neither of them is particularly conducive to my beach bod, but if we’re being straight with each other, this pasty-white gal ain’t doing that much tanning, anyway.

 

Dominique Ansel Bakery

189 Spring St (between Thompson and Sullivan)

www.dominiqueansel.com

 

Sprinkles Cupcakes, Ice Cream & Cookies

782 Lexington Ave (between 60th and 61st)

www.sprinkles.com

Brief Bites: Taqueria Diana

2014-05-04 18.44.49

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/

Edible Inquiries: Quiche v. Frittata

quiche-frittata-faceoff

There can be only one. (All credit for awesome art to Jeff Call)

Hello, and welcome to the first post of Edible Inquiries! I know I’ve been MIA for a little bit, but while work and life kept me away from the blog, I’ve been trying to come up with ways to spice up Experimental Gastronomy’s content a bit. So here I am introducing a brand new series — Edible Inquiries, where I take readers’ questions about food and try my best to research the answer. That’s right, I’ll scour the web and bring together questionable sources, in the name of food trivia and the possibility that some of this information might actually be verifiable. Maybe I’ll even crack a book or two. So please feel free to comment on the post, hit me up on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/experimentalgastronomyblog), or tweet me with your random queries (@MaggBo). I’ll still be doing restaurant and Oreo-related reviews, but hopefully Edible Inquiries can become a permanent addition to the roster at EG.

The opening volley came from my friend Stephen, who asked the age-old question — “what is the difference between a quiche and a frittata?”

Well, if we’re judging a book by it’s cover, the simple answer appears to be that a quiche has a crust, while a frittata does not. But don’t be so easily swayed, my friends — a trip into the history of each dish reveals disparities beyond what lies at the bottom of the plate.

Quiche (most notably, Quiche Lorraine) is generally considered a quintessentially French food, but its roots can be traced back to the German word “kuchen,” meaning “cake” (Wise Geek). As the name would imply, Quiche Lorraine originates from the border region of Alsace-Lorraine, which fellow Regents Global History alums will remember has traded hands between Germany and France many times. This frequent exchange of rulers meant that the now French region’s cuisine has major influence from German cooking (for example, it’s not uncommon to find sauerkraut and beer involved in Alsatian dishes) (France Property and Information).

 The first Quiche Lorraine was supposedly concocted in the German medieval kingdom of Lothringen (to be later renamed Lorraine when the French took back the region) (Food Reference). According to some sources, Charles III, Duke of Lorraine in the 16th century, regularly ate the dish, although the first print evidence of it doesn’t appear until the 19th Century, in Linnois’s l’Histoire de Nancy, where it is referred to as a seminal French dish (The French Training Site).

 The Ur-Quiche Lorraine was composed of ingredients that would be at the ready on a typical medieval French farm — eggs, cream, smoked chopped bacon or ham, and a crust made of bread dough (French training site). Eventually the bread dough was replaced by pate brisee (short crust pastry) or the pie crust we encounter today. Other variations like the addition of cheese, onions, and other types of meat came later. The dish crossed the Atlantic thanks to the great Julia Child, assuming its rank in American brunch in the 1970s, although in France it is generally served as an appetizer for lunch or dinner (Wise Geek).

 

Although in America we place our egg dishes on equal footing, the frittata has a comparatively lowly position in its native Italy than its courtly French cousin. According to DeLallo, the frittata is part of “cucina povera,” or humble, home-cooked food. Its name comes from the verb “to fry” or “friggere,” and is basically a kitchen-sink dish used in Italian households to use up leftovers. There’s an Italian phrase ““hai fatto una frittata,” which loosely translates to “you’ve made a mess,” suggesting that accuracy and delicacy are not top priorities when cooking a frittata.

 Since eggs were readily available for most people in Italy, there’s no one particular recipe for the original frittata. Some historians speculate that the earliest omelet-esque dishes may be from the Fertile Crescent, eventually spreading throughout Europe and North Africa (History of the Frittata), although others argue that frittatas predate the French omelet, arriving around the same time as the Spanish tortilla (not to be confused with the Mexican bread, a Spanish tortilla is pretty much the same as a frittata, except built around a filling of sliced potatoes) (Wise Geek). What separates the omelet from the frittata is largely the timing of the mix-in components — in an omelet, the eggs are cooked through, then the additional ingredients are placed in the middle and the omelet is folder over to cover them. In a frittata, the other ingredients are tossed in while the raw eggs are beaten, so they are dispersed throughout the dish. Traditional Italian frittatas contain “Italian sausage or ham, sweet peppers, fontina cheese, garlic, onions, salt, pepper and nutmeg” (Wise Geek). Another major difference is that, like a quiche, the frittata is eventually baked, then cut into individual slices for serving, either hot or cold (Wikipedia).

 So in many ways, the quiche and the frittata are strikingly similar. Both arose from common ingredients found in agrarian European households, both are intended to be sliced and eaten by multiple diners, both are open to plenty of mix-in interpretation, and both require at least some time in the oven. But although the crust may appear to be the defining difference, the true distinction between the two dishes lies in the filling. Quiches must be made out of a custard, which comes from the incorporation of some sort of dairy with eggs (traditionally heavy cream). A true frittata is prepared just with eggs as the base, making it lighter than its decadent French relative (Reluctant Gourmet).

 

Cut to the Chase, Lady!: Quiches are a richer French dish defined by the use of a custard (dairy + egg) base, with an optional crust, while Frittatas are Italian and have just a plain base of eggs. While quiches were served to royalty, Frittatas were a “leftover” meal home cooks threw together.

So there you have it, Stephen. In America, of course, we’ve basically removed all the class connotations with regards to our egg entrees, except the weird implication that quiche is an “unmanly dish” (thanks to the 80s bestseller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche). Next time you’re looking over a brunch menu, decide if you’re feeling particularly lactose-inclined before ordering. Regardless of what you pick, quiche or frittata, you’re basically eating a piece of history.

Like what you read? Got a question about cooking, dining, food or history? Comment, post or tweet and let me know your thoughts, and I’ll tackle it in another round of Edible Inquiries!

Sources:

Quiche:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiche

http://www.france-property-and-information.com/french_food.htm

http://www.foodreference.com/html/artquiche.html

http://www.regions-of-france.com/regions/lorraine/food-gastronomy/quiche-lorraine/

http://www.thefrenchtrainingsite.com/easy-french-recipes-french-facts-about-la-quiche-lorraine/

http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-quiche.htm

Frittata:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frittata

http://www.delallo.com/articles/la-frittata-egg-dish-endless-possibilities

http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-frittata.htm

http://kitchenproject.com/history/Fritatta/index.htm

http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/omelets-frittatas-or-quiche/

Must-have Misnomers at Market Table

2014-01-20 11.17.50

As I mentioned previously, Top Chef is my reality TV guilty pleasure (well, that and Chopped, Unique Eats, and The Voice, which is the worst because I’m begrudgingly supporting Carson Daly’s career). One of the common criticisms lobbed at “cheftestants” on Top Chef is the misnaming of dishes, i.e., calling something a risotto when you used cauliflower instead of rice and orange juice instead of broth and your Italian grandma would have no idea what the hell you made. Generally, I agree with Padme and Tom — when cooking at that high a level, you know the definitions of dishes, and you should acknowledge that your experimentation can be “inspired by” a certain dish, but don’t call a club a spade and expect to get away with it. There’s an expectation created by the title of a dish on a menu, and unless you’re going to a Wylie Dusfresne’s molecular gastronomy lab/restaurant, a dish’s name should not be a disguise. Call me pedantic, but the judicious application of some quotation marks would make this all easier.

I bring this up because of a recent lunch I had at Market Table in the West Village. Now the meal I had there was great, and I’d like to go back given the seasonality of their menu, but as you’ll see, their naming conventions probably wouldn’t have passed the Colicchio rule of thumb.

First Impressions:

The corner location of Market Table allows for two walls of windows and ample light.

The corner location of Market Table allows for two walls of windows and ample light.

Market Table is owned by the proprietors of the popular restaurant The Little Owl, and is actually located just a few blocks away from it, on the corner of Carmine and Bedford. The corner space is actually the old location of the NY legend Shopsin’s (now in the Essex St. Market), and you can tell it’s a prime spot, with two full walls of enormous plate glass windows. It’s a very homey, open environment, with dark black leather banquettes and small wooden tables in two-and-four top layouts. The decor evokes a neighborhood restaurant with just a bit of flair — exposed brick walls and wooden beams above them, a tree trunk serving as a the host stand, and a wall covered in shelves of wine simply begging to be opened.

The rustic and inviting single dining room.

The rustic and inviting single dining room.

Forget a list, check out the wine WALL.

Forget a list, check out the wine WALL.

My mom had come in for a mother-daughter lunch, and we arrived basically right when Market Table opened at 11:30am, so the restaurant was fairly empty, and our service was fast and efficient. However, by the time we left, the small dining room had filled up substantially, and our waitress was running around a bit more, making it clear that Market Table lives up to its neighborhood staple aesthetic.

The Food:

Market Table’s menu is made up of seasonally-driven fare, based on (big shock) what’s available at the market. Since we were lunching on a national holiday (MLK Jr. Day), they were offering a few brunch specials, like pancakes and a scramble, but we opted to go full-on lunch. My mother got the lunch special, a Shrimp Salad Sandwich with Old Bay Fries, I chose the Roasted Vegetable Falafel, and we got an order of the Quinoa Hushpuppies to share, based on Jacob’s recommendation (he suggested Market Table in the first place, having been several times).

Complimentary baguette, olive oil, and large flake sea salt.

Complimentary baguette, olive oil, and large flake sea salt.

Our meal started with a complimentary hunk of french bread, served with olive oil and sea salt. Market Table gets extra points for including the sea salt, which offers another layer of flavor and highlights the quality of the olive oil. The bread was light and airy, and biting into it, I wondered if it was sourced from the nearby location of Amy’s Breads, just down the way on Bleecker.

2014-01-20 12.01.11

The Shrimp Salad Sandwich, plated for a real French fry lover.

Our dishes landed on the table before we had even made a serious dent in the bread. I’ll start with my mom’s Shrimp Salad Sandwich, which had an unpretentious presentation to match its straightforward name. The sandwich was nicely plated, if a little less composed than my entree. The sandwich itself was dwarfed by the small hill of Old Bay fries next to it. Now, speaking from the context of a lifetime of Jewish deli visits, I think the bread-to-filling ratio on the shrimp salad was weighted a little too much on the bread side, but you could argue that the salad presented here was composed of higher quality ingredients and not bulked up by a lot of mayo. Once again, I was impressed by the bread — the whole wheat roll was soft and tender where it soaked up the juices of the shrimp salad, but never to the point where it became too soggy to stick together. As for the salad itself, sizable, crunchy chunks of shrimp were plain to see among the pieces of celery and tomatoes, and the taste of shellfish was the dominant flavor in each bite, not too muddied up in the seasonings or mayo. A little lettuce, slice of fresh tomato, or onion might have bulked up the sandwich for me and added a bit more textural contrast, but overall I thought it was a solid lunch entree. Given my french fry affinity, of course I was a big fan of the Old Bay Fries accompanying my mother’s sandwich. I actually wanted them to pile on more of the Old Bay — my parents are originally from Baltimore, and I’ve had my fair share of heavily seasoned spuds by the Chesapeake Bay. Market Table’s iteration featured medium-cut fries, crispy and crunch on the edges, with that soft starchy center that I’ve waxed rhapsodic about way too many times on this blog. They were certainly generous with the fries, but I think the dish is a little unevenly proportioned — a small side salad, or just a larger sandwich would be a more justified lunch dish than the fry-dominant version we were served.

The Roasted Vegetable Falafel, er "Falafel" -- delicious, if not quite what I was expecting.

The Roasted Vegetable Falafel, er “Falafel” — delicious, if not quite what I was expecting.

The only negative thing I have to say about my Roasted Vegetable Falafel (cucumber, feta, arugula, tzatziki, chili) is how it was named. As I mentioned at the head of this post, you create an expectation for the diner when you use a known foodstuff as your dish’s title. Falafel immediately brings to mind chickpeas, a crisply fried outer coating, and a flavor ranging from totally bland (I’m looking at you frozen falafel) to vibrantly herby like the falafel I found in the Tel Aviv shuk. However, what arrived at my lunch was a very loose interpretation of “falafel” — a baked mixed vegetable patty, closer in my opinion to a Mediterranean-influenced veggie burger than any fried chickpea ball. Naming aside, the entree was elegantly presented, the large, bright green patty resting on a small pool of tzatziki, divided from a light Greek salad by a wall of sliced, fresh tomatoes. Overall, the bright colors and clean lines made it an immediately visually appealing plate. Breaking into the patty, I would guess there were peas, carrots, and maybe some onions in the mix. It proved firm without being dry, and I really enjoyed the mishmash of heat from the chili powder and the cool parsley and cucumber from the tzatziki. Despite my lingering reluctance to eat feta (generally it’s too briny for me), the variety used by Market Table was mild, adding a little salt and chew in the face of the soft vegetable patty. The salad was similarly well-executed, the arugula and parsley offering a component of bitterness to round out the plate. Ignoring my griping about the name, I would highly recommend ordering the Roasted Vegetable Falafel if you’re looking for a lighter, but satisfying dish (especially if you plan to go to Big Gay Ice Cream afterwards, like my mother and I did).

The Quinoa Hushpuppies -- a northern twist on Southern Living?

The Quinoa Hushpuppies — a northern twist on Southern Living?

I really enjoyed how unusual the Quinoa Hushpuppies (with capers and lemon) were. Once again, Jacob’s recommendation was spot on, although you could quibble about the authenticity of the Hushpuppy appellation, since I’m pretty sure there’s nary a corn molecule to be found in this fritter. Market Table continued its theme of ample portions with this side dish, featuring close to a dozen oblong pups for my mother and I to split. The hushpuppies weren’t wholly made of quinoa, as I had initially imagined, but rather were made with regular all-purpose flour mixed with whole cooked quinoa seeds, flecked with chives and cooked to a golden brown. This gave them a pleasantly brittle exterior that broke through to a chewy middle. The accompanying dipping sauce was possibly my favorite part of the side — some sort of chipotle aioli, with a nice kick to it that warmed my tongue without making me reach for my water glass.

Final Thoughts:

For all my complaining about how things are named, Market Table did deliver on service, fresh ingredients, and inventive cooking. In fact, I think the weakest dish of our lunch was the most conventional, my mother’s sandwich. Although the Quinoa Hushpuppies and my Roasted Vegetable Falafel were far from what I expected when I read them on the menu, it was a pleasant and satisfying surprise to receive. Perhaps the lesson here is that unless you’re playing for bragging rights post-season on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live, a little diner deception isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Does it encourage a customer to think outside the ordering box, or does it invite disappointment and criticism? I leave it for you to decide, but in the meantime I’ll be heading back to Market Table for those hushpuppies, regardless of whether they’d pass muster down South.

Market Table

54 Carmine St. (corner of Bedford)

http://markettablenyc.com/

Snackshots: Polar Vortex (Warm Chocolate Edition)

2014-01-03 15.23.59

Can you guess the theme of this post?

I think I’ve proven my commitment to dessert by now. It’s generally an easy guarantee to make that, much like the US Postal Service, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of light will stay this sweet seeker from the swift ingesting of a toothsome treat. But the weather gods tested my resolve this past week with the crushing blow of the Polar Vortex, plunging temperatures around the country and for once dissuading me from satisfying my cravings with an ice cream cone. With frozen dessert out of the way, I found myself falling back on an oldie-but-goody — the timeless allure of hot chocolate. As I battled with the windchill to avoid frostbite (although at least I was in a part of the country that could safely venture outside), I found a couple of a worthy warm chocolate treats to start the reheating process from the inside-out.

 

L.A. Burdick:

I'm dreaming of a white chocolate Christmas..,

I’m dreaming of a white chocolate Christmas..,

After returning to Hu Kitchen for a relatively healthy lunch, it was clear that Jacob and I needed some emergency chocolate, stat (I mean, what’s the point of a nutritious meal if you don’t immediately slather it in sugar?). Jacob suggested a trip to L.A. Burdick, yet another confectionary near his apartment (because ‘Wichcraft, Beecher’s, Maison Kayser and City Bakery aren’t enough for the neighborhood. Frickin’ Gramercy grumblegrumble).

I’d initially come across about this chocolate shop while researching the best hot chocolate in the city, but hadn’t managed to stop by last winter. The shop was started by an American named Larry Burdick, who became enamored with the chocolate he encountered during a trip to Switzerland and France. He started making chocolate in New York City, but Burdick and his family then moved to Walpole, NH and expanded the business, now operating cafes, restaurants, and even a grocery in Walpole, the Boston-metro area, and once more in NYC.

Every surface is piled high with chocolate-related goods.

Did you say you wanted chocolate? I think we might have some of that here…

The white chocolate version of the famous mice.

The white chocolate version of the famous mice.

Walking in, I couldn’t help but think of L.A. Burdick as a larger, more established version of one of my absolute favorite spots in Philly — the now-defunct Naked Chocolate (rest in peace), a fantastic chocolatier where I had my first taste of authentic European drinking chocolate. The New York location is a combination cafe and retail shop, with a few benches and tables up front, and the remaining space completely covered in chocolate products and paraphernalia. There are two counters inside — to the right, you can buy beverages and pastries, while on the left you can choose from a selection of their chocolate and bon bons, including their famous chocolate mice and chocolate penguins. In between the two are tables piled high with chocolate bars, gift sets, candy, and take-home hot chocolate mixes.

In the door, and straight to the beverage counter. Do not pass go, do not collect bon bons.

In the door, and straight to the beverage counter. Do not pass go, do not collect bon bons.

But with our feet demonstrably caked in slush, Jacob and I made a beeline for the drinks counter, quickly dismissing slices of cake or linzer torte in our quest for drinking chocolate. On Jacob’s previous visit he had tried the Burdick Blend Dark Chocolate (there are also milk and white chocolate blends), and though I was tempted by the other two, by this point I know Jacob’s preference for dark chocolate, and so was perfectly happy to try one of L.A. Burdick’s single-source varieties (ranging from Bolivia to Grenada). Now I know next-to-nothing about terroir, wine, chocolate or otherwise, so I let Jacob chose our source variety. He went with the Madagascar, because of some amazing Madagascan chocolate he’d had from Michel Cluizel’s shop.

I'm fairly certain they use this hot chocolate for the mustaches in the Got Milk? ads.

I’m fairly certain they use this hot chocolate for the mustaches in the Got Milk? ads.

Although I can’t compare our cup to the standard Burdick blends or the other source varieties (guess I’ll just have to make a return trip … or several), the hot chocolate ended up being a showstopper. We shared a large, which was a strong choice, since L.A. Burdick is not joking around when it comes to texture and flavor. This ain’t no powdery Swiss Miss packet. The chocolate is thick, nearly spreadable in consistency, coating your tongue and throat like the best cough drop you’ve ever had. The liquid is opaque, as if you were being served a warmed cup of melted chocolate ice cream. The flavor was complex, the bitterness from the high cacao percentage tempering the inherent sweetness of the milk.  L.A. Burdick’s hot chocolate is perhaps a little less intense than the hot chocolate at City Bakery, which basically serves you a cup of I-need-to-go-lie-down chocolate soup. However, while L.A. Burdick’s version is definitely not a casual , on-the-go-drink, it is a great way to experience and savor a high quality chocolate, and in these chilly months, to warm yourself up. Plus, they’ll throw a little liquor in there if you’re looking for a night-cap (or want to pre-game with a heavy dairy-dessert, whatever floats your boat).

You have to love a place that sells tiny chocolate penguins.

You just have to love a place that sells tiny chocolate penguins.

 

LeChurro:

LeChurro: a slim cafe to match their products.

LeChurro: a slim space to match their products.

A few nights later, it seemed like the air was only getting colder. Somehow I managed to convince Jacob to come up to my neck of the woods for once, to finally check an item off our endless list at the aptly named churro shop, LeChurro. Located on Lexington between 82nd and 83rd, LeChurro is a petite shop sitting right in between two subway stops. Although I rarely walk down that way, there was pretty good traffic during our visit, especially considering how chilly it was outside.

Part of the great LeChurro recipe, according to their wall mural.

Part of the great LeChurro recipe, according to their wall mural.

The small, boxy space is largely taken up by the counter and kitchen behind it, where churros are fried to order. The remaining area is taken up by a bench lining the north wall and a few small tables and chairs across from it. The south wall is lined with shelves filled with merchandise (both connected to churros and the kind of oddball knick-knacks you’d find at Urban Outfitters). The wall above the seating displays a large mural detailing “The Great LeChurro Recipe from Spain,” with cartoon illustrations of the ingredients and procedures of producing the perfect churro. The entire cafe gives off a quirky, tongue-in-cheek vibe which helps to mitigate the pretentious air that comes from running a Spanish churro-centric shop, especially one called LeChurro.

Ah yes, exactly as the Queen said during WWII.

Ah yes, exactly as the Queen said during WWII.

When we arrived the cashier was handing out free samples of their Spanish Thick Drinking Chocolate. Of course, it was nowhere near the caliber of L.A. Burdick’s rendition, but LeChurro is clearly going for a more down-to-earth, possibly multiple-source chocolate drink. Taken on its own, it was a rich, decadent hot chocolate, slightly thicker than what you’d get at a coffeehouse, and on the darker side of milk chocolate.

The menu offers iterations of churros, milkshakes, hot chocolates, and coffee and espresso. Within the churros you can get the normal long, straw of dough with a variety of dipping sauces, or bite-sized mini churros, or filled churros, which are circular churros covered in a sauce and then dipped in chocolate. They even have churro sundaes and savory churros (called “pizzos” and made up of mini churros stuffed with mozzarella and topped with marinara).

Our Cone of Churros, plus the freebies. Chocolate comes to those who wait.

Our Cone of Churros, plus the freebies. Chocolate comes to those who wait.

We ended up selecting the traditional “Cone of Churros” with Hazelnut Chocolate dipping sauce, because at this point my life, I’ve fully sold my soul to Nutella. LeChurro had been somewhat busy when I placed the order and paid, so I wasn’t surprised that there was a little delay in our churros’ arrival (after all, they’re frying to order). But then the store emptied out, and Jacob and I sat quietly waiting as nearly ten minutes passed with nary a Spanish pastry in sight. Finally I got up and asked (aka reminded) the cashier about it. Both he and the cook were very apologetic, having clearly forgotten our order completely. They went to work immediately, and gave us a few freebies to make up for it, so when we were finally served we got a couple more small tastes of the drinking chocolate, a dulce de leche filled churro, and two extra plain churros in our cone.

The churros flying solo.

The churros flying solo.

No surprise, the churros were fresh and warm, straight from the fryer and dusted in cinnamon sugar. At their core they have a flavor reminiscent of funnel cake, and the cinnamon sugar topping added just the barest hint of spice. I appreciated the crunchy outer layer and the airy interior, but considering how freshly made they were, these churros were just not that memorable. I actually much preferred our free filled churro, since there you had the textural contrast of the smooth chocolate coating, the sticky, gooey dulce de leche, and the cakey softness of the inner pastry. I much prefer this type of salty-sweet combo to the sea salt and caramel trend that continues to flood all dessert shops (I’m looking at you, 16 Handles). The extra samples of drinking chocolate were as tasty as the first ones we tried, but the stand-out liquid was actually the hazelnut dipping sauce, proving once again the all-powerful allure of warmed Nutella.

I could definitely see myself returning to LeChurro, albeit for a beverage rather than the churros themselves. The hot chocolate menu features a variety of flavor additions (including hazelnut), and I’d easily give into sampling one of the shakes or a frozen hot chocolate once we exit double-socks-triple-scarves territory.

 

I’d say both L.A. Burdick and LeChurro are spots to keep in your back pocket if you’re as much of a chocoholic as I am. I’m eager to go back to L.A. Burdick and explore some more single source varieties, especially since I’m still trying to expand my taste for dark chocolate. But it’s also nice to have LeChurro in my neighborhood, as a casual, spur of the moment kind of place that offers a dessert option beyond the endless froyo buffets. Although, now that the Polar Vortex has spun on, I’m kinda in the mood for some ice cream…

 

L.A. Burdick

5 East 20th Street

http://www.burdickchocolate.com/chocolateshop-cafe-nyc.aspx

LeChurro

1236 Lexington Avenue

http://lechurro.com/