More is Less: Choice Anxiety at Sembrado

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

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

First Impressions:

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

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

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

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

Food:

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

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

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

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

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The physically imposing El Sundae.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

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

Final Thoughts:

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

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

Sembrado

432 E. 13th Street

http://sembradonyc.com/

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Snackshots Seattle, Part 2: Sightseeing by the Mouthful

I could have gone on even longer talking about my visit to Pike Place Market, but I’d rather leave some elements of mystery for you all (mostly my parents, who are just going to have to go there when they visit Dan). Fortunately, I still have plenty to share, since the rest of my weekend was taken up by alternating bouts of food inhalation and mild exercise.

I got into Seattle on Friday, and spent the afternoon checking out the EMP Museum while Dan finished up at work. If you’re a music, pop culture, or sci fi fan, I highly recommend checking the museum out. Between the “Icons of Sci Fi” and the “Fantasy: Worlds of Myth and Magic” exhibits, I could barely contain the geek glee welling up inside me. Tons of props and costumes from movies and TV, plus guided audio tours featuring George R.R. Martin and Jane Espenson. Well worth the admission fee.

Dinner on Friday night -- Tanglewood Supreme in Magnolia. Fine dining down a random alley?

Dinner on Friday night — Tanglewood Supreme in Magnolia. Fine dining down a random alley?

Eventually Dan and I met up for dinner, and after a little bit of research, we settled on the highly rated Tanglewood Supreme. Despite sounding more like a Taco Bell order than a “fisherman to table” spot, Tanglewood Supreme is actually a “local seafood bistro” found in the classy, pricey neighborhood of Magnolia. It is tucked away down an alley, but once you enter the restaurant, Tanglewood immediately gives off a familiar upscale vibe of modern restaurants in NY or California. The same industrial aesthetic, with an open kitchen and simple wooden tables and chairs. The staff was very nice and accommodating, and perfectly happy to answer all of our questions.

Tanglewood Surpreme is a little more familiar on the inside.

Tanglewood Supreme is a little more familiar on the inside.

Dan was very eager to do the 7-course tasting menu (a ridiculously reasonable $45), but the jet-lag had left me not quite hungry enough to face down multiple courses, not to mention the fact that our waiter informed us it would take two hours to serve. I promised to join Dan for the full Tanglewood experience on a future visit.

The Spring Baby Lettuces salad, with a delectable dollop of Humboldt Fog in the top right corner.

The Spring Baby Lettuces salad, with a delectable dollop of Humboldt Fog in the top right corner.

We both started with Spring Baby Lettuces Salad (radish, Humboldt Fog, champagne grapes, pecan vinaigrette, carrot and apple), mostly because it included Humboldt Fog, one of my favorite goat’s milk cheeses. Although it’s produced in California, I’ve seen it on a number of menus in NY (in fact, Murray’s sells it), and always enjoyed it by itself on cheese plates. As you can see in the photo, Humboldt Fog contains a line of of ash across the middle (like another fave of mine, Morbier), and has a strong, rich but tangy flavor, which worked really well against the bitterness of the lettuces and the acidity of the grapes. The salad was light and refreshing, and I was impressed with how all the components played off each other.

I was bound and determined to get my fill both of seafood and Asian food when in the Pacific Northwest, and managed to hit two birds with one stone at Tanglewood Supreme. As soon as I saw they had scallops, I was set (as I’ve mentioned before, scallops are one of my must-eat foods). Tanglewood Supreme’s Asian-influenced take on the mollusk featured Alaskan Weathervane Scallops with baby bok choy, thai jasmine rice, red curry sauce, and “naan puffs.” Dan went the more traditionally American route with the Rod & Reel King Salmon with rapini, mushrooms, bacon, celeriac purée, and june berry gastrique.

My entree of scallops, with a potent red curry sauce on the left. Both were great solo, but I found the combination unappetizing.

My entree of scallops, with a potent red curry sauce on the left. Both were great solo, but I found the combination unappetizing.

In what I would soon discover to be a common theme during my trip, the seafood in each of our dishes was of superbly fresh. The scallops were my favorite part of the whole dinner — caramelized on top, with a smooth buttery taste and just the right amount of chew. The baby bok choy was covered in a sesame glaze that paired well with the sweet scallops, but I found the red curry sauce, while appealing in flavor, too powerfully spicy for me. It ultimately overpowered the delicate subtlety of the scallops. However, the biggest disappointment were the naan puffs. Naan is one of my all-time favorite breads, to the point of dangerous overeating when I’m at an Indian buffet. But these puffs failed to be distinctly naan-like in any way — they were just like the pop-over version of donut holes, blandly bread-tasting without the smoky, charred yet chewy quality of well-executed naan.

Dan's salmon dish -- very fresh fish with fabulous sides.

Dan’s salmon dish — very fresh fish with fabulous sides.

Dan really enjoyed his salmon, and even as a conscientious objector to the Cult of Salmon, I could tell how great the fish was. Flaky, but with real integrity to the meat. But as much as he liked the fish, he really dug the sides. The celeriac puree flawlessly masqueraded as fluffy mashed potatoes, and the layers of contrasting flavors from the berry gastrique, rapini, and fatty bacon and mushrooms lent a vaguely Thanksgiving-ish feel to the dish. Dan cleaned his plate, and from the sample bites I had, I could easily understand why. Overall, while I wasn’t blown away by my dinner, I think I would be willing to try Tanglewood Supreme again, if only to see what the chef would come up with for the tasting menu.

 

Silly me, I thought that when Dan declined to order dessert at Tanglewood, it was because he was too full from dinner. In actuality, he had latched onto a comment I had made earlier about my list of Seattle must-eats (is anyone actually surprised that I did food research beforehand?). It turns out that Fainting Goat Gelato, one of the top-rated gelaterias in Seattle, is only a few blocks away from his house in Wallingford. So naturally we took a detour on the way home from Magnolia to say hello to a Fainting Goat.

Fainting Goat's whimsical logo on prominent display.

Fainting Goat‘s whimsical logo on prominent display, not once, but twice. 

Serious Eats’ review of Fainting Goat was chock full of praise, and boy were they on the money. I ordered the chocolate hazelnut and the toasted almond, while Dan ordered the tiramisu. I thought that FG’s equivalent of Nutella gelato had a well-defined hazelnut flavor, rich without tipping the scales into decadent. But I really went gaga for the toasted almond — it had a depth of flavor that totally surprised me — the kind of pure almond taste reaching beyond just a good extract and into the land of marzipan. While almonds have always been my nut of choice, between the almond croissant from Breads Bakery and this gelato, I’m discovering just how much I enjoy it as a leading ingredient in a food. Fainting Goat Gelato gets strong recommendation from me. They make all their gelato in-house, and have a rotating selection of flavors that changes daily. Dan said he had really enjoyed the fruit sorbets on previous visits, and thought that Fainting Goat’s coffee gelato was the best he’s ever had (a bold, if a bit sacrilege statement coming from a long-time Capogiro Gelato devotee).

Our orders of gelato at Fainting Goat, which lived up to their slogan: "so fainting good!"

Our orders of gelato at Fainting Goat, which lived up to their slogan: “so fainting good!”

 

After devouring the bounty of Pike Place Market on Saturday morning, Dan and I took a break from eating and strolled around a couple of Seattle parks. In the late afternoon, once our appetites had returned, we made our way to a couple more spots on Wallingford’s main drag of N. 45th St (apologies if there is another main drag in Wallingford — I’m working off of limited knowledge focused mostly on edible trivia). Looking for a pre-dinner drink, Dan suggested we check out Bottleworks Seattle, a specialty beer store and bar.

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Inside Bottleworks: a small sample of their enormous selection of fermented drinks.

Inside Bottleworks: a small sample of their enormous selection of fermented drinks.

Bottleworks inhabits a long and narrow space, each wall lined with fridge after fridge of alcoholic options, from US microbrews to beers from across the globe (I spotted a row of Ommegang bottles not too far down from some shelves full of honeywine and mead). Several beers are also available in kegs, a handful are featured on tap in the back of the store (for pints and growlers), and if you choose to stay and crack open your purchase, there are tables and chairs filling the middle of the space.

Washington St. Cider from Snowdrift -- my attempt to drink locally as well.

Washington State Hard Cider from Snowdrift — my attempt to drink locally as well.

Dan was thinking of trying out a new oatmeal stout, but I managed to convince him to try a local cider with me, since that was the reason he had suggested Bottleworks in the first place. The cider options were numerous and somewhat overwhelming, but luckily a staff member guided us towards the Washington State Hard Cider by Snowdrift Cider Co. It was smooth and easy to drink, dry yet delicate, with a slight fruity flavor that avoided the tooth-aching sweetness of some more common hard ciders. I got into hard ciders in college thanks to the cloyingly sugar-laden Woodchuck Granny Smith (employing the “this doesn’t taste like alcohol, that’s awesome!” strategy), but now I can barely stand the darker Woodchuck Amber or Angry Orchard stuff. Unfortunately, the day’s diet of donuts and crumpets had left me slightly underserved in the tolerance department, and I quickly found myself solidly tipsy (in all fairness, it was 7.8% ABV). After making fun of me for a few minutes, Dan finally relented and led the way to dinner, at his new favorite Thai restaurant, May.

May is located just down the block from Bottleworks, in a two story building. Downstairs is the bar, which also has a few tables, but the second floor of the building houses the actual restaurant. The dining room is small, made up of maybe a dozen tables, and decorate in a cozy domestic style that Dan says is allegedly due to moving a home from Thailand and rebuilding it piece for piece in Seattle. (My one cider-induced regret is that I neglected to take pictures of May‘s decor). The restaurant had a very neighborly, welcoming feel to it, and the service was friendly and lightning quick.

Our appetizers at May -- tender spare ribs on the bone, and filled-to-bursting fresh vegetable rolls.

Our appetizers at May — tender spare ribs on the bone, and filled-to-bursting fresh vegetable rolls.

We started with the fresh vegetable rolls and the pork spare ribs, which were delicious, but fade in my memory in the shadow of the pad thai. May has won “best pad thai in Seattle” multiple times, and so although I was tempted by an eggplant dish (you know how I feel about that nightshade), both Dan and the waitress recommended/insisted I opt for the pad thai. Just to round out my decidedly unkosher dinner, I chose shrimp pad thai, while Dan went with his usual, pad thai with chicken.

My unreal shrimp pad thai at May.

My unreal shrimp pad thai at May, with the pile of chile powder in the upper right corner.

The pad thai is brought out unassembled on a green banana leaf and is mixed at table-side to your preferred spice level. A small pile of chile powder sits in the corner of the plate to be blended in as per your direction. The only downside of this method is that klutzy eaters like me might end up accidentally scraping up some of the leftover powder, and then having a tremendously flattering coughing fit as a result. However, spice mishaps aside, this pad thai was hands down the best I’ve ever had.  The noodles were chewy but pliant, the vegetables were crunchy and perfectly seasoned (not the least bit oily from the sauce), and the shrimp had a great snap to them. Honestly, the protein involved was pretty secondary to the rest of the dish, so I don’t even think it matters whether you get chicken, shrimp, or opt out of meat altogether. If you think you’re a Thai fan, May is well-worth your time.

Macrina Bakery in Queen Anne -- perfect for a laid back brunch.

Macrina Bakery in Queen Anne — perfect for a laid back brunch.

I’m pretty sure the only reason we didn’t get dessert on Saturday night was because of our sugar-laden morning at Pike Place. But not to worry, Sunday was a brand new day to work on forming new cavities. Dan and I had grand plans of trying the famous croissants at Cafe Besalu, but the cafe was closed, the owners on vacation for two weeks. Rolling with the punches, we Yelped our way to the highly rated Macrina Bakery for brunch, and it ended up being a stupendous substitute. The location we went to was in Queen Anne, but there are also cafes in Belltown and SODO (whatever that stands for), according to Macrina’s website.

Enough pastry for you?

Enough pastry for you?

Despite having no connection to 90s faux-Latin dance crazes, Macrina is still a spot worth visiting for a low-key brunch or lunch. The location we went to was made up of the counter and kitchen area, next to a small dining room filled with half-a-dozen tables (with some outdoor seating available as well). The cafe is decorated in pleasant, muted tones of red, yellow, and gray, leading your eye towards the seemingly endless array of breads and pastries. I was sorely tempted by the scones and muffins (especially the Morning Glory Muffin, which our server repeatedly recommended), but the allure of the brunch display plates was even more powerful. The brunch menu features a small selection of dishes, ranging from the basic two-eggs with toast and potatoes to the “is-this-even-breakfast” absurdity of Macrina’s Brioche French Toast, slathered with cherry compote and amaretto creme fraiche (excuse me, what?).

The Market Special of the week at Macrina, with two eggs over easy.

The Market Special of the week at Macrina, with two eggs over easy.

Miraculously, I managed to show some tiny measure of restraint, opting for the Market Special, which that week featured two eggs how you like, with mushroom fritters, spinach and corn, herb-roasted potatoes, and a brioche roll — somehow encompassing nearly all of my favorite foods (just add in some chocolate and avocado somehow, and I would have hugged the chef). Although it seems like a lot of food, the portions were reasonable and filling. I was very impressed with the lightness of the mushroom fritters, that complemented the runny eggs and the freshness of the spinach and corn. What stopped me from finishing my plate was the additional Morning Bun Dan and I split. Continuing on his quest to eat all of the salmon in Seattle, Dan chose the Salmon Egg Bialy (“Onion Bialy topped with softly scrambled eggs, Gerard & Dominique cold-smoked salmon and chive crème fraîche. Served with herb-roasted potatoes.”).

We also had a Morning Bun on top of our separate brunch dishes, because one roll is just simply inadequate.

We also had a Morning Bun on top of our separate brunch dishes, because one roll is just simply inadequate.

 

The Morning Bun (a pre-Cronut era cousin of the croissant, baked in a muffin tin) was sweet from the swirl of vanilla sugar coating its insides, although I thought its flavors would have been further elevated if it had been served warm. Overall, I was glad I was sharing it, because flying solo that would have been a bit of a gut bomb, delicious as it was. Dan was very satisfied with his bialy and lox, and swore that he would bring his girlfriend Leah to Macrina for brunch on her next visit.

Inside D'Ambrosio Gelato in Ballard.

Inside D’Ambrosio Gelato in Ballard.

 

My last stop on my inaugural Seattle food tour was in Ballard, at D’Ambrosio Gelato. Some might find it unsettling that I would eat gelato twice in three days, but some people are just party poopers. D’Ambrosio was another spot mentioned in my Serious Eats-fueled field guide, so when Dan and I were strolling through the neighborhood during the Ballard Seafood Festival, we took a break from the heat with some authentic gelato, take two. Unintentionally emulating the flavors from my Fainting Goat experience, I ended up ordering the Stracciatella and the Bacio di Mama (aka “woman’s kiss”), a mix of hazelnuts and almonds in vanilla gelato, inspired by a type of Italian cookie. Fainting Goat’s toasted almond still triumphed in the gelateria Seattle battle, but the texture of D’Ambrosio‘s gelato is probably the closest I’ve found in America to what I ate in Rome. Thick and heavily churned, but somehow still airy enough to practically fly onto your spoon as you dipped into the cup. Like everything else I ate in Seattle, the high quality and freshness of the ingredients were evident from the first bite that touched my tongue.

My last bite in Seattle -- Stracciatella and Bacio di Dama from D'Ambrosio.

My last bite in Seattle — Stracciatella and Bacio di Dama from D’Ambrosio.

I would say, if you can, try to visit both Fainting Goat and D’Ambrosio Gelato. FG’s got a more wacky, free-spirited vibe to it, and features more unexpected flavors like Guinness or Banana Cream Pie, that aim to expand your gelato palate. But D’Ambrosio’s more traditional menu is extremely well-executed, and better than many of the places I’ve tried in NY. It takes a deft hand to make the relatively commonplace Stracciatella a flavor you’ll want to order again and again.

 

All in all, no one can argue that I failed to eat well in Seattle. However, for all of the donuts and chocolate and cinnamon buns, the element of the city’s food scene that left the strongest impression were those largely untouched in the kitchen — the fruits and vegetables. Much like my time in Israel, I found myself marveling at the sheer juiciness of a peach, or the crunch of the bean sprouts in my pad thai. New York may have Seattle beat on Michelin-starred haute cuisine, but once you step into the ring of quality of everyday, street-level produce, Seattle’s got a mean right hook. For an Oreo-obsessee, it’s a little surreal that I’m actually counting down the days until I can eat some more fresh Rainier cherries. Not that I’d turn down some mini donuts on the side. Hope to see you again soon, Seattle (oh, and Dan, too, I guess).

 

Tanglewood Supreme

3216 W Wheeler St,

Seattle, WA 98199

http://tanglewoodsupreme.com/

 

Fainting Goat Gelato

1903 North 45th Street

Seattle, WA 98103

http://faintinggoatseattle.blogspot.com/

 

Bottleworks

1710 N 45th St #3

Seattle, WA 98103

bottleworksbeerstore.blogspot.com

 

May

1612 N. 45th St

Seattle, WA 98103

http://maythaiseattle.com/

 

Macrina Bakery

615 West McGraw Street

Seattle, WA 98119

http://www.macrinabakery.com/

 

D’Ambrosio Gelato

5339 Ballard Ave NW

Seattle, WA 98107

http://www.dambrosiogelato.com/

The Blue Duck Tavern: Exceptional Food, Exceptional Service

This is the part where I give you all the excuses for the lateness of this post, such as the fact I was down in DC for the weekend (hence the Chesapeakean restaurant review), or that the movie I worked on, EPIC, is coming out this week (go see it — it’s a fun family movie, it’s beautiful, and it’s even got Beyonce in it. Seriously, what are you waiting for?). But enough of that. You’re here to read about food, so let’s cut the chit chat.

I spent this past weekend in DC with my immediate family — a lovely, if brief family reunion that largely revolved around the meals we were eating. I’m starting to discover the unexpected downside of amateur food blogging — a lot of my friends and family expect that I’ll write about whatever restaurant we happen to be in. Obviously this isn’t a real burden (children starving in Africa, etc), and a fair amount of the time they’re right, since I don’t eat out all that often (pretty much just the once a week that feeds this blog). So when my oldest brother Charles, the DC resident, suggested the Blue Duck Tavern for dinner on Friday night, the rest of my family turned to me and said “so you’re writing about this for your blog, right?” With all eyes on me, I had no choice but to oblige. Hopefully this review lives up to their expectations.

 

First Impressions:

The view looking back from our table to the front entrance.

The view looking back from our table to the front entrance.

 

The Blue Duck Tavern is located in the Park Hyatt in the Foggy Bottom Neighborhood of DC. The hotel’s architecture seemed focused on clean lines, big windows, high ceilings, and metal, but the interior of the restaurant featured more rustic touches like plain wooden tables and chairs, and a lovely bricklaid outdoor patio with a fountain. The restaurant serves American cuisine with a focus on farm-to-table ingredients cooked in classic styles, like braising and roasting.

The open staff pantry and kitchen, with the all the dirty work on display.

The open staff pantry and kitchen, with the all the dirty work on display.

 

One of the most interesting elements was the open staff pantry and kitchen which connects the bar area of the restaurant to the dining room. During our meal I saw various staff plucking herbs and vegetables out of the pantry, and got to briefly watch my dessert being assembled. My 3 year old niece loved being able to watch the chefs at work (especially when they were scooping ice cream).

Dessert in progress -- can I get one of these setups for my apartment?

Dessert in progress — can I get one of these setups for my apartment?

 

BDT gets extremely high marks for service. I wasn’t planning on eating at any place fancier than a Chipotle, so I found myself woefully underdressed for our dinner, rocking jeans and a Penn Class of 2010 sweatshirt (go Quakers!). However, our wonderful server Mike and the rest of the staff treated us just as politely and attentively as any of the more finely coiffed diners. It might have helped that we were dining pretty early, around 5:30pm, but I’d like to think that BDT just prizes itself on exceptional customer service. Certainly they bent over backwards to accomodate us, from giving my niece “plain twisty noodles on a plate” (her direct quote) to switching my drink order from a glass of Riesling to Viognier (a great, underappreciated white wine variety if you ask me). Throughout the entire meal Mike was happy to explain any piece of the menu and offer his recommendations on serving size and side dishes. It was a level of service I’ve only encountered at the highest level of fine dining, but here was paired with a more low key approach that fosters a sense of high caliber family dining.

 

The Food:

Just like the service, the food at Blue Duck Tavern is straightforward and well-executed. This is not the realm of modernist gastronomy — you won’t find any foams or maltodextrin, just farm fresh ingredients cooked in classic fashion. Since there were 8 of us ordering, I was almost overwhelmed by the variety and multitude of dishes we tried, so my commentary might be somewhat limited. There’s also the problem unique to my family that we all eat unhealthily quickly, so snagging a taste of everyone’s dish requires catlike reflexes.

One of many complimentary bread baskets, already largely demolished by my family.

One of many complimentary bread baskets, already largely demolished by my family.

 

Our meal started with a we’ll-show-Olive-Garden endless bread basket of white and multigrain sourdough, served with fresh butter. I preferred the multigrain, which was chock full of various seeds and had a great toasted, rye flavor.

Mike informed us that the best strategy at BDT is to plan on a family style meal, since many of the entree portions fall on the generous side. With that in mind, we each ordered appetizers — ending up with groupings of the Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, the Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad, and the House Smoked Trout.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, a delicate presentation that belies the richness of the dish.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, a rustic presentation that belies the delicate balance of the dish.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart came with goat cheese and bitter greens, and was pretty much a decadent quiche with a buttery, flaky crust. The chard and the greens helped to temper the richness of the goat cheese, and I appreciated the contrasting bite of the onion. Although I had assumed this would be my favorite appetizer (plying me with cheese and pastry is like offering Buster Bluth several flavors of juicebox), I actually ended up liking my salad more.

2013-05-17 18.17.01

The Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad — crunchy, creamy, and making me rethink my position on brussels sprouts.

The Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad was served with walnuts, parmesan cheese, and a creamy dressing. It was salty, with a strong parmesan taste, but nicely balanced with by the inclusion of  apple pieces for sweetness. Garlic croutons, radicchio, walnuts and the parsley added texture to the dish, so it was alternately crunchy and soft, depending on your bite. I don’t usually like brussel sprouts, but the combination of flavors and textures, plus the delicious dressing made me scarf it down.

The Smoked Trout -- not my slice of fish, but my father and brother enjoyed it.

The Smoked Trout — not my slice of fish, but my father and brother enjoyed it.

It will come as no surprise that my least favorite appetizer was the Smoked Trout, served with potato salad, ramps, and spiced pecan. As I’ve mentioned previously, I am an embarrassment to my family and my heritage with my distaste for smoked fish (luckily I have the Jewish guilt gene in spades). However, I found BDT’s smoked trout more mild — the dominant taste coming off less briny and smoky and more fresh fish.  The dish came with a creamy sauce and new potatoes that were soft without being mushy.

 

We supplemented our main course orders with several sides to share. The Blue Duck Tavern is one of Charles’s favorite restaurants in DC, so he had plenty of suggestions for slam-dunk side dishes. Based on his recommendation, we ordered the Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, the Hand Cut Triple Fries, and the Creamy Stone Ground Grits with Red-Eye Gravy. For entrees we got the Braised Beef Rib, the Wood-Fired Wagyu Culotte of Beef, the Buttermilk Poached Chicken, the Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops, and the Wood Oven-Roasted Baby Vegetables. Oh, and our plain twisty noodles of course.

The Braised Beef Rib -- a family favorite, except for this black sheep.

The Braised Beef Rib — a family favorite, except for this black sheep.

Consensus was that the Braised Beef Rib was the prize dish, although iconoclastic rebel that I am (not), I actually like the Wagyu more. The Rib came with housemade steak sauce, and was cooked to the point of falling-apart tenderness. It had a strong beef flavor, slightly smoky. I’m going to play the Momma’s girl card and say that in terms of brisket, I either like my mother’s sliced brisket (a Seder requirement, natch), or the more intense smoky and flaky BBQ brisket (in NY, Dinosaur BBQ serves my favorite, although there are some new competitors I need to try).

The Wagyu Culotte -- better than a lot of cuts of meat I've had at steakhouses.

The Wagyu Culotte — better than a lot of cuts of meat I’ve had at steakhouses.

The Wagyu Culotte was served with a charred onion vinaigrette, and it was a wonderfully flavorful piece of meat, cooked perfectly to medium rare and slice thinly. My own personal entree was the scallops, but if I had the chance to go back to BDT, I would probably opt for the Culotte as my next choice.

Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops -- fresh, salty, and with a hint of bacon.

Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops — fresh, salty, and with a hint of bacon.

As a sucker for scallops (they’re hands down my favorite seafood), I was absolutely delighted by my order. The menu lists them as coming with spring vegetables, sea beans, and bacon, but I’m fairly certain the bacon was only used to cook the scallops in. Overall it was a very light, but satisfying dish — the scallops were cooked to the perfect texture, soft but not rubbery, and the bacon added a rich, salty flavor. The most prominent of the vegetables were peas, which I’m pretty ambivalent about in general, but here were elevated again by the dish’s sauce, a thin, bright liquid that made the veggies shine.

Speaking of veggies, the Wood Oven-roasted Baby Vegetables was a solid, if not particularly exciting dish. It was served with fresh herbs, Meyer lemon and crispy garlic, and I was excited to see a fiddlehead fern or two throughout the farro. I found the farro a bit too crunchy — I like my farro to have a little bit of firmness to it, but I almost thought the grain was actually wheatberries instead (I am an obscure grains nerd — let’s talk about millet!).

The Buttermilk Poached Chicken -- beautifully arrayed but underseasoned.

The Buttermilk Poached Chicken — beautifully arrayed but underseasoned.

The Poached Chicken was the most disappointing dish. Poached in buttermilk and served with preserved lemon and pistachio spring fricasse (according to the menu — I’m actually not really sure what those three nouns mean collectively), it seemed to have the potential to have a wonderful contrast of flavors and textures. Unfortunately, while poached to the right soft consistency, the meat was relatively bland in flavor. The chicken was also the largest portion, which seemed like an attempt to make up for the lack of spark in the dish.

The Wild Mushrooms -- no Beecher's Mushroom Tart, but still very much worth ordering.

The Wild Mushrooms — no Beecher’s Mushroom Tart, but still very much worth ordering.

Luckily the side dishes more than made up for the lesser entrees. The wild mushrooms were sauteed with garlic and parsley and served with olive oil croutons, leaving them delicate and well-balanced in flavor, with the earthy mushroom taste balanced by the sharper garlic. It’s hard to top the mushroom tart I had at Beecher’s, but Blue Duck Tavern’s rendition had significantly more depth of flavor than the average side of mushrooms at a steakhouse.

The BDT Triple Cut Fries -- at first glance, they almost look like churros.

The BDT Triple Cut Fries — at first glance, they almost look like churros.

The BDT fries were possibly the thickest cut steak fries I’ve ever since, cooked three ways before arriving at our table. The triple baked technique yielded a crisp outside with a thick, starchy center. Although I’m a big fan of thick cut fries, I actually found the crisp to starch ratio too heavily weighted towards the less-cooked innards. BDT serves their fries with a garlic aioli (this seems to be a common pairing these days), but I’m more of a plain jane ketchup gal when it comes to my taters.

The Creamy Stone Ground Grits -- the stealth side that stole my heart.

The Creamy Stone Ground Grits — the stealth side that stole my heart.

The dark horse side dish Creamy Stone Ground Grits ended up being one of my favorite components of the whole meal. Incorporating smoked gouda, full kernels of corn, and the espresso-infused Red-Eye gravy, the grits had a smoky, earthy flavor punctuated by the richness of the cheese and sweet corn. The use of espresso in the gravy helped to deepen the flavors, much like the addition of hot coffee can elevate a chocolate cake. I tend to lean to oatmeal when I think of porridges, but maybe it’s just because I hadn’t had grits like these before.

 

Let’s be frank with each other — everyone was expecting this meal to end in dessert. With my family, turning down a proffered dessert menu is a suspicion-inducing faux paus (What do you mean you don’t want some dessert? Are you all right? Let me feel your forehead.). Fortunately, the Blue Duck Tavern, in true reverence of American eating, happily indulges our national (and familial) sweet tooth. It was actually hard to pick between the assortment of cakes, tarts, pies, cookies, and homemade ice cream and sorbets, but we ultimately decided on Milk Chocolate Banana S’mores, Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream, and Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat’s Milk Caramel. It was especially hard to turn down the La Colombe Espresso Creme Brulee, which magically manages to combine both my favorite coffee (La Colombe is a Philly-based company) and my favorite non-chocolate dessert. Guess I’ll just have to add that to my return trip order.

You can see how dark the chocolate is in the Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream.

You can see how dark the chocolate is in the Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream.

The Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat's Milk Caramel -- a milder ice cream that highlights the sweetness of the caramel.

The Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat’s Milk Caramel — a milder ice cream that highlights the sweetness of the caramel.

 

The ice creams were delicious — the Chocolate Brownie had a strong dark chocolate flavor, and the Honey Vanilla was mildly sweet and mostly tasted of fresh vanilla bean. I’m not sure what the goat’s milk base added to the caramel, but it was still a lovely accompaniment to the vanilla ice cream.

The Milk Chocolate Banana S'Mores -- an over the top version of a classic, aka my favorite type of dessert.

The Milk Chocolate Banana S’Mores — an over the top version of a classic, aka my favorite type of dessert.

 

My personal order was the S’Mores, which I shared with my mother. The dish arrived as a giant homemade marshmallow atop a milk chocolate and banana mousse mold, with graham cracker crumbs and bruleed banana pieces on the bottom, topped with a cruncy banana chip. The mousse actually had a very mild milk chocolate flavor, with the freshness of the banana really shining in the dish. The marshmallow was just melted enough to keep it’s shape as my fork sliced through it, but remained sticky and gooey as it mingled with the different pieces of the dish. Upscale, but homey, BDT hit a homerun with this dish in both flavor and execution, serving as a perfect indication of the overall vibe of the restaurant.

 

Final Thoughts:

My meal at the Blue Duck Tavern was a fantastic experience, from start to finish. The quality of service, the unpretentious yet meticulous decor and cooking, and the diversity and freshness of the foods offered left everyone at my table satisfied, from grandchild to grandparent. It’s pretty impressive that a restaurant my brother Charles, who avoids most vegetables, considers a favorite, also offers a multitude of vegetarian options that are just as thoughtful and impressive as their carnivorous fare. BDT was strong from the complimentary bread basket to the final bite of dessert, but perhaps more impressive was the deep knowledge of the staff and their willingness to accommodate any and all requests. Here we were, a party of 7 and a toddler, a few of us verging on shlubby in appearance, and to Mike and the rest of the staff we could have been the Rockefellers. Each person we interacted with was professional, courteous, and never aloof. If you visit the Blue Duck Tavern, count on a lovely dining experience, well-curated for the palate and with a personal touch. I know I’ll stopping by next time I get the chance. I’ll just make sure I leave my sweatshirt at home.

The Blue Duck Tavern

24 & M STREETS, NORTHWEST, WASHINGTON, D.C.

http://www.blueducktavern.com/gallery/blueduck/home.html