Hooked by Seattle’s Seafood: Dinner at Ray’s Boathouse

2013-12-20 20.36.20

Just before Christmas I headed back to Seattle, ostensibly to visit my brother and his fiancee, but really to get a sobering look at just how big my hair can get in the unending mist of the Pacific Northwest winter. If it wasn’t abundantly clear from my previous posts about Seattle, the city has a great food scene, especially when it comes to seafood, so I couldn’t help but jump at the chance to dig into at least a fish or two. My parents were along for the trip to see Dan and Leah’s new home city, so on my first night out we made our way over to Ballard to Ray’s Boathouse.

 

First Impressions:

Wait, tell me again -- who's boathouse are we going to?

Wait, tell me again — who’s boathouse are we going to?

Ray’s Boathouse is located in Ballard, an area historically known as the center of Seattle’s Scandinavian fishing and sailing community. The neighborhood even has a Nordic Heritage Museum, and on my previous trip Dan and I visited the annual Ballard Seafood Fest (remember, right before we ate D’Ambrosio gelato … which sounds gross in abstract, but was perfectly logical and delicious at the time). It should therefore come as no shock that Ray’s is located right on Puget Sound. It was dark by the time we arrived for dinner, but the back of the restaurant is lined with huge windows, allowing us to see the lights of a trawler passing by during our meal, its lights shimmering off the water and giving the barest glimpse of how beautiful the view must be during the warmer months.

Reverence for the past with photos of historic fishing crews ... and a giant ceramic fish.

Reverence for the past with photos of historic fishing crews … and a giant ceramic fish.

It’s impossible to miss Ray’s, due to the giant neon sign spelling out R-A-Y-S, a touch I initially thought was retro until I found out the boathouse dates back to 1952, and Ray himself built the sign. The interior still features authentic elements of a boathouse, with wood paneling all around, pictures of fishermen lining the walls, and even a giant ceramic fish at the top of the stairs. The first floor holds the main restaurant and bar, while a more casual cafe takes up the second floor.

The view from our booth, looking over towards the massive center bar.

The view from our booth, looking over towards the massive center bar.

Ray’s main dining room is grounded with an enormous bar in the center, blocked off from the rest of the restaurant by waist-high dividers. The design is casual, but refined, made up of leather half-moon booths along the inside wall and dark wood tables with deep brown leather chairs around them. You can’t help but feel a certain sense of timelessness — a kind of comfortable confidence that comes from a restaurant that’s been around the block a few decades.

 

The Food:

Ray’s Boathouse is a traditional seafood restaurant, offering the typical proteins based on seasonal, local fare, but updated to reflect current trends. But before we dive into the menu, that big ol’ bar in the middle of the restaurant lived up to expectation, at least from the drinks we ordered. My mother and I were boring and ordered glasses of Riesling, but the rest of our table went a little more off the beaten path, with Leah ordering a sparkling rose, Dan getting a cocktail called the Lido Deck (Aviation gin, cardamom, grapefruit, lime), and my dad going for the Anchors Away (Goslings Black Seal, Crème De Cassis, lime, ginger beer). You gotta love the nautical-themed cocktail list, and all the drinks were well-mixed and refreshing. I’m usually not a big gin person, but the combination of the acidity of the grapefruit and lime and the cardamom in the Lido Deck was really intriguing, at least for the small sip I had.

Now when my family goes out to dinner, especially if it’s a vacation dinner, things can get a little out of hand. After conferring with our very friendly and helpful server Jennifer, we decided to get two orders of the Warm Rosemary Gougeres for the table to start. My mother and I split the Chiogga Beet & Goat Cheese Salad, my father got a bowl of Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder, Dan started with the Local Albacore Poke, and Leah had Ray’s Seasonal Salad. Then, for our entrees, my dad and I got the Smoked Sablefish, Dan got the Sablefish in Sake Kasu, my mom chose the Wild Cedar Plank Salmon, and Leah got a vegetarian version of the Housemade Tajarin Pasta. Oh, and you know there’s dessert — we finished the meal with an order of the Peanut Butter Bomb, belatedly in honor of Dan’s birthday.

Our complimentary bread basket, playing coy with a few errant crackers sticking up.

Our complimentary bread basket, playing coy with a few errant crackers sticking up.

The complimentary bread was presented as a wrapped package, with a row of flatbread crisps arrayed upright in stegosaurus-style down the middle. Beneath the napkins were a few soft white rolls, along with fresh butter. The bread was standard, but not particularly memorable, especially when compared to the more robustly flavored gougeres to come.

 

The Warm Rosemary Gougeres, bite size pastries with unreal gruyere dipping sauce.

The Warm Rosemary Gougeres, bite size doughy pillows with unreal gruyere dipping sauce — cheez whiz for an individual with refined taste.

When the Warm Rosemary Gougeres (Housemade pastry puffs with melted gruyere dipping sauce) arrived, it immediately became apparent that we didn’t need two orders — there were probably ten little puffs in each bowl. The gougeres themselves reminded me of miniature popovers, airy and flaky on the inside, with a crusty exterior. They were buttery and sweet, with just a hint of rosemary. But the real standout portion of the dish was the gruyere sauce, a rich whallop of pure nutty gruyere flavor. My father described it as “elevated cheez whiz,” and it was almost a midway step to fondue, a smooth, creamy spread that managed to remain room temperature without congealing. I asked Jennifer how it was made, and she explained that it’s really just gruyere melted down (with a little bit of butter), then kept stabilized in pressurized canisters (like the ones they use to dispense whipped cream). Simple as that might seem, the cheese sauce was one of the best elements of the dinner for me.

 

The Chiogga Beet Salad -- delicately composed, but held back by clumpy goat cheese.

The Chiogga Beet Salad — delicately composed, if held back by clumpy goat cheese.

The Chiogga Beet and Goat Cheese Salad (mixed baby greens, white balsamic, Laura Chanel goat cheese, Oregon hazelnuts) turned out to be pretty similar to the salad I had at Fulton a month back. Not that I mind — I obviously love the combination of ingredients, or I wouldn’t order it over and over. I did like the plating more at Ray’s — the thin slices of beet on one side, and the dressed greens on the other, topped with a few clumps of goat cheese and sprinkling of hazelnuts. I love fresh goat cheese, especially in salads, but the sticky properties of the cheese make equal distribution across a dish difficult, and I found myself wishing for a bit more cheese. Still, this cheese had good flavor, and it was probably good to have only a small amount, considering the whole of my dinner. The nuts added a little crunch, especially useful paired with the beets, which were moist and mild, serving as a vehicle for the white balsamic.

 

The Local Albacore Poke -- a new dish for me that might have changed my mind about raw tuna.

The Local Albacore Poke — a new dish for me that might have changed my mind about raw tuna.

I’d never had poke before, but after Dan gave me a taste of his appetizer, I actually asked him if I could have a second bite. Poke is a Hawaiian raw fish salad, usually made of tuna marinated in a soy/salt/sesame/chili mixture. While I was a big tunafish sandwich fan growing up, I’m still hit-or-miss on the raw sashimi form, but the fish in Ray’s Local Albacore Poke (Sesame crackers, cilantro, lime) made me rethink my previous hangups. Again, Seattle knocks it out of the park on baseline, sea-sourced protein. The chunks of tuna were soft without being mushy, and I loved the acidity imparted by the cilantro and lime (and of course I’m always down for a great cracker). This dish made we want to seek out poke at other restaurants.

 

Ray's Pacific Northwest Chowder, with pillars of tempura fried clams rising out of the broth.

Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder, with pillars of tempura fried clams rising out of the broth.

I didn’t get to try Leah’s Ray’s Seasonal Salad (Sherry vinaigrette, radish, pumpkin seeds, aged cheddar), but I think she enjoyed it. I did have a chance to taste my father’s bowl of Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder (Tempura razor clams, smoked salmon, thyme, fingerling potatoes, fennel), which was a punch in the mouth of excellent seafood. The tempura-fried clams were an interesting addition, sticking up out of the bowl so the majority of the pieces stayed crunchy. Coming from the northeast and our endless iterations of New England Clam Chowder, it was cool to see a variation that played to the strengths of the West Coast.

 

The Wild Cedar Plank Salmon, cooked to my mother's specifications and a fine specimen of fish.

The Wild Cedar Plank Salmon, cooked to my mother’s specifications and a fine fish specimen.

Our entrees were all solid, satisfying contenders, although some dishes stood out more than others. I tried a bite of Leah’s Vegetarian Tajarin Housemade Pasta (mixed vegetables, mushrooms, Tutto Calabrian chiles, arugula, sherry sauce), mostly because I was curious about what “tajarin” looked like. It turned out to be a noodle somewhere in between fettuccine and linguini, and was well-made, soft but not too starchy. I also only had a small taste of my mom’s Wild Cedar Plank Salmon (White bean cassoulet, baby carrots, broccolini, garlic confit), since I’m still not a salmon convert. Like my previous experiences with salmon in Seattle, I could tell this was a great piece of fish, even if the flavor is not appealing to me. My mother had asked for the salmon to be a little more well-done than the barely medium it is usually served at, and was pleased by the way it arrived, fully cooked but not too dry. She also really loved the white bean cassoulet, especially the consistency of the beans, which still had a bit of snap to them. I enjoyed the vegetables, but personally fall more on the creamy-style beans, so I thought that here they detracted from the cassoulet.

 

The Smoked Sablefish, served with an addictive cilantro pesto.

The Smoked Sablefish, served with an addictive cilantro pesto.

While I enjoyed my dish as a whole, the most memorable elements of my Smoked Sablefish (roasted baby carrots, coriander, cilantro pesto, sautéed rainbow chard) were the accompanying vegetables (wow, I’m a boring adult, getting all excited about vegetables. Thank god I have dessert to talk about in a bit). That being said, this was again a high caliber fish, the flesh supple, gliding off with a swipe of my fork, and melting on the tongue. The smoked flavor was subtle, a little sweet rather than the harsher, ashy smokiness you get with barbecue sometimes. As with my mother’s salmon, the large cut of sablefish rested atop the accompaniments, in my case a bed of sauteed rainbow chard, cooked down to a velvety consistency, like a lighter creamed spinach. On the side were baby carrots, sweet and soft without falling into mush, resting in the cilantro pesto. The cilantro was prominent but not overwhelming, and I couldn’t get enough of the sauce, wanting to pour it over every piece of the dish. I ended up leaving a bit of the fish uneaten, but I literally scraped the pesto off my plate to get every last drop.

 

The Sablefish in Sake Kasu — tinged with Eastern flavors, but still grounded in Seattle’s local fish market.

The Sablefish in Sake Kasu — tinged with Eastern flavors, but still grounded in Seattle’s local fish market.

My overall favorite bite of the night was Dan’s Sablefish in Sake Kasu (jasmine rice, gingered bok choy, honey-soy). It was the only fish entree we had that was plated differently, this time in a large bowl, layered with the sake sauce at the base, followed by the rice, the bok choy, and the sablefish on top. The mix of honey, ginger and soy really woke up my tastebuds, and at least for the small taste I had, I found the powerful mix of salty, sweet and acidic highlighted the fish more than the smoked take I ordered. It’s hard to say how I would have felt eating a whole portion, but Dan polished his off and declared it his favorite plate as well.

Obviously this dessert was meant for Dan. Even if he didn't actually eat any of it.

Obviously this dessert was meant for Dan. Even if he didn’t actually eat any of it.

So we had to get dessert, right? I mean, how can you celebrate someone’s birthday (coughthatwasinNovembercough) without a candle-topped indulgence and some awkward staff/family singing? Dan was actually least invested in the dessert, which was mainly taken down by Leah, my mom and I. The surprisingly under-described Peanut Butter Bomb turned out to be a chocolate-coated hemisphere of peanut butter mousse with a graham cracker crust on the bottom and crushed peanuts on top, accompanied by a concord grape sorbet with chocolate sauce and crushed peanuts underneath it. The mousse itself was delicious, with a strong peanut flavor and a consistency close to cheesecake thickness. Despite not being that big of a “grape-flavored foods” person, I actually really liked the sorbet. Here it succeeded in evoking the nostalgia of a PB&J, providing a palate-cleansing freshness against the richness of the mousse and chocolate shell. Since it was a sorbet it had a light texture and was sweet, but not tooth-achingly so (don’t worry, the chocolate sauce on the bottom helped put the sugar over the top). The only disappointing aspect of the dish was the crust, which didn’t have much flavor and got soggy over time, eventually becoming lost among the more assertive elements of the dessert.

 

Final Thoughts:

I guess I should just say this once and for all, since presumably I’ll have the good fortune to visit Seattle many times over the next few years — Seattle just has amazing seafood. No bones about it, it brings serious game on the gill front. My dinner at Ray’s Boathouse was a satisfying, well-rounded meal, but I think as a visitor I’d rather go back and see what new innovations are being concocted at Tanglewood Supreme than go another round with Ray’s. What made the meal memorable was really the quality of the fish, like in Dan’s Poke and Sablefish, and the eye towards regional influences, like the Asian-inflected chowder. None of the dishes were showstoppers, but it was a comfortable environment with a courteous staff and a unique cocktail list. Looking at their cafe menu, I actually think I’d be more inclined to come back for a visit to the counter upstairs, to check out how the kitchen deals with more casual pub grub, like fish and chips or crab cakes.  Much like a classic steakhouse in New York, I think Ray’s Boathouse is the kind of restaurant to have in your back pocket — not necessarily a bucket-list destination, but an establishment where you know you’ll get a high grade meal and be treated right. Now if they’d only start selling that gruyere sauce separately, I’d keep the place in business single-handedly.

 

Ray’s Boathouse

6049 Seaview Avenue NW

Seattle, WA

http://www.rays.com/

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Fresh from the Market: Dinner at Fulton

2013-11-06 19.23.00

It’s pretty understandable that a city of millions could create a diverse food ecosystem, ranging from the micro-focused tiny shops like Bantam Bagels or Potatopia, to the restaurant empires of Danny Meyer and Mario Batali. There’s a lot of middle ground between those two poles, and I’ll admit the food nerd in me enjoys discovering the oft understated links between restaurants, especially when I find a relationship between two places I like. For example, did you know that The Smith is owned by Corner Table Restaurants, the same group behind the Greenwich Village restaurant Jane? Or that the mini-chain Five Napkin Burger was born out of the popularity of the eponymous dish on the menu at the Upper West Side’s Nice Matin? Sometimes connecting the dining dots in NYC reads like an exercise in genealogy.

I bring this up because of a recent dinner at Fulton, a seafood restaurant in my neighborhood. It turns out the restaurant is owned by Joe Guerrera, the man behind the Citarella gourmet markets. In fact, Fulton is right around the corner from the UES location, sitting just off 75th and 3rd. With such proximity to the famed seafood market (not to mention a name that nods to an even more storied market downtown), a fish-forward dinner at Fulton seemed like a no-brainer for my Baltimorean parents and their genetically brine-inclined daughter.

 

First Impressions:

Outside looking in at Fulton, with heatlamps primed to help you forget the chilly fall air.

Outside looking in at Fulton, with heatlamps primed to help you forget the chilly fall air.

Fulton has a classic, somewhat old-fashioned feel to it, evoking the stately taverns and older steakhouses I’ve dined at in New York. It was an unusually cold fall evening, so the heat lamps were on throughout the outdoor seating. Inside the decor is a mix of exposed brick, dark wood, and white walls decorated with charcoal scenes of fish markets. A sizable bar takes up a third of the restaurant as you enter; the rest of the space furnished with wooden two and four-tops and a banquet lining the back wall. My father lamented the modern trend of foregoing tablecloths, which Fulton ascribes to. I agree that it can add an extra bit of class to a meal, but a tablecloth can also reveal the unfortunate consequences of my klutzy dining habits (providing me with any sort of crusty bread yields a Pollock-esque scattering of crumbs around my butter plate).

The interior of Fulton is reminiscent of a classic American tavern.

The interior of Fulton is reminiscent of a classic American tavern, but nary a tablecloth in sight.

The staff at Fulton is very friendly, from the bussers constantly refilling our water glasses, to the waiters who happily answered our questions and gave advice on all three courses of our dinner. I was especially impressed when a passing server, noticing that my father had accidentally dropped his napkin on the floor, picked up the napkin immediately, and instead of just handing it back to my dad, gave him a brand new clean one as a replacement. It’s those small moments of thoughtful considerate behavior that really speak to the quality of a restaurant’s staff.

 

The Food:

Our tin drum of bread, with long rolls simply begging for a dunk in olive oil.

Our tin drum of bread, with long rolls simply begging for a dunk in olive oil.

Our meal started with an ample bread “basket” (aka tin bucket), filled with a variety of rolls and seeded mini-baguettes and served with a small bowl of olive oil. A sampler at heart, I always appreciate being given multiple bread options, and both the rolls and the olive oil were fresh (presumably sourced from Citarella next door).

Although I occasionally hem and haw over several enticing menu options, at Fulton I quickly zeroed in on my order. My mother and I split the Brussel Leaf Salad to start, while my father opted out of an appetizer. For mains, my mother chose the Whole Branzino, my father the Fulton Burger, and I got the Black Sea Bass. Never one to object to some additional sides, we selected the Lobster Hash and the Crab Mashed Potatoes, on the suggestion of our server. To round out our healthy meal, we all split the Cookie Monster dessert.

The Brussel Leaf Salad, visually appealing but in practice a little hard to eat.

The Brussel Leaf Salad, visually appealing but in practice a little hard to eat.

I’m not sure where I stand on split appetizer plating. On the one hand, it’s very considerate of the restaurant to divide the appetizer onto separate plates and ostensibly remove the issue of each person getting an equal portion. On the other hand, however, in some cases this leads to a modified dining experience, as ingredients are not always apportioned correctly. Unfortunately, the Brussel Leaf Salad (hazelnut-crusted goat cheese, caramelized pear) falls into the latter category. The dish was very artfully plated in distinct sections, the shredded brussels sprouts leaves in a small pile that was dusted with chopped hazelnuts, with a small globe of nut-encrusted goat cheese and a fan of caramelized pear slices on the side. While for the most part it was a fair split, the share of chopped hazelnuts was way more heavily weighted to my mother’s portion, and she was kind enough to switch with me, knowing I’m more of a hazelnut fan than she is. I found the salad very pretty to look at, but I’m one of those people who is always frustrated when served a salad that necessitates the diner to finish putting it together. (Don’t give me a pile of lettuce with a barely sliced chicken breast an assorted ingredients on top — if I’m at a restaurant, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable expectation to have my salad come pre-tossed.) Since the ball of goat cheese arrived somewhat chilled, it required a good deal of dexterity to combine the brussels leaves, a bit of hazelnut, pear, and a slice of cheese and achieve the full flavor combination intended for the dish. I enjoyed the mix of textures, and although I found the brussels a little underdressed, I thought overall it was a satisfactory appetizer, if slightly overshadowed by the rest of my meal. I think if I went back to Fulton, I would just give in and go for a full on fish meal, choosing the scallop appetizer instead.

 

The Whole Branzino, carefully filleted as requested.

The Whole Branzino, carefully filleted as requested.

As the name implies, the Whole Branzino is usually served whole, complete with head and bones, but when my mother requested it pre-guillotined, our waiter offered to serve it already filleted. The dish came with two small bowls, one filled with lemon slices, and the other with a seasoning blend (my mom chose not to use it, so I’m not sure what it was composed of). The bite I had was well-cooked and elegantly plated, but my mother found it a little plain (perhaps our server should have told us how to use the side-seasonings), and in need of some sort of greenery. Our decision to have solely starchy sides probably didn’t help matters, but at least she had some of the salad that came with my father’s entree.

The Fulton Burger, an inventive take on the crab cake model.

The Fulton Burger, an inventive take on the crab cake model.

Fulton actually has two items called “burger” on its menu — the traditional beef-based cheeseburger, and the eponymous Fulton Burger (swordfish, black cod, sea trout), a patty of diced fish served hamburger style on a brioche bun with greens and a citrus aioli. I’d never heard of this type of sandwich before, but it made sense considering the meatier texture of swordfish as a foundation. The cod and trout kept the patty from being too dense, and the bit I had reminded me of a crab cake (the broiled, not fried kind). There was a strong fish flavor that made sure you knew this was not your average beef-alternative burger, and I thought rounding the dish out with a small salad rather than fries helped to maintain the lighter, more refined aesthetic.

 

The Black Sea Bass -- my favorite dish of the night, from flavor to texture to composition.

The Black Sea Bass — my favorite dish of the night, from flavor to texture to composition.

My gut feeling about the merits of the Black Sea Bass (gnocchi, asparagus, mushrooms) ended up working very much in my gut’s favor. I chose it largely because of the accompanying sides — three of my menu compulsions, especially the gnocchi. It ended up exceeding my expectations — two tender, flaky fillets of bass with crispy skins on top, sitting on a bed of petite sliced button mushrooms that were rich and savory, along with starchy nuggets of gnocchi and sliced asparagus. Everything was cooked to the perfect texture: just a bit of snap to the asparagus, wonderfully tender mushrooms, buttery fish flesh that melted on my tongue, and the chewy but far from rubbery feel of the pasta. There was a light but milky sauce on the bottom of the dish which tied it all together. From the picture it might seem like accompaniments were a little sparse, but actually I thought the proportions of the dish kept the fish as the center of attention while providing some highlights with just the right amount of sides.

 

The Lobster Hash -- basically an extreme sports version of Lobster Benedict.

The Lobster Hash — basically an extreme sports version of Lobster Benedict.

Speaking of sides, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my steakhouse adventures at Peter Luger. It seems like Fulton ascribes to the classic steakhouse dinner model where your side orders add no nutritional value to your meal, but God are they decadent and worth a place at the table. Rich doesn’t even begin to describe the Lobster Hash, a mish-mash of claw and tail meat, sliced baby potatoes, pearl onions and gravy covered in a bearnaise sauce. It verges on ridiculous to relegate this to a side dish — it easily could have been an entree by itself. As with the rest of the seafood, the lobster was unbelievably fresh, combined with the gravy and bearnaise I couldn’t help but think of a creamy lobster bisque. I generally find whole pearl onions to be a bit overpowering, but in this case their sharp flavor helped to brighten the heaviness of the other components.

The Crab Mashed Potatoes -- flying slightly more under-the-radar.

The Crab Mashed Potatoes — flying slightly more under-the-radar.

The Crab Mashed Potatoes were a more subtle side dish. Mashed has always been my least favorite potato preparation (I miss the crunch of the skin you get in roasted, smashed, or french-fried), but Fulton gets props for how smooth and creamy our dish was (I don’t want to think about the amount of butter in them). The crab flavoring was very mild, to the point that my mother struggled to taste it. I think it definitely could have been more strongly crabby, but the faint hints of crab and old-bay flavors were enough variety to elevate Fulton’s take on mashed potatoes above the traditional preparation for me.

 

The Cookie Monster -- as its namesake warns, definitely a "sometimes food," but a damn delicious one at that.

The Cookie Monster — as its namesake warns, definitely a “sometimes food,” but a damn delicious one at that.

Now with a name like the Cookie Monster (Warm Chocolate Chip Cookie, Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry Ice Cream), you might think that I was insistent from the get-go about ordering this dessert. But please let the record show that my parents were the driving forces behind this choice, trumpeting said dish over the pedestrian Molten Chocolate Cake or Triple Layer Chocolate Fudge Cake (either of which I would have been more than happy with). But as luck would have it, the Cookie Monster is pretty damn appetizing, too. It took a while to arrive — to the point where we stopped our waiter to check on the status — but it proved worth the wait when the dish showed up with a clearly fresh-baked cookie on it. The dessert was plated with a soft, gooey and warm chocolate chip cookie base, then covered in three scoops of ice cream, a mountain of whipped cream and hot fudge, a tuille of white chocolate, and a scattering of fresh raspberries on the side. It was a marvelous contrast of temperatures and textures, like any good sundae should be. Granted, it was nothing too outrageous or inventive, but there’s a wonderful nostalgia to the good ol’ Tollhouse familiarity of the cookie and the fresh ice cream that was not too icy or soft, solid in execution if not of the showstopping quality of some of my recent gelato forays. Most importantly, did we clean that plate? Yes, yes we did. For all the quibbling over richness of chocolate and butterfat, truthfully, my parents and I just straight up love cookies and ice cream, and if you’re down wiith that, then Fulton will happily oblige.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, Fulton seems to be the sort of restaurant where a little background info or recommendations is the key to a good meal. The ties to Citarella (visible to the point of the doggy-bags — see below) make sure the quality of raw materials is high, but a standout dish is more than just the individual components. Go for items that have more of an obvious chef’s hand in them — the ones with a more visible flavor profile, more built-out accompaniments, or some sort of interesting twist in conception (such as the Fulton Burger). The truth is, you’re going to be better off getting a whole branzino at a great Italian restaurant than here. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, hop a subway downtown, but with its good service, comforting desserts, and fresh ingredients from next door, Fulton provides a nice, slightly upscale neighborhood restaurant for the seafood-inclined, and is worth a visit if you’re sticking around the UES.

Our doggy bag for the evening.

Our doggy bag for the evening.

Fulton

205 E. 75th St (between 2nd and 3rd)

http://www.fultonnyc.com/

From Nostalgia to Next Steps: Vivoli Il Gelato at Macy’s Herald Square

One of the themes I hope I’ve expressed over the course of this blog is my personal belief in the value of context when it comes to food. While certain dishes can linger in your mind due to their astonishing flavor profile, more often than not, the nostalgia we feel towards a certain meal derives from our memories of the occasion — the company, the conversation, etc. Recent scientific studies have shown that context affects the experience of eating on the most basic levels, from the type of dish you use to the material of your utensils. The steak I had at Peter Luger was certainly outstanding, but what made that night so fun was the anticipatory glee of my friends, the quirky service, and the halo of legendary status that enshrouded the restaurant.

Context has everything to do with my memories of eating and drinking in Rome. After 3 months of living in increasingly damp and chilly Glasgow, I scheduled a weekend trip to Rome in the last few weeks of my semester abroad. By that point the Scottish winter was definitely settling in, with freezing rain and snow soaking through my inappropriately American sneakers and bestowing a malevolent and interminable frizz upon my scalp. With the bulk of my finals work behind me, I hopped aboard the Continental equivalent of the Chinatown bus — good ol’ RyanAir– and fled southeast. I distinctly remember walking through some ruins near the Roman Forum and seeing a small grove of orange trees in bloom, a physical symbol of the brightness and thriving life around me, far from the early sunsets and slush-slicked slopes of my dorm back at the University. And oh, did I gorge myself in Italy, seizing upon the fresh pasta, biting espresso, and of course, the gelato. Like many of my fellow tourists, I found a way to have gelato every day of my trip, reveling in the creamy thickness of each scoop, the richness of the slivered chocolate in the Stracciatella, the goopy caramel swirls. I know I didn’t hit the haute cuisine of Rome during my stay (in fact, I’m pretty sure I ate at many a restaurant the locals would sneer at), but by taking a step back to examine the context, my rapturous gastronomic experience is easily explained. It was a break, an escape in every sense of the word, from schoolwork, responsibilities, and endless cafeteria meat pies and curries. Add in the fact that I was basically surrounded by works by my favorite sculptor, Bernini, and you can understand why to this day I enthusiastically argue the merits of Rome, and continue to wish fervently for the chance for a return trip.

With this kind of overwhelmingly positive nostalgia, it’s no surprise that I hold the gelato I had in Italy in the highest esteem, upon a pedestal that may be too lofty to reach in reality. When I mentioned a new gelato place called Vivoli Il Gelato to Jacob a few weeks back, he excitedly asked if it was owned by the same cherished Vivoli he experienced in Florence. A quick bit of Googling revealed that indeed it was, and so of course we had to see how authentic Italian gelato would fare against the recent triumph of American-bred Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Could sourcing the homeland bring me back to the bliss of yester-year?

 

First Impressions:

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

Vivoli’s location is liable to make a New Yorker cringe. The gelateria is not tucked away in some hole-in-the-wall corner of Red Hook as the hip foodie might hope, but instead placed smack dab in tourist-filled Herald Square, on the sixth floor of the flagship Macy’s. I’ll admit to having a true distaste for the area, generally overflowing with sightseers stumbling from Penn Station to the Empire State Building, or minimizing available sidewalk space by lingering over the window displays. But if you struggle through the crowds and hop onto the elevators on the 34th St side of Macy’s, you’ll shoot up to the sixth floor and be treated to the gorgeous views that make up a large part of the appeal of Stella 34 Trattoria, the department store’s  mammoth new restaurant/cafe.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Stella 34 takes advantage of its height above the hustle and bustle, featuring a wide open, airy space decked out in swathes of white tile, accented by black chairs and benches. The bulk of the seating (both for table service and takeaway) is situated next to the giant windows looking east over Herald Square. It was a clear day when we visited, resulting in a ton of sunlight pervading every corner of the restaurant.

 

The Food:

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli's small corner of the cafe.

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli’s small corner of the cafe.

Along with Vivoli‘s gelato, Stella 34 Trattoria serves sandwiches, flatbreads, pizzas, salads, and pastries, and we couldn’t help but be inundated with the delicious smells of melting cheese and sizzling meat as we ate our gelato. It’s a great move by Macy’s, taking advantage of the relative dearth of high quality, quick-service restaurants near Penn Station. I would definitely meet someone at Stella 34 for a quick bite before hopping on a train or bus, or to warm up post harried holiday shopping come December.

A passel of possible scoops.

A passel of possible scoops.

But this visit was all about Vivoli, and the question of whether authentic Italian gelato can find a home in the pantheon of American commercialism. Vivoli’s section of the cafe is located on the opposite side of the seating area, facing out onto the houseware and dining department. The menu states that flavors change seasonally, but during our visit Vivoli had 13 options to choose from. All the gelati offered were renditions of Italian classics, from basic Crema (aka sweet cream) to Pistachio to Stracciatella. While Vivoli does not offer the physical evidence of the gelato making process, like Il Laboratorio (and therefore the slight air of mysterious sugar science), what they do provide is a clear-cut explanation of the natural and specialty-sourced ingredients in their gelato. The menu does not describe what each flavor is, but rather lists the ingredients that go into it. For example, the Pistachio is listed as “Bronte pistachios from Sicily, Italy, whole fresh milk, fresh eggs, sugar” (emphasis theirs).

The menu displayed by the gelato case -- it's all about the ingredients, baby.

The menu displayed by the gelato case — Vivoli lets their ingredients speak for themselves..

After some serious deliberation, we decided on the Bacio, the Croccante, the Fragola, and the Limon. Unsurprisingly, since the shop is located in a major tourist area, this is not inexpensive gelato. We opted to share the largest size, the Grande, which nets you up to 4 different flavors and costs $6.75 (full disclosure: we also just wanted to try as many flavors as possible). To be fair to Vivoli, though, you do end up with a sizable serving, and I thought there was more than enough for two people split. And as their spare ingredient list would suggest, you are getting a pretty damn high quality dolce for your dollars.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Limon, Bacio, Croccante, and Fragola.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Croccante, Bacio, Limon, and Fragola.

I was drawn to the Bacio (hazelnuts from italy, cocoa powder, whole milk, farm eggs, sugar) and the Croccante (almonds from italy, whole mlik, farm eggs, sugar) because of my gelato experiences in Seattle. After loving the Bacio di dama from D’Ambrosio Gelato, I was excited to see a similar profile at Vivoli. This flavor, however, was closer to frozen Nutella, with a deep cocoa taste and a nice crunch from the hazelnuts. I hate to say it, but I think I’m now a full-on chocolate/hazelnut convert — I still don’t particularly like hazelnuts on their own, but I’ve found I really enjoy the combination. The Bacio ended up being the knockout champ at Vivoli — with its decadent, dark cocoa plus the sweet, buttery bite of hazelnuts, I’m hoping that this is not one of the seasonal flavors that will get rotated out.

You may remember how I waxed rhapsodic over the Toasted Almond gelato I had at Fainting Goat Gelato in Seattle. I’m pretty sure I will now eat anything that is almond-related or almond-adjacent, so it’s no surprise that I was thoroughly satisfied by the Croccante. It was my second favorite behind the Bacio, just absolutely fantastic — delicate almond flavor, creamy texture, sweet without coating your teeth in sugar.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

The Fragola (fresh strawberry, sugar, water) and Limon (fresh lemons, sugar, water) were actually sorbets, since a sorbet is defined by the lack of dairy. Both had the strong, natural taste of their base fruit ingredients. Of all the gelati we tried, the Limon had the least creamy consistency, reminding me of the Italian ices I used to buy at local pizzerias growing up (but with way fewer additives). It was very fresh, and extremely tart, tasting pretty much like frozen lemonade. It was refreshing in small doses, but despite Jacob and my deep devotions to dessert (and cleaning our plates like good children), we actually left a bit of this in the cup, finding it just a little too overpowering in the end.

Jacob had declared that the Fragola gelato he had in Italy was unreal, so that was the one flavor I knew we were going to order going in. It reminded me of Yoplait strawberry yogurt, if Mr. Yoplait himself had picked the strawberries from the vine and hand-crafted the dish for you. Although I love strawberries themselves, I’m usually a little more tentative about strawberry ice cream, generally avoiding the pink stripe in the rare occasions I have to eat Neapolitan. However, I will admit that this was definitely a superior product. I didn’t regret ordering it, but I would probably opt for another one of the sorbets next time around, especially because I expect the sorbet selection will be the part of the menu most dependent on the season.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Visiting Vivoli Il Gelato was a great exercise in contrast after so recently experiencing Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Both companies make an exceptional product, but Vivoli is much more mainstream, making traditional flavors with simple ingredients, rather than the mad scientist approach of Il Laboratorio (although I suppose that’s just something to take for granted, considering their name). While I can’t speak to the consistency of Vivoli compared to their native production in Florence, their gelato I had in New York was impressive in both execution and taste. It makes me curious about the rest of the offerings at Stella 34 Trattoria, and if they meet the high mark set by Vivoli.

Can any new experience truly surpass the heady heights of a cherished memory? Perhaps we shouldn’t aim as high as that — maybe it’s enough to be content with making some wonderful new ones. Carpe diem, or carpe gelato, in this case. And maybe there’s some merit to stripping off our jaded New Yorker coats once in a while to bask in the bliss of touristy ignorance. So if you have a bit of shopping to do, you might as well taste some superb gelato at Vivoli while you’re at it. Sure, you may have to be shell out a few more bucks per scoop, but just imagine that you’re taking a trip to Italy and have to deal with the Euro exchange rate. At least this time you’re saving the cost of a flight.

 

Vivoli Il Gelato (at Stella 34 Trattoria)

Macy’s Herald Square

151 W. 34th St., Sixth Fl.

http://www.patinagroup.com/restaurant.php?restaurants_id=139