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

In the spirit of mixing things up (slash a thinly veiled attempt at proving I am actually taking more pictures when I eat/make things), I thought I would use this post as a brief retrospective of some of the delicacies from December and January that didn’t quite make it into the spotlight. Consider this a tour of the minor league, if you will.

Mulled wine from Radegast

Mulled wine from Radegast

I discovered my absolute favorite type of warm cocktail this winter — mulled wine. I used to be all about spiked apple cider, but as my beverage tastes have moved away from sweeter drinks, I found myself ordering mulled wine (and making it at home) more and more often. I’m a sucker for autumnal/wintry spices — cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, I find myself constantly cold, and I’m hoping to expand my taste for red wine, so you really couldn’t give me a better drink than mulled wine. This particular glass came from Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Williamsburg, and was a great combination of citrus, spice, and slightly sweetened red wine. I really recommend checking Radegast out — it’s the first beer hall I’ve been to in NY, so I don’t have much to compare it with, but I enjoyed my wine, the hefeweizen I also ordered, and the German-esque food on the menu. As for space itself, the hall appears to be a converted factory, so for once in NY there’s actually plenty of space. One side of the hall is dominated by an enormous bar and smaller surrounding tables, and the other side holds the kitchen/grill and a dozen or so picnic tables.  I could see it getting a little crowded on weekend nights, but on a Saturday afternoon it was bustling without being raucous, and you can’t really argue with a Bavarian band providing the soundtrack for your daydrinking.

Momofuku Milk Bar in Williamsburg

Momofuku Milk Bar in Williamsburg

That same day I finally got to go to one of the Momofuku Milk Bar locations — albeit the one in Williamsburg, not the ones closer to me in the East Village or the Upper West Side. Milk Bar is known for its wacky takes on dessert — most famously for its Cereal Milk (yes, like the stuff left over in your bowl) and its Compost Cookie, which is a bit of a kitchen-sink type cookie with potato chips, cereal, coffee grounds, and other unexpected ingredients.

The almost overwhelming menu at Milk Bar -- where to begin?

The almost overwhelming menu at Milk Bar — where to begin? And yes, they do offer “pretzel milk” as well.

Although this was my first time actually inside of the store, I’ve had the opportunity to try some of the Milk Bar specialties like the Crack Pie and the Compost Cookie before. Still, there were an enormous number of options available, so I ended up falling back on my comfort zone of ice cream, and got the Oatmeal Creme Pie soft serve. I enjoyed it, but found it very mild in flavor, reminiscent of the way your milk tastes after you dunk an oatmeal cookie into it a few times. The texture of the soft serve was probably the best part — smooth and creamy in the way you want every Mr. Softee order to be. I wish they had given me a spoon instead of the nostalgic Dixie Cup wooden stick. I am eager to try out the pretzel shake at some point, not to mention the “fancy shakes” (aka spiked) shakes offered at the bottom of the menu, so I’ll probably make a trip back, although perhaps to one of the other locations.

The visually appealing, but somewhat lackluster oatmeal creme pie soft serve.

The visually appealing, but somewhat lackluster oatmeal creme pie soft serve.

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The next port of call was Vegan Divas, an Upper East Side vegan bakery and cafe. I stopped in to pick up some holiday goodies for vegan coworkers. The shop was quaint but not cutesy — the focus was happily on the baked goods themselves.

I picked out a bunch of the mini donuts for my coworkers.

I picked out a bunch of the mini donuts for my coworkers.

Vegan Divas has been praised for its donuts, so combined with my weakness for miniaturized things, there was little else I could pick out as gifts. I got myself a lemon-raspberry muffin, mainly to see how their baking fared. Sometimes vegan baking leads to incredible dense, lumpy cakes, so I wondered if all the wrinkles in the substitution scheme had been ironed out. Muffins can be very hit or miss depending on the baker, so I thought it would be a good test of the caliber of Vegan Divas’ desserts.

My small, but heavy muffin

My small, but heavy muffin

Unfortunately, I did find the muffin lacked the air-pocket-laden lightness of a great breakfast pastry. But texture aside, Vegan Divas succeeded in creating a healthy muffin (less than 100 calories) that didn’t taste like “health food.” The lemon and raspberry flavors were bright and very present, and I would be willing to go back and see what else the bakery has veganized, although I might opt for something more traditionally dense in makeup, like a brownie.

Chicken and Vegetable Ramen from Minca

Chicken and Vegetable Ramen from Minca

I’m pleased I was able to scrounge up at least one photo of a savory item from my recent gastronomical adventures. Shown above is the fabulous bowl of ramen I had from Minca in the East Village. I opted for the veggie-packed ramen, which to Minca‘s cooks apparently meant including an entire head of lettuce. Fortunately, beneath all that roughage was a deeply rich chicken broth with a hardboiled egg, an assortment of vegetables, and pieces of thinly sliced chicken. It was an umami-bomb, and I mean that in the best way possible. This was probably one of my favorite meals in the past month or so — simple fare but cooked expertly, and pretty inexpensive to boot. Although I personally prefer non-pork based ramen, Minca offers a wide range of soups from vegetarian to all the pig a person could want. Heads up, though — like a lot of ramen joints, Minca is cash only.

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Much like my love for the miniature, I also have a deep affection for holiday-themed versions of food. So despite it being well past Christmas when I baked this, I had to pick up the Nestle Holiday Baking Bits (aka red and green semisweet chocolate chips) that were on sale at Stop and Shop. C’mon — Christmas themed AND on sale? How could I resist? The monstrosity above was made for a New Year’s Party: Magic Bars/Seven Layer Bars/Munchies — whatever you want to call them, they involved graham cracker crumbs, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, butterscotch and white chocolate chips, shredded coconut, and Heath bar pieces. Let’s just say they were well-received.

Last, but not least, a picture from my recent visit to Salvation Taco. Although I decided to enjoy the meal sans compulsive photographing, I just had to share my last cocktail. Salvation Taco is the latest project from April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, the people behind the restaurant in the Breslin Hotel (great, but expensive brunch) and the Spotted Pig (supposedly a fantastic burger, but I’ve yet to make it there). Salvation Taco is a lounge/restaurant in the Pod 39 Hotel in Midtown, and although its over-the-top “hip” vibe is a little out of place in the mild-mannered just south of Grand Central neighborhood, I found the food and drinks to be playful and innovative. My favorite taco by far was the least taco-ish on the menu — ground Moroccan lamb served on a tiny piece of naan. My first cocktail was the “Fly By Night,” a mixture of “gin, lemon juice, cinnamon-vanilla bean, orange blossom, sea salt,” and came in a normal glass. But when I ordered the “5 Island Horchata,” which is listed as “5 island rum, coconut horchata, cold-brewed coffee, fernet-vallet, cinnamon and vanilla,” the waitress neglected to inform me of how my cocktail would be delivered:

Yup, in a parrot.

Yup, in a parrot.

It was a great drink, if a little on the heavy side. It ended up tasting mostly like a rum and coffee flavored slushy, which I was happy to slurp down, but left a bit of a snowball-esque lump in my stomach afterwards. Regardless, it was worth it, if only because I can now say, “why yes, I have had a cocktail out of a ceramic bird.” You know, in case that ever comes up.

I leave you with one last tidbit from my kitchen. Between Winter Restaurant Week and the Superbowl, there seems to a lot of serious eating in my near future. Of course I’m trying to be virtuous and eat salads and veggies where I can, but I did just get a cast iron skillet, and there’s really only one way to properly break that bad boy in:

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AW YEAH, GIANT SKILLET COOKIE. And yes, those are some leftover Nestle Holiday Baking Bits. Like I said, they were on sale!

 

Radegast Hall & Biergarten

113 N 3rd St, Brooklyn

radegasthall.com

Momofuku Milk Bar

Various locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn

milkbarstore.com

Vegan Divas

1437 First Avenue, (between 75th and 74th Street)

http://www.thevegandivas.com

Minca

536 E 5th St.

Salvation Taco

Pod 39 Hotel, 145 E 39th St

salvationtaco.com