Brief Bites: Mora Iced-Creamery

Heading across the Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island.

Heading across the Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island.

 

Two appearances is a coincidence, three is a streak, right? If that’s the case, then I’m about to hit an ice cream streak on this blog, since once again I’ll be talking to you about my visit to a new scoop shop. Not that it should be all that surprising — I’m betting an intrepid researcher weeding through the archive would find that 70% of this blog is ice cream (as is my body, considering my consumption levels).

Anyway, another week, another ice cream post. This is the final round of my backlog of summer adventures — a spot from my July 4th trip out to Seattle. Miraculously, I’m not going to talk to you about produce or seafood in this post (recurring motifs in my previous Seattle chronicles). Instead, let’s take a look at Mora Iced-Creamery, out on Bainbridge Island.

 

The Set Up:

 

Peeking in the window at Mora Iced-Creamery.

Peeking in the window at Mora Iced-Creamery.

 

Mora Iced-Creamery is located on Bainbridge Island, a small community in the Puget Sound only a short ferry-ride away from Seattle. The parts of Bainbridge that I saw had a very Nantucket/Cape Cod-ish vibe to them, with central main street brimming with artisanal shops, restaurants, cafes, and bakeries, eventually leading out to a gorgeous countryside populated with farms and wineries. My brother Dan and his fiancee Leah took me out to Bainbridge on the last day of my trip, and we strolled around the town, enjoyed a few wine tastings, sampled some fudge, but Dan was insistent that I try Mora’s frozen fare. In fact, the ice cream was Dan’s main selling point when talking to me about Bainbridge, repeatedly ending descriptions of the island’s beauty with “and they have some amazing ice cream. Really good.”

 

Now Mora is no town secret — when we first walked by the shop, there was a substantial line out the door, and a local shopkeeper told us it’d be at least a 45 minute wait. When we returned an hour later, the line looked exactly the same, but as a credit to Mora’s staff, it only took about 10 minutes to get our ice cream.

 

At the outset Mora looks like your average ice cream shop — cute but clean decor dominated by purple, white and gleaming metal, uniformed staff working in synchronicity. But there are a few tweaks that set this purveyor apart: first, the ordering process, which I assume is a response to their enduring popularity. You order as you enter the shop, picking your ice cream vessel — cup, cone, shake, affogato, sundae, single scoop or more. This might seem limiting, because first-timers won’t even know what they want, but it does avoid a massive pileup of people hemming and hawing over flavors choices.

 

The tightly sealed, separated canisters of ice cream. No cross-contamination here, no sirree.

The tightly sealed, separated canisters of ice cream. No cross-contamination here, no sirree.

This comes after you’ve paid for your order, when you move down the line to the scooping zone. Here Mora takes another unusual tack — rather than the typical long glass case of brightly colored ice creams crammed next to each other, at Mora each flavor sits in its own individual metal canister, in order (according to their website) to avoid commingling of odors and flavors, and so customers won’t “taste with their eyes.” Fortunately, they also allow you to taste as many flavors as you wish, a boon since there are at least 40 flavors of ice cream or sorbet for you to choose from (including seasonal flavors that are fleetingly available).

 

The Bites:

 

My "single scoop" of Gianduja (left) and Banana Split.

My “single scoop” of Gianduja (left) and Banana Split.

 

With such an embarrassment of riches, this was no easy choice. I settled on getting a single scoop (where, confusingly, you can get two flavors) in a cup, to have the purest experience. Alas, the no-brainer of Chocolate Peanut Butter Moreo (chocolate mousse ice cream chock full of Oreo crumbles and swirls of creamy peanut butter), aka my soul-mate in dessert form, was sold out, so I had to go out on more of a limb here. In retrospect, this was actually a good thing, since I ended up going with a more unusual combination — Gianduja and Banana Split.

 

Yeah, yeah, Maggie, you got the Gianduja (Originated in Italy, this sweet chocolate ice cream is made with roasted hazelnuts and has a Nutella-like flavor) because you’re all about the hazelnut-chocolate combo now. (But wait, hazelnuts are awesome! I had an unreal hazelnut butter at the London Plane during this trip, too!) Ho-hum, old news. Tell us more about this mysterious Banana Split flavor.

 

Well, if you insist. Mora’s Banana Split ice cream (Our real-fruit banana ice cream is enhanced with traces of dulce de leche and shaved chocolate. An homage to the classic banana split in every bite!) is more evocation than accurate representation of the traditional banana split dish — which, by the way, is an option at the ordering station up front. Frankly, I was more than happy to skip out on the strawberry ice cream and maraschino cherry, which I generally view as corruptive influences on my ice cream experience.

 

Mora’s ice cream certainly lived up to the hype. It was very dense and creamy, achieving that somewhat taffy-like chew I adore in ice cream. Supposedly their ice cream contains less butterfat than “most super premium ice creams” (ice cream trivia — “superpremium” ice cream, according to the International Dairy Foods Association, “tends to have very low overrun and high fat content, and … uses the best quality ingredients” — overrun = aeration the ice cream goes through so you don’t end up with a solid block of inedible frozen milk. Whew.). I guess this means it’s better for you, but c’mon, we’re not talking Skinny Cow here. And to their credit, I wouldn’t say I missed the butterfat here (but who does say that?).

 

True hazelnut flavor was strongly present in the Gianduja, their distinctive woodsy taste carrying through the sweetness of the chocolate. I might even put this on par with Vivoli’s Bacio, although I think Mora’s version is a little sweeter. I guess that kicks the Banana Split way up on the sugar chart, because the Gianduja actually worked as a grounding flavor base against the candy-bar like sweet punch of the Banana Split.

 

What prevented the Banana Split from being cloying was the use of actual banana ice cream. It wasn’t like eating the ice cream version of banana Runts, but closer to the flavor of just pure, frozen bananas. It had a mellow sweetness from the fruit’s natural sugars (although I’m betting they add some to the ice cream base), and a fresh quality to the flavor that kept the dulce de leche in check. This was also aided by the shaved chocolate, which was at least dark chocolate if not semisweet, and was a nice distinction from the milk chocolate of the Gianduja. And let’s not downplay the dulce de leche here — you can see the wide ribbons of it swirled throughout the banana ice cream. It shows up in a number of Mora’s flavors, and with good reason — this is high quality caramel, which when combined with the bananas almost reminded me of the bliss of banoffee pie.

 

Last Licks:

 

Yet again I find myself tipping my hat to my older brother Dan. Mora Iced-Creamery offers high level ice cream with innovative flavors, stellar ingredients (they’re a member of Slow Food USA), and have the process of ordering ice cream down to an efficient science. I wish they weren’t so remotely located, so I could go back and taste to my heart’s content. I might make my brother take me back next time I’m in Seattle, so we can try a sundae — the hot fudge alone has me salivating. And if I can find enough people to go in on it, I might consider taking advantage of the fact Mora ships nationally. I mean, how can I go on living my life without experiencing Chocolate Peanut Butter Moreo? I’m pretty sure any reasonable adult would agree with me.

 

Mora Iced-Creamery

139 Madrone Lane

Bainbridge Island, WA

http://moraicecream.com/

Sometimes You Feel Like a Legume: Dinner at Peanut Butter & Co.

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I am a peanut butter freak, and I’ve discovered it’s an ailment that has only gotten worse as I’ve aged. When I was younger I used to be very picky about the quality of the peanut butter I tasted — Ritz Bitz was authentic enough for me, but Lord, the indignity of lowering myself to the artificial flavor of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch. I was a loyal Jif girl, and looked down my nose at other peanut butter brands. And though I’d like to think that my palate has gotten more refined as I’ve gotten older, my love of all things peanut butter has curiously grown by leaps and bounds, breaking free of my previous (mis)conceptions and invading all aspects of my eating (did you know peanut butter tastes great with yogurt? salads? cheese?).

Way back in April of last year I mentioned my desire to visit Peanut Butter & Co., and now I am proud to say I can finally check that item off my NYC food-list. I’d heard about Peanut Butter & Co. years ago, but had never found the time to go downtown and visit their store, nor even try their line of peanut butters that I’ve seen slowly expand through the tri-state area. Thankfully, Laura, my partner in crimes-related-to-pb & j (see our Jam Crawl and our visit to Bantam Bagels), was kind enough to take me to dinner at PB&Co. as a belated holiday present. It was a trip nearly a year in the making, but for a peanut butter devotee such as myself, it was a decidedly necessary pilgrimage to the Valhalla of cream-and-crunchdom.

 

First Impressions:

Peanut Butter & Co. is located in Greenwich Village, just off of Washington Square Park and the hub of NYU. It obviously benefits from being so close to a huge student population, and its menu of sandwiches, cookies, brownies and ice cream seems tailor-made for hungover college kids.

The counter at PB&Co., with the kitchen behind taking up nearly half the cafe's space.

The counter at PB&Co., with the kitchen behind taking up nearly half the cafe’s space.

The photos I had seen of the cafe made it seem like a large space, but standing outside the doors it became clear that it’s a relatively shallow store, with nearly half of the real estate taken up by the kitchen and counter. Entering the cafe, you find the cashier to the left, a small retail section in the back featuring the titular line of peanut butters, merch, baked goods and drinks, and then to your right a collection of tables, seating probably the same amount of people as the average Manhattan Starbucks. The decor is friendly and pared down, the exterior of the store painted bright blue and white, and the inside evoking a classic American kitchen with pastel yellow walls covered in vintage advertisements for peanut and sandwich products.

Vintage ads show the legacy of peanut butter's place in American hearts.

Vintage ads show the legacy of peanut butter’s place in American hearts.

Honestly, I had no idea Marshmallow Fluff came in flavors other than "marshmallow."

Honestly, I had no idea Marshmallow Fluff came in flavors other than “marshmallow.”

The service style is a little odd. There’s no table service (you order at the counter), but they do bring your food straight to your table … sometimes (we had to go up and fetch our own dessert). We also encountered a somewhat strange scenario during our visit — generally, PB&Co. has a faucet at the counter that dispenses regular NYC tap water (since everyone including Barney knows that PB leaves you pretty parched), but it was broken, and therefore covered to prevent anyone trying to use it. This meant that when we asked for tap water, the cashier told us our only option was to buy a bottle of water, citing a violation of NYC health chodes to fill a customer’s glass from a tap behind the counter. Now, granted I don’t know the health code, but you’d think they could have gotten a cooler or filled a pitcher, rather than forcing people to pay and engendering ill will. But then again, it seems to be a bustling place with a steady stream of customers, so perhaps they think they’ll just try to get a few more bucks out of folks until someone really puts up a fight.

 

The Food:

Tempting, but perhaps a bit much for the first visit.

Tempting, but perhaps a bit much for the first visit.

In order to get the most out of the PB&Co. menu, we opted to split two sandwiches and share a dessert, ordering The Elvis, The Heat is On Sandwich, and the Bananarama Sundae to finish up. All of the sandwiches are served with both carrots and PB&Co. brand chips, which helps to fill out the plate a little bit. Not surprisingly, our sandwiches were ready in no time, so we could get down to some serious chewing.

 

The Elvis, perhaps underserved by a lack of bacon.

The Elvis, perhaps underserved by a lack of bacon.

The Elvis (“A grilled peanut butter sandwich, stuffed with bananas and honey”) is offered with an optional addition of bacon, and part of me regrets deciding to go without, because I think it would have added that extra salt and crunch the sandwich needed. The sandwich was very uniform in texture, soft and gooey from being grilled. Now both Laura and I agreed that almost any sandwich improves with grilling, but in this case, because of the melted quality of the peanut butter, it was nearly impossible to tell that we had chosen PB&Co.’s “Crunchtime” crunchy peanut butter, which I had hoped would mix things up a bit in terms of mouthfeel. The flavor was certainly pure and strongly peanutty, and ended up being the dominant note of the sandwich. I have to question the cafe’s definition of “stuffed” here, because both the honey and the banana seemed conservatively applied, getting lost in the melting swirl of the peanut butter. Still, you can’t fault the combination of flavors as a classic, and I thought the peanut butter itself was top notch. There’s just something so delightful and nostalgic about the oozing, gooey drip of peanut making your fingers sticky and forcing you to lick it off like a 5 year old. But Laura and I concurred that The Elvis was very much a sandwich we could have made in our own kitchens (even with PB&Co.’s own product), and gotten more bang for our buck.

 

The Heat is On Sandwich — not quite a Thai dish, but an interesting play on flavors.

The Heat is On Sandwich — not quite a Thai dish, but an interesting play on flavors.

The Heat is On Sandwich (“Spicy peanut butter and chilled grilled chicken, with a little bit of pineapple jam. Like a Thai satay — only better”) was definitely the most interesting dish of our dinner, and I’m glad that Laura convinced me to order this over another meatless option. The title refers to PB&Co.’s spicy variety of the same name, and I was a little nervous about how hot the spread would be. It turned out to have a substantial kick to it, with the inherent sweetness of the peanut butter up front and the cayenne really coming through on the back end. The chicken was firm yet moist, although it mostly served as a vehicle for the peanut butter’s dominating flavor. Similarly, it was hard to discern the pineapple flavor of the jam, although I appreciated the gelatinous texture and the jam’s use as a cooling element against the spicy peanut butter. Although PB&Co. describes it as similar to a Thai sandwich, I found it lacked the soy/umami taste that separates satay sauces from regular melted peanut butter. We got the sandwich on toasted whole wheat bread, and I had hoped that meant the entire sandwich would be grilled (see comment about the benefits of grilling above), but alas, the toaster touched the bread only. This was certainly a more creative and more filling sandwich than The Elvis, and I could see this being a knockout dish if it was first grilled, and then had the pineapple jam applied.

Now before I even comment on our sundae, let’s take a moment to discuss proper ice cream serving etiquette. Ice cream sundaes, if served in a tall glass or high-rimmed bowl, should come with long-handled spoons, preferably metal ones. Otherwise you’re left with an inadequate tool for digging deep to the bottom of the bowl to scoop out lingering hot fudge or an errant chocolate chunk, and risk getting melted ice cream all over your hands in the process of excavation. (This pertains mostly to hard-style ice creams — a soft-serve Carvel sundae, for example, will yield easily to a plastic spoon.)

The visually pleasing, if haphazardly constructed Banarama Sundae.

The visually pleasing, if haphazardly constructed Banarama Sundae.

The Bananarama Sundae (“What a banana split! Three scoops of ice cream, sliced bananas, graham crackers, peanut butter, Marshmallow Fluff, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Wonderful for sharing, if you are so inclined”) was cutely served in a large mug, but arrived with only flimsy plastic spoons with which to tackle it. This made it difficult to get a bite that involved all of the elements of the dessert, especially considering the middle layer of solid chocolate ice cream. It was aesthetically pleasing, with a large dollop of whipped cream on top, drizzled with chocolate sauce and graham cracker crumbs. Generally the sundae comes with vanilla ice cream, but PB&Co. had sold out of it earlier in the day (a testament to the appeal of their ice cream, since it continues to be frigid in NYC). We opted for chocolate ice cream as the base of the dessert, and I’d actually recommend requesting it over the vanilla if you have the chance. I liked all of the individual components of the sundae, but once you dove in it seemed like the construction wasn’t given proper attention. I’ll admit I’ve become a bit biased about this after experiencing the intense consideration that goes into Big Gay’s Salty Pimp — first sea salt, then dulce de leche in the cone, then ice cream, etc. Here the Bananarama had chunks of graham crackers on the bottom, covered in peanut butter and Fluff, then the ice cream, then the whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and graham cracker crumbs. That meant that you had to struggle to get through the ice cream to reach the crunchy crumbs and gooey Fluff, which over time stiffened up to make things even more difficult. Initially it was super goopy and true-to-name fluffy, but by the end (and trust me, we didn’t dilly-dally, since Laura is as much of a fast-eating food honeybadger as I), everything had started to congeal and required a dedicated application of elbow grease. An easy solution would be to replace the chocolate sauce with hot fudge (frankly, always a good choice), which would have kept the Fluff warmer for longer, and allowed better mixing with the graham crackers and peanut butter sauce. And just like The Elvis, Laura and I felt like there was a serious lack of bananas — why so skimpy on the fruit, PB&Co.? But as a positive, the Bananarama allowed us to sample a variety of the toppings offered, so I’ll be able to make a more strategic order the next time I stop in.

Final Thoughts:

My trip to Peanut Butter & Co.’s cafe was a great holiday present, and I’m grateful to Laura for taking me. Overall, it’s a cute homestyle spot offering familiar and comforting, if somewhat pedestrian fare. I’m happy I visited and sampled the savory menu, but I think if I go back it’ll be when the weather warms up so I can try out some of their other ice cream options (word on the street is that their milkshakes are killer). When it comes down to it, unless I suddenly develop a serious allergy, peanut butter is going to be a big part of my life for the foreseeable future.  For all of the quibbles I have about the food at their cafe, I have to applaud Peanut Butter & Co. for giving peanut butter a proper place in the spotlight, and helping to spread George Washington Carver’s message of brotherhood and legume love.

 

Peanut Butter & Co.

240 Sullivan St. (between 3rd and Bleecker)

http://ilovepeanutbutter.com/sandwichshop

Brief Bites: 5oz Factory

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I’ve never actually been to Wisconsin, but people there seem to have their priorities in order. After all, this is the state that proudly declares itself “America’s Dairyland” on its license plates, and counts a foam wedge of cheese as acceptable haberdashery. Oddly enough, there seems to be a growing faction of Wisconsiners (Wisconsonians? Wisconsonites?) injecting a little Midwest into NYC, from the venerable Michael White to Gabe Stulman’s “Little Wisco” restaurant group. The latest entrant is the more casual sandwich/frozen custard shop 5oz Factory. It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that my interest was peaked by the promise of a grilled cheese and ice cream, so in this edition of Brief Bites, we check out if these cheeseheads live up to their reputation.

 

The Set Up:

The well-appointed but compact interior of 5oz Factory.

The well-appointed but compact interior of 5oz Factory. Note the adorable cow cutout scene in the bottom right window.

5oz Factory is located just northwest of Washington Square Park, and is clearly geared towards NYU students, a few of which Jacob and I saw during our meal. I had anticipated more of a cafe in the style of Wafels and Dinges, but I guess real estate is pretty pricey so near the park. 5oz Factory’s layout is pretty bare bones, mostly a sandwich/custard counter with a couple of tables  and stools lining the front window for dining in (although the staff preps everything as if it were for takeout). The shop’s interior design has a little more spark to it, however, featuring cutouts of cows, warm light wood, pastel colors, and bright mom’s kitchen-esque tiles on the back wall of the custard/sandwich prep space. I especially liked the window into the kitchen, which allows customers to see their “cheese melts” being assembled.

The back of the store features a view of the melt prep in action.

The back of the store features a view of the melt prep in action.

 

The Bites:

 

When we paid a visit, 5oz Factory seemed to be a bit in flux. Posted around the restaurant were signs with changes to the menu, featuring some seasonal additions, as well as some alternate recipes for the sandwiches (since writing, the website has finally updated their menu) The basic categories remained, however: Grilled Cheeses , Market Sides, and Frozen Custard. Jacob and I split the “5oz Factory Melt” and the “Short & Sweet” sandwiches, followed by a 5oz portion of frozen custard with a few toppings.

Our melts arrived snugly wrapped and labeled.

Our melts arrived snugly wrapped and labeled. The identifying stickers were on the bottom, holding the paper shut.

Though our order (both sandwiches and custard, which were placed separately) took a while to arrive, I was happy to see that our melts were well-griddled, dark brown and crusty without veering into burnt territory. They came wrapped in classic deli brown paper, and were taped shut with a sticker that denoted the sandwich’s name. Under the brown paper a layer of tin foil kept them warm, and I was happy to see the gooey, stringy mess of cheese that came from pulling apart the halves.

The 5oz Factory Melt, with the medley of cheeses seeping out from between the layers.

The 5oz Factory Melt, with the medley of cheeses seeping out from between the layers.

The 5oz Factory Melt (Cheddar, Swiss, Gruyere & Colby on Homestyle Brioche) is the straight-forward grilled cheese you’d largely expect it to be. I loved the combination of cheeses, the sweet nuttiness of the Gruyere standing out amongst the milder Swiss and Colby, and pleasantly intermingling with the salty sharpness of the Cheddar. While I thought the brioche was the perfect vehicle for our second sandwich, here I felt like the thick-sliced bread muscled in on the cheese. I was raised on thinner-style grilled cheese sandwiches, however, so it may just be a matter of personal preference. My perfect grilled cheese lets the sandwich filling shine, so I’d rather have a slimmer Pullman slice as the bookends to my melt.

 

The Short and Sweet --a rare instance of my enjoying pickles.

The Short and Sweet –a rare instance of my enjoying pickles.

While the 5oz Factory Melt was a solid, if slightly pedestrian dish, the shop’s sandwich-making skills really shined with the Short & Sweet (Horseradish Chive Havarti, Swiss, Roasted Mushrooms & Cornichons, Sprecher’s Black Bavarian Beer Braised Short Ribs on Brioche). I’ve waxed rhapsodic many a time about my newfound love of short ribs, and the meat showcased here had clearly been braised to juicy tenderness. What made this melt more successful than the basic grilled cheese was the strategic mixing of textures and flavors, from the shredded, moist short ribs with a hint of sweetness from the beer braise, to the earthy mushrooms and briny cornichons still giving a little crunch, to the gooey mess of the cheese, featuring herby spice from the Havarti and a smoother underlying Swiss. This may seem like a lot of disparate elements fighting for attention, but the sandwich was well constructed, so the dominant meat and cheese factors were highlighted by the other components. As I mentioned above, I was a big fan of the use of brioche in this melt. In this case you need the thick and toasted pieces to hold together the messy innards. (Examining the menu further, it seems that 5oz Factory offers only brioche, trenchers, and gluten-free bread for their melts, so of those options, brioche seems like the most obvious choice for both of our sandwiches.)

 

Our foray into 5oz Factory's frozen custard, piled high with stellar whipped cream.

Our foray into 5oz Factory’s frozen custard, piled high with stellar whipped cream.

Like Shake Shack, 5oz Factory offers their frozen custard in three forms: plain with optional toppings, spun into a shake, or blended with said toppings as a concrete (or “Moozy Muddle”). Looking over the Moozy Muddle menu, Jacob and I struggled to come to an accord about our desired toppings. The truth is, we have different priorities when it comes to ice cream-style desserts — Jacob wants a more straightforward, smoother product with an emphasis on the dairy, while I’ve always been a fan of as many mix-ins as possible (my McFlurry of choice features both M&Ms and Oreos, natch). We finally decided to forego the preset items and have a basic sundae. Aside from the standard chocolate and vanilla custard, 5oz Factory cycles through seasonal flavors, such as espresso, caramel, and peppermint. We opted for a swirl of vanilla and chocolate custard, topped with Ghiradelli chocolate sauce, caramel, and Organic Valley unsweetened whipped cream. Our server also tossed a few custom-made cowhead-shaped gummies on top.

A closer look at those cute cow gummies.

A closer look at those cute cow gummies.

Now as I mentioned in my review of the Shake Shack fries, Jacob is a connoisseur of the Shack menu, and a huge fan of their frozen custard. I, on the other hand, hold Rita’s to be the epitome of commercial custard. Rita’s tends to be slightly sweeter and thicker than Shake Shack’s offering, and I think I liked 5oz Factory’s custard more than Jacob because of this. The vanilla and chocolate flavor was stronger than the Shack’s more subtle taste, and I loved the texture of the custard, which verged on the chewiness of New England ice cream (no seriously, that’s a thing: http://sweets.seriouseats.com/2012/09/herrells-ice-cream-steves-boston-massachusetts-flavors.html). Surprisingly, the most memorable aspect of our dessert was the whipped cream. My unrepentant adoration of Reddi-whip generally sets a pretty low bar for me in terms of whipped cream flavor, but I could honestly discern a difference in quality by using the organic milk. Even though Organic Valley is sold in supermarkets and hardly straight off the farm, I could taste a real freshness in the cream, and you can tell from the picture that it looked more like homemade whipped cream than the kind squirted out the can and straight into your mouth at 3 in the morning (what? we all have our low moments).

 

The Last Licks:

I couldn’t tell you how closely 5oz Factory hews to the authentic Wisconsin experience, but I certainly appreciated the Midwestern charm of its offerings. It’s unfortunate that New York features such a high number of sandwich, grilled cheese, and frozen dessert purveyors, so you really have to offer a standout product to stick out of the crowd, and relying on home state pride doesn’t automatically guarantee superior quality. I’m not sure I’d recommend the shop as a destination spot for those farther afield in the city, but if you’re hanging around the NYU hub, 5oz Factory is a strong option for filling and hearty sandwiches and desserts. It’d probably be pretty nice to grab a custard in the summer and sit in the park, actually. Is 5oz Factory the next Melt Shop? Probably not. But I’d say that purely on the basis of dairy-use, they do their Cheesehead brethren proud.

 

5oz Factory

24 W. 8th St (between 5th and MacDougal)

http://5ozfactory.com/

 

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/

Fresh from the Market: Dinner at Fulton

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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/

A New York Steak of Mind: Peter Luger Steakhouse

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Growing up just outside of the City in Westchester County, you would think my childhood was simply brimming with classic New York experiences. And while yes, I was lucky enough to see Broadway shows multiple times a year, chilled with the dinos at the Natural History Museum like it was my part-time job, and rode the Circle Line with my 3rd grade class, I missed out on many “typical” New York activities because they seemed cliche, touristy, and lame to a blase teenaged local. Even now, having come back to actually live in Manhattan post-college, there are still certain items left unchecked on my city to-do list, simply because of the way they make the native New Yorker hairs on the back of my neck rise (we’re not going to even engage in the from the city/from the suburbs who’s a native debate here — I’m at least a New York Stater by birth).

One of the crucial things you learn as you grow up, however, is that sometimes doing the “lame” or “touristy” thing is worthwhile. For every double-decker-open-air bus tour of Chinatown, there’s a mainstream experience that is popular because it’s actually pretty effing fantastic. Sometimes the hype is actually not hype at all, but merely an abundance of exuberance that should be heeded. And thankfully, there are still a few long-time New York institutions like Peter Luger Steakhouse to slap some starry-eyed sense into this skeptical New Yorker. Nothing like a healthy dose of history (and cholesterol-raising meat) to give a jaded girl a little bit of wonder.

I’ve talked about New York dining institutions before, but Peter Luger is in a different category. The restaurant was established not in the 21st nor 20th centuries, but way back in 1887 in then-predominantly-German neighborhood of Williamsburg (to this day mere blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge). It has been awarded one Michelin Star, was named to the James Beard Foundation’s list of “American Classics,” and was named the best steakhouse in New York by Zagat 28 years in a row (a fact they proudly showcase by lining a wall with the annual award plaques). It is the kind of place that is so popular, they can operate on a cash-only policy. Let me repeat that — a cash only policy. At a steakhouse. Well, to be honest they do honor one credit card — the Peter Luger Card. When I first heard about this, I was pretty skeptical. It sounded absurd, overblown, the kind of place that preys on poor schmucks who go to New York and think that they’re having a real authentic slice of pizza at a random “Original Ray’s.” But even before I knew of all the history and accolades, I had been told by multiple sources over and over that Peter Luger was a must-visit, a unique and extraordinary experience if you liked steak at all. So I tried to stay open-minded, paid a visit to an ATM, and made my way with a group of friends to Williamsburg last Friday night.

 

First Impressions:

The unobtrusive, classic brick facade of Peter Luger Steakhouse.

The unobtrusive, classic brick facade of Peter Luger Steakhouse, a legend looming large on the corner.

 

Because of its enduring popularity, my friend Peter was only able to score a reservation for 6 at 9:45pm, presumably the last seating of the night. Consequently, everything around Peter Luger was closed, and lent the restaurant a sort of “shining beacon” quality (this might have also been due to my intense hunger — I operate more on the early-bird special schedule than the Continental late night dining scene). Peter Luger sits squarely on the corner of its block, the decor traditional and old-fashioned both outside and in. Outside the worn dark wooden signage announces just “Peter Luger” — no mention of what kind of cuisine waits inside — above plain brick and large metal paned windows.

One of the dining rooms in Peter Luger -- plain furnishings except for some whimsical beer steins.

One of the dining rooms in Peter Luger — plain furnishings except for some whimsical beer steins.

Inside, I was immediately reminded of the German beer halls I’ve recently visited, except that here the design is based in the restaurant’s origin, rather than an appeal to a foreign cultural aesthetic. Once you step into Peter Luger you are met with oak floors, a long wooden bar, dark wood paneling and exposed crossbeams bracing white stucco walls. The impression of basic utilitarian necessity, clean but spare reigns supreme — brass chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and plain wooden tables and chairs make up the dining rooms. No tablecloths, no fancy schmancy place settings, no piped in music, and no paintings or posters. The only purely decorative objects were the series of beer steins of different colors and styles that were displayed along the dining room walls.

Even with our late reservation, the bar area was still packed with waiting parties when we arrived, so we milled around waiting to be seated and watched the staff rush from the kitchen to the three dining rooms with plates and plates of outrageously over-portioned food. Clearly this place was expensive, but you get a lot of bang for your buck. Watching the service in action, I couldn’t help but notice that all of the staff seemed to be men in their mid-40s, all dressed in the same suit of plain black pants, white shirts, and aprons, another slightly jarring sign of PL’s old-fashioned approach. Barely ten minutes later the crowds had thinned and our party was called to be seated (in fact, this was an accurate representation of the speed and quality of service — we were in and out of Peter Luger, and left very satisfied, I might add, in a little over an hour).

Sitting down to a table not so far removed from the Ikea dining set I have in my apartment (although PL’s probably has and will endure far longer than mine), we found plain white napkins, plain starter plates, stainless steel silverware and small water glasses. Oh, and a basket piled high with all different types of bread, which our waiter, a gruff but polite and attendant middle-aged man, refilled steadily until our steaks arrived.

 

The Food:

Our bountiful bread basket.

Our bountiful bread basket, with a gravy boat of Peter Luger‘s House Sauce on the right.

Our complimentary bread basket was filled with Parker House-like rolls, slightly charred at the edges, and a onion rolls speckled with salt and garlic and featuring slices of caramelized onion inside. I preferred the onion bread, although both rolls were well salted, chewy and soft. The only improvement would have been adding more onion to the inside of the rolls, to moisten the interior a bit. Alongside the basket were twin gravy boats of PL’s house steak sauce, a tomato-based, tangy condiment that reminded me of a less aggressive cocktail sauce. I tried the house sauce on nearly everything, and found, somewhat surprisingly, it pretty much compliments the menu. Peter’s girlfriend Carol (a pescetarian) even dressed her mixed green salad with it, over the blue cheese dressing she had initially chosen.

The menu at Peter Luger is as laconic as its wait staff — a bit unforgiving in the modern scene of endless options and descriptors (Grass-fed lamb shanks with rosemary clippings, chive blossoms, with a Swiss mint gelee, etc etc). Instead, you’re faced with a remarkably simple set of choices. Choose some appetizers. Choose some sides. You want steak? Choose how many people you want steak for, your options ranging from “Single Steak” to “Steak for Four,” with no elaboration on the preparation, cut, or how it is served (I guess in 1887, the idea of the empowered diner did not exist). Fortunately, most of us had done some level of research beforehand, and Diana had read that the best strategy was to get steak for (n-1), with n = the number of meateaters dining. So for our five carnivores, we would get enough steak for four people. But here’s the catch — there’s a difference between all those Steak for X entrees — what is not stated on the menu is that those are all different cuts of beef. My research had uncovered that PL’s  best cut was their Steak for Two, the Porterhouse, whereas the Steak for Four is a T-bone. We opted for two orders of the famous Steak for Two, five orders of the similarly famous bacon (offered by the single slice, and a must-try according to everyone I talked to), two orders of French Fries for Two, two orders of Onion Rings for Two, and some creamed spinach. Go big or go home, folks.

Bacon worth breaking the rules for.

Bacon worth breaking the rules for.

The bacon was the first to arrive, served as an appetizer. Now those who know me might be wondering why I ordered bacon in the first place. All through my childhood I operated under the premise that my family did not eat bacon in observance of kosher law (never mind our hypocritical love of crab crakes and beer-boiled shrimp), so I avoided any and all pork products I came across. Sometime during college my illusions were shattered when my father ordered a side of bacon at brunch, and since then, while I continue to avoid seeking out pork-based dishes (no carnitas for me), I don’t have a problem ordering a Cobb salad or a chowder with bacon in the broth. It’s hard to say no to a restaurant’s signature dish, however, so I was resigned to try Peter Luger’s bacon and see if it could win over a porcine-averse palate.

Peter Luger offers their bacon in single slice servings, which are doled out onto each plate by the waiter. Bacon-ignorant as I am, I could only guess that Peter Luger’s version is closer to the Canadian Bacon patties I’ve seen in Eggs Benedict than the thin crispy pieces on typical diner breakfast plates. The pink slice was thick, with a dark edge and lighter interior, and dwarfed my small bread-and-butter plate in length (it was probably the length of a standard oval seving dish). I tentatively cut into it, speared a bite, and suddenly understood our collective fascination with bacon.  The meat was simultaneously salty, savory, and unctuous. It was totally addictive, probably due to how how the fat content was — as Diana astutely pointed out, a cross section of the bacon revealed a small pink center bookended by delicious deposits of fat. Of course, the bacon was equally delicious dipped into the House Sauce, the sweet tang of the sauce complementing the sharp, salty meat. I’m not sure I could have had more than the one slice I got (especially considering the bounty of beef to come), but it was well worth breaking my person food rules. In what will become a common refrain in this post — listen to the hoi polloi when it comes to Peter Luger — the popular opinion knows what it’s talking about.

The steak, slightly elevated by smaller plates, mid-service.

The Steak for Two, slightly elevated by smaller plates, mid-service.

Only a few minutes after our somewhat-inappropriate bacon-induced moans of pleasure had subsided, our waiter was back, briskly removing our starter plates and replacing them with full sized dinner plates and a new set of silverware, including intimidating steak knives. Then, the main course service began. It’s a bit of a production, with multiple waiters assaulting the table with large portions of food in a precise, efficient display of well-honed showmanship. Although far from the highly-choreographed synchronized serving in high-end restaurants like Daniel, there is still a level of theatricality to the exodus of steak from the Peter Luger kitchen to each table. When our waiter brought out the bacon, he had inexplicably placed two bread-and-butter plates upside down in the middle of the table. As our steaks arrived their purpose became clear — the platters of meat are placed with one end resting on the butter plate, so the platter tilts, allowing the juices to drain down to the other end, which are then spooned back onto the steak, effectively pan-basting the meat table-side.

 

The hand-served elements of our meal, from left to right: creamed spinach, potato hash, steak.

The hand-served elements of our meal, from left to right: creamed spinach, potato hash, steak.

The porterhouses come pre-sliced, with some meat still left on the bone. Each diner is served a couple steaming pieces of the steak by one waiter, while another spoons out the creamed spinach, and a third serves the potato hash (which we didn’t know came with the steak, another insider tip that probably would have led us to opt out of the fries). The rest of the sides were served on platters, family style, in large heaping mounds. The general consensus was that at Peter Luger, the descriptive phrase “for two” implies two adults roughly equal in size to Shaq.

 

Classic steak fries -- my favorite kind.

Classic steak fries — my favorite kind.

The enormous pile of onion rings -- if a Bloomin Onion and calamari had a baby, it would taste like this.

The enormous pile of onion rings — if a Bloomin’ Onion and calamari had a baby, it would taste like this.

The creamed spinach was definitely heavy on the cream, almost the consistency of a Indian saag dish. My first bite was smooth and flavorful, but the spinach wore on me in the face of all of the fried foods and rich pieces of steak. I much preferred the fries and onion rings (what? it’s not like creamed spinach is really a “healthy choice” here). The fries were my favorite variety — thick cut steak fries, with excellent crisp on the outside and a soft starchy center. The onion rings were by far my favorite side, as evidenced by the hefty amount of damage I unleashed on the plate on my half of the table. I generally find that onion rings suffer from too many potential weaknesses, from the type of breading used to the thickness of the onion slice. But these were like the shoestring fries equivalent of onion rings, as if someone had sliced through a Bloomin’ Onion to the thinnest degree and piled it high. The thin slivers of onion were lightly fried, crunchy and crispy and well-salted to provide a contrast to the meat.

A view of the carnage mid-meal.

A view of the carnage mid-meal.

Speaking of, let’s turn our focus away from the hanger-ons and pan over to the star of the show, the Steak for Two. Even days later, it’s hard for me to articulate how delicious this piece of meat was. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve become a part-time vegetarian these days, and even before then I’d generally opt for duck or lamb over a steak, but when I bit into the porterhouse at Peter Luger, I suddenly remembered why I’ve never turned in my carnivore card. This was, hands down, legitimately one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten — it was perfectly medium rare, with a vibrant pink center, and dripping with juice as you cut into it. The first bite released an explosion of earthy, funky beef flavor with great crust on the outside, tender as you chewed, and slowly melting on your tongue to linger as a smooth, naturally umami aftertaste.

 

Bowls of shlag on a nearby table, waiting to be served.

Bowls of shlag on a nearby table, waiting to be served.

Although Serious Eats has named Peter Luger as having one of the best hot fudge sundaes in NYC (slightly dubious since they use Haagen Daz ice cream), we were way too full to test that claim. However, over the course of our entire meal we had seen waiters walk by with heaping bowls of whipped cream (referred to as “schlag”) as topping for the various desserts. As a lifelong whipped cream fanatic (I’ll choose it over frosting any day), I jokingly said we should ask our waiter if we could just get a bowl of schlag for dessert. Peter seized on my idea, and as soon as our waiter appeared to clear the table, Peter asked him if that was possible, literally inquiring as to if they would accommodate us, maybe for a little extra  (like $3 or something). Without a saying a word, our waiter just disappeared back into the kitchen, the doors barely swinging closed before he emerged with a full bowl of shlag exclusively for our table. While the bowl had only one spoon with it, it was served alongside PL’s signature parting gift, a bunch of chocolate coins (it’s Chanukah in August!), which served as excellent vehicles to shove the shlag into our mouths (I did eventually ask for more spoons). The shlag was heavenly — real whipped heavy cream, instead of the pressurized Reddiwhip. It was thick and slightly sweet with a faint vanilla flavoring. I would honestly go back just to get the chance to have more shlag. It was a truly decadent way to end an absurdly indulgent evening.

A bowl of shlag to call our own, with Peter Luger gelt for dipping!

A bowl of shlag to call our own, with Peter Luger gelt for dipping!

Final Thoughts:

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There are countless movies and TV shows featuring an awestruck out-of-towner “discovering” New York, marveling at the tall buildings, boating on the lake in Central Park, and spinning around Times Square, overwhelmed by the glitz and glamour. Unfortunately, it’s hard to live day-to-day in this city and not start to notice the grime coating those bright lights. Between the homeless people, the piles of garbage, and the way the streets smell faintly of urine in the summer — it can be hard to keep the magic of the Big Apple in mind, especially when something just dripped on you and there’s not a cloud in the sky.

But sometimes the City finds a way to rub some more of that metropolitan sparkle into your eyes, finds a way to remind you of the collision of history, cultures, and sheer humanity that makes up New York. The fact that within a week I can eat at both the trendy, multicultural Spice Market and the traditional, fuhgeddaboudit, historic landmark Peter Luger Steakhouse is a testament to the endless possibilities of life in New York. My dinner at Peter Luger was a great wake-up call, a classically New York experience — this is how we do things, and you can like it or leave it. Well, like most of the diners at Peter Luger, I really, really liked it. From porterhouse-pros to those less beef-inclined, everyone should check it out, and at least put those Zagat claims to the test. Get a taste of history, get a bit of a New York attitude purer than that at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and for the love of God, get a bowl of shlag. Trust me — I’m from around here.

 

Peter Luger Steakhouse

178 Broadway (at Driggs Ave)

peterluger.com