A Slurp Worth Waiting For: The Fabled Ramen of Ippudo

2014-02-05 12.46.03

Among the many reasons why I know that inside I’m an old lady (my reprehensibly early bedtime, my inability to heat my extremities, my tendency to bake cookies when bored), one of the strongest arguments is my love affair with soup. Chili, stew, chowder, consomme — gimme a bit of broth and I am down to disco. Not convinced that I’m weirdly into soup? Check out my adoration of the avgolemono at Village Taverna — that’s just chicken noodle!

Combine this with my umami lust, and the first item on Maggie’s winter dining list has got to be ramen. I’ve actually only discussed ramen one time on this blog, despite its treasured place in my heart. I guess the truth is I really don’t have it that often, and perhaps that’s why I leapt when I had the chance to actually eat at Ippudo last week, despite the staggering mountains of snow streaming down from the clouds.

Calling Ippudo “popular” is like calling Yo Yo Ma “kinda good at cello.” If you’re not a fan of the “no reservation” trend in NY dining, do not go to Ippudo (unless it’s in the middle of a snowstorm, as we will see). In a world of long lines for NY ramen, Ippudo is king. Their original location in the East Village is known for handing out epic wait times ranging up to 4 hours, and most visitors put their name on the list knowing full well they’ll need to head to a nearby bar and fervently pray for ramen sometime in the near future.

Ippudo opened up a new location in Hells Kitchen this past year, with a larger dining area and their noodle kitchen in the basement, but most people I’ve talked to didn’t know about it. Thanks to a robust snowfall (and a power outage at work), Jacob and I had a snowday, and decided that ramen was the perfect cure for the wet and windy weather. We opted to go to Ippudo Westside, even with the extra hurdle of subway snarls, because of the extra seating (and the potential back-up option of Totto Ramen, which has also been highly recommended for its noodle bowls).

 

First Impressions:

With it's simple exterior and plain sign, it's easy to completely miss the entrance to Ippudo Westside.

With it’s simple exterior and plain sign, it’s easy to completely miss the entrance to Ippudo Westside.

Ippudo Westside is located just off of 8th Ave, on 51st Street, and has about as nondescript an exterior as you can get without appearing to be intentionally hiding. The entrance is on the basement level of the building, so you have to go down a small set of steps to get inside. A large plate glass window gives you a glimpse of the ramen counter in the first room, but it’s not until you pass through the series of doors and curtains to the interior that you realize there’s a whole other room full of booths and tables.

The ramen counter as nearly as busy as I had expected it to be...

The ramen counter as nearly as busy as I had expected it to be…

... but the dining room was nearly empty.

… but the dining room was nearly empty.

 

The decor is pretty much what you’d expect from a Japanese restaurant — lots of bamboo, clean lines, and accents of white, black and red. Ippudo is actually an international chain, with restaurants in Australia, Malayasia, China and more, so I have to imagine their aesthetic is standardized. Regardless, you’re not coming here for the paint job, so let’s talk ramen.

The Food:

I had honestly expected to wait, even on a Wednesday at 1pm in the middle of a snowstorm, but although the ramen counter was pretty full, the dining room had just one table occupied, and so we were ushered right in. Which means I can’t really tell you if Ippudo is worth a 5 hour wait, but for a 30 second wait, it’s really frickin good. The staff was super-attentive — our waiter must have checked on us ten times over the course of the meal, seeing if we were ready to order, refilling our water, wiping down our table, clearing and replacing our plates at every stage of the meal, and of course repeatedly asking how every piece of food was. As a whole our lunch sped by, the entire meal taking probably less than 45 minutes, which I suppose makes sense in a restaurant where you’re trying to clear the tables as fast as possible for the endless stream of diners looming in the wings.

Jacob was ravenous, so we ended up ordering way more food than I had anticipated (fool me once, shame on you, fool me way too many times at this point …).We got the Ippudo Lunch Set, which gives you a choice of ramen with a small salad and a rice bowl topped with either pork, chicken or eel. We chose the Akamaru Modern Ramen and the Eel Rice Bowl, with an order of the Hirata Vegetable Buns to start. Then, after we had finished all that, Jacob was still hungry, so he peer-pressured me into getting another order of buns, this time filled with chicken. And that didn’t prevent us from going for dessert later that afternoon (although we had a nice walk through wintry Central Park in between, and afterwards, back at home,  I fell into a slight food coma back at home).

 

The Vegetable Hirata Buns -- renewing my love of kewpie mayo.

The Vegetable Hirata Buns — renewing my love of kewpie mayo.

The Chicken Hirata Bun, distinguishable only by the color of the glaze.

The Chicken Hirata Bun, distinguishable only by the color of the glaze.

As I mentioned above, it seemed like our order of Hirata Buns (Steamed buns(2pc) filled with your choice of Pork, Chicken or Eggplant & Eringi Mushroom, served with Ippudo‘s original spicy sauce and mayo) arrived a snap second after asking for them. They were very simply plated, the pair of buns sitting solo on a rectangular plate, but just like the decor, Ippudo let’s the food speak for itself. The only way to distinguish the vegetable buns from the chicken was the hue of the patty — the vegetable a deeper chocolate brown compared to the chicken’s lighter orange brown. Both patties were deep-fried and slathered in sauce and (what I assume was) kewpie mayo (http://www.thekitchn.com/what-is-kewpie-mayonnaise-44639). The creamy mayo balanced the heat and acidity of the sauce perfectly, and in both rounds the steamed bun itself was terrific, soft and chewy against the crunch of the romaine. I thought the chicken was satisfactory, though not mindblowing, triggering nostalgia for the General Tso’s chicken you get free samples of in mall food courts (Jacob said it took him back to childhood meals at Pick Up Stix).

I was much more intrigued by the vegetable buns, especially since they combined two of my favorite veggies. The mix of eggplant and mushroom were cooked to silky smoothness, but with enough remaining texture to be almost meaty, standing up against the panko coating. I was reminded of a cheeseless eggplant parm, and I mean that in the best way possible.

 

The basic, but artfully dressed side salad.

The basic, but artfully dressed side salad.

The salad and the Eel Rice Bowl were both just entre-acts before the main event, like clown cars before the trapeze artists step out on the platform. Again, both were cleanly and simply presented, the salad in a white, vaguely pentagonal bowl and the eel in a shiny black one. The salad was made up of a variety of greens, with some red cabbage and radicchio thrown in amongst the arugula and spinach. It was tossed in a subtle dressing, lighter than the usual viscous ginger-carrot dressing you get with a sushi bar salad. I’d guess it was the wasabi goma shoyu dressing used in the Ippudo Salad, but I didn’t really taste the wasabi at all, mostly just a subtle soy-based vinaigrette that helped the salad to function as a palate cleanser between the buns and our ramen.

 

The Eel Rice Bowl -- better in bite size, sushi form.

The Eel Rice Bowl — better in bite size, sushi form.

I had pushed to get the Eel Rice Bowl because eel has become my favorite order for sushi. The broiled eel arrived brightly seared and fragrant, sitting atop sticky sushi rice and a bit of seaweed. It was salty and smoky, but overall a little one-note for my taste. I think I prefer the bite-size sushi ratio of eel to rice better than the bowl version here, where it was hard to make the eel meat last through the entire portion of rice.

 

The Akamaru Modern Ramen, which actually lived up to all the buzz about it on the Internet.

The Akamaru Modern Ramen, which actually lived up to all the buzz about it on the Internet.

As you can see from the photo, we hadn’t even made it through our Eel Rice Bowl by the time the Akamaru Modern Ramen (“A more bold, modern translation of the original pork broth; thin noodles topped with Ippudo’s secret “Umami Dama” miso paste, pork chashu, cabbage, sesame kikurage mushrooms, scallions, and fragrant garlic oil”) arrived. My pre-meal research had told me that this was the best of Ippudo’s offerings, foregoing the more traditional ramen for this variety. Well, I have to say thank God for Internet-based food crowd-sourcing, because dammit if this wasn’t the best ramen I’ve ever had. Maybe I need to experience more ramen (and get over my Jewish guilt about eating pork), but I was just knocked out by this bowl of soup. The tonkotsu broth was incredibly rich and creamy, with small circles of fat floating lazily on top of it. I know it’s an overused descriptor, but you can’t help but describe the broth as “silky.” The black ribbons in the photo are actually shredded mushrooms, the slim ramen noodles hiding just below the surface. The red dollop is the Umami Dama miso paste, which when swirled throughout the soup provides a wallop of earthiness to augment the mushrooms. Counteracting that is the bite of the garlic oil and the acidity of the scallions. The noodles were perfectly al dente, holding their structure to the last slurp without becoming tough and chewy. I mostly picked around the slices of pork chashu, but the bites I tried were melt-in-your-mouth tender, salty and satisfying, although Jacob, of more refined pig palate, thought they were fairly run of the mill. I much preferred the soft boiled egg we had added to the order. You can see from the picture the semisolid state of the yolk, and the white was warm and toothsome. My only complaint was the temperature of the ramen — Jacob was content because he’s a wimp when it comes to hot soups, but I thought the broth could have been a touch warmer to start with. Ippudo offers the option of Kae-dama, or supplementary noodles, but frankly, I think you’d have to be half-starved to want them, since there were more than enough for Jacob and me to split and feel like we’d gotten our fill.

 

Final Thoughts:

Before we knew it, our whirlwind trip to Ippudo was at an end, our waiter rushing us off with a multiplicity of shouts of “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much) echoed by each member of the staff as we made our way out the door. It was an entertaining, if somewhat surreal experience, so different from what I had anticipated in terms of wait and dining time that I was caught somewhat off guard. Perhaps the secret of Ippudo Westside is not really out beyond the Midtown lunchers, or maybe other New Yorkers aren’t as devoted to ramen exploration as I am, preferring to stay local when a blizzard strikes. Regardless, it gives me possibly false hope that I can find the right time to arrange a return to Ippudo. This westside location has a vegan ramen that is supposed to blow the lid off of lame veggie ramen (which I have experienced before). The company is also apparently planning a secret restaurant in the upstairs space of Ippudo Westside, allegedly called Men-Oh and offering a completely different menu from the ramen locations. Given my experience with their vegetable and chicken buns, I’d be more than willing to see what non-ramen offerings the Ippudo kitchen staff can come up with.

All in all, I’d say Ippudo is worth the hype, but I feel I have to reiterate the unique circumstances of my visit. Is it worth a bit of a wait? Yeah, I’d say I’d wait an hour to have the high quality Japanese food they offer. 4 hours, well, I’m not sure about that, but I’m also the girl who got her Cronut through an intermediary. But if you’re willing to play the game and go during an off-time, you may just have the speedy, efficient, friendly service I experienced, in which case you’re in for a treat of noodle soup to brighten an old lady’s week. So put down your knitting and aim for the early bird special — I hear we’ve got a few more weeks of winter left and Ippudo’s ramen will definitely warm you to the bone.

 

Ippudo Westside

321 W 51st St (between 8th and 9th Avenues)

http://www.ippudony.com/about-west.html

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Restaurant Week at Spice Market: Eastern Quotidian by Highly Trained Hands

2013-07-28 18.49.46

I’ve always been fascinated by fusion restaurants. They take a big risk by combining disparate cuisines, since it’s pretty easy to end up simply highlighting the worst parts of your original food cultures. Fusion is also one of those trends that many argue has been overdone, nearly guaranteeing a raised eyebrow if not a full-on eye-roll when you mention the hottest new fusion spot — oh right, we really needed someone to mash together Ethiopian and Ecuadorian food. (Wait, does that exist?)

I know that poorly executed fusion restaurants are out there, but I’ve yet to encounter one that truly disappointed me. I spent a number of birthday dinners in high school at Ruby Foo’s in Times Square, marveling at their takes on Chinese food made with a quarter of the grease used by my local takeout place. I even liked the few times I went to Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, first in Tampa, and later in Philadelphia. I’d never had Hawaiian food before, and I thought the Asian twist (logical, I suppose, given the geography and cultural heritage of Hawaii) worked as a great entry point into Hawaiian ingredients and preparations. I’ve been eager to try more traditional Hawaiian food since then (maybe even spam fried rice?), so if anyone has a recommendation for a spot in New York, I’d be very grateful.

When Summer Restaurant Week 2013 rolled around, I already had my eye on visiting one of Jean Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants. The man is a legend in the New York and world food scene, and what’s the point of Restaurant Week if not to briefly make reachable to the plebeian masses the haute cuisine of the upper crust? However, part of what made my Winter Restaurant Week meal at Kutsher’s Tribeca so satisfying was the way they reinvented familiar dishes (reuben spring rolls, anyone?), so rather than pick the more conventional Nougatine, I thought Vongerichten’s Spice Market might prove a more thrilling culinary adventure. And lucky for Jacob, his cousin Carolyn, and I, our Restaurant Week supper there last Sunday was exactly that.

 

First Impressions:

The modest exterior of Spice Market belies its intricately designed interior.

The modest exterior of Spice Market belies its intricately designed interior.

Spice Market is located in the heart of the Meatpacking District, caddy-corner to the Gansevoort Hotel. Walking up to the restaurant, I realized I had passed it a number of times, but never connected the space with the name. This is in part because of how unassuming the outside of Spice Market is — it’s housed in one of those nondescript Meatpacking former warehouses, built mainly of brick and wrought iron.

I'm pretty sure every multilevel restaurant needs to add a tower at the top of their staircase.

I’m pretty sure every multilevel restaurant needs to add a tower at the top of their staircase.

The interior, however, is a completely different story. Inspired by his experiences traveling through Asia, the aim of Spice Market is to apply classical French cooking techniques to popular Asian street food. The decor focuses mainly on this Eastern influence, blurring the lines between chic temple, nightclub, and opium den. The space is dominated by dark wood, vaulted ceilings, and Asian architectural features, from the multilevel, narrow staircase topped by what appears to be a bell tower (actually holding a lamp inside), to the draping of dark red and orange curtains all around, to the intricate wood carving that encloses the bar. The staff is dressed head-to-toe in orange Buddhist-esque robes, except for the white-and-orange-decked busboys (and the general manager, who wore a suit). Asian lanterns lend a soft glow to everything (hence my fuzzy photos), but at the same time you have the familiar exposed ceilings and pulsing music, leaving behind a zen setting for the louder tenor of the NY dining scene.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

 

I was first to arrive, so I made my way over to the bar and ordered a cocktail. Spice Market has a full bar with domestic and Indian beers and a variety of speciality drinks, created using housemade syrups and sodas. After conferring with the bartender, I went with the Passion Fruit Sangria (Gewurztraminer, Gran Gala, Blackberry, Orange). Jacob and Carolyn arrived soon after, and chose the Whiskey Passion Fizz (George Dickel No. 12, Passion Fruit, Chili, Ginger Ale) and Cucumber Chill (Dill-infused Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Cucumber, Lemon), respectively. I found my sangria light and refreshing (I’m obviously an ardent fan of the drink in general — Calle Ocho, anyone?), the white wine laying a more delicate base, and the Gran Gala (an orange liquer) mixing smoothly with the fruit components. The passion fruit itself wasn’t particularly prominent, aside from lending an overall tropical flair. I’d recommend it as a great drink for brunch, if you’re in the mood for something fun and fruity.

My Passion Fruit Sangria on the right, and Jacob's Whiskey Passion Fizz on the left. You can see a small glimpse of our orange-bedecked bartender in the background.

My Passion Fruit Sangria on the right, and Jacob’s Whiskey Passion Fizz on the left. You can see a small glimpse of our orange-bedecked bartender in the background.

Jacob’s Whiskey Passion Fizz had more of a kick to it than I expected (both in spice and strength), but I enjoyed it despite a dislike of both ginger ale and whiskey. Carolyn’s was my least favorite drink, although she was happy she picked it. She said it tasted like a pickle, which immediately made me wary, but when I took a sip I found it lacked the harsh vinegar quality I dislike so much, coming off more like cucumber water with a bit of a kick, with no real flavor of vodka at all. But let’s stop dilly-dallying with discussions of alcohol — the main attraction awaits.

The Food:

We were seated shortly after our set reservation time, and in general the staff was fairly attentive. Our waiter was happy to answer any and all of our questions at first, but he only appeared a few times to take our orders and check in at the entree stage. However, I saw the general manager walking around multiple times throughout the evening, scanning the floor and checking with tables, even adjusting a place setting once to make sure everything was aligned and straight. The food itself came very quickly, served family-style so that at one point we were almost overwhelmed by the influx of dishes. I was also happy to note the frequent refilling of our water glasses, a pet peeve of mine that pettily can strongly influence my overall impression of a meal.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Our meal started with a complimentary bowl of pappadum-type lentil crackers. I found the pappadums at most Indian restaurants to be either too bland and soft, or too burnt and smoky, but these were a different breed altogether. They were like lentil tortilla chips, thicker and crunchier, and more capable of scooping up the hot tomato chutney they were served with.

Both Jacob and I opted for the Restaurant Week menu, but Carolyn was more interested in Spice Market’s regular offerings. At first I was concerned, since some restaurants make everyone at the table opt into the RW menu if any diner chooses it, but our waiter quickly confirmed that Carolyn was fine ordering a la carte.

Carolyn chose the Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings and the Spicy Thai Slaw to start, and then the Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu as her entree. Jacob selected the Salmon Sashimi, followed by the Kimchi Fried Rice, and I ordered the Spiced Shrimp Broth, followed by the Wok Charred Daikon Cake. We all split two of the Restaurant Week desserts: the Black Sesame Cake and the Malted Chocolate Parfait.

The Spicy Thai Slaw Salad: not so spicy, but a refreshing way to start a meal.

The Spicy Thai Slaw Salad: not so spicy, but a refreshing way to start a meal.

The appetizers came out in a steady stream, starting with Carolyn’s salad. The Spicy Thai Slaw (with Asian pear, crispy shallots, and mint) was one of my favorite dishes of the night. A refreshing shredded cabbage salad, it had just a hint of heat that was balanced by the coolness of the mint and the sweetness of the Asian pear (similar in flavor to a mild apple). The crunch of the cabbage and the crispy shallots kept it interesting texturally, although by the time you reached the bottom of the bowl the salad was a little soggy from all of the pooled dressing.

Spicy Thai Chicken Wings -- these aren't kidding on the spice, but they'll put up a good fight against Buffalo Wild Wings.

Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings — these aren’t kidding on the spice, and they’ll put up a good fight against Buffalo Wild Wings.

The Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings (with sliced mango and mint) lived up to their name a little more. I’ve never been into wings, so this dish didn’t impress me all that much, but even as an outsider observer I could tell that the breading was truly crispy, and the meat was very tender and juicy. Much like the inclusion of the mint in the salad, here it worked with the mango to cool down the heat of the wings, which I found a little too spicy for my liking. If you are a wings fan, I’d definitely recommend giving this dish a go — it was lightly fried so that the crust gave great texture without veering into the extremes of either too crunchy or mushily falling off the meat.

Although Jacob and I were attempting to experience the majority of the Restaurant Week menu by splitting the dishes, we both found ourselves drawn to appetizers the other wouldn’t like. We tried to find common ground in the other two appetizers, but the Mixed Green Salad and Beef Satay just couldn’t stand up against our respective love of salmon and shrimp. So we gave each other a pass on the starters, and in retrospect it was a strong strategic move.

The Salmon Sashimi, delicately layered and covered in a creamy sauce.

The Salmon Sashimi, delicately layered and covered in a creamy sauce.

Jacob seemed to really enjoy his Salmon Sashimi (with Golden Garlic and Lemon Soy), which arrived in small slivers drizzled with a creamy sauce. I tried a piece (I’m trying to get on the raw fish bandwagon, one leg at a time, folks), and like my Seattle salmon encounter, I could tell the the fish was of a very high quality, even if the flavor didn’t do much for me. The sauce reminded me of scallion cream cheese — perhaps a vaguely Japanese nod towards bagels and lox?

The Spiced Shrimp Broth -- this photo doesn't do the depth of flavor of this soup proper justice at all.

The Spiced Shrimp Broth — this photo doesn’t do the depth of flavor of this soup proper justice at all.

Now I could go on and on about my Spiced Shrimp Broth (with glass noodles and herbs). If you’re a fan of shellfish, this was a mindblowingly good preparation of it, and has stuck with me out of all the dishes at Spice Market, even several days later. Truth be told, after being in New England this weekend, and Seattle just a few weeks ago, I was prepared to come back down to earth from shellfish heaven and relearn to be satisfied with New York’s pretty solid fish scene. But as an eternal shrimp lover, I couldn’t overlook this appetizer once I spotted it. This soup is like a punch in the mouth of shrimp — pure, luscious, somehow achieving the kind of deep flavor you usually have in a dense bisque, though this broth was very light (and bright pink). The bowl contained mostly long strings of the glass noodles with small chunks of shrimp at the bottom, making me think of pho but with a seafood twist (is there some Thai or Vietnamese non-coconut soup that I don’t know about? Please let me know, I will order it always). On top of the broth floated leaves of cilantro and basil, adding an herbal brightness to the natural umami of the shrimp. I legitimately could have had a gallon of this soup and left a happy camper.

 

The simple components of the Kimchi Fried Rice: beef, rice, kimchi. Still a solid dish, though.

The simple components of the Kimchi Fried Rice: beef, rice, kimchi. Still a solid dish, though.

However, this was just the beginning — next up, our entrees. Jacob’s Kimchi Fried Rice with Korean Beef came out first. You can see from the photo that the dish was heavier on the rice aspect than the beef. I found this especially disappointing, because the Korean beef was melt-in-your-mouth good. The shortribs were presented in a small rectangle lightly dusted with sesame seeds atop the rice, the individual strands of meat visible to the naked eye. Sticking a fork in, little chunks flaked away beautifully, like long-braised brisket. I can understand the restraint given how rich the beef was, but when you come across well done shortribs, it’s just hard to stop and savor the flavors laminating your tongue. The rice was nicely chewy, and had a bit of the pop from sour kimchi. It was much more subtle a taste than I expected, given my previous experiences with heavily pickled kimchi. The dish worked as a whole, but it was much more muted overall than I had anticipated, especially considering the limited and straightforward components of rice, beef, and slices of kimchi.

 

Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu -- intriguing and new, if a little much for a full entree.

Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu — intriguing and new, if a little much for a full entree.

Carolyn’s Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu in Black Bean Sauce lingered with me a bit more. Carolyn and I agreed that the tofu had a deep, smoky taste, but Jacob thought the tofu was only mildly flavored. Although I think smoked food can be hit or miss, I liked that the kitchen had achieved a burnt flavor for the tofu without altering the texture too much — this wasn’t charred to a crisp, but still the soft squares of tofu you find in miso soup. The pearl noodles were thick like udon, but not quite as long, and were tender from soaking up the moisture from the black bean sauce. The sauce had a great earthy flavor, full of fermented beans and infused with soy, coming off as just slightly sweet. I enjoyed the small bites I had, but I wouldn’t order it for my main course. I think a full bowl of it would end up being too cloyingly sweet and decadent.

 

The Wok Charred Daikon Cake -- redefining the idea of "cake" and unexpectedly addictive.

The Wok Charred Daikon Cake — redefining the idea of “cake” and unexpectedly addictive.

Last, but certainly not least, was my Wok Charred Daikon Cake (with scallions and peanuts). I was on a roll with my menu selections, because this ended up being my second favorite dish of our dinner, sliding in right behind the Spiced Shrimp Broth. I wasn’t sure exactly would arrive when I read the words “daikon cake” on the menu, and our waiter unfortunately didn’t give clarity. Knowing that daikon is a radish, I had to wonder if it would be some sort of tower of slices? The bowl of food that eventually arrived at our table was far from any definition of cake I’ve ever heard of — it looked more like a curry with a thick sauce, cubed pieces of unbelievably soft radish, slices of red chiles, scallions, and whole peanuts. Digging a little deeper while writing this post, it seems like (at least from Google image search) daikon cake is usually made from radish cooked and compressed into a square or rectangle. Spice Market’s take seemed to then deconstruct that cake, chopping it up into chunks, and folding it into a stew of sauce and vegetables. This gave the daikon pieces an almost eggplant-like texture, soft and succulent. While the rest of the dish verged on smooth and squishy, the peanuts were moist but still crunchy, which kept the texture from being too monotonous. The Thai theme comes out again in this dish, which I found reminiscent of a Thai curry in terms of the deep, layered flavors, and inclusion of peanuts. Salty, sweet, with just a tiny kick from the chile peppers, I just kept ladling more and more onto my plate.

I know this must sound highly suspicious coming from me, but dessert was kinda an afterthought for our dinner. After the stream of new exotic flavor pairings that had steamrolled across my tastebuds, I found our two desserts perfectly adequate, but far from showstoppers. I felt that the Black Sesame Cake (with green tea mousse and yuzu) was the lesser of the two dishes. Truth be told, I’ve had sesame desserts before — ice cream flavors and other versions of cakes, and I’ve never really gotten the appeal. I like sesame in savory dishes, but as a card-carrying chocoholic, it’s just never been sweet enough for me in a dessert setting.

 

The Black Sesame Cake -- with tasty shards of sesame brittle.

The Black Sesame Cake — with tasty squares of sesame brittle.

The cake arrived in a small bowl, a deep green square seated upon the green tea mousse, and topped with yuzu ice cream, shards of sesame brittle, and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds. The cake itself was a little dry, but the mousse and the yuzu ice cream added brighter flavors and a bit of moisture. Overall it just read too savory to me — I know green tea is not an unusual flavoring for Asian desserts, but I really only think of it in the context of a beverage, and while the citrusy taste of the yuzu was pleasing, I’m arbitrarily picky about fruit-based desserts.

 

The Malted Chocolate Parfait -- a delicious, if oddly American dessert.
The Malted Chocolate Parfait — a delicious, if oddly American dessert.

The Malted Chocolate Parfait (with caramel crumble and summer berries) was much more in my wheelhouse, and so it’s no surprise that I dug right into it. The malted chocolate came in the form of a mousse as the bottom layer of the parfait, topped with blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries, then the “caramel crumble” (basically a streusel topping), and finally vanilla ice cream and chocolate crunchies. I didn’t get much of a malted flavor, but as I’m not a fan of Whoppers, I wasn’t complaining. It was served in a small bowl, and I appreciated the modest portion size. Combined with the lightness of the mousse and ice cream, it was a good way to end the meal, with pure, fresh-tasting ingredients that didn’t weigh you down. After the variety of Asian-influenced dishes of the night, it was a little odd how All-American this seemed, from the fresh berries to the crumble. Overall the dessert was comforting, and I was glad I had it to contrast against the more exotic black sesame cake.

 

Final Thoughts:

My Restaurant Week trip to Spice Market was a fantastic dinner that had me trying new flavors, while still enjoying some well-executed combos I was familiar with. It’s a great bang-for-your-buck spot for Restaurant Week, since the menu doesn’t skimp on portions, and offers both dishes that appear on the regular menu, as well some RW exclusives. And when you take into account the caliber of the chef behind Spice Market, it’s pretty affordable in general (they offer a $25 lunch “bento box” prix fixe, and the tasting menu at dinner is only $48). I’m eager to go back and dive into the menu a bit more, since there were plenty of dishes that appealed to me, across all the categories, from appetizers to dessert (Ovaltine Kulfi — what is that, and can I eat it now?).

All in all, Spice Market gets a strong recommendation from me for good service, a trendy and fun vibe, and for offering genre-bending dishes that challenge more staid palates without pushing too far into exotic ingredients or spice levels. To me, that’s one of the best goals for fusion restaurants — to offer a smooth entryway for diners into new flavor combinations and cuisines through more well-known techniques. At Spice Market, Jean Georges gently coaxes his diners to step through those orange curtains and sample some street food from worlds beyond the NY dirty-water dogs and a bag from Nuts-4-Nuts. Sure, you’re missing the hustle and bustle of humanity from the markets of Asia, but maybe if Jean Georges does his job right, you’ll want to pay a visit someday and see just what inspired him in the first place.

 

Spice Market

403 W 13th St

New York, NY 10014

spicemarketnewyork.com

Doughn’t Let the Name Fool You: Far from the Assembly Line at Doughnut Plant

After my recent post about Cronuts and croissants, it seems only fitting that I complete the set with a look at a doughnut shop. I’ve never really felt the urge to explore the doughnut options in New York — to be honest, doughnuts fall pretty low on my list of desired desserts. It’s probably due to my limited exposure growing up, where my doughnut encounters consisted of rec soccer game boxes of Dunkin Donuts’ Munchkins, Entenmann’s Pop ‘Ems, and the occasional cider doughnut on apple picking trips. My Californian friends tell me that doughnuts are a whole different story on the West Coast, and perhaps if I had grown up there, I would have at least had more of an appreciation for a solid deep-fried delicacy. But with the nearest Krispy Kreme location states away, I puttered along in ignorance. Believe me, I was perfectly happy taking those Pop ‘Ems down when the opportunity arose, but no doughnut had ever truly made me think twice about what I was biting into.

My first glimpse into the larger doughnut universe came during my first year working in New York. A coworker was gifted with a large box from Doughnut Plant, a decadent doughnuttery on the LES. He was generous enough to share his goodies with the office, and in doing so, unintentionally opened up a personal Pandora’s Box of possibilities for me. There was nary an oozing Boston Creme Pie or half-glazed cruller to be seen. Instead, square and round yeast and cake donuts with exotic flavors like Lavender, Blackberry, and Pistachio were laid out in neat rows before me,  and as I bit into a coconut cream doughnut, I suddenly found myself fervently wishing they would open up a shop closer to the office.

Well, owner Mark Israel must have somehow heard my prayer, because less than a year later Doughnut Plant opened up a second location nearby in the Chelsea Hotel. But hopeless fool that I am, it took two years and a different job in a different state for me to finally pay a visit to the actual bakery. This weekend I finally made good on that promise to myself, braving the heat (on a day that just demanded ice cream — but goddammit, I was doughnut-bound and determined) and finally finding my way inside this New York doughnutopia.

First Impressions:

Doughnut Plant has a pretty extensive history for a New York bakery. This is not some flash-in-the-pan out-of-town whippersnapper trying to stake a claim on the dessert scene. Mark Israel has a family history steeped in baking prowess, and the origin of Doughnut Plant’s menu stems from his grandfather’s doughnut recipe. According to their website, Doughnut Plant has existed since 1994, first as a bicycle-powered delivery service that catered to such clients as Dean & Deluca and Balducci’s.  The original standalone LES location opened up in 2000, and besides the Chelsea shop, there are nine Doughnut Plants in Japan and one in South Korea.

The entrance to the Chelsea Hotel Doughnut Plant, unfortunately hidden by construction.

The entrance to the Chelsea Hotel Doughnut Plant, unfortunately hidden by construction.

While the entrance to the shop is pretty obscured from the street by scaffolding, once you’re actually standing in front of the doors, it’s hard to resist the allure of the Chelsea Doughnut Plant. The decor suggests a tongue-in-cheek play on the bakery’s name, featuring the industrial wrought iron and steel bars of a manufacturing plant, contrasted with brightly colored doughnut-themed decorations along the walls. Walking in, you’re faced with a visual dichotomy — on the right side is the counter, all metal and dark colors and serious business, while on the left there are tables and chairs made of lighter wood, fanciful decorated doughnut pillows on the wall, and even benches along the wall have a doughnut design on them. It’s Henry Ford meets Willy Wonka. I find the balance of whimsy and serious craftsmanship immensely appealing — just like Beecher’s, I really appreciate a place that recognizes how food can (and should) make people happy, whether you’re cooking it or consuming it.

The barred service area -- these doughnuts mean business.

The barred service area — these doughnuts mean business.

In an ideal world, these doughnuts pillows would be edible, or at least scraff and sniff.

In an ideal world, these doughnuts pillows would be edible, or at least scratch-and-sniff.

The Food:

I mean, seriously, how do you choose?

I mean, seriously, how do you choose?

Doughnut Plant has a rotating selection of doughnuts, based both on seasonal and daily specials. The variety is almost overwhelming, and I found myself struggling to pick a few flavors to try. Luckily I wasn’t eating alone — you guessed it, Jacob was along for the ride, or rather, driving the car, since he was the one really keen to check out Doughnut Plant in the first place.

There are ostensibly four options at DP — cake doughnuts, yeast doughnuts, filled yeast doughnuts, and mini-filled doughnuts, called “doughseeds” (aka DP’s version of a Munchkin). However, this overlooks the monstrous cinnamon bun (which looked outrageously tempting and diabetic-coma-inducing), as well as the churros. But this was not the time for such distractions — we were there for doughnuts, and doughnuts alone. After a difficult deliberation (chocolate hazelnut? blueberry? chocolate chip?), we settled on the Tres Leches cake doughnut, the Valrhona Chocolate yeast donut, and the Peanut Butter and Blackberry Jam doughseed. Good thing I had a salad for lunch.

The Peanut Butter and Blackberry Jam Doughseed -- great for jam lovers, but not salty enough.

The Peanut Butter and Blackberry Jam Doughseed — great for jam lovers, but not salty enough.

I didn’t seriously dislike any of our purchases, but the Peanut Butter and Blackberry Jam was my least favorite. I was surprised by this because it seemed to have everything going for it — I tend to like yeast doughnuts more than cake, I’m a huge peanut butter person (if it’s natural pb), and I tend to enjoy jelly doughnuts (especially from Orwasher’s). The doughseed was about double the size of a Dunkin Donuts‘ Munchkin, covered in a peanut butter glaze and speckled with real peanut chunks. The jam inside is made in-house, and I thought this filling was the best part of the pastry. The jam had a real natural quality to it, fruity without being overly cloying. The yeasty dough was light and full of air pockets (as it was for the Valrhona), and the glaze had a solid peanut butter flavor. My disappointment stems from my hope for a real salty/sweet one-two punch from this doughnut. I was surprised by the peanut pieces coating the outside of the doughseed — while their crunch added an unexpected textural contrast, the pieces were not really salted, and just didn’t add a huge amount, flavor-wise. As Jacob said, “If I were a Top Chef judge, I’d definitely call them out — you already had the peanut butter glaze, why add the peanuts on top?” Fortunately, DP offers other doughnuts filled with their homemade jam, which I’m much more interested in trying than their other pb doughnuts on a return visit.

The Valrhona Chocolate yeast doughnut -- surprisingly light, considering its diameter.

The Valrhona Chocolate yeast doughnut — surprisingly light, considering its diameter.

Jacob had his eye on the Valrhona Chocolate, despite being a professed cake doughnut lover. (Only after I happened to check their website did I notice that DP also offers a cake version of the Valrhona doughnut, so obviously he’ll have to go back and try that.) DP does not skimp on portion size for their yeast doughnuts. While their cake donuts are the more familiar, Homer-Simpson-dunk-in-coffee sized treats, the DP yeast donuts appear to be about 1.5 times the size of your average Krispy Kreme. Thanks to Jacob’s fist comparison, you can see we’re talking a Levain cookie/scone sized doughnut. This beast of a baked good was completely coated in chocolate, with a white icing V denoting its flavor. However, we were both shocked to discover that the inside was plain ol’ regular yeast dough, not the fully chocolate experience we were expecting. I can’t really complain about that, since the inside was perfectly airy and chewy and worked as a great vehicle for the chocolate outer layer. The coating had a prominent  and deep cocoa flavor to it. I think I would have preferred a slightly more bitter, smokier chocolate for the icing, since the sweetness of the interior dough would seemingly have the capacity to mitigate a stronger dark chocolate. Maybe I should try the Blackout or Triple Chocolate next time for comparison.

The famed Tres Leches cake doughnut -- a more measured doughnut -- let it grow on you.

The famed Tres Leches cake doughnut — a more measured doughnut that grows on you.

While waiting in line to order, I overheard a man say that DP is known for their Tres Leches cake doughnuts. I’m happy to report that this doughnut deserves those accolades. It was the perfect combination of glaze and filling, decadent without being overbearing. Although the cake dough was a little firmer than you’d find in a slice of actual tres leches cake, DP pipes a filling of sweetened condensed milk in the middle of the doughnut, preventing the insides from becoming too dry and crumbly. Like the Valrhona doughnut, the Tres Leches is fully coated, this time in a milky, vanilla-tinged glaze. It was more subtle in taste than I expected, but that made me appreciate the artistry all the more. I found this doughnut the most successful of the bunch because of its distance from conventional glazed doughnuts. While all three of our picks were inventive and beautifully rendered, the Tres Leches stood out because it made you consider the makeup of the doughnut while you were eating it. I’m sure I’m overthinking it (because this whole blog is pretty much about overthinking food), but if Mark Israel’s aim is to make innovative doughnut flavors that give you pause, well, he hit a home run here.

Final Thoughts:

You can't avoid doughnut imagery in this place -- look down at the bench you're sitting on!

You can’t avoid doughnut imagery in this place — look down at the bench you’re sitting on!

All in all, that first Coconut Cream doughnut I experienced from Doughnut Plant may never be bested, due both to nostalgia and to the eye-opening push it gave me into the world of  exotic doughnuts. However, everything I tried at Doughnut Plant this time around was artfully executed, from unexpected flavor combinations to perfectly baked and fried yeast and cake dough. It’s just plain fun to walk in there and see all the doughnut-mania, and once you do you’ll pretty much be unable to resist the alluring rows of glazed and gleaming doughnuts, begging you to chomp down on them. These ain’t your momma’s doughnuts, and if you’re open to a postmodern pastiche of desserty decadence, then step right up and see what Mark Israel can do for you. You might just find that your favorite type of creme brulee is the deep-fried doughnut kind. For those with an adventurous sweet tooth, Doughnut Plant is definitely worth checking out.

Doughnut Plant

220 West 23rd Street, btwn 7th & 8th Aves.

http://doughnutplant.com

Domo Arigato, Mr. Daido (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat All the Fried Food)

Now that the countdown to Christmas has turned to a mere handful of hours, we’ve officially reached the apex of that time of year when calorie counts break down and anything we’d already consider decadent is battered, fried, and topped with ice cream (aka the parallel universe known as November through January in America). I can’t tell you the amount of buttered, dipped, iced, or glazed things I’ve consumed in the past few weeks (not that I was much of a poster child for moderation before that). And so with holiday fast approaching, and my willpower at its annual low, I find myself recounting yet another chapter in the tale of The Demise of Maggie’s Cholesterol. Let’s dig in:

As my previous post discussed, one of the reasons I actually like the holiday season (inflatable lawn ornaments aside) is the emphasis on tradition. Chanukah may only be a minor festival in Judaism, but there are certain habits and rituals that my family and I use to mark the occasion, and that’s what truly makes it significant for me. This past weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to join in a tradition of my friends Laura and Steven — a day of cooking and eating Japanese food. This tradition isn’t necessarily holiday-season-bound for them, but being included at this time of year made me feel like a kid being asked up to the grownups’ table for the first time, and that table was covered in fried dumplings.

For at least as long as I’ve known them, Laura and Steven have been going to this Japanese market in White Plains called Daido. For years it was a mythical place for me, where the strange candies like Koala’s March and Pocky in Laura’s lunch bag came from, but lacking in a real geographical location. Of course, when we actually went there on Saturday I realized I’ve driven by it literally hundreds of times (in my defense, there is poor signage!). Aside from supplying unique desserts for their lunchboxes, Laura and Steven would occasionally go to Daido to pick up a hodgepodge of dumplings, croquettes, noodles and meat for their ritual fried feast. Basically, I was prepping myself for a meal at a Japanese Cracker Barrel (and if you think I’m referring to the cheese company, then you’ve never had the joy of highway rest stop chicken fried chicken, and I’m sorry for your loss).

The rather unassuming entrance to Daido

The rather unassuming entrance to Daido

Daido was larger than I anticipated, given the specialty markets I’ve been to in NY. While certainly no Super Stop ‘n’ Shop, Daido had enough room for 5 or 6 aisles, plus a meat, frozen, and produce section. Not to mention the small Parisienne bakery (what?) near the registers.

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Oh, you know, in case I want to throw a croissant in with my udon noodles.

Oh, you know, in case I want to throw a croissant in with my udon noodles.

One of my weirder interests is my fascination with foreign fast food (much like my fascination with foreign public transit systems — you know what, the mundane stuff can tell you a lot about a culture), so if I’d had more time I would have roamed the aisles to really explore all the strange frozen meals and snacks. But we were on a mission, and the first step was procuring rice balls. I was told rice balls are to be eaten in the car immediately after checkout and before going home, as a prelude to the main event. Some eating before our eating? I am fine with that.

Rice balls in their native habitat. There were probably six or seven types available.

Rice balls in their native habitat. There were probably six or seven types available.

Despite multiple efforts on my part, I remain not a huge fan of sushi, so I was a little reluctant to dive into the rice ball world of salmon roe and seared tuna. Laura, Steven, and my friend Sarah (of Thanksgiving dessert amazingness fame) were kind enough to guide me to the tuna/mayo rice ball. Comforted by the safety of that purchase, I went out on a limb for my second rice ball and picked out kelp, an admittedly odd combination. Then Steven and Laura went off to pick out the necessities for dinner, and Sarah and I wandered the aisles as she picked up some wasabi-flavored rice crackers and I scanned the cookies. While I didn’t find any Japanese Oreo products, Sarah and I stumbled upon the terribly unfortunately named Couque D’Asses. Predictably, a quick search on the internet leads to many other bloggers with the same juvenile reactions we had, but not explanation of what these Japanese confectioners were going for.  Even Google Translate just explains it as “Biscuit of Asses.” Clearly we had to buy it. I’m disappointed to report that these cookies had no clear connection to either donkeys or bottoms — it ended up just being a delicate chocolate-filled wafer cookie that tasted like a mild Milano. So I guess kudos to Pepperidge Farm for winning the “classiness” competition, simply by not trying?

I'm sensing a strangely incongruous Francophone trend, here...

I’m sensing a strangely incongruous Francophone trend, here…

Once all our comestibles were purchased, we headed back to the car to commence stage one of our day of eating: rice ball consumption. Little did I realize there is a specific procedure for prepping the ball, which Laura walked me through. First, remove the rice ball from the plastic, then carefully slide the separately packaged seaweed wrapper out (careful not to tear it), and finally, rewrap the rice ball in the seaweed. Then stuff it in your face as quickly as possible, because these things are unfairly delicious. The first few bites are mainly sticky rice, but eventually the filling in the center is revealed. The tuna/mayo was nothing special visually, but I was surprised by the kelp — it was almost a paste in consistency, as opposed to the strings of seaweed like material I thought I would be eating.

A riceball, properly assembled.

A rice ball, properly assembled.

The tuna-mayo filling looked like, well, tuna and mayo.

The tuna/mayo filling looked like, well, tuna and mayo.

It’s hard to describe why I liked the rice balls so much, since the flavors were straightforward. The tuna/mayo tasted pretty much like the tuna sandwiches my dad would pack in my lunchbox for school, and the kelp tasted mostly of salt and “beach grit,” if that makes any sense (although oddly, I found it pretty satisfying and would get it again). Perhaps I liked it because rice balls focus on the elements of sushi I actually enjoy — the well-cooked sticky rice contrasting with the salty pucker of the seaweed wrapper. Now that I’ve tried them, I actually do want to be a bit more adventurous with my next sampling, so I need to see if there are any Daido equivalents in Manhattan.

Reasonably full of starch for the moment, we returned to Steven’s house, where the chef and sous-chef set up shop in the kitchen and the guests settled in to watch the mandatory holiday viewing of Love Actually. While awaiting the main course we tried the Couque D’Asses and an equally odd American snack — Pizzeria Combos. This was probably the third time in my life that I’ve eaten Combos, but I was floored by these. Not because of some outstanding salivary experience, but because they don’t taste like pizza — THEY TASTE LIKE A PIZZERIA. Some magical food scientists distilled the olfactory sensations of being in a pizza shop and shoved it into a pretzel crust. It was mind boggling, and makes me glad that I neglected to look at the ingredient list.

In the kitchen, Laura and Steven were contending with hot oil and boiling water as they got our dinner together. The menu consisted of an assortment of items to be refried: shrimp shumai, shrimp spring rolls, chicken and shrimp dumplings, calimari, and vegetable croquettes (okay, so not my best attempt at keeping kosher, I admit). Add to that shrimp wontons, rice, yakisoba noodles, seared tuna, and the collection of random desserts, and well, you know why I was basically in a coma for the rest of the day.

Chef and sous-chef braving oil burns for our future satisfaction

Chef and sous-chef braving oil burns for our future satisfaction

My favorite part was probably the fact that Steven has all the paraphernalia, from rice bowls to real chopsticks — not just the remnants of your takeout collection. We all sat on the floor around the living room coffee table to eat, and while I definitely felt super not Japanese, it was fun to attempt a nod to the culture of the cuisine.

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Oh god, look at that beautiful, massive plate of fried things, top left.
Only a small portion of the full dessert options -- Koala's March (chocolate filled little marsupial cookies), chocolate/animal cracker like mushrooms, and strawberry candies

Only a small portion of the full dessert options — clockwise from top: Koala’s March (chocolate filled little marsupial cookies), chocolate/animal cracker like mushrooms, and strawberry candies

Overall, while totally delicious, the meal ended up being a little heavy for me. I hate to admit it, but I think my stomach is not the steel-girded machine it used to be. My favorite dishes were the vegetable croquettes (like a hash brown with peas), and the yakisoba noodles. Mostly it was just a really wonderful day of sharing in someone else’s foodie ritual. Between Colin Firth speaking in broken Portuguese and nibbles on Koala’s March, somehow the holiday spirit snuck in, without a Christmas ornament or menorah in sight. Sometimes friends and good food is really all you need. Oh, and Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters. That’s like, a basic requirement.

Nippan Daido, USA

522 Mamaroneck Avenue,

White Plains, NY 10605