A Rustic Refresh: Back to Basics at Hu Kitchen

2013-10-20 13.39.34

I’m going to be straight with you guys — despite the decadent meals I detail on this blog, I am not the spry food-partier I once was. I can’t knock back a sleeve of Oreos like in my glory days, or pile on the greasy fried Japanese food without grimly acknowledging that I’ll all too likely to feel it in the morning. More than my inability to stay up late, my reluctance to ever set foot in Murray Hill for anything other than Indian food, or my growing acceptance of Snuggies as appropriate outerwear, the presence of “food hangovers” have signaled my arrival into adulthood. I may continue to stuff my face with funsize Halloween candy bars, but my body will no longer fully support me in that endeavor. It will make its displeasure known, from tummyaches to headaches and more.

I bring this all up because after a recent Saturday grease-fest, I found myself staggering about on Sunday begging for some reasonable grub to rebalance and refuel. I was meeting Jacob for lunch, and though he benefits from an iron-clad constitution, he was more than happy to try out a spot in Union Square I’d had my eye on for a while — the crunchy-granola, hippy-dippy, but still intriguing Hu Kitchen. And lucky for me, it proved to be just the kind of place a recovering foodie needs. File that away for future food comas.

 

First Impressions:

Just to be clear, they do not sell pet food here.

Just to be clear, they do not sell pet food here.

Hu Kitchen’s slogan is “Food for Humans”, which is prominently displayed on the outside of the cafe. The website explains that their focus is on unprocessed food, rather than espousing one particular “-ism” or diet, and this line-straddling approach is evident in the decor. Hu Kitchen struck me as part Chipotle, part Fern Gully, featuring black and steel countertops and flooring mixed with roughly hewn wooden tables and seating made out of tree trunks. At once industrial and natural, the restaurant emphasizes that it doesn’t want to ignore modern society or eating habits, but hopes to reintroduce the notion of natural as normal.

 

Looking back from the smoothie/juice/espresso bar to the other stations at Hu Kitchen.

Looking back from the smoothie/juice/espresso bar to the other stations at Hu Kitchen.

 

Hu Kitchen follows the market/cafe model, similar to Whole Foods, with a number of stations spread throughout the space. A smoothie/juice/espresso bar is positioned as you enter, for quick grab and go, or leisurely sipping at the handful of tables up front. Walking to the back you pass a fridge with prepackaged snacks and drinks (we tried some samples of grain-free chips), before hitting the hot bar, bowl, and prepared food stations. Most of the seating is on the second floor, where you can recline on any of the available stumps (or plastic chairs, if that’s more your thing).

Rustic hewn seating mixed with sleek glass and metal.

Rustic hewn seating mixed with sleek glass and metal. I guess sometimes you just want to sit on a stump.

 

The Food:

The ground rules going in.

The ground rules going in.

While Hu Kitchen doesn’t prescribe to one particular food system, they do have some specific guidelines for their dishes — they only serve natural, unprocessed food, with recognizable ingredients and as much certified organic as they can. The focus is mainly on vegetables, and there are vegan/vegetarian meat substitutes, but you can also get grass-fed beef or free-range chicken. Hu Kitchen’s menu is also largely gluten-free, since they mostly avoid grains, and their food is free of cane sugar — sweetened only with honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar. I’m telling you all of this to underscore how even with all these seemingly restricting rules, the food I had at Hu Kitchen was flat-out delicious.

 

A sample of Hu Kitchen's prepared foods, from vegetarian to gluten-free and the Venn Diagram space in between.

A sample of Hu Kitchen’s prepared foods, from vegetarian to gluten-free and the Venn Diagram space in between.

When I had initially scoped out the menu (my mama always said a good food nerd is a well-informed one), I had been drawn to the “Bowls” category, which allows you to choose a permutation from 3 different bases and 3 different toppings. But once I actually got there, the wide variety of prepared salads and sides on display in the prepared foods case drew my eyes. Jacob and I tried the Primal Kale Salad (org kale, org goji berry, sesame seed, org apple cider vinegar, unfiltered honey, shallot, garlic mustard powder) and the Curried Sweet Potato (org dried apricot, almond, org egg, scallion, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, turmeric, garam masala), both of which I would gladly hit up again on my next visit. But we decided to trust our instincts and investigate the possibilities of the bowls. I ordered the Root Veg Mash base with Thai Chicken on top, while Jacob went with the Organic Quinoa base with Roasted Wild Mushroom. The helpful staff was eager to point out favorites and explain the extras not mentioned on the menu, like the selection of “toppers” for the bowls, ranging from herbs like parsley and cilantro, to sauces like lime juice and sriracha, and a variety of nuts and seeds.

 

My bowl of Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken. Great flavors, lousy consistency combo.

My bowl of Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken. Great flavors, lousy consistency combo.

I ended up topping my Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken (org coconut milk, turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, basil) with more cilantro and lime juice. While I found both of the components of my bowl satisfying, I wouldn’t recommend this particular combination. The problem stems from the liquid content of the chicken, which is served in a coconut milk sauce. The root vegetable mash (sweet potatoes, parnsips, carrots, etc) has the consistency of smooth mashed potatoes, so the hot liquid from the chicken turned my bowl into more of a soup/stew concoction than I had hoped for. However, both the mash and the chicken were incredibly flavorful. I loved the tenderness of the meat, shredded and soft from the coconut milk, with the familiar interplay of woodsy sweetness from lemongrass and the bite of the turmeric and ginger. I would definitely get the mash again with a more solid topping (maybe even the roasted mushrooms Jacob got), since it tasted fresh and sweet, reminding me of the sweet potato casserole my mother serves at Thanksgiving. Adding the acidity from the lime juice topper definitely helped to cut through the richness of the dish, and I could see how adding some seeds or nuts would help to vary the texture.

 

Jacob's Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms bowl -- a slightly more successful combination.

Jacob’s Organic Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms bowl — just slightly on the dry side, but a bit more successful combo.

Jacob had a similar problem with his chosen combination, finding the Organic Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms (shiitake, portobello, button mushroom, carrot, garlic, shallot, thyme) in need of just a touch more moisture. I thought the quinoa was nicely cooked, soft without being too dry, and could see it as a better base for the Thai Chicken (we basically should have swapped combos). The mixture of mushrooms types lent the dish a solid variety of textures, the roasted mushrooms slightly caramelized, with aromatics from the garlic and shallots. The mushrooms are served out of a slowcooker that keeps them stewing in their own liquid, which gave them a nice soft feel and deep flavor.

Both of our bowls came with a small button of Hu grain-free bread, not much larger than an ice cube and resembling pumpernickel in color. I would guess it was made out of some sort of nutmeal or seeds, but I thought it was pretty tasty, if a bit dense. It had the nuttiness of hearty, rustic dark ryes like those from Scandinavia  I dipped it into my slushy bowl, and liked it even better when it had soaked up some liquid.

The portion size was perfect for a nice lunch, although I might opt for a side salad if looking for a more substantial dinner. After the previous day’s foray into grease and sugar, I really appreciated how my meal at Hu Kitchen filled me up without weighing me down. I fully plan on coming back to try out some of the prepared foods, and (of course) I’m interested in looking into some of their grain-free muffins and desserts.

Final Thoughts:

I’ve spoken before about the upsides and downsides of writing of a food blog — the expectation of having opinions on food means that you both get to enjoy being used as a resource, but also have to deal with the assumption that you will know and write about most everything you encounter. Thankfully, after over a year of writing Experimental Gastronomy, I’m still just as passionate about exploring and educating myself about dining and cooking. One unexpected side effect of blogging is how it has made me a literally conscious eater — I try to think critically about what I’m tasting (although I’ll readily admit to mindlessly stuffing my face plenty). Recently, this has pushed me towards being more mindful of what I’m eating day-to-day, as in what is the makeup of the foods I put into my body. I find myself curious about nutrition, food science, and food policy, and while I’m not going off the grid, so to speak (I wish I knew how to quit you, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups), I love finding places like Hu Kitchen that give me the tools to make better choices about my diet, even if it’s just one meal at a time. It’s nice to go to a place that reminds you that pure, natural ingredients can taste just as good as KFC, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of unfamiliar items like chia, hemp, or nutritional yeast. At Hu Kitchen, you can ease yourself along the spectrum from vegan to paleo to simply gastro-curious, from cashew creamed broccoli to plain ol’ chicken tenders. When you get right down to it, Hu Kitchen truly sticks to their slogan — it’s not fancy, it’s just food for humans.

 

Hu Kitchen

78 Fifth Ave (between 13th and 14th)

hukitchen.com

A Birthday Brush with Foodie Fame: Seasonal Italian at Barbuto

Despite working in the entertainment industry, I still have a tendency to get a bit starstruck. Back when I worked at a talent agency, if I encountered a famous actor or musician, I would attempt to “play it cool.” In my case that meant avoiding all eye contact, and keeping the conversation to a polite minimum to avoid swallowing my tongue. One of my more embarrassing moments was loudly complaining to the receptionist that I had just missed seeing David Alan Grier, only to look over at the nearby waiting area and see the man waving pityingly in my direction. Cue my natural-born talent to blush intensely, and a hurried exit back to my desk.

Nowadays I work in production, so my exposure to celebrity is much more limited. I’d like to think that I’ve matured into a more capable human being in the face of the famous, but a chance encounter last weekend revealed that I’m not as chill as I’d hoped I’d become. I was out for a birthday dinner with my family, and as the gal of honor I chose the restaurant — Barbuto, down in the West Village. Why pick a seemingly random restaurant that’s been around for 10 years? Enter foodie origin story! Obviously I’ve always loved eating (and dessert), but my fascination with cooking and chefs didn’t really start until I got into Top Chef. Specifically, Top Chef Masters, season two, way back in 2010. Watching the chefs conceptualize and execute these amazing dishes made me curious to try expanding my own palate a bit. Of all the contestants, the chef that produced the most rapturous salivation per episode for me was Jonathan Waxman. I remember watching the season and marveling that I wanted to eat literally every dish he made. So when I discovered he had a restaurant in NY earlier this year, I locked in my birthday dinner immediately.

2013-06-15 19.51.43

Little did I know that, 10 years into the run of his restaurant, Mr. Waxman is still intimately involved in the day to day life of Barbuto. About half an hour into our meal I turned to see the chef casually strolling amongst the tables, dressed in a polo shirt and chef’s pants. Our fantastic waiter, Matt, told us that Waxman (or “Papa,” as the staff calls him) comes into the restaurant nearly every day, and approves the menu via email if he can’t. On his second turn around the tables, while checking in with various diners, he paused by our table. I was overwhelmed by the moment, stuttering out a hello before my mother announced it was my birthday. Feeling I couldn’t let the moment pass, I asked for a photo. Sure thing, replied Mr. Waxman. And with shaky legs I stood up as the inspiration for my food fascination casually placed his arm around my shoulders. The resulting photo, featuring my stunned, ecstatic expression can be viewed at the end of the post.

That event in itself would have made the night, but, in an abundance of riches, our dinner at Barbuto turned out truly tremendous. So now that I’ve gushed enough about the chef, let’s get down to the dishes!

 

First Impressions:

The view from our table towards the entrance. Note the garage doors pulled up to the ceiling.

The view from our table towards the entrance. Note the garage doors pulled up to the ceiling.

 

Barbuto is an upscale, casual restaurant, a fact that is immediately apparent from the architecture of the space. It’s literally a converted garage, the front walls of the restaurant in actuality garage doors that are rolled up into the ceiling in the summer, leaving the restaurant open to the cool evening air. There is sidewalk seating, but our table was still technically indoors, right by the front of the dining area with a clear view of Washington Street and access to the open air. The back of the restaurant features an open kitchen where you can see the chefs at work, and one of the two spaces for private parties is located right by the kitchen (a smaller room behind the bar is also available). The overall attitude of the restaurant is laidback and unpretentious, the industrial elements of the original garage mingling with smaller, homey touches — from white tiling on the walls and bar to simple wooden tables and wicker chairs.

Chefs at work in the open kitchen.

Chefs at work in the open kitchen.

 

The Food:

 

Our server, Matt, was extremely friendly and happy to answer any and all questions we had about the menu. He explained that each menu is dated in the corner because it is constantly changing — in fact, one of his favorite dishes appeared for just one week before fading into the mists of time. As the remaining members of our party arrived, Matt suggested that we might get the most out of Barbuto’s Family Menu. Basically a chef’s tasting menu, the Family dinner covers the four courses listed on the menu, plus individual desserts for each guest. The chef selects from the list of antipasti, primi, piatta unici, and contorni, and they are more than happy to accommodate any allergies and special diets. In our case that meant no pork, no unpastuerized cheese, and options for a vegetarian (I know, we’re high maintenance). Matt was obliged with nary a blink of his eyes, and off we went on our Italian adventure.

For the sake of not overwhelming you all with the massive quantity of dishes, I’ve picked out some of my favorites for the night. I didn’t take as many notes as I did for Blue Duck Tavern, partially because I was still flustered from meeting Jonathan Waxman, and partially because I was determined to be in the moment for my birthday dinner. So here’s a not-so-quick rundown of some of Barbuto’s best bites:

 

Antipasti (Appetizers)

The Family Dinner generally comes with salumi, but we opted out because of the heavy pork contents. Instead we were presented with the Ravanelli (local radishes, roasted garlic butter & toast), the Insalata Spinge Pietra (sea beans, fregola & podda classico), the Insalata Crudi ( asparagus, carrots, watermelon radish, pecorino & bread crumbs), and the Insalata Stagionale (radicchio, baby romaine, capers, fava beans & anchovy). All four of these dishes were fresh and delicious, but I’m going to focus on my two favorites — the Insalata Crudi and the Insalata Spinge Pietra. I will say, however, that my brother Sam mopped up as much of the garlic butter as he could, and my father was all over the anchovy salad. So clearly there were a mix of opinions for favorites.

The Ravanelli: radishes with garlic roasted butter and toast.

The Ravanelli: radishes with garlic roasted butter and toast.

 

Of course I forgot to photograph one of my favorite dishes of the night — the Insalata Crudi. The dish is composed of ribbons of asparagus and carrots, with small slices of watermelon radish mixed in and crisp pecorino and breadcrumbs sprinkled on top. The salad features tri-color carrots, so I had my first purple carrot experience outside of Israel. Overall, it was a light salad, even with the cheese coating the vegetables. The saltiness of the breadcrumb/pecorino topping meshed well with the fresh moisture of the vegetables. As a big fan of carrots, asparagus, and cheese, I found myself taking seconds and thirds of this salad. With clear but not domineering flavors and a brightness from the produce, this is a great way to start a meal.

The Insalata Spinge Pietra --     don't be put off by the succulents, it's delicious.

The Insalata Spinge Pietra — don’t be put off by the succulents, it’s delicious.

 

I found the Insalata Spinge Pietra intriguing because it used a number of ingredients I had never seen before. The only thing I immediately recognized on the plate was the arugula. Matt explained that sea beans are a type of succulent, or plants that tend to retain water in arid conditions (like cacti). Up close they resemble the lovechild of green beans and broccoli rabe, with long stalks and smaller branches coming off the sides. The sea beans have a natural saltiness reminiscent of the ocean, but in the way good shellfish tastes briny, not in a mouth full of sand way. The other two items, the fregola and the podda classico, turned out to be Sardinian varieties of familiar ingredients. Fregola is a semolina pasta similar to Israeli couscous, and podda classico is a sheeps and cows milk cheese with a nutty, tangy taste. It was an assault of flavors from salty to bitter to sweet and tangy, and I really enjoyed discovering these regional ingredients.

 

Primi (Pasta)

The Risotto alla Primavera --  solid, but missing the speck.

The Risotto alla Primavera — solid, but missing the speck.

We were served two dishes for our pasta course — the Risotto alla Primavera, and the Gnocchi con Carote. While the risotto was well executed, I felt like it was somewhat one note. Generally the asparagus, peas and basil are complemented with speck, an Italian sausage, but it was left out of our dish. While I’m generally not particularly interested in cured meats, here I think the potential salt and bite of the speck would have lifted the dish.

The Gnocchi con Carote: Is there a way to win a lifetime supply to this dish?

The Gnocchi con Carote: Is there a way to win a lifetime supply to this dish?

One of the dishes that kept cropping up on reviews of Barbuto was Waxman’s take on gnocchi, and when it arrived, I understood the reason why. Gnocchi is my favorite form of pasta, and when I see it on a menu, I feel compelled to order it, so I was delighted that it came with our dinner. The Gnocchi con Carote is served with with baby carrots, sugar snap peas, and Parmesan. Each tiny pouch of potato had a slight crust, cooked in what tasted like brown butter, which added a delicate nuttiness. Those same tricolor carrots were chopped and cooked down to a creamy softness, while the sliced snap peas were still crunchy, keeping the dish from falling into a monotony of texture. The overall taste of caramelization was decadent, but for a gnocchi enthusiast like me, I would gladly have eaten the entire family style plate.

 

Piatta Unici (Entrees)

Manzo ai Ferri: The silkiest skirt steak I have ever tasted.

Manzo ai Ferri: The silkiest skirt steak I have ever tasted.

If it seems like my family had already been served several mountains of food in our first two courses, prepare yourself for the main attraction. Our entree course came with the Pollo al Forno, the Manzo ai Ferri, the Platessa alla Plancha, and a vegetarian fregola and chickpea dish. I’m going to focus on the chicken and the flounder, but I will say the Manzo ai Ferri (prime skirt steak, chickpeas, and roasted shishito peppers) was supremely cooked. It was the kind of melt-in-your-mouth steak that is so rarely achieved in steakhouses, thinly sliced, perfectly medium rare and absolutely luscious. And although I wasn’t about to chow down on some peppers, spice-wimp that I am, when eaten with a piece of the steak, the kick took it up a notch.

Pollo al Forno: The famous signature chicken from Jonathan Waxman. Far from bland, same old chicken -- this bird is full of herbs and spices.

Pollo al Forno: The famous signature chicken from Jonathan Waxman. Far from bland, same old chicken — this bird is full of herbs and spices. You can literally see how juicy it is.

The Pollo al Forno is guaranteed to be a part of each Family dinner at Barbuto, so I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call it the restaurant’s signature dish. In fact, it’s described on the menu as “JW Chicken & salsa verde,” the only item specifically touting the Waxman’s initials. Luckily, like the highly regarded gnocchi, this dish also lived up to my lofty expectations. The chicken was roasted and seasoned with tarragon and oregano, creating a crispy skin and plump, tender meat underneath. Despite the salsa verde (a green sauce of herbs, anchovies, capers, vinegar and oil) served on top, I felt the tarragon had the strongest presence. It was the kind of roast chicken that reminded me that chicken is not just a safe bet. Here was a relatively straightforward dish, without any fancy new techniques or exotic ingredients, and it was just superbly done, putting that buttermilk poached chicken at Blue Duck Tavern to shame. Interestingly, I managed to snag a small piece as leftovers, and the chicken actually reheated wonderfully. I think I actually enjoyed the dish more a few days later because I got to focus on the flavors of the chicken alone, rather than amongst the inundation of delicious entrees that I had when dining at Barbuto.

The Platessa alla Plancha, a darkhorse entree, but actually my favorite of the night.

The Platessa alla Plancha, a darkhorse entree, but actually my favorite of the night.

Somewhat surprisingly, my favorite entree of the meal was the Platessa alla Plancha (flounder, garlic scapes, and capers). I probably would never have ordered it for myself, so hats off to the Family Menu for the come from behind winner. While the fish itself was nicely cooked and flaked off easily, what made the dish for me were all the accompaniments. The garlic scapes (which, for the uninitiated like me, are the curling tops of garlic plants) had a sharp, strong garlic bite to them, which heightened the sweet apple-ish sauce underneath the fish. I found the combination utterly addictive, and though the rest of my family thought the sauce was a little cloying, I repeatedly had helpings of the flounder over the steak. Much like the seabean salad, I found myself excited by the discovery the scapes, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to find them on other menus, or even cook with them myself. Oh, and in case you wanted to be hip to the lingo, apparently in the farmer’s market world, scapes are the new ramps (oh the ups and downs of the trendy vegetable scene).

 

Contorni (Sides)

The Verdure: chili-flecked kale, escarole and chard with garlic. A little too hot for my tastes.

The Verdure: chili-flecked kale, escarole and chard with garlic. A little too hot for my tastes.

A quick word about the sides for our main course. We had the Verdure (market greens with chili flakes and garlic) and the Patate (potatoes, pecorino & rosemary). The Verdure was made up of kale, escarole, and chard, and like many of the dishes at Barbuto, had a fair amount of black pepper and chili seasoning. It reminded me of the spicy kale I ate at Cafeteria, and while it certainly mitigated the bitterness of the greens, I can’t say I’m really into this fad of lacing salads with peppery heat. I think I prefer my sides to complement my meal, and the addition of heat makes the vegetables stand out too much for me.

The Patate: gimme all the potatoes, please.

The Patate: gimme all the potatoes, please.

The Patate, on the other hand, was right up my alley. It was as if the chef interbred roasted potatoes and french fries, making a starchy mutt that my family wolfed down. The potatoes were cut into thick chunks, leaving a soft but starchy interior surrounded by a cheesy, rosemary-infused, deep fried crust.

 

Dessert

Dessert: Tiramisu and chocolate pudding. And a birthday candle, of course.

Dessert: Tiramisu and chocolate pudding. And a birthday candle, of course.

Last, but not least, we’ve got dessert. With all the variety of dishes, it was a little surprising that every person in our party was served the same dessert. Luckily, it wasn’t much of a disappointment, because that dessert was fantastic. Waxman has worked with the same pastry chef for the past 16 years, at both his restaurants and his cookbooks, and it’s pretty easy to see why. My plate arrived with a scoop of chocolate pudding and a small square of tiramisu (with a birthday candle in it, of course). Our waiter explained that the chocolate pudding is always on the dessert menu, but the tiramisu is a dessert exclusive to the Family Dinner. After the family size portions of the rest of our meal, I actually appreciated the relatively modest dessert plate. It was the perfect amount of sweetness to finish the meal, but keep me from feeling too overstuffed.

Tiramisu tends not to be one of my favorite desserts, but this was probably the best tiramisu I’ve ever had. Instead of the typical lady fingers, there was a delicate sponge cake separating the layers of airy mascarpone and whipped cream. The wine and espresso flavors were very subtle, highlighting the cocoa more than standing out on their own.

But man, the chocolate pudding was just unreal. Sweet milk chocolate with a prominent cocoa taste, it was thick and creamy, nearly to the point of being a mousse. I could have eaten an entire bowl of this — it simultaneously evoked the nostalgia of Bill Cosby Jello pudding packs while showing you how much of a difference quality natural ingredients can have with even the simplest dessert. It was the perfect representation of Barbuto’s menu and overall vibe — fresh food that is familiar but also gives you pause. You wonder why all gnocchi isn’t cooked in brown butter, why more restaurants don’t serve seabeans, and why this chocolate pudding isn’t being sold in large vats at Stop ‘n Shop.

 

Final Thoughts

From start to finish, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better birthday dinner. I got to make of a fool of myself fawning over a celebrity chef (who fortunately was incredibly down to earth and forgiving), I got to try new ingredients and new flavor combinations, and I ended the night with a mouth full of chocolate. I know I’ve said this several times before, but what truly made this a memorable meal was the service at Barbuto. From our eager-to-assist waiter Matt, to the busboys who truly knew the components of each dish they were serving us, to of course Papa Waxman himself, we were treated with respect and endless amounts of accommodation. Barbuto is worth visiting for the food, but perhaps even more so for the friendly, easygoing, but thoughtful vibe — yes, they care about the food they serve, but they’re also thinking about who’s on the other end of the fork.

Me and Chef Waxman

Me and Chef Waxman


Barbuto

775 Washington St (Corner of W. 12th)

http://www.barbutonyc.com

Sans Mystery Meat: Dinner at Cafeteria

In the arts there is a concept known as the “Rule of Three,” which basically posits that information grouped in threes is more effectively communicated than in any other number. This is why there are Three Little Pigs, three ghosts in A Christmas Carol, and three Star Wars films (in my universe). The power of a triad comes from the creation of a progression — the audience is shown two similar items that set up an expectation — followed by the subversion of that progression by the final piece. We delight in this surprise, in having our foregone conclusions flipped on their heads. I find that same wonder when I encounter new takes on traditional food, when my preconceived notions of taste and texture are counted on, and then thrown out the window. It’s what made the Salty Pimp at Big Gay Ice Cream so appealing, and what makes me desperate to visit Peanut Butter & Co. for their spin on a PB&J.

My dinner at Cafeteria this weekend was an exercise in expectation subversion, and I mean that in the best way possible. When you decide to get whimsical with well-known recipes, you better deliver on quality, and thankfully, my meal at Cafeteria was far beyond lunchlady ladling.


First Impressions:

Cafeteria sits on the corner of 17th St. and 7th Ave South.

Cafeteria sits on the corner of 17th St. and 7th Ave South.


This was actually my second time at Cafeteria, but my first visit was for a first date a couple of years ago, so let’s just say the restaurant itself was not the center of my attention. This time I was hosting my college roommate Megan for a weekend visit, and the two of us were meeting another friend for dinner, so I got to appreciate the venue a bit more. Cafeteria is located in Chelsea, and features an aesthetic that walks the tight-rope between modern restraint and self-aware winking. The decor is chic, black and white, and featuring lots of cut outs and gleaming surfaces. It appears about as far from the average dumpy cafeteria as you can get. Megan commented that it actually reminded her of Jones, one of our favorite Stephen Starr restaurants in Philadelphia (where we went to school). Jones has a similar take on down-home American food — it’s like gourmet IHOP (I highly recommend their chicken and waffles if you’re in Philly).

The chic interior of Cafeteria, with it's front windows open for sidewalk seating.

The chic interior of Cafeteria, with it’s front windows open for sidewalk seating.

However, Jones does not venture into camp the way Cafeteria does. Megan and I arrived early, so we got drinks at Cafeteria’s small lounge area downstairs. The drink menus featured a shirtless man posing seductively with a cheeseburger, which some could take as a heavy-handed cypher for the restaurant’s goal of making comfort food sexy. Fortunately, this was Cafeteria’s most over-the-top moment, well, that and the names of the cocktails.

Our alluring drink menus.

Our alluring drink menus.

Speaking of which…

The Food:

My cocktail -- "Liquid Passion"

My cocktail — “Liquid Passion”


Cafeteria offers an extensive drinks menu, from beer and wine to some playfully named cocktails. Megan and I decided to embrace a girly stereotype or two and ordered off of the champagne-based section of the cocktail menu. Inspired by my fruit-and-vegetable adventures in Israel, I had the “Liquid Passion,” composed of prosecco, passion fruit juice, and “edible flower.” I really enjoyed the cocktail, which was pretty much a passion fruit bellini, although I couldn’t tell you what the edible flower added to the experience, in taste or texture. But I would consider bringing along some passion fruit juice instead of OJ or peach to my next brunch picnic.

Megan's drink, the "White Peach Classico"

Megan’s drink, the “White Peach Classico”

Megan got the “White Peach Classico,” made up of prosecco, “artisanal peach bitters,” Gran Classico and burnt orange zest. This cocktail was well balanced, and both Megan and I commented that the peach flavoring was subtle — more natural than the Del Monte peaches in syrup cloying sweetness. Again, there was no real indication of where the burnt orange zest was, except for some lingering pieces of peel at the bottom of the glass.

When Jacob joined us he branched out beyond the bubbly beverage, choosing the “Cafeteria Cosmo” — Svedka Clementine, cranberry and passionfruit juice. Tasty and dangerous, since it was one of those cocktails where you’re not sure if you’re actually drinking alcohol.

The waiter suggested Jacob get the "Cafeteria Cosmo" on the rocks, so it appears slightly manlier here than it actually was.

The waiter suggested Jacob get the “Cafeteria Cosmo” on the rocks, so it appears slightly manlier here than it actually was.


As with most of my meals with Jacob, we decided to go family style on dinner, and fortunately Megan has similar priorities about trying as many dishes as possible. We ended up ordering an assortment of appetizers and sides and one entree to share, which ultimately verged on too much food for the three of us, but we were troopers and took one for the team … and then walked down for dessert at Big Gay Ice Cream (I wasn’t letting Megan leave New York without trying the Salty Pimp).

The meal started with complimentary cheddar biscuits and honey butter. The biscuits were warm from the oven, soft and doughy, with just a hint of cheese, and did a great job of putting me in the spirit for some well-executed comfort food. I actually preferred them on their own, finding the addition of the honey butter a little too rich. I also appreciated the presentation of the biscuits in a newspaper-lined basket, immediately setting the tone of elevated familiarity.

These delicious biscuits were one of the highlights of the night.

These delicious biscuits were one of the highlights of the night. You can see the cheese flecked throughout the dough.


For our appetizers we chose the Crispy Green Beans, and a Cheddar and Fontina Macaroni and Cheese. Cafeteria actually has four types of mac and cheese on its menu (or the fifth option of the “Mac Attack” tasting of three), but Jacob is a seasoned Cafeteria vet and guided us towards the more classic two-cheese option.

It's still considered healthy if you can see some green beneath the frying, right?

It’s still considered healthy if you can see some green beneath the frying, right?

I have little love towards green beans in general. As a child they were one of my least favorite vegetables (along with peas and broccoli), but I’ve come around to them depending on how they’re prepared. Basically, add enough butter to any previously-loathed vegetable and I’ll dig right in. The Crispy Green Beans were lightly fried in a delicate batter, with their green skins still visible through the crust. As advertised, they were crispy without providing a real crunch, so you still had the vegetal flavor as dominant, heightened by the salty, buttery coating. The dish came with a grilled lemon and a soy-based sesame ginger dipping sauce, although again I thought the beans were better sans sauce. Adding soy on top of the salted, fried strips was too much salt for me. Despite my negative history with green beans, this dish was actually one of my favorites of the night.

A two-cheese mac and cheese, so ... a mac and cheese cheese?

A two-cheese mac and cheese, so … a mac and cheese cheese?

The mac and cheese was a strong contender, but I didn’t find it innovative enough to stand out. Perhaps my disappointment is unwarranted, considering we went for the more classic take on mac and cheese, over the truffle oil or buffalo blue cheese, but my feelings for the dish are largely “delicious, but not something I would order again.” The portion would have been enough for someone’s entree, but split between three people it was a reasonable appetizer. There was a defined crust that gave way to a cheesy roux and al dente noodles, and there’s no arguing with a pairing like fontina and cheddar. I definitely enjoyed it more than the dishes I’ve tried at S’Mac, but compared to the interesting interplay of texture and taste with the Crispy Green Beans, the mac and cheese felt a little “old-hat.”

For our main course we shared the Black Kale Salad, the Zucchini Parm Latkes, and the Pecan Crusted Catfish.

The Black Kale Salad -- a one two punch of spice and bitter -- not my cup of tea, unfortunately.

The Black Kale Salad — a one two punch of spice and bitter — not my cup of tea, unfortunately.

The Black Kale Salad is a new seasonal menu item. It seemed like Cafeteria rotates a significant number of dishes each season, as Jacob’s favorite dessert is no longer being offered (a homemade Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, curse the cruelty of fate!). In fact, if you’re mildly obsessive like me, you will note that the kale salad described on Opentable’s Cafeteria menu page is different from the one we encountered at dinner. This brand spanking new salad boasted black kale (naturally), with pine nut gremolata, mint, ricotta salata, and a jalapeno grilled lemon vinaigrette. All three of us are wimps when it comes to spicy food, so we opted to have the dressing on the side. However, after a few forkfuls into the salad it became clear that the bottom of the plate had been lightly coated with the jalapeno vinaigrette, leading to some impolite grimaces as we tried to put on brave faces. I’ve also yet to fully get onboard the kale train, so I was hoping that the rest of the items in the salad would balance the bitterness of the greens. The mint and jalapeno did offer up some strong punches of flavor, and the ricotta salata worked to cool things down a bit, but overall I was looking for a light and refreshing dish to counterbalance the heaviness of the rest of the meal, and I just found the salad overwhelming, jumping back and forth from bitter to spicy.

Zucchini Parm Latkes win points for presentation in their tiny cast iron skillet.

Zucchini Parm Latkes win points for presentation in their tiny cast iron pot.

The Zucchini Parm Latkes sounded like an interesting meshing of Eastern European and Italian food, so I was eager to see how they would pan out. To be honest, I didn’t taste the “parm” part, but the pancakes were fried to the perfect point of crispyness, and I appreciated that they were not thick patties of starch. My pancake had good crunch to it, although I missed the biting contrast of an onion (you know how I feel about onions in my latkes). I could have sworn I detected an herby, almost mint taste running through my latke.  At first I thought it was just the kale salad lingering on my tongue, but Jacob agreed that he tasted mint or chives of some sort, which threw off the buttery, warm flavors of the latke. The best part of the dish was the apple sauce — basically a thick apple compote, nearly the density of apple pie filling, fresh, sweet, and chunky with a real crisp apple taste. I could easily imagine it on the table at Thanksgiving.

My personal winner of the night -- the Pecan Crusted Catfish.

My personal victor of the night — the Pecan Crusted Catfish.

My favorite dish of the night was the Pecan Crusted Catfish, despite the fact that I’ve never really liked catfish. It’s an unreasonable excuse, but whenever I see catfish on a menu I immediately think of the live fish and get a little bit grossed out. Something about the whiskers throws me off. I mostly pushed for ordering this dish because of how I imagined the combination of a pecan crust and the included sides would work together. The dish came with a sweet potato hash, smoked Cipollini onions, and a red pepper emulsion. The fish was tender and flaky, providing a nice contrast with the crunchy pecan coating. It will come as no shock that I loved the sweet potato hash. The smoky onions and bright acidity of the red pepper sauce helped to tame the sweetness of the pecans and sweet potatoes. Looking back on it, the catfish itself was pretty much just a vehicle for the other flavors in the dish, since I can’t say anything specific about the fish’s flavor. However, the fish did nothing to detract from my appreciation of the rest of the dish, so I’d happily order it again. Like my other favorite of the night, the Crispy Green Beans, it was a sophisticated take on a comfort food standard, elevating a commonplace fish like catfish with a novel crust and sides that worked together to create an unexpected starring element.


Final Thoughts:

The word “cafeteria” generally conjures up such appetizing phrases as “hairnet,” “glop,” and “mystery meat.” But thankfully Cafeteria the restaurant is well aware of those standards and is happy to toy with them for your benefit. They’re encouraging you to engage your expectations and hope that they’ll be twisted and turned around — that your order of steamed, limp green beans will be battered and crisply fried, that you can choose between meatloaf, biscuits and gravy, or chicken paillard any time of day, and that you’ll see nary a plastic tray nor lunchlady in sight. I really enjoyed my dinner at Cafeteria because it took advantage of my curiosity. I wouldn’t normally order green beans or catfish, but I was intrigued by the way Cafeteria was reimagining them. Sometimes that leap of faith fell flat on the floor, but in other cases I discovered a new appreciation for foods I’d written off.

Maybe what we’re forgetting is that the root of the American cafeteria is the idea of communal dining, of taking a break from work or school to sit down and press the pause button on everything but the food in front of us. Yes, Cafeteria is about as far from my middle school lunchroom as you can get, but even without the little cartons of chocolate milk, I couldn’t help but think of the sheer joy of breaking free from classes and responsibilities and getting to hang out with my friends. For that aspect, Cafeteria happily hits the nail straight on the head.


Cafeteria

119 7th Ave (Corner of 17th St)

http://www.cafeteriagroup.com/