Picking Through the Pop-Ups: Mad. Sq. Eats

I’m a big fan of options — that’s why I love appetizer platters, buffets, and ice cream flavors with lots of mix-ins. I’d rather try a chicken finger/mozzarella stick/pig-in-blanket combo than munch through a bowl of boring popcorn, and give me Phish Food over plain jane vanilla any day of the week. Because of this, I’m always curious to check out the newest crop of pop-up food events in New York.

The term “pop-up” refers to short-term food projects that take over a public space, such as the Kubbeh Project that took place at Zucker’s Bakery earlier this year (which closed literally as I returned from Israel), or YUJI Ramen, the latest installation that is all the rage at the Whole FoodsSmorgasburg at Bowery.” Pop-up restaurants can serve to showcase the talents of a specific chef, or just simply explore the potential of a certain concept. The scene has seemingly exploded over the past few years, expanding to encompass not only established restaurants, but also food trucks and catering vendors through stalls at farmer’s markets and festivals. I got a small taste of some of the newer players on the pop-up scene last week when Jacob and I managed to sneak in  a visit to Mad Sq. Eats, on the last night before it closed up shop for the summer.

The entrance to Mad Sq. Eats, plenty busy on its final night.

The entrance to Mad Sq. Eats, plenty busy on its final night.

Mad Sq. Eats is a semi-annual, month-long pop-up food market that takes place next to Madison Square Park in the spring and the fall. Both established brick-and-mortar restaurants and relatively small-scale vendors are featured at MSE, and the makeup of the festival not only changes year to year, but also between seasons. This time around, the cuisines offered ran the gamut from East Asian to pizza to barbecue, and despite MSE being located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, there were vendors representing at least Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, if not all the boroughs. Some of the booths offered multiple dishes, while others stuck to variations of just one concept, like meatballs or arancini.

When Mad Sq Eats comes around again next fall, I’d definitely recommend trying to hit the festival in the middle of the month. There were significant negative consequences for visiting on the last day. First — the crowds. MSE is located in the tiny public space between Broadway and Fifth, just west of the park, and when we arrived around 7:45pm on Friday, it was overflowing with people perusing the vendors, waiting on lines, and trying to find a spot at one of the handful of tables set up in the middle of the market. Then, once Jacob and I had made the circuit and decided what we wanted to try, we discovered that our first choice, La Sonrisa Empanadas, was already completely sold out, with more than an hour before closing time. Refusing to be deterred, we quickly pivoted, deciding to take charge of our foodie fate by dividing and conquering. I hopped on line at Ilili’s booth, and Jacob headed down the row to Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen.

Give me your huddled masses yearning to eat treats...

Give me your huddled masses yearning to eat treats…

Ilili is a Lebanese/Mediterrean restaurant in the Flatiron that I’ve happily made multiple trips to. In fact, when I visited Mad Sq. Eats last fall I ended up ordering and loving the lamb shoulder shawarma sandwich. After the egregious lack of empanadas, I almost gave in and just ordered the shawarma again, but I convinced myself not to miss out on an opportunity to try something new, so I went with the Phoenician Fries, on Jacob’s recommendation. The lucky duck lives only a few blocks away from Madison Square (yes, and he’s close to Beecher’s — talk about unfair), so he’d already been to MSE a couple of times this May.

Phoenician Fries from Ilili, spiced and smothered to perfection.

Phoenician Fries from Ilili, spiced and smothered to perfection.

The Phoenician Fries were handcut and fried to order, covered in sumac, salt, Aleppo pepper, and garlic whip. They arrived looking pretty much like Middle Eastern cheese fries. Although I’ve previously stated my preference for ketchup over the trendier aioli, in this case I found the garlic whip absolutely addictive. The sumac and salt added a little bite to contrast against the creamy sauce, and the fries were perfectly crisp and crunchy due to being hot out of the oil. You can find these spiced spuds on Ilili’s restaurant menu year-round, and considering their generous brunch prix-fixe, I wouldn’t be surprised if we coincidentally crossed paths sometime in the near future.

While I was salivating over our fries, Jacob was off at Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen procuring one of their specialty grilled cheese sandwiches. The vendor dubs itself a “grilled cheese bar,” and until this week was a Brooklyn-based startup that existed solely at  pop-up events like MSE. As of this Monday, however, Mrs. Dorsey’s has a found a storefront, so kudos to them on entering the permanent NY food scene. We chose a cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese, served on panini-pressed sourdough. It was far from a classic grilled cheese, but the sharpness of the cheddar mingled well with the smokier gouda, and the bread had a nice toasty crunch to it. The major detractor was the fact that the sandwich was not cooked for long enough, leaving the cheese warmed, but basically unmelted. Overall, It was a perfectly serviceable grilled cheese made with quality components, but nothing beyond what I could have made in my own kitchen. I’m not giving up on Mrs. Dorsey’s, however, since their catering menu is more varied and creative in its sandwich selection (such as the Jam Goat, featuring goat cheese and strawberry preserves). We’ll have to see where their new store is located, and what they’ll be serving.

The cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese from Mrs. Dorsey's Kitchen. Strong cheese, but not as melted as it needed to be.

The cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese from Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen. Strong cheese, but not as melted as it needed to be.

The display case at Mmm Enfes, full of buttery, stuffed pastries.

The display case at Mmm Enfes, full of buttery, stuffed pastries.

The other “main course” of our meal came from Mmm Enfes, a Turkish street food and pastry shop in Midtown West. We got two of the varieties of gozleme, a Turkish flatbread stuffed with meat and/or vegetables and cheese. We opted for the chicken and mushroom and the spinach and feta. The gozlemes reminded me of a hybrid between a stuffed naan and the flat laffa bread I had in Israel. The flatbreads were heated and then rolled like crepe, with the same slight sweetness and eggy flavor. The filling of chicken and mushroom was slightly dry and crumbly, and was heavily spiced, leaving me pretty thirsty. I found the spinach and cheese gozleme much more successful. The sweeter bread paired wonderfully with the salty cheese and the faint bitterness of the spinach, coming off like the wrap version of a quiche.

The chicken and mushroom gozleme, a little dry without a binder like cheese.

The chicken and mushroom gozleme, a little dry without a binder like cheese.

The spinach and feta gozleme, which I thought was superior due to the moister filling and stronger flavors.

The spinach and feta gozleme, which I thought was superior due to the moister filling and stronger flavors.

 

There’s really no point in a disclaimer anymore. Obviously I got dessert, and everyone expects me to rave about it. Well, I’m not going to disappoint you. We chose to visit Melt Bakery’s cart for some of their signature ice cream sandwiches. Melt, located on the LES, is “New York’s First Ice Cream Sandwich Store.” They make both the cookies and the ice cream that have made their creations infamous amongst ice cream devotees such as myself (it’s a wonder I haven’t given myself a lactose allergy at this point). Melt’s menu changes daily, so while Jacob had already gotten to try their Lovelet sandwich (red velvet cookies with cream cheese ice cream, dammit), I wasn’t given that option. I wasn’t too bitter, however, because I was able to order the Cinnamax, a snickerdoodle/cinnamon ice cream sandwich. Jacob chose the Morticia, featuring malted chocolate rum ice cream between two crackly chocolate cookies. As shown by the fist-to-sandwich comparison photo below, these sandwiches were actually smaller than Levain’s cookies, but I took that as a positive. The ice cream was full and creamy, and the cookies definitely didn’t skimp on the butter, so it was good not to have too large a serving of such a rich dessert, especially after our frie, cheese, and pastry dinner.

Melt's sandwiches are about the size of a classic Chipwich.

Melt’s sandwiches are about the size of a classic Chipwich. Shown here, Jacob’s deeply chocolate Morticia.

 I’m one of those people who simply cannot have enough cinnamon in things, to the point where I top my fake-o cappuccinos ($3 hand-frother off of Amazon, aka food-nerd present from the best mom ever!) of drip coffee and almond milk with a liberal shaking of cinnamon. So anything cinnamon bun or oatmeal raisin themed in the ice cream department is going to be right up my alley. The Cinnamax definitely satisfied my recurrent cinnamon craving, but I ultimately found the Morticia more satisfying. Where the Cinnamax falters is the similarity of flavors between the snickerdoodle and the cinnamon ice cream. While the cookies were soft and made it easy to keep the sandwich intact (a crucial component of a strong ice cream sandwich), in the end it was a very single-note dessert.

The lighter, sweeter Cinnamax.

The lighter, sweeter Cinnamax.

 Jacob’s Morticia, on the other hand, had a variety of different textures and flavors throughout it. The cookies were just as crackly as advertised, breaking off more readily than the chewier snickerdoodles, which made for a messier eating experience for sure. However, they had a rich dark cocoa flavor, which played off the sugary malt and rum tastes of the ice cream, and overall I enjoyed the textural contrast of the cookie vs. filling, as sticky as my hands got eating it. Somehow I found it more refreshing than the Cinnamax, although I’m not sure I would opt to order either flavor again if I visit Melt Bakery’s store downtown. I’m still holding out for the Lovelet, or the peanut butter/banana themed Elvis.


Even though my visit to Mad Sq Eats had its ups and downs, I fully recommend checking it out next fall. It’s wholly unique experience, like an artisanal version of the mall food court, where the prices are slightly higher and the food is infinitely better. It’s a wonderful chance to sample some up-and-coming and off-the-beaten path vendors, not to mention a delicious opportunity to support small businesses. I’m planning to make the trip to Hester Nights (Thursdays at the Eventi Space through September), and hopefully I’ll check out the Smorgasbar down at South Street Seaport. And hopefully when I head back to Mad Sq Eats in the fall, I may finally be able to try those empanadas.

Ilili

236 5th Ave (between 27th and 28th)

http://www.ililinyc.com/

Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen

138 Willoughby Street (in Brooklyn)

http://mrsdorseyskitchen.com/

Mmm Enfes

70 W. 39th St (corner of 6th Ave)

https://twitter.com/MmmEnfes

Melt Bakery

132 Orchard St

http://www.meltbakery.com/

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Snackshots Abroad: Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 3

While uploading photos to include in this last post about my trip to Israel, I suddenly realized how many different places I ate at. So I thought I’d include a quick montage of some of the more random and/or pedestrian fare I ate, and then focus on a few particularly memorable or exotic dishes from my travels.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out "Doritos" in Hebrew.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out “Doritos” in Hebrew.

We’ll start out with snacks — I’m sure that bag looks pretty familiar. It is the Israeli version of Doritos, and despite the non-Latin letters, the artificial cheesy flavor remains comfortingly the same.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Fans of Edgar Wright films may recognize this ice cream treat as Nestle’s Cornetto (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Flavours_Cornetto_Trilogy), frequently seen in American ice cream trucks as the King Cone. In Israel I saw a wider variety of flavors offered — this one featured peanuts and caramel, and was the perfect treat after a long hike up and down Masada.

Now onto the more local fare:

Shawarma b'laffa in Sderot.

Shawarma b’laffa in Sderot.

First up is the shawarma b’laffa I had in Sderot. My brother’s girlfriend Leah, who lived in Israel for a year, recommended that I get a laffa wrap at least once. Laffa is a larger flatbread, closer to naan in texture than a pita, and a million times better than your average wrap. The shawarma here was tasty, but one of my favorite things about your average street food/deli in Israel was the small salad and condiment bar that seemed standard. Even the mall shawarma place we stopped at one lunch had pan-fried eggplant, pickled vegetables, and a couple of different chunky sauces to accompany your meal. The meal I had in Sderot was memorable not because of the food itself, although it was delightfully greasy in the way a great sub from a NY deli is, but because of the significance of the location. Sderot is a border town with the Gaza Strip, and the poverty was pretty palpable. Our guide explained that due to the frequency of rocket attacks, all those who have enough money to leave Sderot have, and the people left are the ones that are stuck. This was great for our group because it meant a cheap lunch, but I couldn’t help but notice a certain haunted and worn-out look to the roads and market we walked through. There was another rocket strike only two days after we visited Sderot. Regardless of your feelings about the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, there’s no reason innocent people (on either side) should be subjected to that kind of violence.

2013-03-19 14.06.42

The sign says “Tasty Falafel 4”

Let’s lighten up the mood a bit, and transition to a happier encounter with laffa. This small falafel shop was in a strip mall in Jerusalem. Tasty Falafel 4 offered 4 different types of falafel (wow, who could have made that intellectual leap?) with the option of putting it in a pita, laffa, or on a platter. They get extra points for all the different delivery options — half pita, half laffa, falafel, shawarma, a combo of the two, or veggies. They also gave you complementary “chips,” which were closer to the British chip in terms of being fried potatoes rather than our American Lays, but were actually small potato puffs that topped your order like a Greek gyro. I ended up getting a mix of all four falafel types with all the salad trimmings (except the spicy sauce). Sure, it was probably the equivalent of Taco Bell in NYC, but sometimes you just want fast food.

Sorry, but I couldn't wait to bite into a "chip" before I took a picture of my falafel.

Sorry, but I couldn’t wait to bite into the “chip” on top before I took a picture of my falafel. Look at the soft potato center and golden brown fried edges. Mmm.

Next up, we have the Lahuhe from the sacred city of Tzfat. It’s basically a Yemeni crepe/burrito, full of herbs and spices and three different types of cheese.

Lahuhe -- basically a Yemeni crepe -- from Tzfat.

Lahuhe — basically a Yemeni crepe — from Tzfat.

I only tasted the wrap my friend Dave got, but it had the light texture of a tortilla mixed with gooey cheese and a heavy za’atar backend spice.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

Let’s move into the big leagues for our next round of Middle Eastern edibles. I’ll admit that I had a list of must-try food written up before I even set foot on the plane (we’ve discussed my dependency on lists previously). A lot of the items on the list were types of food I had sampled in America, but I needed to compare with the more authentic Israeli equivalent — falafel, shawarma, hummus and so on. But at the top of the list was an elusive dish I have still yet to try in the US — shakshuka. Shakshuka is one of those foods that has a million variations across the globe — chak chouka, eggs in purgatory, huevos en el Purgatorio, and so on. At its most basic level, shakshuka is eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce. When I told one of my Birthright leaders I was desperate to stick my face in some shakshuka, she suggested what seemed to be an obvious answer: go see the Doctor. Dr. Shakshuka, that is.

The doctor's office.

The doctor’s office.

Dr. Shakshuka is a restaurant near the flea market in Jaffa, the older Arab city that Tel Aviv grew out of. The inside of the restaurant was crowded and dim, but around the corner Dr. Shakshuka has taken over the whole alleyway, ten tables of varying lengths strewn about the space. I ended up ordering family style with a bunch of my tripmates, getting shakshuka with eggplant, shakshuka with shawarma, stuffed peppers, and a couple of kebabs. The meal also comes with an unlimited supply of thickly sliced loaves of warm, soft white bread to sop up the runny egg and tomato sauce.

Dr. Shakshuka's version of unlimited breadsticks.

Dr. Shakshuka‘s version of unlimited breadsticks.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

The star of the show -- shakshuka with eggplant.

The star of the show — shakshuka with eggplant.

As I had hoped, Dr. Shakshuka totally lived up to expectations. The eggs were perfectly poached, and breaking the yolk led to the unctuous, fatty egg mixing with the acidity of the tomato. A self-professed eggplant zealot, I thought it was a great addition to the dish, the silky texture melding with the rest of the liquid, adding a little bit more chew without distracting from the spices. The beauty of the dish is the way everything comes together — this is definitely not one of those foods for people who like to keep each part of their dinner in separate little sections on their plate. You gotta be ready to get a little messy, dipping your bread in and keeping plenty of napkins at the ready. I know of a few places in NYC that serve shakshuka, and I’m eager to try them out — I only got to try the dish once in Israel, so no over-shakshuka-exposure for this gal.

The most exotic food I ate in Israel came on the last day of my trip, while strolling through Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. Another recommendation (both from the trip leaders and my brother’s girlfriend Leah) led me down a side street of the shuk to the Iraqi restaurant Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

Inside, the restaurant is visually nothing to shake a stick at. Small tables and rickety chairs fill the space, and you order off a menu on the wall, giving your order literally to one of the cooks, who makes and places your food on a cafeteria tray and sends you off to the elderly gentleman by the ancient cash register. I had zero knowledge of Iraqi food, but some items on the menu looked familiar — meat-stuffed cigars that seemed almost Greek, and those brimming bowls of hummus with different toppings of beans, vegetables, and sauces. But I couldn’t get just any ol’ bowl of hummus –I needed something authentically Iraqi (or at least ostensibly authentic). So I went with a bowl of red kubbeh. Kubbeh (or kibbe) is an overarching category of Middle Eastern dishes that involve bulgur or semolina and chopped meat. Red kubbeh is made up of semolina dumplings stuffed with ground beef, boiled in a tangy  broth with stewed vegetables.

I didn't realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I didn’t realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I initially thought the soup would be spicy, perhaps because I’ve been trained to equate “red” with curries or chili powders. But in fact it was more acidic than spicy, which played well against the richness of the dumpling dough and the ground beef. The vegetables were tender, and even with the meat the meal was filling, but not overly heavy. I know it’s pretty lame to get so excited about trying a new cuisine, but I was very pleased with myself for choosing something new and unknown. Luckily, I happened to like the food, too. There were a number of other kubbeh permutations to try at Rachmon, so I’m hoping I can find some Iraqi food in NY. One of my lunch buddies got fried kubbeh, which seemed almost empanada-ish in appearance.

We started with dessert, so we’ll end with it, too. Jaffa was especially kind to me, from the flea market where I found some great gifts, to Dr. Shakshuka‘s, and finally, to the best ice cream I had on my whole trip. Between his insatiable thirst for trivia and history, and his insatiable desire for ice cream, our tour guide Shachar was a man after my own heart (er, stomach?). He came along to Dr. Shakshuka for lunch, but barely touched his food, explaining that he was saving room for some phenomenal ice cream. And so after a little shopping in the market, I followed his directions to a gelateria a few blocks down. They had a wide assortment of flavors from sugarfree to fruit based to candy-laden types like Snickers. I opted to get a combination of the almond-toffee and the Indian Kulfi.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

Overall, the milk base of the gelato was strong, but what really took my gelato to a new height were the flavors. The almond-toffee was delicious, if not particularly shocking — the crunch of the almond against the sticky, gooey toffee and the creaminess of the vanilla base was, as you would expect, a stellar combination. But the Indian Kulfi threw me for a loop. Cardamom was the dominant flavor, and I found it absolutely addictive. It reminded me of the best version of kheer, which is Indian rice pudding — almost savory in taste, but the creamy sugar sweetness of the gelato itself kept the flavor from veering out of dessertland. I’m “borrowing” my mother’s old ice cream maker this summer, and I’m determined to try to replicate this gelato. I’ve seen recipes for cardamom ice cream on sites like Serious Eats, and it’s definitely on the top of my ice cream experiments list.

Last, but not least, we’ll deal with one of those amazing food moments of redefinition. Sometimes all it takes is a really well-made version of a dish to completely shift your opinion. For me, this happened with rugelach. I’ve admitted in the past that I’m not the best Jew-food eater, and part of that was my distaste for rugelach. Too often I would come up against stale, dry, crusty rugelach, the filling like bland paste with the barest hints of the sweet promise of cinnamon or chocolate. Forget rugelach — hand me a piece of babka or a danish, please. But then I went to Marzipan Bakery in Jerusalem. Marzipan was a recommendation from the writers of Serious Eats, and with my rugelach-obsessed friend Zina in tow, when I caught a glimpse of the sign in the Jewish Quarter, I knew we had to stop in.

The hebrew spells out "Marzipan" phonetically.

The hebrew spells out “Marzipan” phonetically.

Inside, it was clear what their star product was:

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

And somehow, despite my history with disappointing rugelach, the fact that all of the city had switched to Kosher for Passover goods (blech, matzoh-meal), and the unreasonably high expectations. the rugelach I had from Marzipan that day was lifechanging. It was the best rugelach I’ve ever had — a slightly sticky coating on the toasted, flaky dough, a luscious chocolate filling that made me yearn for a Zabar’s babka. It was everything I’d been told I should love about rugelach, and damn if I wasn’t a proud Jew at that moment.

I’ll be honest, I’m wrestling with how to sum up this brief series of posts about my trip. I didn’t even get to all the delicious things I tried in Israel (like their fascinating take on frozen yogurt), but hopefully the items I’ve covered give a good picture of my general sense of wonder about the entire experience. This trip challenged me in so many ways, from traveling on my own (well, sans friends, that is) to getting up on a camel, to dipping my toes (and the rest of me) into the Dead Sea. Trying to capture just the part of the trip dealing with food keeps pushing me to make grander statements about my own personal growth and willingness to expand my palate, both for literal tastes and the larger tastes in my life. But truth be told, I’m backing away from the melodrama on this one. If you want a pitch for why everyone who can should do Birthright, let me know and I’m happy to jump right into the spiel. Mostly, I just had a wonderful vacation. And like most of the things I write about on this blog, it was as much about feeding my appetite as it was about feeding my curiosity.