Snackshots Labor Day: Summer Sweet and Savory

Oh, Summer. Can you truly be over? I feel the lingering urges to dip my toes into briney/chlorinated depths, to slather myself in UVA/UVB/UHF/USB SPF 5000 and throw my epidermal health to the wind, and to challenge the physical limits of hot dog consumption. But Labor Day has indeed come and gone, and soon enough the New York winds throw a chill down your shirt collar, the leaves will swirl in eddies around Park Avenue, and the brisk fall air will leave the streets smelling of boring, everyday garbage — the faint, mystifying odor of urine simply a memory of the previous July.

With the specter of Fall looming over me, I resolved to spend the Labor Day long weekend as any good New Yorker should (well, those of us without access to the Hamptons) — eating and walking around the city. In case you were convinced that aside from food nerdery, I someone manage to pass off as “hip” or “with it”, please don’t fret — my solo hours in transit around Manhattan were accompanied by a truly dorky BBC podcast about the history of world religions. Aw yeah, just call me a modern day Fonz. Or the female equivalent (Fonzette?).

So here’s a brief look at the surprisingly eclectic mix of edibles I had during the last few days of summer. I’ve since traded in my white dresses for a white napkin, and now that bikini season is over, we can breathe a sigh of relief and look ahead to the gorging orgies of Halloween and Thanksgiving to come.

Hester Nights:

Hester Nights at the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel.

Hester Nights at the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel.

First up, I wanted to highlight my trip to Hester Nights, an event that is actually still going on for a few more weeks at the Eventi Hotel near Herald Square. Hester Nights is part of the Hester Street Fair, a food and craft market that takes place during summer weekends down on the Lower East Side. In addition to those daytime markets, the organizers also set up a smaller event each Thursday night slightly farther uptown, in the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel. Called Hester Nights, the series runs from May until late September, and features around 12-15 vendors from the Street Fair, cycling weekly.

One side of the row of vendors at Hester Nights, where you can buy pizza, tacos, or South African jerky.

One side of the row of vendors at Hester Nights, where you can buy pizza, tacos, or South African jerky.

While Hester Nights has many similarities to Mad Sq Eats, thankfully on the Thursday Jacob and I went, it was a substantially calmer environment. This may be the product of it being located more off the beaten path, or perhaps because it’s later in the summer and near the end of Hester Nights’ run, or simply because there were fewer vendors in a larger space. I’d actually been to the Eventi pavilion before for drinks — the hotel itself has a great indoor/outdoor pseudo foodcourt called Foodparc & Beerparc, offering burgers, hot dogs, fried seafood, and beer and wine. The outdoor space is dominated by a large fountain in the middle, but there are also a good number of tables and benches, plus a giant video screen on the wall of the building behind the hotel (we visited on Michael Jackson’s birthday, so our meal was accompanied by an unexpected MJ concert soundtrack).

The menu at Brooklyn Wok Shop's stall: a deluge of dim sum.

The menu at Brooklyn Wok Shop‘s stall: a deluge of dim sum.

There was a nice variety of vendors that night, offering eclectic foods from South African jerky to Brazilian cheese bread, gnocchi, waffles, and tacos. Jacob and I decided on an Asian flavor to our meal, and ended up getting Duck Confit Dumplings from the Brooklyn Wok Shop, and Khao Man Gai from Khao Man Gai NY, whose stalls were conveniently located next to each other.

The diverse dumplings on display.

The diverse dumplings on display.

Brooklyn Wok Shop has a brick and mortar location in Williamsburg, where they offer the dim sum menu they had at Hester Nights, plus a larger selection of rice and noodle dishes. After tasting the Duck Confit Dumplings, I would definitely consider paying the restaurant a visit. It’s exactly the kind of Asian fusion I love — retaining the flavor palate of more traditional Eastern cuisines while stirring the pot with classical Western dishes. The rest of the menu at the Hester Nights stall ran the gamut from familiar to off-the-wall — crab rangoon wontons, roasted cauliflower and eggplant, roast pork, and pastrami dumplings — making picking just one dish difficult, but both Jacob and I are suckers for duck, so the idea of tiny pouches of duck confit seemed irresistible.

The Duck Confit Dumplings -- delicately wrapped, but bursting with flavor.

The Duck Confit Dumplings — delicately wrapped, but bursting with flavor.

The Duck Confit Dumplings (fresh shiitakes, cabbage, hoisin dipping sauce) were also the only non-fried item on the menu, and I while I’m certainly a fan of fried food, I appreciated the lightness of the preparation considering the dumplings’ filling. The simply plated dish (this is a food fair, after all) came with four steamed dumplings slathered with hoisin sauce and chopped cilantro. Overall, it was a pleasant appetizer, the portion size and delicate quality of the wrapper dough playing off the fatty confit filling. I wish I had taken more dipping sauce, because you really can’t go wrong with hoisin and duck, but the dumplings really held their own, even without their accompaniments. While this was a great size for a starter, to make a full meal of it, you’d probably need two or three orders between two people. But with the right strategy, a trip to Brooklyn Wok Shop could yield a pretty exotic international tour of flavors without weighing down your stomach or your wallet.

Khao Man Gai NY, offering the best Thai dish you've never heard of.

Khao Man Gai NY, offering the best Thai dish you’ve never heard of (note the sign in the upper left for an introduction).

For our main course Jacob and I chose Khao Man Gai NY, which makes one dish, and one dish only — Khao Man Gai, of course (they also sell some Thai teas, but no other food). Although not well-known in the US, it turns out the dish is one of the most popular street foods in Thailand. KMGNY only operates out of a stall at markets like Hester Nights, but they have a great sales pitch, displaying a sign that fully explains the dish, and offering tastes by the spoonful. Once I tried the sample, I immediately knew I had to get the full dish. Khao Man Gai, at least as prepared by KMGNY, is “Organic Chicken poached with garlic, ginger and Thai herbs, with Thai jasmine rice cooked with the poaching liquid and herbs, served with a soup for sipping between bites, and a sauce of fermented soybean, garlic, ginger, simple syrup, vinegar, and chilis.”

Khao Man Gai -- some assembly required.

Khao Man Gai — some assembly required.

We were served a plate full of chicken and rice, with sauce and a cup of broth on the side, and given specific instructions on how to appropriately tackle Khao Man Gai. To be properly enjoyed, the sauce must be dumped onto the chicken, so it coats the meat and soaks into the rice, and the soup is to be sipped in between bites to act as a palate cleanser. After following the instructions and finally digging in, I found the chicken was poached to an almost collapsing degree of tenderness, falling to pieces even with just a flimsy plastic fork cutting into it. Both the meat and the still somewhat chewy rice were moist and flavorful, the herbs and spices of the broth having been fully infused. Not surprisingly, since we’re talking about street food, Khao Man Gai is pretty unimpressive visually — a lump of rice, slices of barely adorned poached chicken, and a small cup of clear broth — but once you start biting into it, it’s obvious why this dish is so popular. Each bite packs a punch of earthy salt, just a bit of heat from the chilis, and a hint of sugar from the viscous sweet and sour soybean sauce. I was skeptical of the point of the broth, but the small sips between bites really does elevate the meal, washing your mouth with umami and priming your tastebuds for the next delectable forkful. Khao Man Gai NY seriously needs to get a storefront, or at least a truck, because with winter coming and the street fairs winding down, I don’t want to have to wait another half a year to try this dish again.

Il Laboratorio Del Gelato:

The bright white interior of Il Laboratorio del Gelato shines out into the New York night.

The bright white interior of Il Laboratorio del Gelato shines out into the New York night.

My other major Labor Day excursion was to the Lower East Side, where I finally paid a visit to Il Laboratorio del Gelato. I’d been reading about this place for years now, constantly seeing it ranked on lists of the best ice cream or gelato in New York, and I’d even walked by it on occasion (staring longingly at it as I headed over to Clinton St. Baking Co., for example). Il Laboratorio del Gelato is located right on Houston, only a few blocks over from the Whole Foods Bowery. They certainly can’t be accused of false advertising — the decor is industrial, plain white paint and tile combined with stainless steel — you couldn’t give off a more scientific, laboratory vibe unless the staff was decked out in hazmat suits (fortunately, the friendly staff wear blue aprons and hats, so you know you’re getting gelato, and not a flu shot). Although ILDG is housed in a fairly large space, the majority of it is devoted to the process of making all that gelato, leaving only a few benches by the front windows for seating. And at least when I was there, the front of the store was packed to the gills with a long line of eager gelato-anticipants.

Inside you can see that the majority of the space is taken up by "lab" equipment.

Inside you can see that the majority of the space is taken up by “lab” equipment.

ILDG makes over 275 flavors of gelato, offering 48 at the start of business each day, so the diversity of choices coupled with the long line and lack of a visible menu (you can’t see the daily flavors until you reach the front) inevitably lead to a bit of choice anxiety. Even my good ol’ reliable web research couldn’t help me here, since the highly touted caramel was not being offered at the time. ILDG doesn’t make things any easier, since you’re only allowed 2 tastes per person, a meager amount in the face of the mountain of appetizing gelatos and sorbets. I understand the need for all the rules because of the popularity of the place and the sheer quantity of gelato flavors, but I did feel a bit stymied in my exploration of ILDG’s products. How am I supposed to know whether to get just two flavors, or three, or a shake?

I'm sorry, Baskin-Robbins, how many flavors do you have?

I’m sorry, Baskin-Robbins, how many flavors did you say you have?

48 flavors, and only 2 tastes -- it's basically another trial of Hercules.

48 flavors, and only 2 tastes — it’s basically another trial of Hercules.

Luckily, Il Laboratorio del Gelato has the goods to counterbalance all the rules and regulations. This was some of the best gelato I’ve had in Manhattan, and certainly the most innovative flavors I’ve seen (although I have my eye on the cornbread gelato over at Williamsburg’s Oddfellows). Jacob and I decided to get two small cups (with two flavors of gelato each) — one on the sweeter side, and one more fruity. I got the Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch and Mocha Chocolate Chip gelatos, and Jacob chose the Raspberry gelato and Green Apple sorbet (at the suggestion of our server).

The dessert duo: Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch on the left, and Mocha Chocolate Chip on the right.

The dessert duo: Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch on the left, and Mocha Chocolate Chip on the right.

The fruit selection: Raspberry  gelato on the left, and Green Apple sorbet on the right.

The fruit selection: Raspberry gelato on the left, and Green Apple sorbet on the right.

Both gelatos had great consistency — the sweeter, milkier gelatos were creamy and slightly melty, coating your tongue as they dissolved. The Mocha had a bold coffee flavor, with a smooth rich milk chocolate, and reminded me of chocolate covered espresso beans. I really loved the textural contrast of the Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch — the “crunch” seemed to come from crumbled amaretti cookies that were swirled into the airy hazelnut gelato base. The Raspberry was thick, smooth, with a fresh fruit taste, just a bit of tartness to contrast the sugar, but definitely still a gelato. The biggest surprise was the Green Apple sorbet, which I was prepared to be disappointed by. I ended up finding it the most interesting, and most satisfying flavor of the bunch. I had expected it to be tart like a Granny Smith apple, which I tend not to like (I’m a Honey crisp or Gala gal), or worst case scenario, like the fake sour green apple you encounter in candy and sugary liquors. But it lived up to the sorbet mantle — light, refreshing, with a pure, natural apple flavor and an almost crushed ice/granita texture. I can’t believe I’m saying this, as someone who will almost always choose the chocolate mousse over the fruit tart, but the Green Apple sorbet was the most memorable flavor for me, sticking in my mind even a week after my visit.

The rest of the weekend was filled with brunches, beer halls, indie films, frisbee in Central Park, and as many glorious catnaps as I could justify to myself. All in all, I think I managed to capture the distilled spirit of a New York summer — a mix of the transient with the established institution, a melting pot of cuisines and heritages, and the completely homegrown desire to sleep away the afternoon. If you can, try to make it out to Hester Nights in its last few weeks — I always think it’s worthwhile to see the innovative up-and-coming vendors in the area, and I was genuinely delighted to discover a number of new dishes I had never even heard of before. And I know I’ll be back to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, inquisitive ice cream ingester that I am. You just can’t throw down a 275-flavor gauntlet and not expect this Rocky Road Rambo to lock and load.

So with that, I bid adieu to the summer season. Goodbye heat, goodbye outdoor seating, goodbye sundresses, goodbye fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them. Hello pumpkin spice everything, hello leather jacket weather, hello mulled apple cider. Suddenly the leaves changing doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Hester Nights @ the Eventi Hotel

6th Ave between 29th and 30th Streets

http://www.hesterstreetfair.com/#!hester-nights/c7h0

Brooklyn Wok Shop

 182 N 10th St (btwn Bedford and Driggs Ave)

http://brooklynwokshop.com/

Khao Man Gai NY

https://www.facebook.com/KhaoManGaiNY

Il Laboratorio del Gelato

188 Ludlow St. (at East Houston) 

http://www.laboratoriodelgelato.com/

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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

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/

All the Cool Kids are Having Pancakes for Dinner: Eating Post-Brunch at Clinton Street Baking Co.

Clinton Street Baking Co., conveniently located on Clinton St.

Clinton Street Baking Co., conveniently located on Clinton St.

As a kid I always loved the nights when we’d eat breakfast for dinner. The liberal arts graduate in me wants to assign some larger psychoanalytical meaning to it — the thrill of the perceived rule-breaking, the change in routine from spaghetti or hamburgers. But let’s not make a mountain out of a molehill here. The truth is I just love breakfast food, and at any time of the day I’ll gladly eat a bagel, eggs, or any sort of pan-fried bread-based object covered in syrup.

One of the seemingly most glamorous aspects of being an adult is the ability to eat whatever you want, whenever you want. Strawberry Poptarts, raisins, and some hummus? Call it dinner. Cold pizza and some questionably warm milk? Sounds like brunch. In actuality, at least on my budget, this does actually turn into a lot of breakfast for dinner. After all, most of the ingredients of an omelet or frittata are pretty affordable. Unfortunately, this does serve to remove some of the magic of a home-cooked evening breakfast. But just the right restaurant adventure can bring back the spark, and out pops the overeager kid in me once again.

And so it only seems obvious that I would buy a Google Offer from Clinton Street Baking Company. The restaurant is world famous for its pancakes, and perhaps even more well-known for its notoriously long brunch waits. In fact, I had previously tried to go to CSB years ago when my older brother was first admitted to the bar, but after being told our wait would be over 2 hours, my family decided to fill our stomachs elsewhere. And so when that Google Offer popped up selling a dinner for 2, I figured it’d be a great chance to check out a hotspot during the off-hours.

Fortunately, as with my other recently investigated brunch staple Good Enough to Eat, CSB serves many of its most popular brunch dishes on the dinner menu. My offer came with 2 beers, a choice of dinner entree, and an order of those famous pancakes, and so this past weekend I embarked on a lady-date with my friend Sarah to see if CSB’s pancakes would satisfy my nostalgia for syrup at sunset.

First Impressions:

The restaurant is small, but warm and inviting, living up to its bakery title with a glass case full of desserts right as you walk in.

The restaurant is small, but warm and inviting, living up to its bakery title with a glass case full of desserts right as you walk in.

Clinton Street Baking Co. is located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an area I always regret not spending more time in. Found just off East Houston on, shockingly, Clinton Street, the restaurant is cozy and inviting, featuring the warm pastel colors and decor of an old school luncheonette. Unlike Good Enough to Eat, which played up its inherent quirkiness, CSB is homey but straightforward in its design — stainless steel, wooden tables, and a few posters on the walls that make it feel like a familiar neighborhood joint. My friend Sarah was kind enough to join me for dinner, and she arrived first at CSB, just as they reopened for dinner. CSB serves brunch daily from 9am to 4pm, then reopens at 6pm for dinner. Although the dinner rush is exponentially less busy than their chaotic and epic brunch service, in the scant ten minutes between Sarah’s arrival and my own, the place had nearly filled up. Luckily, Sarah was seated immediately, and had her choice of tables when she got there, picking a lovely little booth by the window.

The handful of tables line the walls, which are sparsely decorated, emphasizing the focus on the food.

The handful of tables line the walls, which are sparsely decorated, emphasizing the focus on the food.

The service at CSB started and ended strongly, but had a bit of a dip in the middle. Our waitress was friendly and aware of the Google Offer, which made ordering simple. As it happened, our booth was directly across from the bar, so it took less than 30 seconds between ordering our beers and their arrival at our table. I got the Empire White Afro, a citrusy wheat beer that reminded me of a more refined Blue Moon, and Sarah had the Captain Lawrence Kolsch, which was slightly darker, but still on the lighter side.

The view from our table -- note the beef taps mere inches away.

The view from our table — note the beer taps mere inches away.

Unfortunately, after speedily taking our order and delivering our dinner lickety-split, there was a lull in the service. I tend to drink a lot of water during my meals, and was disappointed that no one came to refill my water glass while we were eating. Yes, I had my beer as well, but I’m a thirsty person, and ended my meal slightly parched. However, CSB made up for this with the unexpected goody bag at the end of our meal — more on that later. Let’s talk pancakes and eggs.

The Food:

Although the emphasis is clearly on classic American homecooking, Clinton Street Baking Company’s menu is also populated with comfort food from across the globe, from a handful of different burgers and the fried chicken and waffles, to vegetable enchiladas, spaghetti carbonara, and fish and chips. And of course let’s not neglect the only slightly slightly reduced breakfast section. Sarah and I briefly toyed with the idea of fish and chips as our other entree, but ultimately thought it would be a strange combination with the obligatory pancakes. We settled on the Huevos Rancheros to make a full breakfast-for-dinner-play, crossing the spectrum of savory and sweet brunch items. For our pancake order we chose Banana Walnut Pancakes over the Blueberry Pancakes and the special pancake of the day, Chocolate Chunk. As classic as blueberry pancakes are, I’ll choose a banana over a berry any day of the week, and I won’t apologize for it. Perhaps the more shocking move was passing over the chocolate option, but I thought I’d be missing out on the authentic CSB experience if I picked the special over one of the menu’s mainstays. Oh, and just in case we weren’t truly embracing our full carbohydrate potential, we also ordered a side of sweet potato fries. You know, to get our veggies in.

I see your bread basket and raise you some complimentary mini biscuits.

I see your bread basket and raise you some complimentary mini biscuits.

Our meal started with a complimentary plate of miniature biscuits, a pleasant surprise, as I’m always excited to see a bread basket that contains more than plain old sliced Italian bread. We got four biscuits for the two of us, which was generous considering the carbo-loading we were about to engage in. The bad news is that the biscuits were served only with a few regular foil-wrapped pats of butter (“what, no homechurned strawberry butter?” the bourgeois brunch snob in me cries out), and arrived firmly at room temperature. Even so, they still had a great creamy, rich flavor, and had the right slightly crumbly texture, so I actually didn’t feel the need to put butter them further. CSB’s biscuits would definitely have been significantly stronger if warmed — but as they were served, they were just average. (I do recognize that I may be especially biased at this point in time, given my recent fantastic biscuit encounters at Good Enough to Eat and Cafeteria.)

The Huevos Rancheros -- well cooked, but undercut by a lackluster tortilla.

The Huevos Rancheros — well cooked, but undercut by a lackluster tortilla.

The Huevos Rancheros was also a solid dish, but as Sarah agreed, would have been a bit underwhelming if ordered as someone’s sole entree. The sunny-side-up eggs had yolks that broke open with ease, and I really enjoyed the variety of condiments that were served under the eggs and cheese — soft red beans, alternately spicy and cool jalapeno sour cream, salsa picante, and guacamole. What prevented the dish from truly succeeding was its tortilla base. The tortilla seemed barely touched, floppy and dry on the outside, and flavorlessly soggy in the middle under those semisoft toppings. What really clinches a good huevos rancheros is the textural contrast of a crunchy tortilla paired up with the loose eggs and condiments. CSB’s version had all the right ingredients, but had a weak foundation that undermined the overall dish.

Sweet Potato Fries -- perhaps a little random given the rest of our meal, but still deftly cooked and delicious.

Sweet Potato Fries — perhaps a little random given the rest of our meal, but still deftly cooked and delicious.

Although seemingly a little off-theme, the sweet potato fries were very well done, and ended up working wonderfully with our meal (pro tip — try dipping them in the maple butter that comes with the pancakes). I like my sweet potato fries even softer than my preferred model of thick-cut, starchy french fries, mostly because I adore the pure, unadulterated taste of sweet potato. (In fact, I will frequently just roast a sweet potato for dinner with a little salt and pepper, or even cinnamon. Sweet potato and avocado — also a killer combination.) CSB’s sweet potato fries were thin cut in varying shapes and sizes that suggests  they were handcut. Some were slightly charred on the ends, giving a nice crunch go to with the more mushy (in a good way) middle. They were served with ketchup, but I actually don’t particularly enjoy ketchup with my sweet potatoes, and so like the hot sauce that came with the huevos, I largely ignored the condiments (mostly because I’m a spice-wuss).

Banana Walnut Pancakes -- a wake up call for pancake enthusiasts.

Banana Walnut Pancakes — a wake up call for pancake enthusiasts.

Purely by luck I saved the best part of the meal for last — Clinton Street Baking Co.’s legendary pancakes. Now there’s a lot of hype around certain dishes in New York eating, especially when it comes to brunch, so I was fully prepared for these to be a letdown. I’m also of the opinion that so often the pancakes you encounter out in the world are perfectly fine, but nothing to write home about — the average order at IHOP is not going to blow your mind in any way. But these pancakes, my friends, these were the real deal. They reminded me of the true potential of pancakes — from the familiar buttermilk base, to their firm, yet fluffy texture, the pancakes were fully cooked through, browned on the edges and golden in the middle, just thick enough to provide some real chew. Candied walnuts were baked into the cakes and added another layer of sweetness, and freshly sliced bananas came on top. The batter itself didn’t have a strong banana flavor, which I actually preferred, because it let the taste of the pancake itself shine through. They came with CSB’s similarly renowned maple butter, which is more butter-maple than maple-butter, as it is literally melted butter poured into maple syrup. I could feel it clogging my arteries as I eagerly dunked my pancakes in, but God bless the CSB alchemists for producing from two classic condiments one glorious liquid gold. With all that sugar, I was very happy to split the stack of three pancakes — I’m pretty sure it would have been a little dangerous to my glucose levels to eat on my own.

Another merit of eating dinner at CSB became clear when our waitress arrived with the check, and placed two small paper bags alongside it. Inside were baked goods left over from the brunch service — Sarah got a lemon poppyseed muffin, and I got a fullsize biscuit. (For those who are curious, the biscuit reheated fantastically for breakfast the next day, and goes great with raspberry jam.) No wait, classic pancakes, and free baked goods? Why does anyone pick brunch over dinner here?

Sarah's bonus lemon poppyseed muffin.

Sarah’s bonus lemon poppyseed muffin.

Why certainly, I'll take another biscuit -- as long as you're handing them out, I'll keep eating them.

Why certainly, I’ll take another biscuit — as long as you’re handing them out, I’ll keep eating them.

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I had a comforting and dependable dinner at Clinton Street Baking Company. The laid back and simple homestyle cooking and decor worked well during the calmer dinner period, and the majority of my meal was solidly executed and plenty tasty. This is a restaurant where you really should try out their famous dishes — the Banana Walnut Pancakes certainly lived up to the hype, and were in a class above the rest of the dishes we tried. Because of this, I feel it’s not totally fair to judge the dinner menu without having tried the similarly well-regarded fried chicken. Because of ease of access, I’m happy to go back and give the chicken and waffles a try (I can’t lie, I’m mainly coming back for more maple butter). I would definitely recommend paying a visit to CSB, but delay your visit till after sunset– I’m not sure any pancakes are worth waiting three hours for. Avoid the tourist trap and come back for a relaxing dinner — after all, you’re an adult, and you can have breakfast as many times a day as you like.

Clinton Street Baking Co.

4 Clinton St (off E. Houston)

clintonstreetbaking.com/