Must-have Misnomers at Market Table

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As I mentioned previously, Top Chef is my reality TV guilty pleasure (well, that and Chopped, Unique Eats, and The Voice, which is the worst because I’m begrudgingly supporting Carson Daly’s career). One of the common criticisms lobbed at “cheftestants” on Top Chef is the misnaming of dishes, i.e., calling something a risotto when you used cauliflower instead of rice and orange juice instead of broth and your Italian grandma would have no idea what the hell you made. Generally, I agree with Padme and Tom — when cooking at that high a level, you know the definitions of dishes, and you should acknowledge that your experimentation can be “inspired by” a certain dish, but don’t call a club a spade and expect to get away with it. There’s an expectation created by the title of a dish on a menu, and unless you’re going to a Wylie Dusfresne’s molecular gastronomy lab/restaurant, a dish’s name should not be a disguise. Call me pedantic, but the judicious application of some quotation marks would make this all easier.

I bring this up because of a recent lunch I had at Market Table in the West Village. Now the meal I had there was great, and I’d like to go back given the seasonality of their menu, but as you’ll see, their naming conventions probably wouldn’t have passed the Colicchio rule of thumb.

First Impressions:

The corner location of Market Table allows for two walls of windows and ample light.

The corner location of Market Table allows for two walls of windows and ample light.

Market Table is owned by the proprietors of the popular restaurant The Little Owl, and is actually located just a few blocks away from it, on the corner of Carmine and Bedford. The corner space is actually the old location of the NY legend Shopsin’s (now in the Essex St. Market), and you can tell it’s a prime spot, with two full walls of enormous plate glass windows. It’s a very homey, open environment, with dark black leather banquettes and small wooden tables in two-and-four top layouts. The decor evokes a neighborhood restaurant with just a bit of flair — exposed brick walls and wooden beams above them, a tree trunk serving as a the host stand, and a wall covered in shelves of wine simply begging to be opened.

The rustic and inviting single dining room.

The rustic and inviting single dining room.

Forget a list, check out the wine WALL.

Forget a list, check out the wine WALL.

My mom had come in for a mother-daughter lunch, and we arrived basically right when Market Table opened at 11:30am, so the restaurant was fairly empty, and our service was fast and efficient. However, by the time we left, the small dining room had filled up substantially, and our waitress was running around a bit more, making it clear that Market Table lives up to its neighborhood staple aesthetic.

The Food:

Market Table’s menu is made up of seasonally-driven fare, based on (big shock) what’s available at the market. Since we were lunching on a national holiday (MLK Jr. Day), they were offering a few brunch specials, like pancakes and a scramble, but we opted to go full-on lunch. My mother got the lunch special, a Shrimp Salad Sandwich with Old Bay Fries, I chose the Roasted Vegetable Falafel, and we got an order of the Quinoa Hushpuppies to share, based on Jacob’s recommendation (he suggested Market Table in the first place, having been several times).

Complimentary baguette, olive oil, and large flake sea salt.

Complimentary baguette, olive oil, and large flake sea salt.

Our meal started with a complimentary hunk of french bread, served with olive oil and sea salt. Market Table gets extra points for including the sea salt, which offers another layer of flavor and highlights the quality of the olive oil. The bread was light and airy, and biting into it, I wondered if it was sourced from the nearby location of Amy’s Breads, just down the way on Bleecker.

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The Shrimp Salad Sandwich, plated for a real French fry lover.

Our dishes landed on the table before we had even made a serious dent in the bread. I’ll start with my mom’s Shrimp Salad Sandwich, which had an unpretentious presentation to match its straightforward name. The sandwich was nicely plated, if a little less composed than my entree. The sandwich itself was dwarfed by the small hill of Old Bay fries next to it. Now, speaking from the context of a lifetime of Jewish deli visits, I think the bread-to-filling ratio on the shrimp salad was weighted a little too much on the bread side, but you could argue that the salad presented here was composed of higher quality ingredients and not bulked up by a lot of mayo. Once again, I was impressed by the bread — the whole wheat roll was soft and tender where it soaked up the juices of the shrimp salad, but never to the point where it became too soggy to stick together. As for the salad itself, sizable, crunchy chunks of shrimp were plain to see among the pieces of celery and tomatoes, and the taste of shellfish was the dominant flavor in each bite, not too muddied up in the seasonings or mayo. A little lettuce, slice of fresh tomato, or onion might have bulked up the sandwich for me and added a bit more textural contrast, but overall I thought it was a solid lunch entree. Given my french fry affinity, of course I was a big fan of the Old Bay Fries accompanying my mother’s sandwich. I actually wanted them to pile on more of the Old Bay — my parents are originally from Baltimore, and I’ve had my fair share of heavily seasoned spuds by the Chesapeake Bay. Market Table’s iteration featured medium-cut fries, crispy and crunch on the edges, with that soft starchy center that I’ve waxed rhapsodic about way too many times on this blog. They were certainly generous with the fries, but I think the dish is a little unevenly proportioned — a small side salad, or just a larger sandwich would be a more justified lunch dish than the fry-dominant version we were served.

The Roasted Vegetable Falafel, er "Falafel" -- delicious, if not quite what I was expecting.

The Roasted Vegetable Falafel, er “Falafel” — delicious, if not quite what I was expecting.

The only negative thing I have to say about my Roasted Vegetable Falafel (cucumber, feta, arugula, tzatziki, chili) is how it was named. As I mentioned at the head of this post, you create an expectation for the diner when you use a known foodstuff as your dish’s title. Falafel immediately brings to mind chickpeas, a crisply fried outer coating, and a flavor ranging from totally bland (I’m looking at you frozen falafel) to vibrantly herby like the falafel I found in the Tel Aviv shuk. However, what arrived at my lunch was a very loose interpretation of “falafel” — a baked mixed vegetable patty, closer in my opinion to a Mediterranean-influenced veggie burger than any fried chickpea ball. Naming aside, the entree was elegantly presented, the large, bright green patty resting on a small pool of tzatziki, divided from a light Greek salad by a wall of sliced, fresh tomatoes. Overall, the bright colors and clean lines made it an immediately visually appealing plate. Breaking into the patty, I would guess there were peas, carrots, and maybe some onions in the mix. It proved firm without being dry, and I really enjoyed the mishmash of heat from the chili powder and the cool parsley and cucumber from the tzatziki. Despite my lingering reluctance to eat feta (generally it’s too briny for me), the variety used by Market Table was mild, adding a little salt and chew in the face of the soft vegetable patty. The salad was similarly well-executed, the arugula and parsley offering a component of bitterness to round out the plate. Ignoring my griping about the name, I would highly recommend ordering the Roasted Vegetable Falafel if you’re looking for a lighter, but satisfying dish (especially if you plan to go to Big Gay Ice Cream afterwards, like my mother and I did).

The Quinoa Hushpuppies -- a northern twist on Southern Living?

The Quinoa Hushpuppies — a northern twist on Southern Living?

I really enjoyed how unusual the Quinoa Hushpuppies (with capers and lemon) were. Once again, Jacob’s recommendation was spot on, although you could quibble about the authenticity of the Hushpuppy appellation, since I’m pretty sure there’s nary a corn molecule to be found in this fritter. Market Table continued its theme of ample portions with this side dish, featuring close to a dozen oblong pups for my mother and I to split. The hushpuppies weren’t wholly made of quinoa, as I had initially imagined, but rather were made with regular all-purpose flour mixed with whole cooked quinoa seeds, flecked with chives and cooked to a golden brown. This gave them a pleasantly brittle exterior that broke through to a chewy middle. The accompanying dipping sauce was possibly my favorite part of the side — some sort of chipotle aioli, with a nice kick to it that warmed my tongue without making me reach for my water glass.

Final Thoughts:

For all my complaining about how things are named, Market Table did deliver on service, fresh ingredients, and inventive cooking. In fact, I think the weakest dish of our lunch was the most conventional, my mother’s sandwich. Although the Quinoa Hushpuppies and my Roasted Vegetable Falafel were far from what I expected when I read them on the menu, it was a pleasant and satisfying surprise to receive. Perhaps the lesson here is that unless you’re playing for bragging rights post-season on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live, a little diner deception isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Does it encourage a customer to think outside the ordering box, or does it invite disappointment and criticism? I leave it for you to decide, but in the meantime I’ll be heading back to Market Table for those hushpuppies, regardless of whether they’d pass muster down South.

Market Table

54 Carmine St. (corner of Bedford)

http://markettablenyc.com/

Summer Restaurant Week Lunch: A Sophisticated Treat at Boulud Sud

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I’ve always felt there’s something inherently decadent in a fancy weekday lunch. Maybe it’s a holdover from my childhood, a memory of “take-your-daughter-to-work-days” when my parents would whisk me away from the doldrums of elementary school to the magic and wonder of the Big City. Or maybe it’s the lack of a corporate charge card — even as a working adult the business lunches have been pretty few and far between, special occasions that are to be savored, the rare respite from bag lunches or trips to the corner bodega’s chopped salad bar. During those special lunches I always feel like I’m part of the in-crowd, an exclusive club of diners with larger wallets and looser office rules, allowed to while away the afternoon sipping Chiraz and munching on delicately toasted crostinis.

This past week I had the chance to dip my toes in those elusive waters once again, when my office closed for a full Summer Friday. Instead of reverse commuting to Connecticut, I would actually spend a weekday in Manhattan, and dammit, I was going to take advantage of that. Fortunately, it was also the last day of Summer Restaurant Week, so Jacob, Sarah and I decided to check out the RW lunch deal at Boulud Sud.

 

First Impressions:

The simple and refined entrance to Boulud Sud, a good indication of the decor to come.

The simple and refined entrance to Boulud Sud, a good indication of the decor to come.

Boulud Sud is one piece of Daniel Boulud’s mini empire of restaurants and shops, spanning the globe from his high-end flagship restaurant Daniel in NY, to versions of his more affordable French-inflected restaurants like Cafe Boulud and Bar Boulud, found both in NY and more exotic locales such as London, Singapore, and Beijing. Although all of Boulud’s restaurants are based in his background of French cooking, Boulud Sud is defined by an emphasis on Mediterranean flavors, including a wide range of regional influences from the Riviera to North Africa to Turkey and the Middle East.

Looking through one of the large plate glass windows that make up the front of the restaurant.

Looking through one of the large plate glass windows that make up the front of the restaurant.

I’m lucky enough to have previously dined at Daniel for my mother’s birthday, and even though I was far less pretentiously critical about food back then, I recall being bowled over by the service and the quality of the food. For the most part it was more traditional French cuisine, and so when choosing another Boulud restaurant to visit for RW, I wanted to try to emulate my experience at Jean Georges’ Spice Market and see how Boulud would handle the flavor profiles of non-native cultures. Given my recent trip to Israel and growing appreciation for Mediterranean cuisines, Boulud Sud seemed like an obvious choice.

Boulud Sud is located right off of Lincoln Center, on 64th St between Broadway and Central Park West, and is housed in the same building as two of Boulud’s other endeavors — the casual Bar Boulud and the eat-in/take-out market Epicerie Boulud. These restaurants are also just across the street from Picholine (the high-end restaurant by Terrance Brennan of Artisanal fame) and a location of the Atlantic Grill, making this a bit of a powerhouse corner of the Upper West Side.

The view from the bar into the rest of the dining room, where you can see the regional paintings on the walls.

The view from the bar into the rest of the dining room, where you can see the regional paintings on the walls.

The restaurant’s aesthetic is modern restraint, the outside decorated with a plain sign, a large steel door, and huge plate glass windows that allow lots of sunlight. Inside, Boulud Sud features a soft, cool color palette, heavy on slate grey, chocolate brown, and sunflower yellow, with green-tinted water glasses on the basic wooden table tops. The modern metallic chairs actually reminded me of the types I’d see in the conference rooms at my middle school, oddly inelegant considering the rest of the delicate decor. The dining room itself is relatively small, perhaps due to the conglomeration of 3 restaurants in one building, but this adds a level of intimacy, aided by the soft lighting and softer music, a bit of a respite from the louder soundtracks and lackluster acoustics of some of New York’s other trendy restaurants. The brown and taupe walls are covered with paintings of Mediterranean land and seascapes, except for the majority of the inner side of the restaurant, which is dominated by a huge open kitchen. As commonplace as open kitchens seem to be these days, I admit I still really enjoy a tableside view of chefs in action (maybe it’s my slight addiction to Chopped). There were several times during our lunch that we would stop and try to figure out which dish the chefs were working on, from stirring massive stockpots to food processing the heck out of some yogurt sauce.

Looking back from our table into the large open kitchen of Boulud Sud, which takes up most of the back wall.

Looking back from our table into the large open kitchen of Boulud Sud, which takes up most of the back wall.

 

The Food:

As was discussed in my Peter Luger review, I like to do a bit of research before going to a restaurant. I’ve always been a planner, and I try to avoid making poor decisions based on haste and fluster in the face of an impatient waiter. I leave the spontaneity to new Oreo products and ice cream flavors. Part of the decision to go to Boulud Sud for Restaurant Week was based on the menu on their website, and I also poked around on Google to see if anyone had already reviewed their lunch offerings. Unfortunately, the menu had changed since the beginning of Restaurant Week (which confusingly takes place over a month), and while most of the entree choices were the same, the appetizer and dessert segments of the menu were dramatically different. Perhaps it’s a matter of seasonal/market ingredients, but I was bummed because I had been looking forward to a specific Middle Eastern flatbread appetizer one blogger had raved about. Overall, we still had a great lunch, but it was slightly more improvisational than I had anticipated.

Faced with the unfamiliar menu, I chose the Summer Chicory Salad to start, while Jacob and Sarah picked the Ouzu Cured Salmon. Then Sarah and I both went with the Spiced Lamb Burger as a main, and Jacob got the Za’atar Spiced Merlu. Sarah and I finished our meals with the Chocolate Panna Cotta, and Jacob chose the Housemade Cremes Glacees (Chef’s Daily Ice Cream Selection).

The complimentary olive oil and bread -- way more than your average throwaway bread basket.

The complimentary olive oil and bread — way more than your average throwaway bread basket.

The meal began with complimentary bread and olive oil. The olive oil was clearly of extremely high quality, and was poured table-side into a small saucer with slivers of garlic and rosemary sprigs on the bottom. We were given two types of bread — slices of standard rustic Italian bread baked with olives, and pieces of focaccia that seemed to be topped with oregano and tiny pieces of sun-dried tomatoes. I generally have an aversion to olives (I find the flavor utterly pervasive in dishes), but this bread was so soft and fresh I ended up eating multiple pieces (luckily the olives were relatively few and far between). Focaccia is one of my favorite types of bread, so I took more than my fair share out of our bread basket. Both types of bread had a great, springy chew to them, and they soaked up the oil as we all greedily dunked again and again. Fortunately, our waiter noticed our empty tray almost immediately and promptly asked if we’d like some more (cue impolite nods with crumb-filled mouths). The service at Boulud Sud is quite fast, so before we had even finished our second tray of bread, our appetizers arrived.

My literally bitter/sweet Summer Chicory Salad.

My literally bitter/sweet Summer Chicory Salad.

The Summer Chicory Salad (Capers, Golden Raisins, Red Wine Vinaigrette) was a nice-sized portion, especially when placed next to the Ouzu Salmon, which seemed a little skimpy in comparison. Although I’ve tried New Orleans chicory coffee, I’d actually never encountered the green in the flesh (er leaf, I guess). It turns out chicory looks a lot like arugula, and has a similar peppery, bitter taste. When combined with the radicchio that made up the rest of the roughage, I found the base of the salad a little too bitter for my tastes. Fortunately, the rest of the components served to brighten the dish, from the sweet golden raisins to the thin slices of cheese I would wager was Pecorino. The red wine vinaigrette and the capers were more subtly present, and I thought the small crouton cubes added a nice crunch component while avoiding soaking up too much of the dressing. When I managed to get all the salad’s ingredients into one bite, it was actually a pleasantly floral combination.

The Ouzu Salmon - still not my cup of tea, but pretty to look at.

The Ouzu Cured Salmon – still not my cup of tea, but pretty to look at.

I’m starting to think I should just force myself to like salmon, since I seem to encounter it at nearly every new restaurant I try. My untrained palate couldn’t detect a strong ouzu flavor to the Ouzu Cured Salmon (Whole Wheat Bulgur, Cucumber, Dill Yogurt). If you’re curious, ouzu is an anise-flavored aperitif that is extremely popular in Greece and Cyprus. I’ve never warmed to the taste of anise or anything on the fennel/licorice spectrum (Red Vines only, please), so you would think the combination of salmon and anise would be pretty repugnant to me. Actually, I found the fish very fresh, and fairly similar in flavor to the lox my mother serves alongside the basket of bagels on Sundays. The overall plating of the dish is what impressed me most (in fact, most of the dishes in our meal were very elegantly laid out). The dish came off as bright and summer-y with a great contrast of colors in the bright pink radishes, the orange-ish salmon, and the green dill yogurt and cucumber. I thought the accompaniments shone brightest in this dish — the bulgur had a nicely chewy texture that played off the softer salmon, cucumber and yogurt. The sauce ended up approximating the flavors of the tzatziki spread on my burger, a standout element there as well.

The Spiced Lamb Burger ultimately reminded me of a high quality American take on shawarma.

The Spiced Lamb Burger ultimately reminded me of a high quality American take on shawarma.

Although I had been tempted by the Ratatouille and Hand-rolled Ricotta Cavatelli on the menu, I ultimately had to go with the Spiced Lamb Burger (Harissa, Eggplant, Tzatziki, Sweet Potato Chips) because it received high praise from the review I had read. The burger came served simply on a slate board, with the chips to one side and a small bowl of good ol’ Heinz ketchup on the other. Given the exotic spices included in the dish, the ketchup seemed a bit incongruous, but I guess I can’t really complain given my traditionalist views of hot dog toppings. The Lamb burger was served on an excellent soft brioche bun. I usually lean towards the potato bun for burgers, but unsurprisingly, Boulud Sud uses great bread that held its own as much as it could against the juiciness of the burger and its toppings. I also admired the fact that Boulud Sud recommends a more undercooked lamb burger — most places will suggest cooking the patty to at least fully medium, but at lunch the waiter suggested I go with my usual burger choice, medium rare. The burger arrived fully pink in the middle, the finely ground meat moist and flavorful. Although there was a lot of interplay between the harissa and the tzatziki, I never lost the taste of the lamb in the jumble. Harissa is a hot chili sauce from Tunisia made mainly of piri piri, serrano and other chili peppers, garlic paste, coriander, chili powder, and an oil. In this case the harissa added a little kick to the meat, but I wasn’t put off by the spice, since it was mitigated by the silky eggplant pieces and the cool tzatziki spread placed underneath the patty. The only downside is that all of these spreads and oily eggplant pieces meant the burger eventually started falling apart as I worked my way through it, leading to a fork-and-knife situation by the end of the course. I enjoyed each bite as I went, so I didn’t really mind, but it seems obvious to me that you can’t load down a bun with chili sauce, yogurt, oily eggplant and a burger patty and expect it to really hold together. This was still the best lamb burger I’ve had — putting Bareburger’s dry patty to shame for sure, but overall I prefer other proteins if I’m going to have a burger. A rack of lamb, or a lamb stew captures the succulence of the meat far better. The most disappointing aspect of the dish was the sweet potato chips. Sweet potatoes are one of my all time favorite foods, so I was let down by the lack of distinct sweet potato flavor in the chips — they mostly tasted of the seasoning (maybe za’atar?), and considering the caliber of the vegetables in the appetizers, these chips were really only adequate.

My favorite dish of the meal -- Za'atar Spiced Merlu.

My favorite dish of the meal — Za’atar Spiced Merlu.

While the Lamb Burger had elements of Boulud Sud’s Mediterranean inspiration, the truly distinctive dish I should have gotten was Jacob’s Za’atar Spiced Merlu (Rice Pilaf, Eggplant, Lemon Tahini). The small bites I had of his dish were my favorite of the whole meal, which is crazy considering how impressed I was with my dessert (and dessert in general, frankly). Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend mixing dried herbs, sesame seeds, sumac, and salt. Like Indian curry powders or garam masala, the exact specifics of a za’atar recipe are family secrets that vary from chef to chef and culture to culture — Lebanese za’atar is different from Israeli za’atar, which is different from Jordanian za’atar — although common components are thyme, marjoram, oregano, and sage. The merlu (which Wikipedia suggests is the French term for the white fish hake) sported a thick top crust of the za’atar, to the point where you could easily spot the sesame seeds and reddish tinge from the sumac. The fish was perfectly cooked, flaking off in small slices and serving as a buttery base for all the seasonings. The dish was topped with cilantro, liberally applied to avoid overpowering the entree while still adding another level of complexity, especially working in concert with the brightness of the lemon tahini in accentuating the sesame in the za’atar. The rice pilaf on the bottom was soft, but not goopy, with enough heft to it to combat the tenderness of the other components, from the fattier eggplant to the smooth fish flesh. Overall, it was just a remarkably well seasoned, fresh dish that was distinctive and memorable, standing out above Sarah and my well-executed, if somewhat more familiar Lamb Burger. I think if I went back for the regular menu at Boulud Sud, I would lean towards the seafood dishes, which highlight Boulud’s deftness as a French chef to elevate the bounty of the Mediterranean Sea.

 

The Housemade Ice Creams from left to right: Dulce de Leche, Rose-Marzipan, and Rhubarb Gelatos.

The Housemade Ice Creams from left to right: Dulce de Leche, Rose-Marzipan, and Rhubarb Gelatos.

The desserts suggest that Boulud’s pastry chef is pretty damn deft as well. The ice creams of the day were Rhubarb, Dulce de Leche, and Strawberry Gelato, but we were intrigued by the Rose-Marzipan Gelato mentioned in the Orange Cloud dessert (although I wasn’t particularly interested in the dessert I was curious about how one creates an “orange cloud”), and so asked if we could sub it in for the more mundane strawberry. The restaurant happily complied, although they neglected to tell us this fact until we asked after receiving our check (our waiter was very apologetic afterwards). So while eating, our uninentionally enforced detective work led us to conclude we had indeed been given the Rose-Marzipan, but it did not taste strongly of rose or marzipan. There was the generic sweetness I expect from rosewater, but I was surprised at how muted the almond flavor was, especially considering the recent spate of almond/marzipan desserts I’ve tried where the marzipan nearly punches you in the mouth. The other two gelatos were much more successful — the rhubarb tasted like it had just been plucked from the market, with its trademark tartness. Sweets monster that I am, I loved the dulce de leche, which was achieved the classic powerful sweetness without veering into the cloying quality of some of the newer trendy salted caramel ice creams. Although the plating was not the explosion of artistic flourishes that my panna cotta was, I appreciated the clean lines of the small (but deceptively full) metal cups of gelato, served with a few small sugar cookies baked with pine nuts. The Boulud take on Pignoli cookies tasted less pine-nutty and more just like the powdered sugar on top, but they were a nice complement when paired with the rhubarb gelato.

The Chocolate Panna Cotta -- lovely to look at, even better to eat.

The Chocolate Panna Cotta — lovely to look at, even better to eat.

As I alluded to before, the Chocolate Panna Cotta (Caramel, Raspberry Foam, Chocolate Sorbet) arrived in front of me demanding attention. The plate was splashed with a collection of bright and dark colors, soft and crunchy textures, and a range of flavors from bitter to sugar-overload sweet. The Raspberry Foam’s taste was just as strong as its nearly blood red color — concentrated and very sweet, but in a natural, “Jolly Rancher ain’t got nothing on this” way. I loved dipping the fresh raspberries in the foam to pump up the fruit’s flavor. The cookie crumble spread across the dish reminded me of both Oreo crumbs and the cookie crunchies that split the two layers of a Carvel ice cream cake (obviously, either way, I was in heaven), while the yellow pieces evoked Rice Krispies or petite pieces of Cap’n Crunch. There were also miniature squares of what tasted like a rich caramel blondie — and all this before you even get to the panna cotta or sorbet. The panna cotta was set beautifully, holding its shape as I swiped spoonful after spoonful. It seemed to be made of dark chocolate, its relative mildness only apparent in contrast to the intense bittersweet darkness of the Chocolate Sorbet, which was so dense and rich it seems impossible that it wasn’t made with dairy. This was just a fantastic melange of flavors and textures — you had some acidity from the fruit, intense richness from the panna cotta and the sorbet, some sweetness from the crunchies, and some saltiness from the caramel — overall, it was a multilayered, extremely satisfying dessert, coming as a bit of a surprise considering the relatively mundane description.

 

Final Thoughts:

While I would say on the whole my meal at Spice Market was a more exciting culinary adventure, my Restaurant Week lunch at Boulud Sud was in no way less memorable. It was exciting to dabble in a world of leisurely weekday repasts, to people-watch the upscale tourists and NY natives murmur over the soft jazz and elegantly plated fare. The food was excellently executed and well-seasoned (I might give more of a rave if I had ordered the merlu myself), if not as daring as I had initially expected, but I think I’d like to explore the rest of Boulud Sud’s regular menu on another visit, maybe even for dinner.

As I stumble my way through my mid-twenties, one of the things that has become increasingly clear to me is the importance of the ritual. The memories of those special city lunches with my parents held aloft in my mind linger because they were a break from the routine, something my classmates didn’t get to experience — a secret shared by only a select few. I’m grateful to have discovered that that magical quality remains as you get older — it’s just a matter of savoring those less common opportunities. My lunch at Boulud Sud was a prime example of this — surrounded by friends, playing sanctioned hooky, it seemed like an embarrassment of riches. So if you have the chance to escape the office for some noontime noshing, I’d suggest giving Boulud Sud a try. Its relaxing, classic environment, attentive service, and comfortably transcultural fare present a lovely meal, while also allowing you to relish having the opportunity in the first place.

Boulud Sud

20 W 64th St (Between Broadway and Central Park West)

http://www.bouludsud.com

The District: Brunch Just Down the Block

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In the nearly three years since I moved to the Upper East Side, I’ve watched the neighborhood slowly evolve, accumulating more and more interesting stores and restaurants beyond the ubitquitous nail salons and dry cleaners. It seems as though the scourge of the 2nd Avenue Subway is finally loosening its grip on the area, and at last some intrepid entrepeneurs are testing the waters. In the past year alone I’ve seen new bars and lounges, coffeeshops, and even a spin studio open up in the ten blocks below my building. It’s the kind of gentrification I can support, because for the most part these new business are not run by mega-corporations. For every new Dunkin Donuts that grabs a corner, there are the guys behind Earl’s Beer and Cheese, who are slowly building a mini-empire on the stretch of Park between 97th and 98th (a cocktail lounge, a beer bar, a wine bar, and their latest endeavor — a donut shop: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/coreycova/dough-loco). Although I’m trying to see more of the city these days (and let’s be honest, eat more of the city these days), it’s nice to have a neighborhood you want to come back to. Some weekends, you just want a local spot to grab a solid brunch. This past Sunday I ventured into one of the newer pubs, The District, to see if it could fill that role.

First Impressions:

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The District opened up shortly after I started this blog (in fact, I mentioned the construction on it in my second post, about my anticipation regarding Brick Lane Curry). Located on the corner of 94th and Third Ave, The District took over a space that formerly housed an Indian restaurant, and completely revamped it. Gone were the pink walls and floral murals, replaced with steam-punk-esque battered steel ceilings, antique filament bulbs, and a brick and steel facade that suggested upscale neighborhood bar. Inside the space is bright and inviting — the front of the pub is all windows, which are frequently opened up on hot summer nights.

The vaguely steam-punk interior of The District, with antique-looking lightbulbs strung across the ceiling.

The vaguely steam-punk interior of The District, with antique-looking lightbulbs strung across the ceiling. Note the dichotomy of the stained glass window and the flatscreen TVs.

A long bar lines the left side of the pub, with an impressive number of taps, including my all-time favorite beer, Delirium Tremens. Dark wood tables fill the rest of the space, with some raised seating near the front, and a red banquet lining the back corner. There’s a bit of a strange dischordance between the vaguely Gothic (or at least Victorian) liquor cabinets behind the bar and stained glass window at the rear, and the numerous TVs tuned to ESPN or NBC Sports. But if you can look past the anachronistic bent, the space is quite charming, if a little loud. That’s sort of a given when it comes to bars, and I’d rather have a place be busy the first time I visit — it’s a good indication that they’re not about to serve you a mediocre meal.

The Food:

Brunch at The District comes with a complimentary Mimosa or Bloody Mary. While I went with my daydrinking bubbly mainstay, my parents both ordered a Bloody Mary, and remarked on the freshness and real bite from the horseradish. My mimosa was perfectly fine, but I generally don’t expect great things from that libation unless we’re talking Dom Perignon and freshly-squeezed orange pulp. For a free drink, I was more than happy with a little spiked Tropicana to start my day.

The District’s menu has a nice ratio of breakfast to lunch options, ranging from the standard Eggs Benedict, yogurt and granola, and french toast morning foodstuffs, to the heavier District Burger (a brisket blend I’m looking forward to trying someday soon) and a variety of salads. With the exception of the Steak and Eggs, none of the dishes top $14, making The District surprisingly affordable given the catalogue of possible entrees.

Ultimately, my parents and I settled on the breakfast side of things. My father selected the Corned Beef Hash, my mother chose Eggs Florentine, and I went with the Egg in Bread, which our waiter informed us was the chef’s specialty.

The only downside to our experience was that although the service up until our food arrived was polite and timely, unfortunately after being served it fell off a bit. Our waiter did check in with us mid-meal, but water refills were somewhat few and far between, and while I was offered a refill on my coffee, my parents were never asked if they would like to order something other than their cocktails.

Where the service, excelled, however, was in the kitchen. Our dishes were delivered much faster than I expected, the staff nearly sprinting up the stairs to lay the hot plates on our table.

 

The Corned Beef and Hash -- potato on potato action.

The Corned Beef and Hash — potato on potato action.

The Corned Beef Hash is described as “house made hash served with 2 eggs any style, fresh parsley and Spanish Onion.” My father ordered his eggs poached, but as shown above, the eggs ended looking more on the sunny-side. He took this in stride, however, since it still provided him with the runny yolk to blend into the hash. He got a double dose of potatoes in this dish, both within the hash and with breakfast taters on the side, plus a couple pieces of toast to boot. Although he commented that the hash was a bit untraditional and on the drier side, he finished off his plate. I’ve never been much for corned beef in general, so I can’t really speak to its authenticity, but the bite I tried had a nice amount of peppery punch to it.

Eggs Florentine, delicately coated in Hollandaise sauce.

Eggs Florentine, delicately coated in Hollandaise sauce.

 

My mother also seemed perfectly happy with her Eggs Florentine (“poached eggs, sauteed spinach served on a toasted English muffin & topped with house made Hollandaise sauce”). I tried a small bite, but I generally find Hollandaise sauce a bit too rich for my palate as my first meal of the day. The eggs seemed to be nicely poached, firm little ovals revealing an oozing core to soak into the English Muffin. Vegetable lover (slash loser) that I am, my favorite part was the spinach, which was tender and still had that fresh-tasting bitterness to contrast with the fatty sauce and egg combo.

While she enjoyed her eggs, my mother seemed disappointed by the breakfast potatoes. Now, I am an equal-opportunity potato consumer, so I was plenty happy to scarf down the small hunks of starch. But I did agree they could have done with a bit more seasoning — the potatoes were tossed with salt and slivers of parsley, but could have really benefited from some pepper or even some rosemary. My mother also theorized that this cubed style of breakfast potatoes would have been better served by a using a smaller potato, like a fingerling or a red potato. She thought the chopped Russet variety worked better in the smashed/scattered hash-brown style of the Waffle House.

The Egg in Bread -- the chef's speciality, and my delicious introduction to eggy-in-a-basket.

The Egg in Bread — the chef’s speciality, and my delicious introduction to eggy-in-a-basket.

I have an unreasonable amount of self-satisfaction when I order what turns out to be my favorite dish of the meal. I’d wanted to try egg-in-bread since I saw it in one of the greatest breakfast scenes in film, in V for Vendetta (which happens to be a fantastic adaptation — yes, in addition to my nerdy food and fencing interests, I also read comic books. You can imagine how full my dance card was during high school). Also called eggy-in-a-basket, one-eyed jack, hen-in-a-nest, and a whole host of other names, the dish usually involves cutting a hole in a piece of bread, and then frying an egg inside it. However, The District uses a different technique for their version — they baste their eggs. A quick Googling revealed that basting an egg is achieved one of two ways: Much like basting a turkey, you can cook the egg in fat (butter, oil, what have you), then spoon a bit of that fat over the top of the egg. This produces a sunnyside-up egg on the bottom, but with a slightly firmer top. The other option is to put a lid on the pan as you cook the eggs, so the steam produced helps to “baste” them (http://www.organicauthority.com/foodie-buzz/what-are-basted-eggs.html). The eggs in my dish were the perfect consistency for my tastes, so I’m definitely interested in attempting some “basting” at home.

The plate arrived laden with two thick slabs of brioche, toasted to just golden-brown, so the outer crust gave way to soft dough on the inside. Served with potatoes and a bit of maple syrup, the Egg in Bread left me with the impression of a deconstructed French Toast. The brioche had a natural buttery sweetness that was emphasized by the addition of the maple syrup, and unsurprisingly the broken yolk seeping into the bread helped to bring out that creamy richness of classic French Toast. If they had dusted the whole thing in cinnamon-sugar, it would have brought me right back to my dad cooking breakfast on Sunday mornings. It’s hard for me to comment on the change in egg-cooking method, having never tried the traditional version of fried-egg-in-a-basket, but I think the basting technique worked to make the dish more delicate and subtle. It kept both the egg and the bread from forming too thick a toasted crust on the outside, and helps all the elements to meld together better, almost as if you were eating a wonderful poached egg sandwich (actually, that sounds kinda gross. Maybe a poached egg bread pudding?). Regardless, I devoured the dish, and will happily seek out new variations in my future brunches.


Final Thoughts:
All in all, The District is a great neighborhood spot offering a brunch deal for almost anybody. It’s not going to redefine your definition of brunch, but that’s not really their aim. Whether you’re looking for a sandwich, a salad, vegetarian offerings, or a  dish to put your cholesterol to shame, you can find it here, plus they’ll thrown in a cocktail on the house. No, you won’t find the kind of decadence seen in the $1000 lobster caviar omelet from Norma’s, but you will get a few creative tweaks on American and British staples, like a Smoked Salmon Pretzel, or a Nine-Grain Porridge. For those of us on the UES, it’s just nice to find a place comfortably between the 24/7 diner and the upper crust steakhouse. The District strikes that balance — with a little bit of flair, a great beer selection, and hopefully, an indication of the type of establishments to come.

The District

Corner of 94th St. and 3rd Ave

thedistrictbarnyc.com

Anglophilic Appreciation: Lunch at Jones Wood Foundry

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming!

So let’s dive back into New York food by talking about the United Kingdom and more of my travels. I’ve always had a passion for British culture, probably stemming back to my family’s love of movies starring Sean Connery (say what you will about his accent, that man is KILLER in The Hunt for Red October). I’ve traveled to the UK more than any other country, and when I was in college I spent a semester studying film at the University of Glasgow. Now Scotland gets a lot of crap about its native cuisine. Understandably so, given that the national dish is a stuffed sheep’s stomach. But to be honest, I actually ate pretty well when I was in Scotland. The Indian food I had while abroad was actually way better than any I’ve eaten in the US, and I managed to find some pretty stellar desserts (sticky toffee pudding, anyone?). Yes, the average chip shop offers a greasy fry-up and some soggy chips (read: french fries), but I’ve found you can get bad regional food anywhere you go. I ate some underwhelming pasta in Rome, some bad pastry in France, even some bad falafel in Israel. My point is, no matter what the cuisine, it’s silly to write off a whole culture because of bad dining experiences. You can’t control what the food is, but you can control the quality of restaurant you choose to eat at — does anyone actually order the steak at a greasy spoon in NY?

I say all of this because of a fantastic lunch I had a few weekends ago at Jones Wood Foundry on the UES. Jones Wood Foundry is a “food-driven pub” according to their website, located on 76th St, between 1st and East End. JWF has been open for a couple of years now, but I’d never managed to make it all the way east to get my British fix. I’m lucky enough to live near Caledonia, a Scottish pub on 2nd Ave, where I could indulge in beers and ciders from the UK that for the most part met my nostalgic needs. But last weekend my parents were looking for a new brunch location on the UES, so I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to check JWF off my to-do list.


First Impressions:

The front window is bedecked with British paraphernalia.

The front window is bedecked with British paraphernalia.


JWF is in a narrow building right around the corner from 1st Ave. The building it’s housed in is an old brownstone, and the owners have decked out the front window with British memorabilia, just skirting the line of kitschy. Upon entering the restaurant, you’re greeted with the long, darkly rich wood bar, and a sense of classic British reserve. The area is dimly lit, the narrow hall more than halfway filled with the bar and stools, and at the end of the room you can see some steps down into the dining area. Jones Wood Foundry offers a number of beers on tap, which are listed on the chalkboard menus on the wall that also highlight the current cask ales on tap, and the pie of the day.

The massive bar is the first thing that you see.

The massive bar is the first thing that you see.

Cask ales and the pie of the day.

Draft beer, cask ales and the pie of the day.

Moving past the bar you walk down into the first of three dining spaces — a small room with one wall of french doors that lead out to the second space, the garden patio, and fianlly, the larger dining room, farthest back from the bar. The decor was familiar — dark wood paneling, plain chairs and tables, the walls adorned with British posters and pictures — but with touches of a more upscale tone, such granite tabletops and leather banquettes. JWF is straightforward in its aesthetic and attitude — the comfort of your favorite corner bar, but with a little more thought and attention paid. This carries through to both the service and the menu, and I found the general unpretentious air to be one of the best things about the place.

The first, smaller dining room, adjacent to the patio.

The first, smaller dining room, adjacent to the patio.

The largest dining area -- note more UK-centric posters and photos on the wall.

The largest dining area — note more UK-centric posters and photos on the wall.

This laid-back but thoughtful attitude extended to the staff as well. Our waiter was happy to answer any questions about unfamiliar British food nomenclature (what are “rissoles,” exactly?), offer his own opinions on the best dishes (which we ended up picking), and even went the extra mile of switching out my mug for a fresh one when I switched from regular to decaf coffee at dessert. Yes, I had dessert at lunch with my parents — I come by this sweet tooth honestly! This thoughtfulness even extended to the end of the meal, where we received a post card featuring photos of the restaurant’s earliest employees with our bill. Ours featured a construction worker who had loved the JWF guys so much he asked if he could stay on once the restaurant opened. They found him a spot in the kitchen, and he still works there to this day.


The Food:

A lamb pie all of my own.

A lamb pie all of my own.


On our waiter’s recommendation I ordered the pie of the day, which was a lamb and rosemary pie with a side of mashed potatoes. The pie was about the size of frozen dinner pot pie, slightly larger than the handpies I’ve seen at the Tuck Shop or Pie Face, but far from the hefty ladlefulls of Shepherd’s Pie I encountered at the cafeteria at U of Glasgow. In what would become a recurring theme, the highlight of the dish was the crust — flaky and buttery without being greasy, offering just a little resistance as I plunged my fork into it. It gave way to a thick, stew-like gravy full of well-seasoned, tender chunks of lamb. I appreciated that the meat was not ground, and I thought that the rosemary was very delicately used. I happen to love rosemary, but I recognize that it’s a herb that can overtake a dish. Jones Wood Foundry’s judicious use left the rosemary as an undercurrent to cut through some of the richness of the lamb.

The mashed potatoes were actually more whipped in texture. I’m not a big mashed potato person, but they were part of a grand bargain to allow me access to the “chips” part of my father’s fish and chips. My parents seemed to enjoy the mash, and I certainly appreciated the delicate presentation of the potatoes next to my pie.

My mother got a dish that seemed to be a British play on Smoked Salmon Benedict, featuring a crumpet instead of an English muffin (but what do the English call muffins?), and scrambled instead of poached eggs. I’ll admit I was too enraptured with my lamb pie and tasting the fish and chips to try more than the crumpet. I’ve had crumpets before, and found them too spongy for my taste. This one seemed perfectly fine to me, and I think my mother enjoyed her brunch. Dessert certainly helped seal the deal.

My mother went totally British with a tea and crumpets brunch.

My mother went totally British with a tea and crumpets brunch.

The other strong recommendation from our waiter was Jones Wood Foundry’s take on fish and chips, which my father ordered. While personally my lamb pie took the top spot in the entree competition, the fish and chips were a close second. In my visits to the UK I’ve had many a newspaper-wrapped piece of fried cod, and there is something incredibly comforting about a slick sheen of grease on the paper as evidence of the tremendously unhealthy food you’re ingesting. It’s like folding your slice of pizza only to have a sluice of oil run down the back off your hand. When you’re stumbling drunk and paying 5 bucks, the cholesterol is almost a bonus.

I love the knit cap for the lemon to prevent seeds falling onto your fish.

I love the knit cap for the lemon to prevent seeds falling onto your fish.

But JWF’s fish and chips is aimed at a slightly more conscious eater, and thankfully the dish was no gut bomb. Presented on a wooden board with a cup of medium-cut chips, the fillet of cod was very lightly fried. Like the crust on my pie, the batter used on the cod was flavorful without being overly buttery and rich. It was just salty enough to play off the mild fish meat, which flaked delicately. Alas, there was no malt vinegar to be found (usually a fish and chips standard), but it was served with a nice lemon aioli. As for the chips — being a bit of a french fry connoisseur (is this a job? Can I evaluate fries for a living?), I was slightly disappointed in the chips. They were too thinly cut to be authentic, and were a bit soggy considering how well cooked the fish was. On the other hand, the potato base was clearly of a higher quality than your average steak-cut chip shop fare.

So after our very light and healthful lunch (hah), we couldn’t help but peruse the dessert menu our waiter brought around. As I mentioned above, my favorite British dessert is sticky toffee pudding, but my parents were leaning more towards the Apple Grumble and the Banoffee Pie, so I was happy to compromise and try those out. I’ll just have to save the pudding for my next visit to JWF to compliment a cask ale.

Look at the chunks of crumble on the Apple Grumble.

Look at the chunks of crumble on the Apple Grumble!

The Apple Grumble was pretty much a regular fruit crisp, filled with pieces of pear and apple, topped with a brown sugar crumble, and served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. The ice cream was rich with great vanilla bean flavor. The fruit was all right, poached but not quite as melt in your mouth soft as I would have liked. The crisp topping (again with the pastry) was the real star, with sizable chunks instead of a mound of crumbs.

Look at how the gorgeous plate mirrors the almonds on the banoffee pie.

Look at how the gorgeous plate mirrors the almonds on the banoffee pie.

I ultimately preferred the Banoffee pie, again largely because of how the pie crust played off the filling. The pie had real slices of banana suspended in the toffee pudding, topped with whipped cream and toasted almonds. The base was a super rich graham cracker crust that somehow balanced the sweetness of the banana and toffee. The contrast of textures in the baked, yet crumbly crust, the soft pudding filling, and the crunchy toasted almonds kept every bite interesting, and I happily scarfed down 3/4 of it, trying to ignore the fact that it was my second pie dish in one meal. Looking back on it, I’m very happy that I shared the Banoffee Pie, because it probably would have been too large a portion for one person alone. But if I’m coming back to skip dinner and go straight for beer and dessert, then maybe it’s a perfectly reasonable size.


Final Thoughts:


Overall, my lunch at Jones Wood Foundry was an enjoyable experience from start to finish. The staff is friendly and attentive, the food is familiar but slightly more refined in execution, and atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. I’m eager to return for dinner and see what other British staples have been toyed with on the menu. Eating at Jones Wood Foundry is like having comfort food for an Anglophile. Sure, you’re paying more than you would at your average Irish pub, but I’m happy to shell out for artful hand with pastry, and the lack of indigestion later.  Jones Wood Foundry won’t dazzle you with cutting-edge innovations in Anglo cuisine, but maybe, just maybe it’ll make you believe that a Brit armed with the right ingredients can turn out some quality dishes.

Jones Wood Foundry

401 E 76th St

www.joneswoodfoundry.com

Review: Burger Joint @ Le Parker Meridien — Secretly Unsatisfying

I don’t really understand the appeal of “secret” restaurants and bars in New York. For the most part, if a not-so-trendy nobody like me has heard of them, they can’t be much of a secret at all. The speakeasy fad with places like PDT (aka “Please Don’t Tell”) and Proletariat, or the “restaurant within a restaurant” motif of the basement brasserie of La Esquina (beneath the taco stand), seem to me to be just cheap ploys to up the buzz about your establishment without killing your advertising budget.

A “secret” restaurant that had been on my radar for a while is Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridien Hotel. I’d actually been to the hotel several times for brunch at their other restaurant Norma’s (great hot chocolate and crunchy french toast), which is located just off the lobby and proudly displayed without an entryway or door to block the view of the bustling dining room. In direct contrast to that is the hidden Burger Joint, which I had heard about from several people but never actually been able to locate on my jaunts to Norma’s. So when a recent Zagat article named Burger Joint as having one of the top burgers in NYC, I thought it might finally be time to check it out. With a motley crew (aka my past culinary cohorts Jacob, Laura, and my boyfriend Shaun) of tasting support in tow, we met up in the lobby of Le Parker Meridien, and set about trying to tease apart the legend of the not-so-secret Burger Joint.

First Impressions:

Across from Norma's is a roped off area outside a velvet curtain -- could Burger Joint be inside?

Across from Norma’s is a roped off area outside a velvet curtain — could Burger Joint be inside?

My friend Diana, who had previously been to Burger Joint, had mentioned the restaurant being behind a velvet curtain, and sure enough, directly across from Norma’s there was a wall bedecked in red velvet. While this certainly fits the upscale tone of the hotel, the curtain would ultimately prove pretty incongruous (and probably intentionally so) with the style of Burger Joint. A helpful member of the hotel staff guided the way to a long line that was sectioned off by ropes next to the curtain’s edge. This would lead to the only entrance/exit for Burger Joint. As we made our way closer to the restaurant, the classical veneer of Le Parker Meridien gave way to a pseudo down-home, almost aggressively casual style. A burger neon sign indicates the shift as you turn into the actual restaurant, a tiny hole in the wall type shop decked out in wood paneling, hand drawn signs, and very limited seating.

The line snaked back all the way from the counter inside.

The line snaked back all the way from the counter inside.

Burgers, this way -->

Burgers, this way –>

The walls were covered in prefabricated writing, and everything felt like it had been purposefully aged to affect a weathered, rustic quality. I couldn’t help but be reminded of pre-torn designer jeans, carefully shredded for the ultimate haphazard casual style. The not-so-subtle aim seemed to be to shake us fancypants urbanites out of our skyscraper stupor for some old-fashioned roadside diner cookin’. Between that and the gruff service (although I’ll give them some leeway considering we were there at a peak time), I was left with the impression of overly calculated cuteness.

Wood paneling, pre-fab writing on the walls, and slapdash handwritten menus taped up, Burger Joint artfully aims for nonchalance.

Wood paneling, pre-fab writing on the walls, and slapdash handwritten menus taped up, Burger Joint artfully aims for nonchalance.

The Food:

I’m not sure if the restrictive menu and no-nonsense attitude of the staff was a nod to the simplicity of the semi-rustic aesthetic, or to the no-BS New Yorker stereotype. Either way, you don’t have a lot of choice at Burger Joint. You can get a hamburger or a cheeseburger, with any, all, or none of the handful of toppings (lettuce, tomato, onions, mayo, etc), a side of fries, and soda or a vanilla milkshake. No, they don’t have chocolate ice cream, nor any type of flavored syrup, and no, there is not more than one type of cheese to top your burger with. Better than McDonalds, though, they will cook your burger to order (from rare to well done).

My group decided that, considering the hassle of waiting on line and scrambling for seats that we’d already gone through, it was worth it to go whole-hog on our orders. Ever the model of restraint, I ordered a cheeseburger with tomato and ketchup (I like tomatoes, deal with it), french fries, and a milkshake. Astonishingly, my check came out to close to $18. The similarities with ready-shredded designer clothes continued to mount.

Burger Joint does get points for efficiency, however. The entire food production operation takes place inside a tiny counter space, with one cashier and four or five other employees to prep and cook the orders and bus the restaurant. It probably took less than 10 minutes for all four of us to get our food, which isn’t half bad considering they cook the burgers to order on a small flat top.

A peek inside the small kitchen.

A peek inside the small kitchen.

Unfortunately, once we got our food, it became increasingly clear that Burger Joint is one of those places where there’s an unspoken surcharge for “the experience.” The only item that seemed to be equitable in the “bang-for-buck” category were the fries. The burgers and milkshakes were pretty small considering what I had paid for them. My cheeseburger was about the same size as what you’d get at a Burger King, and the milkshake was served in a 12 oz cup. Now this is probably the result of my American expectations of unreasonable portion size, but as Laura rightly pointed out, if I’m paying nearly $20 for not-so gourmet food, I would expect at least to get a fair amount of it. After all, I don’t think Mayor Bloomberg’s beverage ban applies to milkshakes.

My palm-size cheeseburger, pretty standard patty size, but small for the price.

My palm-size cheeseburger, pretty standard patty size, but small for the price.

The shake -- better for my health, but too small for my wallet. And the lone standout in price to portion ratio -- good ol' freedom fries.

The shake — better for my health, but too small for my wallet. And the lone standout in price to portion ratio — good ol’ freedom fries.

Okay, so if we not getting quantity for our money, are we getting quality? Yes and no. On the whole, everything was solid. I appreciated the fact that my burger was in fact cooked to medium rare — there was a nice pink center surrounded by a crispy cooked edge. And my toppings tasted fresh — I had a thick slice of tomato, and the cheese was a mild cheddar, so a step up from the hastily assembled toppings on the McDonald’s line. But there was nothing that really made the burger stand out. The meat had reasonable flavor, but no real depth to it, and I’m not sure I could articulate a real difference between some of the better bar burgers I’ve had in NY. Shaun, who is more of a hole-in-the-wall burger connoisseur, remarked that a really great “dive burger” carries with it the flavor of some of the seasoning from the surface it’s cooked on. And much like the prefabricated rustic-style walls, Burger Joint’s grill did not seem to have the caked-on-through-the-years grit and gristle that elevates a real down-and-dirty burger.

The same was largely true for the fries and the shake. The fries were crispy and well salted, but were just as much from a pre-cut frozen package as the ones you get at the drive-thru. And as someone with a rich history of milkshake drinking (doing well on a test in elementary school meant a trip to Baskin Robbins for a black and white shake), I found Burger Joint’s version to be about par for the course. The vanilla ice cream had good flavor, but nothing outstanding beyond what you’d get scooping out of a Breyer’s pint at home. This shake had no subtleties of vanilla bean richness, and because of its simplicity, no real contrasting tastes or textures. They do get credit for blending a thick shake, but man did I want some chocolate syrup to liven things up a bit.

Final Thoughts:

In the hierarchy of the dining scene, Burger Joint seems to sit in the “fast casual” category — offering a more unique experience than the average corporate-cut fast food franchise, but without table service or a wait staff. I accept that they’re not trying to compete with a gourmet burger like those at The Spotted Pig or The Little Owl, or even with a quality steakhouse burger like the one at the famed Peter Luger’s. Burger Joint is just trying to put out a straightforward, old-fashioned burger. Because of this, it seems fair to judge it against the other members of the fast casual burger club — places like Shake Shack or Bobby’s Burger Palace. And disappointingly, Burger Joint just doesn’t measure up to the standards of those contenders. You end up paying more for a sub-par meal, with none of the variety of topping and seasoning combinations you would get at Danny Meyer’s or Bobby Flay’s casual ventures. Burger Joint doesn’t even offer a vegetarian option.

Now you could make the argument that Burger Joint is hearkening back to a simpler era, a time before black bean burgers and sweet potato fries. But if the intention is to provide a contrast with the high-falutin environs of Le Parker Meridien surrounding it, Burger Joint needs to go all the way. Either offer a limited menu in a small space for a high price and make some mindblowing food, or admit the standard quality of your offerings and cut the prices a bit. Because I for one feel gipped when I have to pay extra for “the experience,” when said experience means a long wait, a crowded closet of a restaurant, a cash only requirement, and then the same kind of food I could make at my own backyard barbecue. I guess I just have to disagree with Zagat on this one — perhaps the real secret of Burger Joint is that it’s not actually worth all of the hype.

Burger Joint @ Le Parker Meridien Hotel
57th St between 6th and 7th Aves
http://www.parkermeridien.com/eat4.php

Review: Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro, or Cheese Bar Hunger Games — May the slice be ever in your flavor

Although you’d never think it from the things I write about, when I’m not stuffing my face with Megastuf Oreos or jelly donuts, I do attempt to eat relatively healthily. Yes, those Trader Joe’s frozen dinners and canned soups do come into the picture from time to time, but most weeks I cook lunch to bring into work, and aim to eat dinner at home as often as possible. As a consequence of both shallow pockets (beans = cheaper than chicken) and a growing love of fresh produce, I’ve kind of become a part-time vegetarian. Yes, I do love me some meat, but if push came to shove, I think I could survive without hamburgers or fried chicken. Veganism, however, is a whole other story. Sure, I could say goodbye to a rack of lamb or a Thanksgiving Turkey, but give up omelets? Pizza? Ice cream? Or worst of all, cheese? Sorry, PETA, it ain’t happening.

With that in mind, it will come as no surprise that my dairy-dependent friends Mike and Jacob and I would choose Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro as our next dinner event. After all, it was Artisanal’s Cheese of the Month Club that inspired our gustatory pilgrimages in the first place. So last week we decided to dine in and see how this cheese-inflected restaurant compared to Murray’s. Worst case scenario, we’d end up with more than enough of our daily calcium requirement.

2013-02-18 18.56.37

Despite the Park Ave address, Artisanal is really just around the corner, on 32nd street.

First Impressions:

Unlike the restaurant offshoot of Murray’s Cheese, Artisanal has operated a bistro along with its fromagerie for over a decade. Located just off Park Avenue in the Flatiron/Murray Hill borderland, the restaurant is fairly unassuming. In many ways Artisanal’s aesthetic is the complete opposite of Murray’s Cheese Bar: while Murray’s was all casual white kitchen tiles and lactic-pun filled chalkboards, Artistanal is fashioned in the classic French bistro style, draped in red and yellow, with wicker chairs, leather banquettes, and elegant murals on the walls. The waiters were all dressed in crisp white shirts and black slacks, and were very friendly but professional. While Murray’s is small, noisy, and crowded, Artisanal was airy and bustling but discernibly refined in tone. I imagine that you’d be expected to shush your kids if they were being too rowdy in Artisanal.

Inside Artisanal -- note the mural along the back wall.

Inside Artisanal — note the mural along the back wall.

If Murray’s cheese bar is the young and hip, industrial kitchen American cheese club, Artisanal is the older Continental cousin who is more reserved, old-fashioned, methodical and professorial. The plus side of this is that the staff at Artisanal is eager to educate their diners about all aspects of the menu, from wine pairings to cheese varieties. Artisanal actually has quite an extensive menu of inventive takes on classic French cuisine, from Duck Bourguignon to (of course) cheese fondue. I was tempted to try several entrees, but resolved to hold out for another visit. We had come for cheese, so cheese it would have to be.

Food:
We opted to go for a couple of small plates (ostensibly for some greenery and balance, but who were we kidding) along with the “Plateau” — a board of meats, cheeses, and assorted accompaniments.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi, with a medley of vegetables. Look how big each gnocchi (gnoccho?) is!

Butternut Squash Gnocchi, with a medley of vegetables. Note how big each gnocchi (gnoccho?) is.

To start we had the butternut squash gnocchi, which were far from uniform in size, but unilaterally delicious. They were soft in texture without being mealy, and managed to achieve the smooth caramel flavor of butternut squash without veering into high levels of starch. The gnocchi came with a medley of roasted vegetables, including brussel sprouts and wild mushrooms. As it happened, we had chosen roasted root vegetables as our other starter, so there was a welcomed abundance of veggies, at least for me. The root vegetable side included potatoes, carrots, turnips, and more wild mushrooms, and all were well-seasoned, full of salt, pepper and oil while retaining a crisp bite. And given how fungi-forward I am, I was delighted by the double dose of mushrooms. I find it odd how much I relish well-made vegetables these days, but I suppose in the scheme of things, I could have far worse obsessions (cough cookies and candy cough).

Roasted root vegetables -- straightforward, but very well executed.

Roasted root vegetables — straightforward, but very well executed.

But let’s get to the main event: the Plateau. It arrived on a long wooden board, with a pile of charcuterie on one side, the selection of six cheeses in the middle, and a variety of dried fruit, walnuts, berry gelee, and a small piece of fig cake. In contrast to Murray’s Cheese Bar, there were no crackers provided, although we were offered unlimited refills on the complimentary bread basket (which featured 3 types of bread).

Our overflowing bread basket.

Our overflowing bread basket.

Our waitress was very kind and patient throughout the course of the meal, answering all of our questions and offering advice on the type of cheeses we should try and how we should plan our meal. An additional charming bit of good service was the fact that the fromager provided us with a marked menu from the cheese counter, which specifically noted which cheeses he had selected for us. Our six cheeses ranged from mild to intense, and included one of Artisanal’s special “truffle cheeses,” which we opted for at an additional cost. The “La Carte Des Fromages” menu was a wonderful resource, separated by animal of origin which is shown through an adorable heading featuring a little goat, sheep, cow or combination.

The Plateau -- rom bottom right counter clockwise: Camembert, Tomme De Savoie, Garrotxa, Trifulin, Holzige Geiss, and Roquefort.

The Plateau — from the bottom right counter clockwise: Camembert, Tomme De Savoie, Garrotxa, Trifulin, Holzige Geiss, and Roquefort. Not to mention the pile of charcuterie, sliced apples and pears, walnuts, fig cake, and strawberry gelee. Whew.

Although I love eating and learning about the vast multitude of cheese types, I’m actually not very good at breaking down and articulating the differences between individual cheeses. I’m going to attempt to go through my lows and highs of the Plateau cheeses, but my comments will probably err on the side of “um, cheesy and delicious!” rather than “oaken in quality, with a buttery mouthfeel.” For now, I can only aspire to that level of pretentiousness.

– Camembert (French cowsmilk, classic, soft cheese, very creamy and rich, earthy flavor): My least favorite of the bunch, probably because it was the most familiar cheese for me. I understand the reasoning behind including it — you want to have a more basic cheese that grounds the plate and gives the diners a “safe choice.” But as it happens I prefer the less assertive nature of Brie for my soft cheeses, and since I’ve had plenty of Camembert before, I was a little disappointed we weren’t trying a more exotic variety (some sort of American cousin, maybe?). There was nothing bad about this Camembert, but nothing that made it particularly memorable.

– Tomme De Savoie (French cowsmilk cheese — milder, little firmer, described as “nutty, stout”): I discovered when I got home that Tomme De Savoie is actually on my “Cheeses to Try” list (ugh, yes, I am that person. I know, I can’t stand me either). It was a little bit more of a palate cleanser, less coating of the tastebuds than the stronger cheeses on the board. This allowed the accompaniments to shine a bit more in combination with the cheese. For example, when paired with the strawberry gelee, you got a great contrast of sweet jam and the nuttiness of the cheese. Had I been offered the Tomme De Savoie on its own, I probably would have given it a stronger review, but it got a little lost in the funky fray of the stronger cheeses.

– Garrotxa (Spanish goat cheese, semisoft): Garrotxa was actually one of the cheeses featured during our Cheese of the Month Club, and I remember enjoying it then (especially because of the unusual name.) It was also on the nutty side of things — the menu describes it as having “hints of hazelnuts,” but again I found I preferred it when spread on bread or mixed with the fig cake, rather than savoring it alone.

– Roquefort (French sheepsmilk cheese, soft, creamy, strong  tangy flavor): As I think I mentioned in my Murray’s review, I’m learning that I really love flat-out “smells like feet,” in-your-face, assertive cheeses, so any type of blue cheese is A-okay with me. This Roquefort was pungent, and paired well with the walnuts, green apples and pear slices which balanced out the tang. When tasting cheeses I find I want a cheese that will linger on your tongue a little while, and this sample did in the best way possible. Definitely of a higher quality than your average Gorgonzola crumbles.

– Trifulin (mixed milk cheese with Black Truffle, semisoft): Although I really enjoyed this cheese, I’m struggling to identify what made it so good. Perhaps it was the richness of the Black Truffle in it. It was decadent and very creamy, but milder in flavor than I expected. Honestly, if you hadn’t told me it featured truffles, I would never have been able to pick them out. But at the time I was eating it, I couldn’t stop taking more pieces. This might have been a case of enjoying the novelty and the experience of eating something rather than favoring any particular flavor.

– Holzige Geiss (Swiss cheese, semisoft goat cheese): The neat thing about this cheese is that it is wrapped in tree bark as it ages. This is no holey Swiss cheese, my friends — it had a strong flavor with a heavy, creamy quality, and a salty kick. I found myself coming back for more again and again. It spread great on the soft french bread, and lame as it might be to say, I honestly believe the bark infused it with a “woodsy” quality. It had the kind of smokey earthiness I’m drawn to in stronger cheeses. Maybe it’s the earthy, mushroomy quality that I like (geez, this blog is like “Number One Oreo and Mushroom Fan” these days). I’m going to look for this one again — hopefully they sell it at Fairway!

The board also included some charcuterie and cornichons. I only tried a small piece of the meat, but it seemed to be very delicately cured and cut — not so assertive with the pickling flavor. I appreciated the variety of meats offered, although I suppose they could have been more deliberately plated. It was interesting the way that Artisanal sort of walked the line between reserved European aloofness and a little messier American eagerness. Maybe the Plateau is the perfect symbol of their interplay between serious cheese devotion and little more freewheeling food fun.

Of course we had to have dessert -- Warm chocolate tart with salted caramel ice cream.

Naturally, we had to have dessert — Warm chocolate tart with salted caramel ice cream.

Of course, all this food was not going to stop us from getting dessert. We finished off the meal with a warm chocolate tart, which was almost like a lava cake in terms of the oozing dark chocolate inside. It came with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream and a biscuit tuile. Since this is the third time I’ve had salted caramel ice cream in the past couple of months, clearly the salt/sweet/chocolate combo is becoming very trendy. For this ice cream, the caramel flavor itself was not as strong as the saltiness, but I was okay with that given the sweetness of the chocolate tart. There was also a semisolid chocolate sauce which seemed to be made of possibly unsweetened chocolate — it did cut some of the richness of the other parts of the dish, but in a distracting way that detracted from the overall dessert. Ultimately, as good as the tart was, after the variety of flavors we’d had from the cheeseboard, it was hard for the dessert to really stand out. I think I would have appreciated it more if I had ordered a more traditional meal, but given the richness of the Plateau’s offerings, the chocolate tart was pleasant, but not anything to rave about.

Final thoughts:

I think what impressed me most about Artisanal was the attention to detail shown throughout the meal. From our attentive waitress who patiently dealt with all of our questions (how good is this dish? Is this enough food? What’s a truffle cheese?), to the clearly marked rubric for our cheeseboard, to the never empty bread basket or water glass, I came away from my meal feeling like my experience as a diner was the top priority. Yes, you’re paying slightly more than you would at Murray’s, but that surcharge goes toward quality service and frankly, better food. I would say that if you’re looking for some wine and small bites, Murray’s is a fun place to try out. It’s more casual, which caters to those who either don’t care as much about cheese education, or those who are knowledgeable enough to recognize names and types of cheese and make selections on their own. Artisanal falls in the middle of that spectrum, reaching out to those like myself who are only just figuring out the difference between Raclette and Roomano, and appreciate a little guidance. Artisanal also wins points for offering a dessert menu that I’d actually want to eat (of course this goes into personal preference, since I’d clearly rather have cheese as a main course rather than a dessert. No apple pie with cheddar for me, please. The only dairy I take with my pie is ice cream). Overall, I’d recommend Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro for a nice lunch or dinner, whether you’re a cheesehead or just looking for a slightly nouveau take on French cuisine. Settle yourself in for a classy, but down-to earth meal — rest assured that you’ll be taken care of.

Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro
2 Park Ave
http://www.artisanalbistro.com