Snacks by Subscription: The Nibblebox by Graze

 

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I like to think of myself as selectively sheep-like. I dislike arguments too much to be truly iconoclastic, and I’ll admit there have been a number of times in my life where I’ve given in to the hype and found myself reveling in doing something “trendy.” I remember one class in high school where all the kids stood in a circle, and a good 90% of us were wearing some version of blue jeans and Converse shoes. And I’ll admit, I breathed a sigh of relief that I was amongst that majority. Maybe it’s lame, maybe it’s letting the man get me down, but I think most high schoolers are pro-conformity at times.

So what item of Maggie’s Trendwatch 2014 is on the docket today? Subscription boxes, specifically the “Nibblebox” by Graze. These boxes are all the rage right now, from snacks to drinks to pet treats (no joke, Barkbox is a thing). I’d given a few of these as gifts — most recently going in with my brother on a Julibox subscription for my mother’s birthday, wherein she receives a monthly box full of the ingredients and instructions for curated cocktails. Unfortunately, as fun as these boxes are, in general they’re not particularly wallet-friendly (bang for your buck wise), so I’d resisted the nagging Facebook ads asking if I was really sure I didn’t want to try Naturebox.

What made me finally break down and submit to the tides of trends was an article from (who else) Serious Eats, reviewing a number of popular boxes. They gave high praise to Graze, and with a coupon code that got me a free box, I figure it couldn’t hurt to see what all the hubbub was about.

 

I picked Graze over the other highlighted boxes for several reasons, starting with their emphasis on variety (and ending, in a silly but still true reason, in the fact that they’re originally British). In almost all of my food-related ventures, I’m happiest with a smorgasbord of options — Chex Mix, Frito-Lay Munchies, Ben and Jerry’s Half-Baked (unintentional pot-theme acknowledged). You only have to look at my posts about Pike Place or Mad Sq. Eats for proof of my utter joy at all the choices. Graze’s website encourages you to be wild with your choices. After signing up, you indicate any dietary restrictions or allergies, and then dive into the snack selection. Every item has a range of rating buttons — Trash, Try, Like, and Love. The automatic baseline is “try,” meaning you’ll get sent that item once in a blue moon. Like means you’ll get it semi-frequently, and Love means you’ll have it in nearly every box (which, depending on your preference, comes weekly, fortnightly, or once a month). Trash, as you might imagine, means you’ll never see that item in your Nibblebox.

And to make establishing your preferences even easier, each snack has a drop down list of ingredients, allowing you to search by individual components. In my case, that meant calling up all the snacks with orange in them, in order to Trash any that combined it with chocolate (I’m still working on warming to citrus+chocolate). Aside from this, I left most things at Try, enticed by all the potential box-fillers, from savory to sweet, barbecue to curried to wasabi-flecked to tropical in flavor.

 

My free Nibblebox by Graze, enabling my weaknesses for mini things and variety packs.

My free Nibblebox by Graze, enabling my weaknesses for mini things and variety packs.

Within a week of my signing up, my Graze Nibblebox appeared, all components aside from the food itself noted as recyclable. Opening up the slim cardboard box revealed four labeled (and decorated) snack packs, with a booklet explaining how Graze works, offering coupons for friends, and providing nutrition and allergen and a “best by” date information for each snack. My free box came with Dark Rocky Road, Pomodoro Rustichella, Summer Berry Flapjack, and Tutti Frutti.

 

So how did the snacks stack up? Overall, I was pretty pleased with the well-rounded nature of the Graze box — three out of four snacks did skew sweet over savory, but they were each distinct in their flavor profiles and textures.

 

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The Pomodoro Rustichella, inspiring a desire to try to make tomato-romesco sauce.

The Pomodoro Rustichella, inspiring a desire to try to make tomato-romesco sauce.

 

My favorite ended up being the Pomodoro Rustichella (cheese croutons, tomato baguettes & tomato & herb almonds), which may be due to having it last after the sweetness of the other three items, or the fact that I generally have oats/unsalted nuts/dried fruit as my afternoon snack, so the Pomodoro Rustichella was a big departure from my routine. The little baguettes looked like the breadsticks you’d get with your school lunch cheese dip and crackers, but they had a much stronger tomato flavor, reminding me of the borderland of a pizza right where the sauce meets the crust (hints of tomato paste, pepper, oregano). The tiny croutons were Ritz-Bitz sized, and only somewhat cheesy, as if just dusted with parmesan. But the best element of the Pomodoro Rustichella was the tomato & herb almonds. I was initially skeptical of a tomato/almond combo, but it was actually a great pairing of the inherent sweetness of the nuts with the acidity of tomato (full disclosure, almonds are my favorite nuts, so I was possibly predisposed to like these). When eaten together, the Pomodoro Rustichella is most reminiscent of a deconstructed take on “Pizzeria” flavored Combos, and I mean that in the best way possible.

The Tutti Frutti (blueberry infused cranberries, pineapple, cherry infused raisins and green raisins) and the Summer Berry Flapjack (rustic rolled oat flapjack with berry-infused cranberries), were both fairly straightforward, with the exception of the Britishism “flapjack,” which does not refer to our American pancakes, but rather to an oat bar made with golden syrup. They both featured “infused” fruit, which is used in a lot of Graze’s snacks, according to their website. I’m not sure I’m totally hooked on the concept — I happen to like the way cranberries taste naturally, and so the ones in the flapjack reminded me most of the generic “berry” flavor used in candy and cereal. In the case of the Tutti Frutti, I thought it actually undercut the simplicity of the snack — if I’m going to have a variety of dried fruit, why not just give me dried blueberries and cherries, rather than “infusing” cranberries and raisins? This was by far my least favorite snack, although I liked the dried pineapple enough to look for other Graze snacks featuring it and move them to “Like.”

 

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The Summer Berry Flapjack, unintentionally educational in terms of cultural diversity.

The Summer Berry Flapjack, unintentionally educational in terms of cultural diversity.

The Summer Berry Flapjack had more going for it, since the infused morsels were sprinkled throughout. With the highest caloric value, the Flapjack pack was filled with 3 miniature bars, just enough to feel satisfying, but still sugary enough to seem like an indulgence. Even with the generic berry flavor of the craisins, the flapjacks were soft and fresh, well-preserved in the Graze plastic pack several days after my box arrived.

 

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My favorite snack -- Dark Rocky Road, although it did make me want to go to Trader Joe's.

My favorite snack — Dark Rocky Road, although it did make me want to go to Trader Joe’s.

I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that my favorite sweet snack was the one with chocolate. The Dark Rocky Road (Belgian dark chocolate buttons, cranberries and pecans) was made of simple components, not so different from the trail mixes you can find at Trader Joes. I really appreciated the proportions of the snack — it was heavy on the cranberries, but they didn’t skimp on the chocolate buttons and pecan halves.  Although they don’t list the cacao percentage on the website, the chocolate seemed like it was slightly better quality than a Hershey’s Special dark, and the plain cranberries and raw pecans paired wonderfully with it. The only thing that would have made this better would be to salt the pecans — the chocolate isn’t dark enough to be really bitter, so the contrast of salty and sweet would be more present with a little extra seasoning.
Let’s be honest with each other — these boxes are never going to beat the bulk bins at the supermarket for economic efficiency. But for the curious (and semi-lazy) snacker, Graze offers up a good deal. They allow you to choose your level of engagement with your food choices, from eyes closed eeny-meeny grab-bag to intensive curation through the “Love” rating. Personally, the reason I liked Graze was because it pushed me to try new things, so I can’t imagine picking “Love” for many snacks unless something blew me out of the water. I do have another Graze box coming, but I stepped it back to bimonthly, so that my Graze subscription is only a little more expensive than my Netflix. It’s an indulgence, but a fun one that doesn’t do too much damage to your wallet, and with the option of a free box to start, why not give it a shot (if you want a freebie, click here: https://www.graze.com/us/p/YJV6G1V4U)? C’mon, underneath aren’t we all just a little made of mutton?

 

https://www.graze.com/us/products 

Tamarind: Discovery through Dining

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I’ve been living in New York for nearly three years now, and yet I still find myself marveling at the sheer diversity of people and cultures surrounding me. As I said in my review of Lafayette, I make a concerted effort to branch out and try different cuisines and new dishes. But with each new menu, I realize just how much I have barely dipped my big toenail into the ocean of multicultural options. A recent article by Robert Sietsema (formerly of the Village Voice, now at Eater) got me thinking about the living, breathing organism that is regional food. Our definitions of ethnic cuisines are largely gross generalizations derived from the particular geographic backgrounds of the immigrants that happened to find a home here in America, and the ways their culinary heritage evolved in that new homeland.  For example, the Italian food of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx is predominantly influenced by the surge of Southern Italians making their way to the US in the 19th century, and what we call New York pizza is a glorious cheesy American mutation of their native flatbreads. But as geopolitical tides ebb and flow, so do the waves of immigration, leading to new proliferations of previously unfamiliar regional cooking to an area, like the recent rise of Filipino or Laotian restaurants in NYC. Even those cuisines an adventurous New York eater might think he or she has a handle on, such as Thai or Chinese, can easily puzzle and perplex with new focuses on areas like Isaan (the northeast plateau of Thailand) or Sichaun (a province in southwestern China).

The more I think about my recent dinner at Tamarind in the Flatiron District, the more I realize how much of an exercise in this kind of regional nuance it was. I count Indian as one of my favorite cuisines, but as I try to move beyond the safety net of the dishes I know and love, I’m discovering that what I think of as “Indian food” is pretty much equivalent to believing that Shake Shack covers the entirety of American cuisine. As an intellectually, but perhaps more importantly, lingually curious individual, I can barely contain my excitement over the possibilities of new restaurants offering unfamiliar specialities. Fortunately, for those with a more cautious palate, Tamarind offers exactly the kind of friendly, refined cooking to comfortably guide its diners through the hills and valleys of the sub-continental culinary landscape.

 

First Impressions:

Tamarind's elegant, modern setting, with cultural aesthetic accents.

Tamarind’s elegant, modern setting, with cultural aesthetic accents.

 

Tucked away on 22nd Street between Park Ave South and Broadway, Tamarind is only a few steps from the 6 train, but feels a little more removed from the Flatiron hustle and bustle. Along with the main restaurant, there is a small adjacent tearoom, offering afternoon tea service, as well as a la carte sandwiches and small dishes. Both spaces feature the modern restrained aesthetic of fine dining with accents of Indian heritage, such as the banquets draped in cool green, blue and white stripes contrasted with a large wrought iron gate mounted on the wall by the bar. The bar area is softly lit and narrow, the tightness accentuated by the row of tables across from the bar itself. Walking back, you pass the kitchen, where plate glass windows afford views of massive tandoors, the traditional cylindrical clay ovens used for baking, as well as the more familiar flattop and prep stations.

A glimpse into the kitchen, with three large tandoor ovens in action.

A glimpse into the kitchen, with three large tandoor ovens in action.

The main dining room has high-ceilings, and presumably would be airy and spacious if it didn’t suffer from the same frustrating overcrowding I’ve found at NY restaurants across the range of price points. Not only does this make service difficult, as waiters strive to avoid bumping elbows with clustered patrons, but often the tables are far too small for the dining party’s size. I understand the need to maximize the amount of people you can serve per seating, but negotiating the plates and fearing the accidental wrath of my elbows should not be a concern when dining, especially at a fancier restaurant like Tamarind (and with a cuisine like Indian that often features small side components like rice, bread, and sauces like raita). I wondered if the larger tables sectioned off by what appeared to be the Indian version of a sukkah had a better diner to table proportion, since the walled off booths seemed to have a bit more breathing room. Hopefully you can request these tables when making a reservation, which I would definitely recommend for a little more spacious, VIP-like setting.

Partitioned booths line the sides of the main dining room.

Partitioned booths line the sides of the main dining room.

 

The Food:

Tamarind’s extensive menu was almost too much for me to handle, and I mean that in the best way possible. I have a few go-to Indian dishes, but here I was torn between trying elevated versions of my favorites, and diving deep into new territories with the presumably trusty hands of highly regarded chefs (the downtown location, Tamarind Tribeca, has a Michelin star). Luckily, our waiter was very attentive, and perfectly happy to answer any and all of our myriad questions.

The complimentary amuse bouche, seemingly more Italian than Indian in flavoring, but delightful nonetheless.

The complimentary amuse bouche, seemingly more Italian than Indian in flavoring, but delightful nonetheless.

After ordering the wine to go with our meal (Viognier, one of my favorite whites), we were served a complimentary amuse bouche of a small rectangle of puff pastry filled with mozzarella and tomato. The dough was similar to phyllo (in fact, my aunt said it reminded her of a boureka), and was delicately spiced to highlight the tomato filling. Other reviews I’ve read suggest that Tamarind usually uses this as the opening dish, but changes the fillings and sauces. Our pastry came with a ginger garlic dipping sauce, which was tangy without being too spicy.

We struggled to select our dishes, but finally opted to start with the Nawabi Shami Kabab, the Hara Bhara Kabab, and the special shrimp appetizer of the day. For entrees my aunt chose the Shrimp Caldin, my uncle the Malai Halibut, and I picked the Masaledar Chop. All of us being big eggplant fans, we also ordered the Bhagarey Baingan, not to mention sides of Lemon Rice, Kheera Raita, and a bread basket split between Kulcha and the restaurants special Nan-e-Tamarind. (If you were wondering, yes, I not only got a great meal out of this dinner, but I had a nice doggy-bag to take home with me.)

Nawabi Shami Kababs -- the finest ground lamb I've ever eaten, but a little one-note in seasoning.

Nawabi Shami Kababs — the finest ground lamb I’ve ever eaten, but a little one-note in seasoning.

Two of our appetizers were cooked as round patties, but they could not have been more different in taste. The Nawabi Shami Kabab (Grilled lamb patties with chickpea lentils, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and garlic) was made of very finely ground lamb meat, which lent it an incredible soft texture. I really liked the way the meat melted on my tongue, coating it with the warm spices. Those spices ended up being similar to the marinade for my lamb chops, but I found here them a little too overpowering, hiding some of the funkiness of the meat itself. The dish was served with two sauces: a cooler green chutney and a spicier ginger-filled red sauce, along with carrots and lettuce. Although I enjoyed all three of our appetizers, I found the Nawabi the least successful of the three. Without the textural contrast that I got from the lamb chops, the seasoning here became a little monotone after a while, especially in contrast to the spinach patties.

The Shrimp Special Appetizer -- basically tikka masala, but a well-executed version of that.

The Shrimp Special Appetizer — basically tikka masala, but a well-executed version of that.

The Shrimp Special featured three jumbo prawns in a creamy and peppery tomato-based sauce. It ultimately reminded me of the ubiquitous tikka masala curry, mild but with a slight bite of the pepper. The shrimps were perfectly cooked, having a great snap to them without being gummy. I enjoyed this dish because of the familiar flavors, but I didn’t feel like it was anything new from the offerings at my local Indian haunts.

 

The Hara Bhara Kabab -- spinach patties where the flavors were as deep as the color.

The Hara Bhara Kabab — spinach patties where the flavors were as deep as the color.

The Hara Bhara Kabab (Spinach and cheese cakes flavored with whole spices) was my favorite appetizer of the night. The dark green spinach was mixed with paneer and seared on both sides, adding a crunchy outer sheen that gave way to the soft leaves and cheese. The bitterness of the greens played off the saltiness of the paneer, and I found the seasoning kept the contrast going bite after bite. Again the dish was served with two sauces — a creamy orange and a more viscous, syrupy red sauce. I would definitely consider ordering this again for myself, although having all three patties might weigh you down a bit in the face of the entrees to come.

 

Shrimp Caldin with some Lemon Rice -- a slight twist on a regional specialty.

Shrimp Caldin with some Lemon Rice — a slight twist on a regional specialty.

My aunt had chosen the Shrimp Caldin (A Goan specialty. Prawns in coconut sauce with mustard seeds, cumin, curry leaves and coriander) on the strong recommendation of our waiter, and although she was underwhelmed by the dish, I was very happy she picked it, precisely because I had never heard of Goan food before. A little Wikipedia delving reveals that Goa is the smallest state in India, located on the western coast, along the Arabian Sea. Not surprisingly, as a coastal region, Goan cuisine is known for its seafood curries, and its food frequently makes use of coconut oil and coconut milk, as we clearly see on display in this dish. Caldin is traditionally a mild, bright yellow curry based in coconut milk and vegetables. Tamarind’s take took a step away from tradition, the shrimp arriving in a lighter green bath of sauce. The prawns were smaller than the monsters in our appetizer, but you could argue that there were more in the dish, so it balanced out. From the description I had expected the curry to taste like Korma, a rich curry thickened with coconut milk and yogurt. However, the Shrimp Caldin was much lighter in both texture and flavor, the sharpness of the mustards seeds, and the toasted flavors of the cumin and coriander asserting themselves first, with the coconut milk appearing more as a subtle aftertaste. As with most of the proteins we tasted at Tamarind, the shrimp were very well executed. I really enjoyed the deft handling of the coconut milk balanced with the spices, but I wish there had been some vegetables mixed into the curry to add texture and a bit more depth to the dish.

 

The supremely tender Malai Halibut.

The supremely tender Malai Halibut.

My uncle’s Malai Halibut (Halibut flavored with mace and cardamom in a coconut ginger sauce) was listed on the menu as the Grand Prize Winner of the 2004 USA Fish Dish Awards, and from the bit I tasted, I thought it was a well-deserved victory. Unlike the Shrimp Caldin, coconut took center stage with this dish, the tropical flavoring mellowing out the nuttier influences of mace and cardamom. I had only small tastes of my aunt’s and uncle’s dishes because I was so enraptured with my own entree, but the small bite I got of the Halibut was pretty superb. A quick glance at the fish indicates how soft the flesh was — my fork swiped through the fish like a knife through hot butter. It flaked ever so delicately and worked as a luscious base for the more flavor-forward ginger and coconut sauce.

 

The Masaledar Chop -- frankly, some of the best lamb chops I've had in a while.

The Masaledar Chop — frankly, these were some of the best lamb chops I’ve had in a while.

All three of us agreed that my Masaledar Chop (Lamb chops marinated in nutmeg, cinnamon and aromatic Indian spices) was the champion main course of the night. I had decided early on that I wanted something from the Tandoor section of the menu. I figured Tamarind would be the perfect place to see traditional tandoori cooking in action, since often the dishes you encounter at neighborhood Indian restaurants are over-baked, dry and flavorless. Initially I leaned towards getting the lamb kabobs, wanting to avoid something so seemingly mundane as lamb chops, but once again our waiter came to the rescue and steered me away from the kabobs, explaining that though they were certainly good, the lamb chops are one of the most popular dishes on the menu, as well as being one of his personal favorites. It seems I fall into that category of strong supporters as well. The dish arrived with three sizable chops, the meat reddish-brown and slightly charred at the edges like a good hamburger, with glistening, marbled fatty edges that melted in your mouth and gave way to slightly chewy, just medium meat that reminded me of chai in its seasoning. A spinach/potato pancake and a small collection of green beans and carrots accompanied the dish, along with another duo of sauces, this time appearing in the form of a white raita-esque sauce, and a red sauce that reminded me of currywurst ketchup.  Looking over the menu description, it’s no surprise that I was so enthralled with this entree — I jump at the chance to have lamb whenever I can, and I’m one of those gross people who can never have enough of the warm autumn spices of cinnamon and nutmeg (give me all the pumpkin spice lattes you got). To be honest, I think I’d rather have this preparation over the rosemary and mint jelly classic European style, especially when the simple baking in the tandoor is so brilliantly executed, leaving you with a tender, moist chop that explains why the technique is so popular and prominent in Indian cuisine.

The Bhagarey Baigan (Japanese eggplant cooked in an aromatic sauce with peanuts, sesame seeds and coconut) proved to be another new regional discovery for me. The dish that arrived at our table was completely different from what I had anticipated, due to my misreading of the menu (and since it arrived slightly later, I of course neglected to take a photo — oops). I assumed that we were getting Baingan Bharta, a vegetarian favorite of mine that is pretty much an Indian version of baba ghanous — a roasted eggplant curry that is cooked down to puree consistency. Bhagarey Baigan, on the other hand, is a Hyderbadi curry, traditionally employing stuffed pieces of eggplant and incorporating peanuts into the masala (for the geographically curious, Hyderbad is the capital city of the southeastern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh). The Tamarind version had large chunks of Japanese eggplant, cooked to the point of there being just a bit of tension to the outer skin, with a nearly liquid soft interior that oozed out to mix with the sauce. I mostly ate this for lunch the next day, which I think improved the dish even further by allowing the flavors to stew and grow stronger. The nutty peanuts helped to brighten the smoky overtones of the eggplant, and while I think I still prefer Baingan Bharta, I’d gladly try Bhagarey Baigan again if given the opportunity.

The raita, tucked away between our wine glasses.

The Kheera Raita, tucked away between our wine glasses.

Our basket of Nan-E-Tamarind and Kulcha, constantly tempting my willpower.

Our basket of Nan-E-Tamarind and Kulcha, constantly tempting my willpower.

I barely touched the Lemon Rice (Lemon flavored basmati rice with curry leaves and mustard seeds) and Kheera Raita (Yogurt with grated cucumber), since I was plenty happy with the sauces on my own plate, but the small samples I had were well-executed, mild in flavor to blend with the entrees. Now obviously we all know how I feel about bread, and Naan is one of the dangerous things to put in front of me — I can inhale a basket of that stuff with little thought of the amount of butter and carbs I’ve just wolfed down, no dip or sauce necessary. From the menu description, I expected the Nan-e-Tamarind (Bread filled with dry fruits, nuts, and raisins) to be like trail mix baked into bread, but in fact the stuffing ingredients had been blended into a bright orange paste. While I might have enjoyed it more as a snack on its own, I found it to be a bit too sweet to go along with dinner. I much preferred our other bread order, the Kulcha (Prepared with onion and black pepper). I had never heard of Kulcha before (most of my non-naan forays have involved Roti or Paratha), and to be honest, if I hadn’t checked the menu, I would have thought it was just another stuffed piece of naan. Again, a little research uncovers that Kulcha is a Punjabi variant of naan, made with maida (and Indian flour resembling cake flour) and always featuring some sort of filling. The pieces we had were overflowing with large pieces of caramelized onion and flecks of black pepper. Although ordering the Kulcha ups your risk of bad breath, for naan lovers it is an intriguing sidestep, incorporating new spices and flavors into a fluffy format I personally can’t get enough of.

For dessert (yes, that inclination runs in the family), we split an order of the Rice Pudding (Basmati rice cooked with milk and caramelized pistachios). Kheer, or Indian rice pudding, is my favorite dessert of the cuisine, even above kulfi (Maggie picks something over ice cream? Blasphemy!). I love the interplay of cardamom with the creamy dairy-based pudding, and Tamarind serves a great rendition. The dish was thicky without veering into cottage-cheese territory, the rice grains adding a little bit of texture as a vehicle for the deftly employed spice blend of sweet pistachios and cardamom.

 

Final Thoughts:

People complain that our world is getting smaller — that because of the Internet, everyone’s watching the same TV shows, eating the same Hot Pockets, and gradually losing our individuality. However, I have to believe that, at least when it comes to food, all this coming together is actually expanding our horizons. I find the growing influence of regional Asian cooking in the New York food scene thrilling, and pop-ups like Khao Man Gai NY and new bakery O Merveilleux (specializing in one particular traditional Belgian dessert) only spur my enthusiasm to uncover new tastes and techniques. Best of all, I love the way these unfamiliar names and ingredients drive me to learn more about a country’s history and geography. Prior to this post, I couldn’t have told you where Goa or Hyderbad was, or that the Portuguese colonized Goa in the 16th century, and ruled it until 1961.

While I think pushing your dining frontiers is a habit to be encouraged across the board, eating at a place like Tamarind certainly makes the journey easier. The open views of the kitchen speak to the larger philosophy of the restaurant, striving to provide insight into the nuances of Indian cuisine through attentive and well-informed service and cooking. Although I am always game to have Indian food at any price point, the wonderful dishes I had at Tamarind make me want to explore other fine dining Indian spots like Junoon, and the downtown location of Tamarind. Much like my experience at Spice Market, based on this dinner, I would recommend Tamarind both to Indian enthusiasts and the less initiated. It’s worth every penny to be served by a staff eager to show off their chops (both literal and figurative), while keeping your comfort level and preferences in mind. Personally, I can’t wait to go back to Tamarind for Restaurant Week, hopefully with a little more Wikipedia research under my belt, in order to better plunge forward into the delicious unknown.

 

Tamarind

41-43 East 22nd Street (between Park Ave South and Broadway)

http://www.tamarindrestaurantsnyc.com/

The Cellar at Beecher’s: Underground Dining, Top Floor Food

With the floral arrangements and questionably humorous Hallmark cards of Mother’s Day still nipping at our heels, it seems only fitting to take a moment to talk about my own mother. I’ll just come out and say it: I’m a mama’s girl. As the youngest child and only girl in my family, I suppose it’s pretty understandable. Once my mother got over the mania that came with being able to finally buy dresses and Osh Kosh jumpers galore, and I got over my intense resistance to wearing anything without pant legs (I had three older brothers — a bout of tomboyism was inevitable), we settled into a strong relationship that has supported me and shaped me immeasurably ever since. Now I could go and explain how my mother’s work as a writer has enabled me to pursue my own creative projects, or how her openness and generosity (we rock a huge First Seder guestlist) has informed my politics and worldview, but let’s be serious. For this blog I’m going to talk about how my mom taught me to love food.

I am fortunate to have grown up in a family that strove to eat dinner together every night. Because of this, my relationship with food has always been deeply connected to the ideas of unity and community. As we’ve all grown up, exploring new foods and restaurants has become almost a tradition in my household, from tasting menus to new sweet shops (my mother is an unrepentant chocoholic, and my father loves ice cream — surely this explains a lot about me). Not to mention the fact that when all her children were fully grown, my mom finally got the chance to cook dishes outside of the Venn Diagram of hot dogs/tuna fish/taco night. While I’ve certainly enjoyed some of the more refined dishes she’s made for my visits home, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the classics that graced our table while I was growing up.

One such staple was macaroni and cheese. Very, very occasionally we would have the Blue Box Kraft version, which I appreciate for its place in Americana (and for its blatant ploy to ensnare dino-obsessed kids like myself with its mascot Cheesasaurus Rex). But my mother’s homestyle mac is a different beast, and much preferred, in my opinion. First things first, my mother employs the larger penne or rigatoni noodles, to better soak up the cheese sauce, which combined Velveeta, American and cheddar cheeses. On top went a few single slices of American cheese, baked to a deep brown crust that nearly verged on burnt. Presented in the same ceramic bowl on each occasion, my family became immediately divided into two camps — those who preferred a serving with the crunchy top, and those who desired the softer bottom layer. My mom’s mac and cheese was tender, saucy rather than gooey, and to this day is my optimal version of mac and cheese.

In all my years of mac and cheese consumption, I have tried plenty of excellent varieties, from lobster to buffalo to truffle. But I had never encountered anything similar to my mother’s rendition. That is, until last week, when Jacob, Mike and I made our third Cheeseplorational inquiry to Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in the Flatiron.

Aw yeah, it’s time to talk about cheese again.

First Impressions:

The entrance on the corner of 20th and Broadway.

The entrance on the corner of 20th and Broadway.

I used to work in the Flatiron District, so I’d passed Beecher’s many times before ever stepping inside. The top floor is occupied by the cheese store, where you can try samples of their cheeses and accompaniments, as well as purchasing smaller snacks and takeout versions of the mac and cheese varieties they sell in their restaurant. There is a small cafe upstairs with seating, which offers views down into the industrial metal vats where some of the cheese is made. This glass-enclosed area takes up nearly a third of the store, and can even be viewed from the windows outside, so passersby can see Beecher’s cheesemongers hard at work.

Inside on the first floor -- you can see the huge metal cheesemaking vats on the left.

Inside on the first floor — you can see the huge metal cheesemaking vats on the left.

Downstairs in The Cellar

Downstairs in The Cellar

Down a quick flight of stairs near the entrance you’ll find The Cellar at Beecher’s, the small lounge and restaurant that offers lunch and dinner menus. The overall atmosphere of The Cellar is restrained yet playful. At the back of the room is a small bar that offers beer, wine, and specialty cocktails (whimsically named for historical personalities connected to the building Beecher’s is housed in). The rest of the tight space is taken up by armchairs with low tables, a larger communal table, and the more common two-tops and four-tops. It’s dimly lit, except for the highlighted paintings on the wall which feature animal and cheese related puns. Much like Murray’s Cheese Bar, I appreciated the sense of whimsy to balance out the intensity of the hip-lounge vibe.

Nothing like a good food pun to whet your appetite.

I like my animal themed paintings like I like my cheese — slightly nutty.

There are only a dozen or so tables in total, and despite our dining on a Monday night, the place was full and bustling. Although I had my eye on one of the neat booths built into the wall, the three of us squeezed into a table technically meant for two. As I glanced behind me, I suddenly realized the brick walls of the lounge were broken up by glass cases of cheese wheels on display. It turns out The Cellar is also where Beecher’s ages its “Flatiron Cheese,” a variety exclusive to the New York location. Talk about a good omen.

Close enough to touch.

Close enough to touch.

The Food:

Both Mike and Jacob had already been to Beecher’s several times (in fact, Jacob lives right around the corner, and one can only resist the siren call so often), so they warned me to stay away from the wine list. Luckily, I was in the mood for something lighter, since I was about to coat my tongue in curds and whey, so I opted for an Allagash White, one of my favorite summer beers. It ended up working perfectly with the meal, refreshing without being assertive and clashing with the food.

Jacob had been talking up Beecher’s “World’s Best Mac and Cheese” for months, so obviously that was the first item we ordered. We then made our way through the small but diverse menu, picking the Burrata & Anjou Pear Salad, the Mushroom Tart, and the Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate. When the food arrived, our waitress had the unexpectedly Tetrise-seque challenge of finagling all the plates onto our already crowded table of glasses and cutlery. While Beecher’s certainly gets credit for cutting down on our wait time by squeezing 3 people into a two-top, it ultimately made things more difficult for the service and our dining.

The Burrata and Anjou ... Salad? Questionably named but certifiably delicious.

The Burrata and Anjou … Salad? Questionably named but certifiably delicious.

The Burrata & Anjou Pear Salad came with sprigs of basil, sea salt, and several pieces of toast. I’d call it more of a deconstructed crostini than a salad, since the bread and burrata dominated more than the basil greens. (Or maybe I just have an overly provincial definition of salad in these wild days of culinary experimentation.) Regardless of naming practices, I found Beecher’s take on burrata to be much more successful than the one we tried at Murray’s Cheese Bar. The plate was presented with alternating slices of pear and burrata, which made it relatively easy to assemble (it would have been even easier if the kitchen had just done the work themselves, but I understand the impulse to avoid toast soggy with fruit/cheese juice. Gross.) The cheese was a little firmer, largely keeping its shape when lifted onto the bread. and the interplay of the crisp, sweet pear with the burrata cut through some of the richness of the cheese. The basil and sea salt worked to keep the dish savory, leading to a real progression of flavors across the tongue with each bite.

The Mushroom Tart -- handcrafted for the umami faithful.

The Mushroom Tart — handcrafted for the umami faithful.

The Mushroom Tart proved to be the unexpected hit dish of the night. Again, the menu’s description was a little misleading — Beecher’s seems to like deconstructing traditional presentations, so what actually ended up on our table was basically a stew of shiitake, crimini, and portabella mushrooms slightly overlapping a singular piece of pie crust. The stew was so intensely mushroomy, I was in fungus heaven, with rich wine-infused flavors that verged on a Marsala sauce. The mushrooms were tender but still had some heft to them, reminding me of the base for a mushroom bisque just before it’s been pureed. As for the crust, it was actually most reminiscent of a biscuit in texture, more crumbly than flaky. I liked the crust, but I would have been just as happy with just a bowl of the mushrooms. I went back for seconds and thirds, and found that the flavors were even more heightened when combined with the creamy sweetness of the sauce from the mac and cheese.

The lady of the hour -- "World's Best" Mac and Cheese.

The lady of the hour — “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese.

Speaking of, the “World’s Best” Mac and Cheese, although sporting a rather ostentatious name, turned out to be pretty damn delicious. As I mentioned earlier, I was struck by how similar Beecher’s approach to the dish was to my mother’s — using penne over elbow macaroni, with a white cheese sauce that was creamy rather than sticky. Beecher’s didn’t fully broil the top, which I was perfectly fine with, as a lifelong member of the pro-mac-underside club. I believe Beecher’s uses their flagship cheese, a cow’s milk variety of white American cheddar, mild with just a hint of tang that is barely detectable in their Mac and Cheese. It was served in a basic oval dish, and I appreciated the homestyle approach, not only for nostalgic reasons, but for how it fit into the overall vibe of The Cellar — down to earth but still informed. Based on the few cheese-centric restaurants I’ve been to, it seems like the each of the waitstaffs really love working at their restaurants. I can’t blame them, I’m pretty sure I’d be plenty happy surrounded by cheese and wine all day.

The Cheesemonger's Five Cheese Plate -- a strong showing with some highs and lows.

The Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate — a strong showing with some highs and lows.

Last, but far from least, was the Cheesemonger’s Five Cheese Plate. In the chaos of trying to fit all of our dishes on the table, our waitress accidentally neglected to tell us which cheeses had been monged for our enjoyment. We managed to flag her down a few moments later for the full details. While I grabbed a takeaway menu on my way out of Beecher’s (including the cheeses offered at The Cellar), Artisanal still holds top prize for literally giving us a guide to our cheese plate. So based on my slightly hazy memories and the menu, here are the cheeses I believe we tried, clockwise from the top right: Pt. Reyes Cheese Co., Original Blue, cow, CA; Vermont Creamery, Bijou, goat, VT; Holland’s Family Cheese, Marieke Gouda, cow, WI; Cowgirl Creamery, Red Hawk, cow, CA; VT Shepherd, Queso del Invierno, sheep & cow, VT.

Like Murray’s the cheese and accompaniments were set out on a slate board, separated by pairing. I really liked the attention to detail that came with the pairing of each cheese with specific item, rather than giving us “some things that generally go well with lots of cheese.” The only general addition was the crackers, which were perfectly pleasant if unremarkable in flavor. Of the cheeses, the only one I’d tried before was Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, during a vacation in Napa a few years ago. I was very excited to see it on the menu, since it was one of the best cheeses I tasted in California (yes, my vacation involved a lot of cheese — no one is surprised), and remains one of my favorites to this day. I’ve had trouble finding Cowgirl’s products here in NY, so discovering that Beecher’s carries at least Red Hawk was fantastic news. Here’s hoping they have some other varieties as well.

Red Hawk is a rich cheese, smooth and soft to the point of being somewhat spreadable without being runny. It has a salty, earthy flavor, it was paired excellently with a grapefruit marmalade.

As with my previous cheese posts, I was happiest with the really funky cheeses, so I thought the Original Blue made a strong showing. This cheese is a pretty bold blue, so I’d recommend delaying your hot makeout sessions unless pairing it with Listerine. Perhaps in acknowledgment of a blue cheese lover’s likely singledom, Beecher’s chose to pair itwith fig jam, which showed up twice on our cheese plate (more successfully here than with the gouda).

The Marieke Gouda was a nice compromise between the attributes of young and older goudas. It had the buttery, caramel flavor of and older gouda, but was slightly softer than the chunky, dry and hard aged variety. Apparently, this cheese just won top prize at the 2013 US Championship Cheese Contest, and while I enjoyed it, I think I personally prefer the super-aged, crusty crystallized and crumbly type of gouda. The Marieke was also paired with the fig jam, which I didn’t think did much for the cheese.

The Queso del Invierno was my least favorite — I found it too mild in flavor. There was nothing bad about it, but I thought it really worked best as a vehicle for the candied nuts that were paired with it. I’m a little surprised, because it was the only cheese made of blended milks on our plate, but I could see it working best grated into a salad, or even to bolster the flavor of a macaroni and cheese.

My favorite cheese of the night was the Bijou Goat Cheese. It’s semi-soft to soft cheese, similar in texture to Red Hawk, holding its overall structure but featuring a paste-like interior. It had that grassy, goat cheese flavor with a good tang and some underlying sweetness, and came with honey with some honeycomb mixed into it. The honey perfectly complemented the cheese, heightening the sweetness while allowing the pungent goaty taste to still shine through.

Final Thoughts:

Now that I’ve been to a handful of cheese shops and restaurants in New York, I feel like I’m starting to zero in on the features that matter to me the most. While I still think that Artisanal had the best cheese plate and service, my meal at Beecher’s was more enjoyable on a dish by dish basis. A common thread in my most positive restaurant experiences (at least on this blog) is the low-key tone of the restaurants. I’d rather have a fun dining experience at a place with mediocre food than feel uncomfortable at an overly pretentious restaurant that serves the best Chilean Sea Bass you’ve ever tasted. The Cellar at Beecher’s took the cute milk-puns on the wall at Murray’s Cheese Bar and filled their lounge with it. The best part is that they’re not immediately apparent — a glance at the paintings might lead you to think they were generic art prints, but if you stop and actually look at them, you realize how silly the content is. The Cellar has the veneer of cool and classy, but underneath is the soul of the cheese nerds who want to share their curdly passion with you.

I’m bound to go back for the mushroom tart alone, but Beecher’s also offers a few more adventurous types of mac and cheese on The Cellar’s menu (curried cauliflower anyone?), so I’ll have to try out these parallel universe versions of my mother’s dish. If you’re game for a little tongue-in-cheek humor with a strong menu of cheesy delights, check out The Cellar. After all, I can’t invite everyone to my mother’s house for mac and cheese, so you might as well get the next best thing.

The Cellar at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese

Corner of Broadway & 20th St.

http://www.beechershandmadecheese.com