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/

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A New York Steak of Mind: Peter Luger Steakhouse

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Growing up just outside of the City in Westchester County, you would think my childhood was simply brimming with classic New York experiences. And while yes, I was lucky enough to see Broadway shows multiple times a year, chilled with the dinos at the Natural History Museum like it was my part-time job, and rode the Circle Line with my 3rd grade class, I missed out on many “typical” New York activities because they seemed cliche, touristy, and lame to a blase teenaged local. Even now, having come back to actually live in Manhattan post-college, there are still certain items left unchecked on my city to-do list, simply because of the way they make the native New Yorker hairs on the back of my neck rise (we’re not going to even engage in the from the city/from the suburbs who’s a native debate here — I’m at least a New York Stater by birth).

One of the crucial things you learn as you grow up, however, is that sometimes doing the “lame” or “touristy” thing is worthwhile. For every double-decker-open-air bus tour of Chinatown, there’s a mainstream experience that is popular because it’s actually pretty effing fantastic. Sometimes the hype is actually not hype at all, but merely an abundance of exuberance that should be heeded. And thankfully, there are still a few long-time New York institutions like Peter Luger Steakhouse to slap some starry-eyed sense into this skeptical New Yorker. Nothing like a healthy dose of history (and cholesterol-raising meat) to give a jaded girl a little bit of wonder.

I’ve talked about New York dining institutions before, but Peter Luger is in a different category. The restaurant was established not in the 21st nor 20th centuries, but way back in 1887 in then-predominantly-German neighborhood of Williamsburg (to this day mere blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge). It has been awarded one Michelin Star, was named to the James Beard Foundation’s list of “American Classics,” and was named the best steakhouse in New York by Zagat 28 years in a row (a fact they proudly showcase by lining a wall with the annual award plaques). It is the kind of place that is so popular, they can operate on a cash-only policy. Let me repeat that — a cash only policy. At a steakhouse. Well, to be honest they do honor one credit card — the Peter Luger Card. When I first heard about this, I was pretty skeptical. It sounded absurd, overblown, the kind of place that preys on poor schmucks who go to New York and think that they’re having a real authentic slice of pizza at a random “Original Ray’s.” But even before I knew of all the history and accolades, I had been told by multiple sources over and over that Peter Luger was a must-visit, a unique and extraordinary experience if you liked steak at all. So I tried to stay open-minded, paid a visit to an ATM, and made my way with a group of friends to Williamsburg last Friday night.

 

First Impressions:

The unobtrusive, classic brick facade of Peter Luger Steakhouse.

The unobtrusive, classic brick facade of Peter Luger Steakhouse, a legend looming large on the corner.

 

Because of its enduring popularity, my friend Peter was only able to score a reservation for 6 at 9:45pm, presumably the last seating of the night. Consequently, everything around Peter Luger was closed, and lent the restaurant a sort of “shining beacon” quality (this might have also been due to my intense hunger — I operate more on the early-bird special schedule than the Continental late night dining scene). Peter Luger sits squarely on the corner of its block, the decor traditional and old-fashioned both outside and in. Outside the worn dark wooden signage announces just “Peter Luger” — no mention of what kind of cuisine waits inside — above plain brick and large metal paned windows.

One of the dining rooms in Peter Luger -- plain furnishings except for some whimsical beer steins.

One of the dining rooms in Peter Luger — plain furnishings except for some whimsical beer steins.

Inside, I was immediately reminded of the German beer halls I’ve recently visited, except that here the design is based in the restaurant’s origin, rather than an appeal to a foreign cultural aesthetic. Once you step into Peter Luger you are met with oak floors, a long wooden bar, dark wood paneling and exposed crossbeams bracing white stucco walls. The impression of basic utilitarian necessity, clean but spare reigns supreme — brass chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and plain wooden tables and chairs make up the dining rooms. No tablecloths, no fancy schmancy place settings, no piped in music, and no paintings or posters. The only purely decorative objects were the series of beer steins of different colors and styles that were displayed along the dining room walls.

Even with our late reservation, the bar area was still packed with waiting parties when we arrived, so we milled around waiting to be seated and watched the staff rush from the kitchen to the three dining rooms with plates and plates of outrageously over-portioned food. Clearly this place was expensive, but you get a lot of bang for your buck. Watching the service in action, I couldn’t help but notice that all of the staff seemed to be men in their mid-40s, all dressed in the same suit of plain black pants, white shirts, and aprons, another slightly jarring sign of PL’s old-fashioned approach. Barely ten minutes later the crowds had thinned and our party was called to be seated (in fact, this was an accurate representation of the speed and quality of service — we were in and out of Peter Luger, and left very satisfied, I might add, in a little over an hour).

Sitting down to a table not so far removed from the Ikea dining set I have in my apartment (although PL’s probably has and will endure far longer than mine), we found plain white napkins, plain starter plates, stainless steel silverware and small water glasses. Oh, and a basket piled high with all different types of bread, which our waiter, a gruff but polite and attendant middle-aged man, refilled steadily until our steaks arrived.

 

The Food:

Our bountiful bread basket.

Our bountiful bread basket, with a gravy boat of Peter Luger‘s House Sauce on the right.

Our complimentary bread basket was filled with Parker House-like rolls, slightly charred at the edges, and a onion rolls speckled with salt and garlic and featuring slices of caramelized onion inside. I preferred the onion bread, although both rolls were well salted, chewy and soft. The only improvement would have been adding more onion to the inside of the rolls, to moisten the interior a bit. Alongside the basket were twin gravy boats of PL’s house steak sauce, a tomato-based, tangy condiment that reminded me of a less aggressive cocktail sauce. I tried the house sauce on nearly everything, and found, somewhat surprisingly, it pretty much compliments the menu. Peter’s girlfriend Carol (a pescetarian) even dressed her mixed green salad with it, over the blue cheese dressing she had initially chosen.

The menu at Peter Luger is as laconic as its wait staff — a bit unforgiving in the modern scene of endless options and descriptors (Grass-fed lamb shanks with rosemary clippings, chive blossoms, with a Swiss mint gelee, etc etc). Instead, you’re faced with a remarkably simple set of choices. Choose some appetizers. Choose some sides. You want steak? Choose how many people you want steak for, your options ranging from “Single Steak” to “Steak for Four,” with no elaboration on the preparation, cut, or how it is served (I guess in 1887, the idea of the empowered diner did not exist). Fortunately, most of us had done some level of research beforehand, and Diana had read that the best strategy was to get steak for (n-1), with n = the number of meateaters dining. So for our five carnivores, we would get enough steak for four people. But here’s the catch — there’s a difference between all those Steak for X entrees — what is not stated on the menu is that those are all different cuts of beef. My research had uncovered that PL’s  best cut was their Steak for Two, the Porterhouse, whereas the Steak for Four is a T-bone. We opted for two orders of the famous Steak for Two, five orders of the similarly famous bacon (offered by the single slice, and a must-try according to everyone I talked to), two orders of French Fries for Two, two orders of Onion Rings for Two, and some creamed spinach. Go big or go home, folks.

Bacon worth breaking the rules for.

Bacon worth breaking the rules for.

The bacon was the first to arrive, served as an appetizer. Now those who know me might be wondering why I ordered bacon in the first place. All through my childhood I operated under the premise that my family did not eat bacon in observance of kosher law (never mind our hypocritical love of crab crakes and beer-boiled shrimp), so I avoided any and all pork products I came across. Sometime during college my illusions were shattered when my father ordered a side of bacon at brunch, and since then, while I continue to avoid seeking out pork-based dishes (no carnitas for me), I don’t have a problem ordering a Cobb salad or a chowder with bacon in the broth. It’s hard to say no to a restaurant’s signature dish, however, so I was resigned to try Peter Luger’s bacon and see if it could win over a porcine-averse palate.

Peter Luger offers their bacon in single slice servings, which are doled out onto each plate by the waiter. Bacon-ignorant as I am, I could only guess that Peter Luger’s version is closer to the Canadian Bacon patties I’ve seen in Eggs Benedict than the thin crispy pieces on typical diner breakfast plates. The pink slice was thick, with a dark edge and lighter interior, and dwarfed my small bread-and-butter plate in length (it was probably the length of a standard oval seving dish). I tentatively cut into it, speared a bite, and suddenly understood our collective fascination with bacon.  The meat was simultaneously salty, savory, and unctuous. It was totally addictive, probably due to how how the fat content was — as Diana astutely pointed out, a cross section of the bacon revealed a small pink center bookended by delicious deposits of fat. Of course, the bacon was equally delicious dipped into the House Sauce, the sweet tang of the sauce complementing the sharp, salty meat. I’m not sure I could have had more than the one slice I got (especially considering the bounty of beef to come), but it was well worth breaking my person food rules. In what will become a common refrain in this post — listen to the hoi polloi when it comes to Peter Luger — the popular opinion knows what it’s talking about.

The steak, slightly elevated by smaller plates, mid-service.

The Steak for Two, slightly elevated by smaller plates, mid-service.

Only a few minutes after our somewhat-inappropriate bacon-induced moans of pleasure had subsided, our waiter was back, briskly removing our starter plates and replacing them with full sized dinner plates and a new set of silverware, including intimidating steak knives. Then, the main course service began. It’s a bit of a production, with multiple waiters assaulting the table with large portions of food in a precise, efficient display of well-honed showmanship. Although far from the highly-choreographed synchronized serving in high-end restaurants like Daniel, there is still a level of theatricality to the exodus of steak from the Peter Luger kitchen to each table. When our waiter brought out the bacon, he had inexplicably placed two bread-and-butter plates upside down in the middle of the table. As our steaks arrived their purpose became clear — the platters of meat are placed with one end resting on the butter plate, so the platter tilts, allowing the juices to drain down to the other end, which are then spooned back onto the steak, effectively pan-basting the meat table-side.

 

The hand-served elements of our meal, from left to right: creamed spinach, potato hash, steak.

The hand-served elements of our meal, from left to right: creamed spinach, potato hash, steak.

The porterhouses come pre-sliced, with some meat still left on the bone. Each diner is served a couple steaming pieces of the steak by one waiter, while another spoons out the creamed spinach, and a third serves the potato hash (which we didn’t know came with the steak, another insider tip that probably would have led us to opt out of the fries). The rest of the sides were served on platters, family style, in large heaping mounds. The general consensus was that at Peter Luger, the descriptive phrase “for two” implies two adults roughly equal in size to Shaq.

 

Classic steak fries -- my favorite kind.

Classic steak fries — my favorite kind.

The enormous pile of onion rings -- if a Bloomin Onion and calamari had a baby, it would taste like this.

The enormous pile of onion rings — if a Bloomin’ Onion and calamari had a baby, it would taste like this.

The creamed spinach was definitely heavy on the cream, almost the consistency of a Indian saag dish. My first bite was smooth and flavorful, but the spinach wore on me in the face of all of the fried foods and rich pieces of steak. I much preferred the fries and onion rings (what? it’s not like creamed spinach is really a “healthy choice” here). The fries were my favorite variety — thick cut steak fries, with excellent crisp on the outside and a soft starchy center. The onion rings were by far my favorite side, as evidenced by the hefty amount of damage I unleashed on the plate on my half of the table. I generally find that onion rings suffer from too many potential weaknesses, from the type of breading used to the thickness of the onion slice. But these were like the shoestring fries equivalent of onion rings, as if someone had sliced through a Bloomin’ Onion to the thinnest degree and piled it high. The thin slivers of onion were lightly fried, crunchy and crispy and well-salted to provide a contrast to the meat.

A view of the carnage mid-meal.

A view of the carnage mid-meal.

Speaking of, let’s turn our focus away from the hanger-ons and pan over to the star of the show, the Steak for Two. Even days later, it’s hard for me to articulate how delicious this piece of meat was. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve become a part-time vegetarian these days, and even before then I’d generally opt for duck or lamb over a steak, but when I bit into the porterhouse at Peter Luger, I suddenly remembered why I’ve never turned in my carnivore card. This was, hands down, legitimately one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten — it was perfectly medium rare, with a vibrant pink center, and dripping with juice as you cut into it. The first bite released an explosion of earthy, funky beef flavor with great crust on the outside, tender as you chewed, and slowly melting on your tongue to linger as a smooth, naturally umami aftertaste.

 

Bowls of shlag on a nearby table, waiting to be served.

Bowls of shlag on a nearby table, waiting to be served.

Although Serious Eats has named Peter Luger as having one of the best hot fudge sundaes in NYC (slightly dubious since they use Haagen Daz ice cream), we were way too full to test that claim. However, over the course of our entire meal we had seen waiters walk by with heaping bowls of whipped cream (referred to as “schlag”) as topping for the various desserts. As a lifelong whipped cream fanatic (I’ll choose it over frosting any day), I jokingly said we should ask our waiter if we could just get a bowl of schlag for dessert. Peter seized on my idea, and as soon as our waiter appeared to clear the table, Peter asked him if that was possible, literally inquiring as to if they would accommodate us, maybe for a little extra  (like $3 or something). Without a saying a word, our waiter just disappeared back into the kitchen, the doors barely swinging closed before he emerged with a full bowl of shlag exclusively for our table. While the bowl had only one spoon with it, it was served alongside PL’s signature parting gift, a bunch of chocolate coins (it’s Chanukah in August!), which served as excellent vehicles to shove the shlag into our mouths (I did eventually ask for more spoons). The shlag was heavenly — real whipped heavy cream, instead of the pressurized Reddiwhip. It was thick and slightly sweet with a faint vanilla flavoring. I would honestly go back just to get the chance to have more shlag. It was a truly decadent way to end an absurdly indulgent evening.

A bowl of shlag to call our own, with Peter Luger gelt for dipping!

A bowl of shlag to call our own, with Peter Luger gelt for dipping!

Final Thoughts:

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There are countless movies and TV shows featuring an awestruck out-of-towner “discovering” New York, marveling at the tall buildings, boating on the lake in Central Park, and spinning around Times Square, overwhelmed by the glitz and glamour. Unfortunately, it’s hard to live day-to-day in this city and not start to notice the grime coating those bright lights. Between the homeless people, the piles of garbage, and the way the streets smell faintly of urine in the summer — it can be hard to keep the magic of the Big Apple in mind, especially when something just dripped on you and there’s not a cloud in the sky.

But sometimes the City finds a way to rub some more of that metropolitan sparkle into your eyes, finds a way to remind you of the collision of history, cultures, and sheer humanity that makes up New York. The fact that within a week I can eat at both the trendy, multicultural Spice Market and the traditional, fuhgeddaboudit, historic landmark Peter Luger Steakhouse is a testament to the endless possibilities of life in New York. My dinner at Peter Luger was a great wake-up call, a classically New York experience — this is how we do things, and you can like it or leave it. Well, like most of the diners at Peter Luger, I really, really liked it. From porterhouse-pros to those less beef-inclined, everyone should check it out, and at least put those Zagat claims to the test. Get a taste of history, get a bit of a New York attitude purer than that at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and for the love of God, get a bowl of shlag. Trust me — I’m from around here.

 

Peter Luger Steakhouse

178 Broadway (at Driggs Ave)

peterluger.com

Sans Mystery Meat: Dinner at Cafeteria

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

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


First Impressions:

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

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


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

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

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

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

Our alluring drink menus.

Our alluring drink menus.

Speaking of which…

The Food:

My cocktail -- "Liquid Passion"

My cocktail — “Liquid Passion”


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

Megan's drink, the "White Peach Classico"

Megan’s drink, the “White Peach Classico”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Final Thoughts:

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

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


Cafeteria

119 7th Ave (Corner of 17th St)

http://www.cafeteriagroup.com/