Snackshots Providence: Off the Beaten Path

That’s right, we’re on the road again! This past weekend I hightailed it up to Providence, RI, to visit my college roommate Megan, who is currently attending Brown for grad school. Jacob split the cost of gas with me in order to visit his friend Sophie, a student at the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program and see her in a show.

Shockingly, most of the trip was spent making home-cooked food, but I thought I’d share some roadtrip highlights and the culinary efforts of Megan’s cohort. I suppose the lesson to be learned from all of this is that regardless of the amount of restaurants or shops I go to, I still measure my life in terms of the edible punctuation that pepper my days.

I usually take the bus when traveling, but my parents were generous enough to let me borrow the car for this trip north. Halfway up our portion of 95, hunger pangs called, and seeking to avoid Denny’s or McDonalds, we stumbled upon a local gem in Westbrook, CT — Cristy’s Family Restaurant.

2013-11-01 19.38.40

Living in Manhattan, it’s easy to forget that these kinds of places exist — the simple, American diner-style fare, kept alive by a steady stream of regulars. The restaurant was unassuming, with a small cafe area out front (featuring a new espresso/coffee counter), and the bar and dining room  to the right, adorned with dark wood and red pleather booths.

Old-fashioned aesthetic with a classic menu to boot.

Old-fashioned aesthetic with a classic menu to boot.

The menu featured your usual diner fare, from all-day breakfast to deli sandwiches and entrees of the hearty American meatloaf genre. But it was clear that Cristy’s is proud of their pancake-skills, with a fully separate menu touting 40 different varieties. We half-heartedly made an attempt at a healthy dinner by splitting a mushroom, avocado and cheddar omelet, but Jacob and I quickly decided that we needed to check these legendary pancakes out. On the recommendation of our waitress we ordered the seasonal Pumpkin-Apple pancake and the Banana Crunch pancake.

Our hefty omelet, literally smothered in a slice of cheese.

Our hefty omelet, literally smothered in a slice of cheese.

Our omelet was fairly standard, if nothing revelatory. The truth is that I’ll eat mushrooms and avocado under most circumstances, so I was perfectly satisfied. The only thing that was strange was the extra slice of American cheese the cook placed on top of the omelet. The cheese wasn’t of good enough quality (yes, I’m a cheese snob) to add anything to the dish except textural density. There was already cheese inside of the omelet, so the extraneous slice ended up just weighing the fluffy eggs down.

The Pumpkin-Apple Pancake -- pumpkin batter with a molten apple core.

The Pumpkin-Apple Pancake — pumpkin batter with a molten apple core.

The Banana Crunch pancake dwarfed Jacob's fist.

The Banana Crunch pancake dwarfed Jacob’s fist.

But enough chit-chat — let’s talk pancakes. When our plates arrived it was clear that these were not your average short stack. These bad boys were massive, nearly the size of a dinner plate and generously coated with powdered sugar. I was surprised by the construction of the Pumpkin-Apple, which was composed of a pumpkin batter and sliced apple filling. When ordering I had pictured a traditional pancake speckled with apple chunks and pockets of pumpkin puree, but this pancake was surprisingly apple-forward. I found that the pumpkin was very mild, almost lost among the sweetness of the apple interior. Perhaps if pumpkin puree had been incorporated into the filling as well as in the batter, it would have been more noticeable. Not to say I didn’t enjoy the dish — both pancakes were expertly cooked, without any burnt or overly dry spots. Between the two, I preferred the Banana Crunch, which was filled with sliced bananas and a (shockingly) crunchy granola. I really liked the interaction between the brown sugar of the granola and the banana, even if I had to admit I was basically having bananas foster masquerading as a breakfast food.

All told, our bill came to less than $15, another eye-opening shocker for NYC natives, and another strong reason for my recommendation. If you’re traveling through Connecticut on I-95, I’d definitely suggest foregoing the endless Dunkin Donuts and instead taking a walk in some Westbrookian shoes at Cristy’s. The staff was friendly, the prices were stellar, and the pancakes were out of this world.

Eventually we made it up to Providence, and Saturday morning Megan took me over to one of her new favorite brunch spots, Olga’s Cup and Saucer.

Inside Olga's, which has a bakery/coffee bar area as well as indoor and outdoor dining.

Inside Olga’s, which has a bakery/coffee bar area as well as indoor and outdoor dining.

Olga’s was absolutely adorable, the kind of brightly painted and happily staffed coffee bar and restaurant that you know is going to make for a good brunch experience. It actually reminded me a lot of Macrina Bakery in Seattle, with slightly more emphasis on a full restaurant menu. The weather was surprisingly mild and dry for Providence in the fall, so we scored a seat on the outdoor patio. Following Megan’s lead, I opted for the Tostada (which was a layered take on Huevos Rancheros, as far I could tell).

The Tostada at Olga's Cup and Saucer, a layered breakfast lasagna of tortilla, salsa and beans.

The Tostada at Olga’s Cup and Saucer, a layered breakfast lasagna of tortilla, eggs, salsa and beans.

The Tostada was composed of eggs, stewed black beans, and fresh pico de gallo layered between toasted tortillas, and came with breakfast sweet and normal potatoes. I asked for my eggs to be cooked over easy, and they arrived with yolks still soft and loose, spilling out and intermingling with the beans and juices from the salsa. The Tostada had all of the Latin flavors I love in Huevos Rancheros, with crispness from the shredded lettuce and a sprinkling of cilantro. I was also impressed by the dish Megan’s friend David ordered — Poached Eggs on Homemade Scallion-Cheddar Scones. The “scones” were basically biscuits, and the small taste I had made me regret not snagging some of the baked goods on display near the front door of Olga’s.

Finally got to have my Baingan Bhartha, after trying a new eggplant curry at Tamarind.

Finally got to have my Baingan Bhartha, after trying a new eggplant curry at Tamarind.

Garlic-onion Naan -- deadly for your breath, delightful for your stomach.

Garlic-onion Naan — deadly for your breath, delightful for your stomach.

We spent most of the weekend shuttling from Megan’s apartment to her friends’ around the corner, who happen to live above an Indian restaurant called Taste of India. It didn’t take much effort to convince me to have Indian for dinner on Saturday night, and I finally got to have the Baingan Bhartha that I was craving during my dinner at Tamarind. The food was pretty tasty, although I’ll admit that I’ve been slightly ruined by the experience I had at Tamarind. I think it’ll be a few more regular Indian meals before I forget how wonderful the curries and lamb chops were. However, the proprietors of Taste of India score points for taking care of their tenants — we got free vegetable pakoras for being part of the in-crowd (aka, for Megan’s friends paying rent on time).

The reason we were so centrally located for the weekend (aside from the ease of geography), was because Megan’s friend Justin was celebrating his birthday. His girlfriend Lauren had organized a game night on Saturday and breakfast brunch the next day, so the remaining food adventures of my trip are based around Justin’s apartment. First off, Megan and I baked a red velvet cake for the game night. Back in our halcyon college days, Megan and I had attempted to make a red velvet cake, which ended up measuring only about an inch in height (though it did taste quite good). Thankfully, our baking skills have come a ways since then, and Justin’s cake was significantly more respectable in dimension.

The naked red velvet cake.

The naked red velvet cake.

Festively frosted for Justin.

Festively frosted for Justin.

Along with organizing and cooking most of brunch, Lauren had also bought a number of craft beers to accompany our vigorous board-gaming (ain’t no birthday like a board game birthday). First up was the Brooklyn Brewery Silver Anniversary Lager, celebrating the brewery’s 25 years in business. I’m usually somewhat lukewarm on Brooklyn Brewery, but I actually really enjoyed this lager. My beer palate is fairly inexperienced, but I tasted some citrus notes, some woodsy hoppiness, and a little toasted quality.

Brooklyn Brewery Silver Anniversary lager.

Brooklyn Brewery Silver Anniversary lager.

Brunch on Sunday was pretty impressive, incorporating lots of bacon, eggs, french toast (with a berry compote and creme fraiche), fruit salad and the obligatory mimosas.

Damn, Lauren, way to bring the brunch.

Damn, Lauren, way to bring the brunch.

I manned the french toast station and succeeded in not burning the challah to pieces, but Lauren’s egg-bake was pretty much the highlight the meal, featuring eggs, bacon, peppers, onions, and a whole mess of cheese. To top it all off, she even got all the brunchees to wear plaid shirts in Justin’s honor (aka to make fun of him for his mono-patterned wardrobe of plaid and jeans).  By the end of the weekend, I had come to the conclusion that Lauren needs to plan everyone’s birthdays. Or at least just mine. Clearly Megan’s friends know how to do birthdays right.

It was a great roadtrip, slightly more homestyle than I initially anticipated, but I actually appreciated the break from the NY food scene. It was nice to cook a meal with friends, to try some out of the way spots, and visit Megan’s favorite local restaurants. I spend so much time running around New York trying to check off items on my endless lists, I found it really refreshing to have the sort of wake up call that there is some stellar food happening outside the Five Boroughs, from roadside diners to personal kitchens. It makes me want to bust out a map and take this show on the road on a national eating tour, but until I have the time and the money for that, I guess I’ll concentrate on the northern third of the I-95 corridor. After all, Jacob hasn’t been to Friendly’s yet, and what kind of sad excuse of a life is one without the beauty of Fribbles?

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Impressions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Food:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah's bonus lemon poppyseed muffin.

Sarah’s bonus lemon poppyseed muffin.

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

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

Final Thoughts:

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

Clinton Street Baking Co.

4 Clinton St (off E. Houston)

clintonstreetbaking.com/

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/