Restaurant Week at Spice Market: Eastern Quotidian by Highly Trained Hands

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I’ve always been fascinated by fusion restaurants. They take a big risk by combining disparate cuisines, since it’s pretty easy to end up simply highlighting the worst parts of your original food cultures. Fusion is also one of those trends that many argue has been overdone, nearly guaranteeing a raised eyebrow if not a full-on eye-roll when you mention the hottest new fusion spot — oh right, we really needed someone to mash together Ethiopian and Ecuadorian food. (Wait, does that exist?)

I know that poorly executed fusion restaurants are out there, but I’ve yet to encounter one that truly disappointed me. I spent a number of birthday dinners in high school at Ruby Foo’s in Times Square, marveling at their takes on Chinese food made with a quarter of the grease used by my local takeout place. I even liked the few times I went to Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, first in Tampa, and later in Philadelphia. I’d never had Hawaiian food before, and I thought the Asian twist (logical, I suppose, given the geography and cultural heritage of Hawaii) worked as a great entry point into Hawaiian ingredients and preparations. I’ve been eager to try more traditional Hawaiian food since then (maybe even spam fried rice?), so if anyone has a recommendation for a spot in New York, I’d be very grateful.

When Summer Restaurant Week 2013 rolled around, I already had my eye on visiting one of Jean Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants. The man is a legend in the New York and world food scene, and what’s the point of Restaurant Week if not to briefly make reachable to the plebeian masses the haute cuisine of the upper crust? However, part of what made my Winter Restaurant Week meal at Kutsher’s Tribeca so satisfying was the way they reinvented familiar dishes (reuben spring rolls, anyone?), so rather than pick the more conventional Nougatine, I thought Vongerichten’s Spice Market might prove a more thrilling culinary adventure. And lucky for Jacob, his cousin Carolyn, and I, our Restaurant Week supper there last Sunday was exactly that.

 

First Impressions:

The modest exterior of Spice Market belies its intricately designed interior.

The modest exterior of Spice Market belies its intricately designed interior.

Spice Market is located in the heart of the Meatpacking District, caddy-corner to the Gansevoort Hotel. Walking up to the restaurant, I realized I had passed it a number of times, but never connected the space with the name. This is in part because of how unassuming the outside of Spice Market is — it’s housed in one of those nondescript Meatpacking former warehouses, built mainly of brick and wrought iron.

I'm pretty sure every multilevel restaurant needs to add a tower at the top of their staircase.

I’m pretty sure every multilevel restaurant needs to add a tower at the top of their staircase.

The interior, however, is a completely different story. Inspired by his experiences traveling through Asia, the aim of Spice Market is to apply classical French cooking techniques to popular Asian street food. The decor focuses mainly on this Eastern influence, blurring the lines between chic temple, nightclub, and opium den. The space is dominated by dark wood, vaulted ceilings, and Asian architectural features, from the multilevel, narrow staircase topped by what appears to be a bell tower (actually holding a lamp inside), to the draping of dark red and orange curtains all around, to the intricate wood carving that encloses the bar. The staff is dressed head-to-toe in orange Buddhist-esque robes, except for the white-and-orange-decked busboys (and the general manager, who wore a suit). Asian lanterns lend a soft glow to everything (hence my fuzzy photos), but at the same time you have the familiar exposed ceilings and pulsing music, leaving behind a zen setting for the louder tenor of the NY dining scene.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

 

I was first to arrive, so I made my way over to the bar and ordered a cocktail. Spice Market has a full bar with domestic and Indian beers and a variety of speciality drinks, created using housemade syrups and sodas. After conferring with the bartender, I went with the Passion Fruit Sangria (Gewurztraminer, Gran Gala, Blackberry, Orange). Jacob and Carolyn arrived soon after, and chose the Whiskey Passion Fizz (George Dickel No. 12, Passion Fruit, Chili, Ginger Ale) and Cucumber Chill (Dill-infused Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Cucumber, Lemon), respectively. I found my sangria light and refreshing (I’m obviously an ardent fan of the drink in general — Calle Ocho, anyone?), the white wine laying a more delicate base, and the Gran Gala (an orange liquer) mixing smoothly with the fruit components. The passion fruit itself wasn’t particularly prominent, aside from lending an overall tropical flair. I’d recommend it as a great drink for brunch, if you’re in the mood for something fun and fruity.

My Passion Fruit Sangria on the right, and Jacob's Whiskey Passion Fizz on the left. You can see a small glimpse of our orange-bedecked bartender in the background.

My Passion Fruit Sangria on the right, and Jacob’s Whiskey Passion Fizz on the left. You can see a small glimpse of our orange-bedecked bartender in the background.

Jacob’s Whiskey Passion Fizz had more of a kick to it than I expected (both in spice and strength), but I enjoyed it despite a dislike of both ginger ale and whiskey. Carolyn’s was my least favorite drink, although she was happy she picked it. She said it tasted like a pickle, which immediately made me wary, but when I took a sip I found it lacked the harsh vinegar quality I dislike so much, coming off more like cucumber water with a bit of a kick, with no real flavor of vodka at all. But let’s stop dilly-dallying with discussions of alcohol — the main attraction awaits.

The Food:

We were seated shortly after our set reservation time, and in general the staff was fairly attentive. Our waiter was happy to answer any and all of our questions at first, but he only appeared a few times to take our orders and check in at the entree stage. However, I saw the general manager walking around multiple times throughout the evening, scanning the floor and checking with tables, even adjusting a place setting once to make sure everything was aligned and straight. The food itself came very quickly, served family-style so that at one point we were almost overwhelmed by the influx of dishes. I was also happy to note the frequent refilling of our water glasses, a pet peeve of mine that pettily can strongly influence my overall impression of a meal.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Our meal started with a complimentary bowl of pappadum-type lentil crackers. I found the pappadums at most Indian restaurants to be either too bland and soft, or too burnt and smoky, but these were a different breed altogether. They were like lentil tortilla chips, thicker and crunchier, and more capable of scooping up the hot tomato chutney they were served with.

Both Jacob and I opted for the Restaurant Week menu, but Carolyn was more interested in Spice Market’s regular offerings. At first I was concerned, since some restaurants make everyone at the table opt into the RW menu if any diner chooses it, but our waiter quickly confirmed that Carolyn was fine ordering a la carte.

Carolyn chose the Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings and the Spicy Thai Slaw to start, and then the Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu as her entree. Jacob selected the Salmon Sashimi, followed by the Kimchi Fried Rice, and I ordered the Spiced Shrimp Broth, followed by the Wok Charred Daikon Cake. We all split two of the Restaurant Week desserts: the Black Sesame Cake and the Malted Chocolate Parfait.

The Spicy Thai Slaw Salad: not so spicy, but a refreshing way to start a meal.

The Spicy Thai Slaw Salad: not so spicy, but a refreshing way to start a meal.

The appetizers came out in a steady stream, starting with Carolyn’s salad. The Spicy Thai Slaw (with Asian pear, crispy shallots, and mint) was one of my favorite dishes of the night. A refreshing shredded cabbage salad, it had just a hint of heat that was balanced by the coolness of the mint and the sweetness of the Asian pear (similar in flavor to a mild apple). The crunch of the cabbage and the crispy shallots kept it interesting texturally, although by the time you reached the bottom of the bowl the salad was a little soggy from all of the pooled dressing.

Spicy Thai Chicken Wings -- these aren't kidding on the spice, but they'll put up a good fight against Buffalo Wild Wings.

Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings — these aren’t kidding on the spice, and they’ll put up a good fight against Buffalo Wild Wings.

The Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings (with sliced mango and mint) lived up to their name a little more. I’ve never been into wings, so this dish didn’t impress me all that much, but even as an outsider observer I could tell that the breading was truly crispy, and the meat was very tender and juicy. Much like the inclusion of the mint in the salad, here it worked with the mango to cool down the heat of the wings, which I found a little too spicy for my liking. If you are a wings fan, I’d definitely recommend giving this dish a go — it was lightly fried so that the crust gave great texture without veering into the extremes of either too crunchy or mushily falling off the meat.

Although Jacob and I were attempting to experience the majority of the Restaurant Week menu by splitting the dishes, we both found ourselves drawn to appetizers the other wouldn’t like. We tried to find common ground in the other two appetizers, but the Mixed Green Salad and Beef Satay just couldn’t stand up against our respective love of salmon and shrimp. So we gave each other a pass on the starters, and in retrospect it was a strong strategic move.

The Salmon Sashimi, delicately layered and covered in a creamy sauce.

The Salmon Sashimi, delicately layered and covered in a creamy sauce.

Jacob seemed to really enjoy his Salmon Sashimi (with Golden Garlic and Lemon Soy), which arrived in small slivers drizzled with a creamy sauce. I tried a piece (I’m trying to get on the raw fish bandwagon, one leg at a time, folks), and like my Seattle salmon encounter, I could tell the the fish was of a very high quality, even if the flavor didn’t do much for me. The sauce reminded me of scallion cream cheese — perhaps a vaguely Japanese nod towards bagels and lox?

The Spiced Shrimp Broth -- this photo doesn't do the depth of flavor of this soup proper justice at all.

The Spiced Shrimp Broth — this photo doesn’t do the depth of flavor of this soup proper justice at all.

Now I could go on and on about my Spiced Shrimp Broth (with glass noodles and herbs). If you’re a fan of shellfish, this was a mindblowingly good preparation of it, and has stuck with me out of all the dishes at Spice Market, even several days later. Truth be told, after being in New England this weekend, and Seattle just a few weeks ago, I was prepared to come back down to earth from shellfish heaven and relearn to be satisfied with New York’s pretty solid fish scene. But as an eternal shrimp lover, I couldn’t overlook this appetizer once I spotted it. This soup is like a punch in the mouth of shrimp — pure, luscious, somehow achieving the kind of deep flavor you usually have in a dense bisque, though this broth was very light (and bright pink). The bowl contained mostly long strings of the glass noodles with small chunks of shrimp at the bottom, making me think of pho but with a seafood twist (is there some Thai or Vietnamese non-coconut soup that I don’t know about? Please let me know, I will order it always). On top of the broth floated leaves of cilantro and basil, adding an herbal brightness to the natural umami of the shrimp. I legitimately could have had a gallon of this soup and left a happy camper.

 

The simple components of the Kimchi Fried Rice: beef, rice, kimchi. Still a solid dish, though.

The simple components of the Kimchi Fried Rice: beef, rice, kimchi. Still a solid dish, though.

However, this was just the beginning — next up, our entrees. Jacob’s Kimchi Fried Rice with Korean Beef came out first. You can see from the photo that the dish was heavier on the rice aspect than the beef. I found this especially disappointing, because the Korean beef was melt-in-your-mouth good. The shortribs were presented in a small rectangle lightly dusted with sesame seeds atop the rice, the individual strands of meat visible to the naked eye. Sticking a fork in, little chunks flaked away beautifully, like long-braised brisket. I can understand the restraint given how rich the beef was, but when you come across well done shortribs, it’s just hard to stop and savor the flavors laminating your tongue. The rice was nicely chewy, and had a bit of the pop from sour kimchi. It was much more subtle a taste than I expected, given my previous experiences with heavily pickled kimchi. The dish worked as a whole, but it was much more muted overall than I had anticipated, especially considering the limited and straightforward components of rice, beef, and slices of kimchi.

 

Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu -- intriguing and new, if a little much for a full entree.

Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu — intriguing and new, if a little much for a full entree.

Carolyn’s Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu in Black Bean Sauce lingered with me a bit more. Carolyn and I agreed that the tofu had a deep, smoky taste, but Jacob thought the tofu was only mildly flavored. Although I think smoked food can be hit or miss, I liked that the kitchen had achieved a burnt flavor for the tofu without altering the texture too much — this wasn’t charred to a crisp, but still the soft squares of tofu you find in miso soup. The pearl noodles were thick like udon, but not quite as long, and were tender from soaking up the moisture from the black bean sauce. The sauce had a great earthy flavor, full of fermented beans and infused with soy, coming off as just slightly sweet. I enjoyed the small bites I had, but I wouldn’t order it for my main course. I think a full bowl of it would end up being too cloyingly sweet and decadent.

 

The Wok Charred Daikon Cake -- redefining the idea of "cake" and unexpectedly addictive.

The Wok Charred Daikon Cake — redefining the idea of “cake” and unexpectedly addictive.

Last, but certainly not least, was my Wok Charred Daikon Cake (with scallions and peanuts). I was on a roll with my menu selections, because this ended up being my second favorite dish of our dinner, sliding in right behind the Spiced Shrimp Broth. I wasn’t sure exactly would arrive when I read the words “daikon cake” on the menu, and our waiter unfortunately didn’t give clarity. Knowing that daikon is a radish, I had to wonder if it would be some sort of tower of slices? The bowl of food that eventually arrived at our table was far from any definition of cake I’ve ever heard of — it looked more like a curry with a thick sauce, cubed pieces of unbelievably soft radish, slices of red chiles, scallions, and whole peanuts. Digging a little deeper while writing this post, it seems like (at least from Google image search) daikon cake is usually made from radish cooked and compressed into a square or rectangle. Spice Market’s take seemed to then deconstruct that cake, chopping it up into chunks, and folding it into a stew of sauce and vegetables. This gave the daikon pieces an almost eggplant-like texture, soft and succulent. While the rest of the dish verged on smooth and squishy, the peanuts were moist but still crunchy, which kept the texture from being too monotonous. The Thai theme comes out again in this dish, which I found reminiscent of a Thai curry in terms of the deep, layered flavors, and inclusion of peanuts. Salty, sweet, with just a tiny kick from the chile peppers, I just kept ladling more and more onto my plate.

I know this must sound highly suspicious coming from me, but dessert was kinda an afterthought for our dinner. After the stream of new exotic flavor pairings that had steamrolled across my tastebuds, I found our two desserts perfectly adequate, but far from showstoppers. I felt that the Black Sesame Cake (with green tea mousse and yuzu) was the lesser of the two dishes. Truth be told, I’ve had sesame desserts before — ice cream flavors and other versions of cakes, and I’ve never really gotten the appeal. I like sesame in savory dishes, but as a card-carrying chocoholic, it’s just never been sweet enough for me in a dessert setting.

 

The Black Sesame Cake -- with tasty shards of sesame brittle.

The Black Sesame Cake — with tasty squares of sesame brittle.

The cake arrived in a small bowl, a deep green square seated upon the green tea mousse, and topped with yuzu ice cream, shards of sesame brittle, and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds. The cake itself was a little dry, but the mousse and the yuzu ice cream added brighter flavors and a bit of moisture. Overall it just read too savory to me — I know green tea is not an unusual flavoring for Asian desserts, but I really only think of it in the context of a beverage, and while the citrusy taste of the yuzu was pleasing, I’m arbitrarily picky about fruit-based desserts.

 

The Malted Chocolate Parfait -- a delicious, if oddly American dessert.
The Malted Chocolate Parfait — a delicious, if oddly American dessert.

The Malted Chocolate Parfait (with caramel crumble and summer berries) was much more in my wheelhouse, and so it’s no surprise that I dug right into it. The malted chocolate came in the form of a mousse as the bottom layer of the parfait, topped with blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries, then the “caramel crumble” (basically a streusel topping), and finally vanilla ice cream and chocolate crunchies. I didn’t get much of a malted flavor, but as I’m not a fan of Whoppers, I wasn’t complaining. It was served in a small bowl, and I appreciated the modest portion size. Combined with the lightness of the mousse and ice cream, it was a good way to end the meal, with pure, fresh-tasting ingredients that didn’t weigh you down. After the variety of Asian-influenced dishes of the night, it was a little odd how All-American this seemed, from the fresh berries to the crumble. Overall the dessert was comforting, and I was glad I had it to contrast against the more exotic black sesame cake.

 

Final Thoughts:

My Restaurant Week trip to Spice Market was a fantastic dinner that had me trying new flavors, while still enjoying some well-executed combos I was familiar with. It’s a great bang-for-your-buck spot for Restaurant Week, since the menu doesn’t skimp on portions, and offers both dishes that appear on the regular menu, as well some RW exclusives. And when you take into account the caliber of the chef behind Spice Market, it’s pretty affordable in general (they offer a $25 lunch “bento box” prix fixe, and the tasting menu at dinner is only $48). I’m eager to go back and dive into the menu a bit more, since there were plenty of dishes that appealed to me, across all the categories, from appetizers to dessert (Ovaltine Kulfi — what is that, and can I eat it now?).

All in all, Spice Market gets a strong recommendation from me for good service, a trendy and fun vibe, and for offering genre-bending dishes that challenge more staid palates without pushing too far into exotic ingredients or spice levels. To me, that’s one of the best goals for fusion restaurants — to offer a smooth entryway for diners into new flavor combinations and cuisines through more well-known techniques. At Spice Market, Jean Georges gently coaxes his diners to step through those orange curtains and sample some street food from worlds beyond the NY dirty-water dogs and a bag from Nuts-4-Nuts. Sure, you’re missing the hustle and bustle of humanity from the markets of Asia, but maybe if Jean Georges does his job right, you’ll want to pay a visit someday and see just what inspired him in the first place.

 

Spice Market

403 W 13th St

New York, NY 10014

spicemarketnewyork.com

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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/

Giving Thanks for the Fruit of the Vine (and the Ground) — Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 2

Disclaimer: The following post deals entirely with fresh produce. There is no mention of dessert, chocolate, or alcohol. I know this is shocking considering my weaknesses and passions, but dear God if they had fruit and vegetables like this in America you’d see a lot more food blogs spazzing over tomatoes. Anyway, on to the good stuff.

One of my favorite activities on my Birthright trip had very little to do with the political or historical issues of Israel and Judaism. Just before we headed out into the desert for our Bedouin experience (including an all too short camel ride), our group was taken to Shvil Hasalat, or The Salad Trail, an educational farm and greenhouse facility in the Northern Negev. According to the website, The Salad Trail is owned by agronomist (awesome job title) Uri Alon, although we were led by a different guide (of Australian or South African origin — I hate that I can’t tell those two accents apart).

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We started the tour a few miles outside of the facility, where we were introduced to The Salad Trail’s resident homing pigeons. Our guide explained that in the early days of the Israeli Defense Force, the army would use homing pigeons to deliver messages. A few people volunteered to write messages and we released a few of the pigeons. Homing pigeons always return to the place they were born, which in this case was the farm, so by the end of the tour they had returned our messages to us (Well, 2 out of 3 at least. Hopefully the last pigeon made it home eventually).

Prepping a pigeon to carry a message home.

Prepping a pigeon to carry a message home.

We then jumped on the bus to head to the greenhouses and fields of The Salad Trail. After saying hello to the homing pigeon home base, and meeting a sizable tortoise, we were ushered into the first greenhouse, where hundreds of fresh strawberries hung suspended a few feet in the air. Our guide explained how these “flying strawberries” were easier to pick, and avoided rot because of being hung in the air. They were, of course, organic, and pesticide free, although a specific type of insect was introduced to the strawberry greenhouse to prevent other bugs from chowing down. Not us, though — our guide passed around a basket of freshly picked strawberries, and when I bit into one I was actually floored by the flavor. These strawberries were much smaller than the monsters you can find in your average produce section, but their flavor was much stronger and sweeter. They lacked the diluted, watery taste of supermarket berries, and suddenly I understood why some people just enjoy a fruit salad for dessert. With this kind of freshness, I would find it plenty sweet enough as well.

Lighter-than-air strawberries.

Lighter-than-air strawberries.

Next stop was the tomato greenhouse, where the guide outlined the numerous varieties of tomatoes they grow (mostly smaller cherry and grape varieties). As someone who routinely keeps a pint of grape tomatoes in her fridge for snacking, I was in heaven. I tried to look up the names of some of the tomatoes we tasted, but it turns out there’s a vast catalogue of tomato varieties on the Internet, so unfortunately I think those details are lost to the ages. I do remember that my favorite of the samples came to a point at the bottom, so any intrepid researchers or tomato-know-it-alls are welcome to chime in with the answer. Anyway, it was in this greenhouse that we first got to put our grubby mitts all over the merchandise and actually pick the samples off the vine. It was a little surreal to not have to worry about washing my produce — I just plucked it off, brushed off a little fuzz, and popped it in my mouth. The contrast in both taste and experience between my Key Foods tomatoes and the fresh ones off The Salad Trail was pretty staggering. It really makes you take a step back and recognize how far humanity has come from basic agriculture.

Tomatoes on the vine -- oh man, it's Passover and I want pizza BAD.

Tomatoes on the vine — oh man, it’s Passover and I want pizza BAD.

I somehow managed to restrain myself from eating the entire stock of tomatoes and moved on with the group to a greenhouse full of edible herbs. Our guide chose a couple of volunteers for a blind taste test, and they did pretty well — until he gave my friend Dave the natural equivalent of Viagra. I didn’t ask Dave how that fared later on that day, but I think he succeeded in maintaining his composure, so the potency of this plant may not be at “little blue pill” level. We then milled around, trying different assorted herbs like basils, parselys, mints, and even lettuces.

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Chives, anyone?

My favorite farming (gathering? harvesting?) moments came when we finally headed outside again. We first went into a field of carrots, and were told to have at it. Cue many, many Bugs Bunny references. I pulled up a purple carrot by the roots (yes, this time I did wash it, only because I wasn’t super interested in eating Israeli desert dirt. However, maybe it would have been delicious, considering the rest of The Salad Trail offerings). Again, carrots are a favorite veggie of mine, so I was happy to chow down. I picked a pretty reasonably sized carrot, but some people ended up with carrots the size of cantaloupes. I found the purple carrot to be a bit milder in flavor than the common orange, although obviously it was incredibly fresh, since I literally pulled it straight from the ground. According to the Internet, however, purple carrots are usually sweeter than orange carrots, so maybe mine wasn’t fully ripened yet.

When you first pull it out of the ground, you really have no idea what color the carrot is.

When you first pull it out of the ground, you really have no idea what color the carrot is. You can see how bright purple it was from the very tip.

After a citrus detour (clementines and tangerines) where we rested our picking hands, we were told to jump into a maze of passion fruit plants. I’ve seen my fair share of passion fruit flavored sorbets and yogurt packages, but to be honest I had no idea what a passion fruit actually looked like. We were instructed to only take the black fruit — the green would be unripe, and therefore hard to bite and gross to eat. After some panicked searching because we had already been told we were running out of time for our tour, I managed to spot a mostly black, egg-shaped fruit hiding high in the vines at the back of the maze. It was a little larger than the size of my palm, with a smooth, thick skin that resisted the attempts of my fingers to peel it. Our guide shouted to the rest of the group to just bite into it, so I channeled Evangeline Lily and chomped down on that mofo (Yes, that was a Lost reference. Way to reference a show that went off the air in 2010). Once I cracked the skin I was able to tear open the rest of the fruit to reveal the goopy innards and seeds. Employing my Girl Scout/cave woman foraging skills, I used the torn top of the fruit as a scoop and had my first taste of passion fruit. It was overwhelmingly sweet and syrupy, ending with a sharp note of tartness. I’ve since tried both passion fruit sorbet and greek yogurt, and I think I like it best when mixed with a creamier base to balance the powerful sweet and tart flavors.

The passion fruit maze.

The passion fruit maze.

Biting into that passion fruit was an amazing moment of primitive triumph, and a perfect example of something that I would never have done on my own. Unlike visiting the shuks, which I could and will do whenever I return to Israel, without Birthright I would have never known about The Salad Trail. It highlighted the achievements of Israel without hitting you over the head with the message (look, Zionists transformed this desert land into an arable place), and it was as much about the past of Israel as its future, economically and culturally. Plus, it serves as a wonderful metaphor for self-discovery — taking the initiative to try something new and fresh, and making that experience happen on your own. Although I suppose my metaphor would collapse a bit if I was shorter and had needed someone to pick the passion fruit for me. Regardless, it was personally significant to me as a physical symbol of the growth and renewal I experienced on the trip.

My small symbol of victory.

My small symbol of victory.

And if I could have had some of the items I tried at The Salad Trail on the breakfast buffets, I might have partaken in more traditional Israeli breakfasts. Because, let’s be serious, this all really comes down to me and my need for a proper meal.

Oh, and don’t you worry, my last  post about Israel deals with all the expected fare — shawarma, falafel, ice cream and more. We’ll be back to talking about grease and milk fat before you know it.

The Salad Trail

http://www.salat4u.co.il/?t=PV&L1=8