Edible Inquiries: Whence Pita?

Pita: Irresistible, but oh so mysterious...

Pita: Irresistible, but oh so mysterious…

I have a pita problem. It’s much like my knee-jerk naan consumption, in that when faced with fluffy, expertly baked circles of pita bread, well, they somehow end up in my mouth without any conscious thinking on my part. Fortunately, at Indian restaurants naan is usually a separate side order where you get charged for refills, so I can usually rely on the whimpering of my wallet to override my innate carb codependence. But most Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants I’ve been to will happily furnish you with an endless supply of pita to scoop up mezze or load your shawarma into, leaving me overjoyed if somewhat ashamed of the flatbread devastation I leave in my wake.

Considering this intimate relationship, I couldn’t help but tackle the question Jacob posed to me on the eve of his trip to the Middle East — “where exactly does pita come from?” After all, you can find variations of the bread in Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Greece and many other countries across Southern Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa. It seems almost as ubiquitous as rice, so it must have deep roots worthy of a little Edible Inquiries Internet digging. To the Google!

 

Our look-back at pita has to start with flatbreads, generally considered the earliest type of bread product made, dating back to the Amorite-era Damascus of 2000 BCE  (Princeton). In fact, some of the earliest examples of food in the world were flatbreads discovered in tombs and archaeological sites (WiseGeek). This makes sense when you think about the nomadic and/or fuel-scarce environments of the earliest cultures, where dough could be stretched out on a hot stone to bake.

Now as for pita specifically, there’s a bit of contention on its exact origin. Some sources claim that pita is the Western term for the Arabic word “khubz” meaning “ordinary bread” (Princeton), and therefore pita’s roots lie in ancient Syria (WikiAnswers). In fact, pita was initially referred to as “Syrian bread” in the US before the name “pita bread” became more common (Backwoods Home).

Others argue that pita originated in Greece and subsequently spread throughout the Middle East  (Ask.com), eventually spreading as far as Western Europe and Asia to become the progenitors of pizza and pancakes (Abigail’s Bakery). The actual word “pita” does come from Greek, and means “pie or cake” (Princeton). It’s “probably derived from the Ancient Greek pēktos (πηκτός), meaning “solid” or “clotted” (Wikipedia), and came into use after the older word for cake — “plakous,” came to refer to a thicker product (Abigail’s Bakery). “Pita” was used to differentiate between the heftier plakous and the thin flatbreads used in so many dishes.

At least for Greek pita, there are two types — a thin “pocket bread” and a thicker “gyro bread” (Abigail’s). The thin variety is the pita pocket kind we’ve all seen vendors stuff falafel into, or even picked up in the bread aisle of the grocery store (my own personal encounters with pita began with these guys — http://www.fooducate.com/app#page=product&id=09E41E8E-E10C-11DF-A102-FEFD45A4D471). The pocket is achieved through the baking process, where the dough is baked over a flame on a convex surface, so the high heat causes the dough to inflate as it cooks, and then deflate as it cools, creating an air pocket in the middle. The thicker, single layer Greek style of pita is the kind you see used for gyros, kebabs, or souvlaki (which shows up in Turkish food as well). To add to the confusion, in Greece the word “pita” can also be used for sweet and savory pies, so you see words like spanikopita (spinach pie) or kreatopita (meat pie). But for most of the world, pita refers to the “slightly leavened wheat bread, flat, either round or oval, and variable in size” (Wikipedia).

Some prime examples of the "pie" type of Greek pita.

Some prime examples of the “pie” type of Greek pita.

Unlike the site-specifically-named Quiche Lorraine, pita’s history goes back so far that placing a pin on the map for its origins is almost impossible. What really separates Greek pita from pide, its Turkish brother, or even roti, its Indian cousin? Regardless of the coordinates of its birthplace, what makes pita remarkable is the way it has truly become a global food, rising from those humble beginnings baked in ancient hearths to the shelf of your local 7/11 in endless flavors of pita chips.

 

Cut to the Chase, Lady!: Though disputed by some, pita is largely thought to have originated in Greece, and then spread throughout the Middle East, and the world. As a type of flatbread, pita’s roots go even farther back, to the dawn of civilization. And you just thought it was a marketing gimmick to get you to eat more hummus.

Like what you read? Got a question about cooking, dining, food or history? Comment, post or tweet and let me know your thoughts, and I’ll tackle it in another round of Edible Inquiries!

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pita

http://www.ask.com/question/what-country-did-pita-bread-originate-from

http://www.abigailsbakery.com/bread-recipes/where-pitta-bread-comes-from.htm

https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Pita.html

http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-pita-bread.htm

http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-flatbread.htm

http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodbreads.html

http://agexted.cas.psu.edu/FCS/4hfl/BreadCultures.html

http://www.backwoodshome.com/articles2/salloum135.html

 

 

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Brunch at Etta’s: Come for the Seafood, Stay for the Pie

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Back when I lived in Philadelphia during college, long before I had any idea what a restaurateur was, or that there could be such a thing as a restaurant empire, I knew the name Stephen Starr. I heard locals and upperclassmen talking about his numerous restaurants in Philly, covering cuisines from France (with a personal fave, Parc) to Japan (Pod), Cuba (Alma de Cuba), America (Jones) and beyond. In my four years, I managed to go to a few of his restaurants, but I knew plenty of people who made it a mission to hit the whole list. Since I graduated, Starr’s reach has expanded even further, with new restaurants in Philly, New York, DC, and even a couple in Florida.

The point is this — locally, Starr was a brand name in Philadelphia, and simply mentioning his ownership of a restaurant usually was enough to indicate it was worth trying (even if some were more successful than others). When researching restaurants in Seattle prior to my first trip, I kept coming up against another name that reminded me of Stephen Starr and his local reputation — Tom Douglas. (You could argue that a better model might be Mario Batali, since Douglas started as a chef, but I call nitpicking.)

Douglas owns 10 restaurants in Seattle, most of which are located downtown. According to our waitress, Douglas has received offers to open spots in other cities, but he always jokes that he likes to walk to work. He’s received the James Beard award for Northwest Chef in 1994, written several successful cookbooks, and started lines of spice rubs and soups (apparently sold at Costco).   I’d been hoping to try out one of his establishments my first trip out, but Dan had plenty of food suggestions before we even got to big name brands. Thankfully, we managed to sneak in a brunch at Douglas’s seafood restaurant near Pike Place Market, Etta’s.

 

First Impressions:

A peek into Etta's laid-back, approachable interior.

A peek into Etta’s laid-back, neighborly interior.

Etta’s was the second restaurant opened by Tom Douglas, after his inaugural foray, the Dahlia Lounge (located only a few blocks away). Etta’s immediately gives off a hip, casual tone through its combination of open, comfortable leather booths, warm woods, and beautiful, multicolored glass light fixtures hung throughout the restaurant. The space is split into two dining areas, one side holding the bar with larger booths, and the other filled with mostly tables. Pieces of art line the bright red walls, from portraits to scenes of Pike Place and other Seattle spots. Up by the entrance rests a small stack of Douglas’s cookbooks, and a selection of his “Rubs with Love,” which are for sale at the restaurant, or just next door at the Rub Shack takeout counter.

Note the rainbow of light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

Note the rainbow of light fixtures hanging from the ceiling.

When I made the reservation the night before, the host had asked if we would mind throwing a chair at the end of a booth to fit everyone, but fortunately when we arrived they had a larger table ready for us. The service was speedy, and our waitress was very kind and happy to answer our myriad questions about the menu and the Douglas mini-empire.

Brightly colored walls and local art help promote a relaxed atmosphere near the bustle of Pike Place.

Brightly colored walls and local art help promote a relaxed atmosphere near the bustle of Pike Place.

 

The Food:

Although it features classic comfort food dishes, like corned beef hash and cinnamon french toast, Etta’s focus is seafood — no surprise with it sitting so close to the bay and Pike Place Market. With this in mind, both of my parents and Dan opted for the Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict. Leah and I went more land-based: she ordered the Etta’s Breakfast, and I gave into my well-established weakness for Mexican brunch with the Chorizo and Egg Tostadas. And of course, there was dessert. We all shared a piece of the famous Triple Coconut Cream Pie, world-renowned and sold at all of Douglas’s restaurants.

The Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict -- when eggs aren't decadent enough, add some shredded crab meat.

The Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict — when eggs aren’t decadent enough, add some shredded crab meat (and hollandaise, of course).

The Dungeness Crab Eggs Benedict (house english muffin, spinach, crab-butter hollandaise) arrived simply plated and generously doused in hollandaise sauce. The english muffin, along with the rest of the baked goods offered at Etta’s, is sourced from Dahlia Bakery, the takeout offshoot of Dahlia Lounge (Douglas’s reach is far and wide), and you could tell this muffin was freshly made. The bread was plump and chewy, with a crunchy toasted top that held up well against the slathered crab-butter hollandaise. Thick shreds of crab meat poked out from under the egg, and while my mother thought the dungeness lacked flavor, my father and Dan seemed to really like it. For what it’s worth, the small bite I had seemed relatively crab-forward. All three agreed the eggs were well-executed, although I thought the ones on my mother’s plate were a little overdone and lacked my preferred level of yolk runniness.

Leah also seemed to enjoy the eggs in her Etta’s Breakfast (two eggs, ham, steak or bacon, home fries), which she got over medium. Now here there seemed to be some very loose yolks on display. Obviously, as a vegetarian, she opted out of the ham/steak/bacon option, getting a side a fruit instead. The only slip-up at Etta’s came from the homefries. Dan, of exceptionally sensitive palate, immediately detected that the potatoes had been fried in bacon-fat, which we confirmed with our waitress (though it doesn’t say this on the brunch plates descriptions, it is specified on the list of a la carte sides). The waitress was very apologetic, offering to bring Leah more fruit or bread. We all agreed it probably would have been best to comp us Leah’s dish (or the dessert) to make up for the mistake (since Leah was clearly going for a vegetarian option), but at least the staff at Etta’s admitted the error and was properly apologetic. As it happens, the potatoes were pretty tasty, cubed relatively small and with a snappy outer crust and starchy, soft interior.

The Chorizo and Egg Tostadas, one of my favorite dishes of my whole Seattle visit.

The Chorizo and Egg Tostadas, one of my favorite dishes of my whole Seattle visit.

I was a little nervous about foregoing the seafood option at a fish-centric restaurant, but my Chorizo and Egg Tostadas (gabino’s guacamole, roasted tomatillo salsa, cotija) sent me over the moon. I had been tempted by the shrimp and grits, but our waitress steered me to the tostada, explaining her love of the dish, and revealing that it was a much improved reworking of the previously lackluster Huevos Rancheros. Unlike the other brunch items, my dish arrived in a shallow oval bowl, inside of which were two 6-inch fried tortillas, sitting on a layer of mashed black beans, and topped with a scrambled egg/chorizo mix, shredded lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, cotija cheese, and a few sprigs of cilantro. I can’t go on enough about the one-two punch of flavor and textural contrast in this dish — the earthy black beans, the spicy chorizo bolstered by the creamy scrambled eggs, the refreshing lettuce and guacamole, the salt of the cotija and the crunch of the tortilla, it was just a savory, satisfying combination of the best of breakfast and lunch tastes. Boldly spiced and filling, it was an ample portion that stayed with me for the rest of the afternoon (well, the pie helped, too).

Triple Coconut Cream Pie: Say hello to the coconut king.

Triple Coconut Cream Pie: Say hello to the coconut king.

Speaking of, the Triple Coconut Cream Pie (with shaved white chocolate) definitely lived up to its reputation. This was a dessert I had read about on CakeSpy, had seen highlighted on Chase Sapphire commercials featuring the Top Chef Seattle winner, and had discovered endless rave reviews on Yelp and the Internet at-large. My mother and I had actually considered making it for our Jews-do-Christmas-Eve dinner (in fact, we ended up making Pecan Praline Bread Pudding, since the pie at Etta’s was too good to be topped). Now the triple aspect comes from the infusion of coconut throughout each structural element of the pie — there’s coconut in the crust, the pastry cream is half coconut and half cow’s milk, and the topping is coconut whipped cream (along with curls of shaved white chocolate and toasted coconut). As I mentioned before, this item is served at every Tom Douglas restaurant, and once you dig in, it’s clear why. If you’re a fan of coconut, this pie is manna from heaven. You can’t escape the flavor, and the pie itself is just a testament to the craft — a sweet, buttery crust that stands up against the filling, thick, decadent pastry cream strongly tasting of vanilla and coconut and perfectly eggy and custardy, leading you into the fresh whipped cream and the sweetness of the white chocolate. The toasted coconut gives the barest break from the sugar, and is the cherry on top of a beautifully composed dessert, from the delicately piped whipped cream to the stiff custard that clings to your fork like a great pudding. Yup, I bought the hype, I drank the Kool-aid, and where on Earth can I get a slice of this coconut nirvana on the East Coast?

 

Final Thoughts:

They even offer complimentary Swedish Fish at the front -- how can you beat that?

They even offer complimentary Swedish Fish at the front — how can you beat that?

I would definitely recommend a trip to Etta’s the next time you’re in Seattle. Not only does it offer a sampling of the Tom Douglas oeuvre, but you end up in a great location and get a satisfying meal to boot. My only gripe would be the mix-up that occurred with Leah’s dish, which could be easily remedied in the future with a few edits to the menu’s descriptions. I’m hoping I’ll get to try out some more Douglas ventures on my next visits — I’ve heard wonderful things about the Brave Horse Tavern, and Serious Pie (you know I have to see how Seattle pizza compares to NY dough). While Stephen Starr expands his gastronomic galaxy across the East Coast, I think it’s admirable you can’t separate Tom Douglas from Seattle. It makes me feel like I’m getting a taste of the city from a man who truly loves where he lives. I’m sure it’s just as much of a tourist-bid as the stalls in Pike Place, but for an out-of-towner just getting her bearings, I’ll buy into it, hook, line and sinker. Plus, the man just makes a damn fine piece of pie.

 

Etta’s

2020 Western Avenue

Seattle, WA 98121

http://tomdouglas.com/index.php?page=ettas

Brief Bites: Bantam Bagels

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I’ll just come out and say it: I’m a bagel snob. I don’t think I ate a Thomas’ Bagel until I was in college, and was stunned at the measly, barely-risen dough that sat comfortably in the palm of my hand. Where were the yeasty, chewy hulks of carbohydrates of my youth? The lump of cinnamon raisin dough with a solid schmear of cream cheese my father had so lovingly quartered and wrapped up for my lunches? Those staples of the kiddush luncheons after Sunday school, mini bagels piled high and awaiting the tiny, grape juice-stained hands of ravenous pre-bar-mitzvot?

What I’m saying is, I’ve got high standards when it comes to bagels. However, as explored before, I have a serious weakness for food innovation, especially those involving miniaturization and fusion. So when I read that the folks at Bantam Bagels were taking the jelly-filled munchkin approach to bagel dough, I knew I’d have to check them out in person.

The Set Up:

Bantam Bagels is a relative newcomer to the single-dish segment of the New York food scene (this is the city, after all, that has stores solely dedicated to Rice Krispy treats, meatballs, mac & cheese, and rice pudding). The shop is located on Bleecker Street, just down the block from Murray’s Cheese Bar, and the similarly unilaterally-focused Risotteria. It’s an area that has always brimmed with restaurant and bar options, but as of late seems to be undergoing a bit of a real estate revival, with Bantam, London Candy Company, and Sugar and Plumm all opening within a few weeks of each other. It’s understandable, given all the foot traffic that moves through there, from tourists checking out the Greenwich/West Village neighborhoods to students and NY natives popping into venues like the Peculier Pub or Le Poisson Rouge for shows and specials.

Considering their petite product, perhaps the store is actually appropriately sized.

Considering their petite product, perhaps the store is actually appropriately sized.

However, access to such prime levels of foot traffic may come at a cost. Unlike the relatively luxurious cafe space of Wafels & Dinges, Bantam Bagels is a purely take-away operation, the retail area of the shop barely holding the small line of people in front of us as we entered. Peering back beyond the counter, it’s clear that the bulk of the space is taken up by the kitchen, with room up front for only a small cooler for drinks, shelves for display bantams, and a counter by the window if you want to eat standing inside. The small shop is decked out in the red and black motif of the Bantam Bagels logo, the only real decoration coming from the branded merchandise placed high above the server on the right hand side of the store. Bantam’s only a few weeks old, having opened in early September, so they may still be developing their aesthetic beyond their menu items.

The Bites:

What Bantam lacks in space, it makes up for in variety -- myriad mini bagel balls on display.

What Bantam lacks in space, it makes up for in variety — myriad mini bagel balls on display.

The idea behind Bantam Bagels is to miniaturize and invert the traditional bagel-spread structure. As donut holes are to the donut, bantams are to the classical bagel. The balls are made of different types of dough and stuffed with a variety of corresponding fillings, from the familiar Plain Bantam (“plain bagel filled with plain cream cheese, butter, or peanut butter”) to the more experimental Summerberry Shortcake (“freshly picked blueberry bagel filled with sweet strawberry cream cheese”). A single bantam  will run you $1.35, but it’s a better deal to sample a variety of flavors by getting one of the exponentially larger orders of 3, 6, or 12 (they go up to an order of 40 bantams before you get into catering territory, but small as they are, even a diehard bagel-eater might struggle to house 40 of these guys).

Even more flavors -- bit of a bagel bonanza!

Even more flavors — just imagine taking 40 of these bad boys down.

Laura was gracious enough to be my intrepid companion for the day, so we decided to split an order of 12, attempting to run the gamut of savory and sweet. We ended up ordering the “Bantam of the Month,” which for September was The Bleecker Street, as well as the Everything Bantam, the Grandma Jojo, the Hot Pretzel, the French Toast, and the Boxed Lunch.

Our order neatly packaged and ready to be torn into.

Our order, neatly packaged and ready to be torn into.

As an evolution of the medium, Bantam Bagels does succeed in evoking the texture of a classic NY bagel. The small size (roughly the same as Dunkin Donuts munchkin) allows for even baking, creating a crisp crust that gives way to the chewy dough center. Although both Laura and I had expected the bantams to be slightly larger, closer to the Doughseed at Doughnut Plant, we agreed that the proportion of dough to filling was perfect, preventing the unfortunate cream-cheese with a side of bagel over-schmearing you occasionally receive from unmotivated deli staff. I would say the bantams are optimally two-bite treats, in order to properly savor the interplay of filling and dough.

As we paid for our box, the cashier cautioned that we should bite into the bantam at the spot where the small dollop of filling pokes through, so as to prevent the ball from collapsing and spilling filling all over you. Laura and I managed to get through our order without any major spread situations, however, the Bantam employee neglected to mention the danger of the powdered sugar on the French Toast bantam, which ended up coating every piece of our clothing that it touched.

Breakdown by bantam -- duos starting from top left: Everything, Boxed Lunch, French Toast, Grandma Jojo, Hot Pretzel, and the Bleecker Street.

Breakdown by bantam — duos starting from top left: Everything, Boxed Lunch, French Toast, Grandma Jojo, Hot Pretzel, and the Bleecker Street.

Speaking of which, let’s dive into our Bantam selection. The French Toast (“cinnamon-nutmeg egg bagel filled with buttery maple syrup cream cheese”) was overpowered by the sweetness of the spread and the large amount of powdered sugar. The spices of the bagel dough were lost amongst the stronger flavors of the filling, and both Laura and I agreed it lacked the eggy-moistness that typifies real french toast.

The Everything Bantam (“everything bagel filled with plain cream cheese”) was solid, if predictable. If you’re unsure of Bantam’s take on the bagel physiognomy, try this out to get a good sense of the spread-to-bagel proportions. Bantam has a good, springy dough, a well-measured portion of spices to evoke the “everything bagel” taste, and your familiar type of Philadelphia cream cheese.

As a hardcore fan of both peanut butter and jam-filled things, Laura had been very excited to get the Boxed Lunch (“plain bagel topped with crushed, roasted peanuts and filled with peanut butter and sweet strawberry jam”). I was also very intrigued by this particular bantam, since it veered the closest to dessert of our order. Unfortunately, the reality of the Boxed Lunch could not meet our lofty expectations. The peanut topping didn’t provide much of a textural contrast, and like the French Toast bantam, the plain bagel exterior was no match for the sugary insides. Laura and I felt like we’d just be better off getting a plain PB&J on sliced bread, since the bagel aspect added no real discernible advantage.

Ultimately, both Laura and I agreed that the more savory bantams were more successful. We appreciated the simplicity of the Hot Pretzel (“pretzel bagel topped with sea salt crystals, filled with dijon and sharp cheddar cream cheese”), which nailed the snappy outer layer of a soft pretzel and had a filling that reminded me of the beer cheese dip that accompanied our monster pretzel at Reichenbach. The Bleecker Street (“pizza dough bagel topped with a thin slice of pepperoni and filled with marinara mozzarella cream cheese”) was a little more divisive, although the issue was more with my personal dislike of pepperoni than the bantam’s flavor profile.

I can’t say I tasted much of a difference in the bagel dough between the Bleecker and the Grandma Jojo (“Italian spiced bagel topped with a thinly sliced, marinated tomato and filled with fresh basil pesto cream cheese”), but the pesto-tomato combination made this bantam the winner of the bunch. Both the Bleecker and the Grandma Jojo summoned up some solid nostalgic longings for pizza bagels, and stood apart from their bagel roots in the best way. Their fillings had the base richness of cream cheese that was subtly highlighted by herbs and spices, and worked harmoniously alongside the dough and toppings.

The Last Licks:

While Laura and I were a bit disappointed with the sweeter half of our Bantam Bagels order, overall I think the concept has some merit. It really depends on your expectations going in — if you’re looking to experiment and try some wacky takes on bagel flavor combinations, be bold and go for the oddball bantams like the olive-and-feta infused Athena or the Cookies and Milk. It was fun to take a leap, and I thought the bantams stretching furthest from the flavor norm were the most memorable. I’m hoping that they’ll continue to explore some of the more exotic culinary strains — I’ll come back to Bantam if they go into Indian or East Asian territories, or maybe some south of the border flair. For the moment, however, I think I’ll stick to buying full-size bagels at my usual bakery. Bantam Bagels should be commended for finding a way to make a NY mainstay into something new, but for this native they need to push the envelope more to move from a novelty to a necessity.

Bantam Bagels

283 Bleecker Street (between Jones St and 7th Ave South)

http://www.bantambagels.com

From Nostalgia to Next Steps: Vivoli Il Gelato at Macy’s Herald Square

One of the themes I hope I’ve expressed over the course of this blog is my personal belief in the value of context when it comes to food. While certain dishes can linger in your mind due to their astonishing flavor profile, more often than not, the nostalgia we feel towards a certain meal derives from our memories of the occasion — the company, the conversation, etc. Recent scientific studies have shown that context affects the experience of eating on the most basic levels, from the type of dish you use to the material of your utensils. The steak I had at Peter Luger was certainly outstanding, but what made that night so fun was the anticipatory glee of my friends, the quirky service, and the halo of legendary status that enshrouded the restaurant.

Context has everything to do with my memories of eating and drinking in Rome. After 3 months of living in increasingly damp and chilly Glasgow, I scheduled a weekend trip to Rome in the last few weeks of my semester abroad. By that point the Scottish winter was definitely settling in, with freezing rain and snow soaking through my inappropriately American sneakers and bestowing a malevolent and interminable frizz upon my scalp. With the bulk of my finals work behind me, I hopped aboard the Continental equivalent of the Chinatown bus — good ol’ RyanAir– and fled southeast. I distinctly remember walking through some ruins near the Roman Forum and seeing a small grove of orange trees in bloom, a physical symbol of the brightness and thriving life around me, far from the early sunsets and slush-slicked slopes of my dorm back at the University. And oh, did I gorge myself in Italy, seizing upon the fresh pasta, biting espresso, and of course, the gelato. Like many of my fellow tourists, I found a way to have gelato every day of my trip, reveling in the creamy thickness of each scoop, the richness of the slivered chocolate in the Stracciatella, the goopy caramel swirls. I know I didn’t hit the haute cuisine of Rome during my stay (in fact, I’m pretty sure I ate at many a restaurant the locals would sneer at), but by taking a step back to examine the context, my rapturous gastronomic experience is easily explained. It was a break, an escape in every sense of the word, from schoolwork, responsibilities, and endless cafeteria meat pies and curries. Add in the fact that I was basically surrounded by works by my favorite sculptor, Bernini, and you can understand why to this day I enthusiastically argue the merits of Rome, and continue to wish fervently for the chance for a return trip.

With this kind of overwhelmingly positive nostalgia, it’s no surprise that I hold the gelato I had in Italy in the highest esteem, upon a pedestal that may be too lofty to reach in reality. When I mentioned a new gelato place called Vivoli Il Gelato to Jacob a few weeks back, he excitedly asked if it was owned by the same cherished Vivoli he experienced in Florence. A quick bit of Googling revealed that indeed it was, and so of course we had to see how authentic Italian gelato would fare against the recent triumph of American-bred Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Could sourcing the homeland bring me back to the bliss of yester-year?

 

First Impressions:

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

Vivoli’s location is liable to make a New Yorker cringe. The gelateria is not tucked away in some hole-in-the-wall corner of Red Hook as the hip foodie might hope, but instead placed smack dab in tourist-filled Herald Square, on the sixth floor of the flagship Macy’s. I’ll admit to having a true distaste for the area, generally overflowing with sightseers stumbling from Penn Station to the Empire State Building, or minimizing available sidewalk space by lingering over the window displays. But if you struggle through the crowds and hop onto the elevators on the 34th St side of Macy’s, you’ll shoot up to the sixth floor and be treated to the gorgeous views that make up a large part of the appeal of Stella 34 Trattoria, the department store’s  mammoth new restaurant/cafe.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Stella 34 takes advantage of its height above the hustle and bustle, featuring a wide open, airy space decked out in swathes of white tile, accented by black chairs and benches. The bulk of the seating (both for table service and takeaway) is situated next to the giant windows looking east over Herald Square. It was a clear day when we visited, resulting in a ton of sunlight pervading every corner of the restaurant.

 

The Food:

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli's small corner of the cafe.

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli’s small corner of the cafe.

Along with Vivoli‘s gelato, Stella 34 Trattoria serves sandwiches, flatbreads, pizzas, salads, and pastries, and we couldn’t help but be inundated with the delicious smells of melting cheese and sizzling meat as we ate our gelato. It’s a great move by Macy’s, taking advantage of the relative dearth of high quality, quick-service restaurants near Penn Station. I would definitely meet someone at Stella 34 for a quick bite before hopping on a train or bus, or to warm up post harried holiday shopping come December.

A passel of possible scoops.

A passel of possible scoops.

But this visit was all about Vivoli, and the question of whether authentic Italian gelato can find a home in the pantheon of American commercialism. Vivoli’s section of the cafe is located on the opposite side of the seating area, facing out onto the houseware and dining department. The menu states that flavors change seasonally, but during our visit Vivoli had 13 options to choose from. All the gelati offered were renditions of Italian classics, from basic Crema (aka sweet cream) to Pistachio to Stracciatella. While Vivoli does not offer the physical evidence of the gelato making process, like Il Laboratorio (and therefore the slight air of mysterious sugar science), what they do provide is a clear-cut explanation of the natural and specialty-sourced ingredients in their gelato. The menu does not describe what each flavor is, but rather lists the ingredients that go into it. For example, the Pistachio is listed as “Bronte pistachios from Sicily, Italy, whole fresh milk, fresh eggs, sugar” (emphasis theirs).

The menu displayed by the gelato case -- it's all about the ingredients, baby.

The menu displayed by the gelato case — Vivoli lets their ingredients speak for themselves..

After some serious deliberation, we decided on the Bacio, the Croccante, the Fragola, and the Limon. Unsurprisingly, since the shop is located in a major tourist area, this is not inexpensive gelato. We opted to share the largest size, the Grande, which nets you up to 4 different flavors and costs $6.75 (full disclosure: we also just wanted to try as many flavors as possible). To be fair to Vivoli, though, you do end up with a sizable serving, and I thought there was more than enough for two people split. And as their spare ingredient list would suggest, you are getting a pretty damn high quality dolce for your dollars.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Limon, Bacio, Croccante, and Fragola.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Croccante, Bacio, Limon, and Fragola.

I was drawn to the Bacio (hazelnuts from italy, cocoa powder, whole milk, farm eggs, sugar) and the Croccante (almonds from italy, whole mlik, farm eggs, sugar) because of my gelato experiences in Seattle. After loving the Bacio di dama from D’Ambrosio Gelato, I was excited to see a similar profile at Vivoli. This flavor, however, was closer to frozen Nutella, with a deep cocoa taste and a nice crunch from the hazelnuts. I hate to say it, but I think I’m now a full-on chocolate/hazelnut convert — I still don’t particularly like hazelnuts on their own, but I’ve found I really enjoy the combination. The Bacio ended up being the knockout champ at Vivoli — with its decadent, dark cocoa plus the sweet, buttery bite of hazelnuts, I’m hoping that this is not one of the seasonal flavors that will get rotated out.

You may remember how I waxed rhapsodic over the Toasted Almond gelato I had at Fainting Goat Gelato in Seattle. I’m pretty sure I will now eat anything that is almond-related or almond-adjacent, so it’s no surprise that I was thoroughly satisfied by the Croccante. It was my second favorite behind the Bacio, just absolutely fantastic — delicate almond flavor, creamy texture, sweet without coating your teeth in sugar.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

The Fragola (fresh strawberry, sugar, water) and Limon (fresh lemons, sugar, water) were actually sorbets, since a sorbet is defined by the lack of dairy. Both had the strong, natural taste of their base fruit ingredients. Of all the gelati we tried, the Limon had the least creamy consistency, reminding me of the Italian ices I used to buy at local pizzerias growing up (but with way fewer additives). It was very fresh, and extremely tart, tasting pretty much like frozen lemonade. It was refreshing in small doses, but despite Jacob and my deep devotions to dessert (and cleaning our plates like good children), we actually left a bit of this in the cup, finding it just a little too overpowering in the end.

Jacob had declared that the Fragola gelato he had in Italy was unreal, so that was the one flavor I knew we were going to order going in. It reminded me of Yoplait strawberry yogurt, if Mr. Yoplait himself had picked the strawberries from the vine and hand-crafted the dish for you. Although I love strawberries themselves, I’m usually a little more tentative about strawberry ice cream, generally avoiding the pink stripe in the rare occasions I have to eat Neapolitan. However, I will admit that this was definitely a superior product. I didn’t regret ordering it, but I would probably opt for another one of the sorbets next time around, especially because I expect the sorbet selection will be the part of the menu most dependent on the season.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Visiting Vivoli Il Gelato was a great exercise in contrast after so recently experiencing Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Both companies make an exceptional product, but Vivoli is much more mainstream, making traditional flavors with simple ingredients, rather than the mad scientist approach of Il Laboratorio (although I suppose that’s just something to take for granted, considering their name). While I can’t speak to the consistency of Vivoli compared to their native production in Florence, their gelato I had in New York was impressive in both execution and taste. It makes me curious about the rest of the offerings at Stella 34 Trattoria, and if they meet the high mark set by Vivoli.

Can any new experience truly surpass the heady heights of a cherished memory? Perhaps we shouldn’t aim as high as that — maybe it’s enough to be content with making some wonderful new ones. Carpe diem, or carpe gelato, in this case. And maybe there’s some merit to stripping off our jaded New Yorker coats once in a while to bask in the bliss of touristy ignorance. So if you have a bit of shopping to do, you might as well taste some superb gelato at Vivoli while you’re at it. Sure, you may have to be shell out a few more bucks per scoop, but just imagine that you’re taking a trip to Italy and have to deal with the Euro exchange rate. At least this time you’re saving the cost of a flight.

 

Vivoli Il Gelato (at Stella 34 Trattoria)

Macy’s Herald Square

151 W. 34th St., Sixth Fl.

http://www.patinagroup.com/restaurant.php?restaurants_id=139

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

Picking Through the Pop-Ups: Mad. Sq. Eats

I’m a big fan of options — that’s why I love appetizer platters, buffets, and ice cream flavors with lots of mix-ins. I’d rather try a chicken finger/mozzarella stick/pig-in-blanket combo than munch through a bowl of boring popcorn, and give me Phish Food over plain jane vanilla any day of the week. Because of this, I’m always curious to check out the newest crop of pop-up food events in New York.

The term “pop-up” refers to short-term food projects that take over a public space, such as the Kubbeh Project that took place at Zucker’s Bakery earlier this year (which closed literally as I returned from Israel), or YUJI Ramen, the latest installation that is all the rage at the Whole FoodsSmorgasburg at Bowery.” Pop-up restaurants can serve to showcase the talents of a specific chef, or just simply explore the potential of a certain concept. The scene has seemingly exploded over the past few years, expanding to encompass not only established restaurants, but also food trucks and catering vendors through stalls at farmer’s markets and festivals. I got a small taste of some of the newer players on the pop-up scene last week when Jacob and I managed to sneak in  a visit to Mad Sq. Eats, on the last night before it closed up shop for the summer.

The entrance to Mad Sq. Eats, plenty busy on its final night.

The entrance to Mad Sq. Eats, plenty busy on its final night.

Mad Sq. Eats is a semi-annual, month-long pop-up food market that takes place next to Madison Square Park in the spring and the fall. Both established brick-and-mortar restaurants and relatively small-scale vendors are featured at MSE, and the makeup of the festival not only changes year to year, but also between seasons. This time around, the cuisines offered ran the gamut from East Asian to pizza to barbecue, and despite MSE being located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, there were vendors representing at least Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, if not all the boroughs. Some of the booths offered multiple dishes, while others stuck to variations of just one concept, like meatballs or arancini.

When Mad Sq Eats comes around again next fall, I’d definitely recommend trying to hit the festival in the middle of the month. There were significant negative consequences for visiting on the last day. First — the crowds. MSE is located in the tiny public space between Broadway and Fifth, just west of the park, and when we arrived around 7:45pm on Friday, it was overflowing with people perusing the vendors, waiting on lines, and trying to find a spot at one of the handful of tables set up in the middle of the market. Then, once Jacob and I had made the circuit and decided what we wanted to try, we discovered that our first choice, La Sonrisa Empanadas, was already completely sold out, with more than an hour before closing time. Refusing to be deterred, we quickly pivoted, deciding to take charge of our foodie fate by dividing and conquering. I hopped on line at Ilili’s booth, and Jacob headed down the row to Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen.

Give me your huddled masses yearning to eat treats...

Give me your huddled masses yearning to eat treats…

Ilili is a Lebanese/Mediterrean restaurant in the Flatiron that I’ve happily made multiple trips to. In fact, when I visited Mad Sq. Eats last fall I ended up ordering and loving the lamb shoulder shawarma sandwich. After the egregious lack of empanadas, I almost gave in and just ordered the shawarma again, but I convinced myself not to miss out on an opportunity to try something new, so I went with the Phoenician Fries, on Jacob’s recommendation. The lucky duck lives only a few blocks away from Madison Square (yes, and he’s close to Beecher’s — talk about unfair), so he’d already been to MSE a couple of times this May.

Phoenician Fries from Ilili, spiced and smothered to perfection.

Phoenician Fries from Ilili, spiced and smothered to perfection.

The Phoenician Fries were handcut and fried to order, covered in sumac, salt, Aleppo pepper, and garlic whip. They arrived looking pretty much like Middle Eastern cheese fries. Although I’ve previously stated my preference for ketchup over the trendier aioli, in this case I found the garlic whip absolutely addictive. The sumac and salt added a little bite to contrast against the creamy sauce, and the fries were perfectly crisp and crunchy due to being hot out of the oil. You can find these spiced spuds on Ilili’s restaurant menu year-round, and considering their generous brunch prix-fixe, I wouldn’t be surprised if we coincidentally crossed paths sometime in the near future.

While I was salivating over our fries, Jacob was off at Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen procuring one of their specialty grilled cheese sandwiches. The vendor dubs itself a “grilled cheese bar,” and until this week was a Brooklyn-based startup that existed solely at  pop-up events like MSE. As of this Monday, however, Mrs. Dorsey’s has a found a storefront, so kudos to them on entering the permanent NY food scene. We chose a cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese, served on panini-pressed sourdough. It was far from a classic grilled cheese, but the sharpness of the cheddar mingled well with the smokier gouda, and the bread had a nice toasty crunch to it. The major detractor was the fact that the sandwich was not cooked for long enough, leaving the cheese warmed, but basically unmelted. Overall, It was a perfectly serviceable grilled cheese made with quality components, but nothing beyond what I could have made in my own kitchen. I’m not giving up on Mrs. Dorsey’s, however, since their catering menu is more varied and creative in its sandwich selection (such as the Jam Goat, featuring goat cheese and strawberry preserves). We’ll have to see where their new store is located, and what they’ll be serving.

The cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese from Mrs. Dorsey's Kitchen. Strong cheese, but not as melted as it needed to be.

The cheddar/gouda combo grilled cheese from Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen. Strong cheese, but not as melted as it needed to be.

The display case at Mmm Enfes, full of buttery, stuffed pastries.

The display case at Mmm Enfes, full of buttery, stuffed pastries.

The other “main course” of our meal came from Mmm Enfes, a Turkish street food and pastry shop in Midtown West. We got two of the varieties of gozleme, a Turkish flatbread stuffed with meat and/or vegetables and cheese. We opted for the chicken and mushroom and the spinach and feta. The gozlemes reminded me of a hybrid between a stuffed naan and the flat laffa bread I had in Israel. The flatbreads were heated and then rolled like crepe, with the same slight sweetness and eggy flavor. The filling of chicken and mushroom was slightly dry and crumbly, and was heavily spiced, leaving me pretty thirsty. I found the spinach and cheese gozleme much more successful. The sweeter bread paired wonderfully with the salty cheese and the faint bitterness of the spinach, coming off like the wrap version of a quiche.

The chicken and mushroom gozleme, a little dry without a binder like cheese.

The chicken and mushroom gozleme, a little dry without a binder like cheese.

The spinach and feta gozleme, which I thought was superior due to the moister filling and stronger flavors.

The spinach and feta gozleme, which I thought was superior due to the moister filling and stronger flavors.

 

There’s really no point in a disclaimer anymore. Obviously I got dessert, and everyone expects me to rave about it. Well, I’m not going to disappoint you. We chose to visit Melt Bakery’s cart for some of their signature ice cream sandwiches. Melt, located on the LES, is “New York’s First Ice Cream Sandwich Store.” They make both the cookies and the ice cream that have made their creations infamous amongst ice cream devotees such as myself (it’s a wonder I haven’t given myself a lactose allergy at this point). Melt’s menu changes daily, so while Jacob had already gotten to try their Lovelet sandwich (red velvet cookies with cream cheese ice cream, dammit), I wasn’t given that option. I wasn’t too bitter, however, because I was able to order the Cinnamax, a snickerdoodle/cinnamon ice cream sandwich. Jacob chose the Morticia, featuring malted chocolate rum ice cream between two crackly chocolate cookies. As shown by the fist-to-sandwich comparison photo below, these sandwiches were actually smaller than Levain’s cookies, but I took that as a positive. The ice cream was full and creamy, and the cookies definitely didn’t skimp on the butter, so it was good not to have too large a serving of such a rich dessert, especially after our frie, cheese, and pastry dinner.

Melt's sandwiches are about the size of a classic Chipwich.

Melt’s sandwiches are about the size of a classic Chipwich. Shown here, Jacob’s deeply chocolate Morticia.

 I’m one of those people who simply cannot have enough cinnamon in things, to the point where I top my fake-o cappuccinos ($3 hand-frother off of Amazon, aka food-nerd present from the best mom ever!) of drip coffee and almond milk with a liberal shaking of cinnamon. So anything cinnamon bun or oatmeal raisin themed in the ice cream department is going to be right up my alley. The Cinnamax definitely satisfied my recurrent cinnamon craving, but I ultimately found the Morticia more satisfying. Where the Cinnamax falters is the similarity of flavors between the snickerdoodle and the cinnamon ice cream. While the cookies were soft and made it easy to keep the sandwich intact (a crucial component of a strong ice cream sandwich), in the end it was a very single-note dessert.

The lighter, sweeter Cinnamax.

The lighter, sweeter Cinnamax.

 Jacob’s Morticia, on the other hand, had a variety of different textures and flavors throughout it. The cookies were just as crackly as advertised, breaking off more readily than the chewier snickerdoodles, which made for a messier eating experience for sure. However, they had a rich dark cocoa flavor, which played off the sugary malt and rum tastes of the ice cream, and overall I enjoyed the textural contrast of the cookie vs. filling, as sticky as my hands got eating it. Somehow I found it more refreshing than the Cinnamax, although I’m not sure I would opt to order either flavor again if I visit Melt Bakery’s store downtown. I’m still holding out for the Lovelet, or the peanut butter/banana themed Elvis.


Even though my visit to Mad Sq Eats had its ups and downs, I fully recommend checking it out next fall. It’s wholly unique experience, like an artisanal version of the mall food court, where the prices are slightly higher and the food is infinitely better. It’s a wonderful chance to sample some up-and-coming and off-the-beaten path vendors, not to mention a delicious opportunity to support small businesses. I’m planning to make the trip to Hester Nights (Thursdays at the Eventi Space through September), and hopefully I’ll check out the Smorgasbar down at South Street Seaport. And hopefully when I head back to Mad Sq Eats in the fall, I may finally be able to try those empanadas.

Ilili

236 5th Ave (between 27th and 28th)

http://www.ililinyc.com/

Mrs. Dorsey’s Kitchen

138 Willoughby Street (in Brooklyn)

http://mrsdorseyskitchen.com/

Mmm Enfes

70 W. 39th St (corner of 6th Ave)

https://twitter.com/MmmEnfes

Melt Bakery

132 Orchard St

http://www.meltbakery.com/

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/