More is Less: Choice Anxiety at Sembrado

2013-11-16 17.11.57

I’m definitely one of those people at restaurants. The talkers, the incessantly curious, the somewhat (hah) neurotic individuals who need to ask the waiter at least one question before ordering. I try to restrain myself from veering too far into obnoxious territory, but the truth is, my main motivation is curiosity. I may have previously studied the menu online, but when I get to the restaurant, I’d rather know what the staff who have seen the food cooked, and maybe even tasted a dish or two, think. Of course we may not have the same preferences, but the level of the server’s enthusiasm can speak volumes about the overall quality of a dish.

I write about service a lot on Experimental Gastronomy because I think it’s a crucial part of the dining experience. It’s part of the difference between a vending machine or a fast food drive-through and an actual restaurant where you interface with real people. That’s not to say that I expect white napkin service everywhere I go — sometimes a friendly smile from a coffee shop employee is all I need. But the best experiences are those where you feel like you’re in good hands, especially in unfamiliar territory, like our helpful waiter at Tamarind, or the extremely accommodating and generous staff at Barbuto. I bring this up because of a recent meal I had at Sembrado, one of the many new taquerias popping up in the East Village. Sembrado has a lot going for it, from location to the high pedigree of the chefs behind it. Despite all this, I found myself underwhelmed by dinner there, a bit at sea when facing down the menu. The food had a lot of potential, and to be fair, I might have just hit a bad shift. But at the end of our dinner, Jacob and I felt there was something missing, some pep or spark to elevate the meal, the lack of an unspoken element that might just have been a personal touch.

First Impressions:

Nice contrast of masculine mahogany and the groovy mural in the back.

Nice contrast of masculine mahogany and the groovy mural in the back.

Sembrado is a new taqueria from Danny Mena, previously of Hecho en Dumbo (where I once ate a great dinner), and featuring ice cream sundaes from Fany Gerson of summertime favorite La Newyorkina. Tacos seem to be the new hip food trend in the City, with shops popping up seemingly everyday (Tres Carnes, Otto’s, Mission Cantina, Taquitoria, to name just a few). Just a few blocks from Stuy Town, Sembrado has a rustic aesthetic, riding the line between industrial and hipster chic with some deliberately placed decorative flares, seen most clearly in the contrast of the exposed brick walls and back wall mural that seemed to be a psychedelic take on a fractal.

Overall, the space is pretty tight, dominated mostly by the bar/kitchen, the remaining area filled with two and four tops. Jacob and I stopped by after seeing a matinee at the Public Theater, so we came in at an off-time, 5pm on a Saturday afternoon. There were a few people at the bar, but we were the only people dining at that time.

Food:

The dinner menu at Sembrado, reminiscent of AYCE sushi menus.

The dinner menu at Sembrado, reminiscent of AYCE sushi menus.

After seating us and bringing around tap water, our waiter handed us the menus — long pieces of paper lined with boxes for you to mark (how many of each taco you want, if you want cheese added). Our waiter explained that the menu was typical of the items you’d find at any taqueria around Mexico City (slightly gussied up, of course — or at least hopefully so with New York City pricing). That meant traditionally-sized tacos that should be tackled with the strategic ordering of a variety of small plates.

Since we were eating during happy hour, we opted for the slightly discounted guacamole ($2 off dinner price), then started down the list of appetizers, tacos, and other assorted dishes. We ended up with the Tacos Al Pastor, Bistec, Pollo, Hongos, and Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana, along with the Bistec and Nopal Costras. And because through rain, sleet, hail or snow we order ice cream, Jacob and I split one of Ms. Gerson’s El Sundaes to finish out our meal.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole arrived in a small bowl framed by homemade tortilla “chips,” which upon the further arrival of our tacos, were revealed to be the house tortillas fried to a crisp. Because of this, the chips were very fresh, although because they were uncut, I felt the chip-to-dip ratio was uneven, requiring us to eventually ask for a refill. There was a deceptively ample amount of guacamole in the bowl, which I had initially viewed as skimpy for the normal $9 price tag. However, it was one of my favorite parts of our meal (I’m sure partially because I am an avocado fiend). This recipe was smooth, pebbled with tiny chunks of avocado, and though there were no tomatoes in it, it had a strong bite from the onions and cilantro. Jacob and I had a nice moment with our waiter, lamenting those unfortunate souls for whom cilantro tastes disgustingly soapy. When used liberally in a dish like this, cilantro really just brightens all the underlying flavors.

Topping options -- three salsas and a bowl of fresh onions and peppers.

Topping options — three salsas and a bowl of fresh onions and peppers.

In advance of our tacos, our waiter brought out a funky vessel holding four different condiments — three types of salsa and a mix of freshly chopped red onions and peppers. The salsas varied in heat and smokiness. One of them was made with a bit of beer, which lent a subtle malted flavor. My favorite was the really smoky salsa (top right in the photo), which reminded me of barbecue sauce, but Jacob preferred the milder beer-infused one on the bottom left. Unfortunately, this is where the trouble starts. When we were served these condiments, and then our tacos soon after, there was no instruction or suggestion of how to pair the two. Given the myriad combinations given five tacos and four condiments, a poor East Coast Jewish gal like me didn’t even know where to start. I ended up mainly dipping my chips into the salsas, because I didn’t want to ruin my experience by dousing a taco in the wrong sauce.

Our smorgasbord of tacos, clockwise from top left: Pollo, Al Pastor, Hongos, and Bistec.

Our smorgasbord of tacos, clockwise from top left: Pollo, Al Pastor, Hongos, and Bistec.

Because of this, I ate my tacos largely in their natural state, with just a bit of lime juice squeezed on top. For all of the varieties, the consistency of the tortillas was excellent — fresh, pliant and chewy, serving as an stable vehicle without distracting from the fillings. As for those, well, some were more successful than others. My least favorite was the Bistec (all natural flatiron steak), which arrived chopped and fully cooked, flying solo in its tortilla. The meat was a little on the dry side, and while I like steak as much as the next person (perhaps more, considering my ecstasy at Peter Luger), I much preferred the Bistec in Costra form, with the fat and salt of the cheese to contrast with it. The Pollo (all natural free range chicken breast) fared slightly better, the small chunks of meat juicier and flavored with a nice marinade. I would have preferred a little more char on the chicken, but perhaps my dissatisfaction was due to my own neglect of the salsas near me — a little smoky salsa might have elevated the chicken or steak. The Hongos (grilled portobello mushroom with epazote) was also served relatively plain, although the addition of epazote (a Central American herb) gave it another layer of flavor. Of course my love of mushrooms is a given at this point, and portobellos are a top tier variety for me (don’t get me started on Hen of the Woods #mushroomnerd), so it’s not that shocking that of the unadorned tacos, the Hongos would win out.

Pescado del Dia taco -- flying solo, but packing more of a flavor punch.

Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana taco — flying solo, but packing more of a flavor punch.

Both the Taco Al Pastor (spit grilled marinated pork, onions and cilantro) and the Pescado del Dia a la Mexicana (grilled market fish — fluke that day — in a classic Mexican salsa of chile serrano, tomato and onion) had a little more complexity in their preparation, and I thought this made them the best of the bunch. I’ve always avoided ordering tacos al pastor before because I mostly avoid pork, but I’m glad I tried it at Sembrado, since it ended up being my favorite taco. It seemed as though you could taste the long, steady spit-roasting of the meat, which was juicy and had a smoky, almost mole-ish flavor. (Wikipedia research reveals that the rotisserie style of cooking was likely introduced to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century).  The fluke tasted the freshest of all the tacos, especially when the acidity of the tomatoes and the heat of the jalapenos hit my palate. Again, the addition of toppings here really filled out the profile of the taco, making it more memorable than the plainer steak and chicken.

The Costras, like the mutant child of a quesadilla and a tostada -- Bistec on the left, Nopal on the right.

The Costras, like the mutant child of a quesadilla and a tostada — Bistec on the left, Nopal on the right.

If I’m being honest, I think I prefer the slightly more casual menu at Oaxaca Taqueria. Without a bit of a tour guide on how to experience more authentic Mexican cuisine, I’d rather have the decisions already made for me with established combinations. So at Sembrado, I found myself enjoying the Costras (crisp caramelized cheese atop flour tortilla) more than the tacos. The Costras, which were pretty much open-faced quesadillas, just seemed more fully realized as a dish. Plus, who doesn’t like caramelized cheese? As I mentioned earlier, the Bistec shone a lot brighter in Costra form, its funky umami serving as a nice base for the cheese. But I especially liked the Nopal (grilled cactus pad), an ingredient that I’d seen before on menus but never tried. Like the fish taco, you could taste how fresh the nopales were, and I liked the way the vegetal flavor cut through the richness of the cheese.

We dabbled with getting a few more items, since all of these servings were palm-sized and split between two people, served as a relatively light dinner. No surprise, we quickly tossed aside any notions of further nutrition in favor of diving headfirst into a giant sundae. El Sundae has its own paper menu full of potential add-ons. You select vanilla, strawberry, or horchata ice cream as your base, select your preferred toppings, elect a salsa (Mexican hot fudge or goats milk caramel), choose si or no on whipped cream, and decide if you’ll shell out the extra $3 to make it a brownie sundae. Alas, Sembrado was out of vanilla on our visit, so we ordered the horchata ice cream, topped with Nueces Garapinadas (piloncillo candied pecans) and Chocolate (Mexican chocolate bits), covered in both “salsas”, whipped cream, and heck yeah we’re having the brownies.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

Well, the sundae we were served was pretty good, but there were a few stumbling blocks. I’ve only had horchata in its traditional form a few times, and found it to be like watered down rice pudding, but as a thick and creamy ice cream, it was a solid substitute for the vanilla, and a not too sweet base for the rest of the sugar-overloaded components. I’ll take whipped cream in any form from udder to pressurized Reddi-Whip can, so I was more than happy to chow down on that. As for our salsas? Well, the hot fudge was nowhere to be found, but the caramel sauce was sweet and syrupy. Much like with my dessert at Blue Duck Tavern, I’m not sure how one discerns goats milk caramel from plain ol’ cows milk, but I really enjoyed Sembrado’s version when combined with the candied pecans. In fact, the nuts and Mexican chocolate bits were very helpful in providing a bit of textural contrast, since much like the hot fudge, our brownies were mysteriously absent. I’m sure my vascular system was relieved to be saved that extra peak of blood sugar, and in the end we weren’t charged for them, but I was a little disappointed to miss out on what could have been a tremendous brownie sundae.

Final Thoughts:

There’s a concept in psychology called “choice anxiety,” which posits that though we think we want as many options as possible, in truth, people quickly get overwhelmed by having to make too many decisions. It’s similar to the Millenial “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out” — presented with a long list of choices, we often just opt out all together. We may think all-encompassing personal agency is the most satisfying route, but what we’re actually looking for is limited power, a dip in a pool just deep enough to let us kick a bit without fear of sinking.

I couldn’t help but think about choice anxiety after my dinner at Sembrado. Overall, it was a good, but not great meal, successful in some elements but a letdown in others. I can’t place all the blame on the service, either. Our waiter was friendly if a little removed from the situation, but I think part of the problem comes from the space Sembrado occupies on the casual/fine dining ladder. It seems to be riding a sort of middle ground — a little too expensive to be the kind of neighborhood taco joint that revels in its oil and fried fat content, but clearly trying to be more casual than the elevated Latin cuisine experiences I’ve had at Hecho en Dumbo or La Esquina. For the relatively uninitiated taco consumer, Sembrado’s menu can be overwhelming, prompting numerous questions — how many tacos should I get? What’s a good combination of tacos? Should I get cheese on some? All? None? I’m not saying Sembrado should abandon their check-off menus in favor of the hegemony of an executive chef’s tasting menu (I actually rather like the paper menus), but they might benefit from the addition of a section outlining some suggested combos. Creating a starting point for your diners gives them somewhere to jump off of, and admits that not everybody may be as in the know about authentic Mexico City tacos. Maybe I’m in the minority for wanting to learn while trying new foods, but for us curious culinary enthusiasts, Sembrado would stand out more if it were willing to teach.

Sembrado

432 E. 13th Street

http://sembradonyc.com/

Fresh from the Market: Dinner at Fulton

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It’s pretty understandable that a city of millions could create a diverse food ecosystem, ranging from the micro-focused tiny shops like Bantam Bagels or Potatopia, to the restaurant empires of Danny Meyer and Mario Batali. There’s a lot of middle ground between those two poles, and I’ll admit the food nerd in me enjoys discovering the oft understated links between restaurants, especially when I find a relationship between two places I like. For example, did you know that The Smith is owned by Corner Table Restaurants, the same group behind the Greenwich Village restaurant Jane? Or that the mini-chain Five Napkin Burger was born out of the popularity of the eponymous dish on the menu at the Upper West Side’s Nice Matin? Sometimes connecting the dining dots in NYC reads like an exercise in genealogy.

I bring this up because of a recent dinner at Fulton, a seafood restaurant in my neighborhood. It turns out the restaurant is owned by Joe Guerrera, the man behind the Citarella gourmet markets. In fact, Fulton is right around the corner from the UES location, sitting just off 75th and 3rd. With such proximity to the famed seafood market (not to mention a name that nods to an even more storied market downtown), a fish-forward dinner at Fulton seemed like a no-brainer for my Baltimorean parents and their genetically brine-inclined daughter.

 

First Impressions:

Outside looking in at Fulton, with heatlamps primed to help you forget the chilly fall air.

Outside looking in at Fulton, with heatlamps primed to help you forget the chilly fall air.

Fulton has a classic, somewhat old-fashioned feel to it, evoking the stately taverns and older steakhouses I’ve dined at in New York. It was an unusually cold fall evening, so the heat lamps were on throughout the outdoor seating. Inside the decor is a mix of exposed brick, dark wood, and white walls decorated with charcoal scenes of fish markets. A sizable bar takes up a third of the restaurant as you enter; the rest of the space furnished with wooden two and four-tops and a banquet lining the back wall. My father lamented the modern trend of foregoing tablecloths, which Fulton ascribes to. I agree that it can add an extra bit of class to a meal, but a tablecloth can also reveal the unfortunate consequences of my klutzy dining habits (providing me with any sort of crusty bread yields a Pollock-esque scattering of crumbs around my butter plate).

The interior of Fulton is reminiscent of a classic American tavern.

The interior of Fulton is reminiscent of a classic American tavern, but nary a tablecloth in sight.

The staff at Fulton is very friendly, from the bussers constantly refilling our water glasses, to the waiters who happily answered our questions and gave advice on all three courses of our dinner. I was especially impressed when a passing server, noticing that my father had accidentally dropped his napkin on the floor, picked up the napkin immediately, and instead of just handing it back to my dad, gave him a brand new clean one as a replacement. It’s those small moments of thoughtful considerate behavior that really speak to the quality of a restaurant’s staff.

 

The Food:

Our tin drum of bread, with long rolls simply begging for a dunk in olive oil.

Our tin drum of bread, with long rolls simply begging for a dunk in olive oil.

Our meal started with an ample bread “basket” (aka tin bucket), filled with a variety of rolls and seeded mini-baguettes and served with a small bowl of olive oil. A sampler at heart, I always appreciate being given multiple bread options, and both the rolls and the olive oil were fresh (presumably sourced from Citarella next door).

Although I occasionally hem and haw over several enticing menu options, at Fulton I quickly zeroed in on my order. My mother and I split the Brussel Leaf Salad to start, while my father opted out of an appetizer. For mains, my mother chose the Whole Branzino, my father the Fulton Burger, and I got the Black Sea Bass. Never one to object to some additional sides, we selected the Lobster Hash and the Crab Mashed Potatoes, on the suggestion of our server. To round out our healthy meal, we all split the Cookie Monster dessert.

The Brussel Leaf Salad, visually appealing but in practice a little hard to eat.

The Brussel Leaf Salad, visually appealing but in practice a little hard to eat.

I’m not sure where I stand on split appetizer plating. On the one hand, it’s very considerate of the restaurant to divide the appetizer onto separate plates and ostensibly remove the issue of each person getting an equal portion. On the other hand, however, in some cases this leads to a modified dining experience, as ingredients are not always apportioned correctly. Unfortunately, the Brussel Leaf Salad (hazelnut-crusted goat cheese, caramelized pear) falls into the latter category. The dish was very artfully plated in distinct sections, the shredded brussels sprouts leaves in a small pile that was dusted with chopped hazelnuts, with a small globe of nut-encrusted goat cheese and a fan of caramelized pear slices on the side. While for the most part it was a fair split, the share of chopped hazelnuts was way more heavily weighted to my mother’s portion, and she was kind enough to switch with me, knowing I’m more of a hazelnut fan than she is. I found the salad very pretty to look at, but I’m one of those people who is always frustrated when served a salad that necessitates the diner to finish putting it together. (Don’t give me a pile of lettuce with a barely sliced chicken breast an assorted ingredients on top — if I’m at a restaurant, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable expectation to have my salad come pre-tossed.) Since the ball of goat cheese arrived somewhat chilled, it required a good deal of dexterity to combine the brussels leaves, a bit of hazelnut, pear, and a slice of cheese and achieve the full flavor combination intended for the dish. I enjoyed the mix of textures, and although I found the brussels a little underdressed, I thought overall it was a satisfactory appetizer, if slightly overshadowed by the rest of my meal. I think if I went back to Fulton, I would just give in and go for a full on fish meal, choosing the scallop appetizer instead.

 

The Whole Branzino, carefully filleted as requested.

The Whole Branzino, carefully filleted as requested.

As the name implies, the Whole Branzino is usually served whole, complete with head and bones, but when my mother requested it pre-guillotined, our waiter offered to serve it already filleted. The dish came with two small bowls, one filled with lemon slices, and the other with a seasoning blend (my mom chose not to use it, so I’m not sure what it was composed of). The bite I had was well-cooked and elegantly plated, but my mother found it a little plain (perhaps our server should have told us how to use the side-seasonings), and in need of some sort of greenery. Our decision to have solely starchy sides probably didn’t help matters, but at least she had some of the salad that came with my father’s entree.

The Fulton Burger, an inventive take on the crab cake model.

The Fulton Burger, an inventive take on the crab cake model.

Fulton actually has two items called “burger” on its menu — the traditional beef-based cheeseburger, and the eponymous Fulton Burger (swordfish, black cod, sea trout), a patty of diced fish served hamburger style on a brioche bun with greens and a citrus aioli. I’d never heard of this type of sandwich before, but it made sense considering the meatier texture of swordfish as a foundation. The cod and trout kept the patty from being too dense, and the bit I had reminded me of a crab cake (the broiled, not fried kind). There was a strong fish flavor that made sure you knew this was not your average beef-alternative burger, and I thought rounding the dish out with a small salad rather than fries helped to maintain the lighter, more refined aesthetic.

 

The Black Sea Bass -- my favorite dish of the night, from flavor to texture to composition.

The Black Sea Bass — my favorite dish of the night, from flavor to texture to composition.

My gut feeling about the merits of the Black Sea Bass (gnocchi, asparagus, mushrooms) ended up working very much in my gut’s favor. I chose it largely because of the accompanying sides — three of my menu compulsions, especially the gnocchi. It ended up exceeding my expectations — two tender, flaky fillets of bass with crispy skins on top, sitting on a bed of petite sliced button mushrooms that were rich and savory, along with starchy nuggets of gnocchi and sliced asparagus. Everything was cooked to the perfect texture: just a bit of snap to the asparagus, wonderfully tender mushrooms, buttery fish flesh that melted on my tongue, and the chewy but far from rubbery feel of the pasta. There was a light but milky sauce on the bottom of the dish which tied it all together. From the picture it might seem like accompaniments were a little sparse, but actually I thought the proportions of the dish kept the fish as the center of attention while providing some highlights with just the right amount of sides.

 

The Lobster Hash -- basically an extreme sports version of Lobster Benedict.

The Lobster Hash — basically an extreme sports version of Lobster Benedict.

Speaking of sides, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my steakhouse adventures at Peter Luger. It seems like Fulton ascribes to the classic steakhouse dinner model where your side orders add no nutritional value to your meal, but God are they decadent and worth a place at the table. Rich doesn’t even begin to describe the Lobster Hash, a mish-mash of claw and tail meat, sliced baby potatoes, pearl onions and gravy covered in a bearnaise sauce. It verges on ridiculous to relegate this to a side dish — it easily could have been an entree by itself. As with the rest of the seafood, the lobster was unbelievably fresh, combined with the gravy and bearnaise I couldn’t help but think of a creamy lobster bisque. I generally find whole pearl onions to be a bit overpowering, but in this case their sharp flavor helped to brighten the heaviness of the other components.

The Crab Mashed Potatoes -- flying slightly more under-the-radar.

The Crab Mashed Potatoes — flying slightly more under-the-radar.

The Crab Mashed Potatoes were a more subtle side dish. Mashed has always been my least favorite potato preparation (I miss the crunch of the skin you get in roasted, smashed, or french-fried), but Fulton gets props for how smooth and creamy our dish was (I don’t want to think about the amount of butter in them). The crab flavoring was very mild, to the point that my mother struggled to taste it. I think it definitely could have been more strongly crabby, but the faint hints of crab and old-bay flavors were enough variety to elevate Fulton’s take on mashed potatoes above the traditional preparation for me.

 

The Cookie Monster -- as its namesake warns, definitely a "sometimes food," but a damn delicious one at that.

The Cookie Monster — as its namesake warns, definitely a “sometimes food,” but a damn delicious one at that.

Now with a name like the Cookie Monster (Warm Chocolate Chip Cookie, Vanilla, Chocolate, Strawberry Ice Cream), you might think that I was insistent from the get-go about ordering this dessert. But please let the record show that my parents were the driving forces behind this choice, trumpeting said dish over the pedestrian Molten Chocolate Cake or Triple Layer Chocolate Fudge Cake (either of which I would have been more than happy with). But as luck would have it, the Cookie Monster is pretty damn appetizing, too. It took a while to arrive — to the point where we stopped our waiter to check on the status — but it proved worth the wait when the dish showed up with a clearly fresh-baked cookie on it. The dessert was plated with a soft, gooey and warm chocolate chip cookie base, then covered in three scoops of ice cream, a mountain of whipped cream and hot fudge, a tuille of white chocolate, and a scattering of fresh raspberries on the side. It was a marvelous contrast of temperatures and textures, like any good sundae should be. Granted, it was nothing too outrageous or inventive, but there’s a wonderful nostalgia to the good ol’ Tollhouse familiarity of the cookie and the fresh ice cream that was not too icy or soft, solid in execution if not of the showstopping quality of some of my recent gelato forays. Most importantly, did we clean that plate? Yes, yes we did. For all the quibbling over richness of chocolate and butterfat, truthfully, my parents and I just straight up love cookies and ice cream, and if you’re down wiith that, then Fulton will happily oblige.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, Fulton seems to be the sort of restaurant where a little background info or recommendations is the key to a good meal. The ties to Citarella (visible to the point of the doggy-bags — see below) make sure the quality of raw materials is high, but a standout dish is more than just the individual components. Go for items that have more of an obvious chef’s hand in them — the ones with a more visible flavor profile, more built-out accompaniments, or some sort of interesting twist in conception (such as the Fulton Burger). The truth is, you’re going to be better off getting a whole branzino at a great Italian restaurant than here. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, hop a subway downtown, but with its good service, comforting desserts, and fresh ingredients from next door, Fulton provides a nice, slightly upscale neighborhood restaurant for the seafood-inclined, and is worth a visit if you’re sticking around the UES.

Our doggy bag for the evening.

Our doggy bag for the evening.

Fulton

205 E. 75th St (between 2nd and 3rd)

http://www.fultonnyc.com/

A Rustic Refresh: Back to Basics at Hu Kitchen

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I’m going to be straight with you guys — despite the decadent meals I detail on this blog, I am not the spry food-partier I once was. I can’t knock back a sleeve of Oreos like in my glory days, or pile on the greasy fried Japanese food without grimly acknowledging that I’ll all too likely to feel it in the morning. More than my inability to stay up late, my reluctance to ever set foot in Murray Hill for anything other than Indian food, or my growing acceptance of Snuggies as appropriate outerwear, the presence of “food hangovers” have signaled my arrival into adulthood. I may continue to stuff my face with funsize Halloween candy bars, but my body will no longer fully support me in that endeavor. It will make its displeasure known, from tummyaches to headaches and more.

I bring this all up because after a recent Saturday grease-fest, I found myself staggering about on Sunday begging for some reasonable grub to rebalance and refuel. I was meeting Jacob for lunch, and though he benefits from an iron-clad constitution, he was more than happy to try out a spot in Union Square I’d had my eye on for a while — the crunchy-granola, hippy-dippy, but still intriguing Hu Kitchen. And lucky for me, it proved to be just the kind of place a recovering foodie needs. File that away for future food comas.

 

First Impressions:

Just to be clear, they do not sell pet food here.

Just to be clear, they do not sell pet food here.

Hu Kitchen’s slogan is “Food for Humans”, which is prominently displayed on the outside of the cafe. The website explains that their focus is on unprocessed food, rather than espousing one particular “-ism” or diet, and this line-straddling approach is evident in the decor. Hu Kitchen struck me as part Chipotle, part Fern Gully, featuring black and steel countertops and flooring mixed with roughly hewn wooden tables and seating made out of tree trunks. At once industrial and natural, the restaurant emphasizes that it doesn’t want to ignore modern society or eating habits, but hopes to reintroduce the notion of natural as normal.

 

Looking back from the smoothie/juice/espresso bar to the other stations at Hu Kitchen.

Looking back from the smoothie/juice/espresso bar to the other stations at Hu Kitchen.

 

Hu Kitchen follows the market/cafe model, similar to Whole Foods, with a number of stations spread throughout the space. A smoothie/juice/espresso bar is positioned as you enter, for quick grab and go, or leisurely sipping at the handful of tables up front. Walking to the back you pass a fridge with prepackaged snacks and drinks (we tried some samples of grain-free chips), before hitting the hot bar, bowl, and prepared food stations. Most of the seating is on the second floor, where you can recline on any of the available stumps (or plastic chairs, if that’s more your thing).

Rustic hewn seating mixed with sleek glass and metal.

Rustic hewn seating mixed with sleek glass and metal. I guess sometimes you just want to sit on a stump.

 

The Food:

The ground rules going in.

The ground rules going in.

While Hu Kitchen doesn’t prescribe to one particular food system, they do have some specific guidelines for their dishes — they only serve natural, unprocessed food, with recognizable ingredients and as much certified organic as they can. The focus is mainly on vegetables, and there are vegan/vegetarian meat substitutes, but you can also get grass-fed beef or free-range chicken. Hu Kitchen’s menu is also largely gluten-free, since they mostly avoid grains, and their food is free of cane sugar — sweetened only with honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar. I’m telling you all of this to underscore how even with all these seemingly restricting rules, the food I had at Hu Kitchen was flat-out delicious.

 

A sample of Hu Kitchen's prepared foods, from vegetarian to gluten-free and the Venn Diagram space in between.

A sample of Hu Kitchen’s prepared foods, from vegetarian to gluten-free and the Venn Diagram space in between.

When I had initially scoped out the menu (my mama always said a good food nerd is a well-informed one), I had been drawn to the “Bowls” category, which allows you to choose a permutation from 3 different bases and 3 different toppings. But once I actually got there, the wide variety of prepared salads and sides on display in the prepared foods case drew my eyes. Jacob and I tried the Primal Kale Salad (org kale, org goji berry, sesame seed, org apple cider vinegar, unfiltered honey, shallot, garlic mustard powder) and the Curried Sweet Potato (org dried apricot, almond, org egg, scallion, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, turmeric, garam masala), both of which I would gladly hit up again on my next visit. But we decided to trust our instincts and investigate the possibilities of the bowls. I ordered the Root Veg Mash base with Thai Chicken on top, while Jacob went with the Organic Quinoa base with Roasted Wild Mushroom. The helpful staff was eager to point out favorites and explain the extras not mentioned on the menu, like the selection of “toppers” for the bowls, ranging from herbs like parsley and cilantro, to sauces like lime juice and sriracha, and a variety of nuts and seeds.

 

My bowl of Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken. Great flavors, lousy consistency combo.

My bowl of Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken. Great flavors, lousy consistency combo.

I ended up topping my Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken (org coconut milk, turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, basil) with more cilantro and lime juice. While I found both of the components of my bowl satisfying, I wouldn’t recommend this particular combination. The problem stems from the liquid content of the chicken, which is served in a coconut milk sauce. The root vegetable mash (sweet potatoes, parnsips, carrots, etc) has the consistency of smooth mashed potatoes, so the hot liquid from the chicken turned my bowl into more of a soup/stew concoction than I had hoped for. However, both the mash and the chicken were incredibly flavorful. I loved the tenderness of the meat, shredded and soft from the coconut milk, with the familiar interplay of woodsy sweetness from lemongrass and the bite of the turmeric and ginger. I would definitely get the mash again with a more solid topping (maybe even the roasted mushrooms Jacob got), since it tasted fresh and sweet, reminding me of the sweet potato casserole my mother serves at Thanksgiving. Adding the acidity from the lime juice topper definitely helped to cut through the richness of the dish, and I could see how adding some seeds or nuts would help to vary the texture.

 

Jacob's Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms bowl -- a slightly more successful combination.

Jacob’s Organic Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms bowl — just slightly on the dry side, but a bit more successful combo.

Jacob had a similar problem with his chosen combination, finding the Organic Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms (shiitake, portobello, button mushroom, carrot, garlic, shallot, thyme) in need of just a touch more moisture. I thought the quinoa was nicely cooked, soft without being too dry, and could see it as a better base for the Thai Chicken (we basically should have swapped combos). The mixture of mushrooms types lent the dish a solid variety of textures, the roasted mushrooms slightly caramelized, with aromatics from the garlic and shallots. The mushrooms are served out of a slowcooker that keeps them stewing in their own liquid, which gave them a nice soft feel and deep flavor.

Both of our bowls came with a small button of Hu grain-free bread, not much larger than an ice cube and resembling pumpernickel in color. I would guess it was made out of some sort of nutmeal or seeds, but I thought it was pretty tasty, if a bit dense. It had the nuttiness of hearty, rustic dark ryes like those from Scandinavia  I dipped it into my slushy bowl, and liked it even better when it had soaked up some liquid.

The portion size was perfect for a nice lunch, although I might opt for a side salad if looking for a more substantial dinner. After the previous day’s foray into grease and sugar, I really appreciated how my meal at Hu Kitchen filled me up without weighing me down. I fully plan on coming back to try out some of the prepared foods, and (of course) I’m interested in looking into some of their grain-free muffins and desserts.

Final Thoughts:

I’ve spoken before about the upsides and downsides of writing of a food blog — the expectation of having opinions on food means that you both get to enjoy being used as a resource, but also have to deal with the assumption that you will know and write about most everything you encounter. Thankfully, after over a year of writing Experimental Gastronomy, I’m still just as passionate about exploring and educating myself about dining and cooking. One unexpected side effect of blogging is how it has made me a literally conscious eater — I try to think critically about what I’m tasting (although I’ll readily admit to mindlessly stuffing my face plenty). Recently, this has pushed me towards being more mindful of what I’m eating day-to-day, as in what is the makeup of the foods I put into my body. I find myself curious about nutrition, food science, and food policy, and while I’m not going off the grid, so to speak (I wish I knew how to quit you, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups), I love finding places like Hu Kitchen that give me the tools to make better choices about my diet, even if it’s just one meal at a time. It’s nice to go to a place that reminds you that pure, natural ingredients can taste just as good as KFC, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of unfamiliar items like chia, hemp, or nutritional yeast. At Hu Kitchen, you can ease yourself along the spectrum from vegan to paleo to simply gastro-curious, from cashew creamed broccoli to plain ol’ chicken tenders. When you get right down to it, Hu Kitchen truly sticks to their slogan — it’s not fancy, it’s just food for humans.

 

Hu Kitchen

78 Fifth Ave (between 13th and 14th)

hukitchen.com