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

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Review: Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro, or Cheese Bar Hunger Games — May the slice be ever in your flavor

Although you’d never think it from the things I write about, when I’m not stuffing my face with Megastuf Oreos or jelly donuts, I do attempt to eat relatively healthily. Yes, those Trader Joe’s frozen dinners and canned soups do come into the picture from time to time, but most weeks I cook lunch to bring into work, and aim to eat dinner at home as often as possible. As a consequence of both shallow pockets (beans = cheaper than chicken) and a growing love of fresh produce, I’ve kind of become a part-time vegetarian. Yes, I do love me some meat, but if push came to shove, I think I could survive without hamburgers or fried chicken. Veganism, however, is a whole other story. Sure, I could say goodbye to a rack of lamb or a Thanksgiving Turkey, but give up omelets? Pizza? Ice cream? Or worst of all, cheese? Sorry, PETA, it ain’t happening.

With that in mind, it will come as no surprise that my dairy-dependent friends Mike and Jacob and I would choose Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro as our next dinner event. After all, it was Artisanal’s Cheese of the Month Club that inspired our gustatory pilgrimages in the first place. So last week we decided to dine in and see how this cheese-inflected restaurant compared to Murray’s. Worst case scenario, we’d end up with more than enough of our daily calcium requirement.

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Despite the Park Ave address, Artisanal is really just around the corner, on 32nd street.

First Impressions:

Unlike the restaurant offshoot of Murray’s Cheese, Artisanal has operated a bistro along with its fromagerie for over a decade. Located just off Park Avenue in the Flatiron/Murray Hill borderland, the restaurant is fairly unassuming. In many ways Artisanal’s aesthetic is the complete opposite of Murray’s Cheese Bar: while Murray’s was all casual white kitchen tiles and lactic-pun filled chalkboards, Artistanal is fashioned in the classic French bistro style, draped in red and yellow, with wicker chairs, leather banquettes, and elegant murals on the walls. The waiters were all dressed in crisp white shirts and black slacks, and were very friendly but professional. While Murray’s is small, noisy, and crowded, Artisanal was airy and bustling but discernibly refined in tone. I imagine that you’d be expected to shush your kids if they were being too rowdy in Artisanal.

Inside Artisanal -- note the mural along the back wall.

Inside Artisanal — note the mural along the back wall.

If Murray’s cheese bar is the young and hip, industrial kitchen American cheese club, Artisanal is the older Continental cousin who is more reserved, old-fashioned, methodical and professorial. The plus side of this is that the staff at Artisanal is eager to educate their diners about all aspects of the menu, from wine pairings to cheese varieties. Artisanal actually has quite an extensive menu of inventive takes on classic French cuisine, from Duck Bourguignon to (of course) cheese fondue. I was tempted to try several entrees, but resolved to hold out for another visit. We had come for cheese, so cheese it would have to be.

Food:
We opted to go for a couple of small plates (ostensibly for some greenery and balance, but who were we kidding) along with the “Plateau” — a board of meats, cheeses, and assorted accompaniments.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi, with a medley of vegetables. Look how big each gnocchi (gnoccho?) is!

Butternut Squash Gnocchi, with a medley of vegetables. Note how big each gnocchi (gnoccho?) is.

To start we had the butternut squash gnocchi, which were far from uniform in size, but unilaterally delicious. They were soft in texture without being mealy, and managed to achieve the smooth caramel flavor of butternut squash without veering into high levels of starch. The gnocchi came with a medley of roasted vegetables, including brussel sprouts and wild mushrooms. As it happened, we had chosen roasted root vegetables as our other starter, so there was a welcomed abundance of veggies, at least for me. The root vegetable side included potatoes, carrots, turnips, and more wild mushrooms, and all were well-seasoned, full of salt, pepper and oil while retaining a crisp bite. And given how fungi-forward I am, I was delighted by the double dose of mushrooms. I find it odd how much I relish well-made vegetables these days, but I suppose in the scheme of things, I could have far worse obsessions (cough cookies and candy cough).

Roasted root vegetables -- straightforward, but very well executed.

Roasted root vegetables — straightforward, but very well executed.

But let’s get to the main event: the Plateau. It arrived on a long wooden board, with a pile of charcuterie on one side, the selection of six cheeses in the middle, and a variety of dried fruit, walnuts, berry gelee, and a small piece of fig cake. In contrast to Murray’s Cheese Bar, there were no crackers provided, although we were offered unlimited refills on the complimentary bread basket (which featured 3 types of bread).

Our overflowing bread basket.

Our overflowing bread basket.

Our waitress was very kind and patient throughout the course of the meal, answering all of our questions and offering advice on the type of cheeses we should try and how we should plan our meal. An additional charming bit of good service was the fact that the fromager provided us with a marked menu from the cheese counter, which specifically noted which cheeses he had selected for us. Our six cheeses ranged from mild to intense, and included one of Artisanal’s special “truffle cheeses,” which we opted for at an additional cost. The “La Carte Des Fromages” menu was a wonderful resource, separated by animal of origin which is shown through an adorable heading featuring a little goat, sheep, cow or combination.

The Plateau -- rom bottom right counter clockwise: Camembert, Tomme De Savoie, Garrotxa, Trifulin, Holzige Geiss, and Roquefort.

The Plateau — from the bottom right counter clockwise: Camembert, Tomme De Savoie, Garrotxa, Trifulin, Holzige Geiss, and Roquefort. Not to mention the pile of charcuterie, sliced apples and pears, walnuts, fig cake, and strawberry gelee. Whew.

Although I love eating and learning about the vast multitude of cheese types, I’m actually not very good at breaking down and articulating the differences between individual cheeses. I’m going to attempt to go through my lows and highs of the Plateau cheeses, but my comments will probably err on the side of “um, cheesy and delicious!” rather than “oaken in quality, with a buttery mouthfeel.” For now, I can only aspire to that level of pretentiousness.

– Camembert (French cowsmilk, classic, soft cheese, very creamy and rich, earthy flavor): My least favorite of the bunch, probably because it was the most familiar cheese for me. I understand the reasoning behind including it — you want to have a more basic cheese that grounds the plate and gives the diners a “safe choice.” But as it happens I prefer the less assertive nature of Brie for my soft cheeses, and since I’ve had plenty of Camembert before, I was a little disappointed we weren’t trying a more exotic variety (some sort of American cousin, maybe?). There was nothing bad about this Camembert, but nothing that made it particularly memorable.

– Tomme De Savoie (French cowsmilk cheese — milder, little firmer, described as “nutty, stout”): I discovered when I got home that Tomme De Savoie is actually on my “Cheeses to Try” list (ugh, yes, I am that person. I know, I can’t stand me either). It was a little bit more of a palate cleanser, less coating of the tastebuds than the stronger cheeses on the board. This allowed the accompaniments to shine a bit more in combination with the cheese. For example, when paired with the strawberry gelee, you got a great contrast of sweet jam and the nuttiness of the cheese. Had I been offered the Tomme De Savoie on its own, I probably would have given it a stronger review, but it got a little lost in the funky fray of the stronger cheeses.

– Garrotxa (Spanish goat cheese, semisoft): Garrotxa was actually one of the cheeses featured during our Cheese of the Month Club, and I remember enjoying it then (especially because of the unusual name.) It was also on the nutty side of things — the menu describes it as having “hints of hazelnuts,” but again I found I preferred it when spread on bread or mixed with the fig cake, rather than savoring it alone.

– Roquefort (French sheepsmilk cheese, soft, creamy, strong  tangy flavor): As I think I mentioned in my Murray’s review, I’m learning that I really love flat-out “smells like feet,” in-your-face, assertive cheeses, so any type of blue cheese is A-okay with me. This Roquefort was pungent, and paired well with the walnuts, green apples and pear slices which balanced out the tang. When tasting cheeses I find I want a cheese that will linger on your tongue a little while, and this sample did in the best way possible. Definitely of a higher quality than your average Gorgonzola crumbles.

– Trifulin (mixed milk cheese with Black Truffle, semisoft): Although I really enjoyed this cheese, I’m struggling to identify what made it so good. Perhaps it was the richness of the Black Truffle in it. It was decadent and very creamy, but milder in flavor than I expected. Honestly, if you hadn’t told me it featured truffles, I would never have been able to pick them out. But at the time I was eating it, I couldn’t stop taking more pieces. This might have been a case of enjoying the novelty and the experience of eating something rather than favoring any particular flavor.

– Holzige Geiss (Swiss cheese, semisoft goat cheese): The neat thing about this cheese is that it is wrapped in tree bark as it ages. This is no holey Swiss cheese, my friends — it had a strong flavor with a heavy, creamy quality, and a salty kick. I found myself coming back for more again and again. It spread great on the soft french bread, and lame as it might be to say, I honestly believe the bark infused it with a “woodsy” quality. It had the kind of smokey earthiness I’m drawn to in stronger cheeses. Maybe it’s the earthy, mushroomy quality that I like (geez, this blog is like “Number One Oreo and Mushroom Fan” these days). I’m going to look for this one again — hopefully they sell it at Fairway!

The board also included some charcuterie and cornichons. I only tried a small piece of the meat, but it seemed to be very delicately cured and cut — not so assertive with the pickling flavor. I appreciated the variety of meats offered, although I suppose they could have been more deliberately plated. It was interesting the way that Artisanal sort of walked the line between reserved European aloofness and a little messier American eagerness. Maybe the Plateau is the perfect symbol of their interplay between serious cheese devotion and little more freewheeling food fun.

Of course we had to have dessert -- Warm chocolate tart with salted caramel ice cream.

Naturally, we had to have dessert — Warm chocolate tart with salted caramel ice cream.

Of course, all this food was not going to stop us from getting dessert. We finished off the meal with a warm chocolate tart, which was almost like a lava cake in terms of the oozing dark chocolate inside. It came with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream and a biscuit tuile. Since this is the third time I’ve had salted caramel ice cream in the past couple of months, clearly the salt/sweet/chocolate combo is becoming very trendy. For this ice cream, the caramel flavor itself was not as strong as the saltiness, but I was okay with that given the sweetness of the chocolate tart. There was also a semisolid chocolate sauce which seemed to be made of possibly unsweetened chocolate — it did cut some of the richness of the other parts of the dish, but in a distracting way that detracted from the overall dessert. Ultimately, as good as the tart was, after the variety of flavors we’d had from the cheeseboard, it was hard for the dessert to really stand out. I think I would have appreciated it more if I had ordered a more traditional meal, but given the richness of the Plateau’s offerings, the chocolate tart was pleasant, but not anything to rave about.

Final thoughts:

I think what impressed me most about Artisanal was the attention to detail shown throughout the meal. From our attentive waitress who patiently dealt with all of our questions (how good is this dish? Is this enough food? What’s a truffle cheese?), to the clearly marked rubric for our cheeseboard, to the never empty bread basket or water glass, I came away from my meal feeling like my experience as a diner was the top priority. Yes, you’re paying slightly more than you would at Murray’s, but that surcharge goes toward quality service and frankly, better food. I would say that if you’re looking for some wine and small bites, Murray’s is a fun place to try out. It’s more casual, which caters to those who either don’t care as much about cheese education, or those who are knowledgeable enough to recognize names and types of cheese and make selections on their own. Artisanal falls in the middle of that spectrum, reaching out to those like myself who are only just figuring out the difference between Raclette and Roomano, and appreciate a little guidance. Artisanal also wins points for offering a dessert menu that I’d actually want to eat (of course this goes into personal preference, since I’d clearly rather have cheese as a main course rather than a dessert. No apple pie with cheddar for me, please. The only dairy I take with my pie is ice cream). Overall, I’d recommend Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro for a nice lunch or dinner, whether you’re a cheesehead or just looking for a slightly nouveau take on French cuisine. Settle yourself in for a classy, but down-to earth meal — rest assured that you’ll be taken care of.

Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro
2 Park Ave
http://www.artisanalbistro.com