Never Mind the Sizing, Just Try a Scoop: Solid Gelato at A. B. Biagi

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With the return of the summer season, I can finally stop making excuses for my near-constant ice cream craving. Intellectually, I always want ice cream, regardless of how the rest of my body feels about it. I’ve recently discovered I’m genetically predisposed towards this condition, when my father told me that his mother ate a bowl of ice cream nearly every day of her life. So it was really only a matter of time that I stumble into a new cup-and-cone-commissary, wide-eyed and near-drunk with the anticipation of embracing my birthright once more.

The first entry in my list of Summer 2014 frozen desserts is A.B. Biagi, a small and relatively new (they opened last summer) gelateria on Elizabeth St. Jacob and I paid a visit after our falafel-fest at Taim, braving intermittent rain to once again test the veracity of a Serious Eats rave review.

(I suppose you could argue that I’ve already broken the seal with my inhaling of a Sprinkles Sundae, but I’d counter that the focus of that dish was split between ice cream and cupcake, whereas A.B. Biagi is all about the gelato.)

 

First Impressions:

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

As I mentioned above, A. B. Biagi is only a few short blocks away from Taim, a gelato oasis in the relatively scoop-free Nolita. The bright yellow exterior gives way to a tiny store front, narrow, yet deep, with most of the space devoted to the kitchen. Inside, the walls are covered in white tiles on the bottom half, with the upper sections decorated with unconventional paintings evoking scenes of Italy on one side, and a large mural of a woman (A.B. herself?) on the other.

 

A. B., is that you?

A. B., is that you?

Across from the counter is a small bench that offers the only seating. The set up is similar to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, albeit smaller and less clinical in decor — the goal is to get you in, ordering gelato, and out again, with minimal hanging around. Although in our case, we were the only customers on a rainy Friday afternoon.

 

The Food:

 

Size is in the eye of the beholder...

I guess at this shop, size is in the eye of the beholder…

A. B. Biagi offers a rotating selection of 6 flavors of gelato, a couple of sorbets, and espresso, coffee, tea and hot chocolate (covering all your temperature-based food needs). On our visit, the options were Stracciatella, Chocolate Brigadeiro, Vegan Almond Butter, Pistachio, Chia Pudding, and Coffee gelato, and Lemon and Guava sorbet. Any of those can be scooped into A. B. Biagi’s somewhat confusingly named sizes — Tiny, Small, or Regular — which remind me of the McDonald’s strategy of renaming Super Size as Large, hoping we wouldn’t notice that the actual volume stayed exactly the same. The cashier warned us that the Small cup holds more gelato than you’d expect, so we opted to play Goldilocks and go neither too big or too small.

After sampling nearly all of the gelato flavors, we ended up splitting a Small cup of the Stracciatella and the Vegan Almond Butter. I was a little surprised that Jacob would ignore the opportunity to have chocolate gelato, but he said the Chocolate Brigadeiro was a little too sweet, and I concurred that it might be best left as its own dessert (as former employees of Brazilian animated film director Carlos Saldanha, we’ve been fortunate enough to sample more than a few authentic brigadeiro varieties, such as those from My Sweet Brigadeiro).

 

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

As promised, our cup came piled high with gelato, split between the two flavors. The Stracciatella was composed of a thick and intensely rich sweet cream base, speckled with dark chocolate shavings still big enough to offer a bit of a snap as you bit down on them. Whereas the Chocolate Brigadeiro fell more on the milk chocolate side, the chocolate in the Stracciatella was just over the edge of bitter, providing a nice contrast to the sugar of the gelato base. I was hit with a bit of childhood nostalgia when eating it, suddenly taken back to bowls of Breyer’s Chocolate Chunk ice cream out of my parents’ freezer, my teeth struggling to crack through the semi-sweet chocolate chunks.

Yet despite the memories called up by the Stracciatella, my favorite of all of A. B. Biagi’s flavors was by far the Vegan Almond Butter. Although we asked the cashier, he wasn’t sure what the base of the gelato was. It tasted like it was made of almond milk, but had the same thick consistency as the non-vegan Stracciatella, leaving me curious as to how they achieved that chewy texture (most vegan ice cream recipes I’ve seen call for coconut milk, but I couldn’t detect any coconut flavor in A. B. Biagi’s version). Regardless of the technique, the Vegan Almond Butter was absolutely delicious, creamy gelato that had a subtle almond taste, no frying-pan-to-the-face of almond extract here, punctuated with the sweetness of the almond butter, thinly swirled throughout so it was more like an array of crunchy crystals rather than a ribbon. I’ll admit that after being a lifelong peanut butter fanatic, I’ve been on a bit of of an almond butter kick, adding it to my yogurt in the morning and a few cookie recipes. It feels like a more adult flavor (at least, the raw unsweetened version I bought) — somewhat more restrained, but still giving you that wonderful nuttiness. That was the level of flavor in A. B. Biagi’s gelato as well — not the orgiastic sugar wonderland of say, Sprinkles‘ Rocky Road, but a more mature, composed dessert that you should linger over.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I was pleased with the quality of gelato at A. B. Biagi, and understand why Serious Eats was a fan (I think their offices might be close by, too…). However, considering the prices, I’d recommend checking out Vivoli or Il Laboratorio del Gelato first, depending on your tradition vs. innovation preference when it comes to gelato. Despite it being in Macy’s, you’ll get more bang for your buck at Vivoli, which still tops my list for classic gelato in NYC, and I’d tell anyone that you have to try some of the wacky flavors at Il Laboratorio if you’re a frozen dessert fan. Not to knock A. B. Biagi — they do offer a solid group of interesting and well-made gelatos, but just not of the caliber to break into my pantheon of ice creams. If you’re walking around Nolita or Little Italy, and you’re looking for a cool treat, I’d say stop by and try the Almond Butter. Maybe I was just born this way, but I think you can make any day better with the addition of just a little gelato.

 

A. B. Biagi

235 Elizabeth St (Between Houston and Prince)

abbiagi.com

Brief Bites: Taim

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Ever since I got back from my Birthright trip last year, I’ve been on the hunt for good falafel in New York. After my misleadingly named fiasco of a falafel at Market Table, I thought perhaps I should resign myself to inferior offerings on this side of the Atlantic. Maybe the falafel of the Holyland is a product of Israel’s water, like the bagels in New York. Or maybe falafel is one of those foods that you just aren’t meant to eat at a table with a knife and fork, but rather should be deposited directly in your mouth by means of messy, saucy street pita. I’ll have to hit up a few more food carts to answer that question properly (not to mention pay a visit to the famous Mamoun’s Falafel, which arguably has the cheapest falafel sandwich, recently raised to an outrageous $3.50). Or perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle ground, far from the black and white pronouncements like so many of life’s great quandaries. Perhaps it takes a combination of native handiwork and a little New York thrift to produce American falafel worth frying — the kind you’ll find at Einat Admony’s Taim Falafel & Smooth Bar.

 

The Set Up:

The tightly packed Taim, full of lunch rush patrons.

The tightly packed Taim, full of lunch rush patrons.

Taim’s Nolita location (their original spot is in the West Village) is just a few blocks away from the Spring St. 6 stop, so I’ve walked by the storefront many times, but never found an opportunity to stop for a meal. Given the multiplicity of mediocre falafel-purveyors in NYC, I only noticed Taim once I read that Serious Eats had pronounced it to be the best in the city. And then Jacob had to come back from the Middle East talking endlessly of falafel and shawarma, virtually ensuring that Taim would be a part of my NYC Staycation before starting a new job.

Taim (which means “tasty” in Hebrew) is the casual chainlet of Chef Einat Admony, a Tel Aviv emigrant who also owns the sit-down restaurants Balaboosta and newly-opened Bar Bolonat. I’m eager to try all of her establishments, since she seems to bring together reverence for the ingredients and techniques of her heritage with a more modern whimsy.

The Nolita Taim is a small, modern boxy space that sits on the corner of the block, with the counter and kitchen in the back. The exterior walls are plate glass, which helps to keep the space from feeling too dark and claustrophobic, and rest of the space is decked out in vibrant colors, from the bright green of the back wall to the traffic-cone orange stools. Those stools, and the bar-height counters paired with them, are the only seating in Taim, suggesting the shop is mainly intended for take-away. This makes sense given the high volume of customers we saw pass through during our brief lunch — they’d never be able to seat everyone anyway.

 

The Bites:

Taim's topping bar, a panoply of sauces and salads.

Taim’s topping bar, a panoply of sauces and salads.

Taim’s menu covers smoothies, sandwiches, salads, platters, spreads and sides (they also have a small case with a few desserts, like baklava). Jacob and I opted to share a Falafel Sandwich (green falafel, with hummus, Israeli salad, pickled cabbage and tahini sauce) and a Sabich Sandwich (sliced eggplant, fried to order, with an organic egg, parsley, hummus, israeli salad, pickled cabbage, tahini sauce and amba), both on whole wheat pita (you have a choice of wheat or white). When I go back to Taim, I’d really like to try one of their platters so I can sample the salads — I enjoyed the traditional Israeli salad included in my sandwich, but they’ve got several other options like a Moroccan Carrot Salad, and varieties of beet and eggplant-based spreads and salads.

 

Our cozily wrapped sandwiches -- Falafel on the right, Sabich on the left.

Our cozily wrapped sandwiches — Falafel on the right, Sabich on the left.

The Falafel Sandwich, nearly bursting at the seams.

The Falafel Sandwich, nearly bursting at the seams.

Both of our sandwiches came wrapped in wax paper and nestled in a wooden bowl, which proved to be extremely prudent as our overstuffed pitas deteriorated upon attack. The front view photo reveals how packed these pitas were, and as with most falafel sandwiches, I found that the further into the meal you get, the soggier your pita becomes, leading it to fall apart at the tail end of the sandwich, a product of hummus/tahini sauce gravitational pull. This is a shortfall of the entire pita genus, however, and not a reflection on Taim’s iteration, which overall was a simple, but excellent falafel sandwich. Taim actually offers 3 flavors of falafel: the traditional Green (with parsley, cilantro, mint), the mildly spicy Harissa (mixed with Tunisian spices), and the Red (mixed with roasted red pepper). Despite the cashier’s strong suggestion to try the Harissa, I chose the Green, wanting to test the mettle of the traditional for my first Taim experience. Although I’m game to try the Harissa next time, the Green falafel was stellar — the balls were crispy on the outside, their exterior coating holding up against the tahini sauce which was creamy but discernibly sesame-flavored. Once I bit into a falafel ball, I encountered a chewy, moist interior with a solid chickpea flavor, subtly underlined by the herbs. The remaining elements of the sandwich integrated well, the Israeli salad providing textural contrast and some moisture to combat the whipped-butter viscosity of the smooth hummus.

 

The Sabich Sandwich up close, a little unevenly distributed.

The Sabich Sandwich up close, a little unevenly distributed.

The fact that Taim offered a Sabich sandwich was the tipping point for Jacob, after he had fallen in love with them in Israel. As with the Falafel sandwich, the pita was fluffy and pliant, with a prominent whole wheat taste, and the hummus and tahini were obviously just as good, since they all come from the same source. Initially I found the sandwich too segmented — you can see from the photo that one side is virtually sauce-less, while the other side is submerged in tahini. There was also an iceberg of hard boiled egg floating in that sauce-sea, which I think would benefit from being chopped up and distributed throughout the sandwich. As you got further down into the pita, the flavors did meld together more, with the oily, sweet eggplant playing against the nutty tahini and hummus, and the sour/sweet amba (pickled mango-fenugreek chutney) adding a wholly different tasting note (which felt almost Indian-inspired to me). The Sabich fell apart slightly more at the end than the Falafel, leading to a fork-mandatory situation, which I actually thought helped to coalesce the elements of the dish. Even though it costs more, I think the Sabich works better as a platter, since it’s hard to get both eggplant and egg in one bite if you go the sandwich route.

The Last Licks:

I haven’t had enough falafel in the city to really assess the veracity of Serious Eats, but I definitely agree with them that Taim offers an exemplary model of the food. Admony has solved the age-old issues of hard-as-rock exteriors, flavorless interiors, or dry as bones chickpea fritters. Taim’s not looking to reinvent the wheel here (after all, they don’t even offer the “chips” topping I got at Tasty Falafel 4), but they do a damn good job making straightforward sandwiches. I’m hoping to pay a few more visits and sample the rest of the menu, especially the platters I ogled as we exited the shop. I’ll be honest, my favorite pita spot is still Taboonette down by Union Square, because of the sheer variety of their menu (and the fact that it’s still really well-done), but Taim has some standout falafel that make a trip to Nolita or the West Village a worthwhile investment. So head on down there, to ponder life’s great questions of chickpea-based cuisine, or simply to awaken your tastebuds — either way, they’ve got plenty of balls to go around.

 

Taim

45 Spring St.

http://www.taimfalafel.com/

Vox Populi: Spuds 2.0 Unveiled at Shake Shack

Although the title implies I’m going to be talking about Shake Shack, I promise that no hamburgers were consumed in the making of this post. After my killer dinner at Peter Luger, I’m letting the dust settle a bit before breaking into beef again. If you’re really curious, I do like the Shackburger, but this time around we’re going to focus on some of the lesser known elements of the menu.

If you haven’t heard, Danny Meyer recently admitted a gap in the Shake Shack menu, a crack in the metaphorical frozen custard concrete of the brand. Granted, he only admitted that flaw by immediately offering a new solution, but who would expect any less from the Sultan of Shack?

The issue: the Shack’s french fries, a quintessential part of any fast food meal, and a topic of some controversy in the food blogosphere. Prominent food writers like Ed Levine of Serious Eats had bemoaned the Shack’s cooked-from-frozen crinkle cuts, limp and generic in the face of Meyer’s ethos of heightening fast food with fresh ingredients and quality service. Personally, I’d never given much thought to the fries at Shake Shack. I’m actually pretty ambivalent about the restaurant on the whole — I know both people who actively dislike it, and some diehard fans who rack up multiple visits in a week. I can vouch that I’ve never had a bad meal there, but I’ve probably only been a handful of times since they opened their first shop in 2004. Casting a more contemplative eye towards the fries, however, I do tend to agree with the critics. As a potato enthusiast, I liked the old Shack fries because of a certain level of nostalgia (they reminded me of the Ore-Ida frozen fries my parents would occasionally serve as a dinner treat), but the truth is that they were substandard given the care put into the rest of the dishes Shake Shack offers. Yes, the crinkle cut fries had merit, since frying from frozen guarantees a consistent level of quality. But it also means that the flavor potential is capped — you’re never going to achieve the freshness you’d get from newly cut potatoes straight out of the fryer.

And so, 9 years after opening, Shake Shack admitted that they really had been listening. As they proudly announced on their website (http://www.shakeshack.com/2013/08/06/fresh-cut-fries-debut-at-ues-shake-shack/), they are, as of last week, serving fresh cut, never frozen, skin-on fries. It was revealed that the Upper East Side location served as the test kitchen, the staff spending countless hours training before opening each day. Right now you can only get the new fries at the UES branch, leaving a strange potato-paradox of past and present iterations coexisting in Manhattan, the crinkle and the fresh-cut fries simultaneously available with only a cross-town bus ride between them.

As it happens, despite living on the UES for 3 years, I’d actually never been to the Shake Shack up by me (I’ve visited their Upper West, Times Square, and Madison Square Park locations), so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to check out my local shop and be overly judgmental about some side dishes.

 

First Impressions:

The familiar logo at the entrance to the UES Shake Shack.

The familiar logo at the entrance to the Upper East Side Shake Shack.

The UES Shake Shack is on 86th Street between 3rd and Lex, so it’s nearly impossible to avoid walking by unless you’re a hermit who never leaves the neighborhood. The entrance features the familiar prominent plate glass windows, metallic lettering, and green neon fixtures of the rest of the chain’s locations. The restaurant itself is below street level, along with the outdoor plaza next door, which is technically open to the public but seems pretty much exclusively used by Shake Shack customers. Inside you’re greeted with the same pseudo-industrial aesthetic I noticed at BurgerFi — plain planks of wood siding and tables, green plastic chairs, and cool metal surfaces.

Looking down into the public plaza that also serves as an outdoor dining  area.

Looking down into the public plaza that also serves as an outdoor dining area.

The restaurant was in full-on fry propaganda mode. Outside, the windows had signs announcing “fresh cuts,” and the normal burger-shaped neon sign had been swapped for a new icon displaying a cup of fries. Inside, all of the employees were decked out in brand new green shirts with the same fry-cup design, topped with the caption “We Heard.” The Specials chalkboard near the menu featured the following message (note the hashtag), and there were announcement flyers detailing the new fries prominently displayed near the registers.

Did we mention we have new french fries?

I’m not sure if you knew, but Shake Shack has new fries.

No seriously, they're brand new.

No seriously, they’re brand new. But they’re keeping it kind of on the DL, hush-hush, you know?

I figured that as long as I was being adventurous, I might as well take a chance on Shake Shack’s vegetarian option, the ‘Shroom Burger, to make sure I ingest as many fried foods in one sitting as possible. Luckily, Jacob was there to split my order of fries, and he also opted for a non-hamburger item, choosing the Chicken Dog with Shack-Cago style fixings. Post meal, because somehow we weren’t totally stuffed, we also split a Single Concrete of Vanilla/Chocolate swirl with Chocolate Truffle Cookie Dough.

 

The Food:

Our overflowing tray of the new fries -- golden-brown, crispy, and a major improvement.

Our overflowing tray of the new fries — golden-brown, crispy, and a major improvement.

First things, first — the fries. In my review of BurgerFi, the french fries ended up being the standout dish of the meal — my preferred medium-cut with good crisp and a bit of skin still on. Shake Shack’s new fries are very much of the same spirit, except thinner-cut. They completely lived up to the advertising copy — thin, starchy, salty, with obvious skin on at least one side of each fry, and a discernibly fresh potato flavor. None of the fries were limp or soggy, nor did I find any blackened burnt sticks, an impressive feat given the relative inexperience of the kitchen. Our generous portion seemed to be the norm as I watched other orders being filled, and because the fries are now thinner, I think it’s better bang for your buck than the chunkier old crinkle-cuts. Overall, I was impressed by the consistency of the fries, and the streamlined service the staff at Shake Shack had already conformed to — they had upwards of 5 people working the fry line during my visit (only a few days after initiating Operation: New Fries). It’s definitely a positive change for Shake Shack, especially because it’s more in line with their ethos of conscious fast food.

The fry line in action -- there are at least three people farther down the row working the friers.

The fry line in action — there are at least three people farther down the row working the friers.

The 'Shroom Burger, a vegetarian, if not exactly "lighter" option at Shake Shack.

The ‘Shroom Burger, a vegetarian, if not exactly “lighter” option at Shake Shack.

Unfortunately, I think there is still room for improvement in the vegetarian section of their menu. The ‘Shroom Burger (Crisp-fried portobello mushroom filled with melted muenster and cheddar cheese, topped with lettuce, tomato and ShackSauce) came out looking like a thick hockey-puck of crispy fried breading, like someone had tried to surreptitiously replace a beef patty with a monstrous mozzarella stick (on second thought, that doesn’t sound half bad). Although it plainly states on the menu that it’s a fried mushroom, in my head I had just skipped over that fact, imaging a vegetarian take on a Midwestern Juicy Lucy (a burger stuffed with cheese) with the portobello meat as the main attraction. The ‘Shroom comes with the same fixins’ as a regular Shackburger, and I while found the trademark Shacksauce paired well with the salty layer of fried crust,  I felt the sauce’s tanginess clashed with the mushroom flesh once I made it deeper into the patty.

Biting into the 'Shroom Burger, you're met with a oozing onslaught of hot cheese. Delicious, but slightly dangerous .

Biting into the ‘Shroom Burger, you’re met with a oozing onslaught of hot cheese. Delicious, but slightly dangerous .

As Jacob had warned, biting into the fried ball yielded a cascade of gooey molten cheese, so proceed with caution lest you burn your tongue. The muenster and cheddar were a great combination — once I was past the middle of the patty, and had mostly leftover cheese and naked mushroom flesh, that’s when I thought the dish really succeeded, with a strong flavor from the portobello shining through. Ultimately, I found the breading merely a distraction from the merits of the burger, unnecessary especially considering the lovely potato bun that Shake Shack uses for its sandwiches. The breading was salty and overwhelming, distracting from the inherent umami combination of the mushroom, tomato, and cheeses. I’d rather Shake Shack take their Shackburger and just sub the beef for a couple portobello caps, or even make a ground up mushroom burger and stuff that with cheese, rather than hiding the pleasure of flavorful fungi behind a mask of crowd-pleasing battered breading.

The Chicken Sausage Dog, piled high with all the Shack-Cago trimmings.

The Chicken Sausage Dog, piled high with all the Shack-Cago trimmings.

Jacob seemed to enjoy his Chicken Sausage Dog (Shake Shack chicken, apple and sage sausage), which was topped with the Shack-cago Dog fixings (Rick’s Picks Shack relish, onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper, celery salt and mustard). I thought the sausage itself was great — don’t expect it to taste like a hot dog, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the interplay of the sweet apple and the earthy, herbal sage. I found the toppings to be a bit overwhelming, however. Maybe I’m just a fuddy-duddy when it comes to hot dogs — gimme some ketchup, maybe some mustard, and I’m all set. Here I was disappointed by how the pickles and celery salt overpowered the subtle sausage flavors with their intense vinegar bent.

Our swirled Vanilla/Chocolate Concrete with Chocolate Truffle Dough. Take that, Dixie Cup!

Chocolate custard with dark chocolate truffle pieces — proof positive you can never have too much chocolate.

I feel like I barely have to give a review of the Concrete, because most of the time I find Maggie + ice cream = immense satisfaction, and this is just another proof of the validity of that equation. But I do think I should mention that while BurgerFi wins the french fry race in my heart (because of their slightly thicker-cut fries), Shake Shack has a lock on the frozen custard competition. Both the vanilla and the chocolate flavors were smoothy, creamy, and tasted exactly like what they claimed to be (some might think this would be obvious, but some frozen dessert shops, like Tasti D-Lite, offer vanilla and chocolate flavors that are somewhat different, but definitely don’t taste like a chocolate bar or a vanilla bean. It’s more of a “flavor A” or “flavor B” scenario). The texture of Shake Shack’s custard is somewhere between Mr. Softee’s soft-serve and Rita’s frozen custard. The Chocolate Truffle Cookie Dough was misleading, because it seemed just like small chunks of chocolate truffles (I’m pretty sure truffles aren’t baked anyway, so using the term dough seems unnecessary), but regardless of nomenclature, they were delicious —  rich, dense, dark chocolate, just chewy enough to linger on your tongue as the custard melted away. My only complaint is that the truffle pieces were few and far between — I could have doubled down on those truffles, easy-as-pie (or custard, I suppose).

 

Final Thoughts:

Shake Shack’s empire is expanding exponentially these days, with new locations popping up both around the country (Washington DC and Boston this summer, Las Vegas in 2014), and around the world (London and Istanbul in just the past few months). With all of this growth, it’s gratifying to see that the company is still looking for new ways to improve their offerings. It still makes a difference what people are saying about their food, beyond focus groups and market tests. Will these french fries ever win a worldwide competition? Hardly — you’re better off checking our Pommes Frites down in the East Village if you want some hardcore fry action. But if you’re in Shake Shack, contemplating your options, pick up a side order — they’ll put Mickey D’s fries to shame.

I don’t doubt that once Shake Shack rolls out these new fries to all their locations, there will hardly be the same level of quality assurance. But the initial impulse comes from the right place. Yes, this is a fast food chain, yes, it’s a corporate monolith (although not faceless like McDonalds, thanks to Danny Meyer), and yes, there may even be a bit of disappointing discarding of principles in the face of business decisions (such as Chipotle’s new investigation into using antibiotic-treated meat). But for now, as Shake Shack is so proudly shouting out to the world, what the people want, the people will get. Maybe if we use our mouths as more than hamburger-receptacles,  it could lead to more changes, like a few more vegetarian options on the  menu. Danny Meyer’s aiming to empower, so  speak up, the Shack‘s all ears.

Shake Shack

(Multiple locations, new fries only at 154 E. 86th St)

http://www.shakeshack.com/

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