Restaurant Week Brunch at El Toro Blanco: Indulgent Mexican Comfort Food

2014-02-23 12.31.29

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming to bring you another NYC restaurant review. Just before Jacob left for his own Birthright trip, we snuck in a few Winter Restaurant Week meals, the first of which was at El Toro Blanco. Although it had been on my list for a while, I was especially drawn to the restaurant because it was one of the only establishments that offered a brunch option for RW, and how can you resist the dual siren call of Mexican brunch and a 3 course prefixe for $25? Plus, we had to make sure Jacob topped off his salsa quota before flying off to the lands of hummus and shawarma. And thanks to El Toro Blanco, he got to indulge in more than enough queso fresco before trading his tortilla for pita.

 

First Impressions:

The main dining space of El Toro Blanco made me think of a 1970s dream "man-cave."

The main dining space of El Toro Blanco made me think of a 1970s dream “man-cave.”

El Toro Blanco is one of those restaurants you’re bound to walk by a million times, since it’s located on 6th Ave, just off of Houston. Sitting on a wide block on the west side of the street, there was a small fenced-off area I assume is for outdoor dining in warmer weather, although on the blustery day we visited, I was happy to be seated inside. The interior of the restaurant is a open and full of light, thanks to the plate glass windows lining the front. There’s a bit of a 1970s living room vibe to the decor — lots of wood paneling, black bricks and orange leather, with some multicolored hanging lanterns and funky art on the wall (ranging from the Mexican flag to multiple paintings of bulls, or “toros”).

 

The main bar, with the small upstairs dining room above it.

The main bar, with the small upstairs dining room above it.

The main bar is directly across from the front door, but there’s another small bar just to the right as you enter, both offering seats for dining as well. When we first arrived at 12:30, the place was pretty empty, but by the end of our brunch it had filled up, with most of the space at the bar taken up by people both eating and drinking. We were led up to a table in the small upstairs section behind the main bar, which gave you a nice view of the dining room below, and was a little quieter until a large group of half-tipsy women took over the banquette tables across from us.

 

Our quiet little hideaway of tables, until the ladies brunch arrived.

Our quiet little hideaway of tables, until the ladies brunch arrived (after these guys left).

Overall the service was friendly if not overly attentive, probably because El Toro Blanco is such a popular spot. It’s clearly a trendy place that has high volume (and likely rowdy) brunches, so it’s no surprise that they’re happy to make suggestions, but hardly hang on your every word like our waiter at Ippudo. I should give credit to our hostess who offered us her advice on the best brunch dishes — we ended up ordering based on her suggestions, and her taste was impeccable.

 

The Food:

While there were a number of appealing drinks on the cocktail menu, Jacob and I opted for a dry brunch (let’s just say there was a raucous wine and cheese going away soiree for him the night before). El Toro Blanco’s Winter Restaurant Week brunch offered three courses for $25, with most of their regular offerings available on the RW menu. Based on our own Mexican brunch preferences, and the enthusiastic reviews from the hostess, Jacob started with the Costillas Empanadas, and I ordered the Oaxaqueño Tamale, a substitution from the main menu since they had run out of the special RW Elote Verde Tamale. For main courses Jacob got the Chilaquiles con Huevos, and I had the Huevos Rancheros Verdes, and for dessert Jacob chose the Cinnamon & Sugar Churros and I went with the Mexican Chocolate Cake. All of the portions were substantial and filling, leaving me very satisfied with the cost-to-plate ratio.

 

My substitue Oaxaquena Tamale -- unanticipated, but delicious.

My substitute  Oaxaqueno Tamale — unanticipated, but delicious.

The Elote Verde Tamale (fresh corn, roasted poblano chile, queso fresco, crema, green chile salsa) had piqued my interest, especially since I don’t have a lot of experience with green salsa. So even though I was disappointed to miss out on it, the Oaxaqueño Tamale (roasted chicken, plantain, red mole, queso cotija, crema) was a more than satisfying substitution. I almost always jump at the chance to have plantains (tostones, I love you), although here they mostly served as a textural element. The hefty, square tamale arrived absolutely slathered in red mole, which gave the entire dish a deep cocoa richness. Between that, the sweetness from the plantains, and the crema and cotija cheese, this was a pretty decadent start to the meal (and a good indication of what was to come). My fork sliced easily through the cornmeal wrapper into the interior of shredded chicken and cheese. I think the Elote Verde might have been a slightly lighter and spicier opening act, but I had no complaints about the deep flavor of its tamale understudy.

 

I mean, how can you go wrong with fried dough, meat and cheese?

The Costillas Empanadas — I mean, how can you go wrong with fried dough, meat and cheese?

Jacob’s Costillas Empanadas (slow roasted short rib, oaxaca cheese, ancho barbecue, crema) were more cleanly plated, two petite pockets of dough with just a small cup of sauce next to them. I can’t count the number of short rib dishes I’ve talked about on this blog, but I’m sure a quick search will give an overly detailed account of my love for this iteration of beef. I’d even venture that it has replaced brisket in the top spot (except for my mom’s Passover version, of course). El Toro Blanco presented another fine rendition of short rib, the meat tender and juicy, combining with the oaxaca cheese to evoke an upscale mexican cheeseburger. The dough shell was fried to golden-brown, crispy on the edges and chewy in the middle, its flavor subtle and mostly just a vehicle for the filling and the bbq dipping sauce, heavy on the smoky umami flavor and with just a bit of a kick from the ancho. While my tamale was good, these were really memorable empanadas, high quality and well worth returning for.

 

The Huevos Rancheros Verdes, a cornucopia of Mexican ingredients.

The Huevos Rancheros Verdes, a veritable cornucopia of Mexican ingredients.

Once we moved beyond the appetizers, the entrees and desserts were all versions of dishes I’d had before, but I was impressed by the precision and care which El Toro Blanco put into their cooking. Turns out I unintentionally ensured my opportunity to have green salsa by orering the Huevos Rancheros Verdes (corn tortillas, ham, refried pinto beans, sunny side up eggs green chile salsa, queso fresco, avocado, pico de gallo). What I like about huevos rancheros is that so many places add small, unconventional touches to their take on the dish, be it the meat or beans used, or even the plating. El Toro Blanco’s version starts with crispy corn tortillas on the bottom, hardy enough to hold up against the onslaught of sauces and cheeses, without being rock hard like a recent rendition I had to stab my way through at another brunch. The base was topped with sunny side up eggs and smothered in beans, green chile salsa, pico de gallo, and queso fresco. I had channeled a bit of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally when ordering, asking to sub the ham for chorizo, but to be honest, I didn’t even really notice the meat, except that it added a little heat and some textural density. Sure, it looks somewhat messy, but if you look closer you can see how everything is actually quite well-executed and composed. The eggs have crispy edges at the rim of the white, with soft domes of yolk just waiting to be broken and flood out onto the dish, the fresh cut tomatoes and onions split the tortillas in contrast to the vivid color of the salsa verde. I’m glad I did get to try El Toro Blanco’s salsa verde, which was bright and tart from the tomatillos, but I think I actually prefer having both red and green salsa on my eggs, like in Huevos Divorciados (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huevos_divorciados).

 

The Chilaquiles -- don't judge a book by its cover, this guy will hulk smash your hangover.

The Chilaquiles con Huevos — don’t judge a book by its cover, this guy will hulk smash your hangover.

While huevos rancheros is my go-to for Latin brunch, Jacob is a sucker for chilaquiles, so he was just as excited for his entree. El Toro Blanco’s Chilaquiles con Huevos (baked saucy nachos, guajillo salsa, fried eggs, melted mexican cheese, crema, avocado, pico de gallo) had the most interesting presentation of the meal, arriving in a little cast iron pan. One glimpse at the dish and it’s clear why it’s a perfect brunch item — it’s basically nachos + eggs, so plenty of carbs and cheese to sop up hangover ills. Despite the petite plating, this was a deceptively large portion, layer upon layer of chips divided by thick strands of mexican cheese mixed with crema, salsa, and pico de gallo, and then topped with a generous sprinkling of even more cotija, to fully ward off the lactose intolerant. You can’t even see the fried eggs in there, but believe me, the same creamy yolks were hiding in wait to spill out and put the whole dish over the top. While I enjoyed the tastes I had of Jacob’s dish, I found myself more eager to return to my own entree, overwhelmed by the carb and dairy bonanza of his tasty gut-bomb of a dish.

 

The Mexican Chocolate Cake

The Mexican Chocolate Cake with bonus matchstick churros.

It’s lucky that both Jacob and I are freaks of nature with secondary stomachs designed solely for dessert consumption, because after our mountains of cheese and salsa, there was still another course to come. There ended up being a fair amount of overlap between our desserts, each of our dishes highlighting chocolate, dulce de leche, and cinnamon-sugar flavors. My Mexican Chocolate Cake (matchstick churros & dulce de leche ice cream) came with mini churros (bonus!), and ended up being a more refined version of a lava cake. The cake itself was made of a moist crumb of rich chocolate with a hint of chili powder, totally covered in a thick chocolate sauce that made each forkful gooey. The dulce de leche ice cream was sweet without being overpoweringly sugary, and the mini churros gave a bit of a crunchy break to the other soft elements of the plate. Much like my huevos rancheros, this dessert wasn’t groundbreaking, but rather a familiar treat done very well.

 

And their big brothers, the Cinnamon Sugar Churros.

And their big brothers, the Cinnamon Sugar Churros, with addictive chocolate and dulce de leche sauces.

When Jacob’s Cinnamon & Sugar Churros (chocolate & dulce de leche sauces) came to the table, I initially thought he had gotten the short end of the stick (er, churro?), since there were only two pieces in the basket. Fortunately, much like his little pan of chilaquiles, these churros proved to be plenty filling. The two pieces were hefty logs of fried dough doused in cinnamon and sugar, each bite starting with a crisp and crunchy crust that gave way to an airy interior. I think I prefer these to the churros we had at LeChurro, although I may be inviting controversy by unfairly comparing Mexican and Spanish churros. I was largely swayed by the dipping sauces El Toro Blanco served with the churros. I found myself dipping and double dipping into the chocolate and dulce de leche sauces, long after Jacob had finished.

 

Final Thoughts:

It’s always nice to find a solid restaurant to add to your rotation, and I would say my RW brunch at El Toro Blanco earned it a spot. Aside from my tamale, none of the dishes were unknown territory for me, but all of them were well-seasoned and extremely generous in portion size. Sure, their regular menu is pricier than your average Mexican spot, but if the RW service is any indication, you certainly get your money’s worth. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to come back and try the rest of El Toro Blanco’s offerings, especially in the summer, when I can sit outside, sip a cocktail, and then walk all the way home after scaling a mountain of tortilla and cheese.

 

El Toro Blanco

257 Avenue of the Americas (off Houston)

eltoroblanconyc.com

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

2013-07-28 18.49.46

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

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

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

 

First Impressions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

 

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

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

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

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

The Food:

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

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Final Thoughts:

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

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

 

Spice Market

403 W 13th St

New York, NY 10014

spicemarketnewyork.com

Review: Kutsher’s Tribeca, or What Would Your Mother Think?

I owe you all an apology about missing last week — trust me, there are some lame excuses (blah, blah bad cold, blah, blah crazy work week). I tried to make it up to you by writing a super huge review of my recent dinner at Kutsher’s Tribeca. Hopefully the high level of detail is informative, rather than snore-inducing.

Despite nearly two decades of Four Questions experience, my love of a good discount (3/$5 Progresso Soups? score!), and my ability to drop “oys” like Jay-Z drops rhymes, I have a complicated relationship with Jewish food. Sure, I love a good New York bagel, but I prefer mine with plain old cream cheese — none of this whitefish salad or scallion nonsense, and heaven forbid lox enter the equation. I’m pretty much the black sheep of the family due to my distaste for salmon in any form, and I’ve never liked pickles, kosher or otherwise. On the other hand, I have a real appreciation for some of the more calendar-specific elements of Jewish cuisine — Rosh Hashanah gives me an excuse to stuff my face with kugel, Chanukah means it’s acceptable to eat the equivalent of Waffle House hash browns for 8 days straight, and Passover, while generally forcing me on a low-carb diet, also means that my mother will bust out her lifechanging Matzoh Ball Soup recipe.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I made a reservation for a Restaurant Week dinner at Kutsher’s Tribeca. The restaurant pays homage to the famed Catskills resort, where I imagine many of my grandparents’ Borscht Belt brethren literally loosened their slacks over some beet soup. As a girl who will generally order turkey breast over chopped liver at a deli, I was concerned about my options. But I had read some reviews of Kutsher’s that suggested reinvention was the name of the game. With my trusty foodie crew in tow (Jacob and Mike of Murray’s and Big Gay Ice Cream fame), I decided to let my Bubbe Flag fly. After all, it was Friday night, and my mother would be glad I was having a nice Shabbos meal.

The rather unassuming entrance to Kutsher's Tribeca

The rather unassuming entrance to Kutsher’s Tribeca

First Impressions

Kutscher’s Tribeca is located, unsurprisingly, down in Tribeca. I’ve always enjoyed walking around the area, but I’ve done it so infrequently that the neighborhood remains pretty anonymous for me, all former industrial buildings and empty dreams of running into Robert DeNiro. From the outside, Kutsher’s has a fairly generic appearance — a little modernist white palette, some darker tones on the oak entrance, a window that lets you peer into the sleek bar area, again largely shaded in black and white. Once you head into the restaurant, you get a better sense of the space. The medium sized bar gives way to a somewhat narrow front dining room, separated by a half-wall of suspended metal strings into the wider back room.

The inside of Kutsher's, just by the bar: synagogue chic.

The inside of Kutsher’s, just by the bar: synagogue chic.

The resounding impression I got from the decor was “upscale synagogue.” Gold plating, metal sculptures, and bright white granite surround you. If Kutsher’s was trying to evoke some nostalgia for the heady days of bar and bat mitzvah season, they definitely succeeded. It was as if by stepping into the restaurant, you were suddenly embroiled in a war between the aesthetics of a Hebrew school kiddush and the contemporary New York dining scene.

Food and Drink

Our "bread basket" of whole wheat and white challah and herbed butter.

Our “bread basket” of whole wheat and white challah and herbed butter.

Our meal started with a complimentary slate of small slices of white and whole wheat challah, with a herbed butter of some sort, maybe scallions or chives? When paired with the challah, it reminded me most of scallion cream cheese, and definitely pushed my palette in the right direction (ie, the Jewish one). Jacob and Mike had ordered cocktails while waiting for me, so I joined them and ordered the Poached Pear Bellini. It was sweet but not cloying, with a surprising lack of champagne flavor, and a bit of a spice kick when you got to the bottom. If you’re in the mood for a girly, fruity drink, I would recommend it.

Our cocktails -- my bellini is in the champagne flute to the right.

Our cocktails — my bellini is in the champagne flute to the right.

During Restaurant Week you can only order off a prix fixe menu, so this review may cover items that aren’t generally offered (although I think Kutsher’s actually did a good job of representing their usual menu). Socialist foodies that we are, Jacob, Mike and I agreed to do the meal family-style, in order to make our way through the majority of the prix fixe options. We did go off-menu for one item: the Challah Grilled Cheese, which is normally only offered at lunch, but seemed too good a dish on paper to pass up.
We started with the Pastrami Reuben Egg Roll, Mrs. K’s Matzo Ball Soup, Crispy Potato Latkes, and Challah Grilled Cheese. You know, just to whet our appetites. Here’s a quick breakdown of the appetizers:

The Pastrami Reuben Egg Roll, hands down my favorite dish of the night.

The Pastrami Reuben Egg Roll, hands down my favorite dish of the night.

-Pastrami Reuben Egg Roll (house-cured pastrami, emmentaler, sauerkraut and spicy duck sauce): How can you go wrong with a perfectly fried egg roll? I almost want to always eat Reubens this way — you have the wonderful contrast of texture with the crunchy outer shell and the tenderness of the deli meat and sauerkraut. The filling was salty without overwhelming my taste buds, salted just to the point of enhancing the creamy cheese, although between the richness of the pastrami and the dough, the specific flavor of the emmentaler was hard to detect. I wouldn’t really call the duck sauce spicy, but it paired better than expected with the pastrami. Overall, this actually ended up being my favorite dish of the entire night.

Mrs. K's Matzo Ball Soup -- c'mon, just one matzoh ball?

Mrs. K’s Matzo Ball Soup — c’mon, just one matzoh ball?

– Mrs. K’s Matzo Ball Soup (egg noodles, carrots, celery, chives and dill): Now as I mentioned above, I have extremely high standards when it comes to matzoh ball soup. My mother makes a simple, classic soup — just broth and balls, made with real chicken shmaltz (chicken fat skimmed off the stock, for the goyim out there). Perhaps because of this background, I found Kutsher’s iteration pretty disappointing.  The broth was very good — clearly made from real stock, with underlying notes of chicken and herbs. I would buy the broth just to use as cold medicine. The egg noodles were also great, and looked like they were freshly pulled. Generally I don’t think of egg noodles having much flavor, so I appreciated the homemade quality that actually lent them a presence in the soup. But then we come to the supposed star of the show, the matzoh ball, and here’s where Kutsher’s let me down. The matzoh ball was just plain bland. You could almost tell just by looking at it — stark white and too smooth. To Kutsher’s credit, it had a better texture than I expected, neither so soft as to fall apart once you scooped out a piece, nor requiring a chisel to cut through. While definitely better than the from-frozen glop you get at the local diner, to me, this soup fell short. If you’re going to go the traditional route (no fried wonton here), you better bring your A-game in quality.

Crispy Potato Latkes -- they suffered from some of the same issues as the soup, but fried stuff always tastes great.

Crispy Potato Latkes — they suffered from some of the same issues as the soup, but let’s be honest,  frying anything will make it taste pretty damn good.

– Crispy Potato Latkes (local apple compote and sour cream): Once again I come up against personal cooking experiences vs. a restaurant dish. I recently made my own latkes for Chanukah, and while these were certainly quality pancakes, I’m partial to my my own recipe’s proportions of potato and onion. However, I thought that Kutsher’s kitchen has more native latke talent than matzoh ball skills. Maybe it has something to do with their frying, since the egg roll also shined. The latkes were not too thick or overwhelmingly starchy, and had a nice brown cook on them. I don’t like sour cream on latkes, so I didn’t try it, but the apple compote had a fresh flavor to it. It seemed closer to homemade applesauce in texture, and not as sweet as I tend to think of compote being (probably because my knowledge of compote stems from college cafeteria waffle toppings — mmm, berries in heavy syrup).

The Challah Grilled Cheese -- amazing in concept, less so in execution.

The Challah Grilled Cheese — amazing in concept, less so in execution.

-Challah Grilled Cheese (cheddar, fontina, house-cured veal bacon & roasted tomatoes): As I mentioned earlier, we ordered this dish specifically because of how good it sounded. The description sounds like a beautiful smorgasbord of buttery, yeasty challah griddled and overflowing with cheese and bacon. Considering my last trip with this bunch was to Murray’s Cheese Bar, it comes as no shock that we had high hopes for a cheese-based entree. Alas, the reality was a far cry from our cheesy fantasies. The slivers of challah that had graced our bread basket were replaced with what appeared to be half of a loaf of thick, barely toasted challah. I personally prefer my challah from Zomicks, which falls on the eggy side of the challah-flavor spectrum (if this doesn’t exist, I’m patenting the concept), as opposed to the white Wonderbread type challah you also find at Fairway. Kutsher’s was more on the whitebread side of the spectrum, somewhat bland in flavor and almost too fluffy. There was just way too much challah and too little filling — I felt as thought if we had taken the sandwich apart, we would have found one slice of cheddar, one slice of fontina, a thinly sliced tomato and some bacon bits. This meant that the overall flavor was pretty much challah. I am a self-professed carbavore, but when you promise me meat and cheese, I’d expect them to have some sort of presence in the sandwich. The dish also came with fries, which were certainly well-made, but not particularly memorable.

Of course, despite my complaints, we managed to polish off all of our appetizers. I remember thinking “oh no, there’s still two more courses?” Unlike a lot of Restaurant Week menus, Kutsher’s definitely doesn’t skimp on portion size.

Our options were a little more scaled down for the main course: we opted for the “Flanken” Short Ribs, “The Delicatessen,” and the Friday Night Roast Chicken, leaving out the salmon entree, which my compatriots did out of deference to my cultural palatal inadequacies. Now if there’s one thing that Jewish mothers know how to do, it’s how to make sure their little puddins have enough to eat. In that regard, Kutsher’s gets a gold Star of David. Let’s just say they don’t skimp on the butter here.

"Flanken" Short Ribs-- unctuous, tender, and with a killer side dish.

“Flanken” Short Ribs– unctuous, tender, and with a killer side dish.

-“Flanken” Short Ribs (baby carrots, Brussels sprouts and mushroom barley): This was my favorite of the entrees, mostly due to the side items of the barley and vegetable medley. It appeared to be stewed in the rich beef broth, and continued to absorb the juices from the short ribs on the plate, leaving the grains and vegetables infused with a strong meaty, earthy flavor. Plus, mushrooms are just one of my flat-out favorite foods, so it’s no surprise I was all over this dish. The barley added a bit of textural contrast, soft but not mushy. The ribs themselves were tender, but were far from the falling-off-the-bone quality I had expected. I’d say I’m more of a brisket gal than short ribs (once again, Mama B makes a mean brisket), but I certainly enjoyed the entree, especially when taken as a collective dish with the sides. And surprisingly, this dish was not nearly as heavy as the roast chicken.

Friday Night Roast Chicken -- pretty good, but a bit of a gut bomb.

Friday Night Roast Chicken — pretty good, but a bit of a gut bomb.

– Friday Night Roast Chicken (pletzel and mushroom stuffing): I had initially anticipated liking this entree the most, and in fact had picked it out as my order before we decided on a family-style dinner. The week before I had gone to another Restaurant Week dinner at Alex Guarneschelli’s Butter and had a really lovely roast chicken thigh, which though slightly small in size, had been very moist with a robustly herb-crusted skin. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that this would set me up for an immediate comparison between Butter and Kutsher’s, and I consequently couldn’t help but be disappointed by Kutsher’s take. The chicken did have a nice crispy skin on it, but I wouldn’t say it was any better cooked than what I could make at home, and it certainly paled in comparison to Butter’s herbacious offering. As for the “pletzel stuffing” — a little Wikipedia research reveals that “pletzel” is an onion and seed covered cracker, so whatever made up the stuffing for this dish was playing fast and loose with that definition. The stuffing seemed to be your average cubes of regular chewy, soft bread (perhaps challah not used for the grilled cheese?), but since they were smothered in mushroom sauce, a definitive classification was nigh impossible. Obviously I enjoyed the mushroom aspect of the stuffing, but whereas the flanken ribs allowed the mushrooms to stand out amongst the barley, here I found them to be lost in the heavy, almost marsala-type sauce.

The Delicatessen -- I loved the plating, if not the contents.

The Delicatessen — I loved the plating, if not the contents.

– The Delicatessen (pastrami, smoked veal tongue, spicy salami & duck and chicken liver with rye and pickles): No shock that I was least interested in this dish, although I ended up liking it more than I anticipated. The Delicatessen gets top prize for plating, with the thinly sliced meats arrayed delicately (see what I did there?) across the wood board, bookended by condiments, thinly sliced rye crackers, and pickled vegetables. With the heavy weight of obligation to my heritage on my shoulders, I did my due diligence and tried everything on the plate. The pastrami stood out (though I really just wanted it in another egg roll), and the pate spread on rye was pleasant if unmemorable, but you will never, ever get me to voluntarily order tongue. At least I wasn’t face-to-face with the full on muscle at a deli counter (a disgusting consequence of my love affair with the sandwiches of Koch’s Deli near UPenn’s campus — check it out next time you’re in West Philadelphia, I promise it’s worth it) — but considering I’m not much of a cured meat person in general, tongue is about as low on my list of sandwich fillings as you can go.

Now if the contents of this blog haven’t made it abundantly clear, most of my life is a mere prelude to dessert. Kutsher’s pulled a bit of a classic Restaurant Week move on the dessert front — offering only two options: an assorted Cookie Plate, and the Black and White Cookie Ice Cream Sandwich. I’ve yet to find a fine dining restaurant with a mindblowing cookie plate, so we got 2 ice cream sandwiches and one cookie assortment, just to make sure we were covering our bases.

The Cookie Plate -- your standard bakery fare, miniaturized!

The Cookie Plate — your standard bakery fare, miniaturized!

– Cookie Plate: As expected, the cookie plate was pretty lame — a cute selection of miniaturized bakery mainstays like elephant ears and chocolate chip cookies, but everything was basically dry and brittle texture-wise, except for my favorite piece, the coconut macaroon. The macaroon was thankfully far from the sad contents of those tins of Manischewitz kosher for Passover macaroons. it was tender and flaky without being crumbly, offering just the right amount of resistance when tearing. Alas, the rest of the cookies lacked any semblance of moisture, and we all know how I feel about thin, crispy chocolate chip cookies. I don’t think I need to say anymore.

Black and White Ice Cream Cookie Sandwich -- you had me at ice cream + cookie.

Black and White Cookie Ice Cream Sandwich — you had me at ice cream + cookie.

– Black & White Cookie Ice Cream Sandwich (with salted caramel ice cream): To give proper context, I don’t like Black and White Cookies much (geez, this whole post is just me complaining about food, isn’t it?). I find most B&W Cookies far too cakey and dry on the cookie side, partially because the ratio of icing to cookie is far too small, and partially because often the icing’s texture is reminiscent of bathtub grout. In what may be an indication of a new dessert trend, my dessert at Butter was also an ice cream sandwich — a gingerbread cookie/vanilla ice cream concoction with candied pecans, which I couldn’t have been happier to stuff my face with. Unlike the main course, I’d put Kutsher’s iteration on nearly the same level as Butter‘s. As a fan of all things mini, I adored the tiny B&W cookies. Perhaps because of the smaller size and the fact that they soaked up the ice cream, I thought the cookie base was much moister, and paired with the icing better. However, Jacob seemed to get way more salted caramel sauce, leaving me with pretty much vanilla and chocolate as the only flavors (not that I mind vanilla and chocolate, but a little salt in a sweet dessert can often elevate all the flavors). The decadent piece de resistance was a small pot of homemade chocolate sauce to dip or pour over your sandwich. Obviously I had no complaints about additional chocolate.

Overall, the ice cream sandwich was definitely the more successful dessert, not only because it was more inventive in plating and concept, but also because it employed a variety of textures, from the liquid chocolate and caramel sauces, to the semisolid ice cream, to the firmer cookies.

Final Thoughts

Um, is there anything I haven’t already covered in this monstrosity of a review? Looking back on the meal, I would likely recommend Kutsher’s, although I think there is a special insider wink if you happen to be Jewish (my film professors would call it being a “knowing audience”). The food was high quality, abundant, and rich, so definitely don’t go in looking for a light salad. But I found enjoyable dishes in each of the courses offered on the Restaurant Week menu, which can often give a subpar impression of a restaurant, so I have to believe that Kutsher’s standard menu has a number of worthy options. Kutsher’s also wins points for whimsy and presentation. Aside from the few tasting menu experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have, I haven’t been to that many restaurants that take the idea of fusion beyond the Asian realm of sushi pizza. So if the Pastrami Reuben Eggroll is any indication, Kutsher’s has some wacky ideas about Jewish cuisine, and I’m game to explore what else they might bring to the seder plate.

Kutsher’s Tribeca

186 Franklin St  New York, NY 10013

kutsherstribeca.com

I ... have no explanation.

I … have no explanation.