Brief Bites: Taqueria Diana

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We Americans have an impressive habit of taking other countries’ holidays, removing all cultural significance, and replacing it with drinking. St. Patty’s is the obvious example, where the patron Saint of Ireland’s religious contributions are largely overshadowed (at least in NYC) by overflowing rivers of Guinness and Jameson flowing into the mouths of drunken revelers who wouldn’t know Erin if she was going bragh right in front of them.

Cinco de Mayo is another one of these appropriated holidays — take a moment, do you know what it celebrates? I’ll admit I didn’t know it myself until a few years ago, and only because the news was running stories about people’s ignorance. Mexican Independence? Nope, that’s on September 16th (and has an awesome subtitle of “Grito de Dolores” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grito_de_Dolores). End of the Mexican-American War? No to that as well. In fact, Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of the Battle of Puebla in 1862, where the Mexican army unexpectedly defeated the much stronger and larger French forces (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinco_de_Mayo).

So much like St. Patty’s, for most the holiday has become a celebration of inebriation — Cinco de Drinko, as it is actually advertised. I wish I could say that I celebrated in a more authentic spirit, but although I didn’t have any tequila, I did indulge in another American appropriation of Mexican heritage — gooey, cheesy, meaty nachos. That’s right, in this edition of Brief Bites we’re taking a trip to Nachotown, care of one of the most highly lauded NY spots, Taqueria Diana.

The Set Up:

Looking back from the cashier into the long, narrow space of Taqueria Diana.

Looking back from the cashier into the long, narrow space of Taqueria Diana.

Taqueria Diana is located right off of St. Mark’s Place on Second Ave, prime feeding grounds for pre-and-post bar-hopping NYU students. My NY dining list contains a disproportionate number of restaurants on St. Mark’s, since the street and surrounding blocks are packed to the brim with eclectic spots, from classics like Mamoun’s Falafel to Khyber Pass (serving Afghani food). In fact, Taqueria Diana is only a few blocks away from another California-Mexican taco spot, Otto’s Tacos, which I hope to cover in another post.

 

The view from the back of the restaurant, where there are just a few counters with stools.

The view from the back of the restaurant, where there are just a few counters with stools. You can see that cooking and prep make up most of the establishment.

I’d imagine real estate is at a premium in this area, so it should come as no shock that Taqueria Diana is only a step up from hole-in-the-wall-sized. Although there are a few bar-height counters and stools at the back of the restaurant, the space is dominated by the cooking/assembly/cashier counter. A small prep kitchen sits in the back. Unfortunately, I had brought 5 friends with me to Taqueria Diana, and we soon discovered that we’d have to take all of our food to go. For cheese-and-sauce heavy dishes like nachos, tacos, and quesadillas, that means cooling and congealing time. I say this having fully enjoyed the dishes I ate, but cautioning that an ideal Taqueria Diana experience should probably be capped at a group of 3.

 

The Bites:

Between the six of us we basically sampled all the categories on the menu — Jacob and I split the Pollo Nachos, Al Pastor Taco and Rajas Taco, Diana got the Al Pastor Nachos, Michael got a Pollo Burrito, and Dan and Laura split the Asada Nachos and a Pollo Quesadilla Suiza. We missed out on the straight-up Roast Chicken and assorted Sides, but covered all the proteins except for the Carnitas.

 

 

The impressive Pollo Nachos, visually underserved by the takeout container.

The impressive Pollo Nachos, visually underserved by the takeout container.

You should really look at Yelp for accurate pictures of the nachos, because the depth of the mountain of chips is hidden by their being crammed into a take-out box. Jacob’s and my Pollo Nachos (chicken, chips, black beans, cheese, salsa, with added guacamole) seemed to be an endless, delicious vortex of cheese, guacamole and beans. I was pleasantly surprised by the quantity and quality of the chicken, which I assume is the same meat as offered in the Roast Chicken section. It was mostly sizable hunks of dark meat, juicy and well-seasoned, discernibly more flavorful than your average slices of grilled chicken breast. These nachos were expertly put together, as evinced by the existence of still crispy chips within the pile of semi-liquid condiments. Speaking of which, Taqueria Diana offers a number of salsa and sauces with which to top your dishes, available in unlimited quantities if you can dine in. This adds another layer of customization to the nachos, allowing to select a protein, type of beans, add on crema or guac, and then top with the sauces of your choosing. Unfortunately, our grand plan of dining al fresco in the courtyard by St. Mark’s in the Bowery turned out to be flawed, as a brutal wind kicked up out of nowhere and left us shivering and shoveling Tex-Mex into our mouths. Jacob and I were so desperate to eat our food and get out of the cold that we failed to crack open even one of the sauces we’d thrown into our bag. Yet another reason to come back and dine in at Taqueria Diana. Honestly, though, I was very satisfied by their nachos. The chips were fresh and just slightly salty, the salsa was made of sweet tomatoes, the guacamole was smooth and rich with a strong avocado-forward flavor, and I even made an effort to up my spice tolerance the smallest bit by taking on the jalapenos. The only strange ingredient were rounds of raw carrot, which I can’t say I’ve ever seen on nachos before, and barely made an impact taste or texture-wise.

 

 

The sadly soggy Rajas and Al Pastor Tacos -- promising in notion but not made for transit.

The sadly soggy Rajas (on the bottom) and Al Pastor Tacos — promising in notion but not made for transit.

Alas, our tacos didn’t hold up nearly as well. They were composed of thin, possibly hand-formed tortillas that soaked through during the transit and nacho-consumption period, literally falling to pieces when first picked up. Of the two fillings, I preferred the Al Pastor Taco (spit-roasted pork, corn tortilla, salsa, onion, cilantro) to the Rajas Taco (Poblanos, Corn tortilla, salsa, onion, cilantro), because most of what I got out of the Rajas was the heat from the peppers (still not too good at that spice thing, I guess). Despite the descriptions on the menu, our tacos seemed to have different toppings, the Rajas getting cotija cheese and sliced radishes, while the Al Pastor had lime and what looks like a squash blossom of some sort. The fact that everything was mushed together and muddled by the take-out box — which proved beneficial to the nachos — here left me tasting only the most prominent elements of the tacos, which ended up mostly being the meat from the Al Pastor. Taqueria Diana does seem to have a gift for proteins, however, since the pork was just as juicy and flavorful as the chicken. Doing a comparison between the regularly cooked carnitas and the spit-roasted al pastor might be another reason to return.

I mean, look how badass that hunk of Al Pastor pork is -- worth another shot if eaten straight away.

I mean, look how badass that hunk of Al Pastor pork is — worth another shot if eaten straight away.

 

 

The Last Licks:

All in all, I’d fully endorse a visit to Taqueria Diana, and hope everyone takes this as a cautionary tale of how NOT to do so. Even with all of the mishaps and weather-related misfortunes, the food was fresh, abundant, and packed with flavor. Except for the more proportionate tacos, Taqueria Diana’s dishes can be easily shared, or serve as more than one meal — Diana couldn’t finish her nachos, and although I didn’t take a picture of it, the Quesadilla Suiza looked like an explosion of meat and cheese to put a Taco Bell Crunchwrap to shame (yes, I’m going to try one when I go back). I’m telling you now I plan on returning, possibly by myself to make sure I get a seat at the bar. I know it’s far from authentic fare, but there’s a good chance you’ll find me at Taqueria Diana on September 16th, celebrating Mexican Independence Day as any patriotic American should — by diving mouth-first into that big ol’ melting pot.

 

Taqueria Diana

129 Second Ave (between 7th and St. Mark’s)

http://www.taqueriadiana.com/

Vatan: An All-You-Can-Eat Cultural Vacation

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — one of the things I love most about food is the way it brings people together. I often get asked about my favorite restaurants, or the best thing I ever ate, and I struggle to come up with answers, because most of my favorite meals are memorable because of the company I had while eating them. I’ll never forget my birthday dinner at Barbuto, because my family was there to pass around plates and encourage me to take a picture with Jonathan Waxman. I’ll always recommend Pike Place to visitors in Seattle because Dan showed me his favorite stalls and forced endless quantities of fresh fruit on me. And amazing as the steak at Peter Luger was, what made it special was the anticipation by the bar with my friends, and the collective moans as we dove headfirst into meaty glory (and that schlag, oh boy).

My recent dinner at Vatan is another perfect example of the joy of sharing a new experience. It reunited most of the Peter Luger crew for another group gorging, this time on vegetarian Indian food, and once again the most memorable thing for me was the happy joking that devolved into studious silence as we got busy stuffing our faces. Is Vatan the best Indian food I’ve ever had? No, it was pretty good but not life-altering. But is it a restaurant I’d recommend? Absolutely, because from the decor to the service, Vatan is about the experience of the meal itself more than the food on your plate. Come in with an empty stomach and some buddies, and you’ll definitely have a great time.

 

First Impressions:

I heard about Vatan from a couple of coworkers in my carpool, who raved about the stomach-stretching piles of Indian food available to you as a prix-fixe, all you can eat dinner for a mere $30. They warned that it would be kitschy, and not to be dissuaded by the “Epcot India” decor. That particular description proved immediately apparent as we approached Vatan. The restaurant sits right on the divide between Curry Hill and the brotown epicentre of Kips Bay/Murray Hill. It’s located on 3rd Avenue, off the main Lexington stretch of Indian restaurants, and just next door is a bar/restaurant featuring an open air rooftop overflowing with drunk twenty-somethings on the warm night we visited. Next to that, it’s hard not to view Vatan’s exterior as over-the-top, featuring a large sign, tiled panels, terracotta awnings, and a large sculpture of an elephant. And that’s got nothing on what it’s like inside.

 

The view from just inside the entrance to Vatan - note the painted clouds in the sky.

The view from just inside the entrance to Vatan – note the painted clouds in the sky.

Entering the restaurant you’re greeted with two floors of Indian fantasy, from the ceiling painted powder blue and dotted with clouds, to the fake Banyan trees “growing” out of the walls, to thatched-roof enclosures where the dining tables sit. Oh, and don’t forget the giant statue of the Hindu god Ganesh in the recessed area of the back wall. We were seated upstairs, under a row of thatched roofs at a Western-style table, but across from us (and downstairs as well), there were a few low tables that required removing your shoes and sitting cross-legged (I was actually a little bummed we didn’t get to sit there).

 

The view from the second floor, where we were seated, with an intrusive Banyan tree to the left.

The view from the second floor, where we were seated, with an intrusive Banyan tree to the left.

Our table underneath a series of thatched roofs.

Our table underneath a series of thatched roofs, where everyone mugs for the camera.

The staff is dressed in what the back of the menu describes as “ethnic garb and jewelery  … traditionally worn during the festivals and fairs in India,” regardless of ethnic background (most, but not all of the servers appeared to be of Indian descent), and everything (except the surprisingly cheap wine) is served in beaten metal containers. With the exception of dealing with our check (and we were all using credit cards, so it’s not surprising), the service was speedy and responsive, our server taking the time to explain all the dishes and replenish any items we wanted more of. Speaking of which, let’s take a look at Vatan’s menu.

 

The Food:

Meals at Vatan are split into three courses — an appetizer thali, entree thali, and dessert and chai. You have the option to order “refills” of any item you encounter, from a second bowl of rice to another full course of appetizers, at any point in the meal (feel like more samosas while drinking your chai, no problem). Thali, which means “plate” in Hindi, refers to the Indian version of a smorgasbord, where a variety of dishes are served all together in small bowls (katori) on a metal tray (the “thali” itself). I had my first thali at the Curry Hill South Indian restaurant Anjappar, which is only a block from Vatan, and highly recommended (although you order a la carte there). This style of service is perfect for someone like me, who loves sampling lots of different dishes. Given the wide variety of foods I encountered at Vatan, it would take far too long to cover each and every item, so I’ll just highlight a few stand-outs.

 

Complimentary puffed lentil snacks, which seem somewhat unnecessary given all that's to come.

Complimentary puffed lentil snacks, which seem somewhat unnecessary given all that’s to come.

Meal accompaniments -- red and green chutneys, pickled vegetables, raita, and fried garlic.

Meal accompaniments — red and green chutneys, pickled vegetables, raita, and fried garlic.

Our dinner began with a small bowl of puffed lentil snacks in different shapes and sizes. I suppose you could reorder these as well, but I’d caution against it, given the deluge of vegetarian options coming your way. Upon seeing our appetizer thali, I honestly believed I’d be able to take down several helpings, but all credit to Vatan, these were deceptively filling portions. Along with our thali came the accompaniments for the entire meal, with red and green sauces of different spice levels, raita yogurt sauce, pickled vegetables, and tiny slivers of fried garlic (which I tucked into in full vampire-defense mode).

 

The appetizer thali, so much more than Swanson:

The appetizer thali, so much more than Swanson. Clockwise, from top left: Chana Masala, Samosas, Muthia (steamed flour with spinach), Ragda Patis (potato cutlet in white bean sauce), Khaman (puffed cream of wheat flour cakes), Batatavada, Mirchi Bhajia, and Sev Puri.

The appetizer thali was a rectangular steel tray, almost like a fancy TV dinner tray. Our server noted which of the items included would be spicy, to give us a sense of what level of heat to order for our entree. For example, in the middle of the tray were Mirchi Bhajia, “fried hot peppers with Garam Masala,” that certainly lived up to their description. Since I’m determined to improve my resistance to spicy foods, I gamely took a bite of the pepper, at first pleasantly surprised by the snap of the vegetable against the soft fried exterior. Maybe I was actually getting better at this, I briefly contemplated, before the heat exploded in my mouth on the backend. Thankfully, the Sev Puri (potatoes, garbanzo beans, yogurt, and chutney filled in a crispy bread) was located just next to the hot pepper, so I could douse my tongue in the cool yogurt. I did end up ordering a second round of one spicy item, the Batatavada (fried potato balls in chickpea flour batter), which I loved dipping into the Chana Masala (garbanzo beans with onions and coriander) and the red chutney. And of course our table opted to get more Samosas (triangular savory pastries filled with spicy potatoes and green peas), since it’s hard to resist the allure of crunchy puff pastry with a lightly spiced and creamy interior.

The "entree complements" of Khichdi, Kadhi, and Pulao.

The “entree complements” of Khichdi, Kadhi, and Pulao.

Already feeling slightly overstuffed, we were soon faced with the entree thali, this time a circular steel tray like the one I had at Anjappar. Emboldened by my love of the Batatavada, I had opted to go for medium spice over mild, and I am happy to report that I actually enjoyed the small kicks of spice I stumbled upon throughout the course. I may not be downing sriracha left and right like some people I know (coughDianacough), but hopefully I’m making progress towards not trembling in fear of the occasional jalapeno in my food. The entree course also comes with a set of “entree complements” for the table, featuring Pulao (boiled white rice with peas), Kadhi (soup with yogurt and chickpea flour in authentic spices), and one of my favorite items of the whole night, Khichdi (lentils mixed with rice and assorted vegetables). The Khichdi had a texture close to mashed potatoes, softly melting in your  mouth, except for the random bite of a piece of vegetable. Our server suggested pouring a bit of the Kadhi on top of the Khichdi, which upped the richness another several levels, although I think I prefer the lentil-rice on its own. I’m actually tempted to look up a recipe and see if I can make it at home — although Vatan is vegetarian, I could see this going great with a roast chicken or steak.

 

Oh, it only continues with the entree thali.

Oh, it only continues with the entree thali. Clockwise, from top left: Chole (chickpeas cooked with tamarind and garam masala), Ful-Cobi, Bhaji, Batakanu Sak (potatoes cooked in a mild red gravy), Puri, Papadam, Toor Dal, and Kheer.

The entree thali had a number of dishes that seemed to be regional iterations of my usual Indian food orders, like the Bhaji (sauteed spinach and corn), which reminded me of Palak, or the Ful-Cobi (cauliflower and green peas sauteed in a savory sauce), which didn’t seem super far off from Aloo-Gobi. Considering how most of the dishes were new to me, it was nice to see the familiar shapes of Puri (puffed whole wheat bread) and Papadam (thin lentil wafers) — no one is surprised that Maggie is well-versed in regional bread types. Although I stand by naan as my number one Indian carb of choice, Vatan’s mini-puris were probably the best I’ve come across, small puffed domes of dough, slightly sweet and though very airy, considerable enough to scoop up the curries. It is also worth mentioning here that aside from the singular spoon give to handle the Toor Dal (boiled lentils cooked with Indian spices), you’re largely expected to tackle the dishes at Vatan with your hands. It makes me curious about the prevalence of eating utensils worldwide — is it largely a western phenomenon? Where did the fork come from? (Clearly this is a case for Edible Inquiries!)

While I enjoyed the items in my entree thali possibly even more than those in the appetizer round, I only ended up reordering one dish (partially due to my stomach nearly exploding, but mostly because of taste) — the Kheer (rice pudding with saffron and dry fruits). Kheer is hands-down one of my favorite desserts in the world, because it combines my love of rice pudding (old lady, remember?) with the slightly unexpected savory flavors of saffron and cardamom. Vatan’s version was stellar, with a heavy dusting of cinnamon on top, the cardamom and saffron present but only lightly applied, and the texture dotted with rice grains but not too clumpy. My favorite variety of Kheer also has pistachios in it, but I couldn’t fault Vatan for leaving it out of their recipe, since generosity was certainly in abundance across the board.

 

Our petite dessert course, compared to the rest of dinner -- Mango ice cream and Masala Chai.

Our petite dessert course, compared to the rest of dinner — Mango ice cream and Masala Chai.

We finished our meal with a round of dessert, miniscule when compared to the previous courses. A small dish of mango ice cream and a petite ceramic mug of Masala Chai (Indian tea cooked with cardamom, ginger and milk) were placed in front of each person. A digestive aid and breath freshening mixture, called Mukhwas, was served for the table. Mukhwas is a mixture of seeds and nuts, and I tried a spoonful, but found it overwhelmingly flavored with anise, which I just can’t stand. Looks like I’ll have to go to my good ol’ American Tums for digestive relief. Ever my father’s daughter, I dutifully ate up my mango ice cream, although I opted to end my meal with my Kheer refill and cup of Chai. I love drinking the straight-up black tea versions of chai, so having it with milk was a real treat, and takes me back to senior year of college, where I harbored a semi-worrisome addiction to Starbucks Chai lattes. We all got two cups of Vatan’s Masala Chai, and I added sugar to the first cup, but found after gulping down my Kheer, I actually prefered the unsweetened Chai for my second cup, which allowed me to pay more attention to the nuances of the spice mix in the tea.

 

Final Thoughts:

 

I feel as though I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg on my meal at Vatan. There are just too many elements to explore, from the various levels of heat in the dishes, to the worth of reordering specific items, to how to properly strategize your meal as a whole. Regardless of the minutiae, however, I would recommend Vatan for both native New Yorkers and visitors. Sure, you’re getting a little bit of schtick, but no more than the surly song-and-dance you’d find at Katz’s (and maybe just a teensy bit more than the Brooklyn brusqueness of Peter Luger). And for all the over-the-top decorations and costumes, you get more than your money’s worth of well-cooked food. Having never been to India, I can’t speak to Vatan’s authenticity in its recipes, but for a casual lover of Indian food, I was pleased with the familiar flavors and delighted by the items I was trying for the first time. Vatan is definitely a great spot for large groups (it seemed like there were several families celebrating special occasions), but it never got too raucous on the Saturday night we were there. So limber up your jaw, loosen your belt, and buy a ticket on the Ganesh Express to Vatan — there’s an endless train of thalis calling your name.

 

Vatan

409 3rd Ave (near 29th St.)

http://www.vatanny.com/

More is Less: Choice Anxiety at Sembrado

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

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

First Impressions:

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

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

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

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

Food:

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

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

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

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

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

The guacamole, with freshly fried chips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The physically imposing El Sundae.

The physically imposing El Sundae.

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

Final Thoughts:

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

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

Sembrado

432 E. 13th Street

http://sembradonyc.com/

Fresh from the Market: Dinner at Fulton

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

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

 

First Impressions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Food:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Whole Branzino, carefully filleted as requested.

The Whole Branzino, carefully filleted as requested.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

Final Thoughts:

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

Our doggy bag for the evening.

Our doggy bag for the evening.

Fulton

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

http://www.fultonnyc.com/

Dinner at Slide: Some Solace for the Indecisive

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Despite being the youngest child in my family, I’ve come to be a big fan of sharing, at least when it comes to food. As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, I really like options, and I usually find myself torn between at least two items when faced with a menu. Fortunately, my parents have always been big on sharing their dishes, often sketching out a strategy based on whether my father will eventually switch plates with my mother, or whether my mother will order something my father doesn’t mind finishing up (he’s a big supporter of Truman’s clean plate doctrine). Now that I’m an adult with a gradually expanding palate, every time I eat with my parents I get to join in on this delicate dance of gustatory genuflection, and I jump at the opportunity to share dishes when dining with friends.

If it wasn’t obvious from the myriad posts in which he has appeared as my culinary compadre, Jacob is also a firm believer in the advantages of strategic shared ordering. Our recent dinner at Slide provided a stress-inducingly long list of bite-size burgers to choose from, but I was happily secure in the fact that I’d get to knock at least two of the offerings off my list before the check arrived.

 

First Impressions:

The front bar area of Slide, facing out onto Bleecker St.

The front bar area of Slide, facing out onto Bleecker St.

Slide, a restaurant specializing in (you guessed it) sliders, is located on Bleecker St., where it seems I spend most of my time these days. It’s only a block or two down from Bantam Bagels, actually, taking up a narrow but very deep space near the corner of Sullivan St. The restaurant has a very lounge-like vibe to it, with a semi-circular bar taking up the majority of the front space, and featuring windows that open out to Bleecker so patrons at the high tables placed in the bar area can people-watch. Moving back towards the rear of the restaurant, the space is softly lit and decked out in cool colors, dark wood tables, and heavy curtains.

 

Walking back from the noise of the street, the soft-lit dining room has a distinct lounge quality to it.

Walking back from the noise of the street, the soft-lit dining room has a distinct lounge quality to it.

The rock garden and fountain at Slide, an unexpected respite from the urban bustle.

The rock garden and fountain at Slide: slightly aesthetically incongruous, but still a nice respite from the urban bustle.

We elected to sit outside, and so were led back to a beautiful fountain and rock garden-set patio. There were some odd Greco-Roman elements strewn about (Jacob sat directly in front of a disgruntled looking bust), but it was nice to have a small piece of greenery back away from the hum of the city street. The only downside was the small size of the patio, which was packed to the brim with tables. This required a bit of maneuvering on the staff’s part. I understand the appeal of having more tables to turn more business, but it might make more sense for Slide to take out a few of the two-tops and not have to worry about anyone falling into the fountain.

 

The Food:

Slide has a good deal of variety on its menu, although you could argue that the pan-global approach is a little disorienting considering the main draw of the place is ostensibly burgers. I guess I’d describe the offerings as eclectic international pub food, whatever that means. The appetizers include items like gorgonzola-stuffed figs, ceviche, and Thai lettuce wraps  (though as someone who just espoused the value of options, maybe I shouldn’t complain). They also serve some salads and non-sandwich entrees, but for the first visit, you really can’t walk into a place called Slide and not order the sliders.

The sliders section of the menu is equally diverse, ranging from beef to veal to  salmon, veggie burger, mushroom, grilled cheese, chicken & waffles, and more. After some serious deliberation (including weighing the merits of some of the combo slider entrees, which give you hodgepodge of sliders from three dishes), Jacob and I decided on the Smoked Duck and the Cheese Steak Korean Bulgogi, with a side of Parmesan, Garlic & Herb Wedge Fries. Oh, did I not mention the variety of spuds and sides you can also pick from? It’s like a middle-school word problem prompting you to use factorials.

The Parmesan Garlic Wedges, an iceberg of starch with an surprising amount hiding below the surface of the tin cup.

The Parmesan, Garlic & Herb Wedges, an iceberg of starch with an surprising amount hiding below the surface of the tin cup.

The fries were served in what turned out to be a surprisingly deep metal cup, topped with a high-hat of parmesan shreds, rosemary and garlic. When we eventually made it to the bottom of the cup, there was a small mountain of herbal dust and debris. The wedges were thick-cut (my personal favorite cut of fry), and were of varying sizes, from steak fry to tater-tot in scope. The potatoes had a taut, crisp skin to them, bright with the cheese and herb seasoning, and eventually giving way to the soft, starchy interior. Even though Jacob generally prefers thinner-cut fries (ala the new spuds at Shake Shack), he and I both found the preparation of the wedges totally addictive.

The Smoked Duck Slider -- a great set of components tripped up by execution.

The Smoked Duck Slider — a great set of components tripped up by execution.

Our sliders arrived on wooden planks with three small divots that cup the bottom bun of each slider. I realized when the Smoked Duck (w/ duck fat chips, blackberry chutney & parmesan bun) arrived that I had misunderstood our server’s description of the burger. I thought the duck fat chips meant that the meat had been formed into chip shapes and then fried, imagining a chicken parmesan-type patty that sounded like a high-risk experiment in cholesterol elevation, but one that I was willing to undergo in the name of science. I was relieved (if slightly disappointed) to discover that the duck fat chips were in fact, potato chips fried in duck fat, nestled beneath a regular old ground duck patty. Above the patty rested the chutney, and the bun sported the same hillock of cheese strands as our fries. I really enjoyed the individual pieces of this slider, but overall felt that flaws in its constructions kept the parts greater than the whole. The duck meat was moist, if not as smokey as I would have thought from its title, but when paired with the blackberry chutney, you had a sour-sweet-fatty combination that was reminiscent of the turkey-cranberry Thanksgiving flavors. I liked the sharpness of the parmesan to highlight the brioche bun, but I think I would have preferred if the cheese had been baked into the bread, since it haphazardly slid off as you progressed through the burger. The chips were a great idea, and ever since I had a “crunchified” burger at Bobby’s Burger Palace, I’ve been a fan of adding in a little textural contrast to a burger with more oomph than crunchy romaine. Unfortunately, but placing the Pringles-thin chips beneath the meat, the juices from the duck soaked into them and removed all semblance of crispness. Ultimately you were left with a fresh but soft bun, soft duck meat, soft chutney, and a soggy chip — great flavors on their own, but somewhat one-note as a full sandwich.

The Cheese Steak Bulgogi slider -- Philly meets Seoul, with some low-level kimchi.

The Cheese Steak Korean Bulgogi slider — Philly meets Seoul, with some low-level kimchi.

The Cheese Steak Korean Bulgogi (w/ pepper-jack & kimchi pickle) was definitely our preferred slider of the night. Instead of coming as a patty, the beef was served in a bundle of thin sliced cheesesteak fashion, although obviously made up of much higher quality meat. As a Philly cheesesteak vet (with strong opinions), cheese whiz or provolone would have been a more authentic topper, but I found that the pepper-jack melded well with the Bulgogi marinade (bulgogi seasoning usually incorporates ingredients with heavy umami, like soy sauce, mushrooms, sesame oil, plus bbq elements like sugar, garlic, pepper, etc). The Korean seasoning gave the meat great depth of flavor, the umami-punch of the beef counterbalanced by the saltiness of the cheese and the kimchi. I was surprised by how mild the pickle was — I’m not usually into pickles of any type, and have had much more powerful kimchi before — but I didn’t mind the pickles at Slide because they mostly seemed like vinegar-dipped cucumber. The Cheese Steak ended up being the opposite of the Duck slider — here, the individual pieces were all pretty good, but not spectacular, but the combination of tastes and textures turned out to be far more successful. The only thing I would add to the slider would be some sort of sliced onions, to add a bit of acidity to the dish and more completely harken back to classic Philly steaks.

 

Final Thoughts:

Slide is definitely a great spot for dabbler dining. It seems best suited to larger groups (ideally in multiples of 3) who are willing to share their entrees, especially if you can work out an effective slider-bartering system. With a wide-ranging menu to suit most tastes, Slide can seem a bit scatter-brained, but the kitchen turns out some solid fare on the more basic offerings, like good ol’ beef for your protein, and a well-seasoned side of fries. I’d like to come back and try some of the other items on the menu, but when I do I’ll probably opt for one safer choice and one more adventurous, and maybe I’ll see how their special menu of spiked milkshakes stands up. So check out Slide if you’re looking to leave behind your humdrum, full size hamburger lifestyle for a day. You’ve got plenty of options to explore, and hopefully a trusted companion to walk through the high and low bites of the menu.

 

Slide

174 Bleecker St. (corner of Sullivan St.)

sliderestaurant.com

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

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

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

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

 

First Impressions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Food:

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

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

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

A passel of possible scoops.

A passel of possible scoops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Final Thoughts:

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

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

 

Vivoli Il Gelato (at Stella 34 Trattoria)

Macy’s Herald Square

151 W. 34th St., Sixth Fl.

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

A New York Steak of Mind: Peter Luger Steakhouse

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Growing up just outside of the City in Westchester County, you would think my childhood was simply brimming with classic New York experiences. And while yes, I was lucky enough to see Broadway shows multiple times a year, chilled with the dinos at the Natural History Museum like it was my part-time job, and rode the Circle Line with my 3rd grade class, I missed out on many “typical” New York activities because they seemed cliche, touristy, and lame to a blase teenaged local. Even now, having come back to actually live in Manhattan post-college, there are still certain items left unchecked on my city to-do list, simply because of the way they make the native New Yorker hairs on the back of my neck rise (we’re not going to even engage in the from the city/from the suburbs who’s a native debate here — I’m at least a New York Stater by birth).

One of the crucial things you learn as you grow up, however, is that sometimes doing the “lame” or “touristy” thing is worthwhile. For every double-decker-open-air bus tour of Chinatown, there’s a mainstream experience that is popular because it’s actually pretty effing fantastic. Sometimes the hype is actually not hype at all, but merely an abundance of exuberance that should be heeded. And thankfully, there are still a few long-time New York institutions like Peter Luger Steakhouse to slap some starry-eyed sense into this skeptical New Yorker. Nothing like a healthy dose of history (and cholesterol-raising meat) to give a jaded girl a little bit of wonder.

I’ve talked about New York dining institutions before, but Peter Luger is in a different category. The restaurant was established not in the 21st nor 20th centuries, but way back in 1887 in then-predominantly-German neighborhood of Williamsburg (to this day mere blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge). It has been awarded one Michelin Star, was named to the James Beard Foundation’s list of “American Classics,” and was named the best steakhouse in New York by Zagat 28 years in a row (a fact they proudly showcase by lining a wall with the annual award plaques). It is the kind of place that is so popular, they can operate on a cash-only policy. Let me repeat that — a cash only policy. At a steakhouse. Well, to be honest they do honor one credit card — the Peter Luger Card. When I first heard about this, I was pretty skeptical. It sounded absurd, overblown, the kind of place that preys on poor schmucks who go to New York and think that they’re having a real authentic slice of pizza at a random “Original Ray’s.” But even before I knew of all the history and accolades, I had been told by multiple sources over and over that Peter Luger was a must-visit, a unique and extraordinary experience if you liked steak at all. So I tried to stay open-minded, paid a visit to an ATM, and made my way with a group of friends to Williamsburg last Friday night.

 

First Impressions:

The unobtrusive, classic brick facade of Peter Luger Steakhouse.

The unobtrusive, classic brick facade of Peter Luger Steakhouse, a legend looming large on the corner.

 

Because of its enduring popularity, my friend Peter was only able to score a reservation for 6 at 9:45pm, presumably the last seating of the night. Consequently, everything around Peter Luger was closed, and lent the restaurant a sort of “shining beacon” quality (this might have also been due to my intense hunger — I operate more on the early-bird special schedule than the Continental late night dining scene). Peter Luger sits squarely on the corner of its block, the decor traditional and old-fashioned both outside and in. Outside the worn dark wooden signage announces just “Peter Luger” — no mention of what kind of cuisine waits inside — above plain brick and large metal paned windows.

One of the dining rooms in Peter Luger -- plain furnishings except for some whimsical beer steins.

One of the dining rooms in Peter Luger — plain furnishings except for some whimsical beer steins.

Inside, I was immediately reminded of the German beer halls I’ve recently visited, except that here the design is based in the restaurant’s origin, rather than an appeal to a foreign cultural aesthetic. Once you step into Peter Luger you are met with oak floors, a long wooden bar, dark wood paneling and exposed crossbeams bracing white stucco walls. The impression of basic utilitarian necessity, clean but spare reigns supreme — brass chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and plain wooden tables and chairs make up the dining rooms. No tablecloths, no fancy schmancy place settings, no piped in music, and no paintings or posters. The only purely decorative objects were the series of beer steins of different colors and styles that were displayed along the dining room walls.

Even with our late reservation, the bar area was still packed with waiting parties when we arrived, so we milled around waiting to be seated and watched the staff rush from the kitchen to the three dining rooms with plates and plates of outrageously over-portioned food. Clearly this place was expensive, but you get a lot of bang for your buck. Watching the service in action, I couldn’t help but notice that all of the staff seemed to be men in their mid-40s, all dressed in the same suit of plain black pants, white shirts, and aprons, another slightly jarring sign of PL’s old-fashioned approach. Barely ten minutes later the crowds had thinned and our party was called to be seated (in fact, this was an accurate representation of the speed and quality of service — we were in and out of Peter Luger, and left very satisfied, I might add, in a little over an hour).

Sitting down to a table not so far removed from the Ikea dining set I have in my apartment (although PL’s probably has and will endure far longer than mine), we found plain white napkins, plain starter plates, stainless steel silverware and small water glasses. Oh, and a basket piled high with all different types of bread, which our waiter, a gruff but polite and attendant middle-aged man, refilled steadily until our steaks arrived.

 

The Food:

Our bountiful bread basket.

Our bountiful bread basket, with a gravy boat of Peter Luger‘s House Sauce on the right.

Our complimentary bread basket was filled with Parker House-like rolls, slightly charred at the edges, and a onion rolls speckled with salt and garlic and featuring slices of caramelized onion inside. I preferred the onion bread, although both rolls were well salted, chewy and soft. The only improvement would have been adding more onion to the inside of the rolls, to moisten the interior a bit. Alongside the basket were twin gravy boats of PL’s house steak sauce, a tomato-based, tangy condiment that reminded me of a less aggressive cocktail sauce. I tried the house sauce on nearly everything, and found, somewhat surprisingly, it pretty much compliments the menu. Peter’s girlfriend Carol (a pescetarian) even dressed her mixed green salad with it, over the blue cheese dressing she had initially chosen.

The menu at Peter Luger is as laconic as its wait staff — a bit unforgiving in the modern scene of endless options and descriptors (Grass-fed lamb shanks with rosemary clippings, chive blossoms, with a Swiss mint gelee, etc etc). Instead, you’re faced with a remarkably simple set of choices. Choose some appetizers. Choose some sides. You want steak? Choose how many people you want steak for, your options ranging from “Single Steak” to “Steak for Four,” with no elaboration on the preparation, cut, or how it is served (I guess in 1887, the idea of the empowered diner did not exist). Fortunately, most of us had done some level of research beforehand, and Diana had read that the best strategy was to get steak for (n-1), with n = the number of meateaters dining. So for our five carnivores, we would get enough steak for four people. But here’s the catch — there’s a difference between all those Steak for X entrees — what is not stated on the menu is that those are all different cuts of beef. My research had uncovered that PL’s  best cut was their Steak for Two, the Porterhouse, whereas the Steak for Four is a T-bone. We opted for two orders of the famous Steak for Two, five orders of the similarly famous bacon (offered by the single slice, and a must-try according to everyone I talked to), two orders of French Fries for Two, two orders of Onion Rings for Two, and some creamed spinach. Go big or go home, folks.

Bacon worth breaking the rules for.

Bacon worth breaking the rules for.

The bacon was the first to arrive, served as an appetizer. Now those who know me might be wondering why I ordered bacon in the first place. All through my childhood I operated under the premise that my family did not eat bacon in observance of kosher law (never mind our hypocritical love of crab crakes and beer-boiled shrimp), so I avoided any and all pork products I came across. Sometime during college my illusions were shattered when my father ordered a side of bacon at brunch, and since then, while I continue to avoid seeking out pork-based dishes (no carnitas for me), I don’t have a problem ordering a Cobb salad or a chowder with bacon in the broth. It’s hard to say no to a restaurant’s signature dish, however, so I was resigned to try Peter Luger’s bacon and see if it could win over a porcine-averse palate.

Peter Luger offers their bacon in single slice servings, which are doled out onto each plate by the waiter. Bacon-ignorant as I am, I could only guess that Peter Luger’s version is closer to the Canadian Bacon patties I’ve seen in Eggs Benedict than the thin crispy pieces on typical diner breakfast plates. The pink slice was thick, with a dark edge and lighter interior, and dwarfed my small bread-and-butter plate in length (it was probably the length of a standard oval seving dish). I tentatively cut into it, speared a bite, and suddenly understood our collective fascination with bacon.  The meat was simultaneously salty, savory, and unctuous. It was totally addictive, probably due to how how the fat content was — as Diana astutely pointed out, a cross section of the bacon revealed a small pink center bookended by delicious deposits of fat. Of course, the bacon was equally delicious dipped into the House Sauce, the sweet tang of the sauce complementing the sharp, salty meat. I’m not sure I could have had more than the one slice I got (especially considering the bounty of beef to come), but it was well worth breaking my person food rules. In what will become a common refrain in this post — listen to the hoi polloi when it comes to Peter Luger — the popular opinion knows what it’s talking about.

The steak, slightly elevated by smaller plates, mid-service.

The Steak for Two, slightly elevated by smaller plates, mid-service.

Only a few minutes after our somewhat-inappropriate bacon-induced moans of pleasure had subsided, our waiter was back, briskly removing our starter plates and replacing them with full sized dinner plates and a new set of silverware, including intimidating steak knives. Then, the main course service began. It’s a bit of a production, with multiple waiters assaulting the table with large portions of food in a precise, efficient display of well-honed showmanship. Although far from the highly-choreographed synchronized serving in high-end restaurants like Daniel, there is still a level of theatricality to the exodus of steak from the Peter Luger kitchen to each table. When our waiter brought out the bacon, he had inexplicably placed two bread-and-butter plates upside down in the middle of the table. As our steaks arrived their purpose became clear — the platters of meat are placed with one end resting on the butter plate, so the platter tilts, allowing the juices to drain down to the other end, which are then spooned back onto the steak, effectively pan-basting the meat table-side.

 

The hand-served elements of our meal, from left to right: creamed spinach, potato hash, steak.

The hand-served elements of our meal, from left to right: creamed spinach, potato hash, steak.

The porterhouses come pre-sliced, with some meat still left on the bone. Each diner is served a couple steaming pieces of the steak by one waiter, while another spoons out the creamed spinach, and a third serves the potato hash (which we didn’t know came with the steak, another insider tip that probably would have led us to opt out of the fries). The rest of the sides were served on platters, family style, in large heaping mounds. The general consensus was that at Peter Luger, the descriptive phrase “for two” implies two adults roughly equal in size to Shaq.

 

Classic steak fries -- my favorite kind.

Classic steak fries — my favorite kind.

The enormous pile of onion rings -- if a Bloomin Onion and calamari had a baby, it would taste like this.

The enormous pile of onion rings — if a Bloomin’ Onion and calamari had a baby, it would taste like this.

The creamed spinach was definitely heavy on the cream, almost the consistency of a Indian saag dish. My first bite was smooth and flavorful, but the spinach wore on me in the face of all of the fried foods and rich pieces of steak. I much preferred the fries and onion rings (what? it’s not like creamed spinach is really a “healthy choice” here). The fries were my favorite variety — thick cut steak fries, with excellent crisp on the outside and a soft starchy center. The onion rings were by far my favorite side, as evidenced by the hefty amount of damage I unleashed on the plate on my half of the table. I generally find that onion rings suffer from too many potential weaknesses, from the type of breading used to the thickness of the onion slice. But these were like the shoestring fries equivalent of onion rings, as if someone had sliced through a Bloomin’ Onion to the thinnest degree and piled it high. The thin slivers of onion were lightly fried, crunchy and crispy and well-salted to provide a contrast to the meat.

A view of the carnage mid-meal.

A view of the carnage mid-meal.

Speaking of, let’s turn our focus away from the hanger-ons and pan over to the star of the show, the Steak for Two. Even days later, it’s hard for me to articulate how delicious this piece of meat was. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve become a part-time vegetarian these days, and even before then I’d generally opt for duck or lamb over a steak, but when I bit into the porterhouse at Peter Luger, I suddenly remembered why I’ve never turned in my carnivore card. This was, hands down, legitimately one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten — it was perfectly medium rare, with a vibrant pink center, and dripping with juice as you cut into it. The first bite released an explosion of earthy, funky beef flavor with great crust on the outside, tender as you chewed, and slowly melting on your tongue to linger as a smooth, naturally umami aftertaste.

 

Bowls of shlag on a nearby table, waiting to be served.

Bowls of shlag on a nearby table, waiting to be served.

Although Serious Eats has named Peter Luger as having one of the best hot fudge sundaes in NYC (slightly dubious since they use Haagen Daz ice cream), we were way too full to test that claim. However, over the course of our entire meal we had seen waiters walk by with heaping bowls of whipped cream (referred to as “schlag”) as topping for the various desserts. As a lifelong whipped cream fanatic (I’ll choose it over frosting any day), I jokingly said we should ask our waiter if we could just get a bowl of schlag for dessert. Peter seized on my idea, and as soon as our waiter appeared to clear the table, Peter asked him if that was possible, literally inquiring as to if they would accommodate us, maybe for a little extra  (like $3 or something). Without a saying a word, our waiter just disappeared back into the kitchen, the doors barely swinging closed before he emerged with a full bowl of shlag exclusively for our table. While the bowl had only one spoon with it, it was served alongside PL’s signature parting gift, a bunch of chocolate coins (it’s Chanukah in August!), which served as excellent vehicles to shove the shlag into our mouths (I did eventually ask for more spoons). The shlag was heavenly — real whipped heavy cream, instead of the pressurized Reddiwhip. It was thick and slightly sweet with a faint vanilla flavoring. I would honestly go back just to get the chance to have more shlag. It was a truly decadent way to end an absurdly indulgent evening.

A bowl of shlag to call our own, with Peter Luger gelt for dipping!

A bowl of shlag to call our own, with Peter Luger gelt for dipping!

Final Thoughts:

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There are countless movies and TV shows featuring an awestruck out-of-towner “discovering” New York, marveling at the tall buildings, boating on the lake in Central Park, and spinning around Times Square, overwhelmed by the glitz and glamour. Unfortunately, it’s hard to live day-to-day in this city and not start to notice the grime coating those bright lights. Between the homeless people, the piles of garbage, and the way the streets smell faintly of urine in the summer — it can be hard to keep the magic of the Big Apple in mind, especially when something just dripped on you and there’s not a cloud in the sky.

But sometimes the City finds a way to rub some more of that metropolitan sparkle into your eyes, finds a way to remind you of the collision of history, cultures, and sheer humanity that makes up New York. The fact that within a week I can eat at both the trendy, multicultural Spice Market and the traditional, fuhgeddaboudit, historic landmark Peter Luger Steakhouse is a testament to the endless possibilities of life in New York. My dinner at Peter Luger was a great wake-up call, a classically New York experience — this is how we do things, and you can like it or leave it. Well, like most of the diners at Peter Luger, I really, really liked it. From porterhouse-pros to those less beef-inclined, everyone should check it out, and at least put those Zagat claims to the test. Get a taste of history, get a bit of a New York attitude purer than that at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and for the love of God, get a bowl of shlag. Trust me — I’m from around here.

 

Peter Luger Steakhouse

178 Broadway (at Driggs Ave)

peterluger.com

A Birthday Brush with Foodie Fame: Seasonal Italian at Barbuto

Despite working in the entertainment industry, I still have a tendency to get a bit starstruck. Back when I worked at a talent agency, if I encountered a famous actor or musician, I would attempt to “play it cool.” In my case that meant avoiding all eye contact, and keeping the conversation to a polite minimum to avoid swallowing my tongue. One of my more embarrassing moments was loudly complaining to the receptionist that I had just missed seeing David Alan Grier, only to look over at the nearby waiting area and see the man waving pityingly in my direction. Cue my natural-born talent to blush intensely, and a hurried exit back to my desk.

Nowadays I work in production, so my exposure to celebrity is much more limited. I’d like to think that I’ve matured into a more capable human being in the face of the famous, but a chance encounter last weekend revealed that I’m not as chill as I’d hoped I’d become. I was out for a birthday dinner with my family, and as the gal of honor I chose the restaurant — Barbuto, down in the West Village. Why pick a seemingly random restaurant that’s been around for 10 years? Enter foodie origin story! Obviously I’ve always loved eating (and dessert), but my fascination with cooking and chefs didn’t really start until I got into Top Chef. Specifically, Top Chef Masters, season two, way back in 2010. Watching the chefs conceptualize and execute these amazing dishes made me curious to try expanding my own palate a bit. Of all the contestants, the chef that produced the most rapturous salivation per episode for me was Jonathan Waxman. I remember watching the season and marveling that I wanted to eat literally every dish he made. So when I discovered he had a restaurant in NY earlier this year, I locked in my birthday dinner immediately.

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Little did I know that, 10 years into the run of his restaurant, Mr. Waxman is still intimately involved in the day to day life of Barbuto. About half an hour into our meal I turned to see the chef casually strolling amongst the tables, dressed in a polo shirt and chef’s pants. Our fantastic waiter, Matt, told us that Waxman (or “Papa,” as the staff calls him) comes into the restaurant nearly every day, and approves the menu via email if he can’t. On his second turn around the tables, while checking in with various diners, he paused by our table. I was overwhelmed by the moment, stuttering out a hello before my mother announced it was my birthday. Feeling I couldn’t let the moment pass, I asked for a photo. Sure thing, replied Mr. Waxman. And with shaky legs I stood up as the inspiration for my food fascination casually placed his arm around my shoulders. The resulting photo, featuring my stunned, ecstatic expression can be viewed at the end of the post.

That event in itself would have made the night, but, in an abundance of riches, our dinner at Barbuto turned out truly tremendous. So now that I’ve gushed enough about the chef, let’s get down to the dishes!

 

First Impressions:

The view from our table towards the entrance. Note the garage doors pulled up to the ceiling.

The view from our table towards the entrance. Note the garage doors pulled up to the ceiling.

 

Barbuto is an upscale, casual restaurant, a fact that is immediately apparent from the architecture of the space. It’s literally a converted garage, the front walls of the restaurant in actuality garage doors that are rolled up into the ceiling in the summer, leaving the restaurant open to the cool evening air. There is sidewalk seating, but our table was still technically indoors, right by the front of the dining area with a clear view of Washington Street and access to the open air. The back of the restaurant features an open kitchen where you can see the chefs at work, and one of the two spaces for private parties is located right by the kitchen (a smaller room behind the bar is also available). The overall attitude of the restaurant is laidback and unpretentious, the industrial elements of the original garage mingling with smaller, homey touches — from white tiling on the walls and bar to simple wooden tables and wicker chairs.

Chefs at work in the open kitchen.

Chefs at work in the open kitchen.

 

The Food:

 

Our server, Matt, was extremely friendly and happy to answer any and all questions we had about the menu. He explained that each menu is dated in the corner because it is constantly changing — in fact, one of his favorite dishes appeared for just one week before fading into the mists of time. As the remaining members of our party arrived, Matt suggested that we might get the most out of Barbuto’s Family Menu. Basically a chef’s tasting menu, the Family dinner covers the four courses listed on the menu, plus individual desserts for each guest. The chef selects from the list of antipasti, primi, piatta unici, and contorni, and they are more than happy to accommodate any allergies and special diets. In our case that meant no pork, no unpastuerized cheese, and options for a vegetarian (I know, we’re high maintenance). Matt was obliged with nary a blink of his eyes, and off we went on our Italian adventure.

For the sake of not overwhelming you all with the massive quantity of dishes, I’ve picked out some of my favorites for the night. I didn’t take as many notes as I did for Blue Duck Tavern, partially because I was still flustered from meeting Jonathan Waxman, and partially because I was determined to be in the moment for my birthday dinner. So here’s a not-so-quick rundown of some of Barbuto’s best bites:

 

Antipasti (Appetizers)

The Family Dinner generally comes with salumi, but we opted out because of the heavy pork contents. Instead we were presented with the Ravanelli (local radishes, roasted garlic butter & toast), the Insalata Spinge Pietra (sea beans, fregola & podda classico), the Insalata Crudi ( asparagus, carrots, watermelon radish, pecorino & bread crumbs), and the Insalata Stagionale (radicchio, baby romaine, capers, fava beans & anchovy). All four of these dishes were fresh and delicious, but I’m going to focus on my two favorites — the Insalata Crudi and the Insalata Spinge Pietra. I will say, however, that my brother Sam mopped up as much of the garlic butter as he could, and my father was all over the anchovy salad. So clearly there were a mix of opinions for favorites.

The Ravanelli: radishes with garlic roasted butter and toast.

The Ravanelli: radishes with garlic roasted butter and toast.

 

Of course I forgot to photograph one of my favorite dishes of the night — the Insalata Crudi. The dish is composed of ribbons of asparagus and carrots, with small slices of watermelon radish mixed in and crisp pecorino and breadcrumbs sprinkled on top. The salad features tri-color carrots, so I had my first purple carrot experience outside of Israel. Overall, it was a light salad, even with the cheese coating the vegetables. The saltiness of the breadcrumb/pecorino topping meshed well with the fresh moisture of the vegetables. As a big fan of carrots, asparagus, and cheese, I found myself taking seconds and thirds of this salad. With clear but not domineering flavors and a brightness from the produce, this is a great way to start a meal.

The Insalata Spinge Pietra --     don't be put off by the succulents, it's delicious.

The Insalata Spinge Pietra — don’t be put off by the succulents, it’s delicious.

 

I found the Insalata Spinge Pietra intriguing because it used a number of ingredients I had never seen before. The only thing I immediately recognized on the plate was the arugula. Matt explained that sea beans are a type of succulent, or plants that tend to retain water in arid conditions (like cacti). Up close they resemble the lovechild of green beans and broccoli rabe, with long stalks and smaller branches coming off the sides. The sea beans have a natural saltiness reminiscent of the ocean, but in the way good shellfish tastes briny, not in a mouth full of sand way. The other two items, the fregola and the podda classico, turned out to be Sardinian varieties of familiar ingredients. Fregola is a semolina pasta similar to Israeli couscous, and podda classico is a sheeps and cows milk cheese with a nutty, tangy taste. It was an assault of flavors from salty to bitter to sweet and tangy, and I really enjoyed discovering these regional ingredients.

 

Primi (Pasta)

The Risotto alla Primavera --  solid, but missing the speck.

The Risotto alla Primavera — solid, but missing the speck.

We were served two dishes for our pasta course — the Risotto alla Primavera, and the Gnocchi con Carote. While the risotto was well executed, I felt like it was somewhat one note. Generally the asparagus, peas and basil are complemented with speck, an Italian sausage, but it was left out of our dish. While I’m generally not particularly interested in cured meats, here I think the potential salt and bite of the speck would have lifted the dish.

The Gnocchi con Carote: Is there a way to win a lifetime supply to this dish?

The Gnocchi con Carote: Is there a way to win a lifetime supply to this dish?

One of the dishes that kept cropping up on reviews of Barbuto was Waxman’s take on gnocchi, and when it arrived, I understood the reason why. Gnocchi is my favorite form of pasta, and when I see it on a menu, I feel compelled to order it, so I was delighted that it came with our dinner. The Gnocchi con Carote is served with with baby carrots, sugar snap peas, and Parmesan. Each tiny pouch of potato had a slight crust, cooked in what tasted like brown butter, which added a delicate nuttiness. Those same tricolor carrots were chopped and cooked down to a creamy softness, while the sliced snap peas were still crunchy, keeping the dish from falling into a monotony of texture. The overall taste of caramelization was decadent, but for a gnocchi enthusiast like me, I would gladly have eaten the entire family style plate.

 

Piatta Unici (Entrees)

Manzo ai Ferri: The silkiest skirt steak I have ever tasted.

Manzo ai Ferri: The silkiest skirt steak I have ever tasted.

If it seems like my family had already been served several mountains of food in our first two courses, prepare yourself for the main attraction. Our entree course came with the Pollo al Forno, the Manzo ai Ferri, the Platessa alla Plancha, and a vegetarian fregola and chickpea dish. I’m going to focus on the chicken and the flounder, but I will say the Manzo ai Ferri (prime skirt steak, chickpeas, and roasted shishito peppers) was supremely cooked. It was the kind of melt-in-your-mouth steak that is so rarely achieved in steakhouses, thinly sliced, perfectly medium rare and absolutely luscious. And although I wasn’t about to chow down on some peppers, spice-wimp that I am, when eaten with a piece of the steak, the kick took it up a notch.

Pollo al Forno: The famous signature chicken from Jonathan Waxman. Far from bland, same old chicken -- this bird is full of herbs and spices.

Pollo al Forno: The famous signature chicken from Jonathan Waxman. Far from bland, same old chicken — this bird is full of herbs and spices. You can literally see how juicy it is.

The Pollo al Forno is guaranteed to be a part of each Family dinner at Barbuto, so I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call it the restaurant’s signature dish. In fact, it’s described on the menu as “JW Chicken & salsa verde,” the only item specifically touting the Waxman’s initials. Luckily, like the highly regarded gnocchi, this dish also lived up to my lofty expectations. The chicken was roasted and seasoned with tarragon and oregano, creating a crispy skin and plump, tender meat underneath. Despite the salsa verde (a green sauce of herbs, anchovies, capers, vinegar and oil) served on top, I felt the tarragon had the strongest presence. It was the kind of roast chicken that reminded me that chicken is not just a safe bet. Here was a relatively straightforward dish, without any fancy new techniques or exotic ingredients, and it was just superbly done, putting that buttermilk poached chicken at Blue Duck Tavern to shame. Interestingly, I managed to snag a small piece as leftovers, and the chicken actually reheated wonderfully. I think I actually enjoyed the dish more a few days later because I got to focus on the flavors of the chicken alone, rather than amongst the inundation of delicious entrees that I had when dining at Barbuto.

The Platessa alla Plancha, a darkhorse entree, but actually my favorite of the night.

The Platessa alla Plancha, a darkhorse entree, but actually my favorite of the night.

Somewhat surprisingly, my favorite entree of the meal was the Platessa alla Plancha (flounder, garlic scapes, and capers). I probably would never have ordered it for myself, so hats off to the Family Menu for the come from behind winner. While the fish itself was nicely cooked and flaked off easily, what made the dish for me were all the accompaniments. The garlic scapes (which, for the uninitiated like me, are the curling tops of garlic plants) had a sharp, strong garlic bite to them, which heightened the sweet apple-ish sauce underneath the fish. I found the combination utterly addictive, and though the rest of my family thought the sauce was a little cloying, I repeatedly had helpings of the flounder over the steak. Much like the seabean salad, I found myself excited by the discovery the scapes, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to find them on other menus, or even cook with them myself. Oh, and in case you wanted to be hip to the lingo, apparently in the farmer’s market world, scapes are the new ramps (oh the ups and downs of the trendy vegetable scene).

 

Contorni (Sides)

The Verdure: chili-flecked kale, escarole and chard with garlic. A little too hot for my tastes.

The Verdure: chili-flecked kale, escarole and chard with garlic. A little too hot for my tastes.

A quick word about the sides for our main course. We had the Verdure (market greens with chili flakes and garlic) and the Patate (potatoes, pecorino & rosemary). The Verdure was made up of kale, escarole, and chard, and like many of the dishes at Barbuto, had a fair amount of black pepper and chili seasoning. It reminded me of the spicy kale I ate at Cafeteria, and while it certainly mitigated the bitterness of the greens, I can’t say I’m really into this fad of lacing salads with peppery heat. I think I prefer my sides to complement my meal, and the addition of heat makes the vegetables stand out too much for me.

The Patate: gimme all the potatoes, please.

The Patate: gimme all the potatoes, please.

The Patate, on the other hand, was right up my alley. It was as if the chef interbred roasted potatoes and french fries, making a starchy mutt that my family wolfed down. The potatoes were cut into thick chunks, leaving a soft but starchy interior surrounded by a cheesy, rosemary-infused, deep fried crust.

 

Dessert

Dessert: Tiramisu and chocolate pudding. And a birthday candle, of course.

Dessert: Tiramisu and chocolate pudding. And a birthday candle, of course.

Last, but not least, we’ve got dessert. With all the variety of dishes, it was a little surprising that every person in our party was served the same dessert. Luckily, it wasn’t much of a disappointment, because that dessert was fantastic. Waxman has worked with the same pastry chef for the past 16 years, at both his restaurants and his cookbooks, and it’s pretty easy to see why. My plate arrived with a scoop of chocolate pudding and a small square of tiramisu (with a birthday candle in it, of course). Our waiter explained that the chocolate pudding is always on the dessert menu, but the tiramisu is a dessert exclusive to the Family Dinner. After the family size portions of the rest of our meal, I actually appreciated the relatively modest dessert plate. It was the perfect amount of sweetness to finish the meal, but keep me from feeling too overstuffed.

Tiramisu tends not to be one of my favorite desserts, but this was probably the best tiramisu I’ve ever had. Instead of the typical lady fingers, there was a delicate sponge cake separating the layers of airy mascarpone and whipped cream. The wine and espresso flavors were very subtle, highlighting the cocoa more than standing out on their own.

But man, the chocolate pudding was just unreal. Sweet milk chocolate with a prominent cocoa taste, it was thick and creamy, nearly to the point of being a mousse. I could have eaten an entire bowl of this — it simultaneously evoked the nostalgia of Bill Cosby Jello pudding packs while showing you how much of a difference quality natural ingredients can have with even the simplest dessert. It was the perfect representation of Barbuto’s menu and overall vibe — fresh food that is familiar but also gives you pause. You wonder why all gnocchi isn’t cooked in brown butter, why more restaurants don’t serve seabeans, and why this chocolate pudding isn’t being sold in large vats at Stop ‘n Shop.

 

Final Thoughts

From start to finish, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better birthday dinner. I got to make of a fool of myself fawning over a celebrity chef (who fortunately was incredibly down to earth and forgiving), I got to try new ingredients and new flavor combinations, and I ended the night with a mouth full of chocolate. I know I’ve said this several times before, but what truly made this a memorable meal was the service at Barbuto. From our eager-to-assist waiter Matt, to the busboys who truly knew the components of each dish they were serving us, to of course Papa Waxman himself, we were treated with respect and endless amounts of accommodation. Barbuto is worth visiting for the food, but perhaps even more so for the friendly, easygoing, but thoughtful vibe — yes, they care about the food they serve, but they’re also thinking about who’s on the other end of the fork.

Me and Chef Waxman

Me and Chef Waxman


Barbuto

775 Washington St (Corner of W. 12th)

http://www.barbutonyc.com

The Blue Duck Tavern: Exceptional Food, Exceptional Service

This is the part where I give you all the excuses for the lateness of this post, such as the fact I was down in DC for the weekend (hence the Chesapeakean restaurant review), or that the movie I worked on, EPIC, is coming out this week (go see it — it’s a fun family movie, it’s beautiful, and it’s even got Beyonce in it. Seriously, what are you waiting for?). But enough of that. You’re here to read about food, so let’s cut the chit chat.

I spent this past weekend in DC with my immediate family — a lovely, if brief family reunion that largely revolved around the meals we were eating. I’m starting to discover the unexpected downside of amateur food blogging — a lot of my friends and family expect that I’ll write about whatever restaurant we happen to be in. Obviously this isn’t a real burden (children starving in Africa, etc), and a fair amount of the time they’re right, since I don’t eat out all that often (pretty much just the once a week that feeds this blog). So when my oldest brother Charles, the DC resident, suggested the Blue Duck Tavern for dinner on Friday night, the rest of my family turned to me and said “so you’re writing about this for your blog, right?” With all eyes on me, I had no choice but to oblige. Hopefully this review lives up to their expectations.

 

First Impressions:

The view looking back from our table to the front entrance.

The view looking back from our table to the front entrance.

 

The Blue Duck Tavern is located in the Park Hyatt in the Foggy Bottom Neighborhood of DC. The hotel’s architecture seemed focused on clean lines, big windows, high ceilings, and metal, but the interior of the restaurant featured more rustic touches like plain wooden tables and chairs, and a lovely bricklaid outdoor patio with a fountain. The restaurant serves American cuisine with a focus on farm-to-table ingredients cooked in classic styles, like braising and roasting.

The open staff pantry and kitchen, with the all the dirty work on display.

The open staff pantry and kitchen, with the all the dirty work on display.

 

One of the most interesting elements was the open staff pantry and kitchen which connects the bar area of the restaurant to the dining room. During our meal I saw various staff plucking herbs and vegetables out of the pantry, and got to briefly watch my dessert being assembled. My 3 year old niece loved being able to watch the chefs at work (especially when they were scooping ice cream).

Dessert in progress -- can I get one of these setups for my apartment?

Dessert in progress — can I get one of these setups for my apartment?

 

BDT gets extremely high marks for service. I wasn’t planning on eating at any place fancier than a Chipotle, so I found myself woefully underdressed for our dinner, rocking jeans and a Penn Class of 2010 sweatshirt (go Quakers!). However, our wonderful server Mike and the rest of the staff treated us just as politely and attentively as any of the more finely coiffed diners. It might have helped that we were dining pretty early, around 5:30pm, but I’d like to think that BDT just prizes itself on exceptional customer service. Certainly they bent over backwards to accomodate us, from giving my niece “plain twisty noodles on a plate” (her direct quote) to switching my drink order from a glass of Riesling to Viognier (a great, underappreciated white wine variety if you ask me). Throughout the entire meal Mike was happy to explain any piece of the menu and offer his recommendations on serving size and side dishes. It was a level of service I’ve only encountered at the highest level of fine dining, but here was paired with a more low key approach that fosters a sense of high caliber family dining.

 

The Food:

Just like the service, the food at Blue Duck Tavern is straightforward and well-executed. This is not the realm of modernist gastronomy — you won’t find any foams or maltodextrin, just farm fresh ingredients cooked in classic fashion. Since there were 8 of us ordering, I was almost overwhelmed by the variety and multitude of dishes we tried, so my commentary might be somewhat limited. There’s also the problem unique to my family that we all eat unhealthily quickly, so snagging a taste of everyone’s dish requires catlike reflexes.

One of many complimentary bread baskets, already largely demolished by my family.

One of many complimentary bread baskets, already largely demolished by my family.

 

Our meal started with a we’ll-show-Olive-Garden endless bread basket of white and multigrain sourdough, served with fresh butter. I preferred the multigrain, which was chock full of various seeds and had a great toasted, rye flavor.

Mike informed us that the best strategy at BDT is to plan on a family style meal, since many of the entree portions fall on the generous side. With that in mind, we each ordered appetizers — ending up with groupings of the Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, the Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad, and the House Smoked Trout.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, a delicate presentation that belies the richness of the dish.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, a rustic presentation that belies the delicate balance of the dish.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart came with goat cheese and bitter greens, and was pretty much a decadent quiche with a buttery, flaky crust. The chard and the greens helped to temper the richness of the goat cheese, and I appreciated the contrasting bite of the onion. Although I had assumed this would be my favorite appetizer (plying me with cheese and pastry is like offering Buster Bluth several flavors of juicebox), I actually ended up liking my salad more.

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The Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad — crunchy, creamy, and making me rethink my position on brussels sprouts.

The Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad was served with walnuts, parmesan cheese, and a creamy dressing. It was salty, with a strong parmesan taste, but nicely balanced with by the inclusion of  apple pieces for sweetness. Garlic croutons, radicchio, walnuts and the parsley added texture to the dish, so it was alternately crunchy and soft, depending on your bite. I don’t usually like brussel sprouts, but the combination of flavors and textures, plus the delicious dressing made me scarf it down.

The Smoked Trout -- not my slice of fish, but my father and brother enjoyed it.

The Smoked Trout — not my slice of fish, but my father and brother enjoyed it.

It will come as no surprise that my least favorite appetizer was the Smoked Trout, served with potato salad, ramps, and spiced pecan. As I’ve mentioned previously, I am an embarrassment to my family and my heritage with my distaste for smoked fish (luckily I have the Jewish guilt gene in spades). However, I found BDT’s smoked trout more mild — the dominant taste coming off less briny and smoky and more fresh fish.  The dish came with a creamy sauce and new potatoes that were soft without being mushy.

 

We supplemented our main course orders with several sides to share. The Blue Duck Tavern is one of Charles’s favorite restaurants in DC, so he had plenty of suggestions for slam-dunk side dishes. Based on his recommendation, we ordered the Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, the Hand Cut Triple Fries, and the Creamy Stone Ground Grits with Red-Eye Gravy. For entrees we got the Braised Beef Rib, the Wood-Fired Wagyu Culotte of Beef, the Buttermilk Poached Chicken, the Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops, and the Wood Oven-Roasted Baby Vegetables. Oh, and our plain twisty noodles of course.

The Braised Beef Rib -- a family favorite, except for this black sheep.

The Braised Beef Rib — a family favorite, except for this black sheep.

Consensus was that the Braised Beef Rib was the prize dish, although iconoclastic rebel that I am (not), I actually like the Wagyu more. The Rib came with housemade steak sauce, and was cooked to the point of falling-apart tenderness. It had a strong beef flavor, slightly smoky. I’m going to play the Momma’s girl card and say that in terms of brisket, I either like my mother’s sliced brisket (a Seder requirement, natch), or the more intense smoky and flaky BBQ brisket (in NY, Dinosaur BBQ serves my favorite, although there are some new competitors I need to try).

The Wagyu Culotte -- better than a lot of cuts of meat I've had at steakhouses.

The Wagyu Culotte — better than a lot of cuts of meat I’ve had at steakhouses.

The Wagyu Culotte was served with a charred onion vinaigrette, and it was a wonderfully flavorful piece of meat, cooked perfectly to medium rare and slice thinly. My own personal entree was the scallops, but if I had the chance to go back to BDT, I would probably opt for the Culotte as my next choice.

Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops -- fresh, salty, and with a hint of bacon.

Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops — fresh, salty, and with a hint of bacon.

As a sucker for scallops (they’re hands down my favorite seafood), I was absolutely delighted by my order. The menu lists them as coming with spring vegetables, sea beans, and bacon, but I’m fairly certain the bacon was only used to cook the scallops in. Overall it was a very light, but satisfying dish — the scallops were cooked to the perfect texture, soft but not rubbery, and the bacon added a rich, salty flavor. The most prominent of the vegetables were peas, which I’m pretty ambivalent about in general, but here were elevated again by the dish’s sauce, a thin, bright liquid that made the veggies shine.

Speaking of veggies, the Wood Oven-roasted Baby Vegetables was a solid, if not particularly exciting dish. It was served with fresh herbs, Meyer lemon and crispy garlic, and I was excited to see a fiddlehead fern or two throughout the farro. I found the farro a bit too crunchy — I like my farro to have a little bit of firmness to it, but I almost thought the grain was actually wheatberries instead (I am an obscure grains nerd — let’s talk about millet!).

The Buttermilk Poached Chicken -- beautifully arrayed but underseasoned.

The Buttermilk Poached Chicken — beautifully arrayed but underseasoned.

The Poached Chicken was the most disappointing dish. Poached in buttermilk and served with preserved lemon and pistachio spring fricasse (according to the menu — I’m actually not really sure what those three nouns mean collectively), it seemed to have the potential to have a wonderful contrast of flavors and textures. Unfortunately, while poached to the right soft consistency, the meat was relatively bland in flavor. The chicken was also the largest portion, which seemed like an attempt to make up for the lack of spark in the dish.

The Wild Mushrooms -- no Beecher's Mushroom Tart, but still very much worth ordering.

The Wild Mushrooms — no Beecher’s Mushroom Tart, but still very much worth ordering.

Luckily the side dishes more than made up for the lesser entrees. The wild mushrooms were sauteed with garlic and parsley and served with olive oil croutons, leaving them delicate and well-balanced in flavor, with the earthy mushroom taste balanced by the sharper garlic. It’s hard to top the mushroom tart I had at Beecher’s, but Blue Duck Tavern’s rendition had significantly more depth of flavor than the average side of mushrooms at a steakhouse.

The BDT Triple Cut Fries -- at first glance, they almost look like churros.

The BDT Triple Cut Fries — at first glance, they almost look like churros.

The BDT fries were possibly the thickest cut steak fries I’ve ever since, cooked three ways before arriving at our table. The triple baked technique yielded a crisp outside with a thick, starchy center. Although I’m a big fan of thick cut fries, I actually found the crisp to starch ratio too heavily weighted towards the less-cooked innards. BDT serves their fries with a garlic aioli (this seems to be a common pairing these days), but I’m more of a plain jane ketchup gal when it comes to my taters.

The Creamy Stone Ground Grits -- the stealth side that stole my heart.

The Creamy Stone Ground Grits — the stealth side that stole my heart.

The dark horse side dish Creamy Stone Ground Grits ended up being one of my favorite components of the whole meal. Incorporating smoked gouda, full kernels of corn, and the espresso-infused Red-Eye gravy, the grits had a smoky, earthy flavor punctuated by the richness of the cheese and sweet corn. The use of espresso in the gravy helped to deepen the flavors, much like the addition of hot coffee can elevate a chocolate cake. I tend to lean to oatmeal when I think of porridges, but maybe it’s just because I hadn’t had grits like these before.

 

Let’s be frank with each other — everyone was expecting this meal to end in dessert. With my family, turning down a proffered dessert menu is a suspicion-inducing faux paus (What do you mean you don’t want some dessert? Are you all right? Let me feel your forehead.). Fortunately, the Blue Duck Tavern, in true reverence of American eating, happily indulges our national (and familial) sweet tooth. It was actually hard to pick between the assortment of cakes, tarts, pies, cookies, and homemade ice cream and sorbets, but we ultimately decided on Milk Chocolate Banana S’mores, Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream, and Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat’s Milk Caramel. It was especially hard to turn down the La Colombe Espresso Creme Brulee, which magically manages to combine both my favorite coffee (La Colombe is a Philly-based company) and my favorite non-chocolate dessert. Guess I’ll just have to add that to my return trip order.

You can see how dark the chocolate is in the Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream.

You can see how dark the chocolate is in the Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream.

The Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat's Milk Caramel -- a milder ice cream that highlights the sweetness of the caramel.

The Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat’s Milk Caramel — a milder ice cream that highlights the sweetness of the caramel.

 

The ice creams were delicious — the Chocolate Brownie had a strong dark chocolate flavor, and the Honey Vanilla was mildly sweet and mostly tasted of fresh vanilla bean. I’m not sure what the goat’s milk base added to the caramel, but it was still a lovely accompaniment to the vanilla ice cream.

The Milk Chocolate Banana S'Mores -- an over the top version of a classic, aka my favorite type of dessert.

The Milk Chocolate Banana S’Mores — an over the top version of a classic, aka my favorite type of dessert.

 

My personal order was the S’Mores, which I shared with my mother. The dish arrived as a giant homemade marshmallow atop a milk chocolate and banana mousse mold, with graham cracker crumbs and bruleed banana pieces on the bottom, topped with a cruncy banana chip. The mousse actually had a very mild milk chocolate flavor, with the freshness of the banana really shining in the dish. The marshmallow was just melted enough to keep it’s shape as my fork sliced through it, but remained sticky and gooey as it mingled with the different pieces of the dish. Upscale, but homey, BDT hit a homerun with this dish in both flavor and execution, serving as a perfect indication of the overall vibe of the restaurant.

 

Final Thoughts:

My meal at the Blue Duck Tavern was a fantastic experience, from start to finish. The quality of service, the unpretentious yet meticulous decor and cooking, and the diversity and freshness of the foods offered left everyone at my table satisfied, from grandchild to grandparent. It’s pretty impressive that a restaurant my brother Charles, who avoids most vegetables, considers a favorite, also offers a multitude of vegetarian options that are just as thoughtful and impressive as their carnivorous fare. BDT was strong from the complimentary bread basket to the final bite of dessert, but perhaps more impressive was the deep knowledge of the staff and their willingness to accommodate any and all requests. Here we were, a party of 7 and a toddler, a few of us verging on shlubby in appearance, and to Mike and the rest of the staff we could have been the Rockefellers. Each person we interacted with was professional, courteous, and never aloof. If you visit the Blue Duck Tavern, count on a lovely dining experience, well-curated for the palate and with a personal touch. I know I’ll stopping by next time I get the chance. I’ll just make sure I leave my sweatshirt at home.

The Blue Duck Tavern

24 & M STREETS, NORTHWEST, WASHINGTON, D.C.

http://www.blueducktavern.com/gallery/blueduck/home.html