Birthday Humble Tart: Dinner at Narcissa

The entrance to Narcissa, tucked back behind the hotel's more casual restaurant.

The entrance to Narcissa, tucked back behind the hotel’s more casual restaurant.

 

I’ll hit a month at my new job this week, and one of the biggest lessons so far has been how little I actually know about food. I suppose it’s all relative (aren’t most things in life?), since I probably know far more about the ins and outs of animation than my new coworkers. But here I am, very much an amateur enthusiast, surrounded by people who have worked in kitchens and front of the house, who can list grape varietals like the names of their nieces and nephews, and could discern a julienne from a brunoise simply by touch. It can be a little intimidating at times, but I generally try to operate with an awareness of my own ignorance. I’d rather be surprised and delighted by something new, rather than rely on incomplete information to make decisions that may prevent discovery.

 

This all came to mind when thinking back on my recent birthday dinner at Narcissa, a popular farm-to-table restaurant in the Standard East Hotel. When I mentioned to my brother where I would be dining, he said “oh, I guess California cuisine is your favorite, then?” I hemmed and hawed (I hate picking favorites), trying to qualify what appealed to me about Narcissa’s menu (the emphasis on vegetables, the seasonal quality, the unconventional flavor combinations), claiming that it was somehow totally different from the delightful birthday dinner I had at Barbuto last year. But what I really should have said was “maybe.” The truth is I didn’t know the definition of California cuisine (here’s what Wikipedia has to say), and even with a bit of Googling I wouldn’t put all my favorite eggs in that particular basket.

 

Eh, enough dithering about known unknowns (ain’t that a timely idiom?). Regardless of categorization, I had another fabulous birthday dinner with my parents. Narcissa is certainly a buzzed-about restaurant in NYC right now, and it was lovely to have it live up to, and then exceed the hype.

 

First Impressions:

 

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A view into the open kitchen at Narcissa.

As I mentioned above, Narcissa is located in the Standard East Hotel, which reopened last year after extensive renovations. The entrance to Narcissa is tucked back behind the more casual restaurant, Cafe Standard, which has sidewalk seating. Narcissa has outdoor seating as well, but it’s made up of a small patio behind the dining room, creating a little oasis from the bustle of the city. I imagine it’d be lovely to sit out there in the sunshine (especially now that the restaurant is serving brunch).

 

The unexpectedly angular dining room at Narcissa.

The unexpectedly angular dining room at Narcissa.

Once you make your way past Cafe Standard, you’re greeted with a doorway surrounded by greenery and topped with a placard that reads Narcissa on a background of rolling farmland. The restaurant sources many of its ingredients from the farm Locusts on Hudson, where the eponymous cow Narcissa lives. Step inside and you’ll find a large open kitchen immediately to your left, maybe half of the size of the whole dining room. I beat both of my parents to the restaurant, and enjoyed watching the cooking and prep in action. To the right is the bar and dining room, decked out in soft white, golds, light woods, and blue-and-yellow striped banquettes. There seemed to be a prevalence of diagonals, from the square space of the room distorted by acutely angled windows, to our table which was not round, but actually octagonal. This lends a modern air to the casual elegance of the decor, which otherwise is kind of rustic chic — wooden/wicker chairs, no tablecloths. The bar area is sizable in itself, taking up about a third of the dining room space, staffed by at least two bartenders at a time to handle the orders of the dozen seats at the bar, collection of tables nearby, and the customers in the dining room.

 

The staff was friendly and charming from the get-go, offering plenty of advice on cocktails, and ever ready with refilling our (perplexingly tiny) water glasses or fetching us more bread. Throughout the meal our waiter explained each dish to us, even identifying components when we were confused, and even snuck us a few extra treats by the end. My mom was intrigued by the Buttermilk Ice Cream included in the Summer Sundae, but we passed on ordering it, so our waiter brought a tiny sample of it with dessert, alongside the Sundae’s pineapple sorbet. This, combined with the speedy, yet never pushy, service (we were out of there within 2 hours), helped to set a festive and exploratory mood. Plus, I always get a little bit of a kick out of dining at places where they refold your napkin for you — it’s the type of silly decadence that makes eating out an “experience.”

 

 

The Food:
After doing my requisite research and soliciting suggestions from a coworker, I came to my dinner at Narcissa armed with a post-it note crammed with dishes. The bad news is that, as a restaurant focused on seasonal ingredients, many of those items hadn’t made the transition from the Winter to the Summer menu. The good news is the ones that really mattered did, and with a little deliberation and negotiation, my parents and I settled on a repast covering a whole host of both highlighted dishes and unknowns. We decided to start with the Rotisserie-Crisped Beets, the Crab Salad, and the Potato Gnocchi, then I ordered the Lacquered Duck Breast, my mother got the Maine Scallops, and my father chose the Steamed Black Bass, along with a side of Supergreen Spinach for us all to share. Dessert (aside from our ice cream/sorbet sampler) was the Bittersweet Chocolate Tart and the Apricot Tart Tatin.

 

Complimentary bread served as a boule already sliced into quarters. Fresh butter that is barely needed on the fresh herbed sourdough.

Complimentary bread served as a boule already sliced into quarters. Fresh butter that is barely needed on the fresh herbed sourdough.

Our dinner began with a small boule of complimentary herbed sourdough bread, sprinkled with rosemary and served with a side of soft butter. The bread was crusty and crackly on the outside, with a whole wheat interior that was airy and chewy. I was more than happy to eat a piece on its own, though I have no complaints about the creamy fresh butter accompanying it. The bread was also exactly the right type of solid dough to sop up the remaining sauce from the gnocchi after we’d torn through the appetizer’s contents.

 

 

Potato Gnocchi -- delicate bundles of starch just begging to be popped one by one.

Potato Gnocchi — delicate bundles of starch tucked underneath shaved parmesan.

Speaking of, the Potato Gnocchi (fava beans, ramps, parmesan) was a solid, straightforward dish, perfectly fine but paling in comparison with our other hors d’oeuvre. The individual pieces of pasta were excellent — delicate little pillows of potato that managed to be chewy without being gummy — and I felt these were the best component. The rest of the pieces were certainly fresh, with the whole fava beans adding a summery brightness, but the broth and the cheese proved a bit too salty for me, and brought down the overall impact of the combination.

 

 

The Crab Salad -- a case for the value of hearts of palm.

The Crab Salad — a case for the value of hearts of palm.

If I hadn’t been told to try the Crab Salad (blood orange, hearts of palm, hazelnuts), I probably would have made the mistake of passing it by on the menu, simply because up until this point in my life, I’ve never met a heart of palm I liked. Now thanks to Narcissa, I think I might give them another go. This is a salad in the sense of chicken or tuna salad — hunks of shredded dungeness crab meat stuffed into a petite pot with an overhanging lip, mixed with sliced hearts of palm, pieces of chopped blood orange and hazelnuts, and plenty of sliced basil and parsley on top. The crunch of the nuts and the hearts of palm paired well with the softer textures of the crab and blood orange, and the addition of citrus acidity is always great with seafood. This dish was not a flavor bomb by any means, more about the combination of the ingredients than a hearty slap of crabmeat. My mother was underwhelmed by it, but I thought it was a light dish with a combination of acid, herbs and briny seafood flavors to wake up my palate before the heavier entrees.

 

 

Forget Boston Market's chicken, Narcissa's Rotisserie Beets prove rotated roasting is hardcore delicious.

Forget Boston Market’s chicken, Narcissa‘s Rotisserie Beets prove rotated roasting is hardcore delicious.

Although I enjoyed the Crab Salad, the Rotisserie-Crisped Beets (bulgur salad, apples, creamed horseradish) were one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. This is one of the dishes that has gotten a tremendous amount of buzz, so I went in with fairly high expectations, only to have them blown to bits by the real McCoy. Now I should be up front and offer a disclaimer: because I’m an old lady at heart, I’m really into beets. Like eggplant level of love for them. So if you’re not a beet fan, you might not have the revelatory experience that I did, but I would be shocked if you still didn’t enjoy the crap out of this appetizer. As the name implies, this dish shows off the rotisserie oven that Narcissa is known for, with the beets roasted to a blackened crisp on the outside. From the photo you might think they’re crusted with something, but it’s actually just the charred exterior, creating a crunchy shell that holds a supple, deep violet beet flesh inside. Not surprisingly, the flesh is super-giving, your fork gliding through it. The bulger, apples and herbs add some bulk to the dish, all of which is served on a pool of creamed horseradish sauce. Once again, I found myself face-to-face with an ingredient I largely avoid. Horseradish means one thing to me — maror (bitter herbs) at Passover, where it’s sandwiched between two pieces of matzoh in an obligatory ritual I’d otherwise opt out of. But here the bite of the horseradish was softened by the cream, retaining enough power to counter the sweetness of the caramelized beets and raw apples chunks. Overall, it was a great showcase of the skill of the kitchen — taking something as mundane as beets and elevating it through basic techniques. This is actually a perfect example of what I love about the recent turn towards giving vegetables their due — maybe it’s because I’m becoming a lame-o adult who actually loves eating well-prepared veggies, but I think people in general would change their minds about brussels sprouts or beets if given the opportunity to have dishes like this one (or simply being exposed to better cooking options than just the pile of steamed vegetables sitting on your plate at Outback).

 

 

The Maine Scallops with somewhat muted lobster butter.

The Maine Scallops with somewhat muted lobster butter.

There was only a little bit of downtime before our entrees arrived. I had been tempted by both of my parents’ choices, since the dish I had eyed from all the reviews, the lamb loin, had not made it onto the summer menu. So once I had that out of the way, I zeroed-in on the Maine Scallops (asparagus, green garlic, potato puree, lobster butter), but that was my mother’s top pick, so I went with my other menu kryptonite, the duck breast. Her dish came with four sizable scallops, seared to an exquisite golden-brown on top, but still a pale off-white on the sides and interior. They were melt-in-your-mouth smooth, not really seasoned beyond basic salt and pepper. The lobster butter, which my mother had been especially excited about, seemed to be located in the sauce underneath, and had a surprisingly subtle flavor. I had expected it to be more like a bisque with a real lobster tang to it, but I can understand the restraint given the delicacy of scallops — you don’t want a taste as recognizable as lobster to overpower the main component of a dish. This entree seemed to be the most classically executed and plated dish, so the vegetables were straightforward but well-cooked, with shaved slivers of asparagus and a silky potato puree, and greens that the menu lists as green garlic, but I thought looked like fiddlehead ferns. Then again, what do I know, I’ve never actually tasted fiddleheads, so I couldn’t discern a difference based on flavor.

 

 

Our side of Supergreen Spinach, which cannot be accused of false marketing.

Our side of Supergreen Spinach, which cannot be accused of false marketing.

We also shared a side order of the Supergreen Spinach (potato chips). You can’t see it in this picture, but the dish totally lives up to its name — we’re talking Incredible Hulk bright green. The potato chip topping was a cute play on the common steakhouse sides, and I definitely enjoyed it, but I think it wasn’t particularly memorable outside of its gamma-irradiated hue. Just solid creamed spinach, and nowhere near as innovative a use of potato chips as the incorporation into the Cod Brandade at Picholine.

 

 

The Steamed Black Bass -- so good it inspire musical theater references.

The Steamed Black Bass — so good it inspires musical theater references.

My father’s Steamed Black Bass (french curry broth, eggplant, toasted almonds) also looked great to me because of the accompanying items (as I believe Julie Andrews sang, curry, eggplant and almonds are a few of my favorite things). I thought the plating of the dish was just gorgeous, with the fillets sitting firmly atop the little hill of vegetables, just slightly bowing to show how soft the flesh was. You don’t think of steaming as a particularly exciting cooking method, but here it prevented the skin from becoming too soggy while the fish meat was easy to flake away with your fork. Unlike the scallops, I thought the sauce defined the taste of the dish. The curry had a strong flavor without real heat to it, and the fish and eggplant pieces soaked it up easily. The toasted almonds mirrored the nuttiness of the curry, and gave a nice crunch to an otherwise pretty soft dish. I think I would have been plenty satisfied if I had ordered this dish, but having now tasted the duck, I’m going to struggle to try other entrees if I return to Narcissa.

 

 

The Lacquered Duck, a dish now in my lifetime hall of fame.

The Lacquered Duck, a dish now in my lifetime hall of fame.

The Lacquered Duck Breast (parsley root, melted leeks, rhubarb) was hands-down my favorite dish of the night, and no joke, I’ve been actually thought about this dish several times in the weeks since my birthday dinner. I adore duck, and this might truly be the best duck I’ve ever eaten. First things first, it was a massive duck breast — this duck had Double D’s, and was clearly very well fed. The “lacquered” crust (which Google tells me just means a sweet glaze that lends itself to caramelization and the appearance of a lacquer-like sheen) was shiny and gave the skin a crunchy, crackly texture, and its sweetness enhanced the gamey flavor of the duck meat underneath. There was a much appreciated hint of tartness from the rhurbarb, which was echoed by the acidity of the melted leeks, which were almost like a puree in texture. I’m not sure how great my breath smelled after finishing the leeks, but I thought they served a similar purpose to the horseradish sauce in our beet appetizer — the bite of the ingredient softened by its preparation. Cutting into the breast revealed a cross section of medium rare and bloody meat topped by a full layer of fat sitting just below the crust. I felt like I do when there’s a bit of fat on steak, and I tell myself I should just cut it off and avoid it. But what can you do when it’s an integral part of the duck breast makeup? So I demolished it. The dish also came with what I thought were parsnips, but now realize was actually parsley root, which looks similar but is less sweet, again a very interesting and intelligent strategy when paired with the delicious but sugary glaze on the breast. This dish was relatively simple in its components, but really unlike any preparation of duck I’ve had before, and I can’t get over how addictive the combination of the duck meat and that glaze was. I would seriously go back to Narcissa for the beets and the duck alone.

 

 

The Apricot Tart Tatin, visually stunning but too sweet for my taste.

The Apricot Tart Tatin, visually stunning but too sweet for my taste.

The desserts certainly didn’t lower the overall level of the meal, but they were just more pedestrian compared to the earlier standout dishes. I think my dad was a big fan of the Apricot Tart Tatin (goat milk ice cream, pepper caramel), but I ultimately found the dessert cloyingly sweet. I enjoy the traditional apple tart tatin, and I do like apricot and apricot-flavored things generally, but here the apricots were almost like ovals of marmalade in their consistency, completely cooked down and syrupy. The best part of the dish was the pepper caramel, which I’d vouch is superior to salted caramel. Rather than enhancing the sweetness through salt, I think the pepper provides an interesting contrast that confused my tongue a bit. Not to harp on one point, but it was the same deal as the horseradish sauce and the melted leeks, where a bit of savory flavor made me stop and think for a second about what I was eating, how all the components came together.

 

 

The Bittersweet Chocolate tart, an exercise in tempered sweetness.

The Bittersweet Chocolate tart, an exercise in tempered sweetness.

No surprise that the Bittersweet Chocolate Tart (curry-roasted bananas, espresso ice cream) was a little more up my alley. The outer shell was crisp, looking almost bruleed on top, and inside was a dark chocolate mixture somewhere between a molten lava cake and mousse. The sweetness was tempered in every element of this dessert, from the selection of a darker chocolate base for the tart, to using the bitterness of the espresso to tamp down the gelato’s sugar, to adding curry as a savory element to counter the caramelized bananas. Despite my prior misgivings over espresso gelato at Osteria Morini, I really liked Narcissa’s version, which I felt has less of a burnt tone to it. Add in the Oreo-like cookie crumbles strewn throughout the dish, and I was more than happy to blow out the candle and let this dessert cap off a remarkable birthday dinner.

Final Thoughts:

 

What impressed me most about Narcissa was the deft handling of a variety of preparations, from the more classical techniques and flavor profiles of European cuisines to more unusual takes on American dishes. My parents and I had three radically different entrees and all of them were stunning in their own regard. They really ran the gamut, from the playful and elegant plating, to the provocative pairings of savory and sweet — themes that were echoed in every course of our meal. With a lovely atmosphere, attentive service, interesting cocktails, and a progressive menu of fresh, seasonal farm-to-table food, I would strongly recommend Narcissa to anyone looking for an American restaurant with a global eye. Perhaps that’s even one definition of Californian cuisine?

 

Speaking of, I owe my brother an apology — on Narcissa’s own website, they claim to “marr[y] the clean flavors and impeccably-sourced ingredients of California cuisine with new techniques of roasting, rotisserie and slow-cooking.” So count that as yet another reason to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. Or rather, to stop talking and start eating.

 

Narcissa

21 Cooper Square (between 5th St. and Bowery)

http://www.narcissarestaurant.com/

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Snackshots: Summer Desserts

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With the temperature rising, I can finally indulge in one of my favorite New York City activities — walking anywhere and everywhere I can. This has its pluses and minuses, since on the one hand, fresh air and a little cardio are good for the body, but on the other hand, traipsing about the city places me directly in the path of many dessert purveyors with offering designed explicitly to remove the health-benefits of my walks. Yeah, I know — this ain’t exactly a third world problem.

This exact scenario took place last weekend, when Manhattan was thrust full-force into summer and the thermometer climbed to the mid-80s. I spent most of the weekend walking around SoHo, Gramercy, and the UES, and found myself somehow checking two items off my Summer Sweets List, with a visit to Dominique Ansel Bakery and Sprinkles Ice Cream.

 

Peering back into the rear of Dominique Ansel Bakery, where a few tables (and the master chef himself0 were.

Peering back into the rear of Dominique Ansel Bakery, where a few tables (and the master chef himself0 were.

The visit to Dominique Ansel Bakery was an unexpected salve for fruitless apartment hunting, with the shop located just around the corner from the building I was visiting. After my time-delayed experience with the Cronut, I obviously couldn’t ignore the opportunity to try a fresh-from-the-oven Ansel creation (plus, Jacob my food enabler was with me and insisted we go). The store was larger than I anticipated, a narrow but deep space devoted to the retail area in the front (overflowing with full pastry cases), and with a few tables in the back (where Ansel was chatting with employees when we were there).

 

No cronuts, but plenty of other options at Dominique Ansel Bakery.

No cronuts, but plenty of other options at Dominique Ansel Bakery.

Our visit happened to be on the 1 year anniversary of the Cronut, and unsurprisingly they were already sold out by the time we arrived. (Although a table at the front of the store had four pristine Cronuts just sitting there, uneaten — is this the latest sign of the bourgeois 1% — leftover Cronuts?) To be honest, I was relieved that they were sold out, because it freed us up to order something else. We opted to go with the DKA — Dominique’s Kouign Amann, the pastry the bakery was best known for pre-Cronut-mania.

 

The DKA, approximately the same size as Levain cookie (or Jacob's fist).

The DKA, approximately the same size as Levain cookie (or Jacob’s fist).

The Kouign Amann (pronounced “Queen Ah-mann”) is a Northern French pastry from Brittany, little known outside of Quebec and France until Ansel brought his version to NY. The cashier told us that the DKA (“Tender, flaky, croissant-like dough with a caramelized crunchy crust”) is slightly smaller than the normal sweet, which is somewhat mitigated by its intense buttery richness. As Jacob described it, the DKA is like a hybrid croissant/elephant ear (or palmier). It’s made of laminated dough like a croissant (or Cronut, for that matter), but the caramelized sugar topping evokes the crunchy, crispy shatters of the palmier. I’m not really into palmiers, since I find most of them too dry, but here you got the best of both worlds. Biting into the DKA, you get the punch of sweetness from the sugar topping (and who doesn’t like crunchy sugar melting instantaneously on her tongue?), but then fall into the soft center of the pastry, so moist and butter-infused you might think there was some sort of marzipan or custard. But no, that’s just barely salted, straight up butter.

Is that custard inside? Nope, that's just straight-up buttery dough.

Is that custard inside? Nope, that’s just straight-up buttery dough.

Aside from the Cronut anniversary, our stop at Dominique Ansel Bakery was also just a few days after Ansel won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. It’s clear that he is an enormously talented innovator pushing the envelope in the field, but I was impressed by how simple yet beautifully-wrought the DKA was, since it’s a traditional pastry that relies on classic techniques. His classical chops might seem obvious given his background as executive pastry chef at Daniel (not to mention his newly minted award), but it was nice to know that Ansel is far more than just the Cronut-guy.

Would I still try a fresh-off-the-presses Cronut if offered? Absolutely, I mean c’mon, it’s fried croissant dough. But the next time I’m at Dominique Ansel Bakery, I won’t be upset if they’re already sold out. I’m more interested in what else is in the pastry case, and I’d recommend looking past the glittering tuiles and edible decorations for the more basic, rustic, perhaps classic but never old-fashioned options. I’ve got to see what this guy can do with an almond croissant.

 

 

Our Sprinkles Sundae in all its glory -- Banana Cupcake encasing a scoop of Rocky Road.

Our Sprinkles Sundae in all its glory — Banana Cupcake encasing a scoop of Rocky Road.

Round two is at another trendy spot — the new ice cream expansion of Sprinkles Cupcakes. Sprinkles Ice Cream just opened up a few weeks ago, next to the cupcake shop, with the Cupcake ATM in between. Although we all know I’m an ice cream fiend, I was slightly skeptical of Sprinkles Ice Cream, since it’s so easy to dilute the quality of your brand when you start expanding your offerings. Would the new homemade ice cream and cookies really measure up to the Sprinkles standard?

The space seems to be about the same size as the cupcake emporium next door, but with less seating and a nearly all white decor that evokes a 2001-esque space vibe. The confections are stored and assembled behind a semi-circular barrier, although there are glass peep-through windows that let you see the employees in action.

As with all good ice cream shops, the menu options range from reasonable to absurdly decadent (I’m looking at you, Ben & Jerry’s Vermonster). At Sprinkles you can get your normal scoops in a cup or waffle cone (even a red velvet waffle cone), and as with their cupcakes, the flavor options rotate daily. You can go for a regular sundae with the familiar sauces, toppings, etc, or a cookie/brownie sundae, a milkshake, malted or float. But then things begin to get a little more ridiculous — an ice cream sandwich with homemade cookies, or one made with two cupcake tops (including frosting), frozen hot chocolate, an affogato, or the beast that we split — the Sprinkles Sundae.

The eponymous sundae is comprised of a single scoop of ice cream between a cupcake top and bottom. That’s right — crack open a full-size cupcake and stick a scoop of ice cream right in its guts. Jacob and I shared one that featured a Banana Cupcake (banana cake with bittersweet dark chocolate frosting) sandwiching a scoop of Rocky Road (dense dark chocolate ice cream loaded with crunchy toasted almonds, homemade marshmallow cream and housemade chips made from bittersweet tcho chocolate). Boy oh boy, this was a homerun combination. The Banana Cupcake is Jacob’s favorite Sprinkles flavor, and as a huge banana fan, I totally get it. The cake was like fresh-baked banana bread, with a dense, moist crumb, the sweetness slightly tempered by the bittersweet chocolate frosting. The Rocky Road was gelato-like in richness and texture, slightly melty without falling totally into the soft-serve zone. My fears of brand dilution dissolved in the face of the quality ingredients evident in the individual components, strong enough to be separately identified within the mass of Rocky Road (everyone gets 2 tastes, so between Jacob and I we also sampled the excellent Red Velvet, PB Cup, and Coffee Fudge Almond). The best thing about the Sprinkles Sundae is that it totally solves my main hang-up on cupcakes (vs. slices of cake) — the too-often unbalanced ratio of frosting to cake, and the subsequent dryness of that cake. Having a scoop of ice cream in the middle ensures that each bite of cupcake will be moist, soft, and flavorful. I highly recommend the sundae we got (I mean, banana and chocolate, banana and almonds, banana and marshmallows — all strong duos, so no surprise that this combination worked well together), but I fully intend to return for more scoops from the Sprinkles shop. Plus they’ve got a pretzel peanut-butter cookie that this PB fiend can’t resist. There’s also a kids’ mini version of the Sprinkles Sundae, for those less-inclined to shoot their sugar levels skyward.

 

So now I have two good options for the rest of the summer — cool, refreshing ice cream from Sprinkles to escape the sunscorched sidewalk, and warm, buttery french pastries from Dominique Ansel to make those summer thunderstorms a little more tolerable. Neither of them is particularly conducive to my beach bod, but if we’re being straight with each other, this pasty-white gal ain’t doing that much tanning, anyway.

 

Dominique Ansel Bakery

189 Spring St (between Thompson and Sullivan)

www.dominiqueansel.com

 

Sprinkles Cupcakes, Ice Cream & Cookies

782 Lexington Ave (between 60th and 61st)

www.sprinkles.com

Snackshots Labor Day: Summer Sweet and Savory

Oh, Summer. Can you truly be over? I feel the lingering urges to dip my toes into briney/chlorinated depths, to slather myself in UVA/UVB/UHF/USB SPF 5000 and throw my epidermal health to the wind, and to challenge the physical limits of hot dog consumption. But Labor Day has indeed come and gone, and soon enough the New York winds throw a chill down your shirt collar, the leaves will swirl in eddies around Park Avenue, and the brisk fall air will leave the streets smelling of boring, everyday garbage — the faint, mystifying odor of urine simply a memory of the previous July.

With the specter of Fall looming over me, I resolved to spend the Labor Day long weekend as any good New Yorker should (well, those of us without access to the Hamptons) — eating and walking around the city. In case you were convinced that aside from food nerdery, I someone manage to pass off as “hip” or “with it”, please don’t fret — my solo hours in transit around Manhattan were accompanied by a truly dorky BBC podcast about the history of world religions. Aw yeah, just call me a modern day Fonz. Or the female equivalent (Fonzette?).

So here’s a brief look at the surprisingly eclectic mix of edibles I had during the last few days of summer. I’ve since traded in my white dresses for a white napkin, and now that bikini season is over, we can breathe a sigh of relief and look ahead to the gorging orgies of Halloween and Thanksgiving to come.

Hester Nights:

Hester Nights at the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel.

Hester Nights at the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel.

First up, I wanted to highlight my trip to Hester Nights, an event that is actually still going on for a few more weeks at the Eventi Hotel near Herald Square. Hester Nights is part of the Hester Street Fair, a food and craft market that takes place during summer weekends down on the Lower East Side. In addition to those daytime markets, the organizers also set up a smaller event each Thursday night slightly farther uptown, in the pavilion behind the Eventi Hotel. Called Hester Nights, the series runs from May until late September, and features around 12-15 vendors from the Street Fair, cycling weekly.

One side of the row of vendors at Hester Nights, where you can buy pizza, tacos, or South African jerky.

One side of the row of vendors at Hester Nights, where you can buy pizza, tacos, or South African jerky.

While Hester Nights has many similarities to Mad Sq Eats, thankfully on the Thursday Jacob and I went, it was a substantially calmer environment. This may be the product of it being located more off the beaten path, or perhaps because it’s later in the summer and near the end of Hester Nights’ run, or simply because there were fewer vendors in a larger space. I’d actually been to the Eventi pavilion before for drinks — the hotel itself has a great indoor/outdoor pseudo foodcourt called Foodparc & Beerparc, offering burgers, hot dogs, fried seafood, and beer and wine. The outdoor space is dominated by a large fountain in the middle, but there are also a good number of tables and benches, plus a giant video screen on the wall of the building behind the hotel (we visited on Michael Jackson’s birthday, so our meal was accompanied by an unexpected MJ concert soundtrack).

The menu at Brooklyn Wok Shop's stall: a deluge of dim sum.

The menu at Brooklyn Wok Shop‘s stall: a deluge of dim sum.

There was a nice variety of vendors that night, offering eclectic foods from South African jerky to Brazilian cheese bread, gnocchi, waffles, and tacos. Jacob and I decided on an Asian flavor to our meal, and ended up getting Duck Confit Dumplings from the Brooklyn Wok Shop, and Khao Man Gai from Khao Man Gai NY, whose stalls were conveniently located next to each other.

The diverse dumplings on display.

The diverse dumplings on display.

Brooklyn Wok Shop has a brick and mortar location in Williamsburg, where they offer the dim sum menu they had at Hester Nights, plus a larger selection of rice and noodle dishes. After tasting the Duck Confit Dumplings, I would definitely consider paying the restaurant a visit. It’s exactly the kind of Asian fusion I love — retaining the flavor palate of more traditional Eastern cuisines while stirring the pot with classical Western dishes. The rest of the menu at the Hester Nights stall ran the gamut from familiar to off-the-wall — crab rangoon wontons, roasted cauliflower and eggplant, roast pork, and pastrami dumplings — making picking just one dish difficult, but both Jacob and I are suckers for duck, so the idea of tiny pouches of duck confit seemed irresistible.

The Duck Confit Dumplings -- delicately wrapped, but bursting with flavor.

The Duck Confit Dumplings — delicately wrapped, but bursting with flavor.

The Duck Confit Dumplings (fresh shiitakes, cabbage, hoisin dipping sauce) were also the only non-fried item on the menu, and I while I’m certainly a fan of fried food, I appreciated the lightness of the preparation considering the dumplings’ filling. The simply plated dish (this is a food fair, after all) came with four steamed dumplings slathered with hoisin sauce and chopped cilantro. Overall, it was a pleasant appetizer, the portion size and delicate quality of the wrapper dough playing off the fatty confit filling. I wish I had taken more dipping sauce, because you really can’t go wrong with hoisin and duck, but the dumplings really held their own, even without their accompaniments. While this was a great size for a starter, to make a full meal of it, you’d probably need two or three orders between two people. But with the right strategy, a trip to Brooklyn Wok Shop could yield a pretty exotic international tour of flavors without weighing down your stomach or your wallet.

Khao Man Gai NY, offering the best Thai dish you've never heard of.

Khao Man Gai NY, offering the best Thai dish you’ve never heard of (note the sign in the upper left for an introduction).

For our main course Jacob and I chose Khao Man Gai NY, which makes one dish, and one dish only — Khao Man Gai, of course (they also sell some Thai teas, but no other food). Although not well-known in the US, it turns out the dish is one of the most popular street foods in Thailand. KMGNY only operates out of a stall at markets like Hester Nights, but they have a great sales pitch, displaying a sign that fully explains the dish, and offering tastes by the spoonful. Once I tried the sample, I immediately knew I had to get the full dish. Khao Man Gai, at least as prepared by KMGNY, is “Organic Chicken poached with garlic, ginger and Thai herbs, with Thai jasmine rice cooked with the poaching liquid and herbs, served with a soup for sipping between bites, and a sauce of fermented soybean, garlic, ginger, simple syrup, vinegar, and chilis.”

Khao Man Gai -- some assembly required.

Khao Man Gai — some assembly required.

We were served a plate full of chicken and rice, with sauce and a cup of broth on the side, and given specific instructions on how to appropriately tackle Khao Man Gai. To be properly enjoyed, the sauce must be dumped onto the chicken, so it coats the meat and soaks into the rice, and the soup is to be sipped in between bites to act as a palate cleanser. After following the instructions and finally digging in, I found the chicken was poached to an almost collapsing degree of tenderness, falling to pieces even with just a flimsy plastic fork cutting into it. Both the meat and the still somewhat chewy rice were moist and flavorful, the herbs and spices of the broth having been fully infused. Not surprisingly, since we’re talking about street food, Khao Man Gai is pretty unimpressive visually — a lump of rice, slices of barely adorned poached chicken, and a small cup of clear broth — but once you start biting into it, it’s obvious why this dish is so popular. Each bite packs a punch of earthy salt, just a bit of heat from the chilis, and a hint of sugar from the viscous sweet and sour soybean sauce. I was skeptical of the point of the broth, but the small sips between bites really does elevate the meal, washing your mouth with umami and priming your tastebuds for the next delectable forkful. Khao Man Gai NY seriously needs to get a storefront, or at least a truck, because with winter coming and the street fairs winding down, I don’t want to have to wait another half a year to try this dish again.

Il Laboratorio Del Gelato:

The bright white interior of Il Laboratorio del Gelato shines out into the New York night.

The bright white interior of Il Laboratorio del Gelato shines out into the New York night.

My other major Labor Day excursion was to the Lower East Side, where I finally paid a visit to Il Laboratorio del Gelato. I’d been reading about this place for years now, constantly seeing it ranked on lists of the best ice cream or gelato in New York, and I’d even walked by it on occasion (staring longingly at it as I headed over to Clinton St. Baking Co., for example). Il Laboratorio del Gelato is located right on Houston, only a few blocks over from the Whole Foods Bowery. They certainly can’t be accused of false advertising — the decor is industrial, plain white paint and tile combined with stainless steel — you couldn’t give off a more scientific, laboratory vibe unless the staff was decked out in hazmat suits (fortunately, the friendly staff wear blue aprons and hats, so you know you’re getting gelato, and not a flu shot). Although ILDG is housed in a fairly large space, the majority of it is devoted to the process of making all that gelato, leaving only a few benches by the front windows for seating. And at least when I was there, the front of the store was packed to the gills with a long line of eager gelato-anticipants.

Inside you can see that the majority of the space is taken up by "lab" equipment.

Inside you can see that the majority of the space is taken up by “lab” equipment.

ILDG makes over 275 flavors of gelato, offering 48 at the start of business each day, so the diversity of choices coupled with the long line and lack of a visible menu (you can’t see the daily flavors until you reach the front) inevitably lead to a bit of choice anxiety. Even my good ol’ reliable web research couldn’t help me here, since the highly touted caramel was not being offered at the time. ILDG doesn’t make things any easier, since you’re only allowed 2 tastes per person, a meager amount in the face of the mountain of appetizing gelatos and sorbets. I understand the need for all the rules because of the popularity of the place and the sheer quantity of gelato flavors, but I did feel a bit stymied in my exploration of ILDG’s products. How am I supposed to know whether to get just two flavors, or three, or a shake?

I'm sorry, Baskin-Robbins, how many flavors do you have?

I’m sorry, Baskin-Robbins, how many flavors did you say you have?

48 flavors, and only 2 tastes -- it's basically another trial of Hercules.

48 flavors, and only 2 tastes — it’s basically another trial of Hercules.

Luckily, Il Laboratorio del Gelato has the goods to counterbalance all the rules and regulations. This was some of the best gelato I’ve had in Manhattan, and certainly the most innovative flavors I’ve seen (although I have my eye on the cornbread gelato over at Williamsburg’s Oddfellows). Jacob and I decided to get two small cups (with two flavors of gelato each) — one on the sweeter side, and one more fruity. I got the Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch and Mocha Chocolate Chip gelatos, and Jacob chose the Raspberry gelato and Green Apple sorbet (at the suggestion of our server).

The dessert duo: Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch on the left, and Mocha Chocolate Chip on the right.

The dessert duo: Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch on the left, and Mocha Chocolate Chip on the right.

The fruit selection: Raspberry  gelato on the left, and Green Apple sorbet on the right.

The fruit selection: Raspberry gelato on the left, and Green Apple sorbet on the right.

Both gelatos had great consistency — the sweeter, milkier gelatos were creamy and slightly melty, coating your tongue as they dissolved. The Mocha had a bold coffee flavor, with a smooth rich milk chocolate, and reminded me of chocolate covered espresso beans. I really loved the textural contrast of the Hazelnut Amaretto Crunch — the “crunch” seemed to come from crumbled amaretti cookies that were swirled into the airy hazelnut gelato base. The Raspberry was thick, smooth, with a fresh fruit taste, just a bit of tartness to contrast the sugar, but definitely still a gelato. The biggest surprise was the Green Apple sorbet, which I was prepared to be disappointed by. I ended up finding it the most interesting, and most satisfying flavor of the bunch. I had expected it to be tart like a Granny Smith apple, which I tend not to like (I’m a Honey crisp or Gala gal), or worst case scenario, like the fake sour green apple you encounter in candy and sugary liquors. But it lived up to the sorbet mantle — light, refreshing, with a pure, natural apple flavor and an almost crushed ice/granita texture. I can’t believe I’m saying this, as someone who will almost always choose the chocolate mousse over the fruit tart, but the Green Apple sorbet was the most memorable flavor for me, sticking in my mind even a week after my visit.

The rest of the weekend was filled with brunches, beer halls, indie films, frisbee in Central Park, and as many glorious catnaps as I could justify to myself. All in all, I think I managed to capture the distilled spirit of a New York summer — a mix of the transient with the established institution, a melting pot of cuisines and heritages, and the completely homegrown desire to sleep away the afternoon. If you can, try to make it out to Hester Nights in its last few weeks — I always think it’s worthwhile to see the innovative up-and-coming vendors in the area, and I was genuinely delighted to discover a number of new dishes I had never even heard of before. And I know I’ll be back to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, inquisitive ice cream ingester that I am. You just can’t throw down a 275-flavor gauntlet and not expect this Rocky Road Rambo to lock and load.

So with that, I bid adieu to the summer season. Goodbye heat, goodbye outdoor seating, goodbye sundresses, goodbye fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them. Hello pumpkin spice everything, hello leather jacket weather, hello mulled apple cider. Suddenly the leaves changing doesn’t seem so bad at all.

Hester Nights @ the Eventi Hotel

6th Ave between 29th and 30th Streets

http://www.hesterstreetfair.com/#!hester-nights/c7h0

Brooklyn Wok Shop

 182 N 10th St (btwn Bedford and Driggs Ave)

http://brooklynwokshop.com/

Khao Man Gai NY

https://www.facebook.com/KhaoManGaiNY

Il Laboratorio del Gelato

188 Ludlow St. (at East Houston) 

http://www.laboratoriodelgelato.com/

Summer Restaurant Week Lunch: A Sophisticated Treat at Boulud Sud

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I’ve always felt there’s something inherently decadent in a fancy weekday lunch. Maybe it’s a holdover from my childhood, a memory of “take-your-daughter-to-work-days” when my parents would whisk me away from the doldrums of elementary school to the magic and wonder of the Big City. Or maybe it’s the lack of a corporate charge card — even as a working adult the business lunches have been pretty few and far between, special occasions that are to be savored, the rare respite from bag lunches or trips to the corner bodega’s chopped salad bar. During those special lunches I always feel like I’m part of the in-crowd, an exclusive club of diners with larger wallets and looser office rules, allowed to while away the afternoon sipping Chiraz and munching on delicately toasted crostinis.

This past week I had the chance to dip my toes in those elusive waters once again, when my office closed for a full Summer Friday. Instead of reverse commuting to Connecticut, I would actually spend a weekday in Manhattan, and dammit, I was going to take advantage of that. Fortunately, it was also the last day of Summer Restaurant Week, so Jacob, Sarah and I decided to check out the RW lunch deal at Boulud Sud.

 

First Impressions:

The simple and refined entrance to Boulud Sud, a good indication of the decor to come.

The simple and refined entrance to Boulud Sud, a good indication of the decor to come.

Boulud Sud is one piece of Daniel Boulud’s mini empire of restaurants and shops, spanning the globe from his high-end flagship restaurant Daniel in NY, to versions of his more affordable French-inflected restaurants like Cafe Boulud and Bar Boulud, found both in NY and more exotic locales such as London, Singapore, and Beijing. Although all of Boulud’s restaurants are based in his background of French cooking, Boulud Sud is defined by an emphasis on Mediterranean flavors, including a wide range of regional influences from the Riviera to North Africa to Turkey and the Middle East.

Looking through one of the large plate glass windows that make up the front of the restaurant.

Looking through one of the large plate glass windows that make up the front of the restaurant.

I’m lucky enough to have previously dined at Daniel for my mother’s birthday, and even though I was far less pretentiously critical about food back then, I recall being bowled over by the service and the quality of the food. For the most part it was more traditional French cuisine, and so when choosing another Boulud restaurant to visit for RW, I wanted to try to emulate my experience at Jean Georges’ Spice Market and see how Boulud would handle the flavor profiles of non-native cultures. Given my recent trip to Israel and growing appreciation for Mediterranean cuisines, Boulud Sud seemed like an obvious choice.

Boulud Sud is located right off of Lincoln Center, on 64th St between Broadway and Central Park West, and is housed in the same building as two of Boulud’s other endeavors — the casual Bar Boulud and the eat-in/take-out market Epicerie Boulud. These restaurants are also just across the street from Picholine (the high-end restaurant by Terrance Brennan of Artisanal fame) and a location of the Atlantic Grill, making this a bit of a powerhouse corner of the Upper West Side.

The view from the bar into the rest of the dining room, where you can see the regional paintings on the walls.

The view from the bar into the rest of the dining room, where you can see the regional paintings on the walls.

The restaurant’s aesthetic is modern restraint, the outside decorated with a plain sign, a large steel door, and huge plate glass windows that allow lots of sunlight. Inside, Boulud Sud features a soft, cool color palette, heavy on slate grey, chocolate brown, and sunflower yellow, with green-tinted water glasses on the basic wooden table tops. The modern metallic chairs actually reminded me of the types I’d see in the conference rooms at my middle school, oddly inelegant considering the rest of the delicate decor. The dining room itself is relatively small, perhaps due to the conglomeration of 3 restaurants in one building, but this adds a level of intimacy, aided by the soft lighting and softer music, a bit of a respite from the louder soundtracks and lackluster acoustics of some of New York’s other trendy restaurants. The brown and taupe walls are covered with paintings of Mediterranean land and seascapes, except for the majority of the inner side of the restaurant, which is dominated by a huge open kitchen. As commonplace as open kitchens seem to be these days, I admit I still really enjoy a tableside view of chefs in action (maybe it’s my slight addiction to Chopped). There were several times during our lunch that we would stop and try to figure out which dish the chefs were working on, from stirring massive stockpots to food processing the heck out of some yogurt sauce.

Looking back from our table into the large open kitchen of Boulud Sud, which takes up most of the back wall.

Looking back from our table into the large open kitchen of Boulud Sud, which takes up most of the back wall.

 

The Food:

As was discussed in my Peter Luger review, I like to do a bit of research before going to a restaurant. I’ve always been a planner, and I try to avoid making poor decisions based on haste and fluster in the face of an impatient waiter. I leave the spontaneity to new Oreo products and ice cream flavors. Part of the decision to go to Boulud Sud for Restaurant Week was based on the menu on their website, and I also poked around on Google to see if anyone had already reviewed their lunch offerings. Unfortunately, the menu had changed since the beginning of Restaurant Week (which confusingly takes place over a month), and while most of the entree choices were the same, the appetizer and dessert segments of the menu were dramatically different. Perhaps it’s a matter of seasonal/market ingredients, but I was bummed because I had been looking forward to a specific Middle Eastern flatbread appetizer one blogger had raved about. Overall, we still had a great lunch, but it was slightly more improvisational than I had anticipated.

Faced with the unfamiliar menu, I chose the Summer Chicory Salad to start, while Jacob and Sarah picked the Ouzu Cured Salmon. Then Sarah and I both went with the Spiced Lamb Burger as a main, and Jacob got the Za’atar Spiced Merlu. Sarah and I finished our meals with the Chocolate Panna Cotta, and Jacob chose the Housemade Cremes Glacees (Chef’s Daily Ice Cream Selection).

The complimentary olive oil and bread -- way more than your average throwaway bread basket.

The complimentary olive oil and bread — way more than your average throwaway bread basket.

The meal began with complimentary bread and olive oil. The olive oil was clearly of extremely high quality, and was poured table-side into a small saucer with slivers of garlic and rosemary sprigs on the bottom. We were given two types of bread — slices of standard rustic Italian bread baked with olives, and pieces of focaccia that seemed to be topped with oregano and tiny pieces of sun-dried tomatoes. I generally have an aversion to olives (I find the flavor utterly pervasive in dishes), but this bread was so soft and fresh I ended up eating multiple pieces (luckily the olives were relatively few and far between). Focaccia is one of my favorite types of bread, so I took more than my fair share out of our bread basket. Both types of bread had a great, springy chew to them, and they soaked up the oil as we all greedily dunked again and again. Fortunately, our waiter noticed our empty tray almost immediately and promptly asked if we’d like some more (cue impolite nods with crumb-filled mouths). The service at Boulud Sud is quite fast, so before we had even finished our second tray of bread, our appetizers arrived.

My literally bitter/sweet Summer Chicory Salad.

My literally bitter/sweet Summer Chicory Salad.

The Summer Chicory Salad (Capers, Golden Raisins, Red Wine Vinaigrette) was a nice-sized portion, especially when placed next to the Ouzu Salmon, which seemed a little skimpy in comparison. Although I’ve tried New Orleans chicory coffee, I’d actually never encountered the green in the flesh (er leaf, I guess). It turns out chicory looks a lot like arugula, and has a similar peppery, bitter taste. When combined with the radicchio that made up the rest of the roughage, I found the base of the salad a little too bitter for my tastes. Fortunately, the rest of the components served to brighten the dish, from the sweet golden raisins to the thin slices of cheese I would wager was Pecorino. The red wine vinaigrette and the capers were more subtly present, and I thought the small crouton cubes added a nice crunch component while avoiding soaking up too much of the dressing. When I managed to get all the salad’s ingredients into one bite, it was actually a pleasantly floral combination.

The Ouzu Salmon - still not my cup of tea, but pretty to look at.

The Ouzu Cured Salmon – still not my cup of tea, but pretty to look at.

I’m starting to think I should just force myself to like salmon, since I seem to encounter it at nearly every new restaurant I try. My untrained palate couldn’t detect a strong ouzu flavor to the Ouzu Cured Salmon (Whole Wheat Bulgur, Cucumber, Dill Yogurt). If you’re curious, ouzu is an anise-flavored aperitif that is extremely popular in Greece and Cyprus. I’ve never warmed to the taste of anise or anything on the fennel/licorice spectrum (Red Vines only, please), so you would think the combination of salmon and anise would be pretty repugnant to me. Actually, I found the fish very fresh, and fairly similar in flavor to the lox my mother serves alongside the basket of bagels on Sundays. The overall plating of the dish is what impressed me most (in fact, most of the dishes in our meal were very elegantly laid out). The dish came off as bright and summer-y with a great contrast of colors in the bright pink radishes, the orange-ish salmon, and the green dill yogurt and cucumber. I thought the accompaniments shone brightest in this dish — the bulgur had a nicely chewy texture that played off the softer salmon, cucumber and yogurt. The sauce ended up approximating the flavors of the tzatziki spread on my burger, a standout element there as well.

The Spiced Lamb Burger ultimately reminded me of a high quality American take on shawarma.

The Spiced Lamb Burger ultimately reminded me of a high quality American take on shawarma.

Although I had been tempted by the Ratatouille and Hand-rolled Ricotta Cavatelli on the menu, I ultimately had to go with the Spiced Lamb Burger (Harissa, Eggplant, Tzatziki, Sweet Potato Chips) because it received high praise from the review I had read. The burger came served simply on a slate board, with the chips to one side and a small bowl of good ol’ Heinz ketchup on the other. Given the exotic spices included in the dish, the ketchup seemed a bit incongruous, but I guess I can’t really complain given my traditionalist views of hot dog toppings. The Lamb burger was served on an excellent soft brioche bun. I usually lean towards the potato bun for burgers, but unsurprisingly, Boulud Sud uses great bread that held its own as much as it could against the juiciness of the burger and its toppings. I also admired the fact that Boulud Sud recommends a more undercooked lamb burger — most places will suggest cooking the patty to at least fully medium, but at lunch the waiter suggested I go with my usual burger choice, medium rare. The burger arrived fully pink in the middle, the finely ground meat moist and flavorful. Although there was a lot of interplay between the harissa and the tzatziki, I never lost the taste of the lamb in the jumble. Harissa is a hot chili sauce from Tunisia made mainly of piri piri, serrano and other chili peppers, garlic paste, coriander, chili powder, and an oil. In this case the harissa added a little kick to the meat, but I wasn’t put off by the spice, since it was mitigated by the silky eggplant pieces and the cool tzatziki spread placed underneath the patty. The only downside is that all of these spreads and oily eggplant pieces meant the burger eventually started falling apart as I worked my way through it, leading to a fork-and-knife situation by the end of the course. I enjoyed each bite as I went, so I didn’t really mind, but it seems obvious to me that you can’t load down a bun with chili sauce, yogurt, oily eggplant and a burger patty and expect it to really hold together. This was still the best lamb burger I’ve had — putting Bareburger’s dry patty to shame for sure, but overall I prefer other proteins if I’m going to have a burger. A rack of lamb, or a lamb stew captures the succulence of the meat far better. The most disappointing aspect of the dish was the sweet potato chips. Sweet potatoes are one of my all time favorite foods, so I was let down by the lack of distinct sweet potato flavor in the chips — they mostly tasted of the seasoning (maybe za’atar?), and considering the caliber of the vegetables in the appetizers, these chips were really only adequate.

My favorite dish of the meal -- Za'atar Spiced Merlu.

My favorite dish of the meal — Za’atar Spiced Merlu.

While the Lamb Burger had elements of Boulud Sud’s Mediterranean inspiration, the truly distinctive dish I should have gotten was Jacob’s Za’atar Spiced Merlu (Rice Pilaf, Eggplant, Lemon Tahini). The small bites I had of his dish were my favorite of the whole meal, which is crazy considering how impressed I was with my dessert (and dessert in general, frankly). Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice blend mixing dried herbs, sesame seeds, sumac, and salt. Like Indian curry powders or garam masala, the exact specifics of a za’atar recipe are family secrets that vary from chef to chef and culture to culture — Lebanese za’atar is different from Israeli za’atar, which is different from Jordanian za’atar — although common components are thyme, marjoram, oregano, and sage. The merlu (which Wikipedia suggests is the French term for the white fish hake) sported a thick top crust of the za’atar, to the point where you could easily spot the sesame seeds and reddish tinge from the sumac. The fish was perfectly cooked, flaking off in small slices and serving as a buttery base for all the seasonings. The dish was topped with cilantro, liberally applied to avoid overpowering the entree while still adding another level of complexity, especially working in concert with the brightness of the lemon tahini in accentuating the sesame in the za’atar. The rice pilaf on the bottom was soft, but not goopy, with enough heft to it to combat the tenderness of the other components, from the fattier eggplant to the smooth fish flesh. Overall, it was just a remarkably well seasoned, fresh dish that was distinctive and memorable, standing out above Sarah and my well-executed, if somewhat more familiar Lamb Burger. I think if I went back for the regular menu at Boulud Sud, I would lean towards the seafood dishes, which highlight Boulud’s deftness as a French chef to elevate the bounty of the Mediterranean Sea.

 

The Housemade Ice Creams from left to right: Dulce de Leche, Rose-Marzipan, and Rhubarb Gelatos.

The Housemade Ice Creams from left to right: Dulce de Leche, Rose-Marzipan, and Rhubarb Gelatos.

The desserts suggest that Boulud’s pastry chef is pretty damn deft as well. The ice creams of the day were Rhubarb, Dulce de Leche, and Strawberry Gelato, but we were intrigued by the Rose-Marzipan Gelato mentioned in the Orange Cloud dessert (although I wasn’t particularly interested in the dessert I was curious about how one creates an “orange cloud”), and so asked if we could sub it in for the more mundane strawberry. The restaurant happily complied, although they neglected to tell us this fact until we asked after receiving our check (our waiter was very apologetic afterwards). So while eating, our uninentionally enforced detective work led us to conclude we had indeed been given the Rose-Marzipan, but it did not taste strongly of rose or marzipan. There was the generic sweetness I expect from rosewater, but I was surprised at how muted the almond flavor was, especially considering the recent spate of almond/marzipan desserts I’ve tried where the marzipan nearly punches you in the mouth. The other two gelatos were much more successful — the rhubarb tasted like it had just been plucked from the market, with its trademark tartness. Sweets monster that I am, I loved the dulce de leche, which was achieved the classic powerful sweetness without veering into the cloying quality of some of the newer trendy salted caramel ice creams. Although the plating was not the explosion of artistic flourishes that my panna cotta was, I appreciated the clean lines of the small (but deceptively full) metal cups of gelato, served with a few small sugar cookies baked with pine nuts. The Boulud take on Pignoli cookies tasted less pine-nutty and more just like the powdered sugar on top, but they were a nice complement when paired with the rhubarb gelato.

The Chocolate Panna Cotta -- lovely to look at, even better to eat.

The Chocolate Panna Cotta — lovely to look at, even better to eat.

As I alluded to before, the Chocolate Panna Cotta (Caramel, Raspberry Foam, Chocolate Sorbet) arrived in front of me demanding attention. The plate was splashed with a collection of bright and dark colors, soft and crunchy textures, and a range of flavors from bitter to sugar-overload sweet. The Raspberry Foam’s taste was just as strong as its nearly blood red color — concentrated and very sweet, but in a natural, “Jolly Rancher ain’t got nothing on this” way. I loved dipping the fresh raspberries in the foam to pump up the fruit’s flavor. The cookie crumble spread across the dish reminded me of both Oreo crumbs and the cookie crunchies that split the two layers of a Carvel ice cream cake (obviously, either way, I was in heaven), while the yellow pieces evoked Rice Krispies or petite pieces of Cap’n Crunch. There were also miniature squares of what tasted like a rich caramel blondie — and all this before you even get to the panna cotta or sorbet. The panna cotta was set beautifully, holding its shape as I swiped spoonful after spoonful. It seemed to be made of dark chocolate, its relative mildness only apparent in contrast to the intense bittersweet darkness of the Chocolate Sorbet, which was so dense and rich it seems impossible that it wasn’t made with dairy. This was just a fantastic melange of flavors and textures — you had some acidity from the fruit, intense richness from the panna cotta and the sorbet, some sweetness from the crunchies, and some saltiness from the caramel — overall, it was a multilayered, extremely satisfying dessert, coming as a bit of a surprise considering the relatively mundane description.

 

Final Thoughts:

While I would say on the whole my meal at Spice Market was a more exciting culinary adventure, my Restaurant Week lunch at Boulud Sud was in no way less memorable. It was exciting to dabble in a world of leisurely weekday repasts, to people-watch the upscale tourists and NY natives murmur over the soft jazz and elegantly plated fare. The food was excellently executed and well-seasoned (I might give more of a rave if I had ordered the merlu myself), if not as daring as I had initially expected, but I think I’d like to explore the rest of Boulud Sud’s regular menu on another visit, maybe even for dinner.

As I stumble my way through my mid-twenties, one of the things that has become increasingly clear to me is the importance of the ritual. The memories of those special city lunches with my parents held aloft in my mind linger because they were a break from the routine, something my classmates didn’t get to experience — a secret shared by only a select few. I’m grateful to have discovered that that magical quality remains as you get older — it’s just a matter of savoring those less common opportunities. My lunch at Boulud Sud was a prime example of this — surrounded by friends, playing sanctioned hooky, it seemed like an embarrassment of riches. So if you have the chance to escape the office for some noontime noshing, I’d suggest giving Boulud Sud a try. Its relaxing, classic environment, attentive service, and comfortably transcultural fare present a lovely meal, while also allowing you to relish having the opportunity in the first place.

Boulud Sud

20 W 64th St (Between Broadway and Central Park West)

http://www.bouludsud.com

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

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

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

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

 

First Impressions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

 

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

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

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

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

The Food:

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

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Final Thoughts:

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

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

 

Spice Market

403 W 13th St

New York, NY 10014

spicemarketnewyork.com