Brief Bites: Mora Iced-Creamery

Heading across the Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island.

Heading across the Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island.

 

Two appearances is a coincidence, three is a streak, right? If that’s the case, then I’m about to hit an ice cream streak on this blog, since once again I’ll be talking to you about my visit to a new scoop shop. Not that it should be all that surprising — I’m betting an intrepid researcher weeding through the archive would find that 70% of this blog is ice cream (as is my body, considering my consumption levels).

Anyway, another week, another ice cream post. This is the final round of my backlog of summer adventures — a spot from my July 4th trip out to Seattle. Miraculously, I’m not going to talk to you about produce or seafood in this post (recurring motifs in my previous Seattle chronicles). Instead, let’s take a look at Mora Iced-Creamery, out on Bainbridge Island.

 

The Set Up:

 

Peeking in the window at Mora Iced-Creamery.

Peeking in the window at Mora Iced-Creamery.

 

Mora Iced-Creamery is located on Bainbridge Island, a small community in the Puget Sound only a short ferry-ride away from Seattle. The parts of Bainbridge that I saw had a very Nantucket/Cape Cod-ish vibe to them, with central main street brimming with artisanal shops, restaurants, cafes, and bakeries, eventually leading out to a gorgeous countryside populated with farms and wineries. My brother Dan and his fiancee Leah took me out to Bainbridge on the last day of my trip, and we strolled around the town, enjoyed a few wine tastings, sampled some fudge, but Dan was insistent that I try Mora’s frozen fare. In fact, the ice cream was Dan’s main selling point when talking to me about Bainbridge, repeatedly ending descriptions of the island’s beauty with “and they have some amazing ice cream. Really good.”

 

Now Mora is no town secret — when we first walked by the shop, there was a substantial line out the door, and a local shopkeeper told us it’d be at least a 45 minute wait. When we returned an hour later, the line looked exactly the same, but as a credit to Mora’s staff, it only took about 10 minutes to get our ice cream.

 

At the outset Mora looks like your average ice cream shop — cute but clean decor dominated by purple, white and gleaming metal, uniformed staff working in synchronicity. But there are a few tweaks that set this purveyor apart: first, the ordering process, which I assume is a response to their enduring popularity. You order as you enter the shop, picking your ice cream vessel — cup, cone, shake, affogato, sundae, single scoop or more. This might seem limiting, because first-timers won’t even know what they want, but it does avoid a massive pileup of people hemming and hawing over flavors choices.

 

The tightly sealed, separated canisters of ice cream. No cross-contamination here, no sirree.

The tightly sealed, separated canisters of ice cream. No cross-contamination here, no sirree.

This comes after you’ve paid for your order, when you move down the line to the scooping zone. Here Mora takes another unusual tack — rather than the typical long glass case of brightly colored ice creams crammed next to each other, at Mora each flavor sits in its own individual metal canister, in order (according to their website) to avoid commingling of odors and flavors, and so customers won’t “taste with their eyes.” Fortunately, they also allow you to taste as many flavors as you wish, a boon since there are at least 40 flavors of ice cream or sorbet for you to choose from (including seasonal flavors that are fleetingly available).

 

The Bites:

 

My "single scoop" of Gianduja (left) and Banana Split.

My “single scoop” of Gianduja (left) and Banana Split.

 

With such an embarrassment of riches, this was no easy choice. I settled on getting a single scoop (where, confusingly, you can get two flavors) in a cup, to have the purest experience. Alas, the no-brainer of Chocolate Peanut Butter Moreo (chocolate mousse ice cream chock full of Oreo crumbles and swirls of creamy peanut butter), aka my soul-mate in dessert form, was sold out, so I had to go out on more of a limb here. In retrospect, this was actually a good thing, since I ended up going with a more unusual combination — Gianduja and Banana Split.

 

Yeah, yeah, Maggie, you got the Gianduja (Originated in Italy, this sweet chocolate ice cream is made with roasted hazelnuts and has a Nutella-like flavor) because you’re all about the hazelnut-chocolate combo now. (But wait, hazelnuts are awesome! I had an unreal hazelnut butter at the London Plane during this trip, too!) Ho-hum, old news. Tell us more about this mysterious Banana Split flavor.

 

Well, if you insist. Mora’s Banana Split ice cream (Our real-fruit banana ice cream is enhanced with traces of dulce de leche and shaved chocolate. An homage to the classic banana split in every bite!) is more evocation than accurate representation of the traditional banana split dish — which, by the way, is an option at the ordering station up front. Frankly, I was more than happy to skip out on the strawberry ice cream and maraschino cherry, which I generally view as corruptive influences on my ice cream experience.

 

Mora’s ice cream certainly lived up to the hype. It was very dense and creamy, achieving that somewhat taffy-like chew I adore in ice cream. Supposedly their ice cream contains less butterfat than “most super premium ice creams” (ice cream trivia — “superpremium” ice cream, according to the International Dairy Foods Association, “tends to have very low overrun and high fat content, and … uses the best quality ingredients” — overrun = aeration the ice cream goes through so you don’t end up with a solid block of inedible frozen milk. Whew.). I guess this means it’s better for you, but c’mon, we’re not talking Skinny Cow here. And to their credit, I wouldn’t say I missed the butterfat here (but who does say that?).

 

True hazelnut flavor was strongly present in the Gianduja, their distinctive woodsy taste carrying through the sweetness of the chocolate. I might even put this on par with Vivoli’s Bacio, although I think Mora’s version is a little sweeter. I guess that kicks the Banana Split way up on the sugar chart, because the Gianduja actually worked as a grounding flavor base against the candy-bar like sweet punch of the Banana Split.

 

What prevented the Banana Split from being cloying was the use of actual banana ice cream. It wasn’t like eating the ice cream version of banana Runts, but closer to the flavor of just pure, frozen bananas. It had a mellow sweetness from the fruit’s natural sugars (although I’m betting they add some to the ice cream base), and a fresh quality to the flavor that kept the dulce de leche in check. This was also aided by the shaved chocolate, which was at least dark chocolate if not semisweet, and was a nice distinction from the milk chocolate of the Gianduja. And let’s not downplay the dulce de leche here — you can see the wide ribbons of it swirled throughout the banana ice cream. It shows up in a number of Mora’s flavors, and with good reason — this is high quality caramel, which when combined with the bananas almost reminded me of the bliss of banoffee pie.

 

Last Licks:

 

Yet again I find myself tipping my hat to my older brother Dan. Mora Iced-Creamery offers high level ice cream with innovative flavors, stellar ingredients (they’re a member of Slow Food USA), and have the process of ordering ice cream down to an efficient science. I wish they weren’t so remotely located, so I could go back and taste to my heart’s content. I might make my brother take me back next time I’m in Seattle, so we can try a sundae — the hot fudge alone has me salivating. And if I can find enough people to go in on it, I might consider taking advantage of the fact Mora ships nationally. I mean, how can I go on living my life without experiencing Chocolate Peanut Butter Moreo? I’m pretty sure any reasonable adult would agree with me.

 

Mora Iced-Creamery

139 Madrone Lane

Bainbridge Island, WA

http://moraicecream.com/

Snackshots: Summer Desserts

2014-05-10 13.01.37

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

Sometimes You Feel Like a Legume: Dinner at Peanut Butter & Co.

2014-01-19 16.38.37

I am a peanut butter freak, and I’ve discovered it’s an ailment that has only gotten worse as I’ve aged. When I was younger I used to be very picky about the quality of the peanut butter I tasted — Ritz Bitz was authentic enough for me, but Lord, the indignity of lowering myself to the artificial flavor of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch. I was a loyal Jif girl, and looked down my nose at other peanut butter brands. And though I’d like to think that my palate has gotten more refined as I’ve gotten older, my love of all things peanut butter has curiously grown by leaps and bounds, breaking free of my previous (mis)conceptions and invading all aspects of my eating (did you know peanut butter tastes great with yogurt? salads? cheese?).

Way back in April of last year I mentioned my desire to visit Peanut Butter & Co., and now I am proud to say I can finally check that item off my NYC food-list. I’d heard about Peanut Butter & Co. years ago, but had never found the time to go downtown and visit their store, nor even try their line of peanut butters that I’ve seen slowly expand through the tri-state area. Thankfully, Laura, my partner in crimes-related-to-pb & j (see our Jam Crawl and our visit to Bantam Bagels), was kind enough to take me to dinner at PB&Co. as a belated holiday present. It was a trip nearly a year in the making, but for a peanut butter devotee such as myself, it was a decidedly necessary pilgrimage to the Valhalla of cream-and-crunchdom.

 

First Impressions:

Peanut Butter & Co. is located in Greenwich Village, just off of Washington Square Park and the hub of NYU. It obviously benefits from being so close to a huge student population, and its menu of sandwiches, cookies, brownies and ice cream seems tailor-made for hungover college kids.

The counter at PB&Co., with the kitchen behind taking up nearly half the cafe's space.

The counter at PB&Co., with the kitchen behind taking up nearly half the cafe’s space.

The photos I had seen of the cafe made it seem like a large space, but standing outside the doors it became clear that it’s a relatively shallow store, with nearly half of the real estate taken up by the kitchen and counter. Entering the cafe, you find the cashier to the left, a small retail section in the back featuring the titular line of peanut butters, merch, baked goods and drinks, and then to your right a collection of tables, seating probably the same amount of people as the average Manhattan Starbucks. The decor is friendly and pared down, the exterior of the store painted bright blue and white, and the inside evoking a classic American kitchen with pastel yellow walls covered in vintage advertisements for peanut and sandwich products.

Vintage ads show the legacy of peanut butter's place in American hearts.

Vintage ads show the legacy of peanut butter’s place in American hearts.

Honestly, I had no idea Marshmallow Fluff came in flavors other than "marshmallow."

Honestly, I had no idea Marshmallow Fluff came in flavors other than “marshmallow.”

The service style is a little odd. There’s no table service (you order at the counter), but they do bring your food straight to your table … sometimes (we had to go up and fetch our own dessert). We also encountered a somewhat strange scenario during our visit — generally, PB&Co. has a faucet at the counter that dispenses regular NYC tap water (since everyone including Barney knows that PB leaves you pretty parched), but it was broken, and therefore covered to prevent anyone trying to use it. This meant that when we asked for tap water, the cashier told us our only option was to buy a bottle of water, citing a violation of NYC health chodes to fill a customer’s glass from a tap behind the counter. Now, granted I don’t know the health code, but you’d think they could have gotten a cooler or filled a pitcher, rather than forcing people to pay and engendering ill will. But then again, it seems to be a bustling place with a steady stream of customers, so perhaps they think they’ll just try to get a few more bucks out of folks until someone really puts up a fight.

 

The Food:

Tempting, but perhaps a bit much for the first visit.

Tempting, but perhaps a bit much for the first visit.

In order to get the most out of the PB&Co. menu, we opted to split two sandwiches and share a dessert, ordering The Elvis, The Heat is On Sandwich, and the Bananarama Sundae to finish up. All of the sandwiches are served with both carrots and PB&Co. brand chips, which helps to fill out the plate a little bit. Not surprisingly, our sandwiches were ready in no time, so we could get down to some serious chewing.

 

The Elvis, perhaps underserved by a lack of bacon.

The Elvis, perhaps underserved by a lack of bacon.

The Elvis (“A grilled peanut butter sandwich, stuffed with bananas and honey”) is offered with an optional addition of bacon, and part of me regrets deciding to go without, because I think it would have added that extra salt and crunch the sandwich needed. The sandwich was very uniform in texture, soft and gooey from being grilled. Now both Laura and I agreed that almost any sandwich improves with grilling, but in this case, because of the melted quality of the peanut butter, it was nearly impossible to tell that we had chosen PB&Co.’s “Crunchtime” crunchy peanut butter, which I had hoped would mix things up a bit in terms of mouthfeel. The flavor was certainly pure and strongly peanutty, and ended up being the dominant note of the sandwich. I have to question the cafe’s definition of “stuffed” here, because both the honey and the banana seemed conservatively applied, getting lost in the melting swirl of the peanut butter. Still, you can’t fault the combination of flavors as a classic, and I thought the peanut butter itself was top notch. There’s just something so delightful and nostalgic about the oozing, gooey drip of peanut making your fingers sticky and forcing you to lick it off like a 5 year old. But Laura and I concurred that The Elvis was very much a sandwich we could have made in our own kitchens (even with PB&Co.’s own product), and gotten more bang for our buck.

 

The Heat is On Sandwich — not quite a Thai dish, but an interesting play on flavors.

The Heat is On Sandwich — not quite a Thai dish, but an interesting play on flavors.

The Heat is On Sandwich (“Spicy peanut butter and chilled grilled chicken, with a little bit of pineapple jam. Like a Thai satay — only better”) was definitely the most interesting dish of our dinner, and I’m glad that Laura convinced me to order this over another meatless option. The title refers to PB&Co.’s spicy variety of the same name, and I was a little nervous about how hot the spread would be. It turned out to have a substantial kick to it, with the inherent sweetness of the peanut butter up front and the cayenne really coming through on the back end. The chicken was firm yet moist, although it mostly served as a vehicle for the peanut butter’s dominating flavor. Similarly, it was hard to discern the pineapple flavor of the jam, although I appreciated the gelatinous texture and the jam’s use as a cooling element against the spicy peanut butter. Although PB&Co. describes it as similar to a Thai sandwich, I found it lacked the soy/umami taste that separates satay sauces from regular melted peanut butter. We got the sandwich on toasted whole wheat bread, and I had hoped that meant the entire sandwich would be grilled (see comment about the benefits of grilling above), but alas, the toaster touched the bread only. This was certainly a more creative and more filling sandwich than The Elvis, and I could see this being a knockout dish if it was first grilled, and then had the pineapple jam applied.

Now before I even comment on our sundae, let’s take a moment to discuss proper ice cream serving etiquette. Ice cream sundaes, if served in a tall glass or high-rimmed bowl, should come with long-handled spoons, preferably metal ones. Otherwise you’re left with an inadequate tool for digging deep to the bottom of the bowl to scoop out lingering hot fudge or an errant chocolate chunk, and risk getting melted ice cream all over your hands in the process of excavation. (This pertains mostly to hard-style ice creams — a soft-serve Carvel sundae, for example, will yield easily to a plastic spoon.)

The visually pleasing, if haphazardly constructed Banarama Sundae.

The visually pleasing, if haphazardly constructed Banarama Sundae.

The Bananarama Sundae (“What a banana split! Three scoops of ice cream, sliced bananas, graham crackers, peanut butter, Marshmallow Fluff, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Wonderful for sharing, if you are so inclined”) was cutely served in a large mug, but arrived with only flimsy plastic spoons with which to tackle it. This made it difficult to get a bite that involved all of the elements of the dessert, especially considering the middle layer of solid chocolate ice cream. It was aesthetically pleasing, with a large dollop of whipped cream on top, drizzled with chocolate sauce and graham cracker crumbs. Generally the sundae comes with vanilla ice cream, but PB&Co. had sold out of it earlier in the day (a testament to the appeal of their ice cream, since it continues to be frigid in NYC). We opted for chocolate ice cream as the base of the dessert, and I’d actually recommend requesting it over the vanilla if you have the chance. I liked all of the individual components of the sundae, but once you dove in it seemed like the construction wasn’t given proper attention. I’ll admit I’ve become a bit biased about this after experiencing the intense consideration that goes into Big Gay’s Salty Pimp — first sea salt, then dulce de leche in the cone, then ice cream, etc. Here the Bananarama had chunks of graham crackers on the bottom, covered in peanut butter and Fluff, then the ice cream, then the whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and graham cracker crumbs. That meant that you had to struggle to get through the ice cream to reach the crunchy crumbs and gooey Fluff, which over time stiffened up to make things even more difficult. Initially it was super goopy and true-to-name fluffy, but by the end (and trust me, we didn’t dilly-dally, since Laura is as much of a fast-eating food honeybadger as I), everything had started to congeal and required a dedicated application of elbow grease. An easy solution would be to replace the chocolate sauce with hot fudge (frankly, always a good choice), which would have kept the Fluff warmer for longer, and allowed better mixing with the graham crackers and peanut butter sauce. And just like The Elvis, Laura and I felt like there was a serious lack of bananas — why so skimpy on the fruit, PB&Co.? But as a positive, the Bananarama allowed us to sample a variety of the toppings offered, so I’ll be able to make a more strategic order the next time I stop in.

Final Thoughts:

My trip to Peanut Butter & Co.’s cafe was a great holiday present, and I’m grateful to Laura for taking me. Overall, it’s a cute homestyle spot offering familiar and comforting, if somewhat pedestrian fare. I’m happy I visited and sampled the savory menu, but I think if I go back it’ll be when the weather warms up so I can try out some of their other ice cream options (word on the street is that their milkshakes are killer). When it comes down to it, unless I suddenly develop a serious allergy, peanut butter is going to be a big part of my life for the foreseeable future.  For all of the quibbles I have about the food at their cafe, I have to applaud Peanut Butter & Co. for giving peanut butter a proper place in the spotlight, and helping to spread George Washington Carver’s message of brotherhood and legume love.

 

Peanut Butter & Co.

240 Sullivan St. (between 3rd and Bleecker)

http://ilovepeanutbutter.com/sandwichshop

More is Less: Choice Anxiety at Sembrado

2013-11-16 17.11.57

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/

Brief Bites: Wafels and Dinges Cafe

2013-08-24 22.09.30

(Welcome to the inaugural edition of Brief Bites, in which I attempt to highlight one or two dishes and keep my word count to slightly less than Dostoevsky-levels. We’ll see how it goes.)

My best friend in 3rd grade was a girl named Kathlien, who had moved to Larchmont from Belgium a few years before we met. At that point, I couldn’t have pointed  Belgium out to you on a map, let alone tell you what Belgians ate, but Kathlien and I shared a common love of boxball, Barbies, and eating as many Girl Scout cookies as we sold, so I was basically a shining example of youthful multiculturalism. Eventually her parents’ careers took the family back to Ghent, and Kathlien and I grew up and apart. Perhaps my early brush with Belgian culture left me predisposed to view the country positively, but even now I can’t help but view Belgium with a kind of reverence. After all, this is the nation that lays claim to my favorite kind of beer (Belgian strong ales like Delirium Tremens), amazing waffles, delicious cookies (Biscoff), Godiva chocolate, and freaking french fries. Oh yeah, and they have some neat art and stuff, too (Rubens’ Prometheus Bound, anyone?).

So while this seemingly Willy-Wonka-wonderland of my favorite foods lies far across the vast Atlantic, the best I can do for now is sampling a bit of Belgian bravura at the new brick and mortar location of Wafels and Dinges, down at the bottom of the East Village on 2nd and Avenue B.

 

The Set Up:

A very official plaque establishing Wafels and Dinges as missionaries of the gospel of Belgian desserts.

A very official plaque establishing Wafels and Dinges as missionaries of the gospel of Belgian desserts.

Wafels and Dinges, known for besting Bobby Flay in a Waffle (er, wafel?) Throwdown (the victorious wafel is now on the menu), and for tempting the hearts and stomachs of many a drunken NYU student with their truck parked almost nightly near Astor Place, has been roving NY for over half a decade in cart and truck form. Their first permanent store opened last month, conveniently just a few steps away from the owner Thomas DeGeest’s East Village apartment. The sizable cafe occupies the corner of the block, and the open and airy space features the same tongue-in-cheek whimsy of their portable locations (such as a plaque on the front wall declaring this the “Belgian Ministry of Culinary Affairs: Department of Wafels”). The outer walls are basically all windows that can be opened up to the air, and the interior is decorated in an industrial style that mimics the look of the food trucks — yellow and black painted metal, unfinished steel, antique waffle irons hanging along the walls. A glass-enclosed kitchen/bar area occupies the front half of the store, with a collection of tables and chairs in the back. We happened to visit at the tail end of National Waffle Day (too late to catch the crowning of Mr. and Mrs. Wafel, alas), but the cafe was still decked out in plenty of cute blackboard drawings and taped-up artwork proclaiming wafel devotion. Aside from their food and drink offerings, the Wafels and Dinges cafe sells merchandise and house-endorsed items like speculoos spread, maple syrup, cookies and imported Belgian products.

The inside of the cafe is decked out in the familiar colors of the W&D trucks and carts.

The inside of the cafe is decked out in the familiar colors of the W&D trucks and carts. Note the glass-enclosed kitchen/bar area, where you can watch some wafelcraft in action.

Vibrant displays of dinge devotion next to the Mr. and Mrs. Waffle scorecard.

Vibrant displays of dinge devotion next to the Mr. and Mrs. Waffle scorecard.

 

The Bites:

The Wafels and Dinges cafe offers the same menu as found on their trucks, along with the shakes and sundaes, espresso drinks, and some savory wafels that are exclusive to the store (like the 2nd Street Salmon Special, which is like a bagel and lox platter, only on a waffle). Jacob and I decided to get a wafel (in honor of the holiday), and a milkshake to take advantage of the location’s offerings.

The variety of wafels -- Brussels on top, then Liege, then mini wafelini, and the Quarte and Stroopwafels on the bottom row.

The variety of wafels — Brussels on top, then Liege, then mini wafelini, and the Quarte and Stroopwafels on the bottom row.

 

We selected the Liege Wafel with Nutella and sliced bananas. Wafels and Dinges offers two main types of waffles: the Brussels waffle, which looks more like the familiar dining hall/IHOP model and is rectangular and airy, and the Liege waffle, which is thicker, less uniform in shape, chewier and denser (kinda like if Eggo waffles were artisanally-crafted). After selecting your wafel type, you then get to pick what kind of “dinges”, or toppings (ranging from dulce de leche to plain butter to walnuts), you’d like on your wafel — the first for free, and the rest come at an additional cost.

All hail our Liege, Lord of the nutella and bananas (nothing like a bad feudalism joke).

All hail our Liege, Lord of the Nutella and bananas (everyone loves a bad feudalism joke, right?).

I’ve actually never had the Brussels wafel, since the Liege is just so good. Unsurprisingly, this classic W&D menu item lived up to expectations — just as satisfying as the first one I ordered from the truck. Really, you can’t go wrong with a killer combo like chocolate and bananas. The contrast of the cold, freshly sliced bananas against the warmer smooth Nutella, and the chewy, slightly caramelized wafel made each bite a complex mishmash of temperature and texture. The only improvement would have come from warming the wafel more, or serving it fresh from the iron. Wafels and Dinges makes the wafels in batches that can sit out for a bit, depending on how busy the cafe is. The quality of the wafel is still superb even at room temperature, with strong vanilla and brown sugar flavors present in the batter, but had it arrived piping hot, the Nutella would have melted a bit and helped to bring the dish together more firmly.

Shake creation in action.

Shake creation in action.

We opted to go full-on Belgian for the milkshake, choosing the Spekuloos Shake, which features  W&D’s homemade Spekuloos ice cream mixed with crushed speculoos cookies. It’s served in a glass coated with speculoos spread, and topped with whipped cream, more cookie crumbles and a sprig of mint). For the uninitiated, spekuloos (or speculoos) are a type of spiced Belgian cookies that are traditionally made for the Feast of St. Nicholas around Christmastime, but are today more commonly served on Delta flights, in the form of complimentary packets of Biscoff cookies. Frequently light in color and oval-shaped, speculoos cookies have a similar flavor to gingerbread, but without the earthy intensity of cloves. The rise of the Nutella-like Biscoff spread (speculoos cookies crushed to a peanut butter consistency) has pushed the cookies more into the mainstream spotlight, to the point that Trader Joe’s sells its own version, in both cookie and spread form.

The Spekuloos Shake: an onslaught of sugary spice.

The Spekuloos Shake: an comely onslaught of sugary spice.

This shake is a triple punch of speculoos spice, so you’d better be a serious proponent of cookie butter allure if you opt to order it. Since we were splitting the shake, I didn’t find it too overwhelming, but if it were my sole dessert, I might have found it ultimately a little too one-note. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Biscoff, and the ingredients were all top notch — the fresh creamy ice cream, the sweet spread, and the thick whipped cream — but it was a bit of a sugar bomb. Both Jacob and I felt that the drink was a bit too thin, more milky than truly slurp-able, like a great milkshake should be (at least, if you’re a Fribble lover like me). While I’m not opposed to the idea of speculoos-flavored milk, I think a mix-in or two would have simultaneously made the shake more interesting to drink, and broken up the intensity of the cookie flavoring. Wafels and Dinges actually offers another shake with Spekuloos ice cream and fresh strawberries, and I think having chunks of fruit in the milkshake would better allow the ice cream’s distinct flavor to shine. The mint garnish was also a source of confusion. Visually appealing, the bright green leaves certainly popped against the beige shake and white whipped cream, but once you started actually drinking, the mint seemed a bit out of place — what are you supposed to do with it? Chew small bites in between sips? Maybe it’s a consequence of watching too many episodes of Chopped, but I don’t see the point of inedible garnishes. Especially because I think a mint-speculoos shake sounds like a delicious and more refreshing dessert than the original version we had.

 

The Last Licks:

All in all, the Wafels and Dinges cafe is definitely a destination worth traveling for. Rather than scouring the city for the trucks or carts, you can find all the dessert delights you want at this new location, served daily with a solid dose of whimsy, even when it’s not National Waffle Day. While the milkshake didn’t blow us out of the water, the wafels are consistently superior to any other contenders I’ve encountered, and I’ll be back to try out their savory varieties, and maybe a sundae (the Speculoos Split with caramelized bananas is calling to me). Our server even remembered our names as Jacob and I headed out into the night, thanking us for stopping by, and making me wish I lived just a bit closer and could become a W&D regular. It may not be the most authentic Belgian experience, but until I find myself in Bruges, I’ll think fondly of Kathlien and her home country’s amazing cuisine as I take an extended tour through the Wafels and Dinges menu.

 

Wafels and Dinges

209 East 2nd Street (corner of Avenue B)

http://www.wafelsanddinges.com