Pushing at the Edges: Zizi Limona

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I celebrated my birthday this past week, and looking back at the year that was, it’s hard not to think of the old adage of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’ve got a lot of new, exciting developments in my life, from changing jobs to my upcoming enrollment in grad school. But as food shifts from passion to profession for me, I’m noticing more than ever my palate’s internal tug-of-war between my desire for new tastes and experiences and my lifelong devotion to those comfort foods that evoke contentment and simple satisfaction.

 

So in a way it’s fitting that one of my last meals as a 25-year-old was at Zizi Limona, a restaurant that bills itself as “Mediterranean Home Cooking,” and was called “Grandma’s Middle Eastern kitchen” in one review. My brunch at Zizi Limona was the perfect combination of the traditional and the innovative, taking me back a little over a year to the scents and flavors of my Birthright trip to Israel, while also introducing me to a take on falafel that I’m pretty sure would leave the cooks at our kibbutzim scratching their heads. This is exactly the reason to get yourself over to Williamsburg and check this place out. You’ve got safe bets and experimental options aplenty, catering to any type of bruncher (or dinner-er … diner) you might have in your posse.

 

First Impressions:

Mismatched chairs, brick and wood covered walls, and Mediterranean goods for sale say a lot about Zizi Limona's vibe before you even crack a menu.

Mismatched chairs, brick and wood covered walls, and Mediterranean goods for sale say a lot about Zizi Limona’s vibe before you even crack a menu.

The trip to Zizi Limona was instigated by my belated birthday present to my Gastronomic Life Partner Jacob — a tour of the Mast Brothers Chocolate Factory. I could spend an entire separate post on that experience, but I’d rather just tell you to go. It’s very affordable, and aside from starting at 10am on a weekend, definitely a memorable experience. It’s worth every dollar for the amount of high quality dark chocolate you get to put in your face, plus you learn far more about the art of chocolate-making than I did at the “factory tour” at Hershey Park.

 

However, after our blood sugar levels dropped from their Mast-induced highs, Jacob and I found ourselves in the brunch mecca of Williamsburg with a desperate craving for non-cacao-based dishes. Neurotic that I am, I had of course researched our options, and landed upon Zizi Limona, a restaurant that had been on my radar for a few years after reading raves about its sandwiches and spreads.

 

The other side of the dining room, with the tiled bar and hanging pewter pitchers for brewing Turkish coffee.

The other side of the dining room, with the tiled bar and hanging pewter pitchers for brewing Turkish coffee.

Zizi Limona is an establishment with personality, to be sure. This is immediately apparent from the vibrantly green exterior topped by a red-and-green striped awning. Peering inside reveals a single, light-filled dining room constructed out of a variety of woods and exposed brick. This orchestrated mishmash of decor continues throughout the space, from the collection of non-matching tables and chairs, to the multicolored painted tiles on the small bar. Behind the bar are multiple shelves brimming with wine and beer bottles, and the wall across from it holds shelves stuffed with regional speciality products, like Turkish coffee, spice mixes, and date molasses. Speaking of Turkish coffee, Jacob (recently back from a trip to the country) noted that Zizi Limona hangs pewter vessels over the bar, to be used in the traditional method of brewing the coffee. We sat at one of the handful of outdoor tables, also made up of an assortment of styles, sizes, and seating arrangements. In fact, the only consistency I saw came in the table setting — all of our flatware and dishes was of the same set. I would venture that Zizi Limona is trying to emphasize a “restaurant next door” persona, quirky, eclectic, but accessible.

 

 

The Food:

 

That’s actually a pretty apt description of Zizi Limona’s menu, as well. The menu denotes vegan and gluten-free foods, but also carries the warning: “to keep our food balanced the only possible substitutions are listed.” Grandma’s only doing so much for your picky palate, kiddo. After struggling to narrow down our choices, Jacob and I chose to split an order of Aunt Trippo’s Falafel, followed by the Challah Sandwich for him, and the Shakshuka for me. Jacob almost ordered the Sabih (sic) Croissant (he does love his sabich), but drawn to the Challah by the promise of a more egg-forward, brunchy dish.

 

Complimentary spiced popcorn -- not as good as the pita and tahini to come but I'm never one to turn down free carbs.

Complimentary spiced popcorn — not as good as the pita and tahini to come but I’m never one to turn down free carbs.

Our meal started with a complimentary bowl of popcorn sprinkled liberally with Spanish Paprika. I would have preferred the pita and tahini bread basket outlined in the Serious Eats review I read, but in hindsight the popcorn was a nice entrée into brunch — heavily spiced, with lots of smoky flavor and salty, but not greasy or oily, which meant it didn’t make a serious dent in my stomach.

 

Aunt Trippos Falafel, the Aggro Crag of chickpea appetizers.

Aunt Trippos Falafel, the Aggro Crag of chickpea appetizers.

Aunt Trippo’s Falafel (pickles, smoked tomato, curry yogurt/tahini) was unlike any falafel dish I’ve seen before — tiny fried chickpea balls, each about the size of a large marble, plated atop a curried tahini sauce, then piled high with a smoked tomato chutney, charred shallots, and pickled cabbage. The falafel themselves were a little on the dry side, but had nice mix of basic chickpea flavor and fragrant spices like cumin and coriander, and the crunchy outer crust provided textural contrast with the tahini and the chutney. I really enjoyed both of the sauce elements — the curry-infused tahini was not as assertively sesame-y as some versions, its spices marrying well with those incorporated with the falafel, reminding me somewhat of Indian pakoras. The tomato chutney, chunky enough to stab with your fork and smokey and speckled with peppers,  turned out to be serious foreshadowing for my shakshuka. Overall, the dish was unfamiliar but satisfying, grounded in the traditional combination of falafel with vegetables and tahini, but taken to new corners of the globe through its spices and format, a tangle of tastes and textures that is far from Taim’s pita pocket, but still quite delicious.

 

 

Zizi Limona's Shakshuka, the best specimen I've tried outside of Eretz Yisrael.

Zizi Limona‘s Shakshuka, the best specimen I’ve tried outside of Eretz Yisrael.

Now as you know, I fell in love with shakshuka in Jaffa, care of licensed practitioner Dr. Shakshuka. Since I got back from Birthright I haven’t really found an iteration that lived up to the Doc’s, most of them mere echoes of the soupy, stewy, umami bomb of a skillet I had in Israel. But Zizi Limona’s Shakshuka (Two eggs poached in tomato stew with smoked eggplant, tahini, and cilantro) comes closest to reaching that high bar. As it happens, the owners of Zizi Limona come from Hummus Kitchen and Hummus Place, two restaurants where I’d been reasonably satisfied, if not bowled over, by the shakshuka. Apparently it took a meeting of the minds to crack the eggy code. What brought me back to Jaffa was the inclusion of the smoked eggplant, adding a deep, earthy flavor that cut through the richness of the perfectly cooked eggs, and fought for dominance with the alternately sweet and savory tomato stew. I really appreciated the wide variety of flavors that intermingled in this dish, from the bright cilantro to the nutty tahini, the acidity of the tomatoes to the mild bite of the onions. After breaking the eggs, the texture was pretty much like a sauce, but as with the falafel there were substantial chunks of tomato strewn throughout, thickened by the mixing with the unctuous eggplant. I sopped up the shakshuka with the same pita we had been given with the falafel — a fluffy disk of warm, soft dough, sturdy enough to handle the soupy shakshuka but still chewy and light on its own. The dish was a very filling, but wholesome lunch that took me back to that outdoor table in Jaffa — albeit, with a slightly different vibe, as a number of hip Brooklyn stereotypes strolled by us on a Sunday morning. But the stew itself evoked enough nostalgia to make me place Zizi Limona’s shakshuka at the top of my stateside list.

 

The monster Challah Sandwich, not quite the eggy dish Jacob was aiming for.

The ginormous Challah Sandwich — all about the bread, at the unfortunate expense of its filling.

Unfortunately, I felt like the Challah Sandwich (omelette, charred veggies, harissa) was the weakest dish of our brunch, although it was it was by no means a bad sandwich. Our waiter had called it the “heavier” of the two when comparing the Challah and Sabih Croissant, and it was easy to see why he felt that way: this was definitely a monster of a sandwich,  with two thick, almost Texas Toast-style slices of toasted challah encasing an egg patty, harissa, tahini, and a bounty of grilled vegetables. It came with pickles, yogurt, and some sort of lemon sauce on the side, which tasted like curd but had the appearance of applesauce. Despite all its promise, I found myself disappointed by the sandwich. It ended up being almost entirely about the challah and vegetables, which would have been fine if the challah had matched the standard set by the pita. But it was the kind of white-bread-esque challah I find underwhelming except when employed as the base for french toast. See, I grew up eating Zomicks, a local brand of challah that has a supremely sweet eggy dough, with their best loaves possessing a pliant, even bouncy texture as you tear into them (leading to the occasional smushing as you try to slice them). If you haven’t encountered Zomicks, seek thee out the diamond in the rough.

 

As for the filling, after the care and subtlety of our other two dishes, I was surprised by how bland the Challah Sandwich was. The grilled vegetables had a nice amount of char to them, but the eggs that Jacob had wanted so badly were anonymous in the sandwich, reminding me of the kind of generic patty of premixed omelet you’d find in a cafeteria. The tahini was creamy, but there was none of the punch of a good harissa. Jacob ended up opening up the sandwich to eat it with a knife and fork by the end of our meal, and I found myself happiest with the dish when I used the challah to soak up more of my leftover shakshuka.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I was more than satisfied with Zizi Limona — it’s got a great, laid back atmosphere, helpful servers, and Mediterranean-inflected food that is playful without neglecting its roots. I fully intend on returning to try some of the meat dishes like the shawarma, or come back for lunch for the infamous Sabih Croissant to take another stab at Zizi’s sandwiches. Although I’ll admit it’s going to be a struggle to order anything besides the shakshuka, so maybe I’ll just have to visit enough to quench my stewed-egg-longings.

 

I’ve spoken before about authenticity, and the more I explore cooking and dining, the less stake I put in it (at least in this city of Ramen Burgers and General Tso-boys). My point is that, at least in my case, sometimes you can have it all — the genre-bending and the classic fare, the loves both old and new. I fell in love with Mediterranean food over the past year (as mentioned over and over and over on this blog), but hummus has been my homeboy for at least a decade. I kinda like that I’m the girl who tries chicken hearts on rosemary skewers, but is also desperate to find the new Reeses Cup Oreos (seriously, anybody seen ‘em?). Maybe the whole point of exploring food, or growing up, is not to “put away childish things,” but rather to realize that your experiences lie on a spectrum that widens as you age. By trying new things and challenging myself, I push the outer limits of that spectrum, but that means there is always room for Archie comics and the Atlantic, for blue Cookie Monster ice cream and Durian Banana Sorbet, for Mickey Mouse pancakes and for damn fine shakshuka. Almost makes me glad I’m getting older.

 

Zizi Limona

129 Havemeyer, Brooklyn, New York

http://zizilimona.com/

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Brief Bites: Taim

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

 

The Set Up:

The tightly packed Taim, full of lunch rush patrons.

The tightly packed Taim, full of lunch rush patrons.

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

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

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

 

The Bites:

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Falafel Sandwich, nearly bursting at the seams.

The Falafel Sandwich, nearly bursting at the seams.

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

 

The Sabich Sandwich up close, a little unevenly distributed.

The Sabich Sandwich up close, a little unevenly distributed.

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

The Last Licks:

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

 

Taim

45 Spring St.

http://www.taimfalafel.com/

Must-have Misnomers at Market Table

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As I mentioned previously, Top Chef is my reality TV guilty pleasure (well, that and Chopped, Unique Eats, and The Voice, which is the worst because I’m begrudgingly supporting Carson Daly’s career). One of the common criticisms lobbed at “cheftestants” on Top Chef is the misnaming of dishes, i.e., calling something a risotto when you used cauliflower instead of rice and orange juice instead of broth and your Italian grandma would have no idea what the hell you made. Generally, I agree with Padme and Tom — when cooking at that high a level, you know the definitions of dishes, and you should acknowledge that your experimentation can be “inspired by” a certain dish, but don’t call a club a spade and expect to get away with it. There’s an expectation created by the title of a dish on a menu, and unless you’re going to a Wylie Dusfresne’s molecular gastronomy lab/restaurant, a dish’s name should not be a disguise. Call me pedantic, but the judicious application of some quotation marks would make this all easier.

I bring this up because of a recent lunch I had at Market Table in the West Village. Now the meal I had there was great, and I’d like to go back given the seasonality of their menu, but as you’ll see, their naming conventions probably wouldn’t have passed the Colicchio rule of thumb.

First Impressions:

The corner location of Market Table allows for two walls of windows and ample light.

The corner location of Market Table allows for two walls of windows and ample light.

Market Table is owned by the proprietors of the popular restaurant The Little Owl, and is actually located just a few blocks away from it, on the corner of Carmine and Bedford. The corner space is actually the old location of the NY legend Shopsin’s (now in the Essex St. Market), and you can tell it’s a prime spot, with two full walls of enormous plate glass windows. It’s a very homey, open environment, with dark black leather banquettes and small wooden tables in two-and-four top layouts. The decor evokes a neighborhood restaurant with just a bit of flair — exposed brick walls and wooden beams above them, a tree trunk serving as a the host stand, and a wall covered in shelves of wine simply begging to be opened.

The rustic and inviting single dining room.

The rustic and inviting single dining room.

Forget a list, check out the wine WALL.

Forget a list, check out the wine WALL.

My mom had come in for a mother-daughter lunch, and we arrived basically right when Market Table opened at 11:30am, so the restaurant was fairly empty, and our service was fast and efficient. However, by the time we left, the small dining room had filled up substantially, and our waitress was running around a bit more, making it clear that Market Table lives up to its neighborhood staple aesthetic.

The Food:

Market Table’s menu is made up of seasonally-driven fare, based on (big shock) what’s available at the market. Since we were lunching on a national holiday (MLK Jr. Day), they were offering a few brunch specials, like pancakes and a scramble, but we opted to go full-on lunch. My mother got the lunch special, a Shrimp Salad Sandwich with Old Bay Fries, I chose the Roasted Vegetable Falafel, and we got an order of the Quinoa Hushpuppies to share, based on Jacob’s recommendation (he suggested Market Table in the first place, having been several times).

Complimentary baguette, olive oil, and large flake sea salt.

Complimentary baguette, olive oil, and large flake sea salt.

Our meal started with a complimentary hunk of french bread, served with olive oil and sea salt. Market Table gets extra points for including the sea salt, which offers another layer of flavor and highlights the quality of the olive oil. The bread was light and airy, and biting into it, I wondered if it was sourced from the nearby location of Amy’s Breads, just down the way on Bleecker.

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The Shrimp Salad Sandwich, plated for a real French fry lover.

Our dishes landed on the table before we had even made a serious dent in the bread. I’ll start with my mom’s Shrimp Salad Sandwich, which had an unpretentious presentation to match its straightforward name. The sandwich was nicely plated, if a little less composed than my entree. The sandwich itself was dwarfed by the small hill of Old Bay fries next to it. Now, speaking from the context of a lifetime of Jewish deli visits, I think the bread-to-filling ratio on the shrimp salad was weighted a little too much on the bread side, but you could argue that the salad presented here was composed of higher quality ingredients and not bulked up by a lot of mayo. Once again, I was impressed by the bread — the whole wheat roll was soft and tender where it soaked up the juices of the shrimp salad, but never to the point where it became too soggy to stick together. As for the salad itself, sizable, crunchy chunks of shrimp were plain to see among the pieces of celery and tomatoes, and the taste of shellfish was the dominant flavor in each bite, not too muddied up in the seasonings or mayo. A little lettuce, slice of fresh tomato, or onion might have bulked up the sandwich for me and added a bit more textural contrast, but overall I thought it was a solid lunch entree. Given my french fry affinity, of course I was a big fan of the Old Bay Fries accompanying my mother’s sandwich. I actually wanted them to pile on more of the Old Bay — my parents are originally from Baltimore, and I’ve had my fair share of heavily seasoned spuds by the Chesapeake Bay. Market Table’s iteration featured medium-cut fries, crispy and crunch on the edges, with that soft starchy center that I’ve waxed rhapsodic about way too many times on this blog. They were certainly generous with the fries, but I think the dish is a little unevenly proportioned — a small side salad, or just a larger sandwich would be a more justified lunch dish than the fry-dominant version we were served.

The Roasted Vegetable Falafel, er "Falafel" -- delicious, if not quite what I was expecting.

The Roasted Vegetable Falafel, er “Falafel” — delicious, if not quite what I was expecting.

The only negative thing I have to say about my Roasted Vegetable Falafel (cucumber, feta, arugula, tzatziki, chili) is how it was named. As I mentioned at the head of this post, you create an expectation for the diner when you use a known foodstuff as your dish’s title. Falafel immediately brings to mind chickpeas, a crisply fried outer coating, and a flavor ranging from totally bland (I’m looking at you frozen falafel) to vibrantly herby like the falafel I found in the Tel Aviv shuk. However, what arrived at my lunch was a very loose interpretation of “falafel” — a baked mixed vegetable patty, closer in my opinion to a Mediterranean-influenced veggie burger than any fried chickpea ball. Naming aside, the entree was elegantly presented, the large, bright green patty resting on a small pool of tzatziki, divided from a light Greek salad by a wall of sliced, fresh tomatoes. Overall, the bright colors and clean lines made it an immediately visually appealing plate. Breaking into the patty, I would guess there were peas, carrots, and maybe some onions in the mix. It proved firm without being dry, and I really enjoyed the mishmash of heat from the chili powder and the cool parsley and cucumber from the tzatziki. Despite my lingering reluctance to eat feta (generally it’s too briny for me), the variety used by Market Table was mild, adding a little salt and chew in the face of the soft vegetable patty. The salad was similarly well-executed, the arugula and parsley offering a component of bitterness to round out the plate. Ignoring my griping about the name, I would highly recommend ordering the Roasted Vegetable Falafel if you’re looking for a lighter, but satisfying dish (especially if you plan to go to Big Gay Ice Cream afterwards, like my mother and I did).

The Quinoa Hushpuppies -- a northern twist on Southern Living?

The Quinoa Hushpuppies — a northern twist on Southern Living?

I really enjoyed how unusual the Quinoa Hushpuppies (with capers and lemon) were. Once again, Jacob’s recommendation was spot on, although you could quibble about the authenticity of the Hushpuppy appellation, since I’m pretty sure there’s nary a corn molecule to be found in this fritter. Market Table continued its theme of ample portions with this side dish, featuring close to a dozen oblong pups for my mother and I to split. The hushpuppies weren’t wholly made of quinoa, as I had initially imagined, but rather were made with regular all-purpose flour mixed with whole cooked quinoa seeds, flecked with chives and cooked to a golden brown. This gave them a pleasantly brittle exterior that broke through to a chewy middle. The accompanying dipping sauce was possibly my favorite part of the side — some sort of chipotle aioli, with a nice kick to it that warmed my tongue without making me reach for my water glass.

Final Thoughts:

For all my complaining about how things are named, Market Table did deliver on service, fresh ingredients, and inventive cooking. In fact, I think the weakest dish of our lunch was the most conventional, my mother’s sandwich. Although the Quinoa Hushpuppies and my Roasted Vegetable Falafel were far from what I expected when I read them on the menu, it was a pleasant and satisfying surprise to receive. Perhaps the lesson here is that unless you’re playing for bragging rights post-season on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live, a little diner deception isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Does it encourage a customer to think outside the ordering box, or does it invite disappointment and criticism? I leave it for you to decide, but in the meantime I’ll be heading back to Market Table for those hushpuppies, regardless of whether they’d pass muster down South.

Market Table

54 Carmine St. (corner of Bedford)

http://markettablenyc.com/

A Tale of Two Bakers: Dominique Ansel’s Cronut v. Breads Bakery

All right, my friends, it’s time for a croissant cagefight, a donut deathmatch. We’re talking full on pastry prizefighting. In this corner we have … the up-and-comer, the hot new hybrid, the latest culinary craze to hit Manhattan — Dominique Ansel’s one and only Cronut! And in the other corner … the tried and true technician, the desert darkhorse, the archetypal archduke of allspice — Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant. It’s a throwdown for the ages, and the only type of warfare I readily endorse. So (in what must be a violation of a trademarked catchphrase) … let’s get ready to crumble!

Dominique Ansel Bakery‘s The Cronut:

For those who may be unaware of the Cronut Mania overtaking Manhattan at the moment, here’s a bit of context. Dominique Ansel, formerly of the Michelin-starred Daniel, and currently one of the top pastry chefs in America, recently devised a new form of pastry. His personal Frankenstein’s monster is a half-donut, half croissant hybrid, and therefore was christened The Cronut. Arriving last month, the pastry swiftly sent shockwaves through New York’s foodie scene, eliciting the kind of fervor that might seem more reasonable at a Twilight premiere. Lines began to form at Ansel’s Lower East Side bakery, and as they stretched longer and arrived earlier, Ansel had to start instituting rules (outlined on the “Cronut 101” page of their website — yes, this exists). The bakery can only produce between 200-250 cronuts each day, so customers were limited to only two per in-store purchase, six if you manage to get on the pre-order list — which won’t happen, because they’re already full. Oh, and if you want that in-store Cronut? Better gird your loins and bring some energy drinks along — you’re lining up at 6am for that buttery bad boy. The bakery opens at eight, so pack a sudoku book or two.

None of the above is a joke — this hyperbolic hysteria is actually happening each day in downtown Manhattan. A Cronut black market has developed, with seemingly otherwise unemployed and endlessly patient people offering hand-delivered Cronuts for those willing to shell out nearly 10 times the store price (one Cronut retails for about $5, on Craigslist people are asking for upwards of $50 a delivery, depending on the neighborhood).

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

 

I received my Cronut secondhand as well, but never fear, I did not sink so low as to entrust my dessert delivery to a complete stranger. A good friend and fellow foodie Randeep decided to endure the line and get a Cronut the oldfashioned way (well, the month-old-fashioned way, I guess), and was generous enough to let me buy his second pastry off him. So full disclosure: the Cronut I tasted was a day old. I did my best to reheat it in the toaster oven at work, but I recognize that my views are tainted by the ravages of time upon those delicate layers of dough.

The Cronut carrying case -- classy packaging, or commercial ploy?

The Cronut carrying case — classy packaging, or commercial ploy?

 

The Cronuts are packaged in a golden, pyramidal box, which could be viewed as either a way to placate the masses and elevate the experience (this is no Krispy Kreme donut, mon ami), or as an over-the-top, eye-roll inducing display of food fetishism. Guess which camp I fall into? Look, I know I’m one to talk in my glass house of Oreo and Levain cultism, but I sometimes I find the spectacle of food presentation a little unnecessary. I’m all for molecular gastronomy and innovative plating, but I don’t think the way you package a baked product needs to be any fancier than a white cardboard box. The beauty of Dominique Ansel’s Cronut is in the design of the pastry itself. The gold box adds a layer of pomp and circumstance that feels like a poor play to make me feel like the Cronut unboxing should be an event in itself.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

 

Thankfully, as I alluded to above, the Cronut itself is a gorgeous display of craftsmanship. Even after a day of marinating in its own creamy innards, the layers of flaky dough were still distinct. Golden-brown and crispy on the outside, with a soft yellow, multilayered inside reminiscent of the croissant-side of its family, the pastry cream was still soft and oozing from the crevices. Cronut 1.0 was flavored vanilla rose, but Ansel is rolling out new flavors each month, so my June Cronut was lemon maple. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a lemon person, so I wish I had gotten to try the Cronut in its initial form.

Inside you can see the distinct layers of dough, and the cream oozing between them.

Inside you can see the distinct layers of dough, and the cream oozing between them.

According to Ansel’s website, the Cronuts are first fried in grapeseed oil, then rolled in sugar and filled with pastry cream, completing their donutification. This means that when you bite into the Cronut, the dominant flavor is that of the cream filling instead of the dough itself. For June’s iteration, the foremost taste is strongly lemon, with a hint of vanilla from the surrounding dough. I struggled to find any maple flavor at all, although it may serve mainly as a sweetener. A day after it was baked, the Cronut had indeed lost some of the lightness in the pastry, but you could still see the wafer thin and springy layers as you tore into them. The overall impression I got was one of eating a deep-fried croissant, perhaps because the basic architecture of the dessert was born from a croissant. I’m not sure what could have brought the Cronut closer to its donut heritage — perhaps its best thought of as a croissant adopted and raised from birth by donut parents.

All in all, while I applaud Dominique Ansel’s creativity and devotion to raising the pastry game, I think I’d rather try one of his takes on a more traditional dessert, like his highly regarded Kouign Amman (which was previously the most popular item on the Bakery’s menu).

 

 

Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant (and more):

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Our other contender comes from Breads Bakery, down in Union Square. Breads is relatively new to the New York scene, opening in the beginning of 2013 as the first American outpost of the popular Lehamim Bakeries in Tel Aviv (Lehamim means “breads” in Hebrew). Located just off Union Square on East 16th St, Breads seems to still be flying just under the radar, despite earning the accolade of baking the “best babka in NY” from New York Magazine. When I visited the bakery/cafe last Saturday, I found a steady stream of customers but plenty of space to linger, sit and sample the menu.

Inside Breads -- the dessert and bread counter located up front, and the coffee is in the back.

Inside Breads — the dessert and bread counter located up front, and the coffee is in the back.

Breads offers both savory and sweet goods, with their loaves of various breads and baked items at the front counter, a coffee bar and selection of salads and sandwiches in the back, a small seating area in the middle. They win major points for an enthusiastic staff — everyone I talked to was willing to explain the menu and offer their own recommendations. Plus, you gotta love a place that not only offers free samples as you walk in, but also constantly replenishes the supply and rotates the sample selection. In the time I was there I got to try a fresh hard and crusty baguette, a boureka, and some onion bread.

A small sample of Breads baked goods.

A small sample of Breads baked goods. Note the rugelach on the left.

I didn’t get to test New York Magazine’s assertion this go-round, but I did buy a piece of rugelach, the other item Breads is well-known for. Both the rugelach and the babka are loaded up with a Nutella/Belgian chocolate filling, and covered with a sugar syrup after emerging from the oven, leaving a soft, flaky crust.

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Breads‘ rugelach, bringing me back to my days in Jerusalem.

My typical preference for babka or rugelach is cinnamon over chocolate, but man this was one phenomenal rugelach. You can detect just a hint of nuttiness in the filling, but the dominant flavor is the rich Belgian chocolate, similar to a ganache in texture. The dough is flaky on the outside, but yeasty within, the filling and the sugar glaze keeping it moist (and lingering on your fingers). Breads’ rendition reminded me of the personal-paradigm-shifting rugelach I had at Marzipan in Jerusalem. Maybe it’s because the chef behind Breads Bakery is Uri Scheft, a Danish-Israeli with an eye towards twisting up traditional breads, but a reverence for tradition with Jewish staples. For example, along with the dark Scandanavian rye loaves that fill the baskets at Breads, Scheft bakes up challah each weekend for Shabbat.

 

The flat but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

The flat, but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

But the more appropriate dish for Cronut comparison (Cro-comp?) is Breads’ version of an Almond Croissant, which Jacob selected. (Again, the lucky duck lives in the neighborhood — clearly I need to move to Gramercy.) While almond croissants are one of Jacob’s favorite pastries, I’ve only had a handful in my life, probably due to the poor quality of most of the ones you find at the local Starbucks or Au Bon Pain. Much like my rugelach experience, however, Breads’ take on an almond croissant proved eye-opening.

The pictures featured on Breads’ website show a familiarly puffy pastry, but the almond croissants we encountered at the bakery were the flattest I’d ever seen. However, the croissant was clearly baked with care, golden-brown with some slightly burnt areas near the edges. It appeared to be double-braided, almost like a challah loaf, and had marzipan piped on top, beneath a dusting of powdered sugar and sliced almonds. The first bite revealed that marzipan also filled the middle of the croissant. More viscous than the pastry cream in the Cronut, I strongly preferred Breads’ filling, since it gave a moistness to the croissant dough but held the whole pastry together, making it easier to eat overall. The lemon maple cream of the Cronut squirted out with each bite, leaving you with pastry cream on your hands and face. The more stable marzipan also allowed the taste of the dough to have more of a presence on your tongue. It made the almond flavor purer and more natural tasting than the common almond croissant, which tend to be differentiated from their original brethren simply by tossing a few almonds on top.

 

All in all, the Cronut and Almond Croissant fared equally on dough texture, but Breads wins out because of the basic architecture of its dessert. I think you need the integrity of a yeast donut to properly handle the pastry cream. In fact, most of the cream-filled desserts I can think of have a certain amount of heft to the surrounding baked dough — eclairs, cupcakes, even twinkies have a stronger structural base compared to the airyness of croissant layers. While the frying of the Cronut solidifies the dough a bit more after baking, the pastry cream doesn’t get absorbed by the Cronut, making the process of eating it a messier experience than its elegant appearance would suggestion. In the end, I sampled all three of these pastries long after they had been baked. Although the Cronut suffered the longest delay, even my friend who tried it fresh out of the fryer concurred that it was good, but not really worth all the hype. I’m happy for Dominique Ansel to get the business, because I honestly believe he’s pushing the industry forward, but on a blow-by-blow count, Breads Bakery wins in a knockout. The newest eye-catching, show-stopping fad can be pretty thrilling at the time, but sometimes all you need is a small tweak to familiar formulas to really be memorable.

Bottom line? If you can find your way to a Cronut with little hassle or time investment, give it a shot — it’s definitely a beauty to behold. But feel free to sleep in on Saturday morning if getting up at 5 sounds awful — Breads Bakery will be there, open until late and inviting you to sample and revel in some rich rugelach or commendable croissants.

 

Dominique Ansel Bakery

189 Spring Street (between Sullivan and Thompson)

http://dominiqueansel.com/

Breads Bakery

18 E 16th St.

breadsbakery.com

Snackshots Abroad: Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 3

While uploading photos to include in this last post about my trip to Israel, I suddenly realized how many different places I ate at. So I thought I’d include a quick montage of some of the more random and/or pedestrian fare I ate, and then focus on a few particularly memorable or exotic dishes from my travels.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out "Doritos" in Hebrew.

Yes, that does phonetically spell out “Doritos” in Hebrew.

We’ll start out with snacks — I’m sure that bag looks pretty familiar. It is the Israeli version of Doritos, and despite the non-Latin letters, the artificial cheesy flavor remains comfortingly the same.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Outside of the US, the King Cone is the Cornetto.

Fans of Edgar Wright films may recognize this ice cream treat as Nestle’s Cornetto (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Flavours_Cornetto_Trilogy), frequently seen in American ice cream trucks as the King Cone. In Israel I saw a wider variety of flavors offered — this one featured peanuts and caramel, and was the perfect treat after a long hike up and down Masada.

Now onto the more local fare:

Shawarma b'laffa in Sderot.

Shawarma b’laffa in Sderot.

First up is the shawarma b’laffa I had in Sderot. My brother’s girlfriend Leah, who lived in Israel for a year, recommended that I get a laffa wrap at least once. Laffa is a larger flatbread, closer to naan in texture than a pita, and a million times better than your average wrap. The shawarma here was tasty, but one of my favorite things about your average street food/deli in Israel was the small salad and condiment bar that seemed standard. Even the mall shawarma place we stopped at one lunch had pan-fried eggplant, pickled vegetables, and a couple of different chunky sauces to accompany your meal. The meal I had in Sderot was memorable not because of the food itself, although it was delightfully greasy in the way a great sub from a NY deli is, but because of the significance of the location. Sderot is a border town with the Gaza Strip, and the poverty was pretty palpable. Our guide explained that due to the frequency of rocket attacks, all those who have enough money to leave Sderot have, and the people left are the ones that are stuck. This was great for our group because it meant a cheap lunch, but I couldn’t help but notice a certain haunted and worn-out look to the roads and market we walked through. There was another rocket strike only two days after we visited Sderot. Regardless of your feelings about the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, there’s no reason innocent people (on either side) should be subjected to that kind of violence.

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The sign says “Tasty Falafel 4”

Let’s lighten up the mood a bit, and transition to a happier encounter with laffa. This small falafel shop was in a strip mall in Jerusalem. Tasty Falafel 4 offered 4 different types of falafel (wow, who could have made that intellectual leap?) with the option of putting it in a pita, laffa, or on a platter. They get extra points for all the different delivery options — half pita, half laffa, falafel, shawarma, a combo of the two, or veggies. They also gave you complementary “chips,” which were closer to the British chip in terms of being fried potatoes rather than our American Lays, but were actually small potato puffs that topped your order like a Greek gyro. I ended up getting a mix of all four falafel types with all the salad trimmings (except the spicy sauce). Sure, it was probably the equivalent of Taco Bell in NYC, but sometimes you just want fast food.

Sorry, but I couldn't wait to bite into a "chip" before I took a picture of my falafel.

Sorry, but I couldn’t wait to bite into the “chip” on top before I took a picture of my falafel. Look at the soft potato center and golden brown fried edges. Mmm.

Next up, we have the Lahuhe from the sacred city of Tzfat. It’s basically a Yemeni crepe/burrito, full of herbs and spices and three different types of cheese.

Lahuhe -- basically a Yemeni crepe -- from Tzfat.

Lahuhe — basically a Yemeni crepe — from Tzfat.

I only tasted the wrap my friend Dave got, but it had the light texture of a tortilla mixed with gooey cheese and a heavy za’atar backend spice.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

About to be rolled up for handheld consumption.

Let’s move into the big leagues for our next round of Middle Eastern edibles. I’ll admit that I had a list of must-try food written up before I even set foot on the plane (we’ve discussed my dependency on lists previously). A lot of the items on the list were types of food I had sampled in America, but I needed to compare with the more authentic Israeli equivalent — falafel, shawarma, hummus and so on. But at the top of the list was an elusive dish I have still yet to try in the US — shakshuka. Shakshuka is one of those foods that has a million variations across the globe — chak chouka, eggs in purgatory, huevos en el Purgatorio, and so on. At its most basic level, shakshuka is eggs poached in a spiced tomato sauce. When I told one of my Birthright leaders I was desperate to stick my face in some shakshuka, she suggested what seemed to be an obvious answer: go see the Doctor. Dr. Shakshuka, that is.

The doctor's office.

The doctor’s office.

Dr. Shakshuka is a restaurant near the flea market in Jaffa, the older Arab city that Tel Aviv grew out of. The inside of the restaurant was crowded and dim, but around the corner Dr. Shakshuka has taken over the whole alleyway, ten tables of varying lengths strewn about the space. I ended up ordering family style with a bunch of my tripmates, getting shakshuka with eggplant, shakshuka with shawarma, stuffed peppers, and a couple of kebabs. The meal also comes with an unlimited supply of thickly sliced loaves of warm, soft white bread to sop up the runny egg and tomato sauce.

Dr. Shakshuka's version of unlimited breadsticks.

Dr. Shakshuka‘s version of unlimited breadsticks.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

Vegetables stuffed with meat.

The star of the show -- shakshuka with eggplant.

The star of the show — shakshuka with eggplant.

As I had hoped, Dr. Shakshuka totally lived up to expectations. The eggs were perfectly poached, and breaking the yolk led to the unctuous, fatty egg mixing with the acidity of the tomato. A self-professed eggplant zealot, I thought it was a great addition to the dish, the silky texture melding with the rest of the liquid, adding a little bit more chew without distracting from the spices. The beauty of the dish is the way everything comes together — this is definitely not one of those foods for people who like to keep each part of their dinner in separate little sections on their plate. You gotta be ready to get a little messy, dipping your bread in and keeping plenty of napkins at the ready. I know of a few places in NYC that serve shakshuka, and I’m eager to try them out — I only got to try the dish once in Israel, so no over-shakshuka-exposure for this gal.

The most exotic food I ate in Israel came on the last day of my trip, while strolling through Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. Another recommendation (both from the trip leaders and my brother’s girlfriend Leah) led me down a side street of the shuk to the Iraqi restaurant Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

The humble sign for Rachmon.

Inside, the restaurant is visually nothing to shake a stick at. Small tables and rickety chairs fill the space, and you order off a menu on the wall, giving your order literally to one of the cooks, who makes and places your food on a cafeteria tray and sends you off to the elderly gentleman by the ancient cash register. I had zero knowledge of Iraqi food, but some items on the menu looked familiar — meat-stuffed cigars that seemed almost Greek, and those brimming bowls of hummus with different toppings of beans, vegetables, and sauces. But I couldn’t get just any ol’ bowl of hummus –I needed something authentically Iraqi (or at least ostensibly authentic). So I went with a bowl of red kubbeh. Kubbeh (or kibbe) is an overarching category of Middle Eastern dishes that involve bulgur or semolina and chopped meat. Red kubbeh is made up of semolina dumplings stuffed with ground beef, boiled in a tangy  broth with stewed vegetables.

I didn't realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I didn’t realize the kubbeh would be filled with meat until I broke one in half.

I initially thought the soup would be spicy, perhaps because I’ve been trained to equate “red” with curries or chili powders. But in fact it was more acidic than spicy, which played well against the richness of the dumpling dough and the ground beef. The vegetables were tender, and even with the meat the meal was filling, but not overly heavy. I know it’s pretty lame to get so excited about trying a new cuisine, but I was very pleased with myself for choosing something new and unknown. Luckily, I happened to like the food, too. There were a number of other kubbeh permutations to try at Rachmon, so I’m hoping I can find some Iraqi food in NY. One of my lunch buddies got fried kubbeh, which seemed almost empanada-ish in appearance.

We started with dessert, so we’ll end with it, too. Jaffa was especially kind to me, from the flea market where I found some great gifts, to Dr. Shakshuka‘s, and finally, to the best ice cream I had on my whole trip. Between his insatiable thirst for trivia and history, and his insatiable desire for ice cream, our tour guide Shachar was a man after my own heart (er, stomach?). He came along to Dr. Shakshuka for lunch, but barely touched his food, explaining that he was saving room for some phenomenal ice cream. And so after a little shopping in the market, I followed his directions to a gelateria a few blocks down. They had a wide assortment of flavors from sugarfree to fruit based to candy-laden types like Snickers. I opted to get a combination of the almond-toffee and the Indian Kulfi.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

The best ice cream (gelato) I had in Israel.

Overall, the milk base of the gelato was strong, but what really took my gelato to a new height were the flavors. The almond-toffee was delicious, if not particularly shocking — the crunch of the almond against the sticky, gooey toffee and the creaminess of the vanilla base was, as you would expect, a stellar combination. But the Indian Kulfi threw me for a loop. Cardamom was the dominant flavor, and I found it absolutely addictive. It reminded me of the best version of kheer, which is Indian rice pudding — almost savory in taste, but the creamy sugar sweetness of the gelato itself kept the flavor from veering out of dessertland. I’m “borrowing” my mother’s old ice cream maker this summer, and I’m determined to try to replicate this gelato. I’ve seen recipes for cardamom ice cream on sites like Serious Eats, and it’s definitely on the top of my ice cream experiments list.

Last, but not least, we’ll deal with one of those amazing food moments of redefinition. Sometimes all it takes is a really well-made version of a dish to completely shift your opinion. For me, this happened with rugelach. I’ve admitted in the past that I’m not the best Jew-food eater, and part of that was my distaste for rugelach. Too often I would come up against stale, dry, crusty rugelach, the filling like bland paste with the barest hints of the sweet promise of cinnamon or chocolate. Forget rugelach — hand me a piece of babka or a danish, please. But then I went to Marzipan Bakery in Jerusalem. Marzipan was a recommendation from the writers of Serious Eats, and with my rugelach-obsessed friend Zina in tow, when I caught a glimpse of the sign in the Jewish Quarter, I knew we had to stop in.

The hebrew spells out "Marzipan" phonetically.

The hebrew spells out “Marzipan” phonetically.

Inside, it was clear what their star product was:

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

Oodles of rugelach filled the counter.

And somehow, despite my history with disappointing rugelach, the fact that all of the city had switched to Kosher for Passover goods (blech, matzoh-meal), and the unreasonably high expectations. the rugelach I had from Marzipan that day was lifechanging. It was the best rugelach I’ve ever had — a slightly sticky coating on the toasted, flaky dough, a luscious chocolate filling that made me yearn for a Zabar’s babka. It was everything I’d been told I should love about rugelach, and damn if I wasn’t a proud Jew at that moment.

I’ll be honest, I’m wrestling with how to sum up this brief series of posts about my trip. I didn’t even get to all the delicious things I tried in Israel (like their fascinating take on frozen yogurt), but hopefully the items I’ve covered give a good picture of my general sense of wonder about the entire experience. This trip challenged me in so many ways, from traveling on my own (well, sans friends, that is) to getting up on a camel, to dipping my toes (and the rest of me) into the Dead Sea. Trying to capture just the part of the trip dealing with food keeps pushing me to make grander statements about my own personal growth and willingness to expand my palate, both for literal tastes and the larger tastes in my life. But truth be told, I’m backing away from the melodrama on this one. If you want a pitch for why everyone who can should do Birthright, let me know and I’m happy to jump right into the spiel. Mostly, I just had a wonderful vacation. And like most of the things I write about on this blog, it was as much about feeding my appetite as it was about feeding my curiosity.

Wait, They Have More Than Milk and Honey? — Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 1

It's pretty dorky, but I really loved seeing familiar products with Hebrew names.

It’s pretty dorky, but I really loved seeing familiar products with Hebrew names.

Sorry for the recent lapse in updates, but as implied by the title of this post, I just got back from a 2 week trip to Israel. I was on a Birthright trip, and though I wish I could be more original, I’m going to be like everyone else who has gone on those and say it was completely worth it. If you can scrounge up any molecule of Jewery in your DNA, I highly recommend trying Birthright. For someone who defines “pushing herself” as getting medium salsa instead of mild, it was an incredibly rewarding personal challenge. And of course I got to eat my body weight in hummus and pita, so no complaints here.

We criss-crossed the country at rocket ship speed, so there’s a ton to cover, even if I limit myself to just talking about food. I love traveling for many reasons, but I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that exploring the everyday cuisine of someplace new is up at the top of my list. I’ve only really gotten into Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food in the past year, so I was pumped to move beyond falafel and tahini to see what other basic dishes I could try in Israel. I’m going to focus this post on some larger take-aways about the food on my trip, to provide some context for the more in-depth discussion of the more memorable dishes.

Everyone is provided with two meals a day on a Birthright trip, which are generally breakfast and dinner at whatever kibbutz or hotel you’re staying at. The meals were all cafeteria style buffets, and usually involved tons of vegetables and salads, some meat-stew dishes, and rice or couscous. Luckily, I was perfectly happy to take a shovel to the eggplants, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

By the end of the trip, however, I was really struggling with breakfast. Israeli breakfast is very different from the typical American, or even European meals I’ve had. Israelis tend to have very large breakfasts, which our guide explained is due to the schedule of working on a kibbutz (= farming commune) back when they were first established in the late 19th Century. You’d wake up early, go work the fields for a few hours, and then come in for breakfast before heading back out to work some more. To make up for all the hard labor, a traditional Israeli breakfast involves hardboiled eggs, salads of tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, and other fresh vegetables, yogurt-based dips and sauces, and some bread (generally pita). At the places we stayed there were also fried eggs, yogurt, cereal, and pudding for breakfast (no joke, both vanilla and chocolate were offered at nearly every hotel or kibbutz).

I suppose this really isn’t too different a notion than the big farmer’s breakfasts we have here — bacon, eggs, sausage, potatoes etc. — but the foundational tastes of the meal are pretty far apart. As an American I struggled with the idea of having vegetables for breakfast, and found myself craving some sort of fruit in the morning — some berries or citrus or even a banana. I also tend to eat smaller, blander breakfasts (oatmeal with bananas and cinnamon is a frequent occurrence), so I was slightly overwhelmed by the heaviness of the buffet. This is partially because like in Europe, low-fat products are rare in Israel — the basic milk offered was 3%, and the lowest yogurt fat content I saw was 1.5%, with the highest being up to 5%. Now this is not to say that America has it right with our obsession with all things low-carb, low-fat,  and diet-branded (such as diet milk, which is a real thing), but I won’t deny the fact that I’m used to having the option. By the end of the trip I was basically limiting myself to yogurt and granola or cereal, because I knew that my options for lunch or dinner were going to be much heavier, and I regrettably couldn’t jump on the veggie bandwagon in the morning.

A few other random observations about food and drink in Israel:

– I was told by multiple people that Starbucks’ efforts to expand into Israel failed because of the country’s obsession with coffee. The most prevalent chain coffee house is Aroma, which actually has a couple locations in New York. I thought their espresso was nothing to shake a stick at, but they do have an extensive food menu with far better offerings than Starbucks — actual sandwiches and salads served with warm fresh bread.

Aroma also serves the Israeli version of “iced coffee,” which is pretty much a frappucino. I found it tooth-achingly sweet (which says a lot coming from me), but it’s clearly very popular, since almost any store that sold coffee offered a version of iced coffee from a slushee-type machine. This includes both fancy espresso bars and more common snack stands at places like the Dead Sea.

– I only found one restaurant that gave you the option of combining milk and meat (which goes against keeping Kosher) — Black Burger (similar to Five Napkin Burger in NY), but it was a separate topping, not a standard menu item. Even at a sandwich shop, you had to choose between a cheese sandwich and a meat-based one — the cheese and meat were sitting near each other in the refrigerator, but the employees refused to make a turkey and cheese sandwich.

– Fruit juice stands were everywhere, and they were amazing, partially making up for the lack of fruit at our accommodations. I discovered a new appreciation for pomegranate because of it, and I wish the fruit vendors in NY would occasionally bust out a blender or two.

But enough of the complaints, let’s dig into the times we had to buy ourselves food, because that’s where the more interesting dishes were. Given the frenetic pace of the tour, I didn’t have much time to jot down notes on food, so consider this a brief slideshow of some culinary exploration, rather than a detailed analysis of Israeli street food. I can’t say I was disappointed by anything I ate, from the strip mall shawarma to my first taste of Iraqi food.

I’ll get into the specifics of my various lunches and dinners next post, but for now I wanted to talk about the two markets or “shuks” that I went to in Israel, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I’ve been to various farmers’ markets in my life, including the famed Union Square Market, but I’ve never seen anything comparable to the markets they have in Israel. It was like someone had turned a supermarket inside out — you could find anything you wanted there, from fresh fruit and vegetables to desserts, condiments, spices, and even full fish and butcher shops.

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A typical stall in the Tel Aviv Market — you couldn’t help but hit a dried fruit vendor every twenty feet or so.

One of the most plentiful items on sale was dried fruit, with a wide variety in copious quantities. Aside from the obvious Middle Eastern staples of dried figs and dates, I also tried dried pineapple (not the overly sweetened chunks you see in the grocery store) and dried mango. Since the vendors charge based on weight, it was impossible only get a few pieces of anything. I was lucky enough to sample others’ hauls and avoid having to make my way through 5 pounds of figs. I was also excited to try fresh dates for the first time.  The fresh date reminded me of a mellower grape — it still had the sticky-sweetness of dried dates, but the juiciness helped to mitigate it a bit. I’ve only come across dried dates in the US, so if someone knows where I can get fresh ones, I’d be extremely grateful.

This may look like cheese, but it's actually piles and piles of halva.

This may look like cheese, but it’s actually piles and piles of halva.

Another shuk mainstay are the halva stalls. Halva is a overarching term referring to a number of different types of sweets that are found in the Arab and Jewish world, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe to North Africa and beyond. The word itself just means “sweet” in Arabic, and is generally divided into two categories: flour-based and nut-butter-based. The halva I encountered in Israel was mainly sesame (aka tahini) -based, so they were dense and crumbly. As you can see from the photo, there are at least as many varieties of halva as flavors at Baskin Robbins. In both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem the stalls had free samples available, and I got to try chocolate and coffee halva, respectively. The texture reminded me a little of dried out pate, which was off-putting, although they were both certainly very sweet. I personally prefer my tahini on its own, so I wasn’t tempted to buy any halva to bring back to the States.

Aside from raw ingredients, you could also find freshly made pastries, like rugelach and baklava.

Aside from raw ingredients, you could also find freshly made pastries, like rugelach and baklava.

I ate more rugelach than ever before during my trip to Israel, and it really changed my opinion on the treat. Most of the rugelach I’ve encountered in the US has been dry and stale, with the cinnamon or chocolate filling providing the slimmest amount of moisture to combat the crumbly crust. But the fresh rugelach in Israel was almost like a cinnamon roll in texture, the dough squishy and saturated by the buttery filling. More to come on the top rugelach contender in part two of my Israel posts, but the total ubiquity of  rugelach in the shuks points to the reasoning behind my fascination with these markets. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is ride the public transportation in a foreign city. It may seem odd to be so interested in a subway system, but I’m fascinated by how people from different regions have figured out urban design — with the same basic constraints of a light rail or subway system, how does someone outside of New York or the US tackle the conundrum of creating a convenient commute? It takes me out of the picturesque tourist attractions and gives me a tiny slice of everyday life in Paris or Rome or Amsterdam.

Because of safety issues, Birthright groups are pretty much restricted to the tour bus provided by the trip, which meant riding the light rail or public bus was not an option for me. But I did get to walk through the shuk in Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon, as average, everyday shoppers were getting their food and supplies for Shabbat. Unlike some of the more novelty stalls at the Union Square Market, these people were literally shopping for staples — peppers and onions, raisins and cinnamon and ketchup and mayo, and maybe even a little dessert for after Shabbat dinner. The markets were bustling, partially with awestruck tourists like me, but we were not the majority of people there. So while I dilly-dallied, taking in the sights of loaves of challah and being eyeballed by head-still-on herring, the rest of the world got on with its business. Mundane as it might be, I couldn’t help but be grateful for the chance to be an observer of uncurated life, similar to my own but just different enough to make me question when our paths diverged, and if there are any Super Shuk-and-Stops in Israel.

Next post I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of some of my favorite meals in Israel. Let’s just say that I found a deeper bond with the Israeli people than our common religious heritage: an everlasting desire for ice cream in all its glory. Stay tuned for shawarma, falafel, shakshuka, and of course, lots of dessert.