Come in From the Cold: A Warming Dinner at Village Taverna

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Snow — to elementary-aged Maggie, this word meant magic, plain and simple. The kind of magic that requires extra effort: it’s not enough to simply wish for snow, you must entreat the weather gods through sacrifices like putting an eraser under your pillow or wearing your pajamas inside-out and backwards (while there is some contention about the specifics of the rituals, it is universally agreed upon by North Eastern American children that some sacrifice is mandatory). And if you did everything right, and the snow came, it meant freedom — from class, from homework, from the usual routine. You could throw on unreasonably puffy pants and moonboots and hurl yourself headfirst into the drifts in your backyard, bean unsuspecting passersby with snowballs, and drink enormous mugs of hot chocolate with heady swirls of whipped cream.

Well, as with many things in life, the wonders of childhood snow do not extend into adult life. These days heavy snow means an endless commute, clunky boots you drag around the office, and the inexplicably speedy transition of white powder to grey slush in the New York streets. Maybe it’s just the unexpected deluge we’ve recently had across the country, but frankly, this grownup is a little worn-out on snow.

My Grinchy-grumpiness is probably fueled by being stuck without functioning snowboots during the storm last weekend. Old lady Maggie took her ancient snowboots to work last week, where she cranked up her spaceheater to avoid office frostbite (damn you, server farm), only to discover the unfortunate consequence of the heat cracking the plastic tops of the boots. Dammit. So come Saturday, when another snowstorm rolled through New York, I was caught bootless and bereft. Luckily, I found refuge and a lovely dinner at Village Taverna in Union Square, warmed by excellent food and friendly service.

 

First Impressions:

Walking into Village Taverna, you encounter the take-out counter with desserts on display.

Walking into Village Taverna, you encounter the take-out counter with desserts on display.

Village Taverna is located right off of Union Square on the corner of University Place and 11th St. It’s a cute, relatively small corner restaurant, with the takeout counter and kitchen facing front as you enter, and the bar and dining room fanning out in an L-shape to fill the rest of the space. Village Taverna is decked out in the classic style of a Greek restaurant — high ceilings above white walls with accents of dark blue or gold, the chairs and tables made up of plain but polished light wood. The restaurant takes advantage of its corner location through the large windows that line the exterior walls, which when we visited were slightly covered by long curtains, and the interior walls and bar had mosaic tiles and decorative plates on them.

The bar and corner shelves filled high with blue vases of varying shapes and sizes.

The bar and corner shelves filled high with blue vases of varying shapes and sizes.

It was pretty quiet when Jacob and I visited, most likely due to the driving snow outside, so I can’t really speak for the overall noise and activity level of the place. During my visit, however, I found that my meal was the perfect antidote to the messy weather outside. The dining room is made up of a long banquette on the inner wall and a number of two and four-tops, and our waiter gave us the pick of the litter. We ended up at one of the banquette tables, and I was warm and comfortable for the entire meal (although Jacob complained that he might have been under a cold-air vent). Overall the atmosphere was calm and casual, the staff more than happy to make recommendations and answer our questions (and most importantly, refill our fresh pita after we scarfed down the first plate).

 

The rest of the dining room, decked out with decorative plates and tiled walls.

The rest of the dining room, decked out with decorative plates and tiled walls.

 

The Food:

‘Tis the season to stuff your face with dessert (though long-time readers might argue my dessert season is year-long), and I’d proudly taken part in a few holiday traditions earlier that day. I spent the afternoon trimming the tree at Laura’s (of Bantam and Jam fame) house, and of course proper tree-trimming requires not only ornaments and tinsel, but nostalgic holiday foods like hot chocolate, cashew bars, sticky buns, and linzer cookies. So it’s understandable that by dinner I was eager for some light, wholesome food. Jacob suggested a soup/salad/appetizer strategy, which sounded perfect considering both the weather and my blood sugar level.

Greek is one of those cuisines I was very against when I was younger, mostly because I thought of it as being populated with such “gross” foods as olives, feta, and eggplant. These days, though I find my palate edging more and more towards Mediterranean-adjacent cuisines, I’m still plenty unfamiliar with the basic Greek dishes (alas, Greek Lady on Penn’s campus ranks about as high as NYC street meat on the authenticity scale). As such, I’d never encountered any of the dishes I tried at Village Taverna. Fortunately, Jacob was a much more worldly child, and so steered us in the right direction. We opted for splitting the Melitzanosalata spread, the Village Salad, and a bowl of the Avgolemono. It ended up being plenty of food for two people, and was pretty reasonably priced — we got out of there for just about $30, including tax and tip.

To be clear, our selection was only the tip of the iceberg for Village Taverna’s menu — they offer a ton more spreads, salads, and appetizers, plus a grill section full of kebabs, seafood, traditional Greek dishes like Mousaka (with a vegetarian version), souvlaki, gyros, and pita wrap sandwiches. Had I been game for a heartier meal, I probably would have struggled to choose an entree between all the options.

Now this is what I call a bread basket, er ... plate.

Now this is what I call a bread basket, er … plate. The only acceptable use of olives — to augment olive oil.

Our dinner started with a complimentary plate of pita, olive oil, and olives. The bread was freshly grilled and warm to the touch, with deep brown lines seared into it. Bread-fiend that I am, I couldn’t get enough of the pita — it had the perfect texture,  soft with just a tiny bit of toasted crunch. I still can’t get onboard the olive train, but I really liked how the fresh olives intensified the flavor of the oil, which perked up my tastebuds after my sugary repast.

 

The Melizonasalata -- a strong pick for eggplant fans.

The Melitzanosalata — a strong pick for eggplant fans.

The Melitzanosalata (Puréed fine roasted eggplant spread made with fresh ground eggplants, garlic, vinegar, fresh herbs & extra virgin olive oil) surprised me with its texture. I had expected it something closer to baba ganoush, but this dip was more like the roasted red pepper/eggplant dip I made for Thanksgiving, chunkier and with some bulk as I scooped into it with a piece of pita. It was served with capers on top, and I found that their brininess overwhelmed the dip. On its own the Melitzanosalata had a strong eggplant flavor, with subtle notes of vinegar and parsley. Its initial thickness melted on the tongue, and though I missed the smokiness of baba ganoush, I would certainly look to this dish as a good way to cure an eggplant craving.

 

The Village Salad, offering my first taste of manouri cheese.

The Village Salad, offering my first taste of manouri cheese.

I was excited to try the Village Salad (Mixed greens, grilled manouri cheese, croutons, cherry tomatoes, white & dark sesame with honey balsamic vinaigrette) because I’d yet to come across manouri in my cheese adventures. According to Wikipedia, manouri is “a Greek semi-soft, fresh white whey cheese made from goat or sheep milk as a by-product following the production of feta.” It’s supposed to be creamier and less salty than feta, with less acidity. I really enjoyed it in this dish, and will definitely seek it out again as a good cheese for use as a topping . The Village Salad was very simple, seemingly designed to let the cheese shine brightest. Usually I like my salads like I like my ice cream — with plenty of mix-ins — but here I appreciated the straightforward, well-proportioned combination of just a few ingredients. The manouri arrived with thick grill marks on top, leaving it softened without melting it, and it easily broke apart into large chunks with the application of a little fork pressure. The creamy texture and nutty taste played well with the bitter greens and the acidity of the tomatoes. There were some tiny croutons dispersed throughout the dish to add crunch, and the dressing echoed the nutty-sweet cheese with its sesame and honey.

 

Avgolomeno -- Greek chicken soup for the soul.

Avgolemono — Greek chicken soup for the soul.

Now I’d actually heard of Avgolemono (Traditional Greek chicken soup made with rice and thickened with an egg lemon sauce), but for some reason I was picturing more of the American classic chicken soup, with a clear broth and thick-cut vegetables. What arrived at our table more closely resembled a chowder (or egg-drop soup, as the description implies). It was very creamy, thick and filling, with soft strands of chicken belying the strong broth flavor. Like the rest of our meal, it was a simply produced dish with basic, fresh and wholesome ingredients cooked with care. The brightness of the lemon sauce kept the soup from weighing me down too much (as can happen with a bowl of clam chowder), and I found myself happily satisfied without being overfull by the end of our meal.


Final Thoughts:

I only had a small sampling of the menu at Village Taverna, but the dishes I did try speak to the quality and overall feel of the restaurant. Maybe it was the snowstorm outside, or maybe it was the nostalgia-inducing holiday activities of the day, but I came away from my dinner feeling like a surrogate Greek mother had cooked just for me. Albeit, a Greek mother who also employs a staff of waiters and busboys. Despite the proximity to the mobs of NYU students and Union Square bustle, Village Taverna has the atmosphere of a family restaurant, polished and attentive yet warm and welcoming. I’m definitely planning to go back and further my Greek food education, and if I find myself stuck in the snow again sometime this winter, I know a bowl of chicken soup that’s just calling my name.

 

Village Taverna

81 University Place (corner of 11th St)

http://www.villagetaverna.com/

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There’s a Dreidel in my Dressing! — It’s Thanksgivukkah 2013!

I’ve got a couple more reviews waiting in the wings, but to tide you over I thought I’d upload a dash of holiday food porn. I rarely get to cook for more than myself (except for the cartloads of cookies I unload on my coworkers), so I leapt at the chance to take on Thanksgiving. With much-needed support and advice from my mother, and some excellent additions from my friend Sarah, we managed to pile the table high with festive mains, sides, and desserts. Here’s a visual rundown of Thanksgiving:

Appetizers

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Up first, the Mushroom Galette, my favorite new recipe of the holiday. Cremini and shiitake mushrooms, onions, herbs, and fresh Humboldt Fog goat cheese. Definitely getting added to my go-to hors d’d’oeuvres list.

Clockwise from the bottom left: Aged Gouda, Double Creme Brie, three types of British cheddar, herbed goat cheese, and Stilton.

Clockwise from the bottom left: Aged Gouda, Double Creme Brie, three types of British cheddar, herbed goat cheese, and Stilton. Homemade pita chips for the dip in the top left corner.

To add cheese to our cheese, we had a variety of different types from Trader Joe’s, ranging from aged Gouda to Stilton. I’m usually not a big brie person, but this was great, especially when combined with the sliced apples. Not pictured here is the Roasted Eggplant and Red Pepper Dip, which took forever to make but turned out pretty great, and the mulled wine, which was a huge hit with my non-red-wine drinking mother.

Sides:

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I’ve been absolutely obsessed with brussels sprouts after having Ilili’s version, so I was tempted to make their recipe, but ended up going up with straightforward roasting with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Challah-Apple Stuffing on the bottom left, with the turkey photobombing in the top right.

Challah-Apple Stuffing on the bottom left, with the turkey photobombing in the top right.

The Challah-Apple Stuffing changed the way I view stuffing. My mother is a big proponent of the basic Pepperidge Farm rendition, but when Buzzfeed posted that recipe, I couldn’t resist. Turns out much like with challah french toast, the eggy, chewy bread is a fantastic base for stuffing (or dressing here,I guess). You know it’s a good dish when you’ll eat the leftovers cold straight out of the tupperware.

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Sarah brought a great cold quinoa salad, and a whole mess of cornbread I’ll be working my way through this week. If you look closely, you can just see the whole kernels in the slices.

Desserts

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Impressive, no?

Now this is where we get serious. If it wasn’t evident from the family meals I’ve written about before, we are a group with a serious sweet tooth, and Thanksgiving is just an excuse to bake every cookie and bar we can think of. Oh, and pies. Because it’s unAmerican to have Thanksgiving without pie.

From left to right: Linzer, Cranberry White Chocolate, Oatmeal Raisin. (And Sarah's Snickerdoodles to the side).

From left to right: Linzer, Cranberry White Chocolate, Oatmeal Raisin. (And Sarah’s Snickerdoodles to the side).

My mother really outdid herself on the treat front, from old standbys like Chocolate Chip Cookies and Oatmeal Raisin, to new attempts like Linzer cookies and Cookie Butter Bars.

Cookie Butter Bars -- just as outrageous as they sound.

Cookie Butter Bars — just as outrageous as they sound.

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I tried a new recipe for Pumpkin Loaf, and I think the secret ingredient of coconut oil really helped to deepen the flavor without making the loaf too tropical.

Pies on pies: Apple in the foreground, and Pecan behind.

Pies on pies: Apple in the foreground, and Pecan behind.

And of course, the knockout champs of the dessert round — Apple and Pecan pies. My mother used the Pioneer Woman’s Dreamy Apple Pie recipe, sans the pecans in the crust, since they had been used up in the other pie.

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Here’s the whole tablescape, featuring the traditional family gingerbread house (and a repurposed turkey Beanie Baby from my youth).

As expected, there was too much cheese, too much wine, and too much sugar, and I ate myself silly and reached new heights of insulin-endangerment. But more important than the food was the family, and you can never have too much of that. Hope you all had as lovely a Thanksgiving as I did!

A Shamefaced Admission

I had a really lovely Thanksgiving — full of friends and family and an utterly incomprehensible amount of food. I have so much to be thankful for, from a great job to an unbelievable support system, to even the basic necessities of light, heat, food, and a roof over my head, which I am all the more so grateful for in light of Hurricane Sandy. But I do have one regret from Thanksgiving, a disappointment in my own behavior. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve discovered my threshold: I ate myself to the point of nausea.

To be honest, I’m hardly a prodigious eater on an everyday level. I don’t usually try to push the limits, Kobayashi-style (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bj0CXP_xSL4) (gross, I know), but on certain special occasions, I try to bring my A-game. The most recent incident was at Rosh Hashanah this year, when I challenged the notion of how much dessert is too much dessert (I don’t know, because I didn’t reach a point of saturation. BOOM.) But this Thanksgiving I … I just don’t know what happened. Maybe it was all of the cheese and crackers (Trader Joe’s Raisin Rosemary Crisp, check them out) and stuffed mushrooms and chips and salsa I ate for appetizers. I tried to compensate by reining myself in during the main meal, knowing the importance of sampling the dessert platter — after all, I have a reputation to uphold. But even with an enforced sabbatical of 90 minutes to settle and prepare my stomach, I found myself incapable of coherent conversation after just a small slice of pie and a single lump of rice pudding. I excused myself from the table in pain and humiliation.

Let’s try to focus on the positives, though. While my consumption was somewhat underwhelming (on a public showing level, of course. Clearly stuffing my myself to the brim personally counts as eating a lot.), the holiday provided a venue for me to try out a number of recipes I’d been sitting on for a while. And man, did I let my foodgawker freak flag fly. Here are some of the dishes that graced our table during Thanksgiving:

Round One: Appetizers

For the appetizers I made stuffed mushrooms and rolled a log of goat cheese in a mixture of chopped pecans and craisins. My mother provided an excellent selection of Spanish cheeses plus good ol’ cheddar, and chips and salsa. New favorite tortilla chip (because yes, I am this specific in my tastes)? Tostito’s Multigrain Scoops.

Round Two: Main Course Overload

This gives you the panoramic view of the Thanksgiving table. Starting on the left, we’ve got the classic turkey (expertly carved by my mother) with gravy and stuffing nearby, then Ina Garten’s cranberry conserve, popovers and phyllo deli rolls in the background (by my brother’s girlfriend), butternut squash-pomegranate quinoa (by my good friend Sarah), my take on a veggie gratin, Sarah and my attempt at honey fig goat cheese stuffed muffins, green bean casserole (Pioneer Woman by way of my mother), and my mom’s classic sweet potatoes and marshmallows. Phew.

Round Three: Dessert Extravaganza

Now here are some major stops on the train to dessert-town. First up, my Bourbon-soaked Raisin Cinnamon Rice Pudding. It was my first attempt at rice pudding, and I think it turned out pretty well. Thankfully I managed to snag some leftovers, since my stomach could only handle a teaspoon of it on Thursday.

A Cookie Menagerie

Okay, so here we’ve got a mishmash of authors. From the left we have my mocha white chocolate cookies, then my pumpkin-pecan tassies (tartlets), then my mother’s white chocolate mint M&M cookies, and finally her world-renowned, lifechanging chocolate chip cookies that are a staple at my house, regardless of the time of year.

Chocolate Ganache S’Mores Pie

And last, but definitely not least, we have my favorite dessert of the holiday. Sarah made a mocha ganache s’mores pie with a Nutella-graham-cracker crust and marshmallow topping. Now I’m not a Nutella fan for the most part (I know, I know, but I just don’t like hazelnuts! I’m a mutant, I get it), but whatever web of magic Sarah wove with this pie, I could not get enough of that crust. And obviously my previous posts on both chocolate items and coffee make it clear that I’m a mocha fan. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have 2/3 of this pie sitting in my apartment’s fridge right now, just biding its time.

There was also a tray of assorted M&Ms (peanut butter ftw), a fruit salad, and a bowl of jelly beans, because heaven forbid there isn’t enough variety on the table. Although I guess the fruit salad counts as a last-ditch effort to be virtuous. I had a couple of grapes.

In the end, I was pretty satisfied with my first Thanksgiving as a foodie and aspiring home cook. Some of the dishes turned out only mediocre (veggie gratin, I’m looking at you), and some I was really proud of (those mushrooms were delicious). But it was a nice preview of how my Thanksgivings down the road could be, with all the stress of managing oven temperatures and scheduling when you’ll start dishes, combined with the sheer joy of sharing my passion and efforts with family and friends. Oh, and all the eating, that was pretty great, too.

And yes, now my fridge is full to the brim with tupperware, although I already used up most of the turkey with my new go-to leftovers recipe — Turkey Pot Pie Soup!