Finesse in the Familiar: Brunch at Lafayette Grand Bakery and Cafe

As I’ve mentioned before many times on this blog, I would not consider myself much of a thrillseeker. I’ve never been to Six Flags, you won’t catch me buying sriracha, and the concept of bungee jumping seems like  Medieval torture-device-turned recreation to me. The only area I really dare myself to try the new and unconventional seems to be the culinary scene. The more new cuisines and restaurants I try, the more curious I grow about Filipino dishes, or Himalayan food, or what makes an Alsatian dinner distinct from a French one.

This mindset can have its disadvantages, however. I often find myself unwilling to go the safe route when there are so many options in New York, so many opportunities for the thrill of finding a new flavor combination you never even knew you liked. But that can lead to missing out on an equally affecting meal due to its familiarity. Frank Bruni recently wrote a column in the New York Times about the value of being a regular, of returning to a specific restaurant for the comfort, the reliability of the service and menu, and the satisfaction of eating a meal you know will leave you happy. In fact, he mentions the chicken at Barbuto, a place I’d love to go back to, but often overlook because I’ve been there before, and they serve Italian instead of Afghani.

I bring this all up because of my recent brunch at Lafayette Grand Cafe & Bakery. It’s a perfect example of the kind of restaurant I find myself passing over too often in favor of Lebanese or Colombian fare — familiar French dishes executed with a delicate touch. Did I discover anything remarkably new during my brunch? No, but what I did have was a lovely meal with an attentive server, delicious food, and a pleasant atmosphere. It was a great reminder to put aside my foodie fanaticism for a second and enjoy the whole dining experience, from company to table-setting. And that is something that makes a place worth returning to.

First Impressions:

Lafayette -- the of a French cafe inside the body of an American brick behemoth.

Lafayette — the outside of a French cafe inside the body of an American brick behemoth.

Unsurprisingly, Lafayette sits on the corner of Lafayette and Great Jones Streets, evoking the classic bistro aesthetic, but spread out within a massive space. The descriptor “Grand Cafe” makes sense once you enter the restaurant and see how the generally claustrophobic sidewalk French bistro has been blown out to American Super-size proportions. Fortunately, this makes for a very comfortable restaurant, retaining the clean cut style of rich wood, white and blue accents, and light colored marble across a high-ceilinged dining room. Besides the indoor dining area, Lafayette features the largest outdoor seating space I think I’ve seen in New York, wrapping all the way around the corner. We ended up sitting underneath a massive awning because of possible rain, but there were probably 20-25 tables of different sizes within the partitioned outdoor area.

Inside Lafayette -- a larger dining area is up a few steps to the left, and the bakery is to the right.

Inside Lafayette — a larger dining area is up a few steps to the left, and the bakery is to the right.

As they say in the name, Lafayette is not just a sit-down restaurant. Walking in, you come face-to-face with the bakery and coffee shop, which offers takeaway savory and sweet items throughout the day, from baguettes to sandwiches to pastries (tartes, macarons, eclairs, quiches and more). The bakery has some countertop stool seating near the window, and a high table in the center with newspapers on it, for those wishing to pause for a moment while they dive into their danish du jour. I really appreciated the care and attention to detail shown in the selection of newspapers, composed of a wide array of international sources. If I lived a bit closer, I would definitely consider coming down for a petit dejuener and a leisurely read of the New Yorker.

The bakery area, full of unfairly tempting treats like the brightly colored macarons in the lefthand display case.

The bakery area, full of unfairly tempting treats like the brightly colored macarons in the lefthand display case.

The Food:

They have towers of croissants, in case you were concerned about the legitimacy of their French origins.

They have towers of croissants, in case you were concerned about the legitimacy of their French origins.

Lafayette’s brunch menu is made up of traditional fare with a bit a French flair to it, from oatmeal with cognac-stewed fruit to a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich on a croissant. After drooling over the abundant amount croissants in the display case of the bakery, and in the company of two fellow bread enthusiasts in Jacob and his mother, Brauna, we just had to start with the Boulangerie Basket (an assortment of baked goods with Vermont butter & confiture). Foolishly thinking we would still need a good amount of food after that, Jacob got the Smoked Salmon Benedict, and Brauna and I chose the Egg White Frittata with Mushrooms.

Our waitress was very friendly, and happy to answer all of our questions about the menu, and said it would be no problem to specifically request an almond croissant as part of our Boulangerie Basket. Apparently some lines got crossed in communicating our order, however, because this is the basket that arrived at our table:

An almond croissant for each of us, plus one for Elijah?

An almond croissant for each of us, plus one for Elijah?

Unclear if the kitchen was bitter about our high-maintenance request, or if they just thought we’re really big fans of almonds. Although we probably could have taken those four croissants down, when our waitress checked in on our table, she immediately realized how ridiculously redundant the basket was, and let us keep one croissant while she asked the kitchen for a more varied replacement. Take two:

Muuccchhh better. If I'm going to carbo-load, can I at least get some variety?

Muuccchhh better. If I’m going to carbo-load, can I at least get some variety? Clockwise from the top right: blueberry muffin, pain aux chocolat, raisin-walnut bread, and a plain croissant.

This time our basket was made up of a regular croissant, a pain aux chocolat, a blueberry muffin, and three pieces of raisin-walnut bread. The basket was served with Vermont butter and “confiture,” a French preparation of fruit preserves (apricot in our case). The basket ended up being my favorite part of the meal, which I suppose is understandable given the physical prominence of the bakery and the high-level pastries on display.

The Almond Croissant -- lone survivor of the demise of our first Boulangerie Basket.

The Almond Croissant — lone survivor of the demise of our first Boulangerie Basket.

The Almond Croissant was well worth requesting — the dough was light and flaky, but had a strong buttery quality that melted on your tongue. The almond filling was moist and gooey, not as mind-blowing as Breads’ version, but certainly a very high quality croissant. The Pain aux Chocolat was also good, although less memorable in my mind than the almond — there’s a lightness to the marzipan/almond filling in an almond croissant that I’ve yet to find in a chocolate one. The rich, fudgy center was made of dark chocolate, just on this side of bittersweet. The only downside was the distribution of ingredients. The filling was located too much in the center, so achieving the maximal bite combination of croissant dough and chocolate was a little difficult.

I usually don’t like blueberry baked goods, but I found the Blueberry Muffin surprisingly satisfying. I think it came from the fact that the muffin dough was almost coffee-cake like in texture, a thick, dense crumb that had some real chew to it, plus they used clearly fresh blueberries. I feel like so many of my taste preferences are based on experiences with lesser quality ingredients (you mean Entenmann’s isn’t the height of farm-sourced baking?), so I often surprise myself in the face of premium versions of foods I thought I disliked.

I’m always game for raisin-walnut bread, although it felt a little out of place in this basket of thick, butter-laced dough. That aside, the piece I tried was a solid effort, if not a showstopper (truthfully, most slices I’ve encountered in the US will never hold a candle to the raisin baguettes I ill-advisedly wolfed down in Cannes). Although we made a honorable attempt at finishing off the basket, we did end up having a few pieces of bread left over, including the regular croissant which Jacob doggy-bagged for later. After all, we did have our actual entrees to eat as well.

The partially deconstructed Smoke Salmon Benedict.

The partially deconstructed Smoke Salmon Benedict.

The Smoked Salmon Benedict (“served on brioche with sauce choron”), arrived in a cute cast-iron pan. The menu description was a bit misleading, since the brioche was actually placed off to the side, with the rest of the dish front and center. It was as if someone had slipped the bottom out of the benedict. The poached eggs were served atop a bed of sauteed spinach and smoked salmon, all of which was covered by the sauce choron (a tomato-infused hollandaise sauce). Nontraditional as it was, I really liked this approach, since it keeps the toasted brioche dry and crunchy, and allows you control the proportions of egg and toppings to bread base as you wish. I’m still at the point where salmon is an unnecessary (if no longer outright disliked) part of a dish, but I thought the eggs were nicely poached, and I enjoyed the addition of the tomato to the hollandaise — the acidity helped to brighten the sauce, which I frequently find a bit too heavy for egg dishes.

The Egg White Frittata -- a fresh, if familiar vegetable foray.

The Egg White Frittata — a fresh, if familiar vegetable foray.

The Egg White Frittata with Mushrooms seemed pretty plain from its description, but our waitress explained that the menu really undersells the item. The frittata actually includes the titular mushrooms, plus arugula, cherry tomatoes, and thinly sliced fingerling potatoes. Brauna and my dishes arrived in a colorful, cleanly plated manner, with the pop of the bright, freshly cut tomatoes and the arugula sharp against the softer yellows of the egg and sliced potato base. The interior of the dish revealed that it was clearly made of egg whites, but I swear there must have been a substantial amount of butter involved in the cooking, considering how rich it tasted. It probably sat a bit heavier than a regular egg white frittata, but the lump in my stomach could also have come from the ten pounds of bread I had already scarfed down at that point. Perhaps because of this, I really appreciated the acidity of the raw tomatoes as well as the bitterness of the arugula, and was delighted by the variety of mushrooms included once you cut into the frittata.  The freshness of the produce in the frittata helped to elevate the more bland egg white foundation.

Final Thoughts:

Let's be serious -- this is what France is all about, right?

Let’s be serious — this is what France is all about, right?

Overall, the dining experience I had at Lafayette has stuck with me more than the food that made up my brunch. I certainly enjoyed my meal, and have little bad to say about the specific dishes, but I felt like my frittata and the sauce choron flair of Jacob’s benedict were things I could fairly easily crib for my own weekend cooking. By far, the best part were Lafayette’s baked goods, and I would definitely come back to the bakery for a quick snack and a cappuccino. It’s actually located just down the block from one of La Colombe’s cafes, which is one of my favorite coffee companies I discovered while at school in Philly. I’d expect that I’ll continue to hit up La Colombe when I’m strolling through the area, since I really prefer their brew, but if I want to sit down, read a paper, and relax, Lafayette wins out.

As for the restaurant itself, I think the attentive service and large, spacious dining areas make Lafayette worth trying out for dinner (especially because I tend to prefer non-brunch French food). The relatively low noise level and comfortable distance between tables also make Lafayette a good spot to take your parents.

Embracing a little risk-taking doesn’t mean we have to put aside our occasional desire for the comfort of the familiar. Reliability and classic appeal are valuable and rare commodities in our increasingly multicultural and heterogenous world. Restaurants like Lafayette remind me that sometimes the best toys aren’t the shiniest, and sometimes the best parts of a meal are the people you get to enjoy it with. So call up your parents, your friends, your significant other, and head over to Lafayette for a solid meal in a pleasant setting. Worst case scenario, you walk out with an exceptional eclair or two.

Lafayette Grand Cafe & Bakery

380 Lafayette St (corner of Great Jones)

http://lafayetteny.com/

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Giving Thanks for the Fruit of the Vine (and the Ground) — Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 2

Disclaimer: The following post deals entirely with fresh produce. There is no mention of dessert, chocolate, or alcohol. I know this is shocking considering my weaknesses and passions, but dear God if they had fruit and vegetables like this in America you’d see a lot more food blogs spazzing over tomatoes. Anyway, on to the good stuff.

One of my favorite activities on my Birthright trip had very little to do with the political or historical issues of Israel and Judaism. Just before we headed out into the desert for our Bedouin experience (including an all too short camel ride), our group was taken to Shvil Hasalat, or The Salad Trail, an educational farm and greenhouse facility in the Northern Negev. According to the website, The Salad Trail is owned by agronomist (awesome job title) Uri Alon, although we were led by a different guide (of Australian or South African origin — I hate that I can’t tell those two accents apart).

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We started the tour a few miles outside of the facility, where we were introduced to The Salad Trail’s resident homing pigeons. Our guide explained that in the early days of the Israeli Defense Force, the army would use homing pigeons to deliver messages. A few people volunteered to write messages and we released a few of the pigeons. Homing pigeons always return to the place they were born, which in this case was the farm, so by the end of the tour they had returned our messages to us (Well, 2 out of 3 at least. Hopefully the last pigeon made it home eventually).

Prepping a pigeon to carry a message home.

Prepping a pigeon to carry a message home.

We then jumped on the bus to head to the greenhouses and fields of The Salad Trail. After saying hello to the homing pigeon home base, and meeting a sizable tortoise, we were ushered into the first greenhouse, where hundreds of fresh strawberries hung suspended a few feet in the air. Our guide explained how these “flying strawberries” were easier to pick, and avoided rot because of being hung in the air. They were, of course, organic, and pesticide free, although a specific type of insect was introduced to the strawberry greenhouse to prevent other bugs from chowing down. Not us, though — our guide passed around a basket of freshly picked strawberries, and when I bit into one I was actually floored by the flavor. These strawberries were much smaller than the monsters you can find in your average produce section, but their flavor was much stronger and sweeter. They lacked the diluted, watery taste of supermarket berries, and suddenly I understood why some people just enjoy a fruit salad for dessert. With this kind of freshness, I would find it plenty sweet enough as well.

Lighter-than-air strawberries.

Lighter-than-air strawberries.

Next stop was the tomato greenhouse, where the guide outlined the numerous varieties of tomatoes they grow (mostly smaller cherry and grape varieties). As someone who routinely keeps a pint of grape tomatoes in her fridge for snacking, I was in heaven. I tried to look up the names of some of the tomatoes we tasted, but it turns out there’s a vast catalogue of tomato varieties on the Internet, so unfortunately I think those details are lost to the ages. I do remember that my favorite of the samples came to a point at the bottom, so any intrepid researchers or tomato-know-it-alls are welcome to chime in with the answer. Anyway, it was in this greenhouse that we first got to put our grubby mitts all over the merchandise and actually pick the samples off the vine. It was a little surreal to not have to worry about washing my produce — I just plucked it off, brushed off a little fuzz, and popped it in my mouth. The contrast in both taste and experience between my Key Foods tomatoes and the fresh ones off The Salad Trail was pretty staggering. It really makes you take a step back and recognize how far humanity has come from basic agriculture.

Tomatoes on the vine -- oh man, it's Passover and I want pizza BAD.

Tomatoes on the vine — oh man, it’s Passover and I want pizza BAD.

I somehow managed to restrain myself from eating the entire stock of tomatoes and moved on with the group to a greenhouse full of edible herbs. Our guide chose a couple of volunteers for a blind taste test, and they did pretty well — until he gave my friend Dave the natural equivalent of Viagra. I didn’t ask Dave how that fared later on that day, but I think he succeeded in maintaining his composure, so the potency of this plant may not be at “little blue pill” level. We then milled around, trying different assorted herbs like basils, parselys, mints, and even lettuces.

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Chives, anyone?

My favorite farming (gathering? harvesting?) moments came when we finally headed outside again. We first went into a field of carrots, and were told to have at it. Cue many, many Bugs Bunny references. I pulled up a purple carrot by the roots (yes, this time I did wash it, only because I wasn’t super interested in eating Israeli desert dirt. However, maybe it would have been delicious, considering the rest of The Salad Trail offerings). Again, carrots are a favorite veggie of mine, so I was happy to chow down. I picked a pretty reasonably sized carrot, but some people ended up with carrots the size of cantaloupes. I found the purple carrot to be a bit milder in flavor than the common orange, although obviously it was incredibly fresh, since I literally pulled it straight from the ground. According to the Internet, however, purple carrots are usually sweeter than orange carrots, so maybe mine wasn’t fully ripened yet.

When you first pull it out of the ground, you really have no idea what color the carrot is.

When you first pull it out of the ground, you really have no idea what color the carrot is. You can see how bright purple it was from the very tip.

After a citrus detour (clementines and tangerines) where we rested our picking hands, we were told to jump into a maze of passion fruit plants. I’ve seen my fair share of passion fruit flavored sorbets and yogurt packages, but to be honest I had no idea what a passion fruit actually looked like. We were instructed to only take the black fruit — the green would be unripe, and therefore hard to bite and gross to eat. After some panicked searching because we had already been told we were running out of time for our tour, I managed to spot a mostly black, egg-shaped fruit hiding high in the vines at the back of the maze. It was a little larger than the size of my palm, with a smooth, thick skin that resisted the attempts of my fingers to peel it. Our guide shouted to the rest of the group to just bite into it, so I channeled Evangeline Lily and chomped down on that mofo (Yes, that was a Lost reference. Way to reference a show that went off the air in 2010). Once I cracked the skin I was able to tear open the rest of the fruit to reveal the goopy innards and seeds. Employing my Girl Scout/cave woman foraging skills, I used the torn top of the fruit as a scoop and had my first taste of passion fruit. It was overwhelmingly sweet and syrupy, ending with a sharp note of tartness. I’ve since tried both passion fruit sorbet and greek yogurt, and I think I like it best when mixed with a creamier base to balance the powerful sweet and tart flavors.

The passion fruit maze.

The passion fruit maze.

Biting into that passion fruit was an amazing moment of primitive triumph, and a perfect example of something that I would never have done on my own. Unlike visiting the shuks, which I could and will do whenever I return to Israel, without Birthright I would have never known about The Salad Trail. It highlighted the achievements of Israel without hitting you over the head with the message (look, Zionists transformed this desert land into an arable place), and it was as much about the past of Israel as its future, economically and culturally. Plus, it serves as a wonderful metaphor for self-discovery — taking the initiative to try something new and fresh, and making that experience happen on your own. Although I suppose my metaphor would collapse a bit if I was shorter and had needed someone to pick the passion fruit for me. Regardless, it was personally significant to me as a physical symbol of the growth and renewal I experienced on the trip.

My small symbol of victory.

My small symbol of victory.

And if I could have had some of the items I tried at The Salad Trail on the breakfast buffets, I might have partaken in more traditional Israeli breakfasts. Because, let’s be serious, this all really comes down to me and my need for a proper meal.

Oh, and don’t you worry, my last  post about Israel deals with all the expected fare — shawarma, falafel, ice cream and more. We’ll be back to talking about grease and milk fat before you know it.

The Salad Trail

http://www.salat4u.co.il/?t=PV&L1=8

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.

Review: Burger Joint @ Le Parker Meridien — Secretly Unsatisfying

I don’t really understand the appeal of “secret” restaurants and bars in New York. For the most part, if a not-so-trendy nobody like me has heard of them, they can’t be much of a secret at all. The speakeasy fad with places like PDT (aka “Please Don’t Tell”) and Proletariat, or the “restaurant within a restaurant” motif of the basement brasserie of La Esquina (beneath the taco stand), seem to me to be just cheap ploys to up the buzz about your establishment without killing your advertising budget.

A “secret” restaurant that had been on my radar for a while is Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridien Hotel. I’d actually been to the hotel several times for brunch at their other restaurant Norma’s (great hot chocolate and crunchy french toast), which is located just off the lobby and proudly displayed without an entryway or door to block the view of the bustling dining room. In direct contrast to that is the hidden Burger Joint, which I had heard about from several people but never actually been able to locate on my jaunts to Norma’s. So when a recent Zagat article named Burger Joint as having one of the top burgers in NYC, I thought it might finally be time to check it out. With a motley crew (aka my past culinary cohorts Jacob, Laura, and my boyfriend Shaun) of tasting support in tow, we met up in the lobby of Le Parker Meridien, and set about trying to tease apart the legend of the not-so-secret Burger Joint.

First Impressions:

Across from Norma's is a roped off area outside a velvet curtain -- could Burger Joint be inside?

Across from Norma’s is a roped off area outside a velvet curtain — could Burger Joint be inside?

My friend Diana, who had previously been to Burger Joint, had mentioned the restaurant being behind a velvet curtain, and sure enough, directly across from Norma’s there was a wall bedecked in red velvet. While this certainly fits the upscale tone of the hotel, the curtain would ultimately prove pretty incongruous (and probably intentionally so) with the style of Burger Joint. A helpful member of the hotel staff guided the way to a long line that was sectioned off by ropes next to the curtain’s edge. This would lead to the only entrance/exit for Burger Joint. As we made our way closer to the restaurant, the classical veneer of Le Parker Meridien gave way to a pseudo down-home, almost aggressively casual style. A burger neon sign indicates the shift as you turn into the actual restaurant, a tiny hole in the wall type shop decked out in wood paneling, hand drawn signs, and very limited seating.

The line snaked back all the way from the counter inside.

The line snaked back all the way from the counter inside.

Burgers, this way -->

Burgers, this way –>

The walls were covered in prefabricated writing, and everything felt like it had been purposefully aged to affect a weathered, rustic quality. I couldn’t help but be reminded of pre-torn designer jeans, carefully shredded for the ultimate haphazard casual style. The not-so-subtle aim seemed to be to shake us fancypants urbanites out of our skyscraper stupor for some old-fashioned roadside diner cookin’. Between that and the gruff service (although I’ll give them some leeway considering we were there at a peak time), I was left with the impression of overly calculated cuteness.

Wood paneling, pre-fab writing on the walls, and slapdash handwritten menus taped up, Burger Joint artfully aims for nonchalance.

Wood paneling, pre-fab writing on the walls, and slapdash handwritten menus taped up, Burger Joint artfully aims for nonchalance.

The Food:

I’m not sure if the restrictive menu and no-nonsense attitude of the staff was a nod to the simplicity of the semi-rustic aesthetic, or to the no-BS New Yorker stereotype. Either way, you don’t have a lot of choice at Burger Joint. You can get a hamburger or a cheeseburger, with any, all, or none of the handful of toppings (lettuce, tomato, onions, mayo, etc), a side of fries, and soda or a vanilla milkshake. No, they don’t have chocolate ice cream, nor any type of flavored syrup, and no, there is not more than one type of cheese to top your burger with. Better than McDonalds, though, they will cook your burger to order (from rare to well done).

My group decided that, considering the hassle of waiting on line and scrambling for seats that we’d already gone through, it was worth it to go whole-hog on our orders. Ever the model of restraint, I ordered a cheeseburger with tomato and ketchup (I like tomatoes, deal with it), french fries, and a milkshake. Astonishingly, my check came out to close to $18. The similarities with ready-shredded designer clothes continued to mount.

Burger Joint does get points for efficiency, however. The entire food production operation takes place inside a tiny counter space, with one cashier and four or five other employees to prep and cook the orders and bus the restaurant. It probably took less than 10 minutes for all four of us to get our food, which isn’t half bad considering they cook the burgers to order on a small flat top.

A peek inside the small kitchen.

A peek inside the small kitchen.

Unfortunately, once we got our food, it became increasingly clear that Burger Joint is one of those places where there’s an unspoken surcharge for “the experience.” The only item that seemed to be equitable in the “bang-for-buck” category were the fries. The burgers and milkshakes were pretty small considering what I had paid for them. My cheeseburger was about the same size as what you’d get at a Burger King, and the milkshake was served in a 12 oz cup. Now this is probably the result of my American expectations of unreasonable portion size, but as Laura rightly pointed out, if I’m paying nearly $20 for not-so gourmet food, I would expect at least to get a fair amount of it. After all, I don’t think Mayor Bloomberg’s beverage ban applies to milkshakes.

My palm-size cheeseburger, pretty standard patty size, but small for the price.

My palm-size cheeseburger, pretty standard patty size, but small for the price.

The shake -- better for my health, but too small for my wallet. And the lone standout in price to portion ratio -- good ol' freedom fries.

The shake — better for my health, but too small for my wallet. And the lone standout in price to portion ratio — good ol’ freedom fries.

Okay, so if we not getting quantity for our money, are we getting quality? Yes and no. On the whole, everything was solid. I appreciated the fact that my burger was in fact cooked to medium rare — there was a nice pink center surrounded by a crispy cooked edge. And my toppings tasted fresh — I had a thick slice of tomato, and the cheese was a mild cheddar, so a step up from the hastily assembled toppings on the McDonald’s line. But there was nothing that really made the burger stand out. The meat had reasonable flavor, but no real depth to it, and I’m not sure I could articulate a real difference between some of the better bar burgers I’ve had in NY. Shaun, who is more of a hole-in-the-wall burger connoisseur, remarked that a really great “dive burger” carries with it the flavor of some of the seasoning from the surface it’s cooked on. And much like the prefabricated rustic-style walls, Burger Joint’s grill did not seem to have the caked-on-through-the-years grit and gristle that elevates a real down-and-dirty burger.

The same was largely true for the fries and the shake. The fries were crispy and well salted, but were just as much from a pre-cut frozen package as the ones you get at the drive-thru. And as someone with a rich history of milkshake drinking (doing well on a test in elementary school meant a trip to Baskin Robbins for a black and white shake), I found Burger Joint’s version to be about par for the course. The vanilla ice cream had good flavor, but nothing outstanding beyond what you’d get scooping out of a Breyer’s pint at home. This shake had no subtleties of vanilla bean richness, and because of its simplicity, no real contrasting tastes or textures. They do get credit for blending a thick shake, but man did I want some chocolate syrup to liven things up a bit.

Final Thoughts:

In the hierarchy of the dining scene, Burger Joint seems to sit in the “fast casual” category — offering a more unique experience than the average corporate-cut fast food franchise, but without table service or a wait staff. I accept that they’re not trying to compete with a gourmet burger like those at The Spotted Pig or The Little Owl, or even with a quality steakhouse burger like the one at the famed Peter Luger’s. Burger Joint is just trying to put out a straightforward, old-fashioned burger. Because of this, it seems fair to judge it against the other members of the fast casual burger club — places like Shake Shack or Bobby’s Burger Palace. And disappointingly, Burger Joint just doesn’t measure up to the standards of those contenders. You end up paying more for a sub-par meal, with none of the variety of topping and seasoning combinations you would get at Danny Meyer’s or Bobby Flay’s casual ventures. Burger Joint doesn’t even offer a vegetarian option.

Now you could make the argument that Burger Joint is hearkening back to a simpler era, a time before black bean burgers and sweet potato fries. But if the intention is to provide a contrast with the high-falutin environs of Le Parker Meridien surrounding it, Burger Joint needs to go all the way. Either offer a limited menu in a small space for a high price and make some mindblowing food, or admit the standard quality of your offerings and cut the prices a bit. Because I for one feel gipped when I have to pay extra for “the experience,” when said experience means a long wait, a crowded closet of a restaurant, a cash only requirement, and then the same kind of food I could make at my own backyard barbecue. I guess I just have to disagree with Zagat on this one — perhaps the real secret of Burger Joint is that it’s not actually worth all of the hype.

Burger Joint @ Le Parker Meridien Hotel
57th St between 6th and 7th Aves
http://www.parkermeridien.com/eat4.php