Snacks by Subscription: The Nibblebox by Graze

 

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I like to think of myself as selectively sheep-like. I dislike arguments too much to be truly iconoclastic, and I’ll admit there have been a number of times in my life where I’ve given in to the hype and found myself reveling in doing something “trendy.” I remember one class in high school where all the kids stood in a circle, and a good 90% of us were wearing some version of blue jeans and Converse shoes. And I’ll admit, I breathed a sigh of relief that I was amongst that majority. Maybe it’s lame, maybe it’s letting the man get me down, but I think most high schoolers are pro-conformity at times.

So what item of Maggie’s Trendwatch 2014 is on the docket today? Subscription boxes, specifically the “Nibblebox” by Graze. These boxes are all the rage right now, from snacks to drinks to pet treats (no joke, Barkbox is a thing). I’d given a few of these as gifts — most recently going in with my brother on a Julibox subscription for my mother’s birthday, wherein she receives a monthly box full of the ingredients and instructions for curated cocktails. Unfortunately, as fun as these boxes are, in general they’re not particularly wallet-friendly (bang for your buck wise), so I’d resisted the nagging Facebook ads asking if I was really sure I didn’t want to try Naturebox.

What made me finally break down and submit to the tides of trends was an article from (who else) Serious Eats, reviewing a number of popular boxes. They gave high praise to Graze, and with a coupon code that got me a free box, I figure it couldn’t hurt to see what all the hubbub was about.

 

I picked Graze over the other highlighted boxes for several reasons, starting with their emphasis on variety (and ending, in a silly but still true reason, in the fact that they’re originally British). In almost all of my food-related ventures, I’m happiest with a smorgasbord of options — Chex Mix, Frito-Lay Munchies, Ben and Jerry’s Half-Baked (unintentional pot-theme acknowledged). You only have to look at my posts about Pike Place or Mad Sq. Eats for proof of my utter joy at all the choices. Graze’s website encourages you to be wild with your choices. After signing up, you indicate any dietary restrictions or allergies, and then dive into the snack selection. Every item has a range of rating buttons — Trash, Try, Like, and Love. The automatic baseline is “try,” meaning you’ll get sent that item once in a blue moon. Like means you’ll get it semi-frequently, and Love means you’ll have it in nearly every box (which, depending on your preference, comes weekly, fortnightly, or once a month). Trash, as you might imagine, means you’ll never see that item in your Nibblebox.

And to make establishing your preferences even easier, each snack has a drop down list of ingredients, allowing you to search by individual components. In my case, that meant calling up all the snacks with orange in them, in order to Trash any that combined it with chocolate (I’m still working on warming to citrus+chocolate). Aside from this, I left most things at Try, enticed by all the potential box-fillers, from savory to sweet, barbecue to curried to wasabi-flecked to tropical in flavor.

 

My free Nibblebox by Graze, enabling my weaknesses for mini things and variety packs.

My free Nibblebox by Graze, enabling my weaknesses for mini things and variety packs.

Within a week of my signing up, my Graze Nibblebox appeared, all components aside from the food itself noted as recyclable. Opening up the slim cardboard box revealed four labeled (and decorated) snack packs, with a booklet explaining how Graze works, offering coupons for friends, and providing nutrition and allergen and a “best by” date information for each snack. My free box came with Dark Rocky Road, Pomodoro Rustichella, Summer Berry Flapjack, and Tutti Frutti.

 

So how did the snacks stack up? Overall, I was pretty pleased with the well-rounded nature of the Graze box — three out of four snacks did skew sweet over savory, but they were each distinct in their flavor profiles and textures.

 

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The Pomodoro Rustichella, inspiring a desire to try to make tomato-romesco sauce.

The Pomodoro Rustichella, inspiring a desire to try to make tomato-romesco sauce.

 

My favorite ended up being the Pomodoro Rustichella (cheese croutons, tomato baguettes & tomato & herb almonds), which may be due to having it last after the sweetness of the other three items, or the fact that I generally have oats/unsalted nuts/dried fruit as my afternoon snack, so the Pomodoro Rustichella was a big departure from my routine. The little baguettes looked like the breadsticks you’d get with your school lunch cheese dip and crackers, but they had a much stronger tomato flavor, reminding me of the borderland of a pizza right where the sauce meets the crust (hints of tomato paste, pepper, oregano). The tiny croutons were Ritz-Bitz sized, and only somewhat cheesy, as if just dusted with parmesan. But the best element of the Pomodoro Rustichella was the tomato & herb almonds. I was initially skeptical of a tomato/almond combo, but it was actually a great pairing of the inherent sweetness of the nuts with the acidity of tomato (full disclosure, almonds are my favorite nuts, so I was possibly predisposed to like these). When eaten together, the Pomodoro Rustichella is most reminiscent of a deconstructed take on “Pizzeria” flavored Combos, and I mean that in the best way possible.

The Tutti Frutti (blueberry infused cranberries, pineapple, cherry infused raisins and green raisins) and the Summer Berry Flapjack (rustic rolled oat flapjack with berry-infused cranberries), were both fairly straightforward, with the exception of the Britishism “flapjack,” which does not refer to our American pancakes, but rather to an oat bar made with golden syrup. They both featured “infused” fruit, which is used in a lot of Graze’s snacks, according to their website. I’m not sure I’m totally hooked on the concept — I happen to like the way cranberries taste naturally, and so the ones in the flapjack reminded me most of the generic “berry” flavor used in candy and cereal. In the case of the Tutti Frutti, I thought it actually undercut the simplicity of the snack — if I’m going to have a variety of dried fruit, why not just give me dried blueberries and cherries, rather than “infusing” cranberries and raisins? This was by far my least favorite snack, although I liked the dried pineapple enough to look for other Graze snacks featuring it and move them to “Like.”

 

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The Summer Berry Flapjack, unintentionally educational in terms of cultural diversity.

The Summer Berry Flapjack, unintentionally educational in terms of cultural diversity.

The Summer Berry Flapjack had more going for it, since the infused morsels were sprinkled throughout. With the highest caloric value, the Flapjack pack was filled with 3 miniature bars, just enough to feel satisfying, but still sugary enough to seem like an indulgence. Even with the generic berry flavor of the craisins, the flapjacks were soft and fresh, well-preserved in the Graze plastic pack several days after my box arrived.

 

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My favorite snack -- Dark Rocky Road, although it did make me want to go to Trader Joe's.

My favorite snack — Dark Rocky Road, although it did make me want to go to Trader Joe’s.

I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that my favorite sweet snack was the one with chocolate. The Dark Rocky Road (Belgian dark chocolate buttons, cranberries and pecans) was made of simple components, not so different from the trail mixes you can find at Trader Joes. I really appreciated the proportions of the snack — it was heavy on the cranberries, but they didn’t skimp on the chocolate buttons and pecan halves.  Although they don’t list the cacao percentage on the website, the chocolate seemed like it was slightly better quality than a Hershey’s Special dark, and the plain cranberries and raw pecans paired wonderfully with it. The only thing that would have made this better would be to salt the pecans — the chocolate isn’t dark enough to be really bitter, so the contrast of salty and sweet would be more present with a little extra seasoning.
Let’s be honest with each other — these boxes are never going to beat the bulk bins at the supermarket for economic efficiency. But for the curious (and semi-lazy) snacker, Graze offers up a good deal. They allow you to choose your level of engagement with your food choices, from eyes closed eeny-meeny grab-bag to intensive curation through the “Love” rating. Personally, the reason I liked Graze was because it pushed me to try new things, so I can’t imagine picking “Love” for many snacks unless something blew me out of the water. I do have another Graze box coming, but I stepped it back to bimonthly, so that my Graze subscription is only a little more expensive than my Netflix. It’s an indulgence, but a fun one that doesn’t do too much damage to your wallet, and with the option of a free box to start, why not give it a shot (if you want a freebie, click here: https://www.graze.com/us/p/YJV6G1V4U)? C’mon, underneath aren’t we all just a little made of mutton?

 

https://www.graze.com/us/products 

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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