A Slurp Worth Waiting For: The Fabled Ramen of Ippudo

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Among the many reasons why I know that inside I’m an old lady (my reprehensibly early bedtime, my inability to heat my extremities, my tendency to bake cookies when bored), one of the strongest arguments is my love affair with soup. Chili, stew, chowder, consomme — gimme a bit of broth and I am down to disco. Not convinced that I’m weirdly into soup? Check out my adoration of the avgolemono at Village Taverna — that’s just chicken noodle!

Combine this with my umami lust, and the first item on Maggie’s winter dining list has got to be ramen. I’ve actually only discussed ramen one time on this blog, despite its treasured place in my heart. I guess the truth is I really don’t have it that often, and perhaps that’s why I leapt when I had the chance to actually eat at Ippudo last week, despite the staggering mountains of snow streaming down from the clouds.

Calling Ippudo “popular” is like calling Yo Yo Ma “kinda good at cello.” If you’re not a fan of the “no reservation” trend in NY dining, do not go to Ippudo (unless it’s in the middle of a snowstorm, as we will see). In a world of long lines for NY ramen, Ippudo is king. Their original location in the East Village is known for handing out epic wait times ranging up to 4 hours, and most visitors put their name on the list knowing full well they’ll need to head to a nearby bar and fervently pray for ramen sometime in the near future.

Ippudo opened up a new location in Hells Kitchen this past year, with a larger dining area and their noodle kitchen in the basement, but most people I’ve talked to didn’t know about it. Thanks to a robust snowfall (and a power outage at work), Jacob and I had a snowday, and decided that ramen was the perfect cure for the wet and windy weather. We opted to go to Ippudo Westside, even with the extra hurdle of subway snarls, because of the extra seating (and the potential back-up option of Totto Ramen, which has also been highly recommended for its noodle bowls).

 

First Impressions:

With it's simple exterior and plain sign, it's easy to completely miss the entrance to Ippudo Westside.

With it’s simple exterior and plain sign, it’s easy to completely miss the entrance to Ippudo Westside.

Ippudo Westside is located just off of 8th Ave, on 51st Street, and has about as nondescript an exterior as you can get without appearing to be intentionally hiding. The entrance is on the basement level of the building, so you have to go down a small set of steps to get inside. A large plate glass window gives you a glimpse of the ramen counter in the first room, but it’s not until you pass through the series of doors and curtains to the interior that you realize there’s a whole other room full of booths and tables.

The ramen counter as nearly as busy as I had expected it to be...

The ramen counter as nearly as busy as I had expected it to be…

... but the dining room was nearly empty.

… but the dining room was nearly empty.

 

The decor is pretty much what you’d expect from a Japanese restaurant — lots of bamboo, clean lines, and accents of white, black and red. Ippudo is actually an international chain, with restaurants in Australia, Malayasia, China and more, so I have to imagine their aesthetic is standardized. Regardless, you’re not coming here for the paint job, so let’s talk ramen.

The Food:

I had honestly expected to wait, even on a Wednesday at 1pm in the middle of a snowstorm, but although the ramen counter was pretty full, the dining room had just one table occupied, and so we were ushered right in. Which means I can’t really tell you if Ippudo is worth a 5 hour wait, but for a 30 second wait, it’s really frickin good. The staff was super-attentive — our waiter must have checked on us ten times over the course of the meal, seeing if we were ready to order, refilling our water, wiping down our table, clearing and replacing our plates at every stage of the meal, and of course repeatedly asking how every piece of food was. As a whole our lunch sped by, the entire meal taking probably less than 45 minutes, which I suppose makes sense in a restaurant where you’re trying to clear the tables as fast as possible for the endless stream of diners looming in the wings.

Jacob was ravenous, so we ended up ordering way more food than I had anticipated (fool me once, shame on you, fool me way too many times at this point …).We got the Ippudo Lunch Set, which gives you a choice of ramen with a small salad and a rice bowl topped with either pork, chicken or eel. We chose the Akamaru Modern Ramen and the Eel Rice Bowl, with an order of the Hirata Vegetable Buns to start. Then, after we had finished all that, Jacob was still hungry, so he peer-pressured me into getting another order of buns, this time filled with chicken. And that didn’t prevent us from going for dessert later that afternoon (although we had a nice walk through wintry Central Park in between, and afterwards, back at home,  I fell into a slight food coma back at home).

 

The Vegetable Hirata Buns -- renewing my love of kewpie mayo.

The Vegetable Hirata Buns — renewing my love of kewpie mayo.

The Chicken Hirata Bun, distinguishable only by the color of the glaze.

The Chicken Hirata Bun, distinguishable only by the color of the glaze.

As I mentioned above, it seemed like our order of Hirata Buns (Steamed buns(2pc) filled with your choice of Pork, Chicken or Eggplant & Eringi Mushroom, served with Ippudo‘s original spicy sauce and mayo) arrived a snap second after asking for them. They were very simply plated, the pair of buns sitting solo on a rectangular plate, but just like the decor, Ippudo let’s the food speak for itself. The only way to distinguish the vegetable buns from the chicken was the hue of the patty — the vegetable a deeper chocolate brown compared to the chicken’s lighter orange brown. Both patties were deep-fried and slathered in sauce and (what I assume was) kewpie mayo (http://www.thekitchn.com/what-is-kewpie-mayonnaise-44639). The creamy mayo balanced the heat and acidity of the sauce perfectly, and in both rounds the steamed bun itself was terrific, soft and chewy against the crunch of the romaine. I thought the chicken was satisfactory, though not mindblowing, triggering nostalgia for the General Tso’s chicken you get free samples of in mall food courts (Jacob said it took him back to childhood meals at Pick Up Stix).

I was much more intrigued by the vegetable buns, especially since they combined two of my favorite veggies. The mix of eggplant and mushroom were cooked to silky smoothness, but with enough remaining texture to be almost meaty, standing up against the panko coating. I was reminded of a cheeseless eggplant parm, and I mean that in the best way possible.

 

The basic, but artfully dressed side salad.

The basic, but artfully dressed side salad.

The salad and the Eel Rice Bowl were both just entre-acts before the main event, like clown cars before the trapeze artists step out on the platform. Again, both were cleanly and simply presented, the salad in a white, vaguely pentagonal bowl and the eel in a shiny black one. The salad was made up of a variety of greens, with some red cabbage and radicchio thrown in amongst the arugula and spinach. It was tossed in a subtle dressing, lighter than the usual viscous ginger-carrot dressing you get with a sushi bar salad. I’d guess it was the wasabi goma shoyu dressing used in the Ippudo Salad, but I didn’t really taste the wasabi at all, mostly just a subtle soy-based vinaigrette that helped the salad to function as a palate cleanser between the buns and our ramen.

 

The Eel Rice Bowl -- better in bite size, sushi form.

The Eel Rice Bowl — better in bite size, sushi form.

I had pushed to get the Eel Rice Bowl because eel has become my favorite order for sushi. The broiled eel arrived brightly seared and fragrant, sitting atop sticky sushi rice and a bit of seaweed. It was salty and smoky, but overall a little one-note for my taste. I think I prefer the bite-size sushi ratio of eel to rice better than the bowl version here, where it was hard to make the eel meat last through the entire portion of rice.

 

The Akamaru Modern Ramen, which actually lived up to all the buzz about it on the Internet.

The Akamaru Modern Ramen, which actually lived up to all the buzz about it on the Internet.

As you can see from the photo, we hadn’t even made it through our Eel Rice Bowl by the time the Akamaru Modern Ramen (“A more bold, modern translation of the original pork broth; thin noodles topped with Ippudo’s secret “Umami Dama” miso paste, pork chashu, cabbage, sesame kikurage mushrooms, scallions, and fragrant garlic oil”) arrived. My pre-meal research had told me that this was the best of Ippudo’s offerings, foregoing the more traditional ramen for this variety. Well, I have to say thank God for Internet-based food crowd-sourcing, because dammit if this wasn’t the best ramen I’ve ever had. Maybe I need to experience more ramen (and get over my Jewish guilt about eating pork), but I was just knocked out by this bowl of soup. The tonkotsu broth was incredibly rich and creamy, with small circles of fat floating lazily on top of it. I know it’s an overused descriptor, but you can’t help but describe the broth as “silky.” The black ribbons in the photo are actually shredded mushrooms, the slim ramen noodles hiding just below the surface. The red dollop is the Umami Dama miso paste, which when swirled throughout the soup provides a wallop of earthiness to augment the mushrooms. Counteracting that is the bite of the garlic oil and the acidity of the scallions. The noodles were perfectly al dente, holding their structure to the last slurp without becoming tough and chewy. I mostly picked around the slices of pork chashu, but the bites I tried were melt-in-your-mouth tender, salty and satisfying, although Jacob, of more refined pig palate, thought they were fairly run of the mill. I much preferred the soft boiled egg we had added to the order. You can see from the picture the semisolid state of the yolk, and the white was warm and toothsome. My only complaint was the temperature of the ramen — Jacob was content because he’s a wimp when it comes to hot soups, but I thought the broth could have been a touch warmer to start with. Ippudo offers the option of Kae-dama, or supplementary noodles, but frankly, I think you’d have to be half-starved to want them, since there were more than enough for Jacob and me to split and feel like we’d gotten our fill.

 

Final Thoughts:

Before we knew it, our whirlwind trip to Ippudo was at an end, our waiter rushing us off with a multiplicity of shouts of “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much) echoed by each member of the staff as we made our way out the door. It was an entertaining, if somewhat surreal experience, so different from what I had anticipated in terms of wait and dining time that I was caught somewhat off guard. Perhaps the secret of Ippudo Westside is not really out beyond the Midtown lunchers, or maybe other New Yorkers aren’t as devoted to ramen exploration as I am, preferring to stay local when a blizzard strikes. Regardless, it gives me possibly false hope that I can find the right time to arrange a return to Ippudo. This westside location has a vegan ramen that is supposed to blow the lid off of lame veggie ramen (which I have experienced before). The company is also apparently planning a secret restaurant in the upstairs space of Ippudo Westside, allegedly called Men-Oh and offering a completely different menu from the ramen locations. Given my experience with their vegetable and chicken buns, I’d be more than willing to see what non-ramen offerings the Ippudo kitchen staff can come up with.

All in all, I’d say Ippudo is worth the hype, but I feel I have to reiterate the unique circumstances of my visit. Is it worth a bit of a wait? Yeah, I’d say I’d wait an hour to have the high quality Japanese food they offer. 4 hours, well, I’m not sure about that, but I’m also the girl who got her Cronut through an intermediary. But if you’re willing to play the game and go during an off-time, you may just have the speedy, efficient, friendly service I experienced, in which case you’re in for a treat of noodle soup to brighten an old lady’s week. So put down your knitting and aim for the early bird special — I hear we’ve got a few more weeks of winter left and Ippudo’s ramen will definitely warm you to the bone.

 

Ippudo Westside

321 W 51st St (between 8th and 9th Avenues)

http://www.ippudony.com/about-west.html

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When in Rome: “Industry Night” at Osteria Morini

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As a little kid, I always dreamed about being a grownup, and getting to decide exactly what I wanted to spend my money on. From the perspective of a child, it meant getting to buy as many Snickers and Whatchamacalits (a highly underrated candy, IMHO) as I could fit in my purse, seeing eight movies a week, and keeping up with my bimonthly subscriptions to Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-men. Yup, I was a pretty cool kid. The idea of “discretionary income” was an alien concept — all money is discretionary when your parents cover shelter, food and warmth, and your major concerns are pretty much confined to standardized tests and trying not to blow your allowance in one week.

I feel like most of my friends tended to spend what teenage money they had on largely the same type of stuff — slices of pizza, Starbucks lattes, songs from iTunes or videogames, and the occasional splurge on a pair of Converse or concert tickets. I’ve loved watching us all grow up and define our spending priorities — what makes the cut for a twenty-something devoting the majority of her budget to rent and utilities? These days, we all choose different indulgences, and frankly, I think we’re all justified to spend our money as we like. Most of my discretionary income goes towards eating, be it keeping my fridge stocked or hitting all the spots (and more) that appear on this blog. Could I be living on Cup of Noodle or PB&Js and be saving more than I am? Sure, but I’d like to believe that happiness should be a budget priority, too.

So although a certain black-hole of NYC dining expense is part of my standard arithmetic, I will also never turn down a good deal. Especially one of the caliber of “Industry Night” at Osteria Morini, a weekly pasta-themed bargain I took advantage of a couple snow storms back.

Osteria Morini is one of the more casual spots in chef Michael White’s Altamarea Group of high-end Italian restaurants, from sea-food centric Marea to his new steakhouse Costata, to the Midwestern-infused pizzeria Nicoletta. Even resting on the lower end of the affordability-scale, Osteria Morini is generally far from a cheap eat, and so when I heard about their “Industry Night” special, I jumped at the chance to finally try out one of White’s restaurants. The deal, running Monday nights from 9pm till close, discounts almost all of the pasta dishes down to $10 (from usually $20 or more), and offers bottles of Lambrusco for $28. Although you can’t get the pricier lasagna, risotto or polenta dishes, you still end up with about a dozen options of hand-made fresh pasta and stunning accompaniments.

So the Super Friends of Super Eating (aka, Mike, Jacob and I) assembled once more, and headed over to Osteria Morini, pretty damn hungry after waiting until 9pm to have some dinner (seriously, I don’t get how Europeans eat that late regularly).

 

First Impressions:

The warm and comfortable interior of Osteria Morini, complete with exposed brick walls.

The warm and comfortable interior of Osteria Morini, complete with exposed brick walls.

Osteria Morini is located on Lafayette, just half a block away from the Spring Street 6 train stop. The exterior balances on the edge of ostentatious, its name emblazoned on a large sign brightly lit in the winter evening gloom. Yet the interior is immediately recognizable as the understated Italian-American red-sauce joint, full of dark wood, accents of red on the walls and on the place settings and low-lighting that makes the case for intimacy amongst the hum of conversation and clinking of silverware.

 

A few retro postcards to make you miss the Old Country, plus the White House to make you love the New World.

A few retro postcards to make you miss the Old Country, plus the White House to make you love the New World.

A long bar takes up the front half of of the restaurant, starting a few feet from the entrance and running all the way back to the dining room. There are a few small tables wedged into the space across from the bar, an indication of the volume of diners Osteria Morini sees daily. The walls around the bar are covered in photos and framed retro postcards from America and Italy, while the dining room is adorned with home-style touches such as paintings and shelves lined with kitchen accoutrements, from wine glasses to pots and pans. We were seated at a banquet table in the back left corner of the restaurant, providing great views of both the bustling kitchen and the packed tables. Clearly this deal is not really “insider info” anymore (if it ever was).

The view from our table of the rest of the dining room.

The view from our table of the rest of the dining room.

A look back at the kitchen (and secret bread warming drawer).

A look back at the kitchen (and secret bread warming drawer).

The Food:

My first bottle of Lambrusco, and probably my last (though Jacob and Mike liked it).

My first bottle of Lambrusco, and probably my last (though Jacob and Mike liked it).

The game plan, as always, was drinking and overindulging in shared plates. With that in mind, we decided to make the most of Osteria Morini’s “Industry Night” deal, ordering some Lambrusco to start. I had never had Lambrusco, so deferred to Mike who picked a bottle of Fattoria Moretto off the wine list. This was my first sparkling red wine, lightly carbonated with a punch of sweetness at the start and tart acidity at the end. I’m glad I tried it, but I’m not sure I would order it again. I think I prefer my Prosecco and my Chianti in separate glasses.

At the suggestion of our server, we ordered a few starters to supplement our pastas, beginning with the Lamb Crudo Crostini and the Insalata Mista. For the pastas, we ordered the Stracci, the Tagliatelle, and the Spallina. I had just come off of splitting a Salty Pimp that afternoon with my mother (wow, that’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d write), so I opted out of dessert (ostensibly, though bites were had), but Jacob and Mike finished the meal with the Torta de Olio.

 

Excellent bread, but really, no olive oil?

Excellent bread, but really, no olive oil?

Our meal began with a basket of complimentary, thick cut focaccia. The bread was puffy and warm, pulled from a warmer drawer outside the kitchen and sliced just before it was served. You can see in the photo the crackly, salt-speckled crust and pillowy interior, leagues above the generic Italian bread thrown on the table at many restaurants. The only disappointment was that it was served solo — nary a pat of butter nor drop of olive oil in sight. I was perfectly happy to chow down on the bread, and maybe Michael White thinks it stands alone, but I’d like to try it with a bit of olive oil just for the sake of science.

 

The Lamb Crudo -- deceptively filling considering its petite size.

The Lamb Crudo — deceptively filling considering its petite size.

All of our food arrived pretty quickly, our appetizers appearing on the table before we’d even finished the bread. At first I was concerned about the portions of the Lamb Crudo (olive oil, chives), since the plating seemed to heavily favor the crostini over the meat. However, the richness of the tartare proved that the plate was balanced. Normally I’m not particularly into raw foods (see my gradual acclimation to sushi), but I am a big fan of lamb, so it seemed like a risk worth taking. I enjoyed the gaminess of the meat in contrast to the fresh herbs mixed in with it. The lamb was finely ground, giving it a soft, slippery mouthfeel that spread easily on the crostini. Osteria Morini earns more points in the bread box, since the slices were griddled instead of baked, preventing the almost-stale, cracker-like hardness that can come with bruschetta, when the bread just shatters in your mouth and spreads crumbs everywhere. Here the bread was thinly sliced, crunchy but still pliable, and a great vehicle for the crudo. All in all, I’m glad I tried it, although in terms of personal satisfaction, I’m not sure I would get it again. I definitely missed the caramelization and tender chew you get from cooked lamb, but maybe it’s simply a matter of me working my way up to the concept of raw proteins.

 

Our other appetizer was surprising in a different way -- imaginative, light and refreshing.

Our other appetizer was surprising in a different way — imaginative, light and refreshing.

I hate to sound like a broken record already (we haven’t even reached the entrees, Maggie!), but I was nervous about ordering the Insalata Mista (mixed greens salad, apples, seasonal vegetables, Morini vinaigrette) because of disappointing memories of Olive Garden lunches in my youth. Those salads were sad specimens of greenery, limp romaine lettuce topped with stale croutons, flavorless cucumbers, and a handful of grape tomatoes. However, the dish’s description suggested Osteria Morini had more up it’s salad sleeve, and sure enough, the Insalata Mista far exceeded expectations. It was a great mixture of greens — crunchy, chunky romaine intermingled with radicchio, some peppery arugula, and a little frisee. The sweet red apples were thinly sliced and tossed with the pomegranate seeds in between the vegetables, the whole shebang covered with a dressing that coated the salad without weighing it down, just the right mix of acid and sweet. Weird as it might be to say this, it was a memorable appetizer salad, a refreshing and light entryway into the heavier pasta course.

 

The Stracci, crippled by its plating.

The Stracci, crippled by its plating.

Our pasta dishes arrived basically at the same time, so I’ll tackle them in order of increasing favorability. The Stracci (wide ribbon pasta, braised wild mushrooms, rosemary oil) was the least favorite of our choices, although I think I enjoyed it more than Jacob and Mike. Unfortunately, the dish suffered due to its plating — the long pieces of pasta clumped together, like an overpacked container of chow fun noodles. Instead of distinct pieces of wide ribbon, you ended up getting small stacks of layered, slightly gluey pasta. It was clearly fresh and hand-made, but the delicacy of that craftsmanship was lost when piled in a small bowl, which made it difficult to get a bite that had all of the components of the dish in it, and led to the pasta generally overwhelming the rest of the ingredients. However, when tasted separately, the mushrooms were great, and pairing them with rosemary is always a dynamite combination. I especially appreciated the light sauce, considering the weight of the pasta, and the parmesan on top was deftly applied, although again it was hard to mix it into the bulk of the dish because of the mass of starchy noodles. It seems like simply plating the Stracci in a longer or more oval dish would make it far more successful, since the simple ingredient list seems geared to have the pasta shine.

 

The Tagliatelle -- Michael White's version of mama's bolognese.

The Tagliatelle — Michael White’s version of mama’s bolognese.

The Tagliatelle (ragù antica, parmigiano) had been highlighted in a couple of reviews of Osteria Morini that I read, so I pushed for us to order it. I’d wager this dish best captures the aim of Osteria Morini, at least on the pasta side — classic, homestyle cooking executed with real skill and presented in a pretty, if reserved manner. The Tagliatelle was pretty much an elevated bolognese, a simple but stellar display of familiar flavors. The antica ragu combines veal, pork and beef, crumbled into a classic base of tomatoes, onions, herbs and spices. Here, the wavy strands of pasta were the perfect vehicle, allowing a twirl of the fork to scoop up the chunky sauce into the little crevices between noodles. The fresh cheese on top added a nice salty addition to the meat and harmonized the elements of the dish. It seems obvious to say, but you don’t realize how shockingly refreshing authentic red sauce is until you take a break from the Prego jar. Jarred pasta sauce is so sweet, where as at Osteria Morini the sauce never overwhelms the palate — the natural sweetness of the tomatoes is balanced but their acidity and the floral herbs. It’s visually evident that the Tagliatelle was just a far more balanced plate, since you could see the nearly equal proportions of meat and sauce to noodles.

 

The Spallina -- double the ravioli, double the fun.

The Spallina — double the ravioli, double the fun.

As satisfying as the tasty, but recognizable Tagliatelle was, I enjoyed the Spallina (double ravioli, squacquerone cheese, rabbit, porcini) the most out of our pastas because it took an item  I knew (ravioli) and stuffed it with an unfamiliar filling. Rabbit seems to be increasingly popular on NYC menus these days, but I have only had it a handful of times in my life, so I leapt at the chance to try Osteria Morini’s take. I also felt it was the most visually appealing in terms of presentation. I don’t think I’d ever seen double ravioli before, so I was delighted to find our bowl filled with petite ravioli pillows with a divot in the middle, splitting up the pockets of rabbit, mushroom and squacquerone (a soft, spreadable cow’s milk cheese). The dish seemed to be drizzled in some sort of balsamic reduction, acidic with a hint of sweetness against the umami-forward filling of mushrooms and cheese. The rabbit was subtle, just a hint of gaminess. There just seemed to be a perfect ratio of filling to pasta, allowing both the interior and the exterior of the dish to shine. I would definitely order a bowl of the Spallina for myself over the other dishes — it was new and intriguing, but still somehow instantly familiar and comforting (probably the cheese, cheese makes everything comfy).

 

The Torta di Olio -- an ode to olive oil sure to satisfy fans.

The Torta di Olio — an ode to olive oil sure to satisfy fans.

Now I had every intention of abstaining from dessert, but damn, it’s hard to resist a piece of cake in front of you.  And the Torta di Olio (olive oil cake, citrus marmalade, ricotta crema, espresso gelato) was a pretty sexy looking specimen, a thick slice of golden cake glistening with mouthwatering  sheen. I’ve never really liked olive oil cakes, but Osteria Morini’s version almost made me a convert — it was like a thick slice of pound cake soaked in oil. The taste was clean and instantly recognizable, and while it still hasn’t won me over, this was clearly a well-done version of the dessert. The accompaniments ranged in texture and flavor, from the crunch of the nut crumble to the silky richness of the ricotta crema, to the potent bitterness of espresso gelato, flecked with visible bits of beans. Like the Tagliatelle and the Lamb Crudo, this was a case of a well-executed classic dish incorporating high quality ingredients. All three were satisfying, especially if you’re already a fan of the dishes in most iterations, but I found the more unconventional plates at Osteria Morini to be the most memorable.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, it’s hard to argue against the value of a deal like Osteria Morini’s “Industry Night,” and I’d happily come back another Monday to try some of the other pastas and appetizers. From the restaurant’s general atmosphere to the service and the food, everything felt approachable and relaxing, intended to remind the diners of a night out at the neighborhood trattoria. The only complaint I had (which happens at a lot of restaurants when you order a separate beverage) is that the staff could have been more attentive to our water glasses, but I’m an extraordinarily thirsty person, so this might not bother others as much. Basically, if you can splurge, go whole hog and visit Osteria Morini any night of the week — try the risotto and tell me how it is! But if you’re picking and choosing with your grownup indulgences, check out “Industry Night” on Mondays and have yourself a rustic, homey meal that won’t burn a hole in your wallet. That way you can still buy your weight in Snickers bars.

 

Osteria Morini

218 Lafayette St.

http://www.osteriamorini.com/

Munching Via Multiple Choice: BurgerFi Review

Let’s switch things up a bit by talking about fast food, or rather, the concept of “fast casual.” The rise of the “fast casual chain” is a recent trend that is having a major impact on the food industry. The term refers to restaurants that straddle the line between fast food and  sit-down dining, such as Chipotle, Panera, or Cosi. There’s no table service, but the meals are supposedly made with a little more TLC (and attempted nutritional value), and with a slightly higher price tag, so the customers are meant to feel a bit classier than when they order a Double Down at KFC (if you don’t know what that is, the internet is calling your name).

Business at these chains has skyrocketed in recent years, leapfrogging over formerly popular sit-down restaurants like Applebee’s and Olive Garden as well as cheaper spots like McDonalds and Wendy’s. In fact, the trend has led to an embrace across the board of the “Chipotle Effect” — where fast food chains are remodeling their menus and their venues in order to reach up into the fast casual market. For example, Wendy’s latest revamp designs have ditched the carpet and hokey red roof for sleek industrial design that seems a bit like our favorite burrito store (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/20/wendys-redesign-fast-food-restaurant_n_1159108.html#s557410&title=New_Seating_Arrangements). And if you poke your head in a few McDonalds chains in Manhattan, I think you’d be surprised by the dark wood and lounge seating. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw a Ronald McDonald statue — clearly bright yellow and red proved too garish for the new Mickey D’s.

Not all of the “Chipotle Effect” is superficial, however. By focusing on the caliber of its own ingredients, Chipotle has led the charge on more ethical sourcing in general. There is a growing shift towards transparency of what goes into our processed fast food, so while that carnitas burrito might not do wonders for your waistline, at least you know the pig you’re eating was grass-fed.

I couldn’t help but think about all of this when I visited BurgerFi this weekend, the newest burger chain to hit Manhattan (and only a block away from my friends’ apartment!). I would wager that BurgerFi considers itself in the fast casual category, and although the company is based in South Florida, a quick glimpse around the first NY location may strike a customer as remarkably familiar. BurgerFi also focuses on locally-sourced, natural ingredients and eco-friendly policies, touting their recycled napkins and “chairs that are made from recycled Coke bottles.” Check off the modern design, check off the trendy organic-focused attitude, but how does BurgerFi fare in the most important measurement — satisfying four hungry customers for lunch?

 

First Impressions:

The view from the sidewalk: gray metal and bright colors.

The view from the sidewalk: gray metal and bright colors.

From the sidewalk outside, BurgerFi is most reminiscent of a retro-fitted garage, featuring a wide-open dining space with a counter against the back wall. Not to disparage the creativity of the architect, but there were some pretty striking similarities to the Shake Shack aesthetic, a branch of which lies only a few blocks away on 86th St. The decor was very industrial, featuring lots of corrugated steel and neon on the outside with wood tables inside and chic lightning fixtures. There is coke-bottle manufactured  outdoor seating under a metal awning, and a couple larger communal tables to go with the small two-tops and four-tops inside. Between the restaurant design and the categories of the menu (burgers, dogs, fries, and frozen custard), the similarities to Shake Shack seemed to be adding up fast.

The service counter way at the back of the restaurant.

The service counter way at the back of the restaurant.

BurgerFi does win points for its service. The location only opened up last month, so the employees were still very enthusiastic, even at noon on a Sunday. Laura and I got free samples of the frozen custard while we were waiting for the rest of our lunch crew, and when we approached the counter the employees had a call and response cheer at the ready “Welcome to BurgerFi!” “Where everything’s natural!”

The two large communal tables, and smaller, more private options behind them.

The two large communal tables, and smaller, more private options behind them.

Like a few other fast casual chains, after ordering at the counter, you’re given a numbered buzzer that goes off when your order is ready. You then have to go up and claim your order. It went pretty smoothly for the four of us, although Laura was stuck waiting for slightly longer because she had ordered the “bucket of fries” (actual name) for us to all share.

The Food:

Besides being natural (and eco-friendly), BurgerFi’s game seems to be the multiplicity of choice. You can build your own burger (or hot dog), or choose from their menu of preset combinations, but you get 2 free toppings with those and can then add more, at additional cost. BurgerFi also offers fries and onion rings, cupcakes, beer and wine, and at least at this location, they have those ridiculous Coke machines were you can combine as many different soft drinks as you desire. We didn’t get them, but I spotted an order of onion rings on a nearby table and they looked absurd — not the thin, namby-pamby onion rings at Burger King, but thickly breaded, full-on half a layer of onion width rings, like someone had made a miniaturized Bloomin’ Onion.

Oh, the endless possibilities of soda combinations.

Oh, the endless possibilities of soda majesty.

I wanted to have the authentic experience for my first foray in BurgerFication, so I opted for the straight up BurgerFi Burger, but I was also intrigued by their VegeFi Burger, which is a quinoa-based patty, and the Brisket Burger (as we all know, I do love me some brisket).

Again, like Shake Shack, the standard BurgerFi Burger is a double patty, but I went for the single burger since I was planning on ordering a shake and sharing fries with the table (I aim for the barest minimum of restraint). My burger arrived in a wax paper sleeve, the BurgerFi name branded into the potato bun. It was about the same size as a regular fast food burger (and my Burger Joint burger), and cooked to about the same medium temperature. The bun was slightly firmer than the one at Burger Joint, which I appreciated, since I’m not a fan of accidentally Hulking-out and turning my burger bun into a Wheat Thin. The standard toppings are  lettuce, tomato and the BurgerFi sauce, which seemed to be the same basic Thousand Island dressing style sauce you see on the Big Mac or the Shackburger. It was a pretty straightforward burger, and was the least favorite part of my meal. Not that it was bad or unappetizing — it was not too overdone, cooked so the meat was still a little tender (although not particularly moist), and the ingredients were clearly fresh (including the tomato, which had actual flavor). It just wasn’t anything beyond a solid beef burger.

Talk about brand recognition.

Talk about brand recognition. 

However,  I think in terms of getting the most bang for my buck, it’d be better to build my own burger or go for some of the more intriguing add-ons, like blue cheese and Peter Luger Steak Sauce, or even go Bobby’s Burger Palace style and get potato chips on my burger. I have my own preferences and predilections when it comes to burgers. There are times that I’m looking for a real meat-forward experience (oy, the phrases I come up with for this blog), and in that case I’m going to probably throw out a little more cash for a burger I can order medium-rare, like hitting up Five Napkin Burger or even Jackson Hole. But when I go to Five Guys or Shack Shack or BurgerFi, I’m looking for what the toppings can add to my overall taste experience, since I can’t modify the burger meat itself. I think during my next visit to BurgerFi I’ll probably try out the Brisket Burger to see how the meat compares before I delve into the land of cheese and toppings.

You can just see the patty through the juicy tomato slice.

You can just see the patty through the tomato slice.

 

I also went with the traditional route for my shake, in order to more fully taste the frozen custard. BurgerFi offers just two flavors of its custard: vanilla and chocolate. I’ve been a lifelong black-and-white shake drinker, so I chose that over the tempting Red Velvet or Peanut Butter shakes. BurgerFi also sells cups and cones of the custard, with a wide array of mix-ins, and the once again similar-to-Shake-Shack-named Concretes, which features custard spun with toppings, like a higher quality McFlurry. Alas, BurgerFi does not have the rotating calendar of special flavors like Shake Shack, but the custard I tried was good enough to come back for, even with plain-jane vanilla and chocolate.

I am curious to see how BurgerFi’s custard business makes out in an area pretty saturated with frozen dessert options. On that block alone you have both 16 Handles and Pinkberry, and there are a few Tasti-D Lites and the Shack itself not too far away, not to mention Emack and Bolio’s just a few avenues down.

Why yes, I would like bonus whipped cream, sprinkles, and extra fudge, please.

My shake, with a superfluous straw.

My shake came with a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkles on top, which was an unexpected bonus at a restaurant with no table service. BurgerFi also takes the time to line the sides and bottom of the cup with chocolate syrup, which allowed me to continue blending it with the custard as I drank it. Well … drink might not be the most accurate verb. Because it was frozen custard, the consistency was closer to a Frosty than a real milkshake. Don’t get me wrong, it was still delicious, and I slurped it down, but I ended up using a spoon, which almost makes me wish I had just gone for a concrete. Overall, the components of the shake were well-blended, and I could still taste the vanilla custard despite the generous application of chocolate syrup, making it a very solid entry into the black-and-white pantheon.

As a devoted french fry lover, I was bound to enjoy the fries regardless, but BurgerFi actually surpassed my expectations with its potato entry. The fries come in regular, large, or the bucket size. The cashier explained that the bucket is intended for four people, so it seemed to make the most sense for all of us to share. (A word to the allergy-prone — a large sign near the counter states that BurgerFi cooks all their food in peanut oil.) And lest you be satisfied with merely well-executed fries, you can also add toppings to your spuds, such as salt & vinegar, parmesan & herbs, or BurgerFi’s homecooked chili.

Our bucket runneth over.

Our bucket runneth over.

Although “bucket” is a bit of a misnomer (carboard tray of fries doesn’t have the same ring), the order came out piled high with medium-cut fries that were well-salted and maintained their crispness as we tore through Mt. Starchmore. Even without the superlative add-ons, BurgerFi’s fries are probably the best I’ve had in a while, beating out the chips at Jones Wood Foundry in both texture and flavor.

 

Final Thoughts:

After a few days digesting my meal at BurgerFi, I still feel pretty confident that I’ll be back soon. Although nothing in my meal was earth-shattering, each piece of my lunch was speedily delivered, well-executed, and satisfying. And BurgerFi definitely tops Burger Joint in terms of price point for a similar meal — my whole meal, including my contribution to the bucket of fries, cost around $12. Despite my initial skepticism at the seemingly overabundance of options at BurgerFi, it’s actually the precise reason I plan on returning. Now that I know the foundation of their menu is solid, but not tremendously exciting, I want to explore some of the odder flavor combinations to see if a larger menu gives a larger return. Truthfully, I usually can buy into the American value of added-options = added value. There’s a time and a place for a curated meal (including my beloved Jim’s Steaks in Philly where you can only get your cheesesteaks made a handful of ways), but sometimes you want the luxury of choice.

That luxury, plus some eco-and-wallet-friendly policies, make BurgerFi a worthwhile local lunch spot. Sure, at first glance they may not stand out from the growing fast casual crowd, but I’ve got no problem with buying a burger I know will settle a bit better in my stomach and on my conscience than a Whopper Junior. Of course, the culinary landscape in New York is always changing, and BurgerFi is just one of a number of national chains finally entering the NY market. For example, LA’s highly touted Umami Burger is only a few weeks from opening their first store on the East Coast in Manhattan’s West Village, so BurgerFi may soon find itself with some stiffer competition.

I guess I’ll just have to take a jaunt downtown and find out. You know, for our collective peace of mind.

 

BurgerFi

1571 2nd Ave, New York

burgerfi.com

Snackshots

In the spirit of mixing things up (slash a thinly veiled attempt at proving I am actually taking more pictures when I eat/make things), I thought I would use this post as a brief retrospective of some of the delicacies from December and January that didn’t quite make it into the spotlight. Consider this a tour of the minor league, if you will.

Mulled wine from Radegast

Mulled wine from Radegast

I discovered my absolute favorite type of warm cocktail this winter — mulled wine. I used to be all about spiked apple cider, but as my beverage tastes have moved away from sweeter drinks, I found myself ordering mulled wine (and making it at home) more and more often. I’m a sucker for autumnal/wintry spices — cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, I find myself constantly cold, and I’m hoping to expand my taste for red wine, so you really couldn’t give me a better drink than mulled wine. This particular glass came from Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Williamsburg, and was a great combination of citrus, spice, and slightly sweetened red wine. I really recommend checking Radegast out — it’s the first beer hall I’ve been to in NY, so I don’t have much to compare it with, but I enjoyed my wine, the hefeweizen I also ordered, and the German-esque food on the menu. As for space itself, the hall appears to be a converted factory, so for once in NY there’s actually plenty of space. One side of the hall is dominated by an enormous bar and smaller surrounding tables, and the other side holds the kitchen/grill and a dozen or so picnic tables.  I could see it getting a little crowded on weekend nights, but on a Saturday afternoon it was bustling without being raucous, and you can’t really argue with a Bavarian band providing the soundtrack for your daydrinking.

Momofuku Milk Bar in Williamsburg

Momofuku Milk Bar in Williamsburg

That same day I finally got to go to one of the Momofuku Milk Bar locations — albeit the one in Williamsburg, not the ones closer to me in the East Village or the Upper West Side. Milk Bar is known for its wacky takes on dessert — most famously for its Cereal Milk (yes, like the stuff left over in your bowl) and its Compost Cookie, which is a bit of a kitchen-sink type cookie with potato chips, cereal, coffee grounds, and other unexpected ingredients.

The almost overwhelming menu at Milk Bar -- where to begin?

The almost overwhelming menu at Milk Bar — where to begin? And yes, they do offer “pretzel milk” as well.

Although this was my first time actually inside of the store, I’ve had the opportunity to try some of the Milk Bar specialties like the Crack Pie and the Compost Cookie before. Still, there were an enormous number of options available, so I ended up falling back on my comfort zone of ice cream, and got the Oatmeal Creme Pie soft serve. I enjoyed it, but found it very mild in flavor, reminiscent of the way your milk tastes after you dunk an oatmeal cookie into it a few times. The texture of the soft serve was probably the best part — smooth and creamy in the way you want every Mr. Softee order to be. I wish they had given me a spoon instead of the nostalgic Dixie Cup wooden stick. I am eager to try out the pretzel shake at some point, not to mention the “fancy shakes” (aka spiked) shakes offered at the bottom of the menu, so I’ll probably make a trip back, although perhaps to one of the other locations.

The visually appealing, but somewhat lackluster oatmeal creme pie soft serve.

The visually appealing, but somewhat lackluster oatmeal creme pie soft serve.

2012-12-16 15.19.02

The next port of call was Vegan Divas, an Upper East Side vegan bakery and cafe. I stopped in to pick up some holiday goodies for vegan coworkers. The shop was quaint but not cutesy — the focus was happily on the baked goods themselves.

I picked out a bunch of the mini donuts for my coworkers.

I picked out a bunch of the mini donuts for my coworkers.

Vegan Divas has been praised for its donuts, so combined with my weakness for miniaturized things, there was little else I could pick out as gifts. I got myself a lemon-raspberry muffin, mainly to see how their baking fared. Sometimes vegan baking leads to incredible dense, lumpy cakes, so I wondered if all the wrinkles in the substitution scheme had been ironed out. Muffins can be very hit or miss depending on the baker, so I thought it would be a good test of the caliber of Vegan Divas’ desserts.

My small, but heavy muffin

My small, but heavy muffin

Unfortunately, I did find the muffin lacked the air-pocket-laden lightness of a great breakfast pastry. But texture aside, Vegan Divas succeeded in creating a healthy muffin (less than 100 calories) that didn’t taste like “health food.” The lemon and raspberry flavors were bright and very present, and I would be willing to go back and see what else the bakery has veganized, although I might opt for something more traditionally dense in makeup, like a brownie.

Chicken and Vegetable Ramen from Minca

Chicken and Vegetable Ramen from Minca

I’m pleased I was able to scrounge up at least one photo of a savory item from my recent gastronomical adventures. Shown above is the fabulous bowl of ramen I had from Minca in the East Village. I opted for the veggie-packed ramen, which to Minca‘s cooks apparently meant including an entire head of lettuce. Fortunately, beneath all that roughage was a deeply rich chicken broth with a hardboiled egg, an assortment of vegetables, and pieces of thinly sliced chicken. It was an umami-bomb, and I mean that in the best way possible. This was probably one of my favorite meals in the past month or so — simple fare but cooked expertly, and pretty inexpensive to boot. Although I personally prefer non-pork based ramen, Minca offers a wide range of soups from vegetarian to all the pig a person could want. Heads up, though — like a lot of ramen joints, Minca is cash only.

2012-12-30 19.14.56

Much like my love for the miniature, I also have a deep affection for holiday-themed versions of food. So despite it being well past Christmas when I baked this, I had to pick up the Nestle Holiday Baking Bits (aka red and green semisweet chocolate chips) that were on sale at Stop and Shop. C’mon — Christmas themed AND on sale? How could I resist? The monstrosity above was made for a New Year’s Party: Magic Bars/Seven Layer Bars/Munchies — whatever you want to call them, they involved graham cracker crumbs, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, butterscotch and white chocolate chips, shredded coconut, and Heath bar pieces. Let’s just say they were well-received.

Last, but not least, a picture from my recent visit to Salvation Taco. Although I decided to enjoy the meal sans compulsive photographing, I just had to share my last cocktail. Salvation Taco is the latest project from April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, the people behind the restaurant in the Breslin Hotel (great, but expensive brunch) and the Spotted Pig (supposedly a fantastic burger, but I’ve yet to make it there). Salvation Taco is a lounge/restaurant in the Pod 39 Hotel in Midtown, and although its over-the-top “hip” vibe is a little out of place in the mild-mannered just south of Grand Central neighborhood, I found the food and drinks to be playful and innovative. My favorite taco by far was the least taco-ish on the menu — ground Moroccan lamb served on a tiny piece of naan. My first cocktail was the “Fly By Night,” a mixture of “gin, lemon juice, cinnamon-vanilla bean, orange blossom, sea salt,” and came in a normal glass. But when I ordered the “5 Island Horchata,” which is listed as “5 island rum, coconut horchata, cold-brewed coffee, fernet-vallet, cinnamon and vanilla,” the waitress neglected to inform me of how my cocktail would be delivered:

Yup, in a parrot.

Yup, in a parrot.

It was a great drink, if a little on the heavy side. It ended up tasting mostly like a rum and coffee flavored slushy, which I was happy to slurp down, but left a bit of a snowball-esque lump in my stomach afterwards. Regardless, it was worth it, if only because I can now say, “why yes, I have had a cocktail out of a ceramic bird.” You know, in case that ever comes up.

I leave you with one last tidbit from my kitchen. Between Winter Restaurant Week and the Superbowl, there seems to a lot of serious eating in my near future. Of course I’m trying to be virtuous and eat salads and veggies where I can, but I did just get a cast iron skillet, and there’s really only one way to properly break that bad boy in:

2013-01-27 14.35.00

AW YEAH, GIANT SKILLET COOKIE. And yes, those are some leftover Nestle Holiday Baking Bits. Like I said, they were on sale!

 

Radegast Hall & Biergarten

113 N 3rd St, Brooklyn

radegasthall.com

Momofuku Milk Bar

Various locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn

milkbarstore.com

Vegan Divas

1437 First Avenue, (between 75th and 74th Street)

http://www.thevegandivas.com

Minca

536 E 5th St.

Salvation Taco

Pod 39 Hotel, 145 E 39th St

salvationtaco.com