A Rustic Refresh: Back to Basics at Hu Kitchen

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I’m going to be straight with you guys — despite the decadent meals I detail on this blog, I am not the spry food-partier I once was. I can’t knock back a sleeve of Oreos like in my glory days, or pile on the greasy fried Japanese food without grimly acknowledging that I’ll all too likely to feel it in the morning. More than my inability to stay up late, my reluctance to ever set foot in Murray Hill for anything other than Indian food, or my growing acceptance of Snuggies as appropriate outerwear, the presence of “food hangovers” have signaled my arrival into adulthood. I may continue to stuff my face with funsize Halloween candy bars, but my body will no longer fully support me in that endeavor. It will make its displeasure known, from tummyaches to headaches and more.

I bring this all up because after a recent Saturday grease-fest, I found myself staggering about on Sunday begging for some reasonable grub to rebalance and refuel. I was meeting Jacob for lunch, and though he benefits from an iron-clad constitution, he was more than happy to try out a spot in Union Square I’d had my eye on for a while — the crunchy-granola, hippy-dippy, but still intriguing Hu Kitchen. And lucky for me, it proved to be just the kind of place a recovering foodie needs. File that away for future food comas.

 

First Impressions:

Just to be clear, they do not sell pet food here.

Just to be clear, they do not sell pet food here.

Hu Kitchen’s slogan is “Food for Humans”, which is prominently displayed on the outside of the cafe. The website explains that their focus is on unprocessed food, rather than espousing one particular “-ism” or diet, and this line-straddling approach is evident in the decor. Hu Kitchen struck me as part Chipotle, part Fern Gully, featuring black and steel countertops and flooring mixed with roughly hewn wooden tables and seating made out of tree trunks. At once industrial and natural, the restaurant emphasizes that it doesn’t want to ignore modern society or eating habits, but hopes to reintroduce the notion of natural as normal.

 

Looking back from the smoothie/juice/espresso bar to the other stations at Hu Kitchen.

Looking back from the smoothie/juice/espresso bar to the other stations at Hu Kitchen.

 

Hu Kitchen follows the market/cafe model, similar to Whole Foods, with a number of stations spread throughout the space. A smoothie/juice/espresso bar is positioned as you enter, for quick grab and go, or leisurely sipping at the handful of tables up front. Walking to the back you pass a fridge with prepackaged snacks and drinks (we tried some samples of grain-free chips), before hitting the hot bar, bowl, and prepared food stations. Most of the seating is on the second floor, where you can recline on any of the available stumps (or plastic chairs, if that’s more your thing).

Rustic hewn seating mixed with sleek glass and metal.

Rustic hewn seating mixed with sleek glass and metal. I guess sometimes you just want to sit on a stump.

 

The Food:

The ground rules going in.

The ground rules going in.

While Hu Kitchen doesn’t prescribe to one particular food system, they do have some specific guidelines for their dishes — they only serve natural, unprocessed food, with recognizable ingredients and as much certified organic as they can. The focus is mainly on vegetables, and there are vegan/vegetarian meat substitutes, but you can also get grass-fed beef or free-range chicken. Hu Kitchen’s menu is also largely gluten-free, since they mostly avoid grains, and their food is free of cane sugar — sweetened only with honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar. I’m telling you all of this to underscore how even with all these seemingly restricting rules, the food I had at Hu Kitchen was flat-out delicious.

 

A sample of Hu Kitchen's prepared foods, from vegetarian to gluten-free and the Venn Diagram space in between.

A sample of Hu Kitchen’s prepared foods, from vegetarian to gluten-free and the Venn Diagram space in between.

When I had initially scoped out the menu (my mama always said a good food nerd is a well-informed one), I had been drawn to the “Bowls” category, which allows you to choose a permutation from 3 different bases and 3 different toppings. But once I actually got there, the wide variety of prepared salads and sides on display in the prepared foods case drew my eyes. Jacob and I tried the Primal Kale Salad (org kale, org goji berry, sesame seed, org apple cider vinegar, unfiltered honey, shallot, garlic mustard powder) and the Curried Sweet Potato (org dried apricot, almond, org egg, scallion, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, turmeric, garam masala), both of which I would gladly hit up again on my next visit. But we decided to trust our instincts and investigate the possibilities of the bowls. I ordered the Root Veg Mash base with Thai Chicken on top, while Jacob went with the Organic Quinoa base with Roasted Wild Mushroom. The helpful staff was eager to point out favorites and explain the extras not mentioned on the menu, like the selection of “toppers” for the bowls, ranging from herbs like parsley and cilantro, to sauces like lime juice and sriracha, and a variety of nuts and seeds.

 

My bowl of Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken. Great flavors, lousy consistency combo.

My bowl of Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken. Great flavors, lousy consistency combo.

I ended up topping my Root Veg Mash with Thai Chicken (org coconut milk, turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, basil) with more cilantro and lime juice. While I found both of the components of my bowl satisfying, I wouldn’t recommend this particular combination. The problem stems from the liquid content of the chicken, which is served in a coconut milk sauce. The root vegetable mash (sweet potatoes, parnsips, carrots, etc) has the consistency of smooth mashed potatoes, so the hot liquid from the chicken turned my bowl into more of a soup/stew concoction than I had hoped for. However, both the mash and the chicken were incredibly flavorful. I loved the tenderness of the meat, shredded and soft from the coconut milk, with the familiar interplay of woodsy sweetness from lemongrass and the bite of the turmeric and ginger. I would definitely get the mash again with a more solid topping (maybe even the roasted mushrooms Jacob got), since it tasted fresh and sweet, reminding me of the sweet potato casserole my mother serves at Thanksgiving. Adding the acidity from the lime juice topper definitely helped to cut through the richness of the dish, and I could see how adding some seeds or nuts would help to vary the texture.

 

Jacob's Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms bowl -- a slightly more successful combination.

Jacob’s Organic Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms bowl — just slightly on the dry side, but a bit more successful combo.

Jacob had a similar problem with his chosen combination, finding the Organic Quinoa with Roasted Mushrooms (shiitake, portobello, button mushroom, carrot, garlic, shallot, thyme) in need of just a touch more moisture. I thought the quinoa was nicely cooked, soft without being too dry, and could see it as a better base for the Thai Chicken (we basically should have swapped combos). The mixture of mushrooms types lent the dish a solid variety of textures, the roasted mushrooms slightly caramelized, with aromatics from the garlic and shallots. The mushrooms are served out of a slowcooker that keeps them stewing in their own liquid, which gave them a nice soft feel and deep flavor.

Both of our bowls came with a small button of Hu grain-free bread, not much larger than an ice cube and resembling pumpernickel in color. I would guess it was made out of some sort of nutmeal or seeds, but I thought it was pretty tasty, if a bit dense. It had the nuttiness of hearty, rustic dark ryes like those from Scandinavia  I dipped it into my slushy bowl, and liked it even better when it had soaked up some liquid.

The portion size was perfect for a nice lunch, although I might opt for a side salad if looking for a more substantial dinner. After the previous day’s foray into grease and sugar, I really appreciated how my meal at Hu Kitchen filled me up without weighing me down. I fully plan on coming back to try out some of the prepared foods, and (of course) I’m interested in looking into some of their grain-free muffins and desserts.

Final Thoughts:

I’ve spoken before about the upsides and downsides of writing of a food blog — the expectation of having opinions on food means that you both get to enjoy being used as a resource, but also have to deal with the assumption that you will know and write about most everything you encounter. Thankfully, after over a year of writing Experimental Gastronomy, I’m still just as passionate about exploring and educating myself about dining and cooking. One unexpected side effect of blogging is how it has made me a literally conscious eater — I try to think critically about what I’m tasting (although I’ll readily admit to mindlessly stuffing my face plenty). Recently, this has pushed me towards being more mindful of what I’m eating day-to-day, as in what is the makeup of the foods I put into my body. I find myself curious about nutrition, food science, and food policy, and while I’m not going off the grid, so to speak (I wish I knew how to quit you, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups), I love finding places like Hu Kitchen that give me the tools to make better choices about my diet, even if it’s just one meal at a time. It’s nice to go to a place that reminds you that pure, natural ingredients can taste just as good as KFC, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of unfamiliar items like chia, hemp, or nutritional yeast. At Hu Kitchen, you can ease yourself along the spectrum from vegan to paleo to simply gastro-curious, from cashew creamed broccoli to plain ol’ chicken tenders. When you get right down to it, Hu Kitchen truly sticks to their slogan — it’s not fancy, it’s just food for humans.

 

Hu Kitchen

78 Fifth Ave (between 13th and 14th)

hukitchen.com

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

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

Dominique Ansel Bakery‘s The Cronut:

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

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

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

My Cronut delivery, thanks to Randeep!

 

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

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

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

 

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

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

The Cronut in all its sugar-crusted glory.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Breads Bakery’s Almond Croissant (and more):

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

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

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

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

A small sample of Breads baked goods.

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

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

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

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

 

The flat but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

The flat, but full-flavored Almond Croissant.

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

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

 

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

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

 

Dominique Ansel Bakery

189 Spring Street (between Sullivan and Thompson)

http://dominiqueansel.com/

Breads Bakery

18 E 16th St.

breadsbakery.com