Viewing entries in
Food

A Shopping Guide to Center City, Philadelphia

Comment

A Shopping Guide to Center City, Philadelphia

Philadelphia is a many funny thing. For the second-largest Northeastern city (and fifth largest in the US, by population), the first capital of the United States could justifiably be called “overshadowed.” To the north lies New York City – Gotham, Metropolis, America’s gravitational center – while just beyond that is Boston – “The Birthplace of the Revolution,” whose iconic film portrayals and championship sports teams ensure its name still rings ‘round the world.

Then, just three hours south of America’s first capital, there’s its current: Washington, D.C. I don’t need a Kevin Spacey voiceover to tell you why the District punches well above its population.

Yet, perhaps it’s this status as the I-95 underdog (coupled with rent prices literally half of Mahattan’s) that gives Philadelphia its charm, pluck, and sheer vitality. After all, while Boston has “Good Will Hunting” and “The Departed” in its corner, Philly has its own Oscar story: “Rocky,” a tale of an indomitable human spirit beating all the odds. Overshadowed? Not quite. Underrated? You bet.

Last weekend, I spent a sunny Saturday downtown for a day full of eating, shopping, and touring. Since I grew up in Philly’s suburbs and would visit often, I did my best to avoid the chains and seek out the Center City destinations I know and love. I even made a customized Google My Map (link to map here) so you can follow along. 

Neat, right? Well, I thought so. Without further ado, here are the stores and sites that made the cut. 

 

Knead Bagels (725 Walnut St)

The culinary avant-garde is typically liquefied, ionized, or at the very least, gluten-free. Knead Bagels, then, is either a slave to convention or the avant-avant – and believe me, there’s little conventional about lavender bagels and scallion lime cream cheese. Knead’s iconoclastic approach to a New York delicacy has nothing to do with any metropolitan rivalries, and is instead a simple story of passion and chance. Two professional chefs, one serendipitous curiosity (quote: “I want to try making bagels”), and countless hours of recipe refinement all came together to form a single delicious result: the best artisan bagels I’ve ever tasted.

While Knead’s bagels certainly cost some dough ($3.50 for a “non-traditional” with spread, $7.00 for a breakfast sandwich), the taste is worth every penny. Go early to avoid the omnipresent line, and whatever you do, don’t default to your deli’s typical “plain on plain.” Knead’s fresh, flavorful bakey is not the place to be stale. Start your time in Philly here with an unforgettable bagel sandwich.

 

Lapstone and Hammer (1106 Chestnut St)

Visit enough sneaker shops, and even the least fastidious philosophers among us will start believing in singularity – or at the very least, convergent evolution. I’ve been to specialty boutiques in all four corners of the country, and heaven forbid, there are genre tropes. The shelf-warmers needed to guarantee access to big releases; whatever clothing brand rapper of the moment just promoted; the list goes on. Homogeny, thy name is Instagram hype culture.

Lapstone and Hammer, however, is different. In fact, it’s brilliant.

In the same way that NOAH introduced New York City to a combination of store and product best described as “streetwear for grownups,” Lapstone and Hammer has built Philadelphia’s very own temple to the cult of taste. The store is split neatly into two halves, the first of which comprises an oak-paneled room lined with designer shoes on one wall (Common Projects; Filling Pieces; ETQ) and contemporary yet understated menswear (Robert Geller; Momotaro; Schott NYC) on the other.

Just beyond the oak and denim, however, lies the sportswear: a backlit monochrome antechamber lined with every Nike release you’ve ever heard of, plus the hottest selections from other sneaker brands like Asics, Vans, and Saucony (notably absent is Adidas, who’ll be joining the lineup soon). Business in the front, party in the back.

Carve out a good chunk of time to spend at Lapstone and Hammer – it is truly (and refreshingly) like no other sneaker store I’ve ever visited. Oh, and the staff are friendly, too. Take that, boutique genre tropes!

 

Boyds Philadelphia (1818 Chestnut St)

After you wrap up at Lapstone, walk down Chestnut across Broad Street and keep going until you either a) see blue awnings or b) hear Porsches. Congratulations, sir – you’ve arrived.

As Bergdorf is to New York and Harrods is to London, so is Boyds to Philadelphia. Boyds is a luxury department store in the intangible way that few institutions can ever be, and frankly, may ever be in the rest of our history. Boyds is a landmark draped in silk and marble, its creation due in equal parts to social stratification and an altruistic drive to create pure splendor in our workaday world. The thoroughly-modern luxury brands it stocks at present – Canali, Kiton, Moncler – are testament to the continued vivality of Boyds’ towering heritage.  

As befitting of a luxury clothier, they weren’t keen of me taking too many pictures. All the more reason, then, for you to see it in person. If even just to window shop, no Philadelphia shopping guide is complete without Boyds.  

 

Barneys New York (1811 Walnut St)

As Barneys is to New York, Barneys is to… well, you get the idea. The Philadelphia outpost of New York City’s most stylish luxury department store is every ounce of the polish and prestige you got at Boyds, just with a slightly-younger demographic in mind. On the men’s side, adidas sneakers share shelf space with selections from Gucci and Saint Laurent. For the ladies, it’s all about artistic luxury – brands featured include Balenciage, Fendi, and Acne Studios.

While Boyds is a can’t-miss institution, my personal fashion tastes swing much more towards the selection at Barneys. Thankfully, while they cater to different clientele, the two are mere blocks away. Some things, however, the two share deeply in common: Barney’s, too, was mum on interior photos. Rats. Take time to peruse, try on, and ogle, then exit onto Philadelphia’s iconic Rittenhouse Square.

 

UBIQ (1509 Walnut St)

After you’ve taken some time to enjoy the Square (if you’re visiting on a Saturday, make sure to check out the Rittenhouse Farmers’ Market), head three blocks down Walnut St and look for the one storefront that’s not a corporate boilerplate. On the same block as Brooks Brothers and Club Monaco is a store that couldn’t be less preppy if it tried: UBIQ, Philly’s own premium streetwear destination.

DSC_0286.jpg

In short: UBIQ is dope. They get every big release (Yeezy, NikeLab, etc.), stock awesome clothing from off-the-radar international designers, and have ridiculous semiannual sales featuring “last pairs” of hyped-up drops at 40% off. Plus, they even get their own exclusive Stone Island collabs (see: last season’s phenomenal Coral Blouson). UBIQ’s own apparel line also scores high marks from me – their SS17 “World Over” capsule had some really solid graphics, specifically on this Travel Poster tee.

After earlier explaining everything I found stale about typical sneaker shops, what I just said may sound like a scurrilous about-face, but hear me out. Is UBIQ “conventional” for stocking things you’ve heard of before but only ever seen online? To an occasionally-jaded style writer, maybe. Then again, I also go every time I’m in town. Even if you swear by the oxford shirts next door, you’ve gotta check out UBIQ. Huge shoutout to Kahlil and Cleveland for helping me out when I stopped in last.

Cross Broad St again, walk two blocks, and look for the steel-and-glass store front. Pull the door, walk inside, and enter the urban oasis known as rikumo. Founded in 2010 but reopened in 2016, rikumo is a Japanese homewares and lifestyle boutique selling only artisan products discovered by owners Kaz and Yuka Morihata during their frequent trips to Japan. Everything you see in store has been curated to reflect the remarkable tastes of the Morihatas as well as the considerate interior of rikumo itself. Seriously – the store is a feast for the senses.

While you won’t find any apparel here, any visitor shopping for style would be remiss to pass it up. Savor your time at rikumo and leave no stone unturned as you browse the shelves – you might surprise yourself with the unexpectedly-delightful objects you find.

Personally, I’m a fan of the teas, soaps, and Craft Design Technology officewares (below). I never thought I’d have an opinion on office supplies aesthetics, but hey, even memories get older.  

 

Reading Terminal Market (51 N 12th St)

For the grand finale: there’s everything at once.

Take a right out of rikumo, walk three blocks up 12th Street, and look for the shuffling mass of neon-dazed tourists. Don’t worry – it’s still “local character” even if other people have heard of it. It’s just kinda hard to keep a culinary wonderland like Reading Terminal Market out of the guidebooks.

Reading Terminal Market is a sprawling, bustling labyrinth of prepared food and farm-fresh ingredients, as famous for its specialty treats as its hearty lunches. Neon signs and wafting smells jockey for sensory real estate with the intensity of locals queuing for world-famous DiNic’s. The line for one of the deli’s legendary pork sandwiches (claim to fame: named one of the best sandwiches in America by the Travel Channel) was too long to rationalize when I visited, so I took a more intuitive approach to Reading and simply followed my nose. The result: a late lunch made entirely of Beiler’s Bakery donuts. Mmm. Nutrition. If Philly donuts are the key to cultivating mass, Fat Mac has all my sympathy.

-----

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this shopping guide to downtown Philadelphia. Anything else I should add? Did I miss your favorite store? Sound off in the comments below or on my Facebook here to start the conversation.

 

Comment

A Summer Guide to New York Brunches

Comment

A Summer Guide to New York Brunches

Even if you wake up at 9, the New York weekend doesn't start until 11:00 brunch. The City has a brunch culture that borders on religious: lines mass, glasses clink, and millions skip breakfast in favor of a noontime feast with friends. As a summer intern - a tourist with a rent payment, really - it was both a duty and a privilege to assimilate. When in Rome, right?

With that in I mind, I spent the past 10 weeks roaming Manhattan and Brooklyn in search of the city's best brunches. Since I was 20 in all 50 states this summer, none of the following were rated according to any "bottomless" criteria, but as far as I'm concerned, the food is what counts. That may change next year; for now, here's my end-of-summer guide to the best brunches in New York City:

1. Almond (Flatiron, Manhattan)

This French bistro in the shadow of the Flatiron building boasts an outdoor patio, great espresso, and a food menu recommended to me by Michelin Guide interns. You pay a pretty penny for the quality (~$30/person, even sober), but a trip to Almond is worth it. My recommendation: the Duck Confit Hash. It's the breakfast meat you never expected to love, prepared brilliantly and plated with poise. Check out my full review here for more.

2. The Wren (Bowery, Manhattan)

The Wren is equal parts neighborhood tavern and Victorian treasure trove: a truly unique little restaurant you'd never expect to have one of the best budget brunches on the Island. Early in the summer, I ate a surreal sausage sandwich and took in a Euro Cup game from a corner perch. If it weren't for my insistence on finding new restaurants, I'd have called The Wren my weekend roost. Check out my full review here for more.

3. Tartine (West Village, Manhattan)

This petite neighborhood bistro makes an impression eons bigger than its cozy footprint. From the moment I sat down, Tartine impressed me: the food, the service, the wonderful smell of fresh French coffee. My Eggs Norvegienne were easily one of the highlights of the summer. My only gripe with Tartine is its size. It would be truly difficult to take a group here, especially considering the restaurant is cash only. Mais c'est la vie. If you're one in a petite ensemble, you'll find Tartine a true delight. Check out my full review here for more. 

4. Buttermilk Channel (Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn)

Tucked deep into Brooklyn's Gowanus neighborhood lies "Buttermilk Channel", a uniquely Southern brunch experience offering upscale takes on classic American comfort food. Go for the pun name alone, but stay for the inventive cuisine and refreshing decor. Buttermilk distinguishes itself by being one of the few "new American" (read: hipster) spots to not get lost in self-importance. The food is delicious, the prices are reasonable, and for every hipster sin (thin fonts on faux-yellowed menus; calling appetizers "snacks"), there are a million other things to love. Escape Williamsburg, wander the neighborhoods, and make your way to Buttermilk Channel - you won't regret it. Check out my full review here for more. 

5. MudSpot (St. Marks Place, Manhattan)

MudSpot, the restaurant nameplate of the beloved MUD coffee truck, is a true East Village experience. Tucked into a claustrophobic St Mark's storefront, "Mud" serves up hearty brunch favorites to anyone willing to brave the tight quarters. This was my first brunch in New York City, and the food alone kicked my summer off to a great start. My recommendation: try the Huevos Rancheros with a full cup of the Spot's famous coffee. With any luck, you'll get stuck on MUD. Check out my full review here for more. 

6. Petite Abeille (Chelsea, Manhattan)

In a world full of #aesthetic plating and $50 entrees, simple brunches can often be better. Petite Abeille, a hole-in-the-wall Belgian diner in Manhattan's Chelsea diner, stands in stark contrast to its neighbors: it's affordable, it's unpretentious, and ohmygod is it good. While I thoroughly enjoyed my food, a questionable side-dish pairing was just enough to put it lower in the list. That being said: if you're of age, Petite Abeille's Belgian beer list is apparently one of the better in the city. I'll happily revisit next summer. Check out my full review here for more.

7. Smorgasburg (Prospect Park, Brooklyn)

I'm going to be very frank: you should go to Smorgasburg exactly once. With that intro and it's placement on this list, I'll let you decipher my opinion. If context clues aren't your strong suit, check out my full review here for more. In other words: BuzzFeed lied.

Honorable Mention: Cafe Mogador (East Village, Manhattan)

My last full weekend in the city, I treated myself to a truly indulgent brunch at the Zagat-rated Cafe Mogador. The food? Incredible. The line? Excruciating. I didn't have time for a full review, but here's my two-breath summary: get there early or be prepared to wait. Either way, the reward for your efforts is a complete sensory experience bordering on tantric. It's hard to believe, but these Moroccan favorites taste better than they look. If you're in the neighborhood, good God, man - you have to go

Tried anything on the list? Or did I miss your favorite spot? Let me know in the comments below. Until then, happy brunching! 

Comment

Review: Buttermilk Channel (Brooklyn, NY)

Review: Buttermilk Channel (Brooklyn, NY)

Hello restaurants, my old friend. Thanks to a busy travel schedule and some surprise visits from old friends, it’s been a minute since my last brunch review. Now, with my internship ending this Friday, I found just enough time for a second consecutive exhale and got back on the horse. The review horse. The "mid-morning combo meal" horse. The “strangers stare at you taking close-ups of food” horse.

The, uh… extended metaphor horse. That one.

Phew, barely made it out. Anyways, here’s this week’s review:

-----

Brooklyn is a many funny thing. Once the industrial base of Greater New York, outsourced manufacturing heralded a new era of inter-borough migration. Brooklyn become the respite of transplant Mahattanites seeking cheaper rents, typically creative types working in fields where minor promotion doesn’t mean “Upper West apartment.” This noticeable lack of bankers (and money) made Brooklyn scrappy, even exotic. After SoHo became popular post-1980’s, if you needed a studio – not a studio apartment – you went to Brooklyn.

Well, Brooklyn is a many funny thing. This urban flight of cash-strapped cool kids cultivated a coolness all its own, and suddenly, Brooklyn wasn’t just exotic – it was widely desirable. One by one, neighborhoods began *gulp* gentrifying. You can guess what this did to rents.

In the present, Brookyln exists as the synthesis of two divergent identities: the fetishized hipster environ surrounding ritzy neighborhoods like Green Point, contrasted harshly with the hollowed-out industry that line Gowanus and Bed-Stuy. It’s A Tale of Two Cities, packaged neatly into one borough. Exotic and cool, indeed – especially when it’s packaged as such.

Throughout this summer, I’ve spent quite a few afternoons strolling Williamsburg. Each time, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was trapped in a hipster Disneyland: pretension oozes from the raw wood paneling every restaurant on the block uses as a substitute for thoughtful design. Worst of all: every simulacra of this grand imitation proclaims itself “exotic and cool” (read: unique), if only because everyone is doing it. It’s enough to make you bikeshare into traffic.

Long story short, I had enough. On a beautiful sunny Sunday, I decided to explore Brooklyn, seeking brunch somewhere far from the circus. I took a 40 minute F train to 9th St, Gowanus and went on my way. Over the following two hours, I walked the streets around the former shipping channels, shooting graffiti, old cars, and warehouses that hadn’t been converted into microbreweries. Catharsis is an understatement.

Feeling grounded (and hungry), I made my way towards this neighborhood’s famous brunch spot. A line out the door greeted me from blocks away: this had to be Buttermilk Channel.

Buttermilk Channel (524 Court St, Brookyln) is a Southern-influenced New American eatery specializing in everything sweet and comfortable. A large dining room with communal tables is built into a space ripped straight from your Great Aunt’s knitting room. This is the South of New Orleans mansions; the blank walls, the plantation sconces, the floral centerpieces. I half expected a steamship. Behind the bar, only the most aesthetic bottles of brown liquor will do – with the exception of champagne and clamato juice, of course. One compromises for brunch.

Much of the above sounds like the venom-inducing Bedford brunches I described above, but here, I like it. The sum effect of the décor is a mere introduction to the Southern Hospitality heaped on you by Buttermilk’s staff. My coffee stayed full. Any and all questions were anticipated. Even better, I waited less than 10 minutes for food, even during a busy Sunday brunch. While most hipster hangouts snob diners with pride, that just ain’t the Soth’rn way. Color me impressed.

Tired from the sunbleached walk, I ordered a walnut sticky bun from the “snacks” menu to tide me over. The bun came out piping hot, burdened with frosting and dripping brown sugar. Sticky indeed. My “snack” quickly become a fork and knife affair. Slice by slice, the quality pastry came through alongside the sweetness rather than under it. Paired with a cup of Brooklyn Roasting Company coffee on drip, the sticky bun was a great start to the meal.  

Now, it was time for the main. On the bartender’s recommendation, I ordered the Hot Sausage Egg Scramble. Eggs, peppers, and onions meet sausage from hometown favorite Esposito’s in a fluffy mixture that dares to be called greasy. The veggies remain surprisingly tasty given their context: it’s easy to overcook, or worse, to sweep away fresh bell peppers in a tide of sausage drippings. Instead, each bite is steeped in flavor without oozing it off your fork. I thoroughly enjoyed every bite of the scramble.

All five to six of them.

Seriously, this is one petite entrée. It’s small to the point of recommending you order something else. The plate came with a salad of bittersweet greens, a potato cake, and some artfully cut slices of miniature toast – and all were great - but it was like assembling an all-star supporting cast around a lead actor cameo. It is theoretically a lot of food for the price, just not much of the food you ordered. A shame, considering how the quality of the dish.

I nibbled on the salad while my coffee stayed bottomless. Around me, Brooklyn’s exotic and cool young professionals shared mid-day waffles. Tattooed young parents watched their child watch an iPad. The Ink Spots played as conversation swelled and mason jars clinked. 

I should’ve hated it.

Instead, this place felt… authentic. A couple of regulars in their 50’s sat at the bar next to me and engaged the staff about their families. It was no L stop tourist trap – I was the sorest thumb in there. Was it the plantation sconces that brought out this two-way Southern hospitality? No; it was the people. No one here was packaging their lifestyle for others. Now that was cool. Way out in Gowanus, Brooklyn’s divergent identities called truce.

All in all, I really enjoyed my meal: small portions were the single demerit, and even then, that’s as subjective as it comes. If you’re coming from Manhattan, I’d recommend visiting Buttermilk Channel if for the leg-stretch alone. Brunch to your heart’s content in this Southern-inspired bistro, then go for a walk around the neighborhood. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the sights, and completely delighted by Buttermilk Channel.

Review: Spot (St. Marks Place, NYC)

Comment

Review: Spot (St. Marks Place, NYC)

Thanks to a weekend visit from my best male friend, I didn’t have the chance to write a full brunch review. Photographing your omelet is sort of a “no-go” when it’s just dudes at the table. Instead, I’ll be reviewing a Lower East Side dessert bar. Which is objectively more masculine. Anyways, here's this week's Food Review.

-----

Being 20 in New York is like being a midget at an amusement park: sure, you’re in the front door, but all the fun rides are just out of reach. And because I’m 20 in all 50 states, my Saturday nights are spent necessarily removed from any bonafide establishments while other midgets sneak onto roller coasters with platform shoes. If you catch my drift.

With #bars out of the question, my Saturday nights in the city have acquiesced to a slew of activities one might even consider wholesome. Case in point, this weekend: my friend Joe and I hung out with my 21+ roommates until they went out, watched cartoons until we got hungry, then went out to find snacks.

If you believe my birthday, I’m no longer a teenager. Jury’s out on which side of “teen” I’m on.

Anyways, back to the snack quest: “Rick and Morty” paused, my friend and I headed for St. Marks Place to see where in the world our hunger would take us. Chinese take-out? Too hearty. Ukranian bistro? Too sober. Asian dessert bar? This had potential. Besides, it was also technically a bar. I technically wasn’t being a boring, overgrown child if I went here to eat cake at 11pm on a Saturday. Vindicated in my adult decision-making, I grabbed a table at Spot (13 St Marks Pl).

Spot is an Asian-American fusion dessert parlor tucked into the bottom level of a triplex on St. Marks Place between 2nd and 3rd Ave. Inside, communal tables and a busy wait staff make the tight space more lively than cramped. In fact, it’s surprising just how organized Spot is given its elbow-to-elbow floorplan. Service is quick. Plates come fast. A staff of five moves with choreographed precision, dodging both stumbling customers (they went on all the cool roller coasters) and even each other. Above it all, rap music blares.

Seated by the window, I was the eye of the hurricane – and it was serious fun just to watch the frantic scene of dessert rush unfold. In a 20x30’ space packed with dozens of late-night diners, a bass-boosted “Blood on the Leaves” was the only thing remotely described as “scattered.” I was impressed before I even saw a menu. Then, well, I saw a menu. 

spotmenu.png

Spot is famous for its “dessert tapas,” a selection of 9 intricate desserts meant to share but sized to covet.  First, some bad news: each plate costs close to $10, and with coffee included, a two-person check will easily exceed $30. With Van Leuwen’s a few blocks away, this can seem pretty steep for the Lower East Side. Especially if your idea of “winding down after dinner out” doesn’t include Kanye West.

Then, some good: eating at Spot redefines your idea of what sugar can be. Dessert tapas at Spot is post-dinner snacking made art, a combination of craftsmanship and pride that just happens to be filled with Oreo crumbs. Spot does to dessert what Nolan did to Batman – but this time, your $10 ticket sends you to saccharine paradise. The hardest part of “dessert tapas” is choosing just one.

So instead of risking the self-loathing that would come with a poor decision I made myself, I just asked my waiter about his favorite. “You have to try the Banana Chouff,” he said. A simple declarative statement with no room for interpretation? Choice made. He weaved back through the tables, dodging chairs and partygoers alike. Big Sean shouted approval in stereo. Then, in a split, my bananas were there. 

Art!

Art!

Or rather, they were everywhere. The Banana Chouff is a choux-puff pastry hybrid filled with bruleed bananas, Oreo crumbs, and caramel sauce, then topped with banana milk ice cream. In other words: the Banana Chouff has a lot of bananas.

Aesthetically, the dish was too good to eat. It was borderline sculpture; no, architecture. There was function here. I mean, just look at that delicate ice cream… that off-white pastry… the tasteful thickness of it… I was going Psycho just staring at it.

Realistically, I had a utensil in each hand and a laser lock on those bruleed bananas. Beauty may be fleeting, but I was bringing a blowtorch to the Louvre. My first bite came by way of a guillotine vertical that made sure my fork was equals parts ice cream and whatever lay inside that delicious choux-puff center. My initial thrust sent the banana milk sliding – turns out that architectural beauty was more Pisa than Westminster. As the choux-puff depuffed, I dug in.

The folly of Art!

The folly of Art!

In descending order: I don’t know how one milks a banana, but it’s hard to beat the results. I can’t fight the feeling this is an earthier vanilla, perhaps less viscous – regardless, it was a sensational lead in to the pastry. Speaking of, there’s the pastry! The shell flakes like your 8th grade movie date, and the bruleed bananas are as amazing as they sound. Burnt sugar on banana slices may just be my new favorite unnecessary complication. The caramel sauce isn’t particularly inspired, but unlike that middle school date, it effortlessly compliments everything. Plus, it looks great on the plate. I paired the Chouff with a double espresso for a truly minimized dessert course.

That being said, the Oreo crumbs didn’t do much for me – in fact, I think the dish would be stronger without any chocolate component barring a sauce drizzle to play up the “ice cream” angle. Ultimately, Oreos are chocolate, fat, and sugar, so I was biologically wired to at least enjoy their taste in part. I just think I would’ve enjoyed the dish’s taste more were they substituted, if not subtracted, from this spectacular dessert.

As a whole, the Banana Chouff is a chocolate drizzle away from “postmodern banana split.” I loved it the delicacy of it all, but the production would be smoke and mirrors without the phenomenal taste. According to my friend, the seasonal pumpkin dessert went just as well – it came with a fin of pastry and covered in crumbs, looking every bit as New Museum as my own. There's just something about precise smallness that screams "a job well done."

In fact, my whole dining experience at Spot seemed to march to that similar beat: from start to finish, Spot was a small wonder packed with outsized excellence. Tiny but delicious coffee? Check. Tiny but spectacular dessert? Check. Tiny but incredible dessert bar? Check. Screw that “midget in an amusement park” – since when did small ever mean any less great?

Comment

Review: Almond (Flatiron, NYC)

Comment

Review: Almond (Flatiron, NYC)

Warning: to anyone using my reviews to economize their brunches, I was only able to eat at Almond thanks to a parent visit. The following review contains gratuitous budget-busting.

-----

You never know who you’ll meet in New York. It might be a celebrity. Or the Times Square Elmo. Or, if you’re my friend (and partner-in-art) Tasha, it could even be an intern for the world-famous Michelin Guide. Luckily for me, it was the third.

Tasha’s friend supplied a list of the best brunch places in all five boroughs, curated by the Michelin masterminds themselves. Many of the picks didn’t receive the coveted “Michelin Star”; however, they had so distinguished themselves that, in the eyes of the Guide, they still deserved recognition. Tasha had gotten a head start on the list, so by the time she gave me her recommendations, they had passed a double osmosis of “world-class restaurant reviewer” and “tasteful New Yorker.” Her picks would be a personalized gold standard: a Michelin’s Michelin, adjusted to youth in the city. All I needed now was a proper occasion.

So when my parents announced a visit to the city, I jumped at the chance to plan meals and plant my Michelin-recognized candidate. With my “uptown brunch march” and Tasha’s list dually in mind, I suggested a patio café in the shadow of the landmark Flatiron Building. Lucky for me, they bit.

So when Saturday morning finally came around, I threw on my cleanest collared shirt and met my parents at Almond (12 E 22nd St).

Almond is a French restaurant perched between Broadway and Park Ave, the Flatiron location of the famous Bridgehampton bistro. Almond Flatiron serves three meals a day in a cavernous dining room, flanked by a bar against the wall and an off-the-street patio at the front. On this sunny July Saturday, we opted to sit outside and soak in the city. With most of New York gone for the holiday weekend, the patio was serene – even tranquil.

Since we did sit outside, it was harder to gauge Almond’s ambiance like I could in a controlled environment. From our walled garden, however, the effect was quite nice: planter boxes lined a fence between us and 22nd Street, the shoots of green complementing the deck’s rough-hewn aesthetic. Almond leans heavily on unstained wood and retro furnishings inside to achieve a “curated” look that plays up the restaurant’s comfortable qualities without undercutting the polish necessitated to serve $30 entrees. That same attention to detail translates to the outdoor section, but is perhaps best emphasized through Almond’s expert plating and service rather than “modernist chairs.” More on those first two in a jiffy.

Seated in our nice wooden chairs, it took all of a heartbeat for our waiter to appear. With him came a bottle of water and a basket of biscuits (say that three times fast). I put in for a cappuccino and nibbled on biscuits during a short wait.

For a French restaurant, Almond’s biscuits are ripped straight from the Old South – they’re buttered without being greasy, oddly delicate in their preparation, a fact further reinforced by their size. Add dabs of house butter and orange jam to create a petite tartine, and they become more macaroon than Mississippi. Best of all, because they’re so light, you can reach for #2 without spoiling your entrée. Believe me, you’ll want seconds. Before long, the biscuits were gone and my cappuccino had arrived.

I scanned the menu for a proper follow-up, but instead, I found two. And ordered two.

Without immediate regret or financial woe.

Did I mention my parents were in town? Thank you, Bank of Mom and Dad.

My first course was the House-made Granola, a fairly standard Greek yogurt parfait bowl served with honey topping. As you’d expect from the above, any baker who can do biscuits like those can probably toast granola just fine. There is a skill ceiling for granola, and Almond’s take definitely scores top marks – however, many others do the same. For what it’s worth, I found their house granola’s sugar level hits the (ahem) “sweet spot” between oaken and candied just about perfect. The dense Greek yogurt dish pairs well with a foamy cappuccino – but then again, what doesn’t?

My second course was the Almond Hash, a fairly extraordinary egg dish served with nothing you’d expect from a dish named after a nut. The Almond Hash is an egg scramble en français. Instead of diner fix-ins, the Almond chefs work in tender duck confit, fine roasted vegetables, and crunchy pieces of saveur I can only assume are what the menu meant by “duck cracklins.” This medley is crowned with a poached egg that any logical diner splits on their fork’s dive in, smothering the Hash in golden yolk almost by design. That first bite left me too overwhelmed to analyze taste profiles – the sinfully fatty duck, caked with yolk and surrounded by veggies working overtime to save your cholesterol from the decadence on the end of your knife. The result is borderline symphonic.

Who would’ve thought duck confit could work in a dish usually prefixed by “Bandito”?  

The Almond Hash is quite unlike any other hash I’ve ever had: comfort food, sure, but with a Rive Gauche apartment. I don’t know if this dish was served to any Michelin staff, but I do know it bears the restaurant’s name and therefore seems primed for a reviewer’s attention. If the Guide did indeed sample the Almond Hash, the reasoning behind their nod is perfectly clear. I only wish my coffee had lasted long enough to savor both at once.

Finally, a word about service: I was truly impressed by the training of the Almond staff. Not once did someone ask if I was done with a plate – I would put down both utensils, take minutes between bites, and rather than trip over himself to snatch my tableware, my waiter watched non-verbals and – God forbid – engaged with the table sporadically rather than hover and stare. There are many French restaurants where the European tradition is not so kindly honored. Almond is not one of them.

-----

Excellent food, stellar service, and a wonderful outdoor patio to boot: in every way, Almond lived up to the hype. At close to $50 for food and drinks ($35 if I hadn’t ordered the yogurt – bless you, Mom and Dad), however, Almond was more one-time treat than rotation addition. I typically try to find the "neighborhood" spots that provide the best value, but there's always an element of relativity in my reviews. Almond was my first truly nice brunch in the city, and yes, further evidence that you get what you pay for. 

That being said, if and when you have guests to impress over brunch, take them to Almond. I'm no Michelin Guide, but it's worth every penny.

 

Comment

Review: Petite Abeille (Chelsea, NYC)

Comment

Review: Petite Abeille (Chelsea, NYC)

What is it about the word "Chelsea" that just sounds pretentious? The phrase "brunch in Chelsea" is in even company with some of the ostentatious in the English language: "summering in Montauk"; "rowed at Exeter"; "uncle in finance"; "brunch in Chelsea." It's a combination of words deployed exclusively by a class of people who read Gatsby as scripture rather than fable. Evoking the phrase "brunch in Chelsea" is as close as many will get to owning a racehorse or securitizing mortgage debt. In other words: grade-A Fauntleroy.

Gross.

However, Chelsea also lies directly north of the West Village. And if you've been following my restaurant reviews, you've probably noticed my steady march uptown, from the Bowery to St Mark's Place. One neighborhood a week - that was the rule. Like a captain steering into a hurricane, a Category 5 douchewall lay unavoidably in my way.

I cringed. My wallet puckered. As long as Yelp rated it below three $'s, the damage would be recoverable. Odysseus tied himself to a mast; the least I could do was enjoy my food.

I fired up every single restaurant resource I could gather, refining my results until I found what I presume to be the least of all evils ("$$ brunch between 14th and 30th streets NYC" - thanks, Yelp). The result was Petite Abeille (44 W 17th St), a Belgian beer cafe tucked between 5th and 6th Aves just north of Union Square. I took a Lazy Sunday, pulled myself out of bed just north of 10am, and set out for food.

For once, the Internet was right: my Chelsea brunch wasn't "rowed at Exeter" so much as "five-a-side in Brussels." The floor was linoleum. The kitchen was open. International flags hung from the ceiling. Above it all, an espresso menu and a TV showing the Euro cup sat side-by-side. Best of all: there were no potted succulents in sight.

This was not your typical Chelsea place.

Good.

Instead of meeting NYC in the middle and upcharging you for spreads on toast, Petite Abeille stays strong to its roots. From the Tintin books by the tables to the waffles by the bar, PA is unapologetically Belgian. There's a beer list as long as your arm and nearly everything Brussels but the sprouts. I half-expected that one David Hasselhoff song about the Berlin Wall. Walking into PA felt like stepping into a newly unified Europe circa 1993: it is optimistic, it is aspirational, it smelled like burnt sugar and strong coffee.

I took my table for 1 near the front and watched the France-Italy match on the tele. Allez les Bleus!

Feeling properly European, I started breakfast with a cappuccino. The milk was frothy and comfortably warm, compared to the harshly-scorched foam of a Starbucks capp. I added a pack of sugar to the top just to compliment the fragrant, bitter espresso. The real highlight for me was the danesi bowl mug in which it was served: a brilliant piece of 80's design that only sold the retro-international flair even more. Overall: a good cappuccino and a wonderful start to the meal. It's no Caffe Regio, but PA serves up a delicious drink. 

In the time it took to savor my sips, both France and my brunch order were now up. I deferred to my waiter and ordered his favorite: the "Eggs Cocotte", a breakfast platter he promised would be my favorite, too. Some scribbles on a page became meaning, and my eyes drifted back to the game. Until I saw a cook with a skillet. Then a big flame. Then another skillet. Les Bleus were winning on TV, but borderline losing my attention. 

The true joy of an open kitchen is watching an order slip become reality. At Petite Abeille, my one-seat high top gave me a courtside seat to that process. Ten minutes later, a cast-iron pan approached my table on a wooden board. Cheese bubbled; steam wafted. "Give it a minute" was both expressed and implied. The solar corona of proteins and fromage in front of me was none other than "Eggs Cocotte." And it looked divine.

After some brief egg-climatization, I took my first bite. Melted cheese topping flooded my tastebuds. Then, an egg base, marbled with whole cherry tomatoes and the occasional bacon strip. Finally, a bottom crust of cheese and egg that had fused against the skillet and turned each bite into something like a pie slice: big, generous, and with just enough structure to go from fork to mouth. It was salty-savory goodness pulled straight from the State Fair - yet decidedly European the whole way through.

For one, there's the quality of cheese: I think Kraft Singles are banned by EU law. The goat cheese and gruyere baked into this ensemble truly steal the show. Each slow bite yielded five seconds of blissful aftertaste, and judging by the game clock on the TV, I took one full half's full of morsels. Secondly, there's the recipe. By mass, the Eggs Cocotte is 50/30 eggs/cheese. The remaining 20% alone is a shoving match between moist cherry tomatoes and crunchy bacon. On this side of the pond, there'd be a Meat Lover's option. Instead, you get a lighter Belgian breakfast that won't knock you comatose for Sunday afternoon.

You may be noticing I haven't mentioned a full half of that wonderful picture above - well, here goes nothing. If I had one gripe with the Eggs Cocotte, it's the choice of side. In fact, I liked the dish so much I can squash that hypothetical and assert that yesI do have precisely one gripe thank you very much. Theses 1-95 read the same: why on Earth would you serve mashed potatoes with an egg breakfast? 

England has bangers and mash - but that's England. There's a reason Julia Child connected through Heathrow rather than staying put. Out of the thousand and one ways to serve potatoes, there's an estimated one thousand that would make better accompaniments to an 11am meal than the one reserved for a Thanksgiving side dish. I appreciate starchy breakfasts as much as the other guy, but good lord, the consistency. It's just not brunch.

Roasted potatoes. Scalloped potatoes. Julienned potatoes. Hell, even home fries. Any of them would be make a more compelling sidekick to the sublime Eggs Cocotte, literally any other than mashed. Grading the dish down as a whole because of its side feels arbitrary and petty, but I do feel like this aspect - this aqueous, context-blind aspect - could be improved. I award it the brunch equivalent of a "technical foul." Charge: unsportmanslike form. 

Yet, I still cleaned my plate. The Eggs Cocotte predictably vaporized, and for all my grousing, the potatoes weren't bad - in fact, they were pretty darn good in isolation. As a side, however, they were just awkward.

Not intentionally awkward, no, just perhaps a clumsy choice made by someone who thought you'd like them there. No restaurant group performed market research on whether customers would like these mashed potatoes. Instead, a menu-maker at a petite Belgian cafe just chose so. 

In an odd way, I appreciated their faux pas. Like Cameron in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, it was a gauche yet endearing proof of concept. This was my unpretentious Chelsea brunch: good food, good drinks, retro-inspired atmosphere, without the "uncle in finance" levels of polish that make 7th Ave sidewalk bistros a three-figure affair. Who cares if the menu board is a blackboard written in whisper-thin chalk fonts? Why does having small potted cacti justify $20 oatmeal? The true experience we all crave is equal parts food and feeling. If you're at a restaurant (n., "a place where people pay to sit and eat meals that are cooked and served on the premises."), I hope you'll weight your decision accordingly. I tend to shoot for the "eat meals" part.

In conclusion: I didn't just survive Chelsea - I thrived in it. If you're looking for the hole-in-the-wall to beat all hole-in-the-walls, seek out Petite Abeille. My total check for a wonderful cappuccino and a fantastic egg brunch: $23.00, tip included. I'd love to come back for a Leffe Blond and a Euro match once I'm of-age. Maybe they'll deal with the potatoes by then. If they don't change anything else, Petite Abeille will be the best budget brunch in Chelsea.

 

Comment

Review: Tartine (West Village, NYC)

Comment

Review: Tartine (West Village, NYC)

In honor of this Saturday’s 93rd annual 24h du LeMans, I set out to find the best French bistro that New York could muster up. Instead, I found Tartine, an authentically cozy sidewalk café that’s every bit as Parisian as the best of them. Good coffee, tight quarters, and an egg breakfast fit for the Emperor himself: all that’s missing is the Seine.

The facade at Tartine (235 W 11th St)

The facade at Tartine (235 W 11th St)

It’s no secret that I love France. After 6 years of French classes and multiple visits (including an exchange trip), I feel a special connection to the place that fittingly extends to its terrific cuisine. It’s this same sentimentality that brought me to Tartine (235 W 11th St) with admittedly low expectations. LeMans was on and I would eat a French breakfast – but in New York City, thousands of miles from my food’s inspiration. There would be divergent evolution, that much was given. I just didn’t know how much the city that made “Dollar Slice” a restaurant model would corrupt what I consider the world’s best cuisine.

What I also didn’t know was Tartine’s history. The line out the door at 10:30 should’ve been my first clue. Some quick Googling during my wait revealed that Tartine was the brainchild of Chef Thierry Rochard, a native Frenchman with decades of restaurant experience. If that name sounds familiar, you’ll probably recognize his more famous Juliette, the Williamsburg bistro known for its authentic French cuisine and fabulous brunches. What’s more, Tartine had been in business for over 20 years (in a city where 80% of all restaurants fail within their first 5), making it as much restaurant as West Village institution.

My expectations adjusted properly. Then, as if on queue, my table was ready.

Tartine is Chef Rochard’s vision for a casual sidewalk café, a detuned Juliette with the same devotion to quality just without the white tablecloth. The food would remain authentically (and deliciously) French, but tailored to a different context than a haughty Rive Gauche steakhouse. Considering my meager student budget, great food at a great value couldn’t be better. I’ll pay for ceremony when I can expense it – for now, prix reduit s’il vous plait.

I took my seat tucked into the corner of a packed dining room, exposed brick to my right and massive glass windows straight ahead. The wood-paneled walls were lined with nautical French décor, lighthouses and captain’s portraits I’m certain bear special significance to the Brittany-born Rochard. Space between tables is limited, and a wait staff of 4 is in constant motion keeping coffees full and guests smiling. A backlit pastry case by the front door dominates the room. The sum effect is cramped but cozy – so make sure you smile at your neighbors when you sit down. It’ll make the bumped elbows more courteous later.

Notice how close those floating hands on the left are. You make friends quickly here.

Notice how close those floating hands on the left are. You make friends quickly here.

Within minutes, I had coffee, OJ, a full glass water bottle, and a deceivingly-simple menu. Tartine’s standard brunch is an $18 prix fixe that includes your choice of a dozen or so options, from French toast to the eponymous tartine, served with your choice of side. I read the full menu and followed my tastebuds to the Eggs Norvegienne, a Northern twist on the traditional Benedict that swaps ham for traditional Scandinavian gravlax. I ordered the eggs with a side of roasted potatoes.

I sipped my coffee and watched the street through the window. Excited diners shared stories. Tinny strains of 80’s pop wafted in the background. Passing cars punctuated the noise inside with their temporary authority. Suddenly, I was in France: on my first trip to Paris, I had eaten in a café just like Tartine. I remembered the sounds of the street, the ebbs and flows of conversation that only great food can stoke. Above all else, I remembered the 80’s pop.

That meal – that delicious, authentically French experience - was scored by Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” To my American family dining in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the experience dripped irony. But we hadn’t gone to a tourist trap: there was no gift shop in this café playing rock. Besides, the tourist traps would blast accordion ballads on repeat. As the 80’s hits continued throughout that meal, it became apparent that this was as French as escargot. Accordions? Kitcshy like Times Square. The vrai Francais opted for something a little more stylish. So did Tartine.

Those earlier thoughts about the New York French suddenly felt ungrateful. I almost regretted my hasty judgment – if Tartine could surprise me this much before the meal, I couldn’t even imagine the food. Thankfully, I didn’t have to: my plate had arrived.

Eggs Norvegienne with a side of roasted potatoes.

Eggs Norvegienne with a side of roasted potatoes.

The Eggs Norvegienne looked every bit as beautiful as it had sounded. Creamy hollandaise, fragile eggs, petite muffins, the whole production somehow made twice on two delicious rounds. With a side of French roasted potatoes, the plate was almost artful. With fork, knife, and rumbling tummy, I set to work destroying the art.

The first bite was the expected salty-savory Benedict flavor, but without the pure mass of dense Canadian bacon that typically accompanies. The coolness of the cured salmon brings out the savory Hollandiase, the baked muffin sopping up the yolky poached egg to make each bite a full range of flavor. With yolk filling the plate, the light roasted potatoes became a starchy treat, rounding out the umami of the plate to provide a wholly filling brunch. The real winner was the poached egg, one of the best I’ve ever had – a yolk this perfect is rare.

I ate slowly, chewing exponentially smaller bites in a futile attempt to extend my Tartine experience. The last slice of Norvegienne was as complete as the first, no compromised proportions to sully even a moment of this brunch. Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” strained out of overtaxed speakers; cars rushed by outside. I was full, impressed, and truly content.

There’s a popular theory in psychology that explains “satisfaction” as the difference of experience minus expectations. From my Francophilic underestimation to that scrumptious last bite, it’d be fair to say I left Tartine incredibly satisfied. Maybe it’s the atmosphere inside. Maybe it’s buzz of the Village outside.

Likely, it’s the delicious (and authentic) French breakfast waiting for you at this Downtown gem. If you can get over the tight quarters inside or stomach the wait for outside, Tartine may just be your new favorite West Village brunch. A cozy neighborhood institution, serving up high-quality food for a steal? Vive la France.

 

Comment

Smorgasburg Brooklyn (6/19/2016)

Comment

Smorgasburg Brooklyn (6/19/2016)

This Sunday, I visited Smorgasburg, the Brooklyn-based food festival that’s become symbolic of New York youth in summer. This weekend culinary extravaganza is the collider responsible for all manner of Instagram-friendly creations like Ramen Burgers, Raindrop Cakes, and Blue Mercury’s indulgent ice cream sundaes. I typically avoid social media food crazes out of an oddly-indignant idea of individualism, but on the advice of friends, roommates, colleagues, and thousands of Internet users the world over, I just had to make an exception.

After a half hour Q Train down to Prospect Park, I arrived in Brooklyn and followed the crowd of #millennials to the base of Breeze Hill. From there on, I simply followed my nose.

Dozens of food tents spread before me, each promising entertainment novelty as much as a truly memorable meal. Unlike a typical restaurant review where I describe ambience, the restaurant’s history, and all sorts of other intangibles, for this feature, I’ll be focusing entirely on the food itself.

I had $25 cash, countless choices, and a dream. Here’s all the details from Smorgasburg 2016:

Course #1: “Brunch-on-a-Stick” from BrunchStreet ($6)

This was pure novelty. I passed the booth, saw the creation, and wondered what it would taste like with a curiosity that exceeded $6 USD. BrunchStreet offers mobile breakfast-lunch in four distinct palettes: North, South, East, and West. The West is your classic “Californian” style entree, meaning normal food served with avocado. The South is hearty and probably uses “bless your soul” as an insult. To be honest, I didn’t study ingredients – I had already fallen in love with The North and was now zeroed in on my choice. The North contains but two ingredients: French toast balls (e.g. dough with burned sugar) and sausage. A strapping breakfast reduced to aesthetically-pleasing pellets. Only in Brookyln.

Jokes aside, the food itself wasn’t bad. I particularly liked the French Toast balls. As an absolute, it doesn’t hold a candle to any proper brunch place in the city; then again, The Smith doesn’t serve on a stick. If you go, bring 3 friends and order one of each for a globetrotting, inexplicably mobile brunch. Again: pure novelty.

 

Course #2: “Ramen Burger” from Keizo Shimamoto ($10)

In hindsight, Brunch on a Stick was a mere appetizer for the king of all Smorgasburg food curiosities. You’ve liked the Instagrams. You’ve read the listicles. Your one friend from the city told you about it. And at Smorgasburg proper, you’ve seen the line from 50 yards away. Cronut? So 2015. This is the new hotness: a combination food so daring yet so familiar that you almost feel compelled to try one.

I’m talking about one thing, and one thing only: the Ramen Burger.

Keizo Shimamoto’s Ramen Burger is a beef pattie served between two ramen brick “buns”, slathered in sauces and stuffed with Asian vegetables. I hesitate to call it fusion: in food circles, the F-word implies tasteful blends and careful experimentation. The Ramen Burger is *ahem* a little less surgical. Chef Shimamoto’s creation is East meets West turned up to 11, and best of all, it’s portable. I ate carefully, trying my best to keep the imploding ramen from releasing the burger inside into my lap. Each bite felt oddly gamified – this was a truly ridiculous endeavor, and the slowly-liquefying Ramen Burger knew it, too. Long story short: bring napkins.

That being said, it was one of the worst hamburgers I’ve ever had. As an experience, the Ramen Burger was great. Borderline eatertainment. As actual food: the meat was tasteless, the sauce was overly sweet to the point of overpowering any other taste, and the ramen buns just aren’t a great addition to the Asian-style beef palette. There’s a reason most ramen comes slathered in broth – desaturated noodles just don’t taste good.

If it’s your first time to Smorgasburg and you need to say you’ve eaten one, then please do. I did it. So have thousands of others. Hell, I even took the classic “food in the air” picture before Bite #1. Then again, I had also never read an honest review. Only after did I realize that I had essentially traded $10 away for fleeting social media fame within my relatively-small circle, and oh yeah, a wholly subpar meal. That’s not very eatertaining.

The 20+ minute line for social media stardom.

The 20+ minute line for social media stardom.

If I could do it again, I wouldn’t choose the Ramen Burger. There are dozens of other choices at Smorgasburg, many of which you can smell from the 20 minute (!!!) line. My advice: take the $10 and eat your weight in Korean Tacos. You’ll get a few less “likes”, but you’ll actually like the food.

IRL winning >>>>  

 

Course #3: “The Bigwich” from The Good Batch ($7)

With the buyer’s remorse of the Ramen Burger thoroughly digested, it was time for dessert. I went straight to The Good Batch for their signature “Bigwich”, a massive ice cream sandwich drizzled with chocolate and built for both hands. I chose the classic chocolate-vanilla combo rather than one of the many unconventional choices. Birthday Cake would have to wait for Round II.

With the ice cream slowly melting, I dove in mouth-first. The cookies? Incredible. Big chocolate chips mixed with chewy oatmeal to create two textured (but chewy) bookends. A slight crunch without being granular.

As for the filling, I mean, it was vanilla ice cream. It’s the dessert equivalent of a pass/fail. And pass it did! Cold, creamy, and slathered in chocolate is a winning combination for any meal. The Bigwich receives an A+ in Desserts. It was the perfect complement to this 80 degree afternoon.

---

There you have it: Smorgasburg 2016. Am I happy to have been? Absolutely. For the crop of transient summertime New Yorkers (read: interns), it’s a single-visit experience that’s worth a day trip and the mild expense.

Would I go back? Not without a first-timer in tow. While I certainly appreciated the experience, I left with the feeling that Smorgasburg has been undeservingly built up by a city tired of its monuments, one that yearns to embraces novelty for novelty’s sake. Instead, Smorgasburg is more like those artifacts than it’d like.

My verdict: go, but go once. Smorgasburg is culinary Statue of Liberty tour. Sure, it’s quintessentially New York – but you visit a single time just to see it and check your boxes. At the end of the day, you really only visited because someone put it up on a pedestal.

 

Comment

Review: The Wren (Bowery, NYC)

Comment

Review: The Wren (Bowery, NYC)

Great Britain is a nation of doers. Sure, they’ll complain about the task at hand and chide you for not queuing properly, but when it comes to raw human achievement, the British have a history of excellence. Just think about it. A single archipelago 50 miles off the coast of France gave us everything from the Magna Carta to the steam engine. The sheer output alone is remarkable. 

But having the energy to change the course of human history when every morning means choking down a breakfast as reprehensible as English cooking? That’s the stuff of legends. English breakfasts are typically heavy, bland, overcooked, and tasteless - a product of their cold and damp environ as much as a societal acceptance that all the good cooks had probably left for France by now. So when I say my new favorite brunch place is a classic English pub with beer on tap and football on tele, well, it's certainly unusual.

After last weekend’s Google-fueled misadventures, I set an early weekend alarm and decided to find this Saturday’s brunch the old fashioned way: with my eyes. I ran an easy 4 miles down Bowery to Canal, mentally noting every brunch spot with a) an open door and b) unpretentious décor. No knocks on the $40 brunch buffets – I just don’t have the budget for it.

Manicured outdoor planters and evocative monosyllabic names (what’s a “Narcissa”?) were dead giveaways that I had to keep looking. So look I did. Outside of the occasional diner, I just couldn’t seem to get away from those darn evocative nouns. “Feast”? “Estela”? Yeesh.

Finally, a mere half mile from home, I saw The Wren. The outside looked beautiful, two bay windows opened directly onto Bowery, and oh yeah, they had the Euro Cup on. Brunch, futbol, and a short walk? Sold. Even if it was British tavern food.

After a quick shower, I changed into brunch clothes and walked over to 344 Bowery. My stomach growled. By the end of my run, I was hungry enough even to stomach an English breakfast. The clock struck 10:30 and I sat down at The Wren.

The Wren is an upscale gastropub right off the corner of Great Jones and Bowery, serving up everything from traditional British favorites to American bar food in an atmosphere that’s equal parts rustic tavern and Victorian treasure trove. The front of the restaurant opens onto Bowery through the two massive windows I saw while running. Just inside, a hardwood bar spans the length of the front room. I sat in the back section of the restaurant, a cozy alcove of booths lit by string lights above and wall sconces above.

I ordered The Wren’s equivalent of a small coffee (a 1.5 cup French press) and eased into my chair. A blue china cup appeared at my place, complemented by a tiny pitcher of cream and shot glass full of sugar cubes. Then, came the press: a personal bodum mere inches tall. Coffee tastes better from a press, and The Wren’s house blend is no exception.

The only issue was space.

My slim table now contained a 4-part coffee set, two cups, one thick glass water bottle, antique salt shakers, a flickering candle, and a pot of dried flowers. On the wall to my left, a collection of odd-size yellowed portraits stared down solemnly. Claustrophobic? A little. Charming? Like a British accent. Many other restaurants adopt the “curated clutter” aesthetic, but The Wren is the first place where it’s felt remotely authentic. Perhaps its the variety. Or maybe it's even the authentically-dated wall hangings. No crossed arrow logos here: even though this is a relatively new door by neighborhood standards (The Wren opened in 2011), it nailed the ambiance of a 19th century public house without sacrificing its gastropub foodie credentials. Now, about that foodie bit…

Over the din of the Euro Cup, I browsed a brunch menu packed full of (gasp) palatable British food. With a bit more table space, I would’ve gone for the “Full Irish”, a breakfast platter packed to the gills with delicious and starchy treats. Instead, I opted for the Maple Sage Sausage Sandwich. Specialties be damned. I simply had to try “maple sriracha.”

Soon, my sandwich arrived. In the center of the plate: an airy brioche bun stacked high with a towering double-decker of egg and sausage.

The Maple Sage Sausage Sandwich at The Wren (344 Bowery). Still no clue what that knife was for.

The Maple Sage Sausage Sandwich at The Wren (344 Bowery). Still no clue what that knife was for.

I set to work preparing a proper first bite. I layered on the creamy maple sriracha, threw in some pickled jalapenos, and got ready to brunch. With the portraits gazing down on me, I dug in. And a little part of me celebrated.

Bite #1 was an itemized bill of some of the best tastes imaginable. You first notice just how good this brioche is – it’s sweet and airy like an angel food cake, but oddly substantial. There’s substance without density; as much pastry as bread. Then, it’s time for the maple sriracha. The classic sweet and spicy flavor combination comes by way of a creamy base that replaces the texture of melted cheese common in most coffee shop breakfast sandwiches.

Next: the big stuff. Egg is egg. As long as it’s not burned, there’s little taste gap between good and great. A restaurant named after a bird unsurprisingly does egg well. That just leaves the sage chicken sausage. Without waxing poetic about ground meat, believe me when I say that it’s really damn good. The Wren makes its own sausage in-house, and like with every other part of my experience so far, the devotion to quality shows. And that was just Bite #1.

With the right condiments applied, The Wren’s Maple Sage Chicken Sandwich becomes transcendental. Throw in some great coffee pressed fresh at the table, and you’ve got all the ingredients for an excellent brunch. Pretty good for British cuisine.

The Wren (344 Bowery) is a neighborhood gastropub that serves great brunch in an attractive, downtown ambiance. This cozy restaurant is built to delight, and unlike many other Bowery staples (with evocative single nouns as names), this charming British brunch costs only a spell. I highly recommend The Wren to anyone looking for their next great downtown brunch.

 

Comment

Review: Brunching at MudSpot (E. Village, NYC)

Review: Brunching at MudSpot (E. Village, NYC)

There’s a scene in the brilliant Netflix comedy series “Master of None” where main character Dev (Aziz Ansari) spends an entire afternoon searching for the best taco truck in Manhattan from his smartphone, only to show up at "the best" just minutes too late to be served. Ever since I saw him play Tom Haverford on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, I’ve like to think that Aziz and I would get along – I know he’s acting, but we do seem to have a lot in common: mannerisms, love of style, comedy as a reflex, the works.

After this past Saturday, I can add one more synchronicity: a restaurant near-miss caused by neuroses but enabled by Yelp. I woke up at 10:30am, and proceeded to spend the better part of the next hour doing a grad degree’s worth of research on where to eat. My tummy grumbled; my internet reset; my phone battery ticked 80% before noon.

But still, I persevered.

For 45 minutes. All in search of a nebulous “best” brunch.

Three days later, even typing that out still feels pathetic.

Unlike Dev, however, my mad dash to Google result “best cheap brunch near NYU” didn’t end in starvation – it ended in delicious food at a charming, neighborhood café-meets-beer-garden called Mudspot.

Mudspot (307 E 9th St, East Village, NYC)

Mudspot (307 E 9th St, East Village, NYC)

Mud NYC started as a beloved coffee truck parked in the heart of Astor Place. The truck operated from 2000-2015, serving up fresh coffee and pastries to an ever-present line of happy customers. Thanks to the truck’s success, Mud expanded into a permanent snack bar location at LES’ First Park as well as a bonafide restaurant on E 9th Street, just off 2nd Ave in the East Village. While Mudpark is certainly worth a visit, when it comes to weekend plates, Mudspot is the place to be. You can probably guess which is which.

And judging by the line outside, that “place to be” title was no secret. Even for a single seat at the bar, I waited a solid 15 minutes. Not that a sunny East Village Saturday made for a bad wait – after a few bored Snapchats and some Vitamin D, I was welcomed inside. Instantly, the volume jumped tenfold. Espresso steamed, glasses clinked, and old friends shouted their stories all within a space no wider than a studio apartment. Behind the bar, a staff of five moved with chaotic choreography through a constant barrage of brunch orders and take-out pastries. From the moment I crossed the door, I knew I was in for something good.

I sat down for brunch at 11:40am on a Saturday and right away ordered an orange ceramic mug full of Mud’s famous coffee. My waitress/barista/server told me about the weekend brunch special ($18.50 for an entrée + coffee + your choice of OJ, draft beer, or a mimosa), and I probably just nodded in polite shock. Even in Ann Arbor, there are brunch spots where that Mimosa alone runs you $20. I quickly scanned the menu, hunger and pride combining into a rapid search for the perfect entrée.

“Pride”? Let me explain. Ordering at 11:50, I was coming dangerously close to noon, the generally-understood start of “lunch.” I probably still could’ve ordered breakfast food as long my dollar was green, but for me, pre-noon is an honor thing: the food is fresher, the coffee is warmer, and the “I wasted my day” self-loathing hits merely half as hard.

With minutes to spare before my I became my own “Master of None”, I ordered the Huevos Rancheros with pickled jalapenos. Watching my order go from waitress to bar to kitchen and back was yet another choreographed chaos dance that took surprisingly short given the tight quarters. In the mere 10 minutes it took for my food to arrive, I drank in the atmosphere (and more of that deep, flavorful Mud coffee).

Yes, Mudspot is crowded and tight – but what neighborhood place isn’t slim on space? The interior is chic, bohemian, and vaguely Southwestern. If you’ve ever been to Sedona, you’ll recognize the blend of desert hues and psychedelic imagery: orange tiles, groovy fonts, and an emphasis on natural materials. With open-air windows that face East 9th, the energy and smells flowing out of Mudspot seemed to singlehandedly revive the neighborhood. I felt like I was sitting inside an antique alarm clock: beautifully adorned, loud, and for many, the true start of their morning. The line outside grew as testament.

A view behind the bar at Mudspot, taken during the single split second where a staff of 5 wasn't busily making drinks in front of me.

A view behind the bar at Mudspot, taken during the single split second where a staff of 5 wasn't busily making drinks in front of me.

Suddenly, it was my waitress: the next step in the dance was a plate of Heuvos Rancheros sliding towards me down the bar. The smell got there first: it was fresh, crispy, brunching euphoria. Before that plate even stopped, I was ready to tear in.

Mudspot’s Huevos comes piled high on a bed of white rice and beans, crispy tortillas the only levy between the eggy-veggie top and the fundación below. Sliced avocado crowns the dish, surrounded by garnish and salsa alike. My pickled jalapenos were nicely distributed throughout, so my first bite was just as pleasantly spicy as my last.

Heavenly Huevos Rancheros at Mudspot (307 E 9th St)

Heavenly Huevos Rancheros at Mudspot (307 E 9th St)

And what a bite it was! Slicing through crispy tortillas required a surgical touch to avoid scattering the eggs and veggies stacked above – but my sister’s the surgeon, not me. I broke the yolk, crunched through the tortilla border, and let runny yolk, piquant peppers, crisp baked tortilla, and pillowy rice form a mosaic of flavors/textures I can only describe as “gratifying.” As in, “I’m grateful I didn’t die before I tried this.”

The avocado on top made a nice addition, but the real winner here is the tortilla. The magic of the dish comes from textural contrasts, between the expected Huevos fillings (rice, refried beans, salsa) and the bread it’s served with. The avocado flesh is an odd middle-ground between the crunch of the tortilla and the slurp of the beans/salsa, but it photographed well and was delicious in isolation. My recommendation: eat some of the avo slices raw first, lest you overload your palette and miss out on the dialectical deliciousness waiting just below your fork. It's better for both tastes, and who doesn't like straight-up avocado?

One final note: the Mud blend coffee that turned a truck into a park into a restaurant is every bit as good as the legend suggests. I was on cup #3 by the end of my meal just because I loved the taste. If you’re easily wired (one cup = jitters, two cups = oscillation), sorry in advance.

If you’re looking for the “best cheap brunch near NYU”, don’t pull an Aziz – your phone battery is better used elsewhere. Instead, head to Mudspot, a lively, neighborhood brunch place with one of the most phenomenal menus I’ve ever sampled and a charming atmosphere that’s sure to please. Then, use all that better you saved to ‘Gram your Huevos. Go ahead – they’re as good as the look.

 

Recipe: Grilled Hawaiian Bowl

Recipe: Grilled Hawaiian Bowl

Of all the unexpectedly-good taste combinations on Planet Earth, “Hawaiian” stands above. It is the culinary equivalent of a four-way intersection: sweet vs. salty, savory vs. sweet, all meet at the crossroads of fresh pineapple and smoky grilled ham. Opposites attract, and with the “Hawaiian” food genera, that attraction is squared.

The flavor points are as much sensory overload as tour de force, and the end effect is nothing short of sublime. Refuting this is not just close-minded – it is objectively wrong. Dense cured meats and earthy vegetables evoke a palette rooted in soil; fruit and fish are Castaway survival stakes, not full meal. The righteous compromise is lightly-cured pork and flesh sweet fruit. None other would do.

On a platter, Hawaiian is fruit, vegetable, and meat presented as art. On pizza, it is supreme.

In other words: I am the friend who advocates for the “extra pizza” to be Hawaiian. And I will not apologize.

(Sorry for the soapbox.)

If you couldn’t tell, I love the “Hawaiian” flavor profile – namely, pork, pineapples, and some sort of carbohydrate to balance. I’ve offset “Hawaiian” in air quotes because while this combination may be attributed to the Hawaiian Islands, it is far from traditional Hawaiian fare. Authentic Hawaiian food is every bit as fresh as its cultural mimic, but much more aquatic in nature. Since, you know, Hawaii is an island. Surrounded by millions of square miles of ocean. And with few native pigs.

But I digress.

Just like how the fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco but became “Chinese”, Hawaiian pizza was actually invented in Canada. In 1962, an Ontario pizzeria called the Satellie Restaurant became the first to serve up slices of “Hawaiian Pizza”, a traditional cheese pie differentiated solely through the addition of pineapples and ham.

Pictured: Hawaii(?)

Pictured: Hawaii(?)

Crowds literally ate it up: in the early 60’s, surf music was at an all-time high and teens all over North America became fixated on island culture. Combine cultural obsession with an accessible (and familiar) cuisine, and by the end of the decade, you had a phenomenon. Hawaiian pizza is today a standard menu option in pizzerias all over the world. As a result, perhaps the most widely-recognized definition of “Hawaiian” flavors today is “pork and pineapple.” But that’s not all the islands have to offer.

In fact, through adding some earthy vegetables (and even some mainland fix-ins), you can amplify those original flavors to create something even better. For today’s recipe (adapted from Cooking Light's original), we’ll be riffing on the traditional pork and pineapple by adding in sauces, grains, and a whole lot more.

The result: a wave of taste straight from the islands. (Sorry.)

-----

Recipe: Grilled Hawaiian Bowl

Ingredients

BOWL (Serving size: 1 person)

  • /3 cup cooked rice
  • 2 slices (1/4-inch-thick) grilled fresh pineapple
  • 2/3 cup chopped bell peppers
  • 3 ounces grilled pork tenderloin

HONEY SOY SAUCE

  • 1 tbsp lower-sodium soy sauce
  • 1.5 tsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp canola oil
  • 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper

Directions

  1. Prepare rice according to directions on box. For this recipe, I used a store-brand Wild Rice blend that took ~20 minutes to cook. I boiled the water, added rice, and covered before preparing the rest of this recipe so the rice would be fresh after I did the rest.

  2. Preheat the grill (or pan) you will use to cook the pork. Add the tenderloin and let cook 8-10 minutes. If cooking alone, set a 6" timer to check the pork before you think it's ready. Undercooked pork is succulent; overcooked is irrecoverable. 

  3. While the pork cooks, chop the peppers into 1" sections. Store the peppers temporarily - you'll need the cutting board open for Step 4.

  4. Core the pineapple. Cut carefully and away from your body. The best way to core the fruit is to cut off the fronds to form a barrel shape, then cut 1/8" inch in from the skin on each side of the barrel in 8 shallow sections. This will, in effect, turn a spiny circular fruit into a skinless octagon. From there, cut directly down along the octagon lines to make 8 pineapple "spears" - the core (the white thick part at the center) should fall out naturally.

  5. Check the pork. It should be just about done, with a tender inside and crispy skin. If it's done, remove the pork from the grill and let sit for 5 minutes.

  6. Place the pineapple spears and pepper slices into a wire-mesh grill basket. Grill or 2-3 minutes. Ideally, the pineapple should appear golden but juicy. 

  7. Remove the basket from the grill. After the pork has sat 5 minutes, cut it into thin slices. The rice should be done by this point.

  8. Assemble your Grilled Hawaiian bowl, and enjoy! 

 

Review: 100 Montaditos (The Village, NYC)

Review: 100 Montaditos (The Village, NYC)

Brush off that high school Spanish: three years napping through Senora’s afternoon rambles are about to pay off in a delicious way. Specifically, in around 100 delicious ways. For under $4 each. Cheap NYC food that isn’t grease-coated “dollar slice”? I’ll let you process.

When you’re done conjugating escuchar for the first time in a decade, take the ABC/DEF subway downtown and get off at West 4 St. From the station, walk a mere two blocks south to Bleecker St and the culinary experience that awaits.

Village favorite 100 Montaditos (176 Bleecker St) is a self-described “tapas-tavern”, serving up appetizers, drinks, and the eponymous montadito. If your B+ in Honors Spanish has just reengaged, you may remember that a montadito is the Iberian equivalent of the Anglo-American “sandwich” – specifically, it’s a small roll topped with meat and veggie ingredients. But that’s only one half of the name game. The other half? There are exactly 100 diverse combinations of ingredients to choose from. Long story short, this is not the place for indecision.

Ordering at 100 Montaditos 

Ordering at 100 Montaditos 

Lucky for the choosy, individual Montaditos range in cost from $1.50 (Original) to $3.50 (Gourmet), so you can order a wide variety with the idea of sampling and cheaply finding something you love. Even better: bring friends. I went in a party of two, and we were easily the smallest group there. 100M was one of the liveliest restaurants I’ve ever visited. Throughout the mere hour we stayed, countless groups just getting off work would stop by for sangria and montaditos, each party sharing a massive platter of tiny sandwiches.

So the atmosphere is great and the price is right – but what about the food? Our party of two ordered 4 montaditos, a pitcher of sangria, and at the behest of a neighboring table, a massive cone of fries (“you can’t not order them”; ok, Don Corleone). In an instant, two trays full of chips and sandwiches appeared on the table. I do mean an instant. Even at the peak of dinner hour, it was a mere 5 minutes from order to service. If you hate to wait, you’ll love 100M.

Our table-neighbor wasn't wrong - these are really good fries.

Our table-neighbor wasn't wrong - these are really good fries.

But we’re getting distracted again! Now, the real moment of truth. As my friend and I traded bites of the two-bite sandwiches, we reflected on all the events in our lives that had brought us to 100M. Or so I think. Either way, a contented silence fell over our corner of Bleecker St. Here was a garden table, serving up cheap sharable plates in the heart of downtown… and it was really, really good.

The ingredients were fresh, the bread was delicious, and the Spanish staples were mixed in inspired combinations that made each bite the culinary equivalent of a Eurrail pass. My personal favorite: serrano ham, brie, and fresh green pepper on ciabatta, served up for a mere $3.00. We didn’t order any of the “Gourmet” montaditos, but it was hard to imagine the food getting much better for the cost. By the end of the meal, I was a true believer.

Delicious montaditos (sandwich to scale)

Delicious montaditos (sandwich to scale)

For the adventurous, 100M also offers a “Sweet” montadito menu full of – wait for it - dessert sandwiches. The options on tap, however, extend far beyond “ice cream.” A table next to ours ordered a hazelnut spread montadito that came packed with whipped cream slathered on 100M’s special “chocolate bread” recipe.

Just imagine a 4-inch long cylinder of dark brown bread sealed with hazelnut spread. I think Bill Murray shut down a pool with one in Caddyshack

Jokes aside, it looked delicious and smelled even better. Were I not full of serrano ham and fruity sangria, I’d have done dessert here in a heartbeat- I'm sure it would've made the perfect shareable complement to an impressive meal.

Overall, I was thoroughly blown away by 100 Montaditos. It made a fun, shareable dinner for two, and dollars-per-yum, it simply can’t be beat. Grab a friend (or two, or 100) and work through the menu. You won’t regret it, and neither will your wallet. In other words, it’s perfecto

 

AS RAKESTRAW | The personal site of Alex Rakestraw.