Tag Archives: New York

It’s All About the Bread

Forget the pretzels that are overshadowed in grocery store aisles by Lays, Doritos, and Tostitos. Grow up in New York City and you think real pretzels are available at two locations – hot dog stands and professional sporting events. Nowadays, “the every neighborhood gets a biergarten” craze means there is a third option.

Yet the truth about pretzels remains. More often than not they are underwhelming. Overpriced and over-salted, they can only be what I imagine are a bastardization of their German forbearers.

That is what makes Schnitz, located in the East Village after starting as a Smorgasburg stand, so refreshing. Free of sprinkled salt, this sandwich shop replaces the bread with traditional roll, and it quickly has became one of my favorite spots.

It took my last visit, earlier this month to stumble upon the title for this post and the first of several reasons I keep going back. And it came from my friend Luke who said as he tried the Bamberg for the first time, “It’s all about the bread.”

It is…and yet it isn’t. The pretzel bread is soft and chewy and has a warmth to it that gives the sandwich an extra oomph over other options in the area.

SchnitzSchnitz’s sandwich menu provides something for everyone – meat-eater, pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan alike. Between me and two of my friends, we tried six different types of Schnitz sandwiches. And New York was on the point. The Bamberg is the best sandwich on the menu.

The Bamberg is a chicken schnitzel sandwich that has pickled cucumbers, daikon, ginger and shallots, and caramelized Dijon mustard. Lets work our way up. I’m a man who loves me some Dijon mustard on what others would consider random things. I’ll put it on steak. If I think it won’t make something worse, I’ll go Portlandia on it: put mustard on it. This Dijon is sharp, zippy, and well apportioned given how much chicken is provided. And it is a lot. The hot, breaded chicken and the Dijon mustard alone would be good. It is the vegetables – the vegetables that push the sandwich over the line. pickled cucumbers plus spicy mustard plus breaded chicken equal one of the best sandwiches I’ve had so far.

A recent try was the Sweet Onion. Same chicken but with pickled cabbage, jicama, raddish and cilantro with a roasted beet tzatziki. Having already tried the jicama slaw which is one of their best sides and having enjoyed their previously pickled veggies, the Sweet Onion did not disappoint. It is slightly less memorable than the Bamberg because it is not zippy, but it is still a worthy alternate.

One of my friends is also a strong proponent of the Grumpy Russian. With pork loin schnitzel, greens, pickled cherries, and gorgonzola spread, whenever Schnitz makes an appearance on Seamless which is surprisingly hit or miss for what should be a streamlined site, she will usually go Grumpy and wants me to let you know she recommends it to one and all.

The one pork schnitzel I tried was the Pork Belly and the difference in quantity between the chicken and pork is quickly apparently. Where the chicken schnitz options are pieces of meat longer than the pretzel bread, the pork belly shnitzel was thin and seemed less generous (though it is pork belly) than the Bamberg’s portions. Still tasty, but it could be one of those cases where judging a sandwich by eye against another one makes you irrationally think less of it.

Maybe I should have expected this. You know, most people don’t think pretzel and shrimp. But, when I ordered the Lt. Dan (well played), I expected I would get the same type of bread the other sandwiches had come in – a pretzel hero roll. The Lt. Dan comes in a bun that is well-buttered and the breaded shrimp cake and lemon-grass mayo are a smart combo, but I was disappointed. I was envisioning some sort of bread battered shrimp in a pretzel hero roll. Instead, it is a very good sandwich and I’m left wondering what the pretzel hero shrimp treatment at Schnitz could be like.

The only sandwich that does not work is the Buffalo Chicken. The bread is solid, the chicken is fine, and the buffalo sauce is sufficiently buffalo-y. The wheels come off with the toppings. Buffalo chicken wings or tenders traditionally come with carrots and celery on the side. Unlike any other buffalo chicken sandwich or wrap I’ve had, Schnitz goes and puts diced celery and carrots as sandwich toppings. In theory, it seems like a new way to hue towards tradition. In reality, it underwhelms and sinks the sandwich. It is funny that the Buffalo Chicken, while listed at their in-person menu and on Seamless, is nowhere to be found on their website.

Like the sandwiches, most of the sides exceed expectations. In particularly, the french fries with sage, parsley, and chili flakes and the black kale salad where chunks of pretzel fill in for the croutons are stand outs. One that I loved and recommend but recognize could be hit or miss for others is the jicama cole slaw. With no mayo in play, the vegetables are at the forefront and they make for a winning side.

Maybe it is because I am a fried pickle snob, but Schnitz’s fried pickles are hopefully a work in progress. As a new item, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but the batter is too puffy and the pickles taste pretty flat. As something new, my hope is that they are tweaking it and consider the fried pickles to be a work in progress. I support any place that puts it on their menu and keeps looking for ways to make it as strong as possible.

The only side I would direct you away from completely is the roasted cauliflower. It is one note and a disappointing note. Even with maldon sea salt, the drizzled cumin seed oil dominates the vegetable and falls short of the other options.

There is something charming about Schnitz. From the photocopied handwritten note in the last Seamless delivery from the two founders thanking us for ordering but suggesting we visit the brick and mortar location to the fact that on my first in-person visit last year, the person taking my order kept asking if I wanted to try something else and how I add different sauces.

But then, on my last visit, as my buddy Luke and I were finishing up our sandwiches, the dude who took our order brought out a chocolate banana desert with berries drizzled over. It was a hot dessert that was surprisingly good! Beyond the deliciousness of the desert was the much appreciated randomness of the restaurant equivalent of the bar buyback.

Schnitz is a place that aims to please, and more often than not, does more than just that.

 

 

 

Best Pizza is Almost Perfect & There is Nothing Wrong With That

20101101-best-pizza-reg-slice-thumb-500x375-120436A relative who no longer visits New York that often mentioned to me last month that when he does it has become harder to find a slice place in Manhattan. We didn’t get a chance to talk much more about that as a three-year old came running into the room wanting to show off his home-made race track that flung their toy cars down the basement staircase with their parents approval.

But as I took the train back to Grand Central, it got me thinking about how fellow Park Slope natives all had their go-to pizzerias. Central Sloper’s were Pino’s through and through. Closer to 9th Street and you were a Smiling Pizza person. Further north toward Flatbush and you might go with Antonio’s. Different neighborhoods have their long-standing pizzerias. And each one of those has a style that is acutely theirs. That style informs your perception of the perfect slice.

Having relied on pizzerias up and down the east coast for the last 20 years, I would argue that Best Pizza comes closest to the formula for perfection – and their Meatball Sub, usually, is even better.

On a regular slice – cheese can be too much of a good thing if it is mouth-scorchingly hot, overly greasy, and a ready made mess that won’t be avoided with two paper plates doing their best Venn-diagram impersonation. If New York wants to claim the best pizza in the country, we should be able to do better. Pizzerias should be able to turn out slices that are hot and have all the necessary ingredients in the proper ratio.

20110211-best-pizza-meatball-sandwich-thumb-500x332-139904Best Pizza comes the closest to enviable goal. With an old-timey sign overhanging the entrance and a huge 33 on the door that makes me think of Patrick Ewing every time I stop by, their slice formula comes the closest to perfection I’m aware of.

A slightly charred crust, gives a crunch to the pizza so it doesn’t feel like you’re eating dough, but is not so black to the point of burned. The mild tang of the pasta sauce and the conservative in comparison, but more-than-reasonable in a vacuum cheese coverage, drive home the fact that this is a pizza made with consideration for the person eating it. Topped off with a fresh piece of basil, the Best Pizza slice is a must have if you’re in Williamsburg.

Best Pizza though, is more than just a slice joint. In their write-up, New York Mag mentioned that the meatball sub has something of a cult following. After trying it on three different occasions – yes, I take my meatball subs seriously – I can say that description is less hyperbolic than it might seem. Only on my third visit did the sub fail to live it up to its previous highs.

When the sub is first brought to your table, your eyes and stomach may ask in unison, “I paid $9 for this?” Fear not, the sub is chockfull of ground meat that is fresh and include parsley and diced onion. Layered between that ball and cheese is a tangier pasta sauce. A thin slice of cheese sits on top.

The ingredient that brings it all together is the bread. On my first two visits, the bread was toasted just enough to give a slight crunch that accentuated the softness of the meatballs and the sauce. This past Sunday, the bread had been toasted just a bit too long. The harder bread left me wanting for the sub of my previous visits.

In a city where pizza places are more prevalent than subway stations, the best is quite the aspiration. Perfection is hard to ascertain. Best Pizza, situated on a sleepy residential stretch of Havemeyer in Williamsburg, may not hit the mark, but they give it a run for its money.

The Burger You Wish You Had Growing Up

In 2014 America, the phrases “red-blooded American” and “motherhood and Apple Pie” read like something a future archaeologist would unearth on a buried wall at a dig searching for 1950’s Madison Avenue artifacts. It also wouldn’t be a stretch to envision a scenario where the phrase “hamburgers” was in the running for the spot that eventually went to apple pie.

If anything, hamburgers  was robbed. They are far more prevalent than apple pie as a year-round food. My childhood, in terms of meals consumed, consisted of a pretty standard menu for a middle class American kid born in the 1980’s. From the scarfing down of far too many Big Macs to that half-year in fifth grade where my mom only served heated up veggie burgers that tasted like well done cardboard, the bar burgers consumed at ungodly hours to the homemade burgers I now make from scratch, the patty holds a special place in most meat eating Americans culinary repertoire – be it cooking or consuming.

New York‘s 101 list provides ‘here and there’ guidance. Some listings suggest certain dishes. Others basically tell you to get to the place as soon as possible. Burger Fi‘s listing acknowledges that you will probably get flummoxed by both the choice of fries and accompanying dipping sauces. To avoid such troubles, they provide the pre-visit wisdom of going for the double cheeseburger and onion rings. It is a wise suggestion.

The first thing you notice upon entering Burger Fi, other than the episode of Love and Hip Hop that was filming yesterday (I hope Love and Hip Hop make it work), is that you could have easily stepped into Shake Shack’s laid back cousin. From one of the three registers reserved for a la the Shack’s C-Line to the interior design and wood tables, the aesthetic similarities are hard to miss. That’s no slam on Burger Fi. Shake Shack has cornered the market on gourmet fast food burgers, and that probably includes a store layout that maximizes revenue and ensures customer happiness.

It would be great though, to see Burger Fi’s decor –  at least in New York since this is a Florida-based joint and I wonder how much Shack mimicry there is elsewhere – be as distinctive as the quality and flavor of the food served.

I went with the NY Mag recommendation of double cheeseburger (with mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, American cheese, and relish) and the onion rings. And it was exceptional. It amazes me that in spite of all those crappy home-made burgers we had growing up and the factory manufactured, angsty-teen served fast food burgers, we still want this dish as adults. But when you have a burger like the one at Burger Fi, it is all worth it.

The patties were cooked to perfection. Burger Fi has found a way to get the cheese/burger relationship to the point where you would think the burgers and cheese were grilled together (maybe they are?) without the cheese getting charred, and the toppings are fresh. So much so, that my buddy Deaux who was with me on this excursion, mentioned the lettuce before anything else. He was taken back by the size and freshness. These weren’t your typical styrofoam lettuce chunks that haunt college cafeterias or the fast food shredded lettuce that wouldn’t pass muster at a rabbit farm. There was a crispness to them that was also the case with the other toppings.

Onion rings are usually nothing more than a tease. They look great when they are put on the table. But either the onion has the consistency of rubber or the deep fried bread crumbs fall apart upon the first bite. Burger Fi’s hold up, are tasty, and the onion is as fresh as the toppings placed on the burger.

If there are any critiques of Burger Fi, it revolves around the much vaunted sauces and an issue of geometry. My buddy ordered the fries and missed out on the sauce. It didn’t sound like he was ever asked if he wanted to upgrade. At the same time, the menu makes it look the sauces are not available for orders of onion ring. Maybe they are, but a clearer menu would help.

In the case of large onion rings versus small paper cup for ketchup, no one wins. It is great that Burger Fi’s onion rings are huge. I love it. And I appreciate that the paper cups Burger Fi has are wider to accommodate the rings, but they are not wide enough. A small critique yes, but in a burger-saturated market and at a place that does so much so well (including the bargain basement prices for beer – where you getting them guys, off the back of a truck in Paramus?), it is this type of stuff that stands up.

Eight years ago, I had my first Shake Shack burger. Four years after that, I make my first trek to The Meatball Shop. It was just two years ago that I learned of the deliciousness that is Num Pang. Since then, all three establishments have become institutions and expanded beyond their humble beginnings. Burger Fi comes to the five boroughs with a history in other parts of the country. It is easy to see Burger Fi giving Five Guys, and the Shack a run for their money sometime soon.

Gourmet Hot Dogs are Not a Culinary Unicorn

Seeing Bark make New York‘s list of 101 Best (new) Cheap Eats was something of a personal vindication. It is like the band you were telling everyone about back when they were passing out CD-Rs starts headlining arena tours. Or when you come across a little known minor leaguer, follow them as they make their way up to the Bigs, and become an established contributor.

Bark’s arrival in Park Slope came a month or two after my return to the neighborhood in 2009. In those first weeks back in Brooklyn, the papered windows promised something that seemed groundbreaking – gourmet hot dogs. It was all I could talk about.

Once it opened, I went there by myself, sometimes brought friends, told co-workers about the place, and when out at the bar, drunkenly swore up and down we should go to Bark for hot dogs and (more) beer.

Bark at Night - Via Flickr user YUMMY Brooklyn
Bark at Night – Via Flickr user YUMMY Brooklyn

As New York points out, Bark is at the meeting point of slow food and fast food. It is this sweet spot that keeps bringing me back for more.

In the five years since they first opened, Bark has pared down the menu. And in that time, my favorite, the Pickle Dog has gone the way of the W Train. Since my re-return to Brooklyn in 2011, I’ve dropped by Bark periodically for my new go-to, the Bacon-Cheddar Dog and a Narragansett.

On a recent Monday off, I stopped by for lunch and decided to expand my hot dog horizons with the Kraut dog that is topped with Hawthorne Valley sauerkraut and yellow mustard. I added an order of cheese fries and Sixpoint’s Rad.

Among some of my friends, Crif Dogs is the be-all-end-all of hot dogs. I grant them that the variety of hot dogs and the depth of toppings trumps Bark, the actual hot dog and the quality of the ingredients makes Bark the hands-down winner. The Kraut dog confirmed that with its fresh sauerkraut and perfectly cooked dog.

At some point this year, Bark will open a space in Manhattan. Until then, skip past the lines at the new Shake Shack by the Barclays Center, and walk a few blocks up for the hot dog that captures the slow food meets fast food ethos. And grab a ‘gansett while you’re at it.

Chew On This

Delicious, delicious101  cheap food. – Via redongreenville.com

“Concerts, who goes to those?”

“Books? Yea, I don’t really get why I should read them.”

“Sports? People who get invested in that are pretty much crazy.”

All of these are things I have heard on first dates. The last one came from a girl whose profile included a photo of her hugging Sir Stanley’s Cup. Crazy, indeed.

Sports, pop culture, politics. All of these are potential conversational trip wires. Food, though, is typically not. Restaurants and good meals can carry conversations between people regardless of how long or well they know each other.

When this blog started, my goal was to not only read as many of The New York Times Notable books of each year, but write reviews of the books. While my effort has been close to admirable on the former, it has been downright pathetic on the latter.

So in a situation like this, what is the equivalent of “declare victory and go home?”

Find another list to tackle.

Last month, New York magazine gave me such an escape hatch: The 101 Best (New) Cheap Eats, Ranked.

It has been eight years since New York did their last incarnation of this list. Eight years. One hundred and one spots to hit. Based on my work with the books, this seems like a pace I can navigate.

There is a goal and an expectation here. The expectation is simple – visit each joint and try the recommended dish regardless of my culinary preferences. The goal is more communal. Rare is the person who likes going to a restaurant by themselves. More than just writing a review of the place from my perspective, my hope is to provide more color to the experience by providing a second perspective. The perspective of a friend who I have shared a meal with.

My hope is to write these reviews once a week. Life has a funny way of getting in the way, so don’t hold me to it. One last thing, the list is ranked after all. So, this process will mow through eats 11-101. The Top 10 will be saved for last.