Saturday, March 14, 2009

An East Village Crawl

Until I met Jennifer, I had never known someone who was as enthusiastic and adventurous in the culinary department as I was. I discovered during our first year of school together that not only was she a gorgeous violinist who could make me cry by the sheer beauty of her music-making, Jennifer was also someone who met my epicurean enthusiasm and raised it a notch. We quickly forged a great friendship that has lasted for nearly two decades and has been cemented by a mutual passion for bittersweet chocolate. She has been my longtime partner-in-crime for exploring restaurants and recipes, first during our college years in Boston and later in New York. Whenever we go out to eat, the question is always “what are WE having?” for it would be inconceivable for us to order individual dishes but not share them. Today was a beauty of a day, an ideal afternoon to wander around the East Village and try a few new places together. It would take me far too long to count the number of times Jennifer and I have shared meals together over the years, but today was especially memorable for it was the first time that we were joined by Siena, her beautiful 6-month-old baby girl.

A craving for steamed pork buns provided the impetus for a visit to the sleek Momofuku Ssam Bar on East 13th Street. These were unlike any I’ve ever tasted before, and I was so enraptured by the taste that I completely forgot to photograph the dish! The pork had been braised until meltingly tender, succulent and juicy while crispy on the edges. A soft pillowy white bun wrapped its way around the luscious pork like a warm embrace, while a few lively slices of pickled cucumber and scallions tucked inside provided a tangy textural contrast. It was the perfect marriage of decadence and comfort, and I could have left the East Village a very happy girl after eating that singular pork bun. But there was more in store for us.

I didn’t know I was capable of growing so excited over Brussels sprouts the way I did over the ones Jennifer insisted upon ordering for us. Many people I know are avowed Brussels sprout haters, including my dad, which is probably why I never had much exposure to them while growing up. But these were prepared in such a way that I think even my dad would have enjoyed them. They were a marvel: little green globes sliced in half and roasted till their outer leaves crisped to perfection, then tossed with slivered scallions, fresh mint leaves, hot chilies and a judicious amount of Vietnamese fish sauce to balance the flavors. We downed these little guys in no time and were tempted to order another plate of them, for neither of us wanted the dish to end!

At the urging of our waitress, we concluded our meal with a special scrapple dish. Ordinarily the word ‘scrapple’ has all sorts of negative connotations in my mind, conjuring up images of unidentifiable and undesirable meat scraps cobbled together and given a name too close to “Spam” and “Snapple” for my liking. But this was something altogether different: braised pork shoulder, gently shredded and bound together with just enough corn meal to form a corn cake, seared until crisp on both sides. This was then crowned with a perfectly fried egg and framed by two tamarind-lacquered strips of double-smoked bacon that sent me into giggles of delight. Emerald leaves of peppery mizuna lettuce and a generous streak of violet mustard tied it all together. (Yes, you read that correctly, actual VIOLET-scented mustard!) It was marvelous, and I would happily eat that dish again any time of day, be it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a really satisfying mid-day snack.

By the time we finished at Momofuku, baby Siena had woken up from her nap just in time for dessert. (A girl after my own heart!) We walked three blocks down to ChikaLicious Dessert Bar, where this pristine little open kitchen on East 10th Street serves up a three-course dessert menu which changes its offerings frequently. An amuse bouche of a tiny round of brown sugar panna cotta was paired inspiringly with a dollop of tart pink grapefruit sorbet. This was followed by a main course: a warm chocolate tart with a shatteringly thin crust, accompanied by a scoop of pink peppercorn ice cream with a puddle of red wine syrup on the side.

Since Jennifer and I were sharing both dishes, as per usual, our other main course was a cheesecake. The thought of cheesecake wouldn’t typically set my taste buds racing with anticipation, but this cloud of a dessert was unlike any I’d ever tasted. Light and ethereal, this fromage blanc cheesecake resembled a soufflé, surrounded by a pool of vanilla crème anglaise and served atop a bed of crushed ice so that it stayed perfectly chilled down to the very last bite. It was a creation to linger over and savor every last mouthful.

Petits fours rounded out our dessert tasting, and the day’s offering included a three-bite wedge of lemony pound cake, a toasted coconut marshmallow, and a bite-sized chocolate truffle. Jennifer and I had also ordered the dessert wine pairing, which included a glass of tawny port to accompany the chocolate tart and a sparkling La Spinetta moscato to complement the cheesecake. This was particularly lovely since it was the same moscato that Jennifer had served at her wedding three years ago!

One would think that that would have been enough decadence for a day, but in typical Jennifer-and-Louise fashion, we weren’t ready to call it a day just yet. I found my friend steering me into the Black Hound Bakery, a mouthwatering establishment whose acquaintance I am surprised I had not made years ago. We marveled at their pristinely beautiful cakes in the glass display cases, both the large ones and those in miniature form, and we were confronted by an endless array of scrumptious-looking brownies, cookies and other confections. After some deliberation, we finally selected a miniature apricot almond cake to share, which the bakery kindly sliced in half for us to each take home and thoroughly enjoy later.

We walked around the neighborhood, energized by the invigorating spring air and the lengthening hours of daylight. Eventually the afternoon slipped into evening and it was time for us to make our separate ways home, but it was such a happy day threaded with laughter and unexpected culinary delights. I was thrilled to have had such a delicious afternoon with Jennifer and her baby daughter, who was so beautifully behaved and a happy welcome addition to our table. I’m certain that little Siena will grow up to share her mother’s enthusiasm for great food, especially when it is shared with wonderful friends.

Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 Second Avenue (at 13th Street)

ChikaLicious Dessert Bar
203 East 10th Street (between First and Second Avenues)

Black Hound Bakery
170 Second Avenue

No comments: