Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Eating in a Winter Wonderland

Well, it's not really winter.  It's November.  It's also not much of a wonderland.

Still, it's hard not to think cheezy thoughts like "winter wonderland" when Bryant Park has a skating rink in the middle of the green and is filled with kiosks of "holiday shops" and they just set up a Christmas tree that is awaiting lights.

Bryant Park is where I usually like to eat my lunch on work days.  I usually pick up a salad from one of NYC's many overpriced salad bars and enjoy the hour people-watching, reading, and avoiding lunch theft by pigeons.

I like to do my Christmas shopping as early as possible.  I know that's a contradiction since I am one of those people who hates it when the season is rushed and homes and businesses start decorating and playing Christmas music as soon as Halloween is over.  It's a quirk of mine.  Once I feel ready to start enjoying the Christmas season, I like to do it stress-free.  I don't want to be thinking of how many gifts I still have to buy when I'm trying to enjoy a holiday party or admiring a light display or listening to a choir sing.  I spend all of the fall season making lists and buying gifts little by little so that by the time November is over, I'm finished.

When Bryant Park announced they would be having "holiday shops" in the beginning of November I was pretty excited.  I knew there would be booths full of useless tstchokes, but there would likely be some good buys among the junk.  It was as good a place as any to look for potential Christmas gifts before the real Christmas rush started.  Anyway, it might be junk, but it's local junk and it's always good to support small business.

Among the stores selling the endless supply of jewelry, knit hats and scarves, and presumably artsy photos of NYC, I noticed there were several specialty food kiosks.  They seemed more interesting than the overpriced salads I had been eating.  It seemed worth it to try one or two.  If nothing else I could save more time eating and buying my lunch in the park, rather than buying it elsewhere and taking it to the park.

I was halfway through eating an arepa one day when I decided I should throw dietary caution to the wind and eat at every food kiosk in the park and then blog about it.  My blog could serve as either a recommendation or a warning to tourists and B&Ts commuters alike.  It would also just be a fun blogging project. 

So with no further ado, here is my rundown of what happened to me while eating  lunch at the holiday shops in Bryant Park.

Day 1 - On my first day out I had already eaten my salad lunch and decided to have dessert in one of the kiosks.  I went to Dough, a doughnut stand.  I love doughnuts even though I'm constantly being told that they are the most unhealthful thing one can possibly eat.  The giant doughnuts looked very appealing.  I chose a raised doughnut with a chocolate and raspberry icing.
The main thing the doughnut had going for it was size.  Good doughnuts should taste rich and buttery.  I'll give the doughnut credit for being nice and fluffy and soft.  It just didn't "wow" me with the taste.  If I closed my eyes I don't think I would have noticed the difference from one from Dunkin Donuts.  It was a slightly disappointing introduction to the Holiday Shops.

Day 2 - Let's back up to that bit about Arepas from before. 

I'm not sure I ever ate an arepa before.  I thought I knew what to expect.  Arepas are corn cakes filled with mozarella.  The Top Arepa stand tops your arepa with a variety of toppings such as guacamole, goat cheese pesto, or even fruit and whipped cream.  I chose one topped with an egg and mushrooms.


I told you I was halfway through eating it when I decided to write a blog about the Bryant Park holiday food kiosks, so you get a half-eaten arepa photo.

I was surprised at how sweet the arepa was.  I was expecting something more savory.  This was like eating a grilled cheese sandwich made with cornbread.  It was also delicious.  I loved the sweet cake with the gooey cheese and the savory topping.  My early impressions of Bryant Park food were improving.

I moved on to a Le Churreria booth for dessert.  When I ordered my churros I realized they were not freshly made.  They were sitting on the counter and then the guy behind the counter warmed them up in a toaster oven.  I hoped they wouldn't taste overdone and dried out.


There were no issues with my churros.  They were warm, crispy, and delciously coated with cinnamon and sugar.  They were a better dessert than the doughnut.  Then again, I had higher expectations for the doughnut.

Day 3 - Who me, eat vegetarian?  I did say I would eat at every booth, and that meant Vegetarian Oasis. 

I would describe this as fusion vegetarian cuisine.  Most of what they served came in burrito wraps, but the fillings were a mix of traditional burrito fillings and cuisines of other cultures.  For example they had "Samosaritos" which were filled with potatoes and curried chickpeas. 

I had a "Falafelrito" which was falafel balls with all of the traditional burrito fillings of cheese, rice, and salsa.  They fried the falafel fresh at the stand.  I watched the guy behind the counter do it.

It was tasty, but almost overwhelming.  The burrito was huge and I was definitely full.

Despite being full, I wanted to warm up on a cool day with some hot chocolate. I had enough options for that in the park.  Along with the a few cocoa-vending holiday Kiosks, 'Whichcraft (Tom Colicchio's chain of sandwich shops) has permanent booths in Bryant Park and one of them is a hot chocolate stand.  I decided to try my hot chocolate from there.

The hot chocolate was thick and rich.  It was almost like drinking warm chocolate pudding. Unfortunately, it had been sitting around too long and the milk had been scalded.  I had little scalded milk curds in my hot chocolate.

Day 4- There is nothing like soup on a cold November day.  You can get plenty of that at Two Tablespoons, another hippie-crunchy vegetarian joint (and I mean that in the nicest way possible).  They serve mostly vegan soups and stews and vegan desserts.
 Their sweet potato-chipotle soup sounded particularly good.  I ordered a cup of that.


This was disappointing.  It was more like vegetarian chili with a few chunks of sweet potato. It was a bit spicy, but it didn't taste like chipotle to me.  Chipotle is distinctively smoky, which this soup was not.  I tasted more bean and tomato than anything else.  That was too bad.  I make a Thai-style, vegan sweet potato soup that is smooth, full of sweet potato flavor, and has quite a kick.

Rather than a sweet dessert I went for a pretzel at Sweet and Savory. This booth serves a variety of hot pretzel flavors.  I thought the cheddar jalapeno looked particularly good, although I was tempted by the sample of the "Nutella Toastie" they offered me.


This pretzel was soft and buttery.  The only issue I had with it was that I like a flavored pretzel to have actual flavor.  The cheddar jalapeno was just sprinkled over the outside and I really didn't taste it.  I think it might have been better if the cheese were inside the pretzel.  Another option would have been to have a dipping sauce like they do at Auntie Anne's.  (Let me clarify these were definitely better pretzels than Auntie Anne's and I love Auntie Anne's.)  I would definitely come back here for a plain pretzel or a Nutella toastie.

Day 5 - I love crepes.  Seeing the Crepe Cafe in the park made me think of Paris where crepe stands are as ubiquitous as the the halal carts in New York.  I was very excited to try this place.

The stand is the biggest food stand in the whole park.  While crepes are their main draw, they also have bubble tea and Asian noodle soups.  It was almost as if an Asian restaurant decided to branch out into a completely different continent just for the fun of it.

They didn't have a huge variety of cheeses for their crepes.  Mozzarella was the only cheese option.  They did have a wide variety of meats and vegetables.  I ordered a chicken, mozzarella, and mushroom.

The crepe itself was fine.  The filling wasn't too good.  The chicken was not very high quality.  It had that weird processed flavor you get from cheap cold cuts.  The cheese was also not melted enough.  This definitely did not transport me to Paris. 

I decided to move on to a specialty of another European country for dessert at Wafels and Dinges.  This booth had homemade waffles with "dinges" which is the Belgian equivalent word for "watchamacalit".  In other words, a vast assortment of toppings.  This was the first time I had ever heard of Belgian "lige" waffles, which they claim is Belgium's best-kept secret. I watched them make the waffles and these were definitely the yeast-risen, doughy kind rather than the batter-based kind you make yourself at the breakfast buffet in major hotel chains.

Wafels and Dinges when not in the park, is a very popular food truck that was featured on Throwdown with Bobby Flay

One topping on your waffle is free.  Two is $1.  Three or more is $2.  I decided to go all out and have three toppings.  I went for spekoolus spread, whipped cream, and strawberries. They are very into their spekoolus spread.  So many of my blogging friends rave about cookie butter/Biscoff spread, so I decided this was the perfect time to try it. 

The waffle itself was wonderful.  I could have eaten it just with butter and jam for breakfast and been happy.  It had a perfect crispy-on-the-outside-soft-and-fluffy-on-the-inside consistency.  I wasn't in love with the spekoolus spread.  I don't know what I was expecting.  It reminded me a phase I went through in high school where I would eat peanut butter spread on graham crackers for breakfast every morning.  That's what it felt like in my mouth - cinnamon peanut butter.  I wished I had gone for the Nutella.  Also, the whipped cream came from a can.  I don't know why I expected homemade, and I don't mind canned whipped cream, but homemade would have been a nice touch.

Day 6 -Mmm...Enfes.  Enfes is "delicious" in Turkish.  They serve various Turkish pastries and wraps.  I love the food of this region, so I was excited for this one.  Of course I was learning to keep my expectations low by this point.

I chose a gozleme, which is a wrap made from flatbread.  It was a tough decision as I was tempted by one or two of the pastries filled with chicken or spinach and goat cheese.  I had mine with chicken, mushrooms and herbs.

This was really delicious.  The chicken was decent quality and everything was well-seasoned.  This was a flavorful and filling lunch.

I moved on to Macarons and Cookies by Woops for dessert.

The macaron assortment was beautiful and very tempting.  I just couldn't justify $2.75 for a little cookie.  I know they take a lot of work to make, but I still wanted more bang for my buck.  I went for one of the giant double-chocolate cookies instead.  The woman behind the counter warmed one up for me.

Am I getting too picky?  I thought this cookie was a little flat tasting.  It was soft with a beautiful cakey consistency and was certainly chocolately, but it lacked something.  Maybe it just needed another pinch of salt or extra splash of vanilla.  Maybe a spoonful of coffee granules would have done it.  I just felt the flavor could be richer.

Day 7 - It took a while for me to get excited about Strudels and Pies by Hans.  It seemed the booth had mostly mini apple pies (which I can get anywhere) and mini pumpkin pies (yuck).  I do like strudel though and figured I would get around to trying it.  Then one day I noticed that they sell more than just mini pie and apple strudel.  They serve spiced wine (non-alcoholic), homemade soup, and savory strudel.  A savory strudel would be a perfect, indulgent lunch.
Hans offered a filet mignon and mushroom option and a chicken vegetable option along with hot dogs and pigs in blankets wrapped in strudel pastry.  The chicken and beef studels both came with salad.  Both options sounded delicious, but I went with chicken vegetable since I wasn't sure how good the filet would be sitting around a kiosk all day and behind reheated.

I started my meal with great anticipation.

Unfortunately, I learned a painful lesson that day. When you order something filled with "vegetables", it's a good idea to inquire what kind of vegetables.  I cut open my strudel to discover it was filled with peas.  It had so many peas in it that once I had made the painstaking effort to pick them all out, I didn't have much else left. 

At least the pastry was good.  The salad was good too.  If I had had the money, I would have gone back for the filet, or at least a hot dog strudel or a half dozen pigs in blankets.

I consoled myself with yet another sampling of the many hot chocolate options in the park.  This time I went to Max Brenner chocolates.  I had been in the kiosk a couple of times since the holiday shops opened and sampled some of the chocolates and thought they were really good.  I had high hopes for the hot chocolate, which they described as Italian Style made from homemade vanilla cream and ganache.

The drink was rich and thick, which was a plus, but it was painfully, tooth-achingly sweet.  It had a weird flavor to it as well.  It was almost a caramel taste, or maybe it was just vanilla overdose. It would have been fine in moderation, but that flavor on top of all of that sugar was just too much. 

I was still determined to try one of their cookies though and I knew I'd be buying a box or two of candies before Christmas season ended.

Day 8 - Today's lunch was Daisy's Grits.  I don't know why my northern family loves grits so much, but grits are a huge part of many holidays in my family.   We like them baked with lots of cheese and garlic.  I have a particular fondness for Paula Deen's cheese grits recipe.  I was really looking forward to my grits lunch. 

There were several meat-based grits, several cheese-based grits, and a few sweet grits.  I went with chorizo grits and asked them to add some cheddar to it.  All grits are additionally topped with pecorino, scallions, some herbs and spices, and bacon. 

I had to really stir the cheese and the toppings into the grits because they were really bland.  I think the base grits needed both more salt and more butter (of course this is from someone who piles both on when eating plain, non-cheese grits).  I just couldn't get enough flavor into them.  The chorizo was kind of lackluster too.  I think chorizo should be spicier.  I guess the grits vendor was erring on the side of caution and making sure his sausage wasn't too spicy.  Not bad, but not as mind-blowing as I had hoped.

I took a chance back at the crepe booth for dessert.  Even though I was kicking myself for not having Nutella on my waffle previously, I didn't get the Nutella crepe.  I went for dulce de leche, coconut and banana.  It tasted like banana mostly.  They overpowered the dulce de leche.  As for the coconut, I almost never tasted it.  This was not worth the nearly $10 I paid for it.

Day 9 - I regressed to my childhood today with Jammin Nut.

This is what foodieism has come to. The humblest of sandwiches, the PBJ, has been elevated to gourmet status.  At this booth they offer several types of jam along with a few different types of nut butters.  I was very serious about it and tasted them all before making a decision about what I wanted on my sandwich (they do have a set selection of specialty combinations for those who lack PBJ creativity).  I was in love with the raspberry, pear, and peach jams.  I eliminated the raspberry because that's one you can get anywhere.  I decided on peach jam with almond butter on 7-grain bread.

Grilling a PBJ sounds like a good idea, but it's not necessary.  I don't think the grilled flavor added anything to the sandwich. I also would have liked a bit more jam.  The bread and almond butter overwhelmed that unique flavor of the peaches that caused me to choose that jam in the first place.

Note what I had on the side. I went to Big Apple Cider for a nice cup of hot cider with cinnamon sticks.  A few of the food kiosks offered hot cider, but this vendor specialized in it, so I thought it would be better than the others.  It was good.  I love hot cider, but this one wasn't terribly special.  There are some really remarkable ciders sold at Hudson Valley farmer's markets and I don't think they used any of them at Big Apple Cider.

Day 10 - Last day before Thanksgiving break and my last outing.  I had tried every booth but the kettle corn and the other chocolate trufffle booth (whose hot chocolate I do intend to sample at some point).  I decided to give the crepe booth one more try.  Am I crazy?  I wasn't going to have their crepes.  The place seemed to be more about Asian food than crepes, so I would try that.

I ordered pork dumpling noodle soup.  Before they added the (somewhat bland) broth to my big cup, they added a generous portion of noodles, fresh vegetables, and a pile of dumplings.  The noodles weren't mushy and the dumplings were very tasty.  The folks who run crepe cafe should stick to what they are good at.  Also, I noticed here large succulent chicken breasts being cooked fresh.  They are using much better chicken on this side of the stand than they are on the crepe side.
I returned to Max Brenner for dessert.  I wanted to try their big chocolate chip cookies. 

It was served warm, but it was perhaps a bit two warm at the edges had become crunchier than I normally like my cookies.  The inside was still soft though and the chips were all nice and gooey and melty.

I was still disappointed in the flavor.  It wasn't rich enough.  It lacked something. 

I started wondering why I had become so picky about my cookies lately.  Then it dawned on me. These days whenever I make chocolate chip cookies, I use Emily's recipe with the browned butter. The flavor difference really is noticeable when you brown the butter before using it in your cookie recipe and I have become so used to it that I have come to expect it.  I need to readjust my taste buds or I may never enjoy a chocolate chip cookie again!

I will return to Bryant Park for a snack or a gift now and then, but the weather is becoming too cold to eat lunch outside in the park these days.  I have eaten at every lunch kiosk, so my park adventure has come to an end.

The Holiday Shops are open until January 6, so if you are in the city or visiting any time before then, check out these food shops yourself and see what you think of them.

Recommended lunch: Top Arepa, Vegetarian Oasis, Mmm...Enfes
Recommended dessert/Snack: Wafels and Dinges, Sweet & Savory


The Duo Dishes said...

So. much. FOOD! Too bad that sweet potato soup didn't measure up. That would've been a good one. Have a great Tday!

Blond Duck said...

I want a burrito and a waffle, in that order. I found a recipe for pecan pie with browned butter I want to try.

Kathy Shea Mormino said...

Hello, new follower here and I’d like to invite you to join me at my weekly Clever Chicks Blog Hop:

I hope you can make it!


Kathy Shea Mormino

The Chicken Chick