good shmeats

one food-loving vegetarian taking New York City's restaurants one plate at a time.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Friend of a Farmer - Union Square

Friend of a Farmer
77 Irving Place (between 18th and 19th)

Walking into Friend of a Farmer (traditional Americana) felt like entering a New England country house, a ski lodge, and grandma's house all at once. Outside, the blustery winter air whipped through the busy streets. Inside, a roaring fire crackled, wood paneling cast a deep amber glow across the rooms, and neat rows of mason jars filled with dried beans sat on shelves above signs that said things like "home is where the heart is." The flowered wallpaper, on closer inspection, turned out to be tapestry. Sitting down at the table I felt settled and calm - how often can one say that with absolute certanity in New York City?

Adding to the initial country charm at Friend of the Farmer was the basket of warm corn bread and chunky apple butter my dinnermate and I were served with our menus. We finished the entire loaf (read: they give you an entire loaf) as if we had just returned from a day on the slopes, famished from skiing on "fresh powder like you wouldn't believe!"

The dinner menu at Friend of a Farmer - perhaps also reminiscent of grandma's house -was heavy on meat dishes including Shepherd's Pie and Chicken Pot Pie (both $16.95), Turkey Meatloaf ($17.95) and Braised Lamb Shank ($21.95). The restaurant also serves lunch, brunch, and baked goods to go.

Scanning the list for options, I settled on a Country Pie ($11.50) and a glass of Chianti. The Chianti was delicious - peppery and deep. The Country Pie was tasty, but more of a quiche than the hearty pie I expected. The buttery crust encased tender broccoli and melted cheese, and was framed with an arc of green apple wedges and a quartered strawberry. The dish also turned out to be an appetizer (the menu was ambiguous, but the price should have tipped me off), but I was already feeling full from the cornbread.

I finished my meal with a slice Chocolate Chip Cookie Pie ($6) that I didn't quite need, but tried because Friend of a Farmer is known for its baked goods. The pie was served with ice cream and sweetened whipped cream. It reminded me of a successful baking experiment my childhood friend and I tried when a batch of Tollhouse cookies went awry: not visually stunning but eat-the-whole-batch good.

My meal was lovely (if somewhat out of my usual price range), but the absence of vegetarian options felt odd. I went to college in Vermont and lived in a housing cooperative that Friend of a Farmer could have modeled its interior design after. Like in many college coop situations, my 16 roommates and I shared both cooking duties and an interest in sustainable living. We took turns cooking vegetarian meals (some of the best food I have ever eaten) for ourselves and the 15 guests who would invariably show up to our cozy, garlic-infused kitchen every weeknight.

So while the decor at Friend of a Farmer felt familiar, I was surprised that there was not a single dish that seemed purposefully vegetarian aside from an out-of-place Penne with Fresh Ginger (which I could have replicated at home for much less than $16.95). "Where were all the roasted root vegetable dishes?" I wondered. "Where, may I ask, was the rainbow chard and kale?"

I was also surprised that neither the menu nor our waiters mentioned the restaurant's committment to using foods sourced from local farmers. Local foods are gaining popularity in New York City and throughout the Northeast (as evidenced by the growth of greenmarkets and CSAs over the past five years.) Friend of the Farmer happens to sit only a few blocks northeast of New York City's biggest year-round greenmarket in Union Square. Coupled with the restaurant's country decor and name, a local foods connection seems obvious. But when I called Friend of the Farmer the following day to ask if they use farm-fresh foods, I received a noncommittal answer of "oh, we do when we can."

Friend of a Farmer offers country charm, homestyle food, and a moment of respite from hectic New York life. Unfortunately, I left feeling a little bit homesick for the real thing.

For more info on organic farming in the Northeast, check out the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Bad meals, good company

Sometimes bad meals are redeemed by good company (Alison and Leah at No Fish Go Fish in Portland, OR.) Crappy food - and it's not even in NYC! But I adore the picture. There's love there.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Dizzy's Diner - Park Slope

511 Ninth Street (@ 8th Avenue)
Brooklyn, NY

Every month or so I get an email that reads something like this: "Hey you! I'm coming to NYC for a couple of days. If you're around, can I stay at your place?" Most of these visitors end up on my couch, but only the ones I want to impress join me for brunch in the morning at my favorite Park Slope diner, Dizzy's.

Brunch at Dizzy's (the self-titled, "finer diner") ensures three things: 1. A wait, unless you can get there before 10:30am. 2. A small-town feel: red counter stools, copious sunlight, black and white tile, and a flirtatious wait staff. If there weren't so many strollers parked outside, you might think it was a college diner. 3. Embarrassing amounts of food: Dizzy's prix-fixe brunch includes a muffin and sweet scone basket with strawberry butter, an entree and additional side plate, fresh juice, and a bottomless cup of coffee or tea. Real maple syrup - which is fantastic in coffee - and stainless steel pots of cream wait on the tables. Only the mimosas cost extra.

The brunch menu is double sided with breakfast options on one side and (wait for it) lunch on the other. I have admittedly never tried anything from the lunch side, having enough difficulty with the inevitable brunch dilemma of sweet vs. savory. From the breakfast section, try the Amaretto Pecan French Toast ($10.95), Eggs Florentine ($12.95), Juevos Rancheros ($12.95) and the Power Breakfast of granola, yogurt, and fruit ($9.95) - which, perhaps surprisingly, is remarkably good. Offer thanks to your favorite deity if you end up at Dizzy's when the specials board outside reads: chocolate and banana pancakes (swoon).

I hesitate to utter a bad word about Dizzy's, which has been consistently satisfying during my year and a half living in Park Slope. But in all honesty, I admit that my most recent trip there was not my best. The service and peripheral items (muffin basket, orange juice and coffee, thick toast, and green-pepper-and-onion-dotted home fries) were wonderful as usual. But my goat cheese, spinach and mushroom omelet (the Platonic ideal of which makes me tear up with joy) was unusually rubbery and flat-tasting. The fruit cup I ordered for a side plate was also watery, though I take partial fault for ordering fresh fruit in the winter. Usually I stop eating at Dizzy's before the food is gone because I hit my critical food-intake limit. This past visit I stopped eating because it didn't taste good and ended up nibbling my friend's leftover pancakes.

One sub-par omelet and fruit cup aside, I am willing to give Dizzy's the benefit of the doubt. Last summer, a friend sent me a post-visit email asking, "next time I'm in New York again, can we go back to Dizzy's?), to which I should have answered (but wasn't clever enough) "As long as you sleep on my couch..."

A couple of Dizzy's tips:
1. Dizzy's takes cash only. Although this sweetly ups college-like feel, it's easy to forget, and frustrating when you do. There's an ATM around the corner on 8th street.
2. Dizzy's is not particularly vegan-friendly. If you're eating with a vegan, ask for the Power Brunch dry or with soymilk instead of yogurt.
3. Brunches at Dizzy's are huge. Take advantage of Prospect Park's proximity and go for a post-brunch stroll.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Spice - Union Square

60 University Street at 10th Ave
-also- Chelsea: 199 8th Avenue between 19th and 20th street
-and- Uptown: 1141 Second Avenue between 73rd and 74tt street

I met a friend after work at Spice, a Thai restaurant just south of Union Square. I’m usually skeptical of chain restaurants like Spice. When a restaurant starts to franchise, the focus often turns away from individuality and towards a highly-produced replica of the things that made the prototype money. The food isn’t necessarily better or worse, but it is interchangeable. (Compare, for example, the feeling and tastes of the bakery at the end of your block and the Cosi on the end of every block.) But certainly some chains must defy the stereotype, right?

Spice has three locations and a few other affiliated restaurants (Sea and Peep) scattered across Manhattan. The décor at each is glossy and hyper modern – angular white plastic furniture accented by neon lights. Walking towards our table, I felt weary with over-production - everything seemed obsessively planned. The one overlooked detail was spatial design - the tables in the University Street location were tightly packed together, requiring minor contortion skills to avoid tripping over a chair leg.

Our waitress offered to take our coats and handed us dinner menus. I was pleased to find several, if somewhat obvious, vegetarian options: Crispy Spring Rolls ($4) Tofu Rama (sautéed veggies and tofu in peanut sauce for $7) and vegetable curry (also $7) alongside the Thai Volcanic Chicken ($11) and the Maekong Aged Porkchop ($9). I chose the vegetarian Pad Thai ($8) - reasoning that the overall quality of a Thai restaurant’s food can be reflected best by its signature dish.

Shortly after ordering, a conical pile of Pad Thai was set before me by a friendly waiter. (To Spice's credit, the wait staff was surprisingly warm for such sleek surroundings.) I was immediately fascinated by a thin green plant sticking out of my noodles, like a feather in a cap. Was it edible? I wondered. I lightly squeezed – it was supple. A large scallion? A garlic scape? A tentative nibble brought back an unpleasant childhood memory when, out of curiosity, I snuck a bite from a carnation stem in a bouquet sitting on my mother’s kitchen table. Ok, just a garnish – moving on.

The Pad Thai itself was decent - well cooked noodles coated but not dripping in a slightly sweetened sauce, served with a fat lime wedge (which proved a much more practical garnish). The tiny cubes of soft tofu tasted vaguely of jasmine, which was a pleasant surprise.

The otherwise agreeable dish, however, fell prey to a vegetarian Pad Thai faux pas, however: fish sauce. Thai restaurants often include traditional fish sauce in their “vegetarian” noodle dishes. Some vegetarians are content to turn a blind eye to this transgression. A friend and college housemate of mine made an exception for fish sauce. “It’s just a tablespoon in the whole dish” he’d say sheepishly, stirring his sauce. “It just doesn’t taste right without it.” My palate isn’t so forgiving. I cannot be certain the Pad Thai at Spice had fish sauce (next time I’ll ask), but the sauce’s slight fishiness was a distraction.

Overall, If you're looking for a decent but not particularly memorable meal (and hey, sometimes that's enough) then Spice is as good as any other. In fact, though I only tried one of Spice's three restaurants, the same could likely be said for any of them. Personally, I am content to leave Spice’s other locations unexplored.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Welcome to Good Shmeats

Welcome to Good Shmeats

Why is this blog different from all other blogs? The short answer: it's not - it's a aspiring writer 20-something's stab at food writing. The slightly longer, more nuanced answer: I'm a foodie. I never learned to cook growing up, so I only recently realized cooking was a passion. I'm a vegetarian, once vegan. I run a Jewish Community-Supported Agriculture project. I hate the word foodie. I put maple syrup in everything I can. The dominant food systems in America terrify me. I love that eating food is an explicitly sensual act. That we do in public. I'm a little bit frightened to start a blog. This blog is a record of my encounters with the restaurants of New York City.

Some things I'd like this blog to be:
1. a good resource for hungry New Yorkers and visiting friends
2. yet another reason for me to eat. and write about food.
3. a place for readers to share their own food stories
4. witty (though not quite
5. spiced with juicy tidbits - book recommendations, recipes, websites
(don't worry, I'll always give links - here's one Miriam's Kitchen by Elizabeth Erhlich)
6. tasteful. tasty.
7. updated regularly - and a continual work in progress (the blog as a whole and individual pieces)
8. one woman's tribute (mine) to the eating island of New York City
9. a tiny fantasy of mine realized

A few things this blog won't be:
1. all-inclusive: unless someone would like to spring for my dinner
2. structured (at least not in the beginning.)
3. angry - no petulant ranting allowed. unless it's really deserved