Washington Post | Sunday, August 14, 2005
In a world with too many choices, the mere act of going out to a restaurant and trying to choose something to eat can be vertigo-inducing. But a trend surfacing in New York City may save the day. Call it gastronomical attention surplus disorder. These restaurants–often minuscule spots with only a table or two, or a counter and some stools–focus on one thing and one thing only. They may offer that solo item in a couple of variations and include a side dish or two. Here are the latest additions to the one-note feast.
· CREAM PUFFS . Beard Papa is the first U.S. branch of the popular Japanese chain, with branches stretching from Taiwan to the Philippines, that puts cream puffs at center stage. While the pastry casing is nothing especially memorable, the thick yet somehow light whipped-cream and custard filling makes you crave another. And another. One variation covers the cream puff with chocolate, and there’s a daily special flavor, such as green tea, chocolate, strawberry, coffee or, at Halloween, pumpkin.
2167 Broadway between 76th and 77th streets, 212-799-3770, http://www.muginohousa.com/ . Cream puffs $1.25 each.
· DOUGHNUTS. Mark Isreal has found enormous success with his obsession. He makes some two dozen varieties of doughnuts, many in unusual flavors such as pistachio, rosewater and malted milk, and is constantly coming up with new ideas–the latest being the square doughnut with a hole in the middle, its jelly filling surrounding the hole. The Doughnut Plant, true to its name, is a factorylike affair, exporting doughnuts uptown to Dean & DeLuca and overseas to Tokyo. But the cubicle-size retail space, buried deep in a gray, ungentrified-looking part of the Lower East Side, is worth a pilgrimage–these doughnuts, when fresh, are pretty close to the pinnacle of human achievement. And when accompanied by a glass of fresh juice, such as watermelon or strawberry, or a cup of Valhrona-based hot chocolate, you know heaven is nigh.
379 Grand St. between Essex and Norfolk streets, 212-505-3700, http:/www.doughnutplant.com . Doughnuts $2-2.50 each.
· DUMPLINGS. Almost every culture seems to have a dumpling-like food — some sort of dough filled with a mixture of vegetables, meat or seafood, then baked, steamed or boiled. Lucas Lin, aka the Dumpling Man , has made dumplings the focus of his East Village storefront. You can get them fried or steamed, filled with veggies, chicken, pork or shrimp, and even — in a daring departure from tradition — blanketed with a tomato sauce. Lin, who hails from Taiwan, has clearly put a lot of love and careful thought into his sleekly mod dumpling house: The cartoony logo is punchy, the selection of Japanese iced coffees in a can are hyper-cool. But the dumplings themselves are mostly lackluster, with leaden dough and fillings that could use an infusion of zip and spice. Best of the bunch: the fried pork dumplings, which are flavorful and juicy.
The dumpling craze is definitely on the move, north from Chinatown. Anita Lo, whose lovely, upscale restaurant Annisa holds sway on a tucked-away West Village street, has now moved into cheap ‘n’ cheerful mode with Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, which opened in February. Fillings range from Thai chicken to duck to wasabi shrimp with jicama and scallions.
Dumpling Man, 100 St. Marks Pl. between First Avenue and Avenue A, 212-505-2121, http://www.dumplingman.com. Dumplings 70 to 90 cents per piece, six for $3.95-$7.95. Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, 61 W. 23rd St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-924-9220. Six dumplings, $4.95.
· GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICHES. Who ever imagined that the great American classic could get funkified? At Grilled Cheese , in the heart of the Lower East Side, it has. It’s a homey sort of funk, where you can get your grilled cheese gussied up with pesto, olive tapenade or Canadian bacon, and can wash it down with wine, beer or–perhaps best of all–a chocolate shake.
Midtown offers its own temple to dairy products at the tiny Say Cheese , where the sandwiches are based on bread from the renowned Amy’s Bread bakery just down the street. You can round out your meal with a smoothie, homemade lemonade or bowl of soup. The signature cheese sandwich, the Big Cheese, combines muenster, provolone and Swiss to make a gooey, melting heart-stopper. Just don’t tell your cardiologist.
Grilled Cheese, 168 Ludlow St. between Houston and Stanton, 212-982-6600, http://www.grilledcheesenyc.com/ . Sandwiches $4-$7. Say Cheese, 649 Ninth Ave. between 45th and 46th streets, 212-265-8840, http://www.saycheese.cc.Sandwiches $4.75-$7.60.
· HOT DOGS. In a city that boasts a hot dog cart on nearly every corner and the epiphany-inducing dogs of the celebrated Gray’s Papaya, it took nerve to start up a new wurst emporium. The owners of F&B (Frites and Beignets) had the gumption, and the result is another narrow space with slick graphics. The dogs at F&B gudtfood are skinny and crisp, their skins yielding with a satisfying pop. There’s beef, turkey, chicken, pork, seafood and veggie, and the combinations are dizzying–toppings range from pickled cucumbers to roast onions, guacamole to corn salsa. The Great Dane (pork sausage topped with remoulade, ketchup, onions and cucumber) may sound like overkill, but it’s sublime. Round out your meal in a frenzy of carbo-loading: frites (fries almost as long and skinny as the hot dogs, served in paper cups with various dipping sauces) and beignets (delectable French dough bombs dusted with powdered sugar).
269 W. 23rd St. between Seventh and Eighth avenues, 646-486-4441, http://www.gudtfood.com/ . Also 150 E. 52nd St. between Lexington and Third avenues, 212-421-8600 . Hot dogs $3-$3.65.
· HUMMUS. Almost directly across St. Marks Place from the Dumpling Man lies the Hummus Place, an ode to the Middle Eastern chickpea puree. Tables are jam-packed, servers are boho-friendly and the choosing couldn’t be easier: Pick from hummus plain, hummus with foul, hummus with additional chickpeas. It may sound plain-Jane, but it’s not. The hummus, slicked with a bit of olive oil and sprinkled with cayenne, is pure, fresh and exceedingly tasty. The basket of warm pita is the best this side of the Negev. The accompanying plate of pickles, hot peppers and raw onion seals the deal. Bring your own wine or sample the house-made mint lemonade.
109 St. Marks Pl. between First Avenue and Avenue A, 212-529-9198 . Hummus dishes $4.25-$4.95.
· RICE PUDDING. Rice to Riches in NoLita takes the lowly, homey dish of rice pudding and surrounds it with jazzy graphics, curvaceous plastic spoons that look as if they were designed by Frank Gehry, and a rotating cast of about two dozen flavors. Presto! Your grandmother’s dessert is now a yummy novelty. The Stubborn Banana and the Raspberry Statement may have too-cute names, but the flavors are intense and pure. You can get your puddin’ in sizes ranging from Small (8 ounces) to Moby (feeds 10). Choose from toppings such as Burst (roasted seasonal fruits), Hearthrob (raspberry jelly), Remedy (caramel-vanilla sauce) and Cloud Nine (whipped cream).
37 Spring St. between Mott and Mulberry streets, 212-274-0008, http://www.ricetoriches.com/ . Puddings $4.75-$35.
· VIETNAMESE SANDWICHES. Banh-mi are the best of the post-colonial legacy. The French left their baguettes in Indochina and the Vietnamese piled them with their trademark grilled pork, bright shreds of pickled carrot, cucumber, cilantro and a slathering of mayo to complete the cross-cultural experience. At Nicky’s Vietnamese Sandwiches, the fillings range from grilled chicken to superb grilled pork to Vietnamese pâté combined with ham and ground pork, for a pig lover’s paradise. Teresa and Billy Dang learned the sandwich-making art at their father’s knee (he ran a similar shop in Brooklyn for 10 years). When they decided to strike out for Manhattan, they added a portobello and a sardine sandwich to the usual banh mi rotation. One note of advice: Choose your words carefully when asked if you want your sandwich spicy — the Dangs worship at the altar of the mighty jalapeno.
150 E. Second St. at Avenue A, 212-388-1088. Sandwiches $3.95. — Anne Glusker