au marché: Grubstreet at the Hester Street Fair

After a long Saturday of singing and shaking along to the newbie bands of CMJ fest, I rolled out of bed this Sunday, a bit too early and questioning my desire to embark upon another weekend-day of sensory over-stimulation.

For the second year in a row, the much-lauded, LES small business laboratory-cum-market known as the Hester Street Fair was to go 100% grub (well, Grubstreet).  The number people at last year’s inaugural event shocked both attendees and organizers – the Pies ‘n’ Thighs line alone nearly suffocated the small, formerly-abandoned lot where the Hester Street Fair takes place each Sunday.

So you can I imagine my (pleasant) surprise when I arrived on bike to find 1) a parking spot next to the fair's entrance and 2) the event had (far) more than doubled in size, overtaking an adjacent lot that stretched all the way to Grand Street.  The new roomy digs meant that the weekly H'Street vintage/jewelry purveyors were permitted to stay on site and sell their wares in the beer garden area, while the actual edibles relocated to the larger lot.

Hunger peaked by the long bike ride downtown, I eagerly scanned the offerings.  Pies ‘n’ Thighs was in attendance, yet again - but this time I wizened up to the inevitable line, immediately buying myself - not a chicken biscuit – but a molasses cookie. Necessary backstory: I have a serious thing for molasses/ginger cookies – and the Pies ‘n’ Thighs iteration, in particular, has haunted my memory since last year's fair as “the one that got away”.  (Sure, I could have gone to Brooklyn and bought one anytime I liked.  But unrequited love is so much more fulfilling, no?)  Anyway, all the anticipation was well worth it – because that bendy, spicy, chewy delight of a cookie wow’ed not only me, but also my “uninterested in sweets” dining companion.

Speaking of sweets, there were really too many.  The ratio of hot dishes to cold cookies, popsicles, shaved ice, ice cream, etc. was definitely disproportionate.  This did, however, help us decide quickly upon a short-rib, shredded pork and hominy chili from Char No. 4.  Certainly spiced, but not really “spicy”, the slow-roasted meat and fluffy hominy combo was definitely a winner – leaving us satisfied and comforted, without the typical post-chili paunch.

The afternoon sun finally made an appearance, and we took the tour of the remaining vendors - most more-or-less familiar from other NYC markets.  Among the exciting newcomers was The Comfort Kitchen, a budding business run by a French Culinary Institute Grad., Suzanne Michaud.  Most noteworthy among her wares were the Florentine biscotti – authentically inspired by the recipe of an old Italian family friend.  Light and toasty with a touch of amaretto – these old world cookies were a significant upgrade from the dense, coffee-destined biscotti I recall my elders eating as a child.

But my favorite of all the market newbies was White Belly, a wood-fired pizza operation on wheels.  The WB chef already owns one familiar food stand, Daisy Duke’s BBQ (which makes a great Arnold Palmers, by the way), as well as the Warren St. eatery, Brick.  It’s a shame that the latter brick-and-mortar establishment doesn’t have a wood oven, because White Belly's Bruha pizza was a picture-perfect pie.  Light and fluffy, but not overly floppy, this barely al dente crust was topped with homemade ricotta, sweet butternut squash and slightly singed sage.

With that perfect-for-early-fall flavor trio lingering on my tongue, the Hester Street/Grub Street collaboration hit its high note.  I strolled back to my awaiting bike on Essex more than satisfied…. and had to laugh at the incomprehensible queue for the omnipresent Mr. Softee, right outside the fair’s gates.