eater's digest: co. pane

Living in New York City, I am pretty shocked when people tell me they have one "favorite" restaurant or eat at the same place every week. Inundated with a constant stream of new openings and enthusiastic recommendations, I doubt I'll ever be able to reach the end of my edible NYC to-do list. And yet. Sometimes you discover a restaurant that crawls under your skin. It starts with the complementary contrast of innovative comfort food or elevated peasant cuisine - something that will never leave you bored but still satisfies your most primal, childlike cravings. It sneaks up on you, and then suddenly, a few days or weeks later, you are salivating, dying to return, just to have a bite of that one specific dish.

My voracious curiosity for all-things-edible has made me more or less impervious to this condition. I can count the number of Manhattan restaurants I've been to more than twice (writer's research aside) on one hand. And I certainly wasn't expecting a pizza joint to win me over. (My family is Italian and I grew up right outside New Haven, CT - home to the infamous Pepe's clam pizza. Combined with a few recent trips to Italy, it's safe to call me a pizza snob.)

My first visit to Co. was on a date with a chef. He told me it was not only his favorite pizza place, but one of his top restaurants in general. Relieved he hadn't pointed me in the direction of the oft-praised John's pizza, and intrigued by owner Jim Lahey's Sullivan Street Bakery connection, I went along with a more-or-less open mind.

The first thing that won me over was the space. Clean lines, warm woods, and a low-key, hip-but-not-trendy vibe. The staff wasn't stressed, the patrons weren't high maintenance, and everything moved at a distinctly un-NYC pace.

The first thing I tasted at Co. was the radicchio salad with taleggio cheese and shiitake mushrooms. A sucker for anything bitter, this has quickly become one of my favorite salads in the city. On a more recent visit (my fourth, and the first time I've returned to intentionally review the place), I sampled the yellow salad special - summer squash served mild to the point of being almost underdressed, and sprinkled with crunchy peanuts. It was one of the few yellow squash dishes I've ever had that let the vegetable just be. Another addictive standard is the tender, poached artichoke salad with just-salty-enough capers and shavings of parmesan cheese.

As for the pies - the crust is nearly perfect. Thin as you could ever want it, without turning into a droopy mess. Crispy, bubbled, yet still doughy and al dente. Only a Chicago deep-dish craver or shameless Domino's devotee could do anything but rave.

But what is best about Lahey's pies is not just the crust - but also his versatile and uniformly delicious toppings. Many places (see: the aforementioned Pepe's) have one must-have pie. Lahey has several, and keeps 'em coming with new seasonal specials. On the top of my list?

  • the Popeye - a blackened spinach pie with pecorino, gruyère, mozzarella, black pepper & garlic. The crunchy, fire-blasted spinach evokes all that is great about grilling, while the cheese balances the char.
  • Mushroom & Jalapeño Pie - spice, umami and cheese collide in jalapeño, seasonal mushrooms, béchamel, pecorino, gruyère, garlic confit, and fresh dill. I thought I would find the béchamel too rich - but the mix of creamy, funky and hot is an addictive winner, every time.
  • The summer special, Corn Pie - a carb-y pie that I much prefer to the now-ubiquitous potato. Corn puree, mozzarella, parmesan, sungold tomatoes, kale, basil, Aleppo pepper and garlic. The bursts of bright tomato coupled with herbaceous greens and sweet, creamy corn hit on all flavor cylinders. It's worth racing over to Co. before summer's end to see if they'll serve it again.

I can't speak to the wine or beer list at Co., which has become only a vague (but positive) memory. I'm hooked on their alcohol-free artisanal sodas - which change regularly. If they have it, the blood orange is better than incredible.

Maybe there's something about pizza that inspires unconventional loyalty. Or maybe Co. is just that damn good. Either way, I'm happy to have found a spot worth a regular re-run - whether I'm craving the classics or scoping out the seasonal specials.

Co Pane 230 9th Avenue (212) 243-1105

au marché: haven's kitchen

For most people (in fact, a growing percentage of modern society), the kitchen has become a scary place. Far from the comforting 1950s symbol of domestic bliss, it has become the most intimidating room in the home - a sort of torture chamber, in which fearful instruments of various sizes and unknown purpose await.

Allison Schneider, the founder of Haven’s Kitchen - the recently opened cooking school, retail shop and event space in Chelsea - does not suffer from kitchen-phobia. On the contrary, she has worked at GrowNYC, established CSAs at her children’s schools and is currently finishing a Masters Degree in Food Studies at New York University. But that doesn’t mean she’s forgotten the fearful masses. In fact, she designed Haven’s Kitchen to be a literal safe haven for the famished in body and soul.

The evening I visited Haven’s Kitchen, Allison was preparing to teach a handful of students how to make gnocchi by hand. Even though I had only stopped by for a quick tour, Allison invited me to sit in on the class. After a warm welcome and the requisite hand-washing, she mentally prepped the class with a brief overview of gnocchi history, economics and culture. Needless to say, this is not your ordinary cooking school.

The class quickly continued with a quick overview of gnocchi cooking methods, led by Katie Carey, Haven’s Kitchen’s sous chef, and former head chef at Casellula Cheese & Wine Café . As Katie encouraged the students to start chopping potatoes, Allison jumped in with some kitchen science - explaining that it’s important to start boiling your potatoes in cold water, rather than hot (for the record - it heats the potato slowly, so that it cooks more evenly).

In addition to this multidiscliplinary approach to cooking, the mission to support sustainable, local food production distinguishes Haven’s Kitchen from the city’s other cooking schools. The message pervades the decisions made by the staff on a daily level. For example, Katie selected one of the sauces for the gnocchi because there was leftover basil from a summer- themed photo shoot that morning. And the tarts baked for said photo shoot? They were up for sale at the coffee bar.

Which brings me to the retail shop. When I first approached the entrance of Haven’s Kitchen, I couldn’t help but notice the constant stream of turning heads - neighborhood regulars curious to catch a glimpse of the elegant newcomer on the block. From behind the glass, artisanal goods from a carefully curated crop of local purveyors beckon - Bellocq Atelier’s artisanal tea, Old Field Farm’s raw honey and maple syrup, and Salvatore Brooklyn’s ricotta, to name a few - as well as Haven Kitchen’s house granola and pancake mix. The shop also sells books by modern sustainable chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi and Tamar Adler. And the aforementioned coffee bar sits just behind a friendly communal table, bedecked with a gleaming refurbished espresso maker that serves up coffee from La Colombe.

Beyond the retail shop is a winding wooden staircase to the second floor event space (to be expanded in the future with a third floor and rooftop garden). The stairwell is hung with vintage Parisian prints and movie posters, as well as an eclectic, minimalist “chandelier”. The upstairs cocktail area continues this aesthetic, with homey accents and a mildly mod, Parisian flair, while the dining room has a cleaner palate and features a kitchen for on-site food preparation. It’s easy to imagine you are a guest in a very chic friend’s apartment, which is exactly how events team, wants it. "The goal is to make Haven's Kitchen feel like you're in your own home - complete with a kitchen, dining room, and living room. We want to help throw your dream party minus the stress." I could easily envision planning a birthday, office party or even a wedding in the charming space.

The overarching result is an inviting escape from the city streets - in large part due to frequent French accents, hand-selected by Allison at Parisian flea markets. The black, white, yellow and wood accents (the gorgeous floors, by the way, are originals that were discovered during the renovation) are stylish, yet subtle, and the staff is equally chic and nonchalant, happy to answer questions or pause for a chat. In fact, there’s nothing dogmatic or overdone about Haven’s Kitchen, right down to the understated, hand- scrawled manifesto:

"Food : Buy it with thought; Cook it with care; Serve just enough; Save what will keep; Eat what would spoil; Home grown is best; Don’t waste it”.

Haven’s Kitchen 109 West 17th Street (212) 929-7900 http://havenskitchen.com/

 

*Article originally published in Müdd Magazine

eater's digest : txikito

Read the original post at HonestCooking.com.

When I lived in Paris, almost all my friends were Basque (or wanted to be).  I was addicted to their lively energy, their no-holds-barred humor and their endless appreciation for good food and drink.  At the same time,  “Basque” was becoming one of the hottest buzzwords in cuisine, in large part due to Ferran Adrià and the heavily Michelin-starred city of San Sebastián.  So it was with great anticipation and expectations that I finally visited the Pays Basque myself, an experience that can only be described as exceptional, given the region’s distinctive geographic diversity and resulting wealth of signature foodstuffs.

It’s this Basque commitment to and celebration of locally-sourced, exquisite ingredients that has typically made me skeptical of “Basque” spin-offs in the ‘States.  However, when I heard that an unpretentious, creative and stereotypically hard-to-pronounce Basque outpost had opened in Chelsea, I couldn’t help popping in for a bite.

I first visited Txikito during Cider Week, though the restaurant features the distinctively dry and acidic Basque cider year-round.  The ambiance mirrored that of its pizzeria neighbor, Co Pane, with clean lines and concrete floors.  The interior, in fact, set a precedent that stood throughout the meal: seeming simplicity backed by elevated conception.  Familiar flavors unfurled with new intensity, yet one never overpowered the other.  Odors evoked near-primal pleasure (I literally held the “grilled cheese” to my nose for about a minute before even tasting it).  It was all such an enjoyable blur that didn’t even think to document the experience.  So much the better, since I planned to come back.

This week offered the perfect opportunity to return to Txikito, with one of my favorite dining companions in tow.  Despite arriving early on a Monday night, the restaurant was already packed, so we seated ourselves at the small but pleasant bar.  My cohort had already heard me rave about the txixi txanpi (shrimp and wild mushroom grilled cheese), so that was quickly decided upon as our starter.  As previously implied, the odor of these perfectly ridged, miniature sandwiches is truly incomparable, their flavor grounded by earthy mushrooms and balanced by light, slightly sweet shrimp.

TXIPIRON "ENCEBOLLADO": squid ribbons a la plantxa w/ sweet onion and pine nuts

From there we chose the esparragos, (white asparagus, celery-black truffle vinaigrette and chopped egg), an elegant, well-balanced dish, though not the most remarkable on the menu. Then came the txipiron “encebollado” (squid ribbons over pine nut/sweet onion puree), a truly masterful display, in which typically chewy squid was transformed into tender, al dente “pasta” served over a mild, nutty-sweet sauce.  Still fawning over the squid, we dove into the albondigas, light and appropriately gamey lamb meatballs nestled in a bowl of savory, just-minty-enough broth (that brought out the best in bread-dunking).  We finished by munching on patatak mentaiko, crispy fries flecked with piment d’espelette and a mildly fishy cod roe mayo.  My companion deemed the fries a “must eat”, fingering them with the delight of a guilty child, a sentiment that reflected the organic, grateful delight that I have experienced with (almost) every bite at Txikito.

If there was one sad moment in this most happy of restaurant reruns, it was the discovery that the pochas (navarran white beans, bouchot mussels, white wine, parsley) were no longer on the menu.  These buttery, melt-in-your-mouth beans, laced with the lingering flavor of shellfish, had evoked a plate-licking urge in me that I had thought long-suppressed.  I can only hope they’ll return next bouchot season.

I cannot go so far as to say that every dish at Txikito is a stunner, (the first time I visited, I distinctly remember that the txitxiki (chorizo hash sandwiches) were good, but underwhelming) but any deviations from excellence are quickly forgiven, when one considers the outstanding whole of chef Alex Raij's work.  Her cuisine demonstrates a keen intuition for balancing flavors, odors and textures, providing the opportunity for both intello-foodie chatter and analysis-free enjoyment.  If the former will fill Txikito’s seats for the moment, the latter will enlist it as a NYC staple for years to come.

Txikito 240 Ninth Ave, between 24th/25th Streets 212.242.4730 reservations@txikitonyc.com