Nestled in what seemed to be a-tiny-shop-house-at-first-glance on the second floor of 230 E 9th Street is Japanese dessert house Cha-An. Unlike the charming, dainty exteriors that many cafes or restaurants attempt to put up in order to lure patrons in, Cha-An is almost unobtrusive; the only thing that indicates that you’re in the right place is a monotone black and white color signboard that writes “Cha-An”. Its Japanese name spans almost ¾ the board however, and for non-Japanese speaking, “Cha-An” is written in such a small font at the top of the board that it becomes almost unnoticeable without squinting.
Walk in however, you immediately feel as if you are transported to Kyoto – wooden chairs and tables, bamboo walls, tea cups and pots everywhere, minimal lighting, Japanese conversations, or accents at the very least. Although Cha-An serves savory food such as donburi and various kinds of Japanese appetizers (they also have one of the best value set lunches), Cha-An focuses more on tea and sweets. It’s a shame though, that I did not get to try one of their 11 different kinds of green tea as experiencing the entire tea ceremony would definitely be quintessentially Cha-An.
While Cha-An offers the classical and the traditional with desserts such as Mochi, Hojicha Anmitsu (Green tea jelly with sweet black syrup), and definitely with its tea offerings, Cha-An also offers unique tantalizing fusion desserts that incorporate Japanese flavors with French techniques. Their signature dessert, the Black Sesame Crème Brulee, topped with black sesame ice cream and a sesame tuile ($9), is one example. Beneath the crackling of the caramelized sugar is a slightly sweet, crème anglaise that had a strong, earthy, roasted black sesame flavor. It was perfectly smooth, thick and creamy. It was not cloyingly sweet, the caramelized sugar provided just the right amount sweetness.
We also had their Seasonal Chestnut Flan with Red Bean, Chestnutand a Momiji Leaf ($8). I’m not a huge fan of flans. To me they’re merely just a “sophisticated” name for pudding. Unquestionably though, the flan had such a smooth texture that each spoonful almost seem to melt in your mouth. The chestnut flavor was subtle, but you definitely get that nutty aftertaste. A+ for plating though, Cha-An definitely takes pride in all the minute details such that each dish eventually looks like an art piece.
Although Cha-An is situated in the perhaps the most quiet, unseen, location of the East Village, be prepared to be greeted by a crowd of people waiting in line. No reservations, just leave your name and they’ll call you back when the table is ready. But I assure you the wait will be worth it, because Cha-An serves traditional Japanese desserts with a modern twist, in the most traditional Japanese tea-houses ever in NYC, and that experience alone, I doubt you will ever find anywhere else here in the state.
As a student, I’m always on the look out for places to study, places that are inviting, relaxing and charming enough to make me feel both comfortable and energized. Forget about the school library or Starbucks that are usually cramped full of students with their laptops and a mountain pile of paper. Yes, daunted by the stern eyes, creased eyebrows and pursed lips, they force me to study, but in the most uncomfortable and exhausting way. Personally, I prefer studying in cafes that seem to rejuvenate my energy level with its bright, open, chic interior design. Plus with fresh food and high quality coffee, I feel inspired almost automatically to finish my toughest piece of homework. Two Hands, located right on the border of Little Italy and Chinatown, turns out to be my absolute go-to study spot.
I like how Two Hands encompasses features of both the old and the new. Not only do the wooden brick walls and cast-iron pillars make you feel comfortable and nostalgic, the hanging magazine rack and white tiles on the opposite side of the room make you feel so revitalized. Two Hands also offers healthy, locally sourced food such as sandwiches and salads that feature seasonal ingredients, freshly-squeezed juices, smoothies and coffee. My favorite item is the beautifully plated Acai bowl with granola, chia seed, hemp seed, coconut flakes, pistachio and berries. The acai berry is considered a “superfood” that’s loaded with antioxidants. When blended, it reminds you almost of slightly melted ice cream – sweet, thick and creamy, you’ll definitely want to wake up earlier every morning just for a bowl. You could top it with any ingredient you desire. But with crunchy granola and pretty neutral-tasting seeds, every spoonful is balanced in terms of texture and flavor.
In addition, you can trust that you’ll get the finest Nicaraguan coffee with a beautiful latte art. I had my usual cup of Flat Whiteand just one whiff of the earthy and nutty aroma, my mood instantly awakens. Indeed, Two Hands proves to be a rare café that places equal emphasis on both its food and its coffee, making it an ideal spot for a laid-back afternoon, or a place you’re looking to increase your productivity levels.
After having been in New York for almost 5 months now, I’ve finally tried the legendary epoch-defining-in-the-pastry-world (however you describe it) Cronut at Dominique Ansel Bakery and experienced the intense agony of having to wait in line for almost an hour. My experience though, was made even more tearful and dreadful because it was -10C (~15F) and unforgivingly windy this morning. When we got there at about 7am, there was already a line of about 10-15 people right in front of the shop. The line got longer and longer every minute, and everyone was freezing, moving our legs and body even the slightest bit, attempting to un-numb our little toes and fingers and keep our body warm in any possible way. Yes, probably not the best idea to wait in line for Cronuts this time of the year. If you’re smarter though, unlike most of us, you could pre-order your Cronuts on the bakery’s website without enduring the harsh, chilly winter weather.
At 7.30am, when it seemed like we’ve waited for almost forever and were finally going in to get what we’ve all been waiting for, a lady comes out and offers us coffee. Good gesture though, but nah, we want our Cronuts. And the arduous wait continued and the anticipation heightened. Finally at 8am, before opening their doors officially, staffs came out to offer us a small cup of hot chocolate and freshly baked madeleines. – a small appreciative gesture Dominique Ansel makes to the early morning customers that stand in line even with the cold. And then we were let into the shop, 20 each time, to get our long-awaited pastry that has no doubt become one of the trendiest new food item and the most virally talked about dessert in history.
Every month, the flavor of the Cronut changes, usually with what’s in season, but not always. For the month of January, it is Caramelized Malt Valrhona Milk Chocolate with Maldon Salt(And for February, for those of you thinking of getting some, it will be Cherry Blossom Ganahe and Sour Cherry Gelee with citrus sugar). At $5.00 for each pastry, it’s definitely attached with a slightly hefty price tag, but I will assure you that it is worth the price. Not necessarily worth the wait however, especially in this brutal winter, but definitely worth the experience.
Made fresh daily in house every morning, the Cronuts served are as fresh as it gets – filled with cream and finished off even as close as a few minutes before you get it. The result is a pastry that contains uncountable flaky layers like that of a croissant, but has a shape and texture of almost a donut, crispy on the outside, coating your lips with sugar each time you bite into, but soft and tender in the inside. The pastry cream oozes out from the inside, making each bite exciting and multi-dimensional, and you start to think about that jam or cream-filled doughnut that you’ve always loved. The milk chocolate was not overly sweet, and you could definitely taste that hint of salt at the back of your tongue.
20 by 20, people streamed into the shop for Cronuts until it was sold out by 9.30am (but the crowd definitely continued for the other mouthwatering desserts). It’s definitely insane, if you think about it. The Cronut has proved that it was not a mere hype, but evidently a revolutionary excitement in the culinary world that’s here to stay for a long time. One thing for sure, however, is that I probably won’t be back till the weather calms down and appears to be more friendly. In the mean time, that was absolutely one heck of a sweet morning that I’m proud to have experienced and said I have to other food enthusiasts around the world.
More often than not, dining rooms in hotels serve up overpriced unexciting simple dishes catered to “satisfy” the often-uninformed taste buds of foreigners who, after a day of travelling from miles away or a day of exploring the city, turn up too tired to even hunt further for delicious food (except foodies like me and you of course) and end up settling down for the comfort of their own place of stay (that is the hotel). Reasons why dining at hotels are generally more expensive is because of the supposedly more upscale atmosphere or service, which may or may not be accomplished. Dishes are often boring and uninspiring – the standard eggs benedict, oatmeal and pancakes for breakfast, salad, sandwiches and pasta for lunch, and heavier mains for dinner. Buffet brunches that feature merely a wide spread of probably-leftover international spread are often crazily priced. Nothing special done, leaving me to conclude 90% of the time that the hefty price tags are unjustified.
Yet, it is that 10% of the time where food is done well – high quality ingredients, cooked perfectly – and service is impeccable, that makes you want to come back to a hotel again and again, despite knowing that you could probably get as exciting food that is more reasonably priced. Either way, whatever, delicious food and good service calls for regular visits.
The Back Room at New York’s Park Hyatt Hotel is one of those hotel dining rooms that I would eagerly wake up every morning just not to miss my breakfast. Food is simple, yet done well, with a touch of their own specialty here and there. Ingredients used are also seasonal and fresh. Definitely not the most reasonable place to get your traditional breakfast food, but its extremely mouthwatering exceptional.
During the fall/winter, they offered the Sweet Potato Pancakes, salted caramel sauce, pecans ($20). The pancakes were thick, light and fluffy and the density of the sweet potato itself definitely did not come through. The sweet potato did lend it a hearty flavor, and the salted caramel sauce had the right balance between sweet and salty.
Another dish featured during the fall/winter was the Pumpkin French Toast, pepitas, warm spices ($20). Like the pancake, I absolutely did not find any much flaws in this dish – they were balanced in both flavor and texture wise. The French toast was not eggy at all, and it was soft enough to sink into your teeth with the slightest chew. Again, the pumpkin lent the dish a heartiness instead of mere dessert-sweetness that many French toast provides.
Granola parfait, organic yogurt, berries, honey($16). I love granolas that are exceptionally crunchy and not over-the-top sweet. The drizzle of jam on the top was unnecessary I felt as the granola was sweet enough to counteract the tanginess of the yogurt. The berries were also exceptionally sweet, which goes to show the freshness and seasonality of ingredients that the chef takes pride in.
Main lobster with egg white scramble, avocado, spinach, preserved lemon, tarragon ($26). Rich dish, absolutely, but there was just enough of everything so as to not make the dish a mash up of some sort. The claws of the lobster were perfectly shucked and cooked – not at all rubbery with a slight hint of sweetness. The eggs too, were cooked to my liking – they were still a little runny at the centre and there were no signs of any other colour other than white. Everything was seasoned well, and the lemon and tarragon rounded off the whole dish by providing a slight lightness and zing. Another commendable aspect of this dish is the plating. Instead of getting chunks of lobster meat mixed into the scramble, a whole claw seats atop the dish, retaining the integrity of the meat itself and allowing you to savour and appreciate it on your own.
You could really just make these dishes right in your kitchen. I mean yogurt and granola, and scrambled eggs, spinach and avocado, there’s really nothing much difficult with them. But what makes me think that The Back Room is worth it is their use of seasonal fresh ingredients, showcasing simplicity and refined techniques done at its best.
“I see ice cream as a universal food. You don’t need teeth to eat ice cream – you can be 8 months old, you can be 108 years old. You can be the richest man in America, or you can be the poorest man,” said co-owner Douglas Quint. Wise indeed, don’t you think? More often than not, we take granted of the uniting experience or the togetherness that eating ice cream brings for us. We focus rather on its flavor, on its taste, basically on how good or bad it is, or how satisfied we are with our treat that we simply forget the mere idea that it gives us the opportunity to come together as a family as friends. With their unique ice cream creations, owners Douglas Quint and Bryan Petroff thus seeked to point out exactly just what all of us seemed to miss out on – that eating ice cream is all about having fun.
Started as a truck in the summer 2009 that served merely an elevated version of Mister Softee with its novelty topping combinations, Big Gay Ice Creamhas since become a New York favorite, an icon even, that it debuted its first shop in the East Village 2 years later and in the West Village the following year. Not long after, they launched a new soft serve base made with high quality Ronnybrook dairy. The result is an ice cream that is unmistakably rich and creamy with the right density to provide a substantial base for all that toppings.
Salty Pimp: vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, sea salt, chocolate dip (front). Probably featured most in several media publications, the Salty Pimp definitely leaves up to its expectation with its balance between sweet and salty (my absolute favourite flavor combination). The chocolate sauce freezes instantly when in contact with the cold surface, forming an essential crunchy textural element. When you bite into it, you get that salty taste from the dulce de leche sauce that had been drizzled all over the vanilla ice cream
Bea Arthur: vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, crushed nilla wafers (centre and back). My friend had asked for that additional chocolate dip on the top. If not, instead of that crunchy chocolate shell in the salty dip, here, the crushed nilla wafers provides that textural element, albeit less evidently, but just enough to coat your mouth a little.
Rocky Roadhouse: chocolate ice cream, almonds, marshmallows, chocolate bits. If you are a chocolate lover, this is definitely the choice to go. Right after the first picture was taken, we had to put it down immediately because it could barely even hold up all the toppings it contains. In every bite, you get a mouthful of everything – the crunch element, or the chewy element against the soft creamy ice cream base.
American Globs: vanilla ice cream, sea salt, extra dark pretzel, chocolate dip. This, together with the Salty Pimp, are my favourites. Although theres definitely one less sweet and salty element without the dulce de leech, I like that extra crunch from the pretzel.
Big Gay Ice Cream’s success can be rightly attributed to their attention to both flavor and textural details. In every of their creation, there is crunchy and creamy, sweet and salty or if not restrained sweetness despite the various toppings. Good news, Big Gay Ice Cream are opening in LA and Philadelphia soon!
Big Gay Ice Cream East Village 125 East 7th Street New York NY 10009 Tel: 212-533-9333
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