Reality-Based Gastronomic Opinions
Neighborhood: East Village
Date: October 22, 2011, 1:00pm-5:00pm
Fourth Arts Block (FAB) is a non-profit founded in 2001 to establish and advance the “East Fourth Street Cultural District”, the block on East Fourth Street between Second Avenue and Bowery. This is purportedly the most active cultural block in NYC and is home to dozens of art groups, performance space, cultural facilities and the like. These were the guys behind the East Village Eats Tasting Tour ($50 regular; $29 via Thrillist promotion) which took place on a bright and lovely Saturday afternoon in October.
The idea was to get people down into the Fourth Street area and into small local businesses that they might not have experienced before, by enticing each restaurant to serve a small bite to passing ticket-holders. We at Insolent Gourmet love a win-win scenario, and this was a good example of one: the restaurants benefited from exposure to a new customer base, the ticket-holders experimented with new venues on an easy-to-follow pre-planned route, and the organizers got to raise some money for their non-profit. Ta-dow. One thing for next year though, guys: add booze to the equation. Though the selection of participating restaurants was broad and inclusive, the selection of bites would have been a whole lot better with a pairing – even a modest one – of wine or beer. Especially for the ticket price. And especially for the target demographic of the tour itself, which based on the participants seen on the circuit, seemed to be 25-35 artsy types. Glug glug, yo.
Teetotalism aside, the organization of the event and its delivery was crisp an on-point. Ticket-holders received an email with instructions to check in after 1:00pm at the starting point, a tent outside the East Village Visitors Center on Fourth Street between Second Avenue and Bowery. Friendly FAB volunteers handed out warm welcomes, wristbands, compostable sporks, and maps with the tour locations. And then – off to the races. They recommended 1.5-2 hours to complete the tour, which was about right. Participating restaurants were scattered within the rectangle formed by Lafayette Street, First Street, Avenue B, and Fourteenth Street.
The first stop was within the ticketing tent itself – FAB Café was pouring eight ounce cups of hot MUD Coffee to give you a little vroom-vroom for the eating and walking ahead. Nice touch.
Just a few yards down the street, The Banana Cart was handing out sliced chocolate-covered banana slices on a stick, out of their refrigerated cart. These girls do catering too, and can come up with just about any flavor of dipped bananas for corporate events, birthday parties etc.
Just a few yards further was Cucina Di Pesce, one of those Italian places you’ve walked by a million times but never stopped at. Now we know why. The bar area and dining room was drab and sloppy. There were holes in the walls with electrical wires spilling out. This is your day to shine, guys, get it together. Also, the bites were mediocre – the soggy trio of bruschetta (sautéed mushrooms, chopped tomato and basil, white bean spread) was pretty whack. Luckily, happy hour was in effect and two-for-one Morettis washed it down quickly and got us out the door quickly and back on track.
East Village mainstay pub Swift was next, and they were offering slices of a sausage roll consisting of Myers Of Keswick sausage with smoked bacon, wrapped in puff pastry, and finished with a dollop of beer mustard. The sausage was bland and even the mustard didn’t do enough for it. The dough was a bit soggy (crisp it up please!) and was served rather unceremoniously on a paper napkin over the counter by a barback. The pub itself was awesome though, full of wooden nooks and crannies, decked out for Halloween, and populated by a cool constituency of chilled-out day-drinkers. Glad to see this classic still going strong.
Bowery Mexican upstart Hecho En Dumbo had a chef up by the front door preparing truly delicious carnitas de costilla – Berkshire pork ribs slow roasted in their own fat and served with a crazy spicy guacamole salsa, topped with cilantro and fresh onion. The meat literally fell off the bone and the habanero salsa gave it a killer zing. The venue itself was cozy – think textured wood and Edison lights.
There is a funky little alley behind the old CBGB’s space that sort of ends in the middle of the block, a la Freeman’s Alley. It’s called Extra Place and is home to a few art galleries and a taqueria called Oaxaca. This was definitely a tasty find, and you’d never know it was there just walking down First Street. The Mexi café is found at the end of the alley and has ten or so outdoor tables, and a few high-tops inside near the counter. It’s nothing fancy, and the kitchen is really just a prep area behind the counter, but the mini-burritos they were offering – chicken, pork, potato (!) – were rich, flavorful and very high quality. This place definitely needs to be on the shortlist of affordable and tasty lunch options in the area.
By far the most amazing find of the entire tour was Mono + Mono, a Korean-run “analog music pub and eatery” capitalizing on the recent Korean fried chicken fad. This room is simply amazing. It’s a huge wood space with very high ceilings, skylights, massive glass “garage” doors, distressed metal, a distinct industrial feel, and a sole, niche musical and visual aesthetic – underground jazz vinyl records. They are everywhere. On a massive shelving unit ten shelves high (30,000 vinyl records). Hanging from a conveyor chain near the ceiling and rotating around the perimeter of the room. In the kickass DJ booth overlooking the proceedings. The owner obviously has a jazz vinyl fetish, but the design and presentation of the room is world-class and truly awesome. There is even a vintage piano in the middle of the dining area with an improvised drinking counter bolted on around it’s perimeter and flanked with bar stools. So cool. And the fried chicken? Wow! Sweet and crispy on the outside. Salty, soft, seasoned on the inside. Somehow not greasy at all. This is no average wing. This is the top of the artform. The beer selection was legit as well, ranging from crafty German Schlenkerla Marzer to luxurious Japanese Hitachino White. If you haven’t already, go to Mono + Mono asap. We’ll be hibernating here all winter long.
Jimmy’s No. 43was a bit of a letdown, with no banh mi pork sandwiches, as advertised. The semi-divey subterranean grotto did hold a certain appeal, however, and merits a future stop on the Saturday day-drinking circuit. The space is cozy and full of twists and turns, unexpected counter spaces, and a cool selection of quality beers leaning towards the craft department.
Hole in the wall Luke’s Lobster was a little slice of Maine right here in Manhattan. The place was tinier than your living room, and the line went two storefronts down the block. Eight frenzied workers were packed behind the small service counter readying fantastic shrimp rolls – Maine shrimp on a toasted bun with a dab of mayo, lemon butter, and a secret blend of spices (cumin?). The result was delicious and authentic, without being heavy or too rich. The small chalkboard menu listed other options to return for, notably the lobster roll which was touted as being the best in NYC.
Overall, this was a fun way to spend an afternoon, and some notable finds emerged for future visits. $50 was too steep given the quantity of bites offered, and the highly conspicuous absence of alcohol included in the deal. Ideal (and more fair) would have been $25 for bites only, $50 for bites plus small pairings. This was definitely a cool neighborhood to experience in this way, and the event is recommended for next year.
Participating restaurants not covered in this review:
Destination Bar & Grille (buttery pretzels, IPA-horseradish mustard)
Idle Hands (eight ounce NYC Lager with tater tots and bourbon ketchup)
Xoom (Mini spicy ginger chai latte)
La Lucha (Carnitas taco bite)
Overall Rating (Participating Restaurants, Food Quality)
Quality was touch and go; definitely some new finds worth returning to, but some restaurants didn’t belong in this lineup… or didn’t care enough to represent with an exemplary bite.
Writing and photos by Eric Reithler-Barros