Let’s talk about ridiculous. That’s what you get when you throw a bunch of cooks and front of house friends together on a Sunday. Sundays are truly a day of rest for the restaurant world. It’s a time to catch up with friends, relax and eat. Every other month or so, we all manage to get together and spend the entire day as a family. A tradition has evolved over the years and it involves stomach impacting amounts of food and minimal cash transactions.
Today, a bunch of friends met at Jing Fong for the observance of the dim sum fest. We piled around a table, knocking elbows and jostling for chopsticks, and promptly summoned over every cart lady in the near vicinity. Our table was quickly filled with steaming trays of bean curd, pork ribs, chicken feet, and mountains of dumplings. We caught up, told stories of chefs throwing pans across kitchens, peppered our entertainment with multiple trips to the buffet, and rested our bellies in preparation for round two of our eating ritual.
After jean buttons were re-buttoned, mouths wiped clean and hair patted back in place, we resumed our place on the streets of Chinatown and struck out due south towards the Ice Cream Factory. Every single time I step inside this place, I get my hopes up that today will be the day that durian ice cream is finally in stock. In the past, I had always been rejected with a “sold out” when I requested a sample of the durian ice cream, but today my stars must have been aligned. Not only did I finally get to sample this tropical, cold treat, but they also had pandan flavored ice cream. Of course, after all these months of mild frustration at the lack of durian ice cream, I resorted to my old standby and chose the cherry pistachio and black sesame combo instead! We all strolled towards Christopher Columbus park, forcing our tummies to make good on that secret dessert pocket we’re always hearing about. I found mine and the ice cream disappeared within minutes.
I have to interject this eating account with a surprising item we found today when we stepped into a meat butcher off of Mott St. We were all scoffing at the price of meat sold outside of Chinatown. I went to the green market on Friday and almost choked on my apple when I saw pork belly being sold for $10/lb. I buy mine in C-town for $2. Anyway, we paused at the butcher’s counter, and low and behold, there were four alligator arms priced for $3.99/lb. Now, I don’t know a whole lot about alligator, but I do know that I’ve never seen it sold at Whole Foods or an Associated, let alone the farmers’ market. I found it pretty exciting…and for that price, it definitely merits a dinner experimentation.
Anyway, our next destination was the movie theatres where we could revel in our food induced comas and oggle the actors in the new Bond film. But wouldn’t you know that while standing in line to buy a ticket, we ran into another pastry cook friend from Jean-Georges. She had recently been to the friends and family for Momofuku’s new Milk Bar and had glowing things to say about the food. I had heard about the concept of the pastry corner attached to Ssäm Bar and was intrigued to see what the food was all about. We all looked at each other, synchronically stepped out of line and made for the exit. My stomach, on the other hand, realized what the reality of the situation was and begged me to walk away. Quickly. However, against my better judgement, I joined the march down the street with a cortege of cooks who were all eager to taste the new addition to David Chang’s empire.
We stepped inside the space which was minimalist and clean, just like the preceding three restaurants. A line was wrapped around inside the tiny room, and it took about twenty minutes to place an order. But in the meantime, we could watch cookies being scooped, blue cheese polenta being warmed, and cakes being decorated– all from the extremely open kitchen. I love open kitchens as much as the next person because you, as a customer, get to experience a bit of the magic that normally takes place behind swinging doors. It’s a form of entertainment. At the milk bar, this much is true, but I also saw a customer leaning over the low partition to ask the pastry chef a question. I’m not too keen on the idea of a kitchen being so exposed and accessible, but then again, it’s not my kitchen.
But that’s basically where any of my concerns ended. We ordered a few items off the menu and then scolded ourselves for our multiple late afternoon restaurant visits. I scanned the room to make sure there were no fellow dim sum diners, or ice cream attendees, there to judge us on our endless eating excursions. I partook in the chiding, but secretly was rejoicing at the idea of tasting the pies, cookies and other carbohydrate loaded treats that were being warmed in the bread ovens.
I think the Milk Bar picked the perfect season to open. It was a brisk 55 degrees today, everyone was wearing layers of scarves and coats, and we were all snuggled inside the warm environment waiting to fill our faces with toasty breads and sweet desserts. The couple next to us was sharing a soy pistachio caramel soft serve, pumpkin pie and some fresh bread. I could only be envious for a few moments before Styrofoam boxes were plopped in front of our noses and brought my attention back to the food that would soon be joining the dim sum in my tummy. We opened the containers and drooled at the sight of the Dulce de Leche cake. It was three layers of incredibly dense, tooth-achingly sweet caramel goodness. I took a few bites of the cake and had to close my eyes. It was possibly the richest cake I’ve ever tasted. And the behemoth slice they served us could easily serve three, so for $5 dollars, I would say it was worth the joy and cavities it provided. The snicker doodle was also large, moist and utterly appropriate for fall. The grand finale was something termed a volcano. This volcano is destructive and should be handled with caution. This savory item is composed of potato gratin, bacon, and melted onions, all tucked inside a bread and baked to perfection. Then it’s topped with Gruyere. It’s rich and hearty, completely satisfying and explosively delicious. This volcano tipped me over the brink of satiety and I was forced to head home and recover on the sofa…and plan my dinner menu.
The tried and true dim sum and ice cream is alway a fun Sunday outing. The friends, familiarity, and cheap food make it the perfect eating grounds for a bunch of minimally paid cooks. But David Chang’s new Momofuku could easily make a play for that position with its sweet and savory low-priced offerings. I’m not saying I’m ready to give up our dim sum tradition quite yet, but I will say that the Milk Bar will definitely be a new tradition for many cooks and diners alike.
Jing Fong 20th Elizabeth St. For tasty dim sum and extreme interior decor, check out this dumpling wonderland, but be prepared to track down your food and wait in lines for the buffet. It’s quite the experience…and very, very cheap.
Momofuku Milk Bar is attached to Ssam Bar at 207 2nd Avenue, on the corner of 13th and 2nd. You can stop in for an affordable mid-afternoon treat of soft serve, chocolate milk and pie, or make a meal of it with a volcano, some pork buns and a sweet chocolate chip cookie to round out the deal.