Yesterday, I had the opportunity to participate in the East Village Eats Tasting Tour to benefit Fourth Arts Block. Organized as a pre-paid walking and eating tour, the weather cooperated fully, giving us a glorious fall day to wander around from restaurant to shop to bar enjoying samples of their specialties. I'd invited along a friend with whom I hadn't had a chance to catch up in a few weeks.
Apparently, I wasn't the only one who'd grabbed my buddies to hang out for the day, spork in hand and as our guide. We saw several other groups of folks moving along the same edible path as we were. The atmosphere was very relaxed and casual, and there were almost no waits at any of the vendors, with the exception of a few, and even those lines moved fairly quickly. What was great for me is that it dragged me down to the East Village, where I rarely actually hang out.
The nice thing about this activity, as well, was that the overall area of the tour was kept pretty consolidated with several clusters of places to visit. The portions were generally good-sized tastings, which kept us full but not overly so that we didn't want anything from the next place. I wouldn't have minded a few more sweet bites along the way, but that is probably just my tastebuds talking. I hope that the organizers thought that this was worth doing because I really enjoyed it and would like to see it happen again, perhaps with even more venues participating.
We managed to make it to thirteen of the eighteen locations on the map. Here was the order of our itinerary (numbers follow key on the map):
1. Bond Street Chocolate
Right next to the check-in point, this was the perfect kick-start to the tour. I mean, it is chocolate, right, so how can it fail? The Coffee, Cardamom, and Chili Pepper had a rich, subtle flavor building up to each successive spice with the kick of the chili hitting right at the end. The Szechuan Peppercorn was nice and peppery.
What was really cool, however, was their Divine Collection: gold-sprayed, molded chocolates available for purchase in the store. My friend thought that the Buddha would be perfect to keep on her office desk, for those days when you need chocolate enlightenment. I just loved the Virgin Mary and Sacred Heart of Jesus ones. I think someone is getting at least one of these as a Christmas stocking stuffer (although I really want to see if they'll have a crèche for the holidays)
2. Cucina di Pesce
As you can see from the plate above, they offered us an impressive sampling of their appetizers. We had a typical bruschetta, one with a white bean tomato spread, a mini stack of mozzarella and tomato with balsamic vinegar, and another of eggplant, goat's cheese, and red pepper with pesto. These savory bites were a wonderful counterpoint to our sweet start. My friend said that she remembered this spot from many years ago, when she used to go there because her brother lived in the neighborhood. It was one of those, "Wow, I forgot how good their food was, and maybe I should make plans to come back here moments."
We were given a sample of their warm, savory Moorish Chicken Skewer with a dollop of humus and crispy slices of pita bread. The flavors were nicely complex and made me wish that we had had a few more small tastes of some of their other menu items. This is definitely on my list of places to come back to in the future. I'd love to try their tagine and other specialties.
6. Mono + Mono
I can't rave enough about the coolness of the decor at this next stop. My friend and I walked into it and immediately decided that that the design gave it top marks, even before we had anything to eat. Organized around a jazz theme, with high ceilings, rough dark wooden tables, and record albums used for tasteful but not overwhelming decoration, this is what a modern Village bar/hangout should look like. That was before we tried the Korean Fried Chicken that was on offer at this stop. With delicate Asian seasoning and super-crispy skin that peeled away to reveal steamy, tender meat, I could definitely have eaten several small plates of these. This place jumped to number one on our lists of places to which to return, hopefully with a very handsome date in tow.
We next headed several streets over to some of the places on the most eastern edge of the map, filling each other in on our lives' recent events along the way. We checked out d.b.a, which has an amazing assortment of beers on tap. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the choice and not quite ready for something alcoholic yet, we skipped over this stop to search for more food. I need to find one of my more beer-savvy friends to bring to this place the next time I can get on his calendar because I've heard great things about it and would like to visit it again.
8. Nicky's Vietnamese Sandwiches
With the bahn mi explosion that has taken hold of the city, I was glad that this shop was on our tour. It would be a bit out of the way for me to go for lunch, but I loved the tangy, crunch, savory Classic Vietnamese Sandwich that we were able to taste. Given that I had to pace myself for more tasty treats to come on the tour, I had to resist the urge to buy another whole sandwich just to have to myself.
This Italian restaurant had a great rustic, country feel to it and some drool-worthy dishes listed on their chalkboard menu. Fortunately for me, the sample of their cooking that we tried was one of my favorite appetizers: Mushrooms Trifolati. As we walked out, headed back uptown, my friend and I eyed the plates of the brunch diners and vowed that we would make another trip back here in the future, maybe even to bring said dates from place #6 for dinner.
5. Luke's Lobster
We hit our first real line of the walking tour at this popular East Village spot. It was to be expected, and the staff handled it very well, I thought. It was helpful, too, that no one seemed particularly stressed about hanging out in the cool-crisp, fall air to wait for the sweet Maine shrimp rolls they were giving to us on this stop (see the roll on the right in the photo). The warm, buttery roll and the heaping pile of tender, delicate shrimp with a dusting of seasoning made the wait all the worthwhile.
15. Xi'an Famous Foods
My palate took a big, spicy hit, after the briny tang of the ocean on our previous stop, with these Liang Pi Cold Skin Noodles. Although really delicious, loaded with nice big chunks of seitan and studded with bean sprouts and vegetables, these definitely needed a cold beer to wash them down as they were a bit on the too hot side for me. We were, however, a few stops away from that end goal.
14. Tu-Lu's Gluten Free Bakery
For my friends who can't eat wheat flour, one of the main food items that they tell me they miss, aside from pasta, is sweets. I haven't really explored the world of gluten-free desserts, but every time a new place opens they flock to it to test their wares. My first taste of this new world was a Red Velvet Cupcake from this bakery. I'm a big fan of the small-bite cupcakes as they provide that little hit of sweet at the end of the meal without being too heavy. This one did not disappoint in that category, with moist cake and creamy frosting. My friend even picked up a couple of the chocolate ones to snack on later.
7. MUD Truck
Feeling our spirits flagging just a little bit, and knowing that there were still few more stops on the map that we'd wanted to try, it was time for some caffeine. Fortunately, the wise organizers of this event realized that this might be an issue for some of us and arranged for this street-side coffee vendor to participate. We were evidently not the only folks who felt this way, as this was the second line we had to stand on yesterday. Caffé macchiato in hand, I was ready to tackle more eats.
We almost had an 'incident' on the way to our next food location. Momentarily energized by our previous stop, I spied a massive collection of record albums for sale on St. Marks Place, highlighted by these two selections from the 80s. I could have dawdled for a while just checking out the merchandise. After exchanging a bit of trivia with the stand's manager, my smart friend kept me focussed on our ultimate goal of an end-of-tour beer and more food and assisted me in moving along.
4. Hecho en Dumbo
Good thing she did, as we had a very tasty bite at this next place. If you can see it in the photo, you can just tell that the sign underneath used to read "Hershey's Ice Cream," which just demonstrates the transitory nature of food in the city. If we'd decided to make this our last stop, I would have happily eaten a whole plateful of these Tostadas de Dzik, cool drink in hand. On top of a crispy, homemade corn tostado, was the most amazing braised venison cooked in a pulled-pork manner tossed with cili, cilantro, citrus, and other ingredients to create a savory-spicy mouth explosion. The meat was so tender and delicious that even the most game-averse person would have enjoyed its soft flavors and punchy kick.
Originally not one of the places that we were going to try, the fact that we did stop in at this Cooper Square Hotel location illustrates how well-organized this tour was. Having the venues arranged that you could just drop by on the way from one place to another meant that we were able to check out the cool, clean interior of this bar and to pop one of their Garlic Nodini with whipped ricotta, a perfect-sized snack, into our mouths en route to our final destination.
17. Jimmy's No. 43
We'd run into Jimmy, whom my friend knows and whom I met while volunteering at Pig Island earlier this month, when we were a few stops into the food tour. He was glad to hear that we were supporting the neighborhood and confirmed that we would stop into to his place later on in the day. This was our end goal: beer, digesting our meals, and debriefing the day at Jimmy's. I don't have a photo for you of what I drank because I'll encourage you instead to head down there for one yourself, but I had the Sixpoint Amber Ale, which was similar in taste to their Signal Ale from Pig Island. The robust, toasted wheat flavor was the perfect end to a delicious day.