Ways of Eating /

On the Fundamentalist Pastry: Lunch at the Trie Café

Have you ever watched an adult man eat a muffin? The scene I encountered at the Trie Café at the Met Cloisters should be familiar to anyone. A guy carrying a brown plastic cafeteria tray takes a table all by himself. He’s got the muffin with him, plus a fruit cup and an unidentifiable hot drink (UHD). The patio is open, and the air is nice. It’s mid-afternoon, and the shaded arcades overlook a running fountain surrounded by wild grasses — “a rustic garth,” you remember from Renaissance art history class. The man sits upright in a black metal patio chair and absentmindedly picks at the muffin. Casually, he stops, having reached an invisible barrier. You guessed right: he’s not going to eat the bottom half.

That no one eats the bottom, or muffin stump, is by now a tired joke, and it speaks to why muffins are kept an arm’s length from contemporary food standards (or reasonable taste). But it’s 2018. Why do we continue to let ourselves be fooled? Taken at face value, muffins are moist, sticky, oily, and sweet. The crumb is good. And there’s that glimmering crust of sandy sugar. To sink your teeth into the common mass-produced muffin conveys substance, but we all know its real name: cake. Specifically pound cake. Another lukewarm explanation concerns their democratic appeal. Nostalgic delight, cheap compromise, unabashed junk, ersatz delicacy, ironic treat, empty carbs, yummy snack, or caloric overkill, they are versatile, and suit a variety of people and needs. Ultimately, though, a more captivating mystery lies in their inexplicable color. Don’t look for lemon, vanilla, or even banana flavor on the ingredients list. No one knows why they’re bright yellow. In the end, the easiest answer is tradition. Because, in truth, the muffin is a fundamentalist pastry.

The muffin is but a byproduct of a monopoly operated by the craft services industry. Charging high prices for mediocre food and, most of all, convenience, for years they essentially wrote the rules for places like the Trie Café. So my encounter with the muffin man seems especially strange in light of a growing trend among traditional museums, zoos, and even airports to finally adapt their menu to more worldly tastes. Why didn’t this guy go with a Pilsner Urquell or a weissbier instead of the UHD? What drove him to choose a muffin over one of the newly available artisan sandwiches? Really, he didn’t have to. The Trie Café’s menu reflects this sea change, in spite of the intransigent demand for muffins.

One glance at the menu reveals there’s something with “broccoli raab” in it. That’s impressive. The novel inclusion of bitter greens amid the pantheon of processed foods was reason enough for me to order it, no matter what form it took. Unfortunately, though, it came as a really bready sandwich. Disappointment was easily thwarted by turning it into a more appetizing, open-faced option. Sweet pepper sauce and salty olive spread season the greens, which, in spite of the dulling effects of being served right out of the refrigerator, retain their bite and tang. In the end, it’s the surprise complement of sesame seeds that makes this sandwich a keeper.

Pilsner and M&M cookie
Pilsner and M&M cookie

My tray was also filled out with a ham and gruyère sandwich, a garden salad, an M&M cookie, and the aforementioned Pilsner. Perhaps given the context, I might be forgiven for my selection of the ham and gruyère. The Trie Café has a euro theme, and ham sandwiches are the thing you buy in the capitals of Europe. But seeing as the meat was disturbingly sweet, I felt silly and sentimental for making the association. Jambon-beurre this was not. The salad, too, lacked the freshness I’d have expected while eating sur l’herbes (or at least next to l’herbes). The appearance within the plastic container was enterprising enough: a crisp lettuce mix, some buttons of English cucumbers, and two different types of radish, including the show-stopping watermelon variety. Yet even a sparing amount of the supposed champagne vinaigrette drowned the salad’s earlier promise, and none of the vegetables, even the spicy radish, could overcome the unctuous flavor. I would have gained a better sense of the garden if I had just used some straw grass to pluck my teeth.

My meal would have earned a fairly plain distinction, but the appearance of the muffin man bothered me. Why hadn’t I ordered like him? How could I so unthinkingly dismiss tradition? Though I have no idea if he enjoyed his meal — and he looked kind of schlubby — his selection nonetheless revealed my own lack of imagination for never considering muffins as an option. We were clearly split regarding the Trie Café’s principle appeal. I wouldn’t order the other two items on his tray either. The fruit cup, like all fruit cups before it, included way too much honeydew. But the appearance of one or two orange slices always suggests the anonymous chefs know better; to cut along a horizontal axis, rather than using the orange’s natural segmentation, barely saves on product and still requires the arduous removal of pith from the fruit’s exterior. Basically, fruit cup purveyors are neither lazy or dumb — they know what they’re getting away with. And as for the UHD, a light tilt of the head gave it away. Muffin man was mining for milk froth. I ask this knowing it will appear in an Italian publication: What’s up with middle-aged men and cappuccinos?

The point is, no one really wants to get to the bottom of the muffin. Especially me, because, like I said, I went with an M&M cookie for my pastry/dessert option. Overbaked, dry, and crunchy, it was the exact opposite of how I like a sugar cookie. Furthermore, the unfortunate biscuit also suffered gargantuan girth, a common problem of most generic baked goods. But the real genius behind the restaurant, and perhaps the craft services industry on the whole, was at work here, too. And I knew it. At the Trie Café, nothing distinguishes the red pill from the blue one (or the red M&M from the blue M&M, for that matter). I ate my stupid cookie. The only difference is that, unlike the muffin man, I demolished the whole goddamn thing.

Ways of Eating is a column by Sam Korman dedicated to the museum dining experience.

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Ways of Eating /

Did I pay my therapy bill the day I went for lunch? Flora Bar / The Met Breuer

I’d never considered the basement lobby of The Met Breuer to be one of Midtown’s great dining rooms before visiting its latest tenant, Flora Bar. But Chef Ignacio Matto and partner Thomas Carter have helped the space reach its potential by, appropriately, leaving Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist building undisturbed.

The room feels spacious and sleek, more like a lounge or terrace, than the elegant concrete dungeon it actually is (notice the entryway resembles a drawbridge and moat). The deceptively approachable menu inspires the same sophisticated nonchalance. Start with an Izu Fizz. This fluorescent cocktail of Ford’s gin, yellow chartreuse, wasabi, egg white, and yuzu tonic, garnished with crushed wasabi peas, helped me, and presumably much of the restaurant’s clientele, forget the office. Except that they quickly left their travails behind them, whereas I was trying to ignore the fact that, in order to even pretend that I could afford this meal, I’d have to tell my accountant it was for work.

Everything on the menu sounds good, which makes it hard to order wrong. So, instead of sampling multiple entrees, I ordered the most expensive appetizer on the menu. (It also happens to cost nearly twice as much as almost everything else, including the wagyu steak). Dainty piles of imperial caviar and crème fraîche are served on a gorgeous scallop shell. All the food is dressed for the occasion, and the well-groomed combination made me think, perhaps for the first time, that I might aspire to call myself a “caviar person.” Thick-cut potato chips accompany the more high-leverage ingredients, and complete the rather illustrious bar snack.

No matter how much I try to silver plate the spoon in my mouth, luxury always feeds me with disappointment. It’s not that my next course of burrata wasn’t good — it was luscious. The bitter crunch of celery brought order to the diaphanous cheese and the plating was simple and unpretentious. And though I wasn’t impressed with the purple endive salad at first, my taste for the yuzu vinaigrette and Bayley Hazen blue cheese quickly grew insatiable — I can still feel the sour pucker of citrus at the back of my throat. God help us, though, if the pyramid of leaves was an homage to the landmark building. I might be a little protective of Breuer’s creation, but the leafy ziggurat came suspiciously close to a tribute.

The reality is, I know what I sacrifice for good food. Did I pay my therapy bill the day I went back for lunch? No. But did I enjoy it? Yes, because sometimes a glass of white wine with a sixty dollar snack is the best — the only — way to take the edge off after fifty minutes of psychoanalysis. The main thing that separates the afternoon from the evening menu is the number of sandwiches. I chose the fried maitake mushroom with spicy mayo. The vegetarian option proved quite lavish. Its delicate ruffles briefly retain their hollow volume — what I imagine eating an entire flower to be like, but in a good way. The bun can barely contain the dynamic textures, though at its core, the maitake has more tooth and, yes, tastes like chicken. The only thing I didn’t like was the chocolate parfait with amarena cherries. I hate to complain, but some kind of savory, crunchy melba chip comes out of nowhere. Next time I’ll just dip a Fudgsicle in a bag of Gardetto’s and save myself the surprise. Whatever, I’ll leave the kvetching to the two old Jewish ladies seated next to me: “L.A.’s no place for treatment. Too hot.” Though dessert would prove to be the prettiest portion of my dinner, you’ll just have to see what I mean when I say that the star of lunch is a rather fetching pickle.

Breuer believed his concrete buildings looked better as they aged, though what makes the old Whitney a masterpiece are the uncanny perspectives it still permits of the neighborhood. I chomped on gristly bits of lamb rib underneath the grandiose windows, and once again appreciated the building’s unique views. Though cut with yogurt and smoky mojo verde, the lamb is quantifiably indulgent. The fat has nearly rendered, and the meat practically falls off the bone. My entrée of lobster and crab dumplings could also be served in a royal court. The seafood was handled delicately, and, served in a clear yuzu broth, the angelic flavors belie hours of sophisticated technique — or contemplation, whichever. I’ll also point out the little mushrooms that float around the broth, but only — and I mean this sincerely — because they’re really cute.

At one time, I’d have craved a cigarette at the end of this meal, but dessert would grant that last flush of intoxication instead. At no more than half an inch tall, the half pink, half cream colored disc comes across more as an object than food. Yet, like a zen koan, the modest combination (and contrast) between rhubarb granita and maple ice cream actually uncovers some libidinal maths. It’s hypnotic, and I’d quickly find myself on Madison Avenue carrying a doggy bag full of gratification.

by Sam Korman

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Ways of Eating /

Three Iced Coffees at Frieze / New York

The recommendations streamed in before my ferry even docked on Randall’s Island. “The food-in-a-jar at Tyme is terrible.” “It’s nice that Court Street Grocers has so many vegetarian sandwich options.” “Morgenstern’s is right by my booth, you better come eat an ice cream cone with me.” A thoughtfully stacked food court has helped establish the London-based Frieze fair since it first pitched its (actual) tent in New York in 2012, and this year the ample selection leaned heavily toward comfort food. Nothing too fancy, but packed with umami; it’s the type of food that inspires dedicated neighborhood followings.

While the redundant inclusion of both Frankies Spuntino and Roberta’s — two pizza places beloved in their respective corners of the city — only drives home the fact that comfort reigns, any honest account of the fair must mention the fatigue-inducing discomfort of the tent’s filtered light and stagnant air. What fuels the whole thing is iced coffee: it is the only substance that adequately cuts through the sticky hugs and an afternoon of squinting. Lower East Side-based Fat Radish supplied my first cup of cold brew, and it was so watery and bad that only the ice offered something interesting to talk about. For twelve dollars, there’s nothing more offensive than those ugly, cylindrical ice barrels that slowly accumulate on the chilled steel tit of an ice machine. I don’t have dental insurance. Don’t serve me ice that’s engineered to be structurally sound.

Fat Radish is more the type of place for sweet tea than coffee anyway. Its menu takes the farm as inspiration, and, at Frieze, they designed dishes to showcase single ingredients. A dish of tomatoes was charred, curried, and built upon a foundation of dark, whole-wheat toast. Roasted carrots were grounded by the earthy aromatics of seaweed. And a mishmash slaw of veggies made sure you looked for the charred broccoli buried in between (though it was still a bit buried). Sometimes they leaned too heavily on the farmhouse pantry: pickled beets, grapefruit, and fennel were brought in to bolster a lackluster fluke crudo. My spring bounty aptly concluded, though, with a wad of delicious rhubarb Eton mess (that’s its real name).

I would need another iced coffee immediately, and iced coffee number two came from Gertie, a fancy cafe that follows a high-end model repeated in nearly every neighborhood in New York. Did I ever indulge. The cold brew was toffee rich, especially given the touch of oat milk I added. Stacks of cookies lined a glass display case in sumptuous, leathery tones, and, having solicited the barista’s favorite one, he selected for me a homespun pastry pervaded by caramelized brown sugar. With the coffee plugged into my lips like an IV drip, the next hour or more would find me on a long stroll — I was only there for the food, after all. I picked at the cookie from the depths of my tote bag, and the beverage would outlast its crummy paper straw

Dinner would only supply an addendum to my afternoon, perhaps because my eventual tally of three iced coffees stymied my appetite. Still, the language surrounding food at the evocatively named wine bar Foul Witch, if not the food itself, brought some fulfillment to my day. A glass of Grüner was my attempt at happy hour, and I used my hands to pick at a refreshing gem salad with mint. But a flummoxing double-digit price tag for a hunk of Roberta’s-made baguette really raised questions. And as I think back on the succulent seared scallop ceviche, my mind is locked on a semantic problem: you can’t call it ceviche if you cooked it first. The true riddle is why I decided to gamble on shellfish at 5:30pm after the long, hot, poorly refrigerated afternoon, especially right before the ferry ride back home. In spite of all the logistical issues, though, I survived.

by Sam Korman

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Ways of Eating /

Lunch at the Art Fairs / New York

The publication section of The Armory Show boasted the best view of any of the three spring art fairs in New York. Installed in an arm of Pier 92 suspended over the Hudson River, visitors were greeted with floor-to-ceiling windows that provided a rare, uninterrupted panorama of the river and sky further south. The section also hosted a pop-up lunch canteen from wellness bakery chain Chloé, which is where I purchased a slice of matcha-chocolate babka.

Pier 92 was transformed into the ideal place to take my lunch by an inopportune snowfall on opening day, and I slowly pried apart the gnarled layers of the decadent, convoluted pastry while watching the heavy snowfall cascade into the water and disappear. My mouth buzzed like I had touched my tongue to a nine-volt battery: the tannic sensation of matcha laying the groundwork for a succulent jolt of chocolate. The hybrid pastry was nearly electric.

That I forgot I was sitting in the middle of a mundane trade fair was the exact outcome I had hoped for. This spectacle of art and commerce, though mysterious to outsiders and idealists, epitomizes the doldrums of endless cubicles and glazed bricks the color of diner coffee. The food really helps, and this year, my own last-ditch means of engagement found my critical attention directed toward the restaurants and catering at Armory, Independent, and NADA. Rounding out my experience at Armory was Italian fine dining establishment Il Buco. VIP ticket holders had the option to reserve a table in a private lounge, but considering that my budget consisted of what I was willing to pay out of pocket, I kept it to lunch. My take-out salami sandwich was, in fact, satisfying. The cured meat was as unctuous as the focaccia it was served on, and both were balanced out with the sour edge of goat cheese. Sadly, though, there would be no champagne to wash it down.

A kind of masochism underscored my writing enterprise, the particulars of which were only confirmed by Independent’s dismal food offerings. Like attending the fairs in the first place, eating at them was perfunctory. It was only hunger that forced down my entire twelve-ounce portion of minestrone soup. It included an entire bay leaf, the thorny flavor of which bypassed my tongue and stung straight at my throat. Independent may not be to blame. Spring Studios, which hosts the event, likely mandated their in-house catering service, Spring Place. But imagine if every misguided attempt at fanciness came off like an allergic reaction. Poppy’s, the only catering service Independent seemed to have been responsible for, offered a good gluten-free brownie near the exit.

A sensible ploughman’s lunch was available at each venue, belying an awareness of the mundane needs of small gallery entrepreneurship: it provided something to snack on to all who worked those marathon days alone. For my final stop at NADA New York, at Skylight Clarkson, I went with the stalwart vegetarian option, a wrap. Little more than a calorie delivery system, creamy feta lent weft to the watery texture of two handfuls of spinach, and four squirts of olive tapenade provided enough of a condiment to credibly call the whole concoction a sandwich. A raspberry linzer torte offered a practical dessert pairing, though refusing to get any of its powder sugar garnish anywhere near my clothes, I ate it ostentatiously craned over a low-slung standing table. My final lunch only confirmed to me that I could have gotten by at all of the fairs on a single Diet Coke each (three total on the weekend). The only beverage I purchased, in my hand it felt like an old friend. Besides, who needs the calories at an art fair?

by Sam Korman

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