Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Not Your Average Cafeteria

119 7th Ave
(between 17th St & 18th St)
New York, NY 10021
(212) 414-1717

I first heard of Cafeteria circa 1998, shortly after it opened.  As a young teenage Rhode Islander, I lived vicariously through issues of In Style magazine, to which I had a subscription.  I wanted to be a fabulous woman of the city, and well, what do you know, now I am!!  I remember back in the day (that was the day, after all) In Style featured a regular column in the very back of the magazine entitled "The Dish" and featured a celebrity-endorsed meal from a popular restaurant anywhere from New York City to Miami, Aspen, Los Angeles, Chicago, and so on.  I vividly remember one issue featured a croissant French toast stuffed with sautéed apples, a favorite of Julia Roberts, from a trendy, modern, comfort-food-pushing spot in Chelsea known simply as Cafeteria.  My memory is good.  Real good.  When I moved to New York recently, and happened to be working a few short blocks from Cafeteria, I remembered my innocent excitement with the delivery of each In Style issue, and wanted to live one of the moments I had imagined way back then.  To dine at one of these featured restaurants.  I guess I shouldn't be so dramatic, I've eaten at a couple of Los Angeles spots that were featured, but this was my first New York one!

I absolutely adore this place!  First of all, it's open 24 hours.  Yeah, you heard me.  An actual GOOD restaurant open forever and ever and ever.  You have a craving for eggs Benedict? How 'bout a meatloaf sandwich? Apple pie ravioli?  They've got it all, all night long!  Even if you're not a night-crawler, Cafeteria is a popular spot during the day as well.  It's decked out in white, chocolate brown, and silver, with modern white plastic chairs, white and brown padded booths, brown wooden tables indoors and silver metal ones outdoors.  The staff is incredibly friendly, and food arrives efficiently.

Biscuits with honey butter are a perfect introduction to the comforts of Cafeteria...

Blackberry Lemonade $5

Blackberry Lemonade:  So bright and refreshing! Their lemonades are served in mason jars, an adorable serving method which is quite handy with its handle ;-) I love the sweet and sour flavors of this drink and definitely preferred it to regular lemonade, which is good but can seem boring at times, or at least predictable. This was a great twist with added freshness from the slightly muddled berries floating within.

Mac Attack (left to right): Cheddar and Fontina, with Truffle Oil, with Smoked Gouda and Bacon $13

Mac Attack: I'm a macaroni and cheese connoisseuse, so ordering the Mac Attack was a no-brainer.  It offers up Cafeteria's three mac and cheese flavors on one platter, each in its own adorable ramekin.  From simplest to most complex flavors, it ranges from their traditional mac and cheese with cheddar and fontina cheeses, to one infused with truffle oil and topped with chives, and finally one that utilizes a smoked gouda and is topped with bacon.  All three share a common elbow macaroni shape, very traditional for the dish, and a crisp topping of melted cheese.  I'm usually a fan of a bread crumb crust, but this was alright by me!  I really enjoyed the crisp crust, and the varying flavors of the three mac and cheeses.  My favorite was probably the truffle-infused one.  It had a nice depth of flavor with just a surprise kick that you didn't really get from the other two.  I also really love the original!  There's nothing boring about it!  The bacon topped version was good too, but I almost found the bacon to be too crunchy and dry, like it had been fried hours ago and just sat there waiting for my order.  Otherwise, the flavors were great.  I know this is a hugely popular menu item, and I can certainly see why.

Tomato Basil Soup with Mini Fontina Grilled Cheese $6

Tomato Basil Soup: So simple and perfectly hits the spot.  It's served with a mini grilled cheese crouton on top, an ingenious way of adding the perfect tomato soup accompaniment without providing a whole sandwich.  If you want more sandwich, they also offer a cup of soup with half a grilled cheddar, bacon and tomato sandwich!

Deep Fried Oreos - Espresso Chip Ice Cream, Coffee Shake Shot $9

Deep Fried Oreos: These were my reward for only having soup for dinner.  Saving room for dessert was well worth it, and even then I barely finished it!  They change this dish seasonally, and over the summer had it served with mint chip ice cream and a chocolate shake shot, which of course intrigued me since mint chocolate chip is my favorite ice cream flavor.  When I discovered they had recently changed the flavors, I was disappointed.  Very disappointed.  I didn't even order it the first time because I somehow felt cheated from my true desire.  I got over it quickly, and ordered it during my next visit.  Wow.  Wow.  Let me say that again.  Wow.  If you've never had a deep fried oreo (this was my first time), you're missing out.  Deep fried oreos are the best thing to happen to a deep fryer if you ask me.  Well, chicken is great and all, and so are French fries, but these babies are special!  Thickly battered, they are fluffy and soft, the hot oreo within softened too from the cooking process.  You're left with a steamy mouthful of sweet puffy deliciousness with a nice oreo flavor.  The espresso chip ice cream and coffee shake shot were excellent, way better than I had hoped.  I even occasionally dipped my fried oreos into the shake, and it was pretty amazing.  I would definitely save room for dessert and get this treat!  Share it if you have to, but definitely try it!  It comes with 4 fried oreos, so you could technically split it 4 ways, but why would you want to?

Fried Chicken Salad - Haricot Vert, Grilled Corn Relish, Sun Dried Tomatoes, Spicy Chipotle and Buttermilk Ranch Dressings $12

Fried Chicken Salad: I'm not much of a salad person... but then again this isn't a regular salad.  This is the ultimate, crunchy, spicy, sweet, fried chicken-topped salad at Cafeteria.  It's no joke.  A mixture of watercress and frisee is tossed with fresh cherry tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes, corn, haricots verts, fried tortilla strips, and topped with fried chicken strips.  To finish it all off, a chipotle vinaigrette and a buttermilk ranch dressing.  Hell yes.  Every bite of this salad was filled with the crunch from the greens, tortilla strips, haricots verts, and the delicious chicken, while the soft tomatoes and corn also impart a nice, fresh, sweetness to this bold salad.  If salad tasted like this regularly, I'd eat salad a LOT more often.

Crispy Braised Pork Tacos - Three Soft Tortillas, Sweet Potato Puree, Spicy Jicama Salsa, Shoe String Sweet Potatoes $16

Crispy Braised Pork Tacos: These tacos are perfect for fall!  They are not traditional tacos whatsoever, but instead pile spiced sweet potato puree, garlicky, fork-tender crispy-soft pork, jicama salsa made with fresh tomatoes, red onions, crunchy shoe-string fried sweet potatoes, crisp fried tortilla strips, and lightly dressed frisee onto soft flour tortillas.  Phew, that's a mouthful.  Literally.  You'll be lucky if you can get all those things into your mouth all at once! These tacos are brimming with fillings, and using a fork to help you get started doesn't hurt.  I was brave and used my hands to eat these, and they weren't as messy as I imagined.  I loved the balance of sweet from the sweet potatoes with slightly salty and garlicky from the pork, and fresh from the jicama salsa.  The salsa wasn't spicy at all as advertised, but otherwise these tacos were exactly as I pictured.  There was also a great textural balance of soft and crunchy, which I think they do really well here at Cafeteria!  Every dish I've had here has had a variety of textures, colors, flavors, and even temperatures, all on one plate.


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