What goes on behind the kitchen doors at New York City’s Delicatessen?
The kale salad with shiitake mushrooms, golden raisins, cashews, sprouts, silken tofu, and mirin vinaigrette.
Chef Michael Ferraro of N.Y.’s Delicatessen has dubbed his cooks “adrenaline junkies.” They’d need to be to handle the fast-pace of his kitchen. From serving the SoHo lunch crowd, to the SoHo nightlife crowd, the rush never stops.
At lunch, their Signature Burger flies off the line. For dinner, the tuna tartare, a dish that has been on the Delicatessen menu since its inception, is a favorite among diners. And New Yorkers will always flock to where the Herb Pan Roasted Chicken and Giorgio's Meatballs are.
Chef Ferraro has created a diverse and indulgent menu of what they call “international comfort food.”
“My menu is very diverse covering all bases from foie gras to fried chicken,” chef Ferraro says.
We stopped by the kitchen at Delicatessen on a Friday at 7 p.m. The post-work crowd was mid-meal, and the partiers were just about to start on their first cocktail of many.
“Orders are steady starting at 5 o’clock but we reach our busiest peak between eight and 10:30,” chef Ferraro explained. “[But the craziest time is] the six-hour brunch rush that we get, starting right at 10:30 a.m. and usually holding a wait time at the host stand all the way until early dinner service.”
Jane Bruce is the Photo Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @janeebruce.
BEHIND THE SWINGING DOOR Along With Stories, a Dish From Nazareth
THE name Rawia in Arabic means storyteller. When Rawia Bishara, a Brooklyn chef and restaurateur, talks about food, she tells stories, complete with elaborate gestures as she widens or narrows her striking eyes. There are stories about her mother about her childhood in Nazareth, the Arab town in northern Israel where she was born and about the traditional food ways of Palestinian cooks and households.
"They all knew exactly where their flour came from," she said of her neighbors, "and who made the finest cracked wheat burghul. They always got the best olive oil" -- originally from her grandparents' groves, later, after government land confiscations, from whoever had the region's famously lush green oil to sell.
"Back then we even made our soap from olive oil," she added, "and in late summer all the rooftops were covered with tomatoes and figs cut in pieces, and tobacco and herbs like mint and zaatar put out to dry."
To this day, the olive oil she uses at Tanoreen, her delightful small restaurant in Bay Ridge, comes from the West Bank, imported by a Chicago company, and her secret spice mixture, which she calls the foundation of her cooking, is roasted and ground for her back home in Nazareth.
The last time she was there she sent back about 55 pounds of it, she said. "When I use it with chicken, I might add a little more cumin," she continued. "When I use it with lamb, a little more coriander. But I always begin with my spices."
So what are they, exactly? (Of course, I won't get an answer, exactly.)
Mrs. Bishara sprinkled the dark, rusty-brown mix into my palm. I sniffed cautiously, recognizing allspice and a hint of cloves.
"Yes," she said, "and a little cinnamon, a little coriander, some cumin, some nutmeg. Dried ginger." She paused, then said: "Rosebuds, too." Closing my eyes, I breathed the complex aromas of a Middle Eastern souk, very far from the Third Avenue approach to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
Mrs. Bishara left Nazareth 32 years ago to come to the United States as a young bride. Together with her husband she worked many jobs, running supermarkets, selling insurance, mothering her two children, taking classes at Hunter College, and for three years presiding over the Union of Palestinian Women's Associations in America, an organization that disbanded voluntarily after the 1993 Oslo agreement.
Seven years ago, following a long-cherished dream, she opened Tanoreen (the name comes from a song by the beloved Lebanese singer Fayrouz).
"I always wanted to do it, and people always told me how difficult it is," she said.
But she looks to her late mother as a role model. "She was a school teacher with five kids to care for, but she was always cooking," Mrs. Bishara recalled. "When people had weddings, when they had funerals, they called my mother to make something, like stuffed artichokes or mousakhan."
Five Weeknight Dishes
Emily Weinstein has menu suggestions for the week. There are thousands of ideas for what to cook waiting for you on New York Times Cooking.
- This coconut fish and tomato bake from Yewande Komolafe yields a gorgeous, silky ginger-coconut sauce.
- This tasty recipe for sheet-pan chicken and potatoes by Lidey Heuck is really nice without being fussy.
- This vegetarian baked Alfredo pasta with broccoli rabe is inspired by pasta Alfredo, but with green vegetables added.
- Kay Chun adds asparagus and snap peas to this spring vegetable japchae in this vegan take on the classic dish.
- You could substitute chicken or another type of fish in this summery grilled salmon salad from Melissa Clark.
Mousakhan is the quintessential Palestinian dish, a savory, sumptuous banquet feast of whole chickens oven-roasted atop freshly baked Arab flatbread with lots of sweet onions and tart, deep-red sumac. Mrs. Bishara does a simplified version at Tanoreen, and she will do the real thing if it is ordered in advance.
Mousakhan apart, Palestinian cooking shares a lot with Jordanian and Lebanese cuisines, as well as with modern Israeli food. The use of exotic spices like cumin, sumac and dried rosebuds is balanced by an emphasis on sweetly pungent green herbs like parsley and cilantro, while the richness of olive oil, roasted almonds and pine nuts is offset by the prominence of flawlessly fresh vegetables and the bright tang of lemon.
A good example is musaqa, a vegetarian dish that Mrs. Bishara made for me. (If you hear the echo of Greek moussaka, you have heard correctly.) Musaqa, layers of eggplant, zucchini and lamb, baked in an oven, is ubiquitous from the Sea of Marmara to the Gulf of Aqaba. But in this Lenten version the meat and dairy products are set aside in favor of a luscious mix of caramelized onions, toasted nuts, cilantro and fresh lemon juice.
Ingredients like these, along with bunches of fresh mint and parsley, are always on hand in Mrs. Bishara's kitchen. They are tossed into a sauce or stuffing for an eggplant, mixed into a pilaf called shairiyah, which includes toasted vermicelli noodles, or, as in musaqa, layered between slices of potato, eggplant and Arab squash (kousa, which is increasingly available in farmers' markets and produce stalls, although zucchini can be substituted).
It is a complicated dish, but much of it can be prepared well in advance, and the rewards are great.
"You see," Mrs. Bishara said, talking about her homeland cuisine as she strewed caramelized onions over the eggplant, "it's not just hummus and kebab."
Rawia Bishara's Vegetarian Musaqa Time: 1 hour
3 hefty eggplants, peeled, sliced lengthwise about 1/4-inch thick 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon salt 4 or 5 large yellow onions, cubed or thinly sliced 1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil (see note below) 1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds 1/2 cup pine nuts 1 large bunch fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped 1 tablespoon garlic, very finely minced 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1 teaspoon ground coriander 1 tablespoon ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1/2 cup lemon juice plus 2 more lemons 2 or 3 large yellow potatoes, peeled, very thinly sliced 4 Arab squash (kousa) or zucchini, sliced lengthwise 1/4-inch thick 2 fresh ripe tomatoes, thinly sliced 2 large red or yellow sweet peppers, coarsely chopped.
1. Combine eggplant with 3 tablespoons of salt in bowl and cover with cool water. Set plate on top and weight to keep eggplant submerged. Set aside for 30 to 60 minutes. 2. Set aside a half-cup of onion for topping. Combine remainder with a quarter-cup of oil in a heavy skillet and set over low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are pale caramel and very soft, almost melted into oil, 20 to 30 minutes (watch carefully to prevent burning). Transfer to a bowl, leaving as much oil in the skillet as possible. 3. Meanwhile, toast almonds in 1 tablespoon of oil in small skillet over medium-low heat until golden and crisp. Remove and add to onions. Add pine nuts to the skillet, with a little more oil if necessary, and toast until golden. Remove and add to onions. 4. In same skillet, add another tablespoon of oil and toss the cilantro with garlic until wilted. Add to onion and nut mixture, with a heaping tablespoon of the spice mixture (cumin, coriander, black pepper, allspice and nutmeg) and lemon juice. Stir to mix well. Taste, adding more spices or lemon juice, if desired. 5. Heat oven to 375 degrees. 6. Add another half-cup of oil to skillet in which onions were cooked and set over medium-low heat. When oil is hot, add potato slices. Cook on both sides until they are lightly golden and start to soften. Transfer to 9-x-12-inch oven dish. Line bottom of dish. Distribute a fourth of the onion mixture over the top it will not cover the potatoes. 7. While potatoes are cooking, drain eggplant and dry with paper towels. Add more oil to skillet, if necessary, and cook eggplant slices on both sides until lightly golden. Use half the slices to cover the bottom layer, setting aside the other half. Distribute another quarter of onion mixture over eggplant. 8. In skillet cook squash or zucchini slices on both sides until lightly golden (add more oil if needed). Arrange over eggplant and distribute some of remaining onion mixture on top. Top with reserved eggplant slices and remaining onion mixture. 9. Arrange tomato slices on top, then sprinkle with peppers. Distribute reserved half onion over the top. Sprinkle with salt, and squeeze the juice of one lemon over it. Add about a half-cup boiling water, dribbling down around edges of pan. Transfer to oven and bake 20 to 30 minutes, or until top is starting to crisp and juices are bubbling. 10. Remove from oven and serve immediately or set aside to cool to slightly above room temperature before serving.
Note: Use olive oil and vegetable oil instead of all olive oil if you wish. Spice mixture will be more fragrant if you combine whole spices and grind to a powder in a spice grinder or a mortar.
Make Frozen Food Taste Better
By now, you've pretty much mastered the fridge stare-down: Open the refrigerator door, gaze inside, and wonder what there is to eat. Then you grab a beer, swing the door shut, and reach for the pizza coupon stuck on the front.
It's time to take it to the next level: staring into your freezer.
Too many men's freezers resemble Superman's Fortress of Solitude: essentially empty, with a mound of fused ice and perhaps the glittering tower of a vodka bottle set against an expanse of permafrost. That's too bad, because the freezer is the unsung&mdashand, too often, underused&mdashhero of any kitchen.
Your freezer should already contain bags and bags of frozen fruit for those smoothies we keep telling you to make. Here are six more rules for coming into the cold.
Fresher isn't Always Better
Food snobs would rather lop off their tongues with a drop-forged Wüsthof chef's knife than admit this bracing truth: Sometimes frozen produce tastes better than fresh&mdashespecially when it's a vegetable that's out of season. The main reason: The technology behind frozen food has come a long way, says Douglas Archer, Ph.D., a professor of food science at the University of Florida.
Food-processing companies have greatly refined the technique introduced in 1924 by Clarence Birdseye (who was posthumously inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame earlier this year, along with the inventors of Valium and the electric guitar). Birdseye's brainstorm, which he copied from Eskimos he observed while working in Labrador, was that quickly freezing food prevents the formation of the large ice crystals that damage the cells in fruits and vegetables.
The ideal temperature for storing food is 0 degrees F. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figured that out more than half a century ago. Now we know that peas freeze best when lowered from room temp to 0 degrees in 3 or 4 minutes, while diced carrots take 6 minutes and french fries require up to 12 minutes. So-called time-temperature tolerance studies have helped transform frozen foods from barely palatable mush to convincing stand-ins for fresh foods.
One big reason: Food processors pick fruits and vegetables at their peak of ripeness, because the produce doesn't have to be shipped across the country and then sit in a supermarket. After picking, the produce is briefly blanched in hot water, which destroys bacteria and enzymes that cause food to discolor and lose texture. Then foods are quickly frozen, which locks them in a state of suspended animation, kind of like Ted Williams. The packaged food may also be blasted with frigid air while being passed through a tunnel on a conveyor belt, or may be bathed in a liquid refrigerant, such as a halocarbon.
Fresher isn't Always Healthier
The quick-chill methods used to preserve frozen fruits and vegetables seal in their high nutrient content. Those vegetables that end up in the grocer's produce section may have been picked well before they were ripe (and before their nutrients had fully developed) so they'd survive shipment. Or they sit there past their prime, leaking nutrients.
"The ripening process is just the beginning stages of rotting, so it's all downhill from there," says food chemist Robert L. Wolke, author of What Einstein Told His Cook. As a zucchini or a head of broccoli is shipped, then sits in the produce section for a few days, enzymes are breaking down its sugars and other compounds, gradually destroying color and texture. Not to mention nutrients.
"You're generally as well off eating frozen as fresh," says Archer. Research suggests that farm-fresh produce has the highest concentration of vitamins and minerals. But when scientists study the way people eat in the real world, frozen foods often shine brighter.
A University of Illinois study from the early 1990s found that frozen beans retained twice as much vitamin C as fresh beans purchased at a grocery store. At Arizona State University, an analysis showed that ready-to-drink orange juice can lose nearly all of its vitamin C content by the expiration date, while frozen OJ loses only about half by the time you mix it.
Frozen Dinners are Too Small
Most frozen entrees seem designed to feed munchkins. A meal with less than 400 calories will likely leave your belly rumbling, says Pat Vasconcells, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. That's no excuse to reach for a Hungry Man XXL, though, lest you, too, wind up that size.
Vasconcells recommends supplementing a produce-poor main dish with a cup of frozen vegetables. "You can always doctor up frozen vegetables by sauteing them in oil with onion or garlic," she says.
You Can Eat Steak Forever
You're wheeling one of those oversize shopping carts through one of those oversize stores, and you pass the meat counter. Five pounds of sirloin at $2.99 per? Toss it in the cart, but be sure to grab some plastic wrap and freezer bags before you check out.
A water molecule inside a frozen steak or any other food is like a hound dog on a hot day&mdashit will seek the coolest place so it can decrease its energy, says Wolke. The shrink-wrap or butcher paper your steak comes in creates air pockets that allow water molecules to escape in search of the coldest place in the freezer, which is on or near the coils in the inner walls. (That's why your freezer can look like the South Pole if it lacks a defroster.) If too many water molecules manage to exit the steak, it will become dry and shriveled&mdashthe dreaded freezer burn.
Prevent freezer burn by keeping water molecules trapped in place with airtight wrapping, Wolke says. Simply remove the meat from its package and wrap it snugly in plastic wrap, then slip it in a freezer bag, squeezing out as much air as possible before zipping it shut.
In theory, properly frozen meat can last a lifetime&mdashor longer&mdashwithout spoiling. Mammoth flesh preserved in ice discovered in Siberia kept for at least 15,000 years. Burgers made from that mammoth meat wouldn't kill you, although they probably wouldn't be too tasty. Even well-wrapped frozen meat eventually develops enough tissue damage to affect flavor. Here's how long the USDA recommends that you store different types of meat:
Frankfurters and deli slices: 1 to 2 months
Ground meat: 3 to 4 months
Pork chops: 4 to 6 months
Fish: 6 months
Beef, veal, and lamb steaks: 6 to 12 months
Poultry: 9 months
Defrosting isn't Rocket Science
Food-safety experts say the only way to defrost food that you purchased fresh and then stored in the freezer is to transfer it straight to the refrigerator. Experts say this ensures that it will thaw but not become warm enough to allow bacteria to reproduce. We say food-safety experts probably don't get invited to many parties.
Defrosting food in the refrigerator can take a day or two. And for most of us, that's not practical. If you just got home from work and want that sirloin tonight, take a cue from late-night television. One sleepless night, Wolke saw an ad for a miraculous "defrosting tray" allegedly made of a "space-age metal." Highly skeptical, he ordered one and analyzed the material. "Just what I thought," he says. "Aluminum."
Defrost faster: Place an unwrapped steak, chop, or boneless chicken breast on a heavy, unheated aluminum or stainless-steel pan (don't use a nonstick pan, though, since the surface coating can block some of the heat) and set it on your kitchen counter in the open air. Metal is one of the most efficient conductors of heat, so it absorbs warmth from the room air and delivers it to the meat, which will thaw in about an hour. That's too fast for bacteria to reproduce much, says Wolke. The flatter the food, the faster the thaw, since the food has more surface contact with the pan.
Keep Your Freezer Full
Not that you need a financial incentive at this point, but keeping your freezer full lowers your electric bill. Chilling air requires more energy than chilling food, and the more food in your freezer, the less air.
Incredible Bakery Cookies from Coast to Coast
In addition to turning out textbook renditions of classics such as kunefe (a sweet Levantine cheese pastry) and Umm-ali (an Egyptian-style bread pudding), this unassuming Cambridge bakery and cafe serving Middle Eastern-inspired sweets and savories imbues the flavor profiles of Turkey, Greece and Lebanon into Americana staples. Take pastry chef and co-owner Maura Kilpatrick's oatmeal cookie. This is not your Moosewood-era hockey puck. At Sofra, she mixes a little tahini into the batter, which gives the cookie a touch of nuttiness and a softer texture due to its higher fat content. She also jazzes it up with candied orange peel and a pinch of spice mixture called Dessert Rose, composed of halvah, cardamom, sesame seeds and rose petals, for that extra exotic touch.
Photo courtesy of Sofra
Denver: Victory Love + Cookies
Some of Kristy Greenwood's top-selling cookies include the Lemon Lucy and Booty Bars, but our favorite is the Strawberry Margarita. The cocktail-inspired treat originated as a raspberry lemonade cookie, but one day Greenwood wondered, "Why should the kids have all the fun?" So she switched the lemon to lime, removed the raspberries, and added freeze-dried strawberries and lots of booze. And because of Colorado's high altitude, she discovered that adding more liquid in a recipe is beneficial, so adding both tequila and Triple Sec as well as lime oil worked perfectly. To finish them off, Greenwood sprays the hot cookies as they come out of the oven with a mixture of tequila and Triple Sec. Not in Denver? No worries she ships the cookies, and they’re way cheaper than a Key West vacation.
New York City: Milk Bar
Kitchen Sink. Garbage Cookies. Whatever you call them, there's no denying that Christina Tosi struck gold when she synthesized America's guilty pleasures into her infamous Compost Cookie®. Like most inventions, the cookie that launched a thousand copycats was born out of necessity. As Tosi explains in the Milk Bar Cookbook, her co-worker developed the recipe when they were working on a remote island off New Hampshire where food deliveries were unpredictable. Back then, the cookies were always different, based on whatever ingredients the kitchen could get their hands on today, the standard recipe is a sweet and salty kaleidoscope of Tosi's favorite munchies — chocolate and butterscotch chips, potato chips, pretzels, graham crackers and coffee grounds. Get your fix at all six Milk Bar locations in New York as well as at Milk Bar in Toronto.
Photo courtesy of Momofuku Milk Bar
Seattle: Hello Robin
The awesomely named Mackles'more at Hello Robin isn't the only reason we love this Seattle bakery, but it sure brings a smile to our face. Named for its most-famous Capitol Hill resident (who apparently is a fan), these graham cracker cookies topped with marshmallow, cinnamon-spiked chocolate chip cookie dough and dark chocolate from Seattle-based Theo are the epitome of local civic pride. Owner Robin Wehl Martin gained fame for her award-winning whoopie pies before opening up her storefront on the encouragement of local ice cream entrepreneur Molly Moon, who uses Hello Robin’s cookies for her ice cream sandwiches and operates a seasonal walk-up "scoop station" in front of the bakery from May to September. Other top sellers include habanero-chocolate chip, curry-and-white chocolate and a signature breakfast cookie that combines oatmeal, shredded carrots, mini chocolate chips and other secret tasty bits.
Photo by Sarah Flotard
Yountville, Calif., Las Vegas, New York, Beverly Hills: Bouchon Bakery
When is an Oreo not an Oreo? When it's reengineered to the perfectionist ideals of chef Thomas Keller. Sure, the namesake chocolate bouchons are a main draw at Keller's archipelago of bakeries in Yountville, Calif., Las Vegas and Beverly Hills, but we have a sweet spot for his reimagined down-home classics like Oh Ohs (a variation of a Hostess Ho Hos) and America's favorite sandwich cookie. For the TKOs (Thomas Keller Oreos, get it?), chocolate shortbread cookies made from chocolate sable dough mixed with Valrhona cocoa powder are sandwiched around a stuffing of white Valrhona chocolate ganache that replaces the Lord-knows-what in the traditional filling. (No word on any plans for a double-stuffed version.) Find TKOs at any of the Bouchon Bakery outposts, or try your hand at them yourself — the recipe is featured in the Bouchon Bakery cookbook.
Photo by Deborah Jones
Chicago: Cookie Bar Gluten Free Bakery
Even wheat eaters love Cookie Bar, Chicago's only gluten-free bakery. Unlike gluten-free bakeries that rely on potato starch and white rice flour (which can give gluten-free desserts a starchy, heavy and, frankly, bad name), this Ravenswood bakery employs a mix of higher-protein, high-fiber grains such as amaranth, quinoa, sorghum and teff to ensure that its seasonal pies, quadruple-decker sandwich cookies and Mississippi mud cakes emerge moist and light. One of their best-sellers is these oversized Salted Caramel Nutella Brownies hitting on all cylinders, they're at once sweet, salty, fudgy and ludicrously delicious. Gilding the lily are a drizzle of white chocolate and a glaze of housemade salted caramel, studded with organic Mediterranean set salt that adds an earthy crunch and a savory counterpoint to the rich smoothness of the Nutella. They’re sold by the half and full dozen at the store, at CookieBarOnline.com and on the bakery's new all-brownie site, BrownieBar.net. Pass the almond milk!
Photo courtesy of Cookie Bar Gluten Free Bakery
Minneapolis: Salty Tart Bakery
Don't wait until Passover to dig into Michelle Gayer's coconut macaroons at the Salty Tart Bakery in Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis. Featured on Andrew Zimmern's The Best Thing I Ever Ate, Gayer has been turning out these addictively coconut-y cookies since her days as a pastry chef at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, and they didn’t earn their nickname — "crack-a-roons" — for nothing. Putting the "deli" in delicacy, Gayer binds the shredded coconut with a touch of cream cheese, creating a cookie that's crunchy on the outside and lusciously soft and creamy when you bite into it. These (naturally) gluten-free goodies are a perennial favorite at her shop and at the annual Minnesota State Fair last year she sold approximately 18,000 in one day.
Los Angeles: The Sycamore Kitchen
There's much to love on the savory side of Michelin-starred chefs Karen and Quinn Hatfield's casual La Brea breakfast and lunch spot (a few doors down from their newest restaurant Odys and Penelope), but we recommend you save room for their desserts such as salted caramel pecan babka. You can also just swing by for a cookie fix. The kid in us has a weakness for their Rice Crispy Cookie. Elevating everyone's favorite lunchbox treat, the duo shape-shifts the traditional marshmallow bar into a cookie, then ups the ante by folding in their own housemade puffed rice and two kinds of chocolate (Callebaut dark and Guittard milk). Pro tip? All of Sycamore Kitchen's pastries are half-price from 4:30 to 5 p.m., but we can’t promise the RKT-inspired goodness won't sell out before then.
Photo courtesy of The Sycamore Kitchen
San Francisco: Batter Bakery
A staple since the bakery's inception, these Peanut Butter Blossoms are so decadent that one of its original wholesale outlets (Trouble Coffee) renamed them Sweet Jesus. A hybrid of two childhood favorites, the batter contain two types of peanut butter (smooth and natural) and is enriched by sweetened condensed milk, which gives it a delightfully chewy interior. And as if that weren't peanut butter-y enough, bite-sized peanut butter cups are pressed into the still-warm cookies as they come out of the oven. Seems simple, but the hand-formed cookies are extremely temperature-sensitive, which is why they're not always available at the bakery's satellite outposts — a downtown kiosk and a stall at the Ferry Plaza farmers market on Tuesdays and Saturdays. If bars are more your jam, Batter also has a strong following for its brownies, carmelitas and almond butter-espresso blondies.
San Diego: The Cravory
Herbaceous rosemary, rich extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar reduction, and just a hint of lemon and black pepper. No, we're not talking about tonight's dinner special it's one of the most-sought-after treats at this cookie-only San Diego bakery. Also known for its Pancakes and Bacon Cookie (made from actual pancake batter and accented with hand-chopped smoked bacon bits and a touch of maple syrup), The Cravory isn't afraid to mine the hot kitchen's toolkit to fill its cookie jars. In addition to the Point Loma shop, their daily rotating menu of cookies is sold at San Diego farmers markets, various airport terminals and sweet shops (including Dylan's Candy Bar), and online, where they can be ordered by the dozen or as part of a freshly baked monthly subscription shipped anywhere in the United States.
Photo by Garrett Richardson
Multiple Locations: Insomnia Cookies
A bakery that delivers still-warm cookies to starving students until 3 a.m.? Genius. Founder Seth Berkowitz undoubtedly hit on a killer app back in 2003 (almost a decade before the era of on-demand food delivery services) when he launched a warm-cookie delivery service for his fellow University of Pennsylvania students from his dorm room. Now boasting 65 storefronts in 23 cities, Insomnia Cookies sates late-night munchies far and wide. More than 12 different cookie flavors, along with brownies, cookie cakes and ice cream sandwiches, are shuttled straight from their ovens to your doorstep from noon to 3 a.m. in most cities, but a perennial crowd favorite is the S'mores Deluxe, a chocolate cookie base loaded with chocolate chunks, pieces of graham cracker and melted mini marshmallows. And yes, milk and water are also available for delivery.
Photo by Felicia Pascarella
Columbus, Ohio: Rogue Bakery
The bakers behind this delivery-only bakery are every bit as rogue as their name suggests. Brick and mortar? Forget about it. Fried-chicken cookie? Why the heck not? This tongue-and-cheek company working out of a local incubator was known only to its Twitter following until its Ranch cookie was featured on ABC’s The Chew. As owner Carl Acampado points out, the Ranch doesn’t actually have America’s favorite salad dressing in the batter they just share the same ingredients. "It looks and feels like a normal cookie, but taking a bite reminds you of a totally different eating experience," he says. "Sure, it's weird, but in a fun and strange way." Rogue also rolls out seasonal specials, but we’re not talking pumpkin and peppermint. Each year around Thanksgiving, they release a Stuffing cookie that incorporates a mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery) and herbs.
Photo courtesy of Rogue Bakery
San Francisco: Dough & Co
Let's be honest: The best thing about baking cookies is, well, sneaking the dough out of the mixer. Sure, your mother warned you about the dangers of eating raw eggs, but old habits die hard. And thanks to one San Francisco cookie entrepreneur, they don't have to. Dough & Co founder Omar Mamoon hit upon the Holy Grail — an eggless chocolate chip dough that that’s delicious to eat baked or raw. Mamoon pursued alternative binders and discovered that finely ground white chia seeds resulted in a nutty-tasting batter, helped with shelf life and made the cookies all-around healthier. You'll find Dough & Co chocolate chip cookies — baked and finished off with Maldon sea salt — at scores of San Francisco restaurants, and offered as a topping option at various frozen yogurt shops. But chances are you'll want to buy the raw cookie-dough logs and devour them right out of the fridge.
Is restaurant noise a crime? A critic mounts a defense
Whatever else readers say in article comments, on social media or in their emails to me, two responses are far and away the most common when I write about restaurants. The first is a rejection of the whole idea of eating out, because after all one can eat much more cheaply at home. To that, there’s not much to say except “bon appétit.”
The other takes several forms, all of them essentially complaints about the noise. I went to that restaurant you reviewed this week and it was too loud, they say. Or they take the broader view that most restaurants are too loud. Or the longer, historical view that restaurants are generally getting louder and louder.
Often, these readers go on to implore me to do something about it. My reviews already give my impressions of each restaurant’s acoustics, but it’s frequently been suggested that I make like the restaurant critic Tom Sietsema, who includes a decibel-level reading and a brief explanation (“Must speak with raised voice”) with each of his reviews in The Washington Post.
Others want me to take a strong anti-noise stand. Recently, I received an email from a physician who calls himself a noise activist, comparing restaurant noise to secondhand smoke. It took legislation to get cigarettes out of restaurants, he wrote, and if enough people are made aware of the risks of hearing loss posed by high volumes, similar laws could be passed “mandating quieter restaurants.”
My answers to these remarks tend to be politely noncommittal. To those who ask about decibel readings, I say they strike me as false precision, because variables like the night of the week or the number of tables for six or more can have a major effect on the volume. To others, I’d say I wanted more time and information before taking on a complicated topic.
The longer I put off writing, though, the harder it was not to notice that I was avoiding the subject. And when I asked myself why, I had to admit that I don’t really believe loud restaurants are a problem.
The truth is, I love them. Not all of them, not all the time. I enjoy more than a few quiet restaurants, too, where you can concentrate on the food and the conversation without auditory distractions. But so many of the places I enjoy most tend to be at least somewhat noisy that eventually it dawned on me that one of the things I enjoy must be the noise itself.
Having most of my hearing ability intact certainly helps my enjoyment if I had more trouble conversing over the shrimp cocktail each night, I would probably have a different attitude. What I can bring to this topic, though, is a near-nightly experience of restaurants as registered by all five senses.
Most of the noises in our lives are the accidental byproducts of some activity we need or at least tolerate for reasons having nothing to do with the sounds they make. We don’t love the wail of ambulance sirens, the brontosaurus stomp of garbage trucks or the steel-on-steel whine of the No. 4, 5 and 6 trains rounding into the Union Square station, but we’ll put up with them until somebody finds a quieter way to move sick people, trash and rush-hour commuters.
Which activity is restaurant noise a byproduct of, though? The servers moving between tables (in rubber-soled shoes)? Money changing hands (by credit card)? Pots and pans hurled by angry cooks (behind swinging doors or in an open kitchen where almost nobody speaks)?
What you hear in a packed downtown brasserie on a Friday night isn’t any of those things. It’s mainly the unamplified voices of customers fleshed out with amplified, typically recorded music. A few chefs and owners love to play their favorite music at teenage-Metallica-fan volumes, but in most restaurants, the music is mere accompaniment to the crowd. Restaurants are loud because we’re loud. With a few exceptions, when we complain about the noise, we’re complaining about ourselves.
If you believe a restaurant’s primary function is to serve food, then it doesn’t make sense for us to respond by raising our voices. But we go out for other reasons. We go to look around, maybe to be noticed, usually to talk to the people we came with. Some of us want a drink or two, and almost all of us want to loosen the knots of tension that daily life ties.
Everything about the restaurant experience is designed to speed those things along, and when it all works, we respond by raising our voices. Far from being an accidental side effect, a noisy restaurant is the end product of a business that helps us have a good time, just as purring is the end product of scratching a cat’s chin the right way.
What makes a sound into noise is subjective. Just as a weed is a plant you don’t want in your yard, noise is a sound you don’t want in your head. Audio professionals call the sound we do want the signal. In a restaurant setting, we typically think of the signal as the voices of the people we are sitting with, and the voice of any server who happens to be addressing us at that moment, but only at that moment. The minute the next table over wants help choosing the wine, the sommelier’s voice becomes noise.
Zeroing in on one voice in a room full of people talking is a complex job. When we’re young, our ears are good at it, up to a certain volume, but we have more and more trouble with it as we age. Microphones are pretty bad at it, as every journalist who has recorded an interview in a crowded room knows. So are hearing aids, which amplify noise and signal equally, and can make a reasonably loud room seem unbearable.
This may be more a technology problem than a restaurant problem. There are ways to hold down the racket, though, such as ceiling tiles, foam pads, even ropes snaked around pipes and table legs. Equalizers can be tuned so that music plays more softly in the frequencies that compete most fiercely with conversation.
From time to time, all of us want a room where we can speak and be heard without resorting to pantomimes. They exist, but they’re always changing. The month-old cantina with a line out the door may be thunderous tonight and an oasis of calm a year from now when the mobs have moved on. Finding these oases when you need them isn’t a restaurant problem, either it’s an information problem. This would seem to be a perfect job for crowdsourcing at least one decibel-monitoring app claims to collate users’ readings into a real-time guide to where the quiet things are.
Placid restaurants seem to be a minority taste, though. There seems to be something about the sonic cocktail of loud conversation and background music that many people like, because it is the sound of almost all successful modern restaurants.
The precise mix is important. If you ever walk into a restaurant where it is reversed — if the music is pumping and nobody is saying a word — chances are you’ll walk right back out again, as I did a few weeks ago at a bar and grill near the Jackie Robinson Parkway in Queens that was blaring Latin dance music to a nearly empty dining room.
At other times, silence can make us feel more uncomfortable than noise. When everybody at a party goes quiet at once — maybe the Christmas tree catches fire or an angry neighbor shows up at the door — the guests will usually freeze in place, looking around awkwardly until they get a sign that it’s OK to talk again.
Something similar but less dramatic happens to a party when the music stops suddenly. This is jarring at first, and remains slightly unpleasant even once you’ve adjusted to it. If the music never comes back, people eventually leave, which is what I suspect would happen to any large restaurant that tried to go without music entirely.
Despite the evidence that for many of us restaurant noise is a feature and not a bug (or, at a minimum, both a feature and a bug), I expect the advocates for lower volumes to get more vocal. The notion of a noise we can’t control is becoming inconceivable.
Throughout our daily lives, sounds we used to share have been filtered out or have simply stopped. When I started my career, offices were alive. Phones rang. Typewriters clacked. Somewhere, maybe only in the mailroom, a radio would play. And all around, people talked, on the phone and to each other.
And today? We sit lined up in cubicles, eyes forward, mouths shut. Our colleagues communicate with us on Gchat or Slack, even if they sit next to us. Professional acquaintances email. Friends text. Nobody calls, and music is piped directly into our heads.
For the first time in history, we can tune most of our sonic environments to our liking, whether we’re at home or not. On our way to and from work or anywhere else, we decide what we want to listen to, choosing from an unseen jukebox that holds, as the former New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff put it in the title of a recent book, “Every Song Ever,” not to mention thousands of podcasts that will begin and end precisely when we tell them to.
If we stuff strange white sticks in our ears, or wear “noise canceling” headphones, or roll up the car windows and turn on the air-conditioning, we don’t have to listen to any sounds that we haven’t chosen, or that weren’t chosen for us by the helpful algorithms of a music-streaming service. Life in the 21st century means never having to hear the person who stepped on your foot say, “I’m sorry.”
Unless you’re in a restaurant. When your feet are stepped on in a crowded dining room, you hear an apology (most of the time). Right behind you, they’re talking about “BoJack Horseman,” which is funny, because you and your friends were having the same conversation five minutes ago. Did the idea jump from your table to theirs, like a virus? Beyond their table, who knows what anybody is talking about? All you can hear is one long roar.
But there are different kinds of roars for different kinds of crowds. There used to be information in the sound of a busy office. In the age before earbuds, an overheard phone call between your boss and her mother could tell you more about their relationship than she ever would. Without earbuds, even the silences have something to say the quiet of concentration is different from the quiet of procrastination.
And there is information in restaurant noise, depending on who is in the room and why they are there. There is the skipping, questioning rhythm of flirtation the confident bleat of people showing off money the squawk of debate. People getting to know each other are loud in one way, and old friends are loud in a completely different way. A table of six men on the Lower East Side vibrates at one frequency, and a table of six women on the Upper West Side at another.
Even if our ears aren’t acute enough to perform a detailed sociological analysis of the room, they can make out one message in the throb. It is a very old sound, the sound of people who decided to sit in the same sheltered space for a few hours, with food and drink in front of them, their family or friends at their side, and forget about the snarling beasts they battled all day.
Restaurants are among the last remaining places where groups of humans still sound the same way they did before the age of Auto-Tune and deep fakes. As of yet, nobody has figured out how to slice and splice and manipulate the way we respond to one another when we’re having fun together. That’s the signal in the noise.