This is how crazy-ass packed it was at tonight's event, Choice Eats. From the website description:
In recognition of the tantalizing and eclectic cuisine featured by resident food critic, Robert Sietsema, The Village Voice is proud to present our first-ever Choice Eats tasting event. We have scaled New York’s eclectic culinary landscape to bring together Robert’s tastiest picks from years of unearthing the five borough’s best-kept secrets. Set amid the backdrop of the historic Puck Building, guests will be invited to sample delicious treats that would otherwise require days of travel.
I heard about this grub-fest over a month ago, when it was first announced. As a long-time fan of Robert Sietsema, and of unusual, eclectic food, how could I resist? I quickly snapped up two tickets while alerting others who might be interested to do the same. By the time it rolled around I was there with five friends, and though it was impossible to stay together the whole time, between all of us I think we managed to sample almost everything being offered. Since there were so many items, I'm just going to briefly run down the things I tried—and rest assured that I did not eat everything pictured here. Mostly I just took a bite or two and passed it on.
Clockwise from top left: injera roll-ups, one lentil, one beef, from Queen of Sheba; pulled pork on stone-ground grits from Smoke Joint; Cuban sandwich, fried chicken, octopus salad, and shrimp salad from Margon; a couscous plate from La Maison Du Couscous. All of these were tasty, though the octopus in the salad was a little tough.
This tamarind baby back rib from Kampuchea was a real standout. The sweet, caramelized meat was so tender it fell apart with the merest bit of pressure from my fork, and the bone left behind was completely clean. Tasting it definitely made me want to check out the restaurant.
Clockwise from top left: chorizo and croquette from…someplace?; fried chicken "drumette" from Yeti of Hieizan; some really bland cornmeal mush from I forget where (but I wouldn't go back anyway probably); tuna and potato thing from El Anzuelo Fino. Decent eats here, but not outstanding.
This plate, from Nirvana, was among my favorites. Aside from the fish ball (the round breaded item) which was extremely salty, I really liked the chewy, vegetable-stuffed roti (in back) as well as the stuff in front, which as far as I could tell was pieces of roti sautéed with shreds of chicken and some vegetables. The dish tasted familiar and yet unfamiliar to me, and was somehow very comforting to eat.
Clockwise from top left: little cubes of chicken in a sweet sauce, on cucumber and a fried wonton skin, from Pacificana; lamb biryani (I think) from Deshi Biryani; spicy shrimp tacos from Mercadito; hummus and pita from Hummus Place. All of these, except the too-salty biryani (bleh), were quite good.
I managed to snag one of Fatty Crab's last servings of these stewed short ribs (?) over coconut rice. The flavors and textures here were well balanced and it really made a difference that the dish was actually being served hot. As with the tamarind ribs from Kampuchea, this dish made me want to have a meal at the restaurant. Well, or maybe I just love Asian food.
I was definitely beyond full at this point, but I did still try a few other things, like beef goulash from Schnitzel Haus and dhokla from Tiffin Wallah, as well as a completely flavorless bean and pork dish from Maremma, the one real clunker of the evening (like eating nothing in bean-shaped form). And afterward, I emerged from the Puck Building (where my high school prom was held—um, what is up with these flashbacks recently?) groaning with fullness.
Now that I've digested a bit, here are some thoughts:
1) JL commented that there was a lot of "rice with stuff" action happening, as well as a lot of "cold fried meat" happening, and I agree. Most of these were pretty boring, except for the ones I pointed out as…not.
2) The restaurants that offered a single, representative dish made the greatest impression, since we were tasting their best item. There were some that had an entire assortment of different items, but with the sheer volume, I would only choose one or two and sometimes I would choose wrong (like the place with the bland chunk of cornmeal, for instance. That restaurant had about eight other items, but since they were along the lines of rice and fried chicken and stewed beef and there were plenty of those around, I skipped them in favor of what I hadn't tried). So I guess, in a bit of irony, I am actually arguing for less choice at Choice Eats.
3) I kind of wish there were more interesting beverages being offered at this event from vendors, not just drinks from the alcohol sponsors. Like the cashew fruit drink I had at Red Hook, say, or horchata, or chicha morada: all those fun drinks you can't buy bottled.
4) I'm glad that pains were being taken to recycle or compost everything later, but it was dumb that we were offered these nice, durable plastic cups from Preserve Everyday for our usage, and then forced to throw them out at the door (even if they were empty). Isn't one of the best environmental practices of all to reuse?
5) Even if they're being recycled, thousands of plastic forks and paper plates must have died for Choice Eats tonight. On my end, I held on to my fork instead of throwing them out each time, and I tried to get servers to just place whatever they were serving onto my current plate instead of a fresh one. I hope others did the same.
All in all it was a fun event, but I'm not sure I would do it again. I felt like I couldn't really savor anything because there was so much going on. My initial exhilaration from all these great dishes being available quickly gave way to exhaustion from the crowds; it was overwhelming. I'd much rather take my time and go to these restaurants for a leisurely meal. But this event has definitely helped me to shape my list and to sample new things, and for that, I'd recommend it.
For the complete set of photos, click here.