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The Pennsy Arrives With a Bang, Chef Street With a Whimper

Eater Senior Critic Robert Sietsema takes a first look at Midtown’s two newest food courts

Late in 2015, Eater NY published The Manhattan Food Court Manual, an analysis of seven key food courts, most of them having arrived in the previous year. We concluded that food courts constituted crucial new dining destinations, providing critical space for both start-ups and for experienced operators fleeing high real estate prices. These institutions bridged the gap between food trucks and traditional brick-and-mortar establishments, with a comfort level somewhere in between and an opportunity for consumers to have an expanded food selection.

But we also noted, more disparagingly, that the new food courts were often overpriced and provided insufficient seating for the crowds they were designed to attract. The article posited that many more would be on the way, and just after the new year arrived, two more appeared: The Pennsy, a massive concrete-swaddled hall at the northeast corner of the Penn Station/Madison Square Garden complex; and Chef Street, in the basement of Macy’s, the world’s largest department store. They are scarcely a block away from each other, proving that food courts are bunching up in Midtown.

Both represent a refinement of the principles established at previous food courts such as Gotham West, Gansevoort Market, and UrbanSpace Vanderbilt. For example, both newcomers have fewer food stalls and consequently more sit-down space. Compare The Pennsy with UrbanSpace Vanderbilt and you’ll see the difference. With 21 vendors, Vanderbilt presents a bewildering array of choices for the prospective diner, who is likely to spend too much time wandering confusedly. By contrast, The Pennsy has only five counters, and deciding what to eat is a speedier process.

The Pennsy also features more seating relative to the number of stalls, meaning you don’t have to stand and eat. Heck, some of the chairs even have backs. There’s also a section with couches and coffee tables, making a relaxed meal seem like an option. Another factor seen at the Pennsy and Chef Street is an increased emphasis on celebrity chefs. Both furnish one for nearly every booth, even when the chefs seem to have little to do with the actual food.


The Pennsy

Hate the name? Yeah, me too – it sounds like a lock-up for toddler criminals. Yet there it is, the sign done up in lights like a Broadway smash hit. The layout is genius — no twisting stairway as at City Kitchen. Bam! You’re right in the middle of the action, and the totally unembellished nature of the space, the bare concrete surfaces, makes it seem more like a convention hall than a food court. There’s a plainish bar deep inside that currently lacks its liquor license. It seems calculated to attract Penn Station travelers, who enter via a separate hallway; so far the patrons are mostly foodies, not suitcased sojourners.

The foodies are at least partly attracted by the chef firepower. Celebrity butcher Pat LaFrieda has a counter (where, quizzically, no burgers are sold), and so does chef Marc Forgione, whom I saw sitting at the bar on one of my visits, testing his own food. Mario Batali has a counter, too, though it’s uncertain how much he really has to do with it. The other two stalls are descended from a gluten-free fast casual chain and a vegan food truck, but have signage that identifies and personalizes their lesser-known founders. Add tax to all prices.

Pat LaFrieda

This is the largest of the counters, L-shaped and employing 13 in a tight space marshalled with sandwich presses, convection ovens, bubbling pots of meatballs, and refrigerated, portion controlled, pre-sliced meats and cheeses. The set-up is quirky: a pair of young female employees with T-shirts that say "Eat My Meat" (really, Pat?) take your order at a remote station, and then transmit it to the main counter without taking your money. You collect beverages, desserts, and other point-of-purchase items as you wait for your sandwich and then pay.

Unfortunately, much of the food isn’t great. A roast beef sandwich on a seeded and crusty torpedo of modest length seems puny at the price ($12). There isn’t all that much meat and it tastes like cold deli roast beef. An order of Brussels sprouts boasts plenty of bacon and tastes good, even though the green orbs are undercooked. The luxury item here, offered every day as a special on my visits, is beef short rib ($15), which turns out to be six too-soft slices in a sweet sauce with some slaw on the side. Worse was a side dish of potatoes cooked to little wrinkled stumps.

[Top: Eggplant sandwich from Mario by Mary. Bottom: Doughnut from Cinnamon Snail, and Pat LaFrieda's roast beef sandwich]

Little Beet

Little Beet is a mini-chain of gluten-free cafes in New York, Long Island, and Washington, DC, presided over by Franklin Becker, who has appeared on Top Chef Masters. Though vegetable driven, seafood and chicken find their way onto a menu mainly limited to a few bowls and a few outsize maki rolls. The sushi rolls are premade, and thus the nori in our banh mi roll ($10.10) was gummy as all get out. The roll was filled with rice and chicken salad, with no discernible pickle to the shredded vegetables inside. A salad featuring the unusual combo of cauliflower, radishes, avocado, lettuce, and chickpeas in a chickpea dressing was wholesome but ultimately way too bland.

Mario By Mary

The "Mary" of the name is Mary Giuliani (self-described on her website as "caterer to the stars"), who has run a catering outfit since 2005 based partly on recipes developed by Mario Batali. This represents the presence of a celebrity chef by proxy, and makes you wonder: Why didn’t Batali just do the food himself? It also explains why the menu tends to be hit or miss. The pressed eggplant sandwich ($12) featuring ricotta and scamorza was fine, though it needed some sort of flavor kick.

Better was a knock-off New Orleans muffaletta, featuring green olive relish plus the classic cold cuts and cheese. It would have been perfect if the bread hadn’t been so damn crusty. But a stracciatella (a Roman egg-drop soup, $7) substituting kale for spinach displayed lackluster croutons and eggdrops that had deteriorated into tiny dots. Why not add the egg drops at the last minute? Too much effort?

Cinnamon Snail

Descended from a popular vegan food truck famous for its pastries, Cinnamon Snail offers some kick-ass breakfast items and desserts, including cinnamon snails, conventional glazed donuts, and oddball Thai basil-coconut and marshmallow s’mores donuts. Savory fare at Cinnamon Snail proved inferior to these triumphs of the eggless baker’s art, including a pallid spinach-filled pastry and a couple of very strange veggie burgers.

The "beastmode burger deluxe" ($10.95) dribbles painfully sweet barbecue sauce that tastes like it was just poured from a bottle. Heaped on the patty — which might have been fine in a plainer context — was mac and "cheese" that was mainly mac, fake bacon, arugula, and chipotle mayo, proving that vegan food doesn’t need to be even remotely healthy. Full "samiches" and "open face joints" fill out the menu (is the food aimed at stoners?), with gluten-free options available at elevated prices.

Lobster Press

After a first stroll through The Pennsy, you’re likely to notice that a majority of the sandwiches offered are pressed. Why? This accomplishes several objectives for the stall operator. Prime among them is that the bread doesn’t have to be fresh if it’s squished in the sandwich press. Additionally, it’s hard for the consumer to judge the quantity of ingredients in a pressed sandwich.

Thus we have Marc Forgione’s take on the wildly popular lobster roll. Called the lobster press ($9 half/$17 whole), it stuffs small chunks of lobster flecked with pimento and celery into a demi-baguette and then squishes the hell out of it. A bowl of thick pink sauce is served on the side for dipping, but you can’t really treat it as a soup since it’s too salty. The thing is very tasty, but you can’t help but notice the diminished quantity of lobster. A cup of coconut-laced chowder also features the crustacean in insufficient quantity at the price ($9.25), while a more-conventional toasted pimento cheese with bacon sandwich is simply terrific. The stall decoration features a nautical theme.

Chef Street

It’s easy to see Chef Street as another in a long list of Macy’s merchandising missteps. Located mid- basement, and hence difficult to access from both Broadway and Seventh Ave, it stands at the end of the sales floor known as One Below, which is apparently directed in style and content at millennials, or maybe it’s tweens. Nevertheless, the food court is at least prepossessing in appearance, with four counters built so they look like shiny Airstream trailers.

The food has been selected specifically for hipness, and all stalls but one are celebrity driven, even to the point of absurdity. The seating area is ample, consisting of benches with wooden seats, counters, and free-standing tables. To say the place has not caught on yet is an understatement. Yet, if you select carefully there are both delicious foods and some bargains to be had here.

The system of ordering is wacky. A clerk at the head of your line enters your order into an iPad and then hands you a chit with a number on it. You are then required to go to the trailer that corresponds to your order and wait for the number to be called. Woe betide the diner who, like me, orders from all four trailers at once, since then you must dash from trailer to trailer to see when your order is done. Cold cases also vend sandwiches, salads, and sodas.

Tabo Noodles

The menu of this trailer represents a classic ramen-ya, with three choices of ramen ($11 to $13), plus gyoza, steamed bao, fried chicken, and soba salad. The chef is Takashi Yagihashi, selected by the James Beard Foundation as Best Chef Midwest in 2003, and thereafter a veteran of cooking reality shows. The shoyu tonkotsu broth flaunts a pleasing beige color with droplets of oil dancing on the surface; standard interpolations include a gooey egg, bamboo shoots, kelp, spiraling pink fishcake, and a modest slab of fatty pork. The only problem was the size of the bowl, which was somewhat meager. On another occasion, the tatsuta-age chicken was really awful, reheated and tasting of the fridge.

Taquitoria

You’re no doubt familiar with Taquitoria, a bright spot in the Lower East Side fast-food firmament vending the rolled and fried tacos of San Diego. Well, precisely the same short menu is reproduced here, offering a choice of four fillings and two styles of presentation: "classic" and "cheesy." At three for $6, they’re delectable and not a horrible deal. What is horrible, though, is that Marc Forgione takes the credit for this snack — he’s the celebrity chef responsible for "presenting" this counter. This is just plain weird. Stick with The Pennsy, Marc!

[Top: Salad by Crumb on Parchment. Bottom: Chicken sandwich by Rollie's and Taquitos by Taquitoria.]

Crumb on Parchment

Ignore the cryptic name. This stall is the brainchild of Michelle Bernstein, an award-winning Miami chef "of Jewish and Latin descent" as the menu describes here. She is clearly pretty far afield from either tradition in this context, creating a series of faddish bowls and a couple of sandwiches for her Airstream. Of the two bowls sampled on separate visits, the "rustic Greek salad" ($10) was made with scintilattingly fresh ingredients, but there was little discernible dressing. The feta was begrudgingly bestowed, and expected Greek ingredients like olives and stuffed grape leaves were missing entirely. The Middle Eastern chicken bowl ($12) was also underfurnished, underseasoned, and underdressed. Give this stuff some oomph! Bernstein.

Rollie's

The only counter that lacks a celebrity chef is Rollie’s (perhaps because the fare is mainly hot dogs and burgers), which turns out to be the best of the four stalls, with some real bargains. At $6, the burger is fine, with lots of greenery and a mayo dressing. The patty has been squished, Kansas City-style, to create a great dark sear on either side. There’s a bratwurst and a footlong hot dog we didn’t try. But the best thing we had at Chef Street was a fried chicken sandwich that involved a big piece of mixed dark-and-light chicken with an assertive crunch, which seemed like a knock-off of Fuku’s, but with a blessedly low price tag ($7 price). Simply delicious!

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