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Eaters’ Journal 7/23/16: Eataly, Barilla, Pondicheri, Fuku Plus, and More

Field notes from Eater editors about recent meals around New York City

Baba’s Pierogies: Even in the burgeoning restaurant belt of Gowanus, Baba’s stands out. In this region of New American bistros, seafood shacks, barbecues, pie shops (well, one pie shop), and old Italian joints, Baba’s is a rarity — an Eastern European café. The food is home-style Slovakian (once half of Czechoslovakia), centering on a menu of pierogis. Some fillings are traditional, some innovative, and a serving can be paired with a choice of toppings, at a slight extra cost. Thus did a friend and I enjoy sauerkraut pierogis with sautéed mushrooms that was memorably great. Perversely, we also checked out the mac and cheese pierogis (the cheese tasted like Velveeta), which my companion deplored, but I enjoyed.

Other pierogi stuffing choices include potato, cheese, potato & cheese, bacon & cheddar, and spinach & feta, with a tip of the hat to the Greeks. Pierogis can be had boiled or fried, and you can easily imagine which form of cooking is preferable. The menu fills out with a few other things, including a wonderful plate of local kielbasy, sauerkraut, and rye bread, a real peasant lunch. Filling you up will cost about $15 here, and draft Czech beer is available. — Robert Sietsema

Barilla: I’m constantly amused and perplexed by the onslaught of new Italian restaurants these past few years, so I figured I’d try yet another one: Barilla, the fast casual concept from the boxed noodle company. The burgeoning chain – there are three in New York City – has stated ambitions to become the Italian Chipotle. Though one wonders whether New York, home to some of the country’s best Italian food, is the right place to test out mediocre Italian dishes.

Orecchiette, made-to-order like all the pastas here, wasn’t bad – firm noodles, fennel infused sausage, pecorino with a bit of a bite. But man, a high school cafeteria would serve a better version of amatriciana than the one I sampled at Barilla. Ideally, amatriciana is a brilliant study in how bright tomato sauce, gentle chile flakes, and sweet onion can work together to tame the meaty funk of guanciale. Here, Barilla served me what tasted like liquid smoked-seasoned bacon with a one note tomato pulp. It wasn't so much a composed pasta dish as a bunch of ingredients dumped into a container a la minute -- very Chipotle. It all had about as much seasoning as a matzo cracker. I’m tempted to say it’s the type of dish that would turn a tourist off to amatriciana forever, but most folks are smart enough to assume they can do better in the Big Apple. It's rather the type of dish that would turn folks off to Barilla. — Ryan Sutton

Eataly: My air conditioner broke in the middle of the night Sunday. Since it was about 120 degrees earlier this week and since my husband and I are babies (and also have a new baby) we moved into a friend's vacant apartment in Chelsea for the three days it took to get the thing fixed. It just so happens my mother in law is in town, staying in the Flatiron, and loves to live above her means. So every day after work those three nights, she came over to the borrowed apartment bearing bags full of take-out from Eataly. I can't remember ever eating so luxuriously. Just boxes upon boxes of burrata with peaches, of freshly made gnocchi, roast chicken, endive salad, crostini with ricotta and fiddleheads (somehow still in season?), eggplant parmesean, polenta, pea soup. There was not one miss in the bunch. I have no desire to go eat in an Eataly restaurant, but if I could build an alternate reality for myself where I'm an incredibly wealthy Manhattanite, I would eat like this every night. Amanda Kludt

Berlin Currywurst: As of a few weeks ago, the Berlin Currywurst counter in Chelsea Market is open (there are two more in L.A.). Surprisingly, and unlike most of its fast-food brethren in the market, it opens at 7 a.m. for breakfast. That breakfast consists of any of the sausages plopped in a long bun with onions, sauerkraut, and…a very runny fried egg! The other day I picked a fat knackwurst, and oh what a mess it made. Still, for those seeking to hop off the breakfast treadmill, the breakfast at Berlin Currywurst is worth considering. — Robert Sietsema

Photo: Serena Dai

Pondicheri: I was immediately sold on the entire Pondicheri menu, and planned to drop by with a friend for breakfast on day three of business. But we were both so excited to stop in that we nixed those plans and went for breakfast on day two. On Tuesday morning at 10:30 a.m., the spacious eatery was dead empty, which I thought was great because, hey, no wait for food. But after ordering a cardamom coffee (which was too sweet — I had to cut it 50 percent with iced coffee), we ended up waiting for a full 45 minutes before our food arrived. After about 30 minutes, management realized that our thali and stuffed paratha hadn't arrived and sent over a dried out almond madeline and the chocolate brioche bun, which looks better than it tastes. But it's the thought that counts. Anyway, the hit pastry that's totally delicious was the strawberry- and blueberry-topped honey mesquite cake. Definitely order that one. When our breakfast finally landed, we found the vegetarian thali option to be pretty bland and the roti to also be dried out. We were more fond of the paratha — stuffed with cashews, currents, and herbs — served with a (flavorful) cilantro chutney. Overall the meal was pretty disappointing, though I am still keen to try lunch and dinner, so would return for more. — Kat Odell

Fuku Plus: Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost the thread with Momofuku. In the last six months, David Chang and his crew have given us lobster rollsfancy avocado toastegg salad sandwichesDagwoods, and a fried chicken family pack reminiscent of the one offered at Popeye’s. Is this still abiding by the core Momofuku culinary philosophy? And what does that even mean in 2016? I don’t really know the answer to those questions. But I do think that the Momo squad is zeroing in on American comfort foods right now, and so far, the results have been tasty — if not as revelatory as the classic dishes from Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar, Ko, or even Má Pêche.

Last Sunday, I decided to do a take-out spot check of Fuku Plus, which, like its sibling Nishi, has a menu that keeps veering off into new directions. I sipped a daiquiri made with beer (not bad) as I waited for the to-go order — the entire process from start to finish took about 12 minutes from order to pick-up and everyone was very pleasant. A rundown of the food:

— The beef sausage is a fat, smoky link reminiscent of a kielbasa, on a potato roll that’s smothered with a giardiniera-style pepper spread and a ton of frizzled onions. I would order it again in a heartbeat, but nothing about this looks or tastes like a Momofuku dish — it has no apparent Southern or Asian influences. If anything, this sandwich is inspired by...the Midwest?

— I was a fan of the jojo potatoes that Fuku and Fuku Plus opened with, but I know that a lot of people hated them. At Fuku Plus, the wedges have been replaced by fast food style fries with some type of seasoning that’s sweet, salty, and a little spicy. It reminded me of kettle corn, but with a peppery kick. A fair trade.

— The MCF Fuku Fingers got swapped for a General Tso’s riff that’s sweet but also still spicy. I prefer the previous iteration, but these are fine.

— The chicken sandwich still rocks.

And it’s worth noting that all of this food traveled well and the take-out packaging was excellent. Greg Morabito

Top photo: Fuku Plus by Nick Solares

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