From subway tunnels to former cookie factories, New York City’s food courts can be found in the most unexpected locations, but never have we seen one in a science building on an Ivy League campus. Just steps from the elevated 1-train station at 125th Street, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center looms before you like a shiny cruise ship. It’s said to be Columbia University’s largest building, housing neuroscientists, engineers, statisticians, psychologists, and other scholars, whose stated purpose is to “open the world of brain science to a wider community beyond campus.”
The new building was designed by architect Renzo Piano in consultation with the brain scientists. Inside, there’s a coffee shop called Dear Mama with elaborate invented sandwiches and scrumptious pastries at one corner of the ground floor, a rock-climbing gym with very colorful “rocks” at another, and just off the central entranceway, a small food court that opens into a tapas bar.
The food court and tapas bar — located in Manhattanville, or more commonly called West Harlem, where Columbia chose to drop its new northern campus — are known collectively as Manhattanville Market. Right inside the front window, glass hydroponic grow boxes glow with a surreal light. These provide fodder for a counter called The Botanist, which sells salads priced at $10 or $12, using greens, grains, nuts, fruits, and winter vegetables — something like Just Salad or Toss’d.
It wasn’t a problem for me, but my “Asia Minor” salad, containing modest amounts of cucumber, tomato, olives, and feta cheese in a sea of baby arugula that didn’t seem to have come from the hydroponic cases as advertised. In fact, one suspects these cases are mainly for show, though they do provide a nice eerie backdrop for eating a salad. In addition, five more salads and one soup (vegan minestrone) are available.
The Botanist is the first of four adjacent counters arranged in a flattened semicircle. There’s also Benny Casanova’s, a pizzeria named for what one suspects is a fictitious character, a cartoon face with a toque and handlebar mustache. My pizza ($5 slice, $26 pie), one of six offered, was topped with orange squash, pancetta, caramelized onions, and smoked mozzarella. It sported a thick, glistening crust, but I felt like too much was going on, and wished at least one ingredient had been eliminated. Better was a smallish eggplant parm sandwich ($14). Refreshingly, the eggplant was not smothered in breading, but was still crunchy.
The best counter was Shai Hummusiya, which serves dishes found throughout the Middle East and North Africa. I loved the hummus smeared inside a carryout container, its reservoir filled with a righteous chickpea stew ($12), with a parsley salad on top and tart orange mango sauce on the side. Seasoned and roasted vegetables, falafel, and four other hummus configurations were also available.
The fourth counter, Butterfunk Biscuit Co., specializes in square biscuits, which are also used to form sandwiches. I tried a couple of them, one filled with pulled pork and the other with fried chicken ($13). The crusty fried chicken sandwich was perfect except for the wetness of the multiple fillings (pimento cheese, hot honey, sweet pickles), which caused the sandwich to break apart at first bite. Eat it with a knife and fork and you’ll be fine. A gloppy cinnamon bun ($4) is also offered, served warm with melting white frosting trickling down the sides.
It turns out Butterfunk is a project of Top Chef contestant Chris Scott, who attributes his biscuit recipe to his African American ancestors; the other three counters are overseen by Franklin Becker, co-founder of the Little Beet chain and chef at the tapas bar Oliva, up a few steps from the food court.
Oliva enjoys a luxurious space that contrasts with the food court below. In fact, once you’ve ascended the stairway, it feels like you’re standing atop a tree-dotted mesa. A dramatically lit bar rises on the left, while scattered tables and curving booths with rich gray upholstery enhance the airy feel.
Though the design feels modern, the menu is old-fashioned, concentrating on dozens of smaller dishes and a few larger ones, constituting a compendium of tapas bar standards. The oblong salt-cod-and-potato croquettes ($10) were crisply fried and tasted of sea and earth, with dabs of garlic aioli. The reliable small plates of serrano ham, morcilla, and valdeon cheese were dramatically presented and relatively generous.
One highlight on two visits was a casserole of octopus, potatoes, and onions ($26), where a skewer of thinly sliced tentacles arose from the Galician dish and swayed in the room’s mild ventilating breezes. Another highlight was a quartet of shell-on shrimp dribbled with salsa verde, while a third was a sliced hanger steak cooked rare and served as they do it in Spain’s Asturias province with blue cheese.
On the other hand, making strong drinks publicly available on campus seems to be part of the point of this place. There are 15 very creative cocktails, including the espiritu santo ($15), mixing tequila, grapefruit, and pink peppercorns — which create a pungent flavor and slight burn on the lips. The all-Spanish alcohol menu (with the exception of spirits) also includes sherries, vermouths, sweet dessert wines, and a full assortment of reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines.
Indeed, the wines are one of the best deals of all, most running $9 to $12 a glass for a good pour. And there’s a happy hour that runs from 5 to 6:30 every evening, and includes discount tapas and bargain booze. Just the place to kick back after that last class of the day.