Eats: Shake Shack

Madison Square Park is one of my favourite places in the city. Near Flatiron and flanked by Madison Ave, Broadway and 5th Ave you wouldn’t expect it to be as peaceful as it is. During the warmer months I often find myself taking a walk through the park, or stopping to sit and read a book. Being able to grab a burger from Shake Shack just makes it that much better.

I discovered this place quite by accident not longer after it first opened. One day I noticed a long line of people snaking around one end of the park. After seeing that they were waiting for burgers and shakes I quickly joined the back of the line. I’ve been going back ever since. Originally they were only open from April – October, but thankfully they are now open all year round, with patio heaters in the winter.

There are about 5 or 6 locations throughout the city now, but in my opinion this one is the best. The food doesn’t taste as good at the other restaurants and of course they don’t have the perfect setting that this one does.

The menu is pretty simple – burgers, fries, hotdogs and shakes. I usually get a ShackBurger but am a big fan of the ‘Shroom burger too. On this visit I went for the special – the Smoke Shack – basically a ShackBurger topped with applewood smoked bacon and cherry pepper relish. It was delicious.

If you’ve never been before I recommend going for the ShackBurger, fries and definitely a milkshake. I used to think that I couldn’t manage a milkshake and the food, but they are too good to pass on.

(Sorry for only having one food pic, but there was very little light by the time we got our food.)

Only 8:15 and I’m ready to go home.

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Restaurant: Ippudo

Woke up early and braved the freezing cold on Sunday to head to Chelsea where Gabi and I had signed up to volunteer at a soup kitchen. I knew it would be good once I got there, but was seriously having second thoughts as the wind whipped my hair and my fingers started to freeze. Why I thought I should walk I have no idea. I was assigned the task of ladling out bowls of soup. I was just glad to be behind the food service counter and not have to go around serving trays of food. I thought I’d be in for some major wrist pain, particularly after hearing that we’d serve at least 1000 people, but it was our backs and feet that were killing us at the end of service.

What could you want more after standing over a vat of boiling soup for 3 hours? A big bowl of hot soup of course! It was so cold and we were so tired and hungry we knew it would hit the spot. Since it was just a few blocks away we decided to head over to Ippudo. I’ve wanted to go before to see if it’s worth all the hype, but the long queue has always put me off. But it was 4pm on a Sunday and with only a few people waiting ahead of us we waited for less than 20 minutes. The restaurant is a lot larger than it seems from the narrow entrance and bar area in front. The majority of the dining room is set up with canteen-style tables, with a few roomy booths for big parties. And like many other Japanese restaurants it’s pretty hectic and loud.

We started with the pork buns. These were delicious. I love pork buns but hate that the dough is often sweet, these didn’t have even a hint of sweetness. The bun was soft and fluffy and not too thick. The pork belly was perfectly cooked and the sauce tangy, there was also some spicy mayo in the bun that while not as spicy as I would have liked, did add a little bite. My only complaint is that the ratio of bun to filling was off, there was not nearly enough pork.

Gabi got the miso ramen and I chose the classic. The broth was perfect, not too salty, and full of flavour. The noodles still had a little bite to them and the pickled radish and vegetables were crunchy. Unfortunately the pork loin was dry and overcooked. Gabi said hers was fine so maybe I was just unlucky. The good thing is the pork is only a small part of the whole dish, the rest of the flavours came together really well and the seasoned egg added some richness.

Overall it was a good meal that warmed us up, but I don’t think it’s worth the long line that a lot of people have been willing to wait in. I’ve had better ramen at Yakitori Taisho and Totto Ramen. If you are intent on going you’ll be seated a lot more quickly if you’re a party of 2 or fewer – we saw a lot of single diners while we were there. Another little tip is that if you go in a few hours before you actually want to eat you can make a reservation for later that day. Just make sure you’re nice to the host because there’s actually no strict reservation policy so they can turn you down if they want to.

It appears that I’ve only been writing about the Japanese food I’ve been eating. That, or all I eat is Japanese food. I will correct this. Though the more I think about it I see this blog has become pretty food-centric which can only mean that I’ve been spending most of my time eating. Maybe that’s really what needs correcting.

Restaurant: Izakaya Moku

Needing a quick dinner one night after work and not wanting to venture too far from Midtown because we had an event in the area, we decided our best bet was Koreatown. Packed full with restaurants, most of which don’t require a reservation, we knew we’d easily find something quick and delicious. After walking around for a few minutes, we noticed what looked like a little red ATM/arcade game with a laminated menu stuck on top. Normally a menu with pictures of the food would have me running, but in this area it’s the norm and Izakaya Moku looked interesting. Plus, an izakaya is a Japanese pub and that’s exactly the type of place we were looking for.

Located on the second floor of an office building the space is nothing like what you would expect from the outside. Upon entering there is a long hallway to your left with a sake bar on one side and a series of enclosed tables on the other. To your right there is the open dining space with windows facing out to 32nd Street. The restaurant is small and the tables are close together giving it a lively atmosphere when the place is full.

We started with some yakitori and chicken wings and then moved on to chicken katsu and yakisoba. The chicken cutlet was lovely and crispy, the curry thick and flavoursome, but my favourite part of the dish was the rice, flecked with sesame seeds and nori. The yakisoba was topped with a generous amount of katsuobushi shavings that when mixed in to the noodles added a great depth of flavour. Katsuobushi is dried, fermented tuna (bonito). The small dish of pickled vegetables that came alongside added a nice balance.

This is a nice little spot in a neighbourhood where finding a good meal can be somewhat hit-or-miss. I wouldn’t go out of my way to come here, but would definitely recommend it if you find yourself in the area.

Restaurant: Inakaya

Friday night’s happy hour left me craving sushi.  Everyone who knows me knows that this is not at all unusual. Unfortunately we were in midtown (below 42nd St) with no desire to travel too far because I was starving. As you probably know, the options in this area for fresh, authentic sushi that won’t break the bank are slim. Our Yelp app told us our best option – nearby, good ratings, not too expensive – was Inakaya in the New York Times building.

Walking up, the place has the same industrial feel as the rest of the building, with huge windows and large steel supports. Inside it’s a little warmer, decorated with dark woods and soft lighting. We were welcomed by the very polite hostess and our presence was announced to the restaurant in true Japanese style – Irasshaimase! The restaurant was fairly full but we were able to get a table without a reservation.

Unfortunately there was no room at the grill/sushi bar where you can see the chefs in action. Normally I’m not too fussed about sitting at the bar, but the one they have at Inakaya is large with plenty of room to comfortably enjoy your food. It’s so large they serve everything to you by passing it on a wooden board with a long handle, something akin to a pizza board. The bar is definitely where you have the best view; even though there is a wall of windows facing the street the only thing to look at is a parking garage.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had a good variety of food. Authentic Japanese cuisine that is not ramen or sushi is something I find hard to come by. I learned after asking one of the servers that Inakaya is essentially a robata-yaki, or Japanese barbecue restaurant. I’ll just have to keep that in mind for next time, because on this night I couldn’t consider anything but sushi. We decided an a couple of maki rolls and some nigiri. There was the option of their Restaurant Week menu, but we opted for the a la carte.

Here we have some uni nigiri, Spanish mackerel nigiri, spicy scallop maki and soft shell crab maki. More nigiri came, but I forgot to photograph it. All of the seafood was wonderfully fresh and delicious. But I think what made the nigiri truly memorable was the rice. Cooked really well, with just the right amount of vinegar it held together beautifully and was the perfect base for the fish.

Now for the maki. In addition to the rolls already mentioned we had a Red Dragon roll – one of their specials that night. It was an avocado and cucumber roll topped with spicy tuna and tobiko. I know that spice can sometimes overpower the taste of the fish, but it’s just so good. And let me tell you, Inakaya does spicy right! No subtle hints here, their spice has a real kick.

Just as we were finishing up our meal, a little commotion started near the windows. Two of the servers came in with large marble mallets and started beating something in a bowl. Dinner and a show! Turns out they were making fresh mochi – very loudly. It was interesting to see, but definitely interrupted the evening. We had finished our dinner, but for those that hadn’t or were in the middle of a conversation I would say this was most certainly annoying. Here they are pounding the rice:

A little while after this was complete one of the waitresses came around with complimentary samples of the just-made mochi. One piece with a nutty-flavoured powder coating and the other with green tea. I have to say I am not a fan. But I did enjoy watching them make it.

Overall the food and service at Inakaya were very good. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was excellent, but for the price – $120 got us 4 maki rolls, 8 pieces of nigiri and a carafe of sake – we had a great dinner and would go back again to try the robata.

*apologies for the rubbish photos. had to use the camera phone. image of bar from yelp.com

Eats: Frita Batidos

After I landed in Michigan I was starving, but also exhausted, and not really in the mood to go out to dinner. Frita Baditos was suggested because I like Top Chef and everyone thought I would know who the owner was. She must have lost pretty early, because I watched the whole season she was in and don’t remember her at all. But who cares, Cuban-style burgers topped with fries was just what I needed.

It’s a pretty small place, but the high ceilings and decor make it seem bigger. Order up at the bar and then seat yourself at the picnic-style tables and benches.

At every table they have a selection of sauces – ketchup, mustard and chili garlic sauce, as well as salt and fresh limes.

We took home a pulled pork sandwich, a chorizo frita and their ginger lime juice which they serve in a plastic bag. Apparently that’s the way road-side vendors do it in Honduras. Now that may work really well for those vendors, but it doesn’t make any sense here. The ginger lime juice was delicious, nice and spicy but refreshing.

I think the sandwiches would have been better had we not taken them home and eaten them about 20 minutes after they were made. The chorizo patty on the frita was still moist, but the fries had dried out. Overall the sandwich was fair – salty and spicy with just enough mayo on a soft brioche bun. The pulled pork sandwich was flavoursome, but more sweet than spicy and was pretty soggy so I actually had to eat it with a fork. The coleslaw added much needed crunch and freshness.

It’s a nice little spot to have around town, good for a quick bite that’s not too expensive.  They definitely have a menu that you won’t find elsewhere in Ann Arbor which is needed. I also appreciate that they use a lot of local ingredients.