Monthly Archives: August 2016

Sushi Azabu

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It’s not often I get to eat like I ate at Sushi Azabu. For one, this restaurant is well out of my price range. To me, an expensive meal is any one that threatens to hit the $30 mark, and with omakase is priced at $100, $150, or $180 per person, Azabu is far past the point of threatening. Don’t get me wrong; I can definitely appreciate a high-quality meal. I’m not one to immediately cry “overpriced!” at anything that veers toward costliness. It’s just that I can’t afford to eat this way unless someone else is footing the bill (thanks, Dad).

A few months ago, in a fit of bitterness, I went through the menus of every single one of this city’s Michelin-starred restaurants, mostly in an attempt to prove to myself that fine dining can be nut-free. I had very little success—I ended up eliminating nearly every single restaurant before even reaching my call-and-double-check stage—but one of the few restaurants that made it through was Sushi Azabu, a one-star sushi bar on the edge of Tribeca.

Their menu looks nut-less, but there’s plenty of room for nuts to sneak in under listings like “2 kinds of starter” or “dessert,” so I called to double-check. The hostess, who was very friendly and very competent, explained that while there are no nuts currently used in Azabu’s food, there are nuts stored in their kitchen. She assured me that the nuts aren’t really handled, though, and that I didn’t really have much reason to worry, especially if I was planning on eating from the sushi bar. (Of course, I’d recommend double-checking on the whole nut situation before eating at Azabu, because I’m sure it’s subject to change.)

When Sam and I got there, the hostess confirmed that I was the one with the nut allergy—I hadn’t even had to remind her. She led us to the end of the sushi bar, took our orders, and then asked if we had any special requests beyond the whole no-nuts thing before relaying all the relevant information (in Japanese) to the sushi chef. Truly, I felt taken care of—she was just as helpful in the restaurant as she had been on the phone, and if I’d had any worries beforehand, they were gone by the time she and I were done speaking.

[By the way, Azabu is a very small and very quiet restaurant. Only an (a) jackass or (b) Actual Important Restaurant Critic™ would be comfortable subjecting the other diners to a shutter sound over and over and over and over, and (I hope) I’m neither, so I left my camera at home. The photo at the top of this post, though I wish it were mine, is from The Greenwich Hotel’s website. I’ve included a few of my own iPhone photos at the end of this post, but those are all I have. Find a few better ones here and here.]

Anyway, food. Sam and I ordered the less expensive of the two Chef’s Omakase options. For $150, we each got got two starters, an assortment of seasonal sashimi, an uni tasting, a grilled crab dish, an assortment of sushi, miso soup, and dessert. (At $180, the other Chef’s Omakase also includes a toro tasting.)

First came the starters: fluke topped with uni, and a piece of Japanese eggplant topped with seared fatty tuna. Both were great, but I particularly liked the tuna, because…well, it was seared fatty tuna. Do I really need to explain? The eggplant was a little too slimy for me, but I appreciated its flavor nonetheless, and it did go well with the tuna, so I couldn’t really complain. And the fluke and uni were both great—I’m a sucker for any (decent) uni, really, but that serving was particularly tasty, and I couldn’t wait for the rest that’d be coming my way.

Next was the sashimi: octopus, abalone, fluke, medium fatty tuna, sweet shrimp, and lean tuna. Both pieces of tuna were straight-up delicious; the fatty tuna melted in my mouth, as fatty tuna does, and the lean tuna, topped with a speck of scallion, was one of the best pieces of lean tuna I’ve ever eaten. Seriously: That thing blew me away, and if my eyes had been closed, I wouldn’t have known it was lean. I liked the sweet shrimp, too—it didn’t have any of that that sea flavor that I so hate—but the octopus was a little boring, and the abalone was way too tough and clammy (that’s clam-flavored, not damp) for me.

After the sashimi came the uni tasting, which I’d been looking forward to since the very first moment I laid eyes on Azabu’s menu. We were each given two types of uni, both from Hokkaido: one from the North, and one from the East. Sam and I both preferred the former—it was a little creamier—but both were great, and my only complaint was that there wasn’t more. For some reason, I’d imagined the uni tasting to consist of, like, three or four varieties, but you know what? These two were certainly good enough to satisfy me.

The grilled king crab came next, and honestly, it impressed the hell out of me. The meat was sweet and briny, and it came in a half-shell, so I didn’t have to fight to get at it. (What can I say? I’m lazy.) The best part, though, was the crab miso sauce, which was sweet, salty, and almost a little buttery. It complemented the meat wonderfully, but it was great on its own, too—and it was all I could do to keep myself from licking up the bits that’d spilled. (Sue me.)

And then…and then…it was time for the sushi. We had, in order: squid, salmon, lean tuna, medium fatty tuna, scallop, bonito, ikura, a mystery fish whose name I didn’t quite catch, sweet shrimp, uni, and eel—and a tuna, oshinko, and shiso roll, too. The scallop was dense and boring, and the shrimp was a little too bitter, but everything else was downright incredible. Both pieces of tuna all but dissolved on my tongue, and the salmon—usually a pretty boring fish—was some of the best I’ve had in a while. The squid stood out, too—it was perhaps the most tender piece of squid I’ve ever had—and the uni was just as good as the better of the two from the sampling.

The roll was the last of the sushi selection, and it was a lovely way to end that portion of the meal. I love tuna, I love oshinko, and I love shiso, so it was no surprise that I went a little crazy over that roll. Its flavors and textures just worked so well together…ugh. I was full enough, but I could’ve used, like, fifteen more pieces of that thing.

A few minutes later, after we’d downed some unusually good miso soup, our chef asked us whether there was anything else we’d like to order, or if we’d rather just proceed to dessert. Now, I’d been wanting to eat some near-raw wagyu for a while—I’m not kidding; it was an actual craving of mine—so we went for it: two pieces of torched wagyu sushi, please.

It. Was. So. Good. For real: It was all I’d dreamed of. It started out tender and greasy—almost like a good steak—but as I got past the torched exterior, it got chewier, sweeter and…er, bloodier-tasting. The rawest parts tasted just like the smell of the butcher section at my local Whole Foods: a smell that never fails to make me want to eat a pile of raw beef. (The way I’m describing this is probably making me come off as a total weirdo. Maybe I am, but trust me, the wagyu was damn good.)

After we finished fawning over the wagyu, and after the chef confirmed that we were satisfied with our meal, the hostess brought out our dessert. “Mango sorbet, no nuts,” she said—without having been asked (!!!)—as she placed our bowls in front of us. I’d been a bit worried about dessert, but the fact that she seemed to have taken it upon herself to double-check made me feel comfortable enough to dig in, and so I did. The sorbet was good (though it was nothing in comparison to the meal we’d just had), but I could’ve sworn it was Häagen-Dazs. Maybe not. I don’t know. But I would’ve bet on it.

…And then, just like that, it was over.

It ended too soon, but it really was a great experience. The service was impeccable, the food bordered on perfect, and the atmosphere was calm and pleasant (despite the couple next to me, who spent the entire meal trying to perform for an audience that didn’t give a third of a shit about them). I’d love to go back, but it’ll probably be a while. Until then, I’ll just have to keep reliving this meal in my head.

Find Sushi Azabu at 428 Greenwich Street, between Laight and Vestry. (By the way, the restaurant’s underground—underneath another restaurant, actually. There’s signage, but not much of it. Try not to trip down the world’s darkest stairs on the way down.)

[Edit: I’ve since returned. Twice. And I’m happy to announce that Sushi Azabu is officially my favorite restaurant. Ever.]

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Biscoff Cookies & Cookie Butter

Two jars of

I spend a lot of time eyeing European sweets I know I can’t touch. Like, a lot of time. But for the most part, I’ve accepted that I can’t eat most of the stuff I see, and that my place in the food world—well, the European grocery world—is only that of an onlooker. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Biscoff products are safe for me to eat.

Products like these (as in: real-deal products, good products, products I actually decide I want before I know whether they’re nut-free) are almost never safe, so I was pretty shocked when I read that both Biscoff Cookies and Biscoff Cookie Butter are produced in a facility that doesn’t handle any nuts whatsoever. Don’t believe me? Check out their FAQ. (And please note that the whole nut-free thing does not apply to Annas Thins. They don’t have a “may contain” warning, but they aren’t made in a nut-free facility, and I think I’ve reacted to them before.)

Anyway, onto the products themselves. The cookies, which are pretty common on Delta flights, are tasty as hell. They’re Speculoos cookies, which are a crispy (but not particularly hard) sort of spice cookie—and Biscoff’s, rich and buttery with a nice, mild spice to them, are unusually good. A lot of lesser Speculoos products (I’m looking at you, Ben & Jerry’s) are way too cinnamon-heavy; fortunately, though, Biscoff’s are not.

Forget cookies, though. And forget allergy information. (Obviously, please don’t.) What I really want to talk about is cookie butter, which is basically a spreadable, peanut butter–textured version of a Speculoos cookie. Right now, cookie butter is pretty trendy; Trader Joe’s sells a jarred version, as well as a whole bunch of cookie butter–centric products—but few are nut allergy–safe, and none are as good as Biscoff’s real-deal jar of heaven.

Biscoff makes two varieties—smooth and crunchy—and both are wonderful. Smooth is super rich and creamy, with a peanut butter–like texture. I definitely prefer it, but the crunchy version’s great, too. It’s a little less rich, but what it lacks in flavor, it makes up for in texture. It’s packed with cookie bits, and it’s a little more fun to spoon (or finger) into your mouth than its smoother counterpart. Flavor-wise, it has a pleasant element of burnt-cookie-edge that the smooth version is lacking—but I maintain my original stance: Smooth’s a little better.

Point is, you can’t really go wrong with Biscoff. Both cookie butters great, and both are worth tracking down. They’re available online, but if you (like me) are a cheap-ass who pretty much refuses to shell out any amount of money for shipping, then you might be able to find Biscoff products at CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Stop & Shop, Target, D’Agostino, Westside Market, or Gristedes. (I’ve had some trouble finding their stuff, actually. But I do know that their spreads are available at the Westside Market on 7th Avenue and 14th Street and at the Fairway on 6th Avenue between 25th and 26th. Good luck.)

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Chikarashi

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Poke is New York City’s newest fast-casual trend, and I’ve been wanting to get in on it for a while now. It doesn’t seem like a dish that’d be filled with nuts, but most of the poke joints I’ve come across offer some pretty nutty toppings, so until now, I’ve had to stay away. The brute force method seems to be serving me well, though, because I’ve finally found a safe option: Chikarashi, a new spot on Canal Street that offers chirashi-inspired poke bowls.

Chikarashi isn’t your average counter-service restaurant, though. To start, you won’t be customizing much of anything; they pride themselves on their “curated” poke bowls, so you’ll just have to pick one. It’s headed by an actual chef (Michael Jong Lim of Neta) whose goal is to strike a balance between fine-dining and fast-casual, and he seems to have done just that. Chikarashi’s food is high-quality—their fish arrives fresh daily, all their seasonings and sauces are made in house, and they have actual specials that vary by the day—but it’s quick, easy, and (relatively!) inexpensive, too. The food’s great, the prices are reasonable, and…well, I’m a fan.

Before I get started, I should probably explain a few things. Poke (which rhymes with “okay,” though it’s correctly spelled without the frustratingly common acute accent on the e) is basically a Hawaiian (raw) fish salad, usually made with tuna. In its base form, the dish has heavy Japanese influences, but Chikarashi’s spin on it is especially Japanese. I’m not sure I’d even classify their bowls as poke—but they do, so I suppose that’s the term I’ll have to use.

With regard to allergens, Chikarashi seems to be pretty safe. Their menu’s small and simple, and though they do offer a rotating cast of off-menu specials, they’ve assured me (both via email and in person) that they don’t use any tree nuts in their food. It’d be wise, perhaps, to double-check on that, especially given how often their menu changes. But in general, I feel safe eating there. (Also, as a bonus: Chikarashi serves Dole Whips—which are nut-free, as far as I know—for dessert.)

Anyway. Like I said, Chikarashi isn’t Chipotle—the menu doesn’t leave much up to you. That’s for the best, though, because whoever designed (sorry, curated) their bowls clearly knows what’s up. The first time I went, I ordered the Ponzu Salmon (salmon, wasabi ponzu, shiso, avocado, tobiko, and shichimi—pictured below, under some really yellow lighting). The smaller size cost me $12.99, and I probably would’ve minded, had it not been so good. The salmon was fresh, the avocado was ripe, and the shiso and tobiko were plentiful, which I appreciated. (Everyone’s so stingy with their tobiko. It’s awful.) I didn’t taste any wasabi, but I certainly tasted ponzu—and everyone knows I love ponzu.

Since then, I’ve eaten the Ponzu Salmon a few more times, and it’s been great (though a little different) each time. Sometimes, there are sesame seeds. Sometimes, there are scallions. But the dish isn’t inconsistent in a hit-or-miss sort of way; rather, it’s exciting, and it can’t seem to let me down.

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As good as the Ponzu Salmon is, though, I think I might prefer the Wasabi Mayo Tuna (bluefin tuna, wasabi mayonnaise, shichimi, shoyu daikon, and whatever else they happen to have thrown in that day). It sounds iffy, I know—mayo on raw fish usually sends me running—but this bowl is absurdly good. The tuna, though lean, tastes rather fatty, and the mayo adds a lovely creaminess to the dish. There’s usually nori, pickled ginger, and a whole bunch of crunchy stuff I can’t identify, too—and the bites that involve a little of everything are actually somewhat orgasmic. As a whole, the dish is a just hot enough (for me, a huge spice-coward), and I love it.

What I really want to talk about, though, is Chikarashi’s specials. Like I said, this place feels like way more of a restaurant than your average fast-casual lunch (or dinner) spot, and their crazy-good daily specials are part of the reason why. Earlier this month, I paid $34.99 for an unnamed large poke bowl made with seared otoro (pictured at the top of this post). There I was, ready to order my $12.99 Ponzu Salmon—but when the cashier told me there was otoro in the back, my plans had to change.

I wanted to hate it. I really did. I wanted to not spend the next few weeks of my life having to repeatedly talk myself out of dropping another $35 on bowl of fish and rice. For my wallet’s sake, I needed Chikarashi to disappoint me. But there was nothing disappointing about that dish. The otoro, well-seasoned and perfectly seared, actually melted in my mouth. I usually hate garlic chips, but these were actually good—and I usually can’t choke down more than a bite of cucumber, but I liked this bowl’s sesame-heavy slices. I always love ginger and I always love scallions, so those two were a no-brainer—but seriously: everything in that bowl was great.

The Roasted Salmon Kama, another off-menu special, is almost as good as the seared otoro, and at $16.99 for a large, it’s certainly a little more wallet-friendly. The portion of salmon is (of course) much larger than the otoro bowl’s portion of tuna, and you get to choose your sauce, too, which is nice. The cashier recommended ponzu, so ponzu it was, and boy, was I pleased. The salmon itself was great—the skin was crispy and the flesh was oh-so-soft—and the rest of the ingredients (scallions, cucumber slices, pickled something…) complemented it nicely. In all: Great. So great. (I didn’t get a photo, but here’s one from an Instagram account I like to drool at.)

But enough about poke bowls. (By now, I think I’ve made it clear that Chikarashi’s are kick-ass.) Let’s talk about Dole Whips, mankind’s creamiest dairy-free creation to date. According to Dole’s website, their Whips are also gluten-free, fat-free, cholesterol-free, and vegan. There’s no mention of their being nut-free, but they certainly seem to be, and the nut-allergic community loves to sing their praises, so…I figured I’d give them a try.

Chikarashi sells pineapple Whips (and floats) as well as a rotating selection of other flavors (raspberry, on the day in question). I went with a pineapple Whip, and honestly, I was a little shocked at how good that thing was. It was dense and creamy, with an unmistakable real-pineapple flavor, and even at $4, I was happy to have sprung for it. (After all, it’s incredibly rare that I can buy a dessert that isn’t pre-packaged.)

Honestly, Chikarashi is strange, paradoxical. The experience is fast-casual, but the food just isn’t. The prices are annoying, but they’re undeniably reasonable. And the whole place is a little pretentious, but it sort of has reason to be. Odd as it is, though, I really like it—and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone into poke. Or Japanese food. (Or soft serve!)

Find Chikarashi at 227 Canal Street, between Centre and Baxter.

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Touring a Nut-Free Chocolate Factory

"Happiness is Unroasted"—outside Raaka's factory

Back in March, I published a post about Raaka, a Brooklyn-based craft chocolate company that’s entirely nut-free. In that post, I noted that Raaka offers 45-minute tours of their factory in Red Hook to anyone who’s willing to part with $10 and don a hair net. It’s taken me a few months, but I finally got around to going—so I figured I’d share some photos.

Some important information first, though. None of Raaka’s products contain any gluten, dairy, soy, or nuts. Their FAQ states that no nuts are allowed in their factory, but that their chocolates aren’t certified nut-free, as they cannot guarantee that their vendors’ facilities are equally safe. Everything they sell is vegan, non-GMO, and organic—and most (if not all) of their bars are kosher, too.

(In spite of the whole vendors’-facilities thing, I’ve still categorized Raaka as truly nut-free, as their own plant is nut-free, and that’s about as much as I can ask for. Plus, I kind of like the fact that Raaka isn’t defined by its allergy-friendliness; it’s just a normal chocolate company that also happens to not use a few ingredients.)

Raaka is really big on their whole virgin chocolate thing, which refers to the fact that they use unroasted cacao beans in their chocolate-making process. As the folks at Raaka frame it, many lesser companies buy low-quality beans and then roast them to hide their flavor, which leads to a one-size, homogenous sort of product. Raaka, in an attempt to “bring you true cacao flavor,” does no such thing; instead, they buy high-quality beans and are thus unafraid to showcase those beans’ natural (unroasted) flavors. As long as it tastes good, right?

Onto the photos, though. Enjoy.

Free chocolate samples at Raaka's factory

When Sam and I walked in, we were immediately hit with the unmistakable smell of dark chocolate. We were 10 minutes early, and the woman who took our names encouraged us to help ourselves to some free samples. Of course, we did—we both tried every flavor, even though we’ve had most in bar form before—and all of them were delicious.

I found myself enjoying the sample discs way more than I’d ever enjoyed Raaka’s bars, and that’s not just because the discs were free. They’re comparatively small and soft, so they’re way less overwhelming than the bars, flavor-wise—especially if you (like me) struggle with the bitterness of dark chocolate. Seriously, though: All the flavors were great, and come tour time, Sam and I both had trouble stepping away from the chocolate, even though we knew there’d be plenty more to come.

Dominican cacao beans

Soon enough, our tour-mates arrived. After a quick rundown on the difference between roasted and unroasted cacao beans, our guide led us to the bean room, where we’d soon learn more than we’d ever wanted to know about cacao. I can’t relate all that much information, because I got…um, lost in my thoughts (super-pressing questions like where are all the Oompa Loompas? and how many Willy Wonka jokes do these employees have to fake-laugh at per week?) but I swear our tour guide taught us a whole lot of stuff.

First, he taught us how to eat a cacao bean. Apparently, he’s spent a lot of time working farmers’ markets, where he’s met his fair share of that super-effete Whole Foods type who tend to just walk up to his stand, grab a cacao bean, say something to the effect of “mmm, antioxidants” or “ooh, a superfood,” and then pop the whole thing into his or her mouth, husk included. That, our guide warned, is not the way to go. Cacao husks are about as tasty as peanut shells—and after we’d been warned not to eat the beans whole, it was sampling time.

As we gathered around for our rations, our guide explained to us that cacao beans grown in different regions tend to pick up different flavors. He gave us each two nibs (a nib is a bean-chunk that’s had its husk removed), one from the Dominican Republic and one from…somewhere else, at which point we all realized that he wasn’t kidding. Though both beans were shockingly bitter, their flavors did have different undertones; one had distinct notes of earthy dirt, while the other was more of a dirty earth. (Sorry. They both tasted terrible to me. But they did have totally different flavors.) Nearly everyone made a sour face, and one of my tour-mates declared that he didn’t like chocolate—and then it was time to move on.

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Still in the bean room, our guide went on to explain the winnowing process (by which the beans’ nibs and husks are separated). Again, I had trouble focusing—why would you pay $10 to tour a chocolate factory if you don’t like chocolate, Red Shoes?—but the process involves three rounds of running cacao beans through a machine that removes and then sucks away their husks and only their husks. Neat.

The folks at Raaka used to have to spend all day removing husks by hand, so they were all rather thrilled when they were finally able to purchase a machine to do the job for them. They also recently picked up an optical sorter, which (I think) they use to make absolutely sure that there’s nothing but pure, unadulterated cacao nib going into their grinders—no husks, no rocks, no nothing—which is, of course, another job that used to call for human attention.

A vat of

After a long, long talk about husks and winnowing and optical sorting, we moved onto the the grinding room, where the nibs are ground (for three days!) into silky-smooth chocolate. That day, the Maple & Nibs vat was the furthest along, so that was the one we got to try.

At the prospect of getting to sample something sweet, our tour-mates finally started to look excited—and legitimately so, because that shit was good. Warm, smooth, and sweet, it was very dissimilar to the nibs we’d eaten in the previous room, and I was finally starting to have some fun. (Sugar. That’s all it takes, people. Also, dairy. But that one’s a lost cause at Raaka.)

After the chocolate comes out of the grinders, it’s still a little gritty, so it gets fed through a machine that looks a lot like a set of rolling pins for further smoothing. Then, it’s scraped into buckets and brought over to the tempering machine, which is in the factory’s main room.

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The tempering machine repeatedly heats and cools the chocolate to encourage it to crystallize properly, which makes sure the product comes out looking nice and shiny, gives it that satisfying chocolate-bar snap, and keeps the bars’ surfaces from going gray (for a while, at least). Then, after it’s tempered, the chocolate is poured into rectangular molds. If that day’s flavor calls for the addition of nibs or fruit or whatever, they’re added to the chocolate while it’s still wet, and then everything goes into a big ol’ fridge for half an hour or so to cool.

Raaka's labeling machine

Finally, the chocolate is wrapped and labeled. The wrapping machine, which is straight out of, like, City of Ember or something, can wrap around 400 bars per hour—way more than Raaka’s employees had been able to wrap by hand before they discovered this weird-ass machine in “the back of a warehouse in the Bronx.”

The labeling machine—way less steam-punk—applies labels (shocking!) to wrapped chocolate bars that glide by on a conveyor belt…and that’s it, really. That’s Raaka’s signature bean-to-bar process, of which they’re (understandably) rather proud.

(I know nothing and it’s showing—sorry. I’m here to talk about food allergies and share a few highly-compressed photos, not to pretend to be a chocolate expert. It wasn’t as if I was standing there taking notes, nor was I able to focus on nib-talk for long. I was hungry, and my thoughts were doing a lot of wandering. How many blocks do you think I’d have to walk to get a bottle of milk?, etc.)

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And then—then—it was chocolate-sampling time. While we’d been on our tour, the woman who’d welcome us had laid out five plates of samples for my tour-mates and me. On the menu that day was Bourbon Cask Aged (82% cacao), Maple & Nibs (75% cacao), Pink Sea Salt (71%), Piña Colada (60%), and Coconut Milk (60%). We sampled from darkest to lightest, as that’s apparently how it’s done, and each and every flavor was absolutely delightful.

The Bourbon Cask Aged was a little too dark for my 20-year-old, sugar-loving palate, but it wasn’t bad by any means. Maple & Nibs was refreshingly sweet, by contrast, and Pink Sea Salt was salty and satisfying, as expected. My favorites were the last two, though: Piña Colada was very sweet, with chewy bits of pineapple throughout, and Coconut Milk was creamy and soft. Perfect, really.

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After we’d all sampled each of the five flavors, the tour was over, and my tour-mates and I were set free…to the area with the rest of the samples. No one insisted we leave; no one pressured us to buy anything; no one sneered at us for taking too many little chocolate disks. We were under strict instructions to eat as much as we wanted—it was lunchtime, and our guide actually encouraged us to fill up on chocolate—and so we did.

Still, I couldn’t leave without making a purchase. I figured I’d go with the 3-bars-for-$15 deal—Piña Colada (my favorite), Raspberry Lemonade (of which there were no samples), and Sunflower Seed Butter (same deal as Raspberry Lemonade). But when I found out Piña Colada wouldn’t be for sale until the following month, I decided to just go with Sunflower Seed Butter ($8).

Anywho. I’m a shithead with the attention span (and palate!) of a toddler, but I had a wonderful time at Raaka’s factory (…when I wasn’t being shoved out of the way by one of my eldest tour-mates, that is). Our guide was super friendly, and he knew a hell of a lot about chocolate—and the folks at Raaka are very generous with their samples, which was a pleasant surprise.

In all, it was a great experience, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has even the slightest interest in chocolate. Plus, Raaka’s factory is a 15-minute walk from Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, which is totally nut-free, save for a packaged dessert or two. Make a day of it, if you’re into that sort of thing.

(Also, in the interest of accruing some bragging rights, I’d like to mention that I walked home—to Lower Manhattan—from Raaka’s factory. It was 90° and raining. I had boots, chocolate, and company, but I did not have an umbrella. Talk about making a day of things.)

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Mika Japanese Cuisine & Bar

A plate of sushi and rolls from

Another all-you-can-eat sushi post, another apology. Here’s the obligatory “I am sorry—this is a little gross, both in concept and in flavor. Get real sushi, please.” At this point, these posts (and especially their many apologies) are getting a little tired, but whaddya gonna do? I ate at Mika, so you’re going to hear about it—and I feel bad, so I’m going to apologize.

Now that I’ve let that out, we can proceed. Let’s.

I’m not sure where I read about Mika, but somehow, the restaurant made its way onto my to-call list. I never really got around to calling, though, until I recognized their name one night as I was walking home. I hadn’t known Mika was so close to my apartment, and I guess the realization sparked my half-interest, because I ended up calling the next day. No nuts in house, they told me—so I moved them to my to-try list, and for a while, that was that.

If you can imagine a person whose cravings are even more persistent and unreasonable than mine, then you can imagine my boyfriend, Sam. For weeks, he had Mika on the brain, and no matter how much I tried to talk him out of going, he remained resolute. Eventually, as the result of a bargain of sorts, Sam ended up with the privilege (read: burden) of choosing singlehandedly that night’s restaurant—and that was how we ended up at Mika.

To the point. When we went, it was storming, and Mika seemed to be having an off night. It’s a big restaurant with lots and lots of tables, but that night, no one was feeling it. The bar was empty, the tables (save for two) were empty, and there didn’t appear to be many employees on duty, either. Sam and I attributed the emptiness to the storm, but it was eery regardless—especially as we sat alone, in the dark, in the corner of the restaurant’s largest room.

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Like Yuka, Mika takes all-you-can-eat orders via paper form. For our first round of food, we ordered beef fried rice (pictured immediately above), fried calamari (pictured below), shrimp tempura, and, of course, a bunch of rolls and quite a few pieces of nigiri (some pictured at the top of this post).

First came the fried food. The fried rice—a huge portion, which we couldn’t help but read as an attempt to fill us up quickly—was all right, though I don’t think I’d order it again. The rice itself was fine, and the vegetables were inoffensive, but the beef was tough and tasted overwhelmingly of char. Still, we chewed our way through the entire serving, hoping there’d be better flavors to come.

The shrimp tempura was better, but not by much. Again, it was a big portion—four large pieces of shrimp—but the dish was certainly more manageable than the fried rice. Flavor-wise, the tempura was bland, and the dipping sauce didn’t do much to remedy that, but again: an inoffensive dish. We got it down without issue (and so avoided being charged extra), which was what really mattered.

The calamari, though, was the stand-out. To our surprise, it was actually good—good enough that we ended up ordering a second helping. Unlike pretty much everything else we’d ordered, the squid itself was flavorful, and its texture was perfect—neither mushy nor tough, but enjoyably chewy. The dipping sauce (basically sweet and sour) wasn’t my thing, but still. I liked the calamari. It was (by far) the best thing we ordered.

Calamari from

With regard to the sushi, I had mixed feelings. (Not that mixed—my feelings ranged from “ick” to “huh, okay.”) The salmon was grocery store–quality, and the ikura was worse, but the white tuna and fluke were both all right. Some pieces were watery and had obviously just been defrosted; others had passably normal textures. The rolls (one shrimp tempura, one salmon) were bearable—though both were made with lots of unripe avocado. But then we made the mistake of ordering one more, at which point things took a distinct turn for the worse.

Neither of us had ever tried a salmon skin roll, so perhaps they’re just inherently terrible. But I’ve since looked at a lot of photos, and I feel pretty confident in declaring that what we ate was not the norm. Honestly, it was disgusting—there’s very little else I can say. (An exchange that took place 30 seconds ago, for science: “Sam, what’d you think of the salmon skin roll?” His reply: “Covered in sugar-sauce, mushy shit inside, no crunch whatsoever. Gross.” Accurate.) It came with six pieces, and we sure as hell weren’t getting any further than the one we’d managed to finish together—so we had to come up with a plan, lest we end up with a surcharge. I’ll leave the rest of the story to your imaginations, though.

Anyway, Mika was all right, I guess. Their sushi was some of the worst I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant, but it wasn’t inedible or anything—and their entrees were tolerable, at least. I’m not in a rush to return, but it isn’t as if I’m orchestrating a boycott, either. (After all, our meal was really cheap, considering how much we ate.)

In all: Meh.

Find Mika at 150 Centre Street, between White and Walker.

[Apologies for the coloring of the photos in this post. Mika has some weird-ass spotlight-esque lighting, and there’s only so much I can fix in post. Forgive me.]

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Hai Street Kitchen & Co.

A Slammin' Salmon f

I’m a big fan of Uma Temakeria, so I was pretty excited when I found out about Hai Street Kitchen & Co. Like Uma Temakeria, Hai Street specializes in sushi burritos…but bigger ones, with a wider range of ingredients, it seemed—and so I stood no chance. Onto my list it went.

Their only New York City location is at Urbanspace Vanderbilt, which didn’t sound ideal to me—but I figured they’d be worth looking into, at the very least. So what if Urbanspace is full of restaurants that are trendier than they are tasty? That’s a generalization; surely, there are some exceptions, and maybe Hai Street was one.

Hai Street never responded to the message I submitted via their contact form, and their Urbanspace location doesn’t have its own phone number, so I called one of their Philadelphia storefronts. The woman I spoke with assured me that nothing on Hai Street’s menu contains any nuts whatsoever, and that the same should be true of their other locations, too. I would’ve preferred to have been able to speak to an employee who was actually on-site at their Urbanspace stand, but I wasn’t all that worried—Japanese (and Japanese-inspired) food is usually pretty low-risk, so I decided to go ahead and give it a try.

Anyway, from what I could tell, Hai Street looked good. Their Yelp page is filled with photos of big-ass sushi burritos packed with generous portions of fish, and their online menu lists a bunch of appetizing ingredient options, so I figured I was in for a treat. If I’d been paying any attention at all, though, I would’ve realized that the Hai Street’s Urbanspace location doesn’t allow for customization—that is, they don’t offer the same build-your-own deal that’s advertised on the chain’s website and available at some of their other locations.

I figured it out pretty quickly when I got there, though. The menu was simple: five speciality burritos, some sides, some drinks, and some rolls. I was a little disappointed—I’d already gotten my heart set on a combination of ingredients—but I got over it. After a few minutes’ deliberation, I ended up with the Slammin’ Salmon (a burrito made with salmon, gochujang, romaine, cucumber, pickled jicama, red cabbage, and tempura crunch) with avocado salsa and without the cucumber, jicama, or cabbage. (What can I say? I wasn’t ready to let go of my ideal. The Slammin’ Salmon wasn’t it, but at least there was no cabbage involved.)

Even without three of its seven advertised components, my burrito was intensely flavorful—though the only reason for that was the homemade gochujang (which tasted much more like sesame sauce than gochujang, actually). As a whole, the burrito wasn’t all I’d dreamed of, but it certainly wasn’t bad, either. The romaine was fresh and crisp, and the rice was tolerable, which helped. The tempura crunch sucked (but I’ve never once enjoyed tempura crunch), the salmon was bland, and the avocado salsa would have been more appropriate on a Mexican taco than a Japanese-inspired dish of any sort—but nothing in my burrito was particularly offensive, so…I did enjoy it. For the most part.

Was I underwhelmed? Yes. Slightly annoyed that I’d just spent $15 for something so mediocre? Um, yes. Still bitter about the fact that I wasn’t able to add the pickled onions and fried shallots I’d seen online? Yes. But you know what? I’d probably eat at Hai Street again, given the right set of cravings—though probably only if I happened to be passing by. My allegiance still lies with Uma Temakeria, but I suppose there’s room for both restaurants in my life.

Find Hai Street Kitchen & Co. at Urbanspace Vanderbilt, which is located at 230 Park Avenue, between 45th and 46th Streets.

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Katz’s Delicatessen and the City’s Most Legendary Pastrami Sandwich

A plate of pickles, a pastrami on rye, and a corned beef on rye at Katz's Delicatessen

“For most New Yorkers, deli means pastrami, and pastrami means Katz’s. This is simply a fact of life, like death and taxes.”

*     *     *

Katz’s Delicatessen is easily one of New York City’s most iconic restaurants. It’s been hanging around the Lower East Side for almost 130 years now, and in that time, tourists and New Yorkers alike have come to cherish its kosher-style (but certainly not kosher!) food. Their pastrami sandwich is on every list of things you’re supposed to eat in this city—and you know what? You can (probably) go for it, nut allergy be damned.

I’m in the process of breaking a bad habit of assuming I can’t eat any of the hyped-up foods everyone’s always talking about. Sure, it’s probably a valid assumption when it comes to some things (Dominique Ansel’s cronut, or better yet, his burrata soft serve), but I’ve proven to myself time and time again that I can, in fact, get in on a lot of the trendy and/or iconic foods this city has to offer. Turns out, getting off my ass and asking questions actually pays off more often than I’d ever expected—and I suppose I have this blog to thank for that realization.

Since I started eating at Essen, I’ve been on quite the pastrami kick—and it was that kick that led me to email Katz’s last week. I asked a few questions about nuts and cross-contamination, but the response I received was underwhelming, to say the least: “No nut products.” That was it. So I called, and while the experience was a bit painful (it involved lots of “can you just call back in 15 minutes?”), the results were worth the effort.

The folks at Katz’s do not cook with nuts. However, they do carry a number of baked goods (babka, etc.) made elsewhere that may not be safe for those with nut allergies. No word on whether or not those baked goods actually contain nuts—their babka is rumored to be made by Green’s, actually—but I’ve been told to avoid them regardless. No big deal, really; I don’t think anyone goes to Katz’s for the desserts.

We need to have a talk about Katz’s ever-important rye bread, though. It’s supplied by Rockland Bakery—a company whose allergen information is confusing as hell, to say the least. At Katz’s, the Rockland bags are made of wax paper and are without any sort of “may contain” warning. I’ve seen other Rockland rye bags, though—at Frankel’s Delicatessen, for example—that are made of plastic and that do bear a prominent “may contain” warning above the nutritional information panel. Strange.

Naturally, I called Rockland to find out what was up, and the woman I spoke with (who worked in Rockland’s retail department, the only department I had any luck reaching by phone) told me in no uncertain terms that Rockland makes only one type of rye, and that they do make that rye on equipment that’s also used for their nut-containing breads. So that’s that, then—right? Wrong.

At that point, I’d been eating their rye for weeks without issue, and I’d decided to continue to do so because (a) it had been fine so far and (b) I love Katz’s. But I wanted to be certain about the risks I was taking, so I sent Rockland an email in an attempt to perhaps find out about any measures they were taking to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. The reply I received (from Rockland’s Food Safety Manager) was as follows:

Thank you for contacting us regarding your concern on the allergen in our facility. I would like to inform you, our Rye bread is manufactured in a plant that is tree nut free and no equipment is shared with any tree nuts or any kind of nuts.
We are a HACCP certified company with specific programs and cleaning procedures to prevent cross contamination as well we have programs to control any use of allergens.
The allergen disclaimer on the bag, it is a generic statement found on all Rockland Bakery products, and in most cases, it is requested by our customers or governmental offices, however, like in the case of the Rye bread, it really doesn’t apply.
If Katz and Frankel’s, in fact are using our Rye bread, in both cases, the bread is free of any tree nut and nuts contamination.

I sent a few more emails to a few more addresses to be absolutely certain that above information was, in fact, accurate, but I didn’t get much back…except for what seems to be Rockland’s official allergen statement, which I’ve attached here. (Spoiler: It’s consistent with the above email, which comes as no surprise, because it was written by the same guy.) Good news, I suppose. Strange news, but good news nonetheless.

While I don’t like how much misinformation I received—inconsistent answers are one of the easiest ways for a company to put me off—I’m inclined to trust that Rockland’s rye is made in a nut-free facility. Of course, I understand that such hubbub is enough to sour many nut-allergics on Rockland (and Katz’s, by extension). It may have been a deal-breaker for me, too, if I’d gone through all this before I got myself addicted to this goddamn pastrami. Too late now, though. (Plus, I really do believe that Rockland’s bread is safe.)

That is, of course, just my personal stance, and as always, you should only eat where you’re comfortable eating. My goal in rambling like this is to provide you with (more than) enough information to come to your own conclusions about Katz’s and their rye. (And by the way, it’s certainly possible to avoid bread at Katz’s. You can order the meat on its own, or you can go for any of their other bread-less offerings, though neither of those options are, uh, canon. Still, doable.)

Anyway. All I can say, really, is that Katz’s works for me. Proceed past the following salami wall at your own risk.

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Katz’s is loud and chaotic and almost always packed to capacity, but all that’s easy enough to ignore—just focus on the smell of the meat. When you walk in, you’re given a ticket (don’t lose it or you’ll be out $50), and then you’re on your own. If you choose to go the self-service route, you’ll eventually figure out that you’re meant to take your little ticket to the appropriate counter and use it to order some food. If you’re getting a sandwich (as you should be), you’ll want to tip the dude who slices your meat, and then you’ll want to take your drooling ass to a table and dig in before anything goes the slightest bit cold.

The first time we went, Sam and I both ordered pastrami on rye—a mistake, considering how huge those sandwiches are. (Half of one is pictured below, in a bit of disarray, because I’m a klutz.) To our delight, our cutter let us sample some hot pastrami before he piled it onto our sandwiches. (Apparently, that’s SOP; we’d had no idea.) Over the din, he sought out our approval, and over the din, we told him everything was perfect—and then it was sandwich time.

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The sandwich. The sandwich. The sandwich. I’d really rather not play into the circle-jerk, but my honest-to-goodness opinion is that this sandwich is about as great as it’s reputed to be. It didn’t change my life. It didn’t stop my heart. It isn’t the best thing I’ve ever eaten. But it’s absolutely delicious—that much is undeniable. The pastrami, thick-cut and peppery, is melt-in-your-mouth good. It’s very fatty, though not sickeningly so—and the spice of the mustard complements it wonderfully. The rye falls a bit flat, but really, who cares? It’s all about the pastrami, baby. And the pastrami is damn good.

Each sandwich comes with two pickles (pictured at the top of this post): one new pickle and one full-sour. I much prefer the full-sour, but neither is a particularly good pickle, if I’m being honest. The new pickle is way too cucumber-y, the full-sour is overwhelmingly sour, and Katz’s offers no middle-ground. But both pickles do go a long way in balancing out the grease of the pastrami, so I’ll leave them alone, I guess.

The corned beef (pictured below—first untouched, and then in an inevitable state of disarray) is wonderful, too. So wonderful, in fact, that some days, I even prefer it to the pastrami. (Which I like more depends on little more than which I had last. Seriously: Corned beef is criminally underrated.) Like the pastrami, the corned beef is incredibly tender and juicy—but it’s saltier, tangier, and to me, it tastes a little cleaner (though I’m fully aware that it isn’t “clean” by any stretch of the word). It’s impossible to hold the sandwich together, but I’m not complaining. Just trust me: It’s good.

Corned beef on rye from Katz's DelicatessenHalf a corned beef on rye from Katz's Delicatessen

If plain pastrami/corned beef sounds too boring, you’re wrong, but consider trying the Reuben. It’s made with meat (pastrami or corned beef), sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese, and it’s very tasty. I could’ve done without the Swiss, and the rye couldn’t quite hold the combination of greasy meat and wet sauerkraut—but you know what? Messy as it was, I enjoyed the hell out of the one Katz’s Reuben I’ve eaten. It’s not quite on par with its kraut-less counterpart, but it’s a great option when you’re in the mood for something a little different.

I like their knishes, too. (Actually, I like stuffing fallen sandwich meat into their knishes. Same thing, right?) They’re under $5 each, which is low for Katz’s, and I like to use them to supplement my usual meal of a half sandwich. (Sam and I have fallen into the habit of splitting a sandwich and a knish. That brings the meal-for-two price down to $25, which is a lot easier on our wallets than the double-sandwiched alternative.) Katz’s offers both square and round knishes, by the way. I’m partial to the square ones, but some insist that round is the way to go. Do with that what you will, I suppose.

Anyway. I’m, like, 1,700 words and 5 photos deep here, so I suppose I should probably stop going on about this place. Suffice it to say, then, that I am a huge fan of Katz’s—at lunchtime, at dinnertime, and even (and especially) at 2am on a Saturday night, when the bathroom floors are covered with sawdust and the cutters are a little extra playful. There’s just something about that place that makes me happy.

And okay, a lot of that something is the food, but there’s more to it, too. The atmosphere: the bustle, the smell, even the tourists—even the misguided ones, who spring for waiter service and then insist on ordering turkey on wheat, extra mayo. The enormous dining room, the hanging salamis, the kitschy celebrity photos that cover the walls. The cutters—always in line, always busy—and their perpetual need to poke fun at me. The sense of coming together over something (pastrami, duh). And, of course, the fact that I can take part.

Find Katz’s Delicatessen at 205 East Houston Street, on the corner of Houston and Ludlow. And remember: DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, LOSE YOUR TICKET. (Also, here’s some further reading, because Katz’s fascinates me: a lovely description of a night at Katz’s, and an explanation of how they make their pastrami.)

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Terrace Fish & Chips

Fried fish, calamari, and fries from Terrace Fish & Chip

Until last week, I had no idea how much I needed a reliable source of fried fish. But now that I’ve found Terrace Fish & Chips, there’s no unknowing what I now know: I need this stuff, and I need it often.

To tell you the truth, I have no idea how I found out about this place. I keep a list of restaurants to look into, and Terrace sort of just showed up on it. I know I must’ve added it, but I don’t even remember having heard of it. There it was, though, begging me to call and ask a bunch of repetitive questions. So I did.

The man who answered the phone assured me that there were no nuts or nut products involved in anything at Terrace—and why would there be? It’s a very straightforward place. They do fried seafood, grilled seafood, seafood salads, seafood burritos, seafood sandwiches, and seafood rice. That’s it, so it isn’t as if there’s much room for nuts. I was psyched.

The first time I went, I tried a bunch of different things (all of which I’ve ordered many times since): the fried fish, the crab sticks, the calamari, and, of course, the fries. The woman behind the counter switched around one of their (many, many) pre-set meals for me so that the above assortment would count as a combination meal (and thus cost a whole lot less), which was very nice of her—especially considering the fact that she could’ve just as easily told me to get over myself and either (a) settle for one of their six trillion pre-sets or (b) pay the menu price for all the shit I wanted, but she didn’t. She just asked what I wanted, found me a similar meal, and made the necessary substitutions. Small potatoes, but I appreciated it.

Service was quick, too. Within 5 minutes of placing my order, I was out the door—and on a bench around 20 feet away. (There are only like four chairs inside the restaurant, but there are plenty of public benches in a cute little square-like area outside, so the lack of seating doesn’t matter all that much.)

By the way, these “fish and chips” are not British-style (which is to say that they aren’t fish and chips at all). But if you go in with that in mind, everything’s still pretty good. At places like this, it’s all about your expectations, and if you walk into Terrace expecting a big heap of greasy, fried, American seafood, then you’re going to leave happy. (I know I did, at least.)

Fried crab sticks from Terrace Fish & Chip

The fried fish (pictured at the top of this post, atop calamari and fries) is boring as hell, in the best possible way. It’s the sort of boring that comforts, and I must admit that I’m a fan. It’s a little fishy, a lot crispy, and a wee bit salty—and that’s all it takes to win me over, really. It comes in huge pieces, and it’s supremely satisfying, in that way only fried food can be. Swoon.

The calamari is a little bland, too, but it isn’t unpleasant. It’s neither too tough nor too mushy—and to my surprise, tartar sauce goes a long way in brightening up the flavor. (I’d really like it to come with lemon, but oh well. Meals come with ketchup, hot sauce, and tartar sauce. I hate ketchup almost as much as I hate hot sauce, and tartar sauce is pretty hit-or-miss with me, but I’ll make do.)

The crab sticks (pictured second above) actually aren’t bland; they’re sweet and chewy—not tough, but chewy—and when they’re fresh, they’re sickeningly delicious. (I’ve tried to eat them as leftovers, and all I can say is that I do not recommend you do the same. Ick.) Aesthetically, they always remind me of the Angry Whopper—I have no idea why, because they don’t look much alike—but I can assure you these things aren’t anywhere near as revolting as any of Burger King’s latest cries for attention. They’re good, and that’s all I really have to say.

Anyway: Terrace Fish & Chips isn’t the most exciting place to eat. Their food isn’t gourmet, nor is it particularly interesting, but it’s damn good at being what it is: an inexpensive fried seafood joint that seems to have erroneously slapped the phrase “fish & chips” on its awning. [Actually, their awning says “fish & chip,” singular, but their website (and most others) say “fish & chips.” It burns.]

Find it at 77 Pearl Street, not too far from Pier 11/Wall St.—you know, in case you were planning a trip to IKEA or something.

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Halfpops

halfpops

Apparently, some people have a thing for the half-popped popcorn that’s usually at the bottom of the bag. And while I’m definitely not one of those people—who are they, and what’s wrong with them?—I have to admit that Halfpops are actually all right.

Allergy information first, though. Halfpops’ exceedingly irritating FAQ clearly states that each and every one of their products is nut- and gluten-free, so that’s that, I suppose. (Seriously, though. Their FAQ is annoying as hell, as is the rest of their website. Why they insist on harping on how portable their snacks are, I have no idea. Halfpops are exactly as portable as regular popcorn—but I digress.)

Online pandering aside, Halfpops do taste okay. (Imagine a softer Corn Nut, and that’s basically a Halfpop.) As of right now, they come in seven flavors: Aged White Cheddar, Angry Kettle Corn, Caramel & Sea Salt, Butter & Sea Salt, Brooklyn Dill Pickle, Black Truffle & Sea Salt, and Chipotle BBQ. My favorite, by far, is the Black Truffle & Sea Salt—in fact, it’s the only one I’ve tried that I actually like. Unlike so many inexpensive “truffled”products, these actually have a noticeable truffle element to them—and a pleasant one, at that. I’m definitely a fan.

The worst flavor I’ve tried is probably the Caramel & Sea Salt. As soon as I opened the bag and got a whiff of those things, I knew they wouldn’t be for me—and they weren’t. “Cloying” is probably the least offensive adjective I can use to describe them—they’re way, way, way too sweet, without anywhere near enough salt to balance out the sugar, and I can say with confidence that I do not like these. Not one bit.

Somewhere toward the middle of the Halfpops spectrum are the Aged White Cheddar—which (to its credit) tastes a whole lot like Smartfood, but without all the popcorn fluff that the folks behind Halfpops insists is so undesirable—and the Butter & Sea Salt, which is a little heavy on the butter flavoring. Brooklyn Dill Pickle is okay, too, if you want to be overwhelmed with vinegar, but I…don’t, so that one’s probably another flavor I’ll have to avoid.

The problem with most of Halfpops’ flavors is simple, though: the seasoning is way too strong. Perhaps if they’d tone it down a smidge, I’d be on board—but for now, I think I’ll stick with the Black Truffle & Sea Salt. (Or, you know, regular popcorn, despite its terribly unportable nature.)

Find Halfpops at Stop & Shop, REI, and ShopRite.

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Luke’s Lobster

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I’ll admit it: I’ve been actively avoiding Luke’s Lobster since I learned it was nut-free back in February. They have 13 locations, most in pretty convenient locations, but fuck—$17 for a single lobster roll? I know it’s lobster, but come on. That’s a lot. So I stayed away.

Still, the allergy information I got from Luke’s was pretty solid. There are no tree nuts (or peanuts) in any of their dishes, and their bread comes without any sort of “may contain” warnings. No one I’ve spoken to has wanted to make any guarantees about cross-contamination, but that’s standard for places that aren’t declaredly nut-free. So: Luke’s. Safe. Great. But I still didn’t want to pay $17 for a tiny meal.

Last weekend, though, Sam and I really couldn’t figure out what to eat. It all started with a simple question: “What do you want for dinner?”—and two hours later, we still hadn’t gotten anywhere. I didn’t want Mexican; he didn’t want Japanese. Neither of us wanted to go to the one Chinese restaurant I can eat at, and I couldn’t talk him into cooking. In defeat, we went home—we’d been having this conversation on a bench on Houston Street—and agreed to just have a frozen dinner.

And then it hit me. Sam had been wanting to go to Luke’s since we’d first heard about it, and I…well, at that point, I was feeling pretty good about anything that didn’t need to be microwaved. “Put some pants on,” I told him. “I have an idea that I think you’re gonna like.” And that was how I ended up spending almost $40 on lobster rolls (two—only two!) on a Sunday night.

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We went to the Luke’s on 7th Street (not pictured above—that’s the one on South William Street), which happens to be the smallest of the chain’s locations, Tail Cart not included. It’s a special kind of rustic-kitsch hell in there. There are about eight seats, and the walls are covered with sea-themed detritus. Sea, seafood…yes, I get it. But I did not appreciate having to wait 15 minutes in a shoebox that could pass for a Maine airport gift shop, six inches from the next person over, all for an expensive-ass snack-sized meal. (Oh, and the whole place smelled funny, too. Like a cheese shop, in a bad way.)

But I let go of all my ambiance-related gripes the second I bit into my lobster roll. The meat was fresh, and it came in large, satisfying chunks—and there was plenty of it, which was key. Plus, the bun was buttery and well-toasted (well-griddled, actually, which explains why it tasted so much like the bread on a good grilled cheese), and I wasn’t even upset when I ran out of lobster and had to finish the bun off by itself—it’s that good.

The seasoning (which I’m pretty sure is, like, 80% oregano) tasted a bit out of place, and I wouldn’t have minded if there had been a bit more mayonnaise involved, but there’s no denying that overall, the roll was good. That said, it wasn’t quite good enough to make me forget how much I’d spent—and it wasn’t as if I left Luke’s feeling particularly full, either. I’m not made of money, though, so I gathered all my self-control and got the hell out of there before I had the chance to find myself down another $20 with a clam chowder in one hand and a lobster tail in the other.

The Noah’s Ark (two half lobster rolls, two half crab rolls, two half shrimp rolls, four crab claws, two drinks, two chips or slaws, and two pickles—pictured above and below) is certainly a better deal. At $46, it feeds two—and doesn’t cost all that much more than two plain old lobster rolls. Our second time at Luke’s, we went with the Noah’s Ark, and we both left feeling far more satisfied than we’d felt the first time. All around, it was a win.

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Again, the buns stood out—enough to carry me through an overwhelmingly boring crab roll. The shrimp roll was better, but not by much. Unsurprisingly, the lobster was the best of the three, but I did like being able to try all of Luke’s offerings. The pickle was a pickle (a good one, I guess), and the chips (Cape Cod) were chips, but the soda was not just a soda. Luke’s sells Maine Root, which is really, really good. I had the Mexicane Cola, and I was in heaven.

I do have a complaint, though, and it’s an angry one. The crab claws (listed on the menu at an absurd $8 for 4) were a joke. Too cold, too small, too bland, too expensive—all I could think was “how much less would this meal have costed if these stupid crab claws weren’t included?” Still, if you were to buy everything included in the Noah’s Ark on its own, it’d cost you around $20 more than you’d pay for the bundle—so I couldn’t be that upset.

Overall, I like Luke’s. For my bank account’s sake, I wish I didn’t, but I can’t help it. Their lobster rolls just taste right, and I can’t convince myself otherwise—so I suppose I’ll have to learn how to exercise some restraint. (Or not, because they have a loyalty program. For every 10 lobster dishes you buy, you get a free lobster roll—and the Noah’s Ark counts for two. I’m on my way.)

There are a bunch of locations in the city, but the two I’ve been to are located at 93 East 7th Street and 26 South William Street, respectively. I preferred the William Street location, literally only because all the sea-flotsam and Maine-jetsam took up a more reasonable percentage of space than it did on 7th Street—and I’m willing to fight anyone who thinks that criterion is illegitimate.

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