A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Apr. 10.

Lunch -

Shake Shack - Madison Square Park, Gramercy Park
Shack Burger, regular Coffee Shake

Forget the groundhog and his schizophrenic shadow. The real sign of spring in New York is the reemergence of Shake Shack, Danny Meyer’s sleekly modern burger and hot dog hut in Madison Square Park. Once the Shack opens its gates and the endless lines start to form, once the custards and concretes come out in full force, once even dogs are waiting for a chance to sample the pet-friendly Poochini, you know it’s time to break out the short sleeves and sunglasses.

So many times last summer, I planned to visit Shake Shack, but something always came up unexpectedly. This year, I was determined to get there as soon as possible. All winter, I fantasized about the idyllic scene of eating a juicy burger in the park, my shoulders lit by sunshine, the tweeting of birds as my soundtrack. On warm days in March, I thought about it all the more, the scene so tantalizingly close to coming true.

Finally, on Saturday, I was resolved to make it happen. I tried to ready myself for the likely reality: the lines would be ginormous, the burgers would be good but not stellar, the service would be slow and rusty. But walking crosstown just after noon, my expectations refused to deflate. The weather conspired against me too, so blissfully superlative that it was hard not to break out in a permanent grin.

Arriving at 12:28, I stood on line for twenty-eight minutes and received my food two minutes after I ordered. This process was comparatively easy, considering that the line had doubled in size, extending out into the street, by one o’clock. Apparently, many other New Yorkers were sharing in my collective fantasy of fast food in the park.

It helps that Shake Shack is fast food with a pedigree. Danny Meyer’s opened some of the city’s most popular restaurants over the last twenty years, making himself synonymous with Gramercy Park cuisine. And from my great experiences at Tabla, Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park, he's earned his excellent reputation and ardent following.

Then again, as many an Ivy League burnout have proved, reputation and past glory mean nothing if you can’t back it up. So did Danny knock it out of the park or is his shack-sized modesty warranted in this case? Did my sky-high expectations meet their match or was it a year of wasted hopes? From the first taste of the Shack Burger, the wide grin on my face only widened. It was as fantastic as I’d hoped.

Before I wax poetically, let me get the few negatives out of the way. First, the single-patty burger and the regular shake were no bargain at $8.50. Second, the burger is pretty small, which is all the more painful when you realize how good it is. Finally, I was hoping against hope that the coffee shake would contain bits of ground beans like the mocha milkshake at the now-defunct Blue Moon Diner in Charlottesville. Alas, it was merely a refreshing coffee-flavored shake. I’m going to try the chocolate version next time.

But the burger, oh the burger. The beef, “ground daily from sirloin and brisket,” was indelibly moist and tender, swathed in a slice of warm American cheese. It tasted so revelatory I looked at the massive line and seriously considered getting back on it. The grilled bun, the crispy vegetables and the mildly mustardy Shack sauce were also great accessories, but it was the meat that made this burger so wonderful. Next time, I may just doom my arteries to certain clogging and order the Triple Shack Burger.

So while I’m glad to have flowers blooming again, the longer hours of daylight, and the birds migrating back into town, I’d gladly trade all these symptoms of spring for another taste of what really embodies the season. An excellent burger and a beautiful day. 8/10

Dinner -

Han Bat - 53 W. 35th St., Midtown West
Binde Duk, Gobdol Bibimbop

As soon as I taste the tangy crunch of kimchi, I remember all over again how much I like Korean food. It’s the quirkiest of Asian cuisines or at least the most unfamiliar to many, featuring heavy spicing, communal eating, barbecue beef known as bulgogi, and a rice liquor called soju. Every few years or so, the Times will do a story about how Korean fare is cracking the mainstream, but in New York at least, almost all of the top options remain sequestered just east of Herald Square in K-town.

Eager for good bibimbop, I ventured up to K-town to pay my first visit to Han Bat. Unlike many of its competitors, Han Bat doesn’t offer barbecue, focusing instead on a wide array of appetizers, soups, and meat, vegetable, seafood and pork entrees. The menu comes with pictures, a considerate step since many of the dishes looked different from what I would've imagined from the ingredients. But when I sat down, all of the other twenty diners were Korean, their tables crowded with what looked like knowledgeable choices.

My table was soon full too with bowls of panchan, complimentary portions of appetizers to snack on before the meal. The variety and size weren’t as impressive as Kunjip’s selection, but everything was fairly tasty. I had some dried fish, spicy green beans, kimchi and tofu, among other options, as I perused the list of unfamiliar offerings.

I wanted to start with the Soon Doo Boo Chi Gae, a spicy seafood and bean curd soup, but was afraid the generous portions here would fill me up too much. Instead, I chose the Binde Duk, which was three oversized pancakes with a green bean base. Trying my first bite of this appetizer, I nearly did a double take. It tasted remarkably similar to a latke. Aside from the bits of carrots and peas in the pancakes, and the mild difference of starchy beans standing in for potatoes, they could sneak into any Hanukkah dinner.

After the Binde Duk (actually simultaneously, since Han Bat did not stagger the dishes well at all), I proceeded to the Gobdol Bibimbop, a traditional rendition of Korea’s most famous entrée. A sizzling stir-fry in a stone pot, bibimbop typically contains vegetables, beef and a fried egg on top of rice. (Han Bat also features a version substituting seafood for beef.) The rice cooked as I ate, forming a deliciously crispy crust at the bottom of the pot. I also stirred the gochujang, a red pepper sauce, into the mix, another common addition to the dish that gives it a nice sharpness.

All in all, this was easily one of the best bibimbops I’ve tried. It was a substantial meal at only $9.95, full of unique and well-matching flavors. The rice also cooked perfectly, demonstrating that Han Bat knows exactly what it’s doing with this dish. It made me regret all the Korean food I’ve eaten outside of Koreatown, but even more, it made me regret that I didn’t make it up to Koreatown more often. 7/10


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