Monday, September 29, 2008

From NYC - 'sNice, or: I realise that my daily skinny-soy-latte is in fact pure gold

Yes, ‘sNice. Having been described in my NYC Bible (Vegan Restaurant Guide to NYC 2008, Friends of Animals) as a café/sandwich shop/baker, I was expecting a linoleum style counter-type place with little bits of sandwich filling in individual containers. Instead, ‘sNice is a rustic, relaxed, artsy-boho eatery on par with the finest of Smith Street’s wood-filled, nod-to-the-retro faux-ho.

A combination of individual and communal tables make for a missed crowd – couples, families, groups of friends – and the provision of the day’s papers was something we hadn’t seen much of in NYC. I was, however, a little perplexed by the service arrangements – either let me take my own food to my table, or give me a table number and bring it out yourself. But don’t take my order, prepare it, and then spend five minutes shouting my name out in a busy café on a Saturday morning to find out where I am so you can bring it over. I mean, dudes!

Buzz went for a side serve of pasta salad made with red cabbage, baby spinach and walnuts, with a main of TVP-chicken satay wrap. I plumped for a vegan panini and a Blondie.
The pasta salad, although the teenisest-weensiest bit on the oily side, was a winner,. The pasta was quite al dente to compliment the combination of the crisp cabbage and walnut with the soft spinach. The cabbage, uncooked, lost the worst of its bitterness whilst retaining bite and crunch. The spinach had been softly coated with olive oil. We’re going to attempt this one at home.

The stay wrap contained TVP chunks which were spongey and textured and delicious, but in retrospect remind me a little of the KitEkat Chicken in Gravy that I feed my boys. Good thing it tasted great then. The satay sauce was subtle, lightly creamy and not at all peanut buttery. The serving was large and accompanied by a decently sized fresh salad.

My panini comprised a couple of pieces of sundried tomato, slabs of room temperature tofu and pesto in a quite satisfyingly chewy ciabatta. The traditional combination of tomato and pesto was fine, but the tomatoes were a tad vinegary and sharp and the pesto unremarkable. Imagine a pest – hold it – that’s it. The tofu was a bit of a surprise; unflavoured and unwarmed and slapped between the ciabatta. However, all combined and encased in the excellent bread, and with the same salad, it was tasty and I finished it happily.

My Blondie was big and delightfully soft and chewy. It was pretty sweet, but not being a sweet-tooth by nature it’s hard for me to judge. The chocolate chunks were just at that soft and semi-melted but not dissipated stage; the crust was not crisp or think but of just the right consistency to both hold firm-ish and break off in bite-sized chunks; and the dough inside was on the right side of light and chewy.
A word on coffee: I can see why Starbucks does so well in the States. It’s oft repeated that prior to Starbucks’ ‘third place’ concept – the idea of a coffee shop being the third place between home and work where you could relax, hang out and bide a while – there was no such thing in the US. Starbucks began its success on the backs of urbanites who appreciated its plush velvet chairs, power points for laptops, and all the other soft-warm-welcoming design features. And from what I saw in NYC, this is a market niche otherwise unfilled. There aren’t really any other chain coffee shops and certainly none of the small, independent businesses or hole-in-the-walls we’re so spoiled with in Melbourne. What this makes for is that Starbucks’ cookie-cutter coffees are in fact the best cup available. They offer a standard taste, they’re familiar, and their stores are in fact used by people as their third place, which is nice in its way. One thing that did absolutely appal us though was the shocking and abominable practice of using pre-brewed coffee from tin coffee pots and then pouring freshly steamed milk on top. Shame! Surely this is corrupting the youth of America!

So back at ChezsNice, we were served coffees that were the best we’d had Stateside. The were fine by Melbourne standards, but superlative in NYC, and I mean that as the highest of compliments to ‘sNice.

If this all sounds like Melbourne-centric arrogance, hubris, snobbery and plain up-yourself-ness – it is. Melbourne’s coffee is the PhD to NYC’s crèche. NYC might out-perform Melbourne in many (many) categories, but in this one, Melbourne is the one who rawks.

Below: we returned to ‘sNice a couple of times for the comforting and warm atmosphere, drinkable coffee and range of vegan foodstuffs– here are some of our meals and a few thoughts.

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