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eater’s digest: googamooga 2013

Photos by Eric Isaac

The dust is starting to settle after GoogaMooga‘s second annual food and music festival, and I can’t help but think of LL Cool J’s oft-misused catch phrase “don’t call it a comeback.” After the onslaught of criticism about long lines and insufficient amounts of food at GoogaMooga’s first run, I returned to this year’s food and music extravaganza with tentative optimism. And until 12:15 on Sunday morning, I was ready to write an article on how, this year, the event had finally earned its name of The Great GoogaMooga.

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Sure, the sound on Friday night could have been better, and yes, Saturday’s weather left something to be desired. But on the whole, the food I ate at GoogaMooga was among the most satisfying I’ve had at large-scale, multi-vendor food events. The notorious lines were short, bordering on non-existent. And Saturday’s musical acts at the Joe’s Pub stage included some of the most promising local bands in New York City.

So after frankly acknowledging the fact that attendees, the musicians and (especially) the food vendors were blindsided by Sunday’s last-minute cancellation, let’s talk about the first two days of the festival.

Friday’s beautiful weather had everyone in high spirits, with early arrivers singing along to The Darkness, laughing as they realized they knew all the words. The smell of barbecue was in the air, shoulders were bare, and a surprising number of toddlers donning adorable sound-muffling headsets danced along with the mostly 20/30-something crowd.

Grilling oysters at Maison Premiere

I kicked off The Flaming Lips’ set with a round of Maison Premiere‘s grilled oysters, their brine laden with a gorgeous herb butter and aroma of char. Serving oysters at an outdoor music festival may seem more Hamptons than “hipster”, but at GoogaMooga, quality was king. Even the stands selling sliders upped the ante, as with Umami Burger’s fragrant, truffle-infused beef patty.

Another unexpected element: healthy food options. At Back Forty, Chef Michael Laarhoven served up a harissa smoked lamb over a refreshing pickled vegetable and quinoa salad with spiced yogurt. Sufficiently filling for an evening of drinking, but leaner than your average summer bbq fare, it was my clear favorite dish at the festival.

Back Forty’s smoked harissa lamb dish

Midway through the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ performance, I had a hankering for something sweet, so I headed up to the Melt Bakery cart to check out Chef Julian Plytner’s latest concoction. I’ve tried many of his flavor pairings before, but I was especially impressed by the sugar-sprinkled chocolate cookie with malted chocolate rum ice cream. Alcohol isn’t my favorite flavor in dessert, but Julian had crafted a just-adult-enough ice cream sandwich, mellowing the chocolate flavor to let the malt and rum subtly shine through.

On day two, the drizzle had us feeling indulgent, so we started the day with dessert from Red Hook’s BAKED. Head Baker Molly Marzalek-Kelly couldn’t have been more friendly, as she hawked her sweet and salty brownies, as well as “brooksters” (the love child of a brownie and a chocolate chip cookie). We eagerly gobbled up the brookster and used our remaining willpower to hold onto the brownie, which later proved to be one of the most moist and delectable I’ve ever eaten.

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For lunch, we opted first for Red Hook Lobster Pound‘s chilled Maine lobster roll, with a bright, mellow sweetness that helped us imagine sunnier times. Looking for a warmer dish to follow, we ran into Chef Dan Holzman of The Meatball Shop, expediting to ensure that each of his MBLT sandwiches had exactly the right amount of mayo. To say the least, we were grateful for his attention to detail. Having recently been impressed by Pok Pok‘s showing at the Lucky Rice Night Market, we settled on Chef Andy Ricker’s “phat thai.” Unusually egg’y, with crushed bits of dried shrimp, tofu, tamarind and fish sauce, it had a delayed spiciness and complexity of flavor that couldn’t have been farther from takeout food.

By Saturday’s end, we had already dreamed up a last-ditch list of the dishes we wanted to try on Sunday. Jeepney‘s pinoy corn and chori slider. DBGB Kitchen & Bar‘s Käsekrainer sausage with ramps, spring onion and mustard. Northern Spy Food Co‘s fried eggs with kale and potato hash. Big Gay Ice Cream‘s vanilla with bourbon butterscotch and cardamom and cacao nibs. (That’s the short list.)

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Really, the tragedy of GoogaMooga’s cancellation on Sunday wasn’t the fact that it was poorly communicated (There was already a delayed opening when I arrived at 11:30, and nothing was announced on social media or their website. The cancellation itself came nearly 90 minutes after the scheduled opening.) The rain was constant, and despite our “make it work” game faces and weather-appropriate outfits, we still were chilled to the bone. The real tragedy is that the very vendors who killed it on Friday and Saturday were faced with a major financial hit to their bottom lines.

I’m not sure what the future of the festival holds, and I’m not one to suppose I know enough of the details about Superfly’s event planning tactics and policies. What I do know is that there is an amazing number of small food businesses in this city and that they’re not only incredible at serving food on their own premises, but they’re also dedicated enough to surpass our expectations off-site, in challenging weather, faced with potentially ungrateful crowds. That’s the story of GoogaMooga I’d like to remember. So maybe we should “call it a comeback.”

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eater’s digest: new york city wine & food festival, part 2

In the flurry of activity that is the New York City Wine & Food Festival – from dinners, to lectures, classes and parties – there is one central stronghold : The Grand Tasting. This tented festival at Pier 57 takes place over two days, featuring small bites from some of the city’s best restaurants, as well as cooking demos from the Food Network’s band of celebrity chefs.

It’s an almost overwhelming celebration of the city’s food, but somebody’s got to taste it. Lucky for me, I’m that somebody. Here’s the rundown on my favorite small bites:

Grilled Thai Sausage Wraps, Kittichai

I’ve always been a fan of thai/larb-inspired lettuce wraps, but Kittichai‘s version was more refreshing than most. An excellent choice for an over-saturated tasting event, with acidity and spice that cut straight to the palate.

Cuban Sandwich, AG Kitchen

This is the second time I’ve sampled newcomer AG Kitchen‘s cuisine, and I have to say, I’m impressed. Sandwiches usually don’t strike me as addictive, but I had to stop myself from grabbing seconds of this spicy, tangy medley of pork, ham, swiss, pickles and hot mustard.

BBQ Brisket, MexiBBQ Kitchen

My main complaint at such tastings is that there’s usually too much meat. But in the case of MexiBBQ, I was more than pleased by the unusual tequila/oregano sauce. Hot and herbaceous in the most unusual way, this was elevated Mexican – comfort food 2.0.

“Papdi Bhalla” Indian Dumplings, Benares

One of the major surprises of my second day at Pier 57 was Benares‘ lentil and potato dumplings. A medley of textures differentiated this surprisingly sweet – but not saccharine – dish from the Indian food I’ve eaten in the past. Definitely a restaurant I’ve added to my list.

Signature Lobster Bisque, Brasserie Cognac

I love lobster bisque, as I do most things seafood-related. But I’ve had enough bad bisques to last a lifetime. Not so with Brasserie Cognac. This thin soup beats out its creamier cousins with the distinct addition of umami, from mushrooms meant to mimic the texture of tender lobster meat.

Scallop Escabeche, Nios Restaurant

At an event where most chefs come at you with a one-two punch, it’s always a surprise – and often a relief – to taste something subtle. Nios set itself apart with medley of fresh, mild flavors that proved more isn’t always more.

“Thai Tao”, Northern Style Chicken, Ember Room

Ian Kittichai managed to show up his namesake’s dish (the aforementioned lettuce wraps) with an even more spicy thai dish from Ember Room. At first, the spice startled, but was quickly – and cleverly – cooled by the bitter crunch of an endive leaf.

Chilled Watercress Soup, Northern Spy Food Co.

In the end, however, there must be a winner – or at least, a dish I wish I could taste again. For me, that was Northern Spy‘s soup. Pickled, but not so much as to be briny, it was an enticing spoonful and a palate cleanser in one. To boot, I’ve yet to taste a less-than-impressive bite at Northern Spy’s day-to-day digs, making for an extra-confident endorsement.

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