Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Goodness Gracious, Great Meatballs of Fire!

Life always has a red sauced-lining.

It's no surprise that, these days, the latest "go to" dining joints are not those that go too hard on your wallet. Think about it; for the past several years, we've been witnessing an onslaught of the "affordable food" trend, like banh mi, pizza, and burger restos, each trying to one up the other (staying within its genre, obviously) solely by taste, not by price. All the nostalgic foods that we enjoyed eating as kids have become the latest dining darlings to hit the foodie scene. Call it the people's food, the socialist dining trend, but even the haute restaurateurs are giving it a go (see: McNally's latest, Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria, on the new "it" dining strip: the Bowery). It has become the norm to wait an hour and some change, to eat at restaurants where the total meal per person can run you, including tax and tip, $15. These restaurants, including Baoguette, Keste, and Shake Shack, have become household (or apartmenthold?) names for the hungry in NYC -- and would be places that Christian Bale's infamous Patrick Bateman, and the rest of the uptown set of the gilded age of the 1980s would be none too pleased about. Yet the justification stands to reason.

Why should I forgo three or four night's worth of going out for one meal that eats up my whole paycheck? Most certainly I enjoy going to white napkin-friendly and expensed-meal dining joints, and believe saving up for and looking forward to a meal at a nicer restaurant is one of life's great pleasures, but in the interest of maximizing daily enjoyment, spread the love: living in NYC, with all the affordable options these days, it seems silly to pass up on -- and pass by -- all the wallet-happy places at our edible disposal that seem to be popping up on every block. It seems that we can have our cake AND eat it, too. Or meatballs.

Meatballs are the latest craze of the reservation-eschewing dining haunts to hit the scene. Or they are now, with the Lower East Side's The Meatball Shop opening its doors last month, finally letting the meatball loose, to roam free, released from the bondage and shackles of spaghetti.

(I realize this isn't the best, most representative picture of the resto, but it was so cramped and I was surrounded by people at either elbow that it would've been awkward -- and rude -- to take pictures of the place -- people would've thought I was taking pictures of them! Check out their website for better, people-free pics)

Located on the corner of Stanton between Orchard and Allen, The Meatball Shop is a long and narrow, casual, 39-seat counter service restaurant that is the brainchild of two friends, Daniel Holzman (the man behind QB rice krispie ice cream treats, which, sorry to say, are not nearly as good as they look) and Michael Chernow, both with long and rich histories in the culinary and restaurant worlds. The Meatball Shop offers food at the bar -- if you manage to find a seat at one of the dozen or so stools that run the length of the long wooden-countered bar, made up of shiny, white rectangular paneling reminiscent of the Parisian subway. The large, wooden, communal table that runs the length of the restaurant is accompanied by a handful of 2-seaters that dot the perimeter of half the restaurant (the bar takes up the other half).

What this place lacks in space (one hour wait, primetime, Sunday night, very little room to wait aside from the bench outside and a cramped corner to the side of the bar), ambiance (loud music, albeit a wide range), and, again, space (eavesdropping-conducive seating), it makes up for in its fun mix 'n match approach to its balls -- whose variety ranges from classic beef, to spicy pork, salmon, chicken, vegetarian, to the meatball of the day. TMS also offers four sauces to pair with your ball 'o choice: classic tomato, spicy meat sauce, mushroom gravy, and parmesan cream. What a fun start!

The seemingly dull and lowly meatball has its day at The Meatball Shop, where diners can pick through what "medium" they want their 'balls served: a la carte ($7 for 4 balls and a sauce), on a hero ($9, with side salad), as a slider ($3/each), or part of a smash (2 balls and 1 sauce of your choice, topped with melted cheese, and served on a brioche bun, with a side saladl; $8). They also offer a decent sized list of sides, including risotto (leek and chives on the day I went), polenta, and spaghetti. For the sides, you have the option of getting them, well, on the side in a separate dish, or "under" (underneath the meatballs that it shares the same bowl with). Once you decide what you want, you grab one of the sharpie markers located in the cups scattered along the tables and place an X in the box beside the food of your choosing. Very interactive and fun.

(Sliders with parmesan cream)

Knowing that I will be coming back sooner rather than later, I decided to give it a go and begin with traditional: I ordered the traditional beef meatballs a la carte with the spicy meat sauce (a hearty, spicy ragu), with spaghetti underneath (hey, this blog is called Al Dente, you gotta know how I just love the pasta). The only drawback to ordering the meatballs a la carte is that the four you get must be the same kind, you can't get a couple of each type (as opposed to the sliders). That being said, I was happy because the beef meatballs were so hearty and lip-smackingly satisfying, I was happy there were four!

I tried a bit of everything from what my dining companions ordered -- and it was all as comforting and spot-hitting as I imagined. In particular, and what stuck out to me was the parmesan cream sauce. The parmesan cream sauce was decadent, indulgent, creamy, heavy, and wonderful, and I'm craving it right now, but it sort of misses the mark when it comes to meatballs -- it's sort of the loner -- doesn't go with anything, except for maybe the sliders, but even those could have been a little more generously sauced. It's tough to match up two things that are both so robust in flavor -- the parmesan cream sauce with equally uber flavorful meatballs or veggie balls. I think the sauce would be better off with something that doesn't really meet its match; like spaghetti, that way it would achieve a more harmonious balance.

(Vegetarian sliders from L to R: classic tomato, mushroom gravy, parmesan cream. Could have been a little bit more saucey, no?)

The polenta was good, but not great (it's really hard to eat polenta after you've had Scarpetta's creamy polenta with truffled mushrooms). I loved the simple but delicious (or rather, simple AND delicious) arugula salad, light and herby with a great, simple dressing. Besides chopped salads, I have a particular love for salads with frisee and arugula. That's just me. One thing I did not enjoy was the steamed swiss chard, which was the Daily Greens offering; it was way too overcooked. Then again, I have a strong dislike for a lot of steamed greens, especially spinach. To me, it tastes like already chewed food. That's just me.
(Sliders, polenta, risotto, arugula salad, veggie meatballs with parmesan cream)

The remains of the day:

To top all the fun, DIY-ness off, for dessert, the cool kids at The Meatball Shop offer mix and match ice cream cookie sandwiches, $4, with ice cream that's made on the premises. Cookie options (and you can have two different kinds) include chocolate chip, peanut butter, brownie cookie, and ginger snap, and homemade ice cream flavors include chocolate, vanilla, espresso, caramel, and mint.

(I, sadly, failed in my Al Dente duties; I became too caught up in the ice cream sandwich fun that I, *gasp*, forgot to take a picture of the fully formed pre-eaten smammies, and only captured the foraged version. Also, you know I don't include any faces or names, but this soon-to-be-birthday gal just really wanted to throw some peace your way, to my readers -- much love!)

There's no red-sauce district here; let the meatball shine in all its glory: step right up, and right in, to The Meatball Shop; you, your stomach, and your wallet will be balls to the walls happy you did.

And let's just be happy Patrick Bateman isn't around anymore. He'd be very disappointed. (Dorsia anyone?)

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

1 comment:

J.Lee said...

Those balls look juicy.