Smorgasburg in Twenty Dollars or Less: Week One

June 23, 2012 2:50 PM EDT | By Anthony Smith
Smorgasburg, a weekly summer food festival located in beautiful East River State Park (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It's called Smorgasburg, and it's a food festival that's everything the Great GoogaMooga failed to be: excellent. Every Saturday from 11 AM to 6 PM, the Brooklyn Flea-sponsored event gathers hundreds of unique food vendors from some of the hippest, tastiest spots all across the city (read: you never have to go to Red Hook again) to shack up at beautiful East River State Park and showcase their stuff to a worthy gathering of weekend warriors. Given that you could easily spend too many hours and serious dough trying everything here, and considering how many of our friends have told us they've tried to go but been overwhelmed by all the selections, we're going to curate the experience for you: every week, we're going to try as many different vendors as we can, without repeating and without spending over twenty dollars.

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Here's how we did this week:

1. Ginger Slushie w/ Mint and Basil - Kelvin Natural Slush Co. - $5

Nestled in the Northwestern corner of the festival, the good (if slightly aloof) people working the stand at the Kelvin Natural Slush Co. boast that they "use only the highest quality natural ingredients in [their] slush beverages." Since slushes aren't the kind of thing you think of as needing to be all natural to be delicious, they invite you to see if they can walk-the-walk with your choice of two base flavors of slush, Arnold Palmer and Ginger, and a myriad of mix-ins ranging from strawberry to pink guava to mint and basil. I've had the Arnold Palmer during a festival week prior, and wasn't impressed at all. Though every bit as frosty as it needed to be, it was more saccharine than a Nicholas Sparks movie. I know I use the phrase "cloyingly sweet" so much that it's starting to lose its meaning, so let me give you an image: that six-year old girl in a beauty peageant that ends up doing a striptease while her mother claps and videotapes? That's Kelvin's Arnold Palmer slush.

On the other hand, my roommate had the Ginger Slushie, and described this ice-cold cure to the festival's severe lack of shade as "the best thing he'd ever tasted in his whole life." After trying it this week, I can totally get behind that, too. It is, in a word, awesome.

The fresh ginger comes front and center, the singing fieriness of its herbal notes totally compensating for the needless sugariness that bogged down its less impressive cousin. Adding basil and mint to it reminded me of a more playful, invigorating version of a quiet tea-time with legs folded over bamboo mats. I hope they consider adding lemongrass to their menu, as that combination would destroy any and all of the frozen-goods competition at the festival.

Kelvin's stand is great, and unfortunately, everyone knows it. Depending on the imperative of the heat of the day, the line can stretch into next week and doesn't move terribly quickly. It's best to come here first, then stroll through the grounds looking for your next noshable.

2. Cold Ramen with Fresh Crab Meat and Gelee - Yuji Ramen - $7

Nothing could have prepared me for this. Nothing. Yuji Ramen is a small stand run by one man, Yuji, in the South-Central portion of the grounds which, for some reason, seems notorious for its inability to attract customers. Yuji's booth has little going for it in the way of visual marketing: there's no flashy typeface borrowed (and borrowed, and borrowed, and borrowed) from Bauhaus fonting; there's no crack team of hipsters wiping the sweat off their brows like there are at some of the more successful stands; and most damning of all, there's no long line of people waiting for it. When you have a new brand that isn't speaking for itself, it's hard to justify the risk of parting with seven dollars for a bowl of cold ramen that could revolt you.

But that's exactly what I did, for no other reason than that they had a really cute cartoon crab on their hand-drawn sign. Today, Yuji Ramen only offered one item-- a bowl of cold, hand-made ramen noodles topped with phenomenally fresh lump crabmeat, chopped cucumbers, two sauces, and gelee-- a gelatin flavored with kelp and bonito. The dish is finished with a delicate sprinkling of bright yellow broccoli flowers. It looks beautiful, even in its white paper bowl. With a warm smile, you're handed chopsticks.

I'm still floored by how utterly perfect this dish is. The cold crabmeat and the crisp, refreshing bites of cucumber sing against the ice-cold noodles, which are thick, textured with care, and very delicately flavored. Even the best ramen houses in the city hide corners they cut behind the rich savoriness of berkshire pork. It's refreshing to see a chef get so behind his work that he serves it up naked and vulnerable, its starkness providing the perfect stage for a chorus of subtle flavors harmonizing such that the beautiful sum gives way to a quick pulse of each of its parts.

The real star of the meal if the gelee. You won't have had anything like it, and if Yuji isn't making it for you, you'll never need to eat it again. He has the very first and very last word in the stuff. Move over-- and we mean way, way over-- David Chang.

When he's not suffering under the heat of the Smorgasburg sun, you can find Yuji at Kinfolk Studios-- a hybrid art gallery and Asian restaurant and bar (sorry, Williamsburg detractors) at 90 Wythe Ave on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 6 PM till late. We're curious to go there and see what kinds of other ramens they serve up.

Not that this should be factored in to our final twenty-dollar total, but it's worth noting that I ordered another bowl. It's a real triumph; the best dish of anything I've had in so long.

3. Guava Coconut and Campari Grapefruit Macarons - Vendome - $5

Ah, my favorite gluten-free treat, how do I love thee? With great difficulty, at least in this city. Anyone who's gone on the same journey for them that I have will tell you, with a heavy heart, that even New York City's absolute best venues for macarons, the light-as-feather French confectionery treats that so obsessed Queen Marie Antoinette that she overlooked the regal trappings of her position, are all terribly mediocre.

But those anyones probably haven't heard of Vendome, a new pop-up patisserie whose other location is just off the Hoyt-Schemhorn stop on weekend afternoons.

One bite of these two-bite treats, which go for $2.50 a piece, and you'll smile and throw your head back just-so. The first thing you'll notice is the merengue body of the macaron coming apart with a delicate crumble you'd believed was reserved only for the mad ramblings of embellishing foodies-- till now. The flavors are the next thing you notice-- each of them soft, unprepossessing-- in spite of borrowing their top notes from brassy flavors like campari and grapefruit-- graciously letting the mouthfeel of the dessert come front-and-center over everything else-- correctly so, given the cloying strawberry-balsamics of every other macaron joint in the city that just taste rushed, half-baked, and underloved by their chefs.

Executive Pastry Chef and Owner Taryn Garcia has truly accomplished something masterful here, one that must be tasted to be believed. It's her first week at Smorgasburg, and even if it's her last, I've been indoctrinated. I will follow their pop-up to whichever corner of the city it may find itself next, and so should you.

Total Bill: $17

Best Part of the Festival: Yuji Ramen

Most Disappointing Part of the Festival: Lack of shade.


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