[16 March 2012]
In its fifth year, ‘Choice Eats’ is a tasting event where the Village Voice and their food critic Robert Sietsema invite a select group of restaurants to offer food samples and drinks to ticket purchasers. They offer general admission tickets and also VIP tickets, both of which sold out quickly, which allowed select attendees access to a special area with a pre-event sampling, including a tasting from Ty-lor Boring from the tv show Top Chef Texas, plus final exclusive dessert tasting. All attendees had access to over 90 restaurant / bakery booths and over a dozen free flowing beer and alcoholic spirits tables. Additionally, Andy Rourke, formerly of The Smiths and now in Jetlag NYC, was selected as the event’s DJ.
Wandering over to the 69th Regiment Armory, I actually crossed paths with Rourke and two of his friends searching for the back entrance which would allow them to go in and set up. When asked, they didn’t know where the DJ booth was located but I said I’d keep an eye out for him. As he would find out, the DJ booth was in a pretty unassuming location, but more on that later.
As the VIPs made their way into the armory’s basement area (or “dungeon” as some described it), for the 5:30 start, they found themselves in possession of a tasting glass for their eventual drinks. It may have been a bit early for dinner but during this warm up they also had access to a bottle bar with beers including Leffe Blonde and Red Hook’s Winter Hook brew. In an adjoining room, Murray’s Cheese and SCRATCHBread were present with their offerings.
Watermelon and Olive Oil
In a third room, Boring answered questions and offered samples of his delicious and intriguing watermelon teaser with a transmogrified olive oil garnish. (The Topchef’s recipe is available online). The confectionary olive oil dissolved on the tongue unleashing its flavor just as a bite of the crisp watermelon added its sweet juice.
Shortly after, the call rang out that the main floor of the armory was opened for tasting. I lingered downstairs to try and finish my beverage (I had chosen a Leffe but the bartender said that was second to the Red Hook) and check out the Kind Healthy Snacks brand bars and new granola product.
When I did arrive upstairs, the first thing I received was a small bag from promotional partner, Whole Foods. A few short steps away, I made two observations: One - A lot of people chucked these Whole Foods bags right into the trash. Not very environmentally friendly. And two - the Red Hook Lobster Pound booth had a very long line already.
Red Hook Lobster Pound is a company who works in various locations around the city via their food truck and in other stalls or booths at events like Smorgasburg or Brooklyn Flea. At ‘Choice Eats’, they were offering up tasty shrimp rolls (no reason to give away premium lobster meat) that were snatched up quicker than they could be prepared. Red Hook also had the only “booth babe” on site, a female dolled up like Lady Gaga wearing a dress of the company’s trays and wax paper instead of meat.
I didn’t try the Red Hook shrimp rolls till later but I wandered to the third large aisle and found Luke’s Lobster offering a more minimally adorned shrimp roll. But people were greedy for these tasters too. As soon as I snapped the picture, someone took the tray that I was planning to eat!
Wandering away from Luke’s, I went to try the West Indian cuisine from Singh’s Roti Shop. Their booth had a large variety of dishes (most booths offered one or two samples) including a chicken fried rice and some curries. I received some of the rice dish and a piece of chicken – the first was a good mix (though a bit crispy which I think was unintended) but the second was a nuisance I unfortunately tossed because it was on the bone. With a camera around my neck, no place to sit, no knife and my hand carrying the promo bag, I couldn’t figure out how to eat it.
Overall there weren’t too many food chomping failures. But a few restaurants did have issues. La Galette either ran out of their vegetarian dish or didn’t have any to begin with as I saw them covering up the option. Peppa’s Jerk Chicken were running late and not at their booth when I went to try it (so I never did). Mooncake Foods was offering up shrimp, steak and tofu skewers but the tofu wasn’t available when I went and by 7:20 they were all out of food (the event ran till 9:30).
I think not long after their neighbor Juliette folded up, too (I could be wrong). Juliette had offered up some ceviche-style shooters in a well groomed display. Their neighbors were Joe Dough who doled out slivers from giant sub sandwiches.
With the general crowd arriving en masse, more of the food booths were filling up, so I found myself in front of the alcohol tables. I sampled Six Point’s Sweet Action brew (still trying to believe microbrews can be done in cans though the Six Point didn’t dissuade me), and a sample of what I was told was the original honey bourbon, Bärenjäger (Whiskey’s like Jack Daniels and Bushmills are going the honey route).
Unless you were a real food connoisseur who was able to cleanse your palette after each sampling, this event was more to fill your belly. But I also found myself concerned over the amount of waste being generated. Each booth offered tiny plates and utensils (which all seemed biodegradable, but still) and there were just generic trash receptacles on the floor (no separate areas for plastics!). But one of the sponsors was a waste disposal company, Action Carting, who told me that their facility in Brooklyn would be able to handle and separate the various wastes. Hopefully it works out.
It was a bit odd to see a garbage company on the main floor near food vendors. However it was entirely uncomfortable and surreal when I was directed by a promoter to a cosmetic booth and told they were a sponsor because “everyone needs” things like liposuction. (Had she seen me stuffing my face with SCRATCHBread?) This company had an out of place ad in the back of the program featuring a woman (thighs down) with her knickers lowered.
Not everyone needs liposuction. I believe the seemingly homeless man sitting outside the armory eating from a tray of pastries would elucidate my position (if he was not, surely the other homeless people nearby would).
But back on track, I was ready to get to dessert yet had some more food to eat. I sampled all the enjoyable items (including rice milk and tres leches) from Patacon Pisao and then went turned around for a large Whiskey Sour pickle from Brooklyn Brine. I considered that my palette cleanser and went over to the Kumquat Cupcakery to try a couple of decadent mini-cupcakes. Then I forced myself laterally to the Culture table to try a mini chipwich. Bite-sized goodness.
Done with the main hall, I got my Red Hook Lobster Pound fix on the way out. The crisp shrimp wasn’t overpowered by the tarragon mayo. It was worth the wait. Then I headed downstairs again for the closing VIP dessert event dubbed ‘Choice Sweets’. Here, one restaurant offered blow torch assisted s’mores and the Good Batch loaded a table with cookies.
‘Choice Sweets’ may not have let in anyone but VIPs, yet one person was placed outside it all. Andy Rourke was situated on a balcony level above all the food stalls, where he was relatively out of sight. If you weren’t looking for him, you probably never saw him. The sound system too was a bit lacking as it seemed to be armory issued. Yet Rourke did the best he could mixing up almost entirely UK artists from Bowie (at least three tracks), The Beatles (at least two), Doves and Massive Attack. Around 8:10, just as I was eating my Red Hook shrimp roll, he offered up The Smiths hit “How Soon is Now”. Up above the crowd and perhaps forgotten, Rourke may have been sensed he shared an affinity with Morrissey’s lyrics. Rourke needs to be loved, “just like everybody else does”.
Overall ‘Choice Eats’ was an impressive event. There were many difficulties—for attendees, it was eating standing and being jostled and for restaurants, it was having enough food – but they were worth overlooking. The sheer amount and variety of food (plus free drink) makes ‘Choice Eats’ a coveted ticket for any foodie. Just remember to fast beforehand.