Once again the Village Voice held one of the biggest vendor events on a really blustery "spring" evening this past Tuesday. The new venue for Choice Eats was Pier 36 on South Street right next to the water. If you were waiting outside you were hit with all kinds of cold winds coming right off the Hudson. But what would keep you warm, or at least hopeful, was knowing that soon, soon, you would be immersed in a smorgasbord of vendors for savory and sweet treats as well as a variety of alcohol (beer, liquors, and wine). One of my first impressions upon entering the building was how much bigger Pier 36 was and how welcoming it felt. The dull colored carpeting and the expansive space allowed for more movement among the several hundred people in attendance. Much more so than the Armory in the Flat Iron District in years prior. This does not mean it didn't get packed, however. By 8pm it was hard to get through sections or view what vendors were doling out because lines extended past one booth and merged with others for booths parallel to the one you may have been interested in in the first place.
What's great about Choice Eats is it allows for attendees to sample items from new or established eateries around NYC. Ones you may not have known existed. Places from Queens, Brooklyn, and all over Manhattan had large display signs in yellow with red type advertising their dish(es) and people with smiling faces trying to feed the masses as quickly as they could.
If you purchased general admission you got in at 7pm. If you opted to go for VIP status you got in at 6pm, got to sample vendors food without the larger crowd, got a goody bag, and a private lounge to sit in. Again this one was swankier than at the Armory. Whereas the Armory's lounge was downstairs away from the bustle Pier 36's was above the bustle so you could still survey the scene and not feel left out.
For me, this year was a bit hit and miss. Many dishes I wasn't a fan of or were too salty or too spicy taking away from actual taste of the dish for me. But, one of my favorite new finds was the first table my friend Joy and I hit, Cafe Glechik.
Cafe Glechik had the largest portions and were well stocked--even at 8:45 (the event ends at 9pm) they had a whole sheet of Napoleon Cake as well as many blinis and dumplings available whereas many places had run out and bolted. The blini is essentially meat in a crepe and then fried on either side to get that nice warm taste inside. It was well seasoned and not at all spicy. The Napoleon Cake was other-worldly and my favorite dessert. Several layers of phyllo dough with light vanilla creme between each layer was delicious. The only downside was the portions were so huge I couldn't finish. I did see some people bring Tupperware so perhaps that's an idea if you can't sample it all in one day; try and take what may be reheatable home. Just a thought.
Other standouts were Bien Cut's apricot danish. A croissant with apricot cream filling. Fantastic and light, they ran out of it fast. Bien Cut also had corn biscuits with a sweet puree on top that had a nice organic taste to it not like your boxed, run-of-the-mill cornmeal but something much more of the earth. Bien Cut's items were perfectly bite size and lovely to look at.
Other items I did like was the array of soul food proteins and sides from Charles' Country Pan Fried Chicken. They had a nice small plate of down home cooking that included candied yams, collard greens, cornbread, fried chicken wings or baked chicken bits, rib tips, and mac n' cheese. This was one of the longer lines as they had the most offerings. In fact if you visited more of the ethnic fare like Ethiopian or Indian eateries they may have had several items, and ultimately served attendees buffet style rather than focusing on one standout dish. This choice can be good or bad for the vendor but at least more items gives a broader sense of what's available.
There were also old faves like Fay Da Bakery. I love the lightness of their sponge cakes, the fact that they have honey tea and bubble tea, and also their egg custard tarts all in small sizes but in large quantities. And the people at the Fay Da booth are friendly every year.
There was also chocolatey goodness of a chocolate chip cookie with a layer of caramel and a layer of chocolate from Robicelli's. Liddabit Sweets served chocolate caramel bonbons with pistachio and salt atop. Butter & Scotch had their Dark & Stormy flavored popcorn that has been gaining speed since they debuted it last year at the food fairs. And there was La Newyorkina whose line was ridiculous by night's end once people diverted from the savory and sought to fulfill their sweet tooth. One day I shall have Newyorkina. It will happen.
What makes Choice Eats great is the variety, going with friends, enjoying food and some alcohol and learning of new places to dine. The vendors are eager to get their name out there and you're looking to eat/drink so it's a win-win situation really. What I would point out is that this is not necessarily a vegan-friendly or gluten-free (GF) friendly event. Many items are meat and do have dairy. As my friend Joy said at one point, "I'm filled with meat." Vegetarians may fair okay, especially in the dessert realm, but if you're vegan or lactose or GF there may be very slim pickins for you here. As is there were several ice cream vendors and many of the cakes, including Fay Da's and Cafe Glechik's had cream. Vendors don't readily advertise what they'll be giving out beforehand, but for the most part there'll be good eats if you're ready to throw down and get in as much as there is to offer.
Tickets for Choice Eat's sister event Choice Streets will be going on sale on April 2nd. And tickets for Choice Eats tend to go on sale in January.