Growing up, my bubbe would implore me to essen ein bissel (“eat a little”, or “take a bite”). On Monday night, I did a bit more than that.
Bon vivants of all stripes trekked from far and wide to the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, off Washington Avenue) for the 8th Annual Latke Festival. The event kicked off at 6pm on December 19, and while it ended in a mere three hours, I will carry its memory around my waist and in the lining of my arteries for at least eight nights.
The event was sponsored by New York City-based catering company Great Performances, with proceeds benefiting The Sylvia Center, a non-profit dedicated to teaching young people about healthy cooking and eating through hands-on garden to-table programs.
There were a pair of awards doled out, a Judge’s Choice and a People’s Choice. A star-studded mix of judges, including Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, Kurt Anderson, and Ralph Gardner Jr., opted for (prepare for a mouthful) Benchmark’s cranberry and juniper latke with smoked duck confit and spicy pickled cucumber. However, the people chose Shelsky’s of Brooklyn Great Gatsby Latke, a caraway seeded potato latke, stuffed with honey mustard, bedecked with horseradish cream cheese and pastrami lox.
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While I wish I could run down every single entry, I will instead touch upon the most notable candidates.
Benchmark (339A 2nd St, between 4th Avenue and 5th Avenue) was the judge’s choice, and with good reason. Eating one of these smoky, spicy, crunchy morsels was a gateway to trying to sneak another. The flavors mixed into a universal language of umami.
“I won the first year I did this, so I can’t do that again,” figured Benchmark’s executive chef Ryan Juronik, about the planning process behind his award-winning latke. He said he started with duck, and then added flavors that seemed naturally complimentary from there.
Shelsky’s of Brooklyn (141 Court Street, between Atlantic Street and Pacific Street) won the popular vote, its Great Gatsby latke emerging as the “Hillary Clinton of latkes.” This was the biggest and heftiest latke I encountered, and it was my favorite. More importantly, BKLYNER’s editor Donny Levit agreed with me. “It’s the obvious choice. But sometimes the obvious choice is simply obvious,” he said in typical Levit fashion.
This masterpiece of appetizing featured a rich, moist latke which provided a perfect canvass for the creamy horseradish and then a salty, silken crown of lox.
Proprietor and chef Peter Shelsky told BKLYNER that The Gatsby takes its name from the caraway seeds, and the flavor emerged from an accidental delivery of caraway salt sticks and the experimentation that comes naturally to the store.
Shelsky’s has played a significant role in the recent Jewish-food Renaissance, and is proud to see the Latke Festival flourishing.
“It’s nice to see so many people and other places of getting the food that I grew up eating out there to everyone,” said Shelsky.
Samui (15 Vanderbilt Avenue, between Flushing Avenue and Park Avenue) is a Thai newcomer to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and it was their latke that was both the most innovative — and the least kosher. Theirs may have featured treyf, but anecdotally, it was also amongst the most discussed.
Their entry was a potato chive fritter fixed with chickpea and then topped with raw shrimp that were soaked in vodka and sake. The product was a chewy, crisp, refreshing, snack that was equal parts salty and sharp, with a dint of sweetness.
“I’m always inventing something new!” declared Samui’s owner A Napadol.
BAM Cafe’s entry was similarly attenuated from a traditional offering of fried potatoes, apple sauce, and sour cream. However, that did not diminish the outcome in the slightest. Sometimes, a macca-baby’s gotta do what a macca-baby’s gotta do.
This meaty, refreshing competitor was topped with pollo asado which dominated its flavor profile, and while it was unlike any other latke I have ever had (…a recurring theme, as I moved station to station), this latke was metal in its heaviness. The crema, the chicken, and the potato created a richness overload that the cilantro managed to cut. I don’t know how many of these I could eat in one sitting, but I’m certainly glad to have at least one.
There were, of course, honorable mentions, including the “falatke”, a falafel latke from the Park Slope’s venerable Kulushkat. Moreover, other treats abounded through the floor, including Orwasher’s sufganiyot and, Baruch Hashem, Brooklyn Roasting Company’s coffee.
The 8th Annual Latke Festival provided a bright respite from the humdrum of 2016, proving once more that there are miracles to be had in oil. So, I urge you to head out over the coming eight crazy nights to innovative spots like Benchmark, Shelsky’s, Samui, Bam Cafe, Kulushkat, and more.