Sunday, February 11, 2007

Max Brenner chocolate


Few legal substances exert as strong a pull as chocolate, which might explain the slightly dazed and practically drooling crowds streaming in and out of Max Brenner: Chocolate by the Bald Man, the glitzy new Union Square emporium that’s part retail sweetshop, part café, and all slickly packaged cocoa-­scented theme park. With its vats of swirling molten chocolate, its ceiling pipes painted to resemble ­Oompa-­Loompa–esque cocoa conduits, and the goofy ­chocolate-­centric slogans scribbled everywhere, it’s hard to separate the place from the superslick marketing plan. For the ­chocolate-­obsessed New Yorker, intimately familiar with the single-origin oeuvre of everyone from Jacques Torres to La Maison du Chocolat’s Robert Linxe, one question is even more pressing than whether to sample the chocolate bagel or the chocolate pizza: Who is this Max Brenner, and how come I’ve never heard of him?

The answer is bittersweet. Just as there is no Johnny Rocket and, sadly, no Chuck E. Cheese, there is no living, breathing Max Brenner—well, not really. The name is actually a composite of two Israeli marketing geniuses, Max Fichtman and Oded Brenner, who launched the business ten years ago in Ra’anana and sold it to Strauss-Elite (Israel’s version of Kraft), which now operates outposts and franchises from Melbourne to Makati City. Somewhere over the course of spreading the chocolate gospel, the ­European-trained (and sufficiently bald) chocolatier Oded Brenner has adopted the ­Wonka-like persona of “Max Brenner.” These days, he can generally be found at his newest location, expediting orders, munching chocolate-covered toast, and ensuring that the venture continues to position itself as the joyful antithesis of the intimidating realm that, his press materials assert, haute chocolate inhabits. Trouble is, Brenner’s self-proclaimed “new worldwide chocolate culture” comes off as just the sort of ­tourist-­targeting spectacle you’d expect to find in Times Square, animated with loud Euro-­accented house music and an abundance of overwrought, often overly sweet concoctions.

Like ChikaLicious and Room 4 Dessert, Max Brenner strives to be a dessert destination, and the minuscule café tables tend to be taken by groups of ­diet-be-damned girlfriends yapping away like overstimulated mynah birds, gurgling tots, and sheepish young couples on dates. The fact that the liquor license hasn’t arrived hasn’t hurt business one bit; most evenings, there’s a bottleneck at the hostess stand. Service, by the way, is friendly and well meaning, although the wait for food can be long. That wait means there’s plenty of time to study the room, done up in the usual ­cocoa-themed color palette of browns, caramel, orange, and cream, and to read the suggestive writing on the walls: VERY MUCH CHOCOLATE. YUMMY … STOP IT MAX, THIS IS ALREADY TOO MUCH. That’s a sentiment you can’t argue with after flipping through the somewhat disorienting menu, filled as it is with descriptors like “popping candies,” “chocolate licks,” and “crunchy bits,” and arranged into a dozen or so categories like “Max Iscream” (ice cream), Sweet Icons (fondues, soups, s’mores), and Desserts (cakes, ­meringues, truffles), many of them available grouped together on one plate like a BBQ combination platter.

The best way to order may be to resort to the same method some people use for finding a plumber in the Yellow Pages: Close your eyes, open up the book, and go with whatever your index finger happens to land on. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with one of the fondues, like the Popsicle version—vanilla ice cream on a stick that comes on an embarrassing cartoon baby tray of sorts with little bowls of delicious melted chocolate, “crunchy chocolate waffle balls” that taste like Kit Kats, and the ever-­popular “crunchy bits,” which seem like crushed praline. You dip the ice-­creamsicle into the chocolate and then roll it around in the crunchy things like a recalcitrant 5-year-old who plays with his food. If you’re unlucky, you’ll end up with the cloyingly sweet ­chocolate-topped and ­­crunchy-bitted pizza, or, worse, the Melting Chocolate Heart Cake, which your server will recommend and dutifully describe to you as never having elicited anything but squeals of joy but is really just a not-so-­molten chocolate cake—more dormant volcano than hot lava flow.

Special attention is paid to drinks, perhaps because their ­custom-made vessels are sold in the shop. Of the various hot chocolates, all of them good, the best is the rich “Italian” version. It’s as thick as maple syrup, with a nicely balanced, dark-­chocolate complexity. You can order this invigorating libation to go at the takeout bar or in the dining room, where it’s delivered to the table in what your server will describe to you as a “hug mug,” a ceramic cup tapered at one end in such a way as to encourage the drinker to grasp it reverently with both hands the way a frostbitten Swede cuddles his goblet of glogg. It’s much more user-­friendly than the “suckao,” a bizarre apparatus in which you melt chocolate into milk over a candle flame and sip the resulting brew through a metal straw.

Because man (be he bald-­headed or well ­coiffed) cannot live by chocolate alone, Max Brenner also offers a hodgepodge of savory dishes, from “giant” omelettes to “giant” kielbasa, presumably to fortify its customers for the impending sugar onslaught and to lower their risk of going into diabetic shock. As is often the case with menus that reach beyond their areas of expertise, none of this stuff goes over well. Just as you would not go to Il Mulino for a white-­chocolate-­Oreo-­cookie frappé, you shouldn’t come to Max Brenner: Chocolate by the Bald Man for its lasagne Bolognese. That dish is a ­college-­cafeteria-­level rendition served, unfathomably, with a little bowl of what your server informs you is crème fraîche. Likewise, a croque madame that substitutes a waffle for bread is a dish more to be pitied than censured. And then there is Max’s pastrami sandwich: One way you can tell that it’s different from the one at Katz’s is that it’s served between two slices of French toast. On a more positive note, that giant kielbasa sandwich, served with sauerkraut, grainy mustard, and chile mayonnaise, isn’t half bad, and just try ordering a dish like that at La Maison du Chocolat.

No Stars
Max Brenner: Chocolate by the Bald Man
841 Broadway, nr. 13th St.; 212-388-0030

Korean fried chicken


February 7, 2007
Koreans Share Their Secret for Chicken With a Crunch

WHEN Joe McPherson moved to Seoul in 2002, he thought he was leaving fried chicken behind. “I grew up watching Popeyes training videos,” Mr. McPherson said. His father managed a Popeyes franchise near Atlanta and fried chicken was a constant presence in his life.

“Living in the South, you think you know fried chicken,” he said. But in Seoul, he said, “there is a mom-and-pop chicken place literally on every corner.” Many Asian cooking traditions include deep-fried chicken, but the popular cult of crunchy, spicy, perfectly nongreasy chicken — the apotheosis of the Korean style — is a recent development.

In the New York area, Korean-style fried chicken places have just begun to appear, reproducing the delicate crust, addictive seasoning and moist meat Koreans are devoted to.

“Food in Korea is very trendy,” said Myung J. Chung, an owner of the Manhattan franchise of Bon Chon Chicken, a karaoke-and-chicken lounge that opened in December. “Other trends last two or three years, but fried chicken has lasted for 20 years,” he said.

Platters of fried chicken are a hugely popular bar food in South Korea — like chicken wings in the United States, they are downed with beer or soju, after work or after dinner, rarely eaten as a meal.

“Some places have a very thin, crisp skin; some places have more garlicky, sticky sauces; some advertise that they are healthy because they fry in 100 percent olive oil,” said Mr. McPherson, an English teacher, who writes a food blog called

“Suddenly there will be a long line outside one chicken place, for no apparent reason, and then the next week, it’s somewhere else.”

Even Korea’s corner bars and fast-food chicken chains are preoccupied with the quality, freshness and integrity of their product.

With Korean-style chicken outlets opening recently in New York, New Jersey and California, fried chicken has begun to complete its round-trip flight from the States to Seoul.

“I really think we make it better than the original,” said Young Jin, who opened a friendly little chicken joint called Unidentified Flying Chickens in Jackson Heights last month. “We use fresh, not frozen, chicken, always fried to order, no trans fats, no heat lamps.”

In Korea, chickens are much smaller, so the whole chicken is fried and served, hacked up into bite-size pieces. But the large breasts and thighs of American chickens are a challenge to cook evenly.

According to Mr. Jin and others, that’s why the Korean-style chicken places here serve mostly wings (true connoisseurs can specify either the upper “arm” or the “wing”) and small drumsticks. The chicken is typically seasoned only after it is fried, with either a sweetish garlic-soy glaze or a hotter red-pepper sauce that brings the dish into Buffalo wing territory.

But do not look for blue cheese and celery sticks, or even biscuits and gravy. The typical accompaniment to Korean fried chicken is cubes of pickled radish and plenty of beer or soju; the combination produces an irresistible repetition of salt and spice, cold and hot, briny and sweet, crunchy and tender.

“People — even Americans — say the combination is really addictive,” said Ryan Jhun, Mr. Chung’s brother-in-law and business partner. Mr. Jhun spent a month training with the founder of Bon Chon to master the chain’s frying method, which produces characteristically light and crunchy pieces. Bon Chon, Bon Bon and Unidentified Flying Chickens all base their technique on the one developed by Kyochon, one of the most popular Korean chains. Although none of the chicken fryers interviewed would describe the method in its entirety, its outline is clear. (Warning: partisans of Southern-fried chicken will find much that is blasphemous in the following.)

For crunch, American-style fried chicken relies on a thick, well-seasoned crust, often made even thicker by soaking the chicken pieces beforehand in buttermilk. When that crust is nubbly and evenly browned, and the chicken meat is cooked through, the chicken is sublime. But too often, the flesh is still raw when the crust is cooked, or the skin never cooks all the way through, leaving a flabby layer of skin between the meat and the crust.

Korean-style fried chicken is radically different, reflecting an Asian frying technique that renders out the fat in the skin, transforming it into a thin, crackly and almost transparent crust. (Chinese cooks call this “paper fried chicken.”) The chicken is unseasoned, barely dredged in very fine flour and then dipped into a thin batter before going into the fryer. The oil temperature is a relatively low 350 degrees, and the chicken is cooked in two separate stages.

After 10 minutes, the chicken is removed from the oil, shaken vigorously in a wire strainer and allowed to cool for two minutes. This slows the cooking process, preventing the crust from getting too brown before the meat cooks through. It also shaves off all those crusty nubs and crags that American cooks strive for.

After 10 more minutes in the fryer, the chicken is smooth, compact, golden-brown, and done. Then, it’s served plain (with a small dish of salt and pepper for seasoning) or lightly painted with sauce. When it’s done correctly, the sauce is absorbed into the crust, adding savor without making it soggy.

Last week, I tasted chicken from four different Korean-style spots, and arrived at a rule of thumb that the best chicken had the least sauce (although chicken with no sauce at all was weirdly bland). The chain Cheogajip was more heavy-handed with the sauce than the others, making their chicken too sticky and sweet. But all the other chicken was at least tasty and even delicious, remaining crisp through the day and when reheated the next morning. The sauces at Unidentified Flying Chickens, which Mr. Jin makes from scratch and is still developing, had the most rounded flavors.

Mr. Jin sees his new store, located in a neighborhood that is more Latino than Asian, as the cradle of a multicultural empire devoted to one thing: perfect fried chicken.

“You wouldn’t go to a soft tofu store and expect to find great kalbi,” he said, referring to the grilled, sweet-and-salty short ribs that are another Korean favorite. “When you make only one thing, and you make people wait for 20 minutes to get it, it had better be good.”

A Sampler

Here are places to try Korean-style fried chicken in New York City. Seating is often limited. All chicken is fried to order, so for takeout or delivery, call at least 30 minutes ahead.

BON CHON CHICKEN 314 Fifth Avenue (32nd Street), second floor, (212) 221-2222; and 157-18 Northern Boulevard (58th Street), Queens, (718) 321-3818.

BON BON CHICKEN 98 Chambers Street (Church Street), (212) 227-2375, opening in March.

UNIDENTIFIED FLYING CHICKENS 71-22 Roosevelt Avenue (71st Street), Queens, (718) 205-6662.