The classic casserole is a star at foodie hangouts in New York
If you think of Manhattan as a hyperurban center of gastronomy that feeds itself on beef cheeks, truffles and other trendy oddments, you haven't picked up on the latest trend here, which is really a steal from the heartland. Macaroni and cheese is turning up on just about every menu I see. It has even spawned a couple of mac-'n'-cheese boutiques.I've been tripping over this all-American comfort food so often lately that I think I'm going to stop calling my home island Manhattan and start using its homier other name, New York County. Just this morning, on the way to the animal feed store (aka pet emporium), I peeked at a menu in an unheralded but promising little place called Sweetie Pie, and bingo, under the wild Alaskan salmon was macaroni and cheese. Last week, I had lunch in Chelsea at a place called Almond, and ta-da, there was Aunt Bertha's standby comfort dish. Back in Detroit she never added truffle to the casserole everyone loves.
Top chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten serves his wife's version at the hip Mercer Kitchen in Soho. But the real breakthrough for mac 'n' cheese has been the debut of two downtown all-mac-'n'-cheese temples, unupholstered but highly designed little places that are one step above carry-out stores but many steps up in concept and execution.
The conceit at the category leader, S'MAC in the East Village, and its just-fledged rival, Macbar in Soho, is to treat mac 'n' cheese like a starchy chameleon. Add some extra ingredients and zap, you've got a mac 'n' cheese that's like a pizza or a lobster roll. The customer profile skews young and hip—the group formerly known as "yuppies" before the crash priced them out of vintage Bordeaux and porterhouse. And the comfort level is low. Still, at Macbar last week, I saw a very upwardly-mobile-looking woman with long dress and laptop order a duck confit "mac quack" to go. And I found solace myself, along with some Medicare-eligible pals, gorging on as many nouvelle macs as we could gulp down before carb-guilt ended the spree.
Both S'MAC and Macbar serve classic mac 'n' cheese that made me smile with pleasure. These places offer very different takes on it. But they really come into their own with variations on the basic theme.
S'MAC, an acronym for "Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese," is the brainchild of an immigrant Indian couple, Sarita and Caesar Ekya, both of whom have engineering degrees. It shows in their alchemical approach to reinventing a basic dish of their new homeland. They aim at morphing a s'mac into a gustatory double for standards from other cuisines. Their spicy "masala" is a winner, mixing their heritage vocabulary of spices with the blander pasta-cheese base; the Napoletana is a crustless pizza impersonator. This and many other culinary mixtures are served in cast-iron skillets of varying sizes.
Macbar concentrates more on mac-'n'-cheesifying famous recipes. There is a beef stroganoff, a cheeseburger and a "margarita" that invokes taste memories of the classic Margherita pizza, with its melange of tomato, mozzarella and basil.
Did I like these concoctions? Yes and no. What was my standard? I started with a pretty firm idea of what a "classic" macaroni-and-cheese should be: elbow macaroni cooked to al dente firmness or a bit beyond, a tangy cheese sauce—ideally a creamy but rich and never rubbery homegrown version of a French Mornay sauce—and a crunchy breadcrumb topping that isn't a stiff crust. A bad neo-mac would be a mishmash of flashy ingredients embalmed in gluey processed cheese.
Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese (S'MAC)
345 E. 12th St., New York
54 Prince St., New York
12 E. 22nd St., New York
Red Restaurant & Bar
200 Locust St., Santa Cruz, Calif.