What is a food hall? On cynical days, I wonder if it is just a marketing revision of “mall food court,” an advertiser’s way of saying “like Panda Express and Sbarro but artisanal.” When I’m being more optimistic, I think food hall could describe a place more uniquely new, a collision of food truck-style culinary bootstrapping and cheffy fast-casual entrepreneurial spirit. But can a food hall also be a chef’s defining restaurant?
The Canteen on Midtown’s Tech Square calls itself a “micro food hall,” as it contains four different points of sale. The names are mostly self-explanatory: TGM Bagel, Fred’s Meat and Bread, Yalla, and Square Bar. Despite the many registers, this is all just one business helmed by a single team of restaurateurs and the chef Todd Ginsberg.
The gut-busting cheesesteaks at Fred’s and creamy hummus bowls at Yalla have been attracting lines at Krog Street Market for a couple of years now. Loyal brunch crowds have thronged to plates of bagels and lox at the General Muir for years before that. It all makes such perfect sense that Ginsberg would put his various creations together under one roof that it might be easy to miss what an ambitious, unusual endeavor it is. Each point of sale, essentially four distinct operations, seems to aim at a different time of day.
Arrive in the morning and you’ll no doubt head to the back, where TGM Bagel will whip up a solid latte and a bagel sandwich. Pleasantly dense, the bagels have a solid but chewy constitution ideal for paper-wrapped sandwiches loaded with salty-creamy combinations of smoked salmon, tomato, cream cheese or lox and dill spread. Pastries include a stunning biscuit loaded with cubes of pastrami and a slather of peppery-sweet glaze on top. I’ve inhaled the breakfast options at TGM with such pleasure, I’m afraid to say I might have missed some subtleties that a critic should attend to. I can tell you that I loved that pastrami biscuit for the few seconds it was in my hand and that I missed it when it was gone.
At lunch or dinner, Fred’s offers meat-centric, mostly American sandwiches, and Yalla sells casual Middle Eastern fare. Technically, they are two different stalls, but I like to think of them as a single spectrum of heavy indulgence to healthy virtue. On the one end, you’ve got Fred’s pastrami Reuben packed full of smoky, peppery, fatty brisket, melted Swiss, sauerkraut, slathered Russian dressing on toasted rye bread. On the other, you’ve got the salatim bowl at Yalla, a vegetable bowl that contrasts bright, fermented flavors with creamy hummus.
Fred’s specializes in big, ugly, satisfying sandwiches. When unwrapped, most of them will be dripping with cheese or sauce. The breads are noticeably fresh. The house pastrami sings with a vibrant cure. The burger patties are thin but not overcooked. These sandwiches, more so than the Krog location, tend on the extra ugly side. I wouldn’t say a pastrami Reuben should be pretty, but it helps if it isn’t so mashed and unevenly loaded in the paper wrapping that one can hardly pick it up.
A recent sabich bowl overloaded with labneh from Yalla likewise wanted for more finesse, but in general, there’s refreshing flavor to these veggie-loaded bowls and an excellent balance of crisp and herby flavor in the falafel.
Square Bar has a cute periodic table-themed menu, a few standard highballs, and some oddball drinks that still need work. A drink of bourbon and coconut water is sickly sweet, and the slushie margarita doesn’t fare much better. On the other hand, the bartender here is the closest thing you can get to service and, in my experience, a friendly guy who can stir a pretty good Old-Fashioned. The only trouble is that you have to drink it out of a plastic cup.
It’s a metaphor for a chef’s position in the fast-casual age: a $9 Old-Fashioned, stirred and stiff as it should be, garnished with those perfect, dense, expensive Luxardo cherries, and poured into a cheap plastic Solo cup. Sure, the drink matters more, but is it really so much to ask for a real glass?
Sitting down at Square Bar at night, those with a little local restaurant memory may find it hard not to notice some hand-me-down furniture from the previous tenant, the Spence. The place was a celebrity chef’s ego trip helmed by “Top Chef” star Richard Blais, complete with an open kitchen so dramatically lit that it could’ve been a stage, plates topped with smoke-filled bell jars, a menu overloaded with the chef’s comic taste for culinary trompe l’oeil. A restaurant like that used to be the end goal for any ambitious chef, a place where one’s creative ego can be pushed to the max and bankrolled by a flush restaurant group. It still is for many chefs, I suppose, but increasingly less so.
Ginsberg is just as good a chef as Blais, maybe better, but his style has never leaned toward the smoke-and-mirrors, ego-on-the-plate show. He’s more of a behind-the-scenes guy, apparently less interested in reinventing the wheel than building a very good wheel. It seems like an ambition unique to this moment that he didn’t aspire to have some stalls in a food hall, but the entire food hall itself. Will it be the restaurant that defines his career? We’ll just have to see.