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Some of my oldest and fondest memories of NYC were formed on Macdougal Street on my very first trip to the city in 2005. I love going back there because I always get a good dose of nostalgia.
I passed over this spot several times and finally came in to check it out. It was really beautiful on the rainy day I visited it. Turns out it's closed now due to health code violations. But hey, the photos can live on.
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Phoenicia Diner is the kind of place the uninitiated might drive right past thinking "nah, I'm not in the mood for diner food." But that would be a terrible mistake... A terrible mistake I made on several occasions as I went for hikes in the catskills.
One day, probably while reading some food publication, I discovered that Phoenicia diner is actually a bit of a local food destination and serves incredible farm to table food at reasonable prices. It's a taste of the city but accessible to the locals. This is what I'm always searching for when I'm traveling.
Where is the best food, even in the middle of nowhere in the mountains?
5681 NY-28, Phoenicia, NY
April 15th, 2017
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Bun-Ker was one of the restaurants that really put Ridgewood on the map. Back in the day, Ridgewood was just a sleepy neighborhood with nothing exciting around. The first touch of hipsterdom was Bun-Ker Vietnamese, this restaurant in what was basically the middle of nowhere on an industrial stretch of Metropolitan Avenue. I remember when I first drove by and saw a crowd of people huddled outside and thought "where the hell are they going?" That popularity begets growth, though, and times change. Bushwick has grown radically since those days and Bun-Ker traded one obscure location for another, and simplified its name to just "bunker". The food, though, has gotten even tastier. Have a look.
99 Scott Avenue
February 16th, 2017
This was one of my first photos of a restaurant dish that I did some intentional styling on. For years I've been photographing dishes exactly as they're served, which doesn't always make a compelling image. So this time I played around with adding some of the ingredients that make up the dish. In this case, the summer rolls, or gỏi cuốn, contained mint and basil and the sauce contained peanuts and chilis. Deciding what to do with each of the items was a bit of a challenge, and I definitely moved that pepper around several times. Here a few photos I took along the way, to give you an idea of how it came to be.
So that was a fun beginning to styling food images, and you saw that I got much better at it by the time I went to photograph Cebu later in 2017.
I didn't do a lot more with the styling here after that initial experiment, though. On the papaya salad, I had a sad little pile of peanuts that looked a little too intentional. But the light is good, so that's nice. I tried a few different compositions and styling, but the light shifted away from this spot so none of them were quite as good as this one.
The next dish they brought me was this fried crepe filled with bean sprouts, called bánh xèo. I had no idea what it was at the time. I was also surprised by the amount of greenery on the plate, which is always a welcome addition.
I decided to switch up the location on this one and move to a spot with better light as well as a little bit of character from the restaurant. they have this round counter with a planter in the middle filled with bamboo, something unique I've not seen elsewhere. I felt adding the bamboo leaves to the frame helped to put the food in context, giving a little a little hint of vietnam's tropics.
I kept the bamboo leaf vibe going for the next dish as the sun was just starting to hit the leaves and give them a nice glow, which I felt added a nice dimension fo the images. Although looking back at it, they may be a little too bright and stealing attention away from the rolls. This whole looking at year old images thing really gives some perspective, haha.
Next up was the Pho, which for me was one of the starts of the show. I struggled to include some stuff to style in this one and ended up with just the two little peppers. I'm also noticing now that that bamboo leaf is a little on the sad side. But the red bowl and the spots of red beef in the pho pull the eye, so it's still pretty eye catching (and tasty).
We picked up the pace to move through more dishes, so I cut back on the styling and just went with simple images for the rest of the shoot.
This next dish went through a minor change in styling, but I feel it makes a bit different for folks who obsess over patterns: going from three cucumbers and two tomatoes to three cucumbers and three tomatoes. I also rotated the pork chop slightly to give it more prominent placement. I also had never before seen the steamed pork quiche, called Chả Trứng Hấp, and that was pretty mind-blowing. So luscious and fatty.
I really love the design inside Bunker, it's a very fun and colorful spot with a lot of character and I wanted to work that into these images. You know how I love interiors, given that the bulk of my photography is either food or places. Why? Because it all goes together to inform the experience. Being in the place sets the mood, it starts to transport you, and then the plate arrives, culture and history right before you that you get to ingest and become one with. It's a beautiful thing.
Anyway, that's why I always want to get a bit of atmosphere in with my food images, because when you're eating at a restaurant, you're not just having some food, you're getting an immersive experience.
I kept the theme of showing off the restaurant's character going in the next shot. There was this beautiful painting on the floor that struck me as a great backdrop for this curry. I started with just the bowl in the center, but I needed a little something else to feel lively. Adding the diagonal lines with the chopsticks did it, and adding the rice bowl gave a little more bulk to the image and also shows off the complete dish.
Daylight was fading fast, this being February and all, so I was getting up in several second exposures that aren't so great for food that is quickly getting cold. It was time to get out the lights. Bunker has a great night time vibe and I wanted that to come through some of the images as well, so I started working on some darker flashed images. The first pictures were a little too heavy on the darkness to fit in with the rest of the set, so I found a good balance with a contrasty flash lit foreground and a soft, inviting tungsten background, that says "come in and enjoy this fantastic, perfect plate of shrimp.
And were they ever amazing! For all the amazing flavors present in the other dishes, the spicy, sweet, lemongrass tinged sauce and perfecty juicy shrimp of this dish won me over as my favorite of the night.
Thanks for reading!
Have you been to Bunker? Do you like Vietnamese food? Hit me up with your favorite dish in the comments.
The finest outpost of a major third-wave coffee brand to make its mark way out in Bushwick. Bringing the light and design to our little corner of the big city.
Read on for my ruminations on why coffee shops are great and further thoughts on this lovely establishment.
Blue Bottle Coffee
279 McKibben Street
Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York
February 8th, 2017
I’ve got a soft spot for coffee shops, I suspect a lot of people do.
They’re our defacto third place, the spot you go to have a conversation with a friend, get a little work done, or spend a little time in quiet contemplation.
What I like about coffee shops is that they’re often calm and quiet. The rowdiest they tend to get is people having a lively conversation, which is pretty rare, really. For the most part, people are there either to engage in a personal project - like reading a book, writing, drawing, or doing some work on their computer or similar tech, or they’re there to meet with someone or several people. It’s a place for productive work or communion.
Even better when the place is beautiful and the products they serve are top notch. The quality of what they serve outweighs the atmosphere for me.
So meaning - I’d rather be in a sorta bland shop aesthetics wise that serves great coffee than a beautiful shop that serves terrible coffee. That’s a rare combination, though. I’ve been hard-pressed to find a coffee shop that’s very intentionally designed that lacks great coffee. But there are plenty of places in the world where there’s a pretty comfy or cozy atmosphere, but the coffee is just not great.
I’ve got some systems for deciding what to order or whether to even patronize a coffee shop. Interested?
1. - Pourovers. This is my main factor. If they are serious enough to do pour overs, they’ve passed the test and are nearly certain to be no. No bland joint that’s serving lame coffee will take the time to do a pour over. Because they’re time-consuming to produce and the entire purpose is to get a really excellent extraction. Sure, there are probably places that do them and just dump everything right into the filter without intention, but that would probably be more a result of a barista who doesn’t care much vs. a place that serves low-quality beans.
2 - The Espresso machine - Let’s say they don’t have any pour over setups. I’ll look at their machine to see how serious they are about their espresso game. Pulling good espresso is an art that requires a precise and exacting process. It’s not that everyone is on it all the time, and having a high-quality machine doesn’t automatically mean that they are serious about dialing in their shots, but a fine machine is a good indication that someone cares.
3. - The beans. I’ll look around the shop to see if the beans they serve are on display. I’m looking for brands I know and trust, or something new and exciting. I’m also looking for brands I do not care for. So if I come into a place and they’ve passed the first two tests, but the only beans I see are ones that I know I dislike, then I’ve got to pass on the place. Since these likes and dislikes are my personal preference, I won’t air my grievances with certain brands here. It’s up to you to taste different coffees and decides which excite you and which make you run for the hills.
4. Syrup bottles.
This is nearly an instant no go. If there’s a huge shelf of Monin syrups behind the counter, you can get you dollars that they’re maying sugary, milky concoctions to cover up the taste of wretched coffee. No one is taking the finest beans in all the land and brewing them up in the perfect extraction just to drown them in coconut syrup. Sure, I got into the coffee world by starting with this junk, but I don’t think that’s the only way to get into coffee. I suspect if you want from Folgers to Devocion, you could easily be a coffee convert without ever having to drink syrupy poison.
5. Flavored Coffee
This is right up there with the syrup bottles. If they’ve got “french vanilla dark roast” you can be certain the underlying beans are terrible. Again, the logic is simple - Would you take an exquisite product with an incredible, complex flavor and completely obliterate it with flavoring agents? No way. I want no part. Single origins and intentionally crafted blends are the name of the high-quality coffee game, not bizarre alterations.
So that’s all on the subject of the product. It’s nice if they have some tasty snacks, too, like fine pastries or other foods. It’s also nice if they’ve got tea from a high-end brand, because I often enjoy having a cup of tea, especially if it’s later in the afternoon when a cup of coffee would have me up all night long.
6. Atmosphere & Design
Now, about the space. This is another major consideration if your intention is to hang out there for a while, which is often quite nice to do and is a big part of what makes visiting a coffee shop desirable. But, it can vary significantly. There are places that are dark, small, and filled with cozy couches and dilapidated antique armchairs. This can be super cozy for settling in with a good book or chatting with a friend, maybe even playing a board game. But it’s not the place I choose if I want to bust out my laptop and get some work done. For that, I want modern. I want a clean, bright, open space with a lot of natural light pouring in. I want some peace in my surroundings so my mind can feel clear to get absorbed in my work.
It’s great to have a place that’s well designed so I can bask in the beautiful creation of it. This is what I tend to look for and it often gets me more excited than the cozy-style joints. I do want to find a place that’s got some couches and feels like a second living room sometimes (particularly on cold and dreary winter days), but often what I want is a place with a beautiful interior that feels great to be in, but also has a view out the window for when I want to zone out and watch the world go by.
I don't necessarily look for these things as qualifiers before I choose to order in a place, but they're very nice to have
- Baristas who are excited about coffee and the process
- Friendly Staff
- Friendly Patrons
- Nice Products for sale, like coffee brewing implements
- Beans for sale
- A short, simple menu
- Snacks, or even full meals
With all that said, let’s talk about Blue Bottle Coffee in Bushwick. What I like about it: They serve incredible coffee, and the interior is bright and light. They don’t have wifi, so if you’re going to do work, you need to bring it with you. But mostly when I go there it’s to be in the nice, clean space and to diligently enjoy a fine cup. I’m very happy to have an outpost so close to my house.
It’s one of the only ‘big name’ 3rd wave coffee joints around. There are other great coffee shops nearby, but nothing with quite the same clout as Blue Bottle. So it’s really exciting to have them.
That said, I just realized I haven’t been there for quite some time - because while it is somewhat nearby, it’s still outside of the radius I commonly travel. It’s far enough away that if I’m going to go there, I’m often committed to getting on the train or driving, in which case I’ll often continue on to Williamsburg or Manhattan.
For those time that I want the great coffee experience and I’m going to stay in Bushwick, practically at the top of my list. So if you haven't been, check it out.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, let me know in the comments below!
What's your favorite coffee shop?
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