Affordable Indulgences at the Essex Street Market

JP makes a purchase at Boubouki, in the Essex Street Market. Photos by Cynthia Lamb.
JP makes a purchase at Boubouki, in the Essex Street Market. Photos by Cynthia Lamb.

Last year I lived in LA for a few months. That town is set up to keep the hoi polloi from mixing with the celebrities and big shots . One thing I love about New York is that, in spite of many attempts, we never really got that worked out so well. Sooner or later we all have to walk the same sidewalks, especially here on the Lower East Side. A brilliant microcosm of the “we’re all in this together” spirit of our neighborhood is the Essex Street Market. There is no exclusivity – everything from frugal to fancy is under one historic roof, without a whiff of snobbery. What a way for our public market to serve us!

The Essex Street Market would never fly in LA. It’s not shiny enough. There’s no parking, valet or otherwise. Celebrity sightings are rare. There’s no corporate sponsor; it’s all local small businesses. You’ll get kicked out of Shopsin’s for breaking the “rules“, no matter who you are. This market is a rabbit warren of narrow passages crammed with a breathtaking variety of goods (mostly delicious food), and the accompanying riot of scents: coffee, baked goods, salt fish, cheese…

I shop here for the same reason many in the neighborhood do: prices and quality are good. You can save a few bucks buying quality produce, groceries, meat and fish. Doing that leaves me with enough left over to take advantage of the indulgences here. I know some come only for the affordability, others only for the indulgences. I enjoy both, and to me that’s the magic of the market: we all walk the same sidewalk.
This article is unapologetically about the indulgences at the Essex Street Market. Not all of the cool stuff here is indulgent, but if you’re not already hip to the market this might be enough to get you in the door. The rest is there for you.

First, a confession: I balk at the idea of $25/lb cheese. That’s how my mother raised me. But when you have two of the city’s best cheese mongers willing to sell the stuff by the quarter pound I soften on this stance. Six bucks for a treat is OK. Saxelby Cheesemongers focuses on American cheese makers, with many of the best in the Northeast represented. Here you can purchase ethereal fresh ricotta, Vermont’s fantastic Alpine style Pawlet, bright yellow butter from grass-fed cows and high-end cow, sheep and goat milk cheeses with names you may never have heard before. If you have no idea who’s who on the American artisanal cheese scene, don’t worry: a taste is worth a thousand words, and tastes are cheerfully offered. Anne Saxelby, the proprietor, has become something of a big cheese (couldn‘t resist!) on the New York food scene, and this business was just awarded Small Business of the Year by the NYC Small Business Services department. If you’re going to shell out a few extra bucks on cheese you’ll find nothing but good stuff here.

Right around the corner from Saxelby is a tiny Greek bakery called Boubouki. It’s a one woman show, and that woman, Rona, spends her day baking and selling cookies, cakes, flatbreads and spinach pie. Two dollars buys you an excellent almond cookie or a walnut-chocolate chip one flavored with grape must. (How very Greek). Three dollars buys you a slice of olive oil pear cake (highly recommended) or a snack-size flatbread with feta and tomato. The spinach pie seems to be the star, however. I’ve watched people hover in front of this tiny stall, counting down the minutes until a fresh batch emerges from the oven.

Formaggio Essex, the NYC outpost of Boston’s Formaggio Kitchen is jam packed with indulgences, some more affordable than others. Cheeses from France, Spain, Austria, Turkey and Italy can be found here. Something truly special is the Boule de Quercy, a $9 ball of the creamiest goat cheese you’re likely to find anywhere, topped with a raspberry leaf. If you like chevre you‘ll want to try this. If you like good vinegars, coffee (they sell Counter Culture), honey, chocolates, pasta and olives you will find satisfaction here. They also have excellent charcuterie, so if you’ve been looking for a good source for Coppa ham, Bresaola, pates, speck, and Berkshire ham here’s your source. Sometimes they get special items in, such as rabbit rillettes or lamb procuitto. They also carry their own brand of fresh sausages, which are very good, if a bit pricey at $11 for a pack of two (albeit generously sized) sausages. We are talking indulgences here, and sometimes they even have lamb sausages. How am I supposed to resist?

How could we make a trip to the Essex Street Market more indulgent? How about a stop at a French bakery? Yep. There’s one here. Pain d’Avignon has your baguette and croissant needs covered. Petits pains au chocolat? They got ‘em. They also have espresso and the best ciabatta bread in the neighborhood. Bread is life. Get it here.

It’s hard to consider food indulgences without a visit to a chocolate shop, and in the Essex Street Market Roni-Sue is our chocolatier. She’s modern – unafraid to make delicious sweets that might seem, to some, unconventional. Pig candy (chocolate with bacon) is a specialty. Cocktail and chili flavored truffles might not be breaking news in 2011, but she does them very well, and at $2.25 each they qualify as affordable indulgences. But Roni-Sue doesn’t stop there; she’s looking to innovate. When she told me about her Beer Crunch the traditionalist in me groaned: toffee, chocolate, pretzel and beer syrup from Brooklyn Brewery. She insisted I taste it. My inner traditionalist was wrong. Here fortune favors the bold – Beer Crunch is excellent! A kid (or adult with a sweet tooth)  could blow through the 1/4lb snack pack ($9) pretty quickly. I couldn’t. One piece almost left me dizzy: crunchy, salty, sweet and rich. I never thought I’d be recommending something called “Beer Crunch”, but that’s Roni-Sue for you. Before you know it you’ll be considering gift boxes for friends, and of course, she’s got them.

That’s way more than enough indulgences for a week. I’ll be back to the Essex Street Market in future columns: I’m a big fan, and my wife/photographer, Cynthia Lamb, is the impetus behind Gotta celebrate this place and it’s ever evolving role in our neighborhood. If the EDC decides to mess with success as part of the SPURA development the market could end up LA posh like Eataly, or a tourist trap like Chelsea Market. Get in here and enjoy it while these indulgences remain somewhat affordable!

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well,  consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.