On Friday, I learned that Totally Baked (8 W. 18th St. between 5th & 6th Aves.) was opening less than three blocks from my work. Within minutes, I had found the top-secret menu online, and my keyboard became flooded with drool. A plan was immediately put in place. I would seek out this baked potato mecca and treat one of my employees to lunch so that I could sample two different creations. The choice of employee was of paramount importance: picky eaters or those with dietary restrictions would not be up to the task. Nay, I needed a fellow carnivore with a sense of adventure. I found my man, and as an added bonus, he's one of the best on the staff, so the lunch was fully justified.
At 1:00AM, I emailed him the menu with these specific instructions:
"Study it. Make it your friend. Become one with it. It is of paramount importance that you choose wisely. The future of our lives may very well hinge upon this decision."
I was initially concerned that my compatriot might be immediately drawn to the Buffalo Chicken because people from Buffalo (his birthplace) tend to be fixated on the pride and joy of their hometown. Conversely, someone from Philly would scoff and laugh at a Cheesesteak Baked Potato, something Totally Baked thankfully does not offer. As we rode the elevator, I inquired about his selection, and he threw me aback with a choice of either broccoli and cheese or spicy chili.
"Oh, come now, young man. We must think outside the box. There shall be no ordering of normal items. Anything that can be found on the menu Wendy's is immediately disqualified."
I leaned heavily upon him, and after applying the right amount of pressure, he chose the exact item I wanted him to pick: Braised brisket with parsley and marsala reduction ($10). Good choice, my friend. I knew you had it in you. My thinking was that the marsala reduction would be great because the potato could really soak and absorb it. For my part, I went with Creamed Spinach with Manchego and Frizzled Leeks ($8).
Yes, fellow rabid carnivores, I know you are disappointed with my choice, but do not consider me a traitor to the cause because as soon as I knew my employee would be ordering an animal, I knew I would be free to judge the less bloody side of the coin with a vegetarian offering. I happen to have a soft spot for manchego, especially manchego with frizzled leeks, a combination that would be close to divine if bacon were involved. Alas, 'twas not meant to be on this day, but bacon, my friend, we shall meet again. Before ordering, I believed that the addition of spinach in this item was purely to give the illusion of healthy eating, an illusion which admittedly means nothing to me.
The place was packed when we arrived. It was loud and frenzied, just like you'd imagine on the first day of a new restaurant/eatery. The decor was nice, although there is a very limited amount of seating available, and most of the patrons were getting take-out. As an added bonus, the walls had original drawings of the animation from the first Mr. Potatohead commercial. The line moved quickly, and the smells were amazing. We stared as employees shoveled mounds of wonderful toppings on top of hollowed potatoes. After they were loaded, the potatoes went into an oven for baking, and only certain items (I think broccoli and cheese) were being sent to the microwave. The space was really small, but the employees were doing a great job of running around each other. I don't know if it would be possible for baking, but I think they might be better served with one of those fast-food conveyor belt ovens, although I suspect those are primarily for broiling.
We placed our order and waited for about 8-10 minutes, which wasn't too bad, considering the place was packed like Dolly Parton's brazier. The potato was served in an eco-friendly cardboard container with a little side salad that could have probably used a tad more dressing, but I'm sure they'll get that one fixed in no time. The plastic utensils were also eco-friendly, somehow made from potatoes, although they didn't have much flavor when I bit into one. I opted not to swallow it.
The brisket was moist and tender, although I did initially get a piece that wasn't quite melting, but others certainly were falling apart. The marsala soaked into the potato, and the longer it sat, the more the potato absorbed those succulent juices. They accidentally served the brisket with frizzled leeks, and I suggested that the owner keep this combination because it was great!
The creamed spinach with manchego (and later added) frizzled leeks was phenomenal. It was not the crappy creamed spinach that you get in a diner. This was a perfect blend with that nutty manchego, and again, the leeks were the perfect accent.
I cannot say enough about the potatoes, themselves. I'm not a baked potato fan, but these were the best tasting baked potatoes I've tasted. The skin had a nice blend of salt and pepper, and the potato was quite buttery, creating the perfect vessel for the savory toppings.
While the potatoes were smaller than I had imagined, the portion was really the perfect size for a meal. It was slightly less than what I'd normally eat for lunch, but it was probably the ideal size for a mid-day meal. The owner was very nice and wisely offered us some sweet potato gelato, which after waiting 10 agonizing minutes to soften, tasted damn good. It wasn't overpowering with sweetness, and the blend with pecans was just right. Yum.
I'm pretty excited about this place, and I think they will only continue to improve what is already an outstanding product.
On the way back to the office, my employee and I had a field day with double-entendres, such as:
""I got Totally Baked with my boss today," and "Monday sucks! Who wants to get Totally Baked?"
Later, I saw a fellow employee who was feeling a little down. I told him, "Dude, you need to get Totally Baked."
He took my advice and 20 minutes later, he came back to the office laughing in a very relaxed mood with a glazed-over look in his eyes.
Oh yeah, he liked the Turkey Chowder, too.