e.a.t., upper east side

IMG_1730Living in Greenwich Village means I don’t trek up to the Upper East Side much for lunch, but I will gladly walk the  70+ blocks north for E.A.T.’s macaroni and cheese.

This mac strikes the perfect balance between creamy and cheesy. The sauce itself is thick and rich, like any good bechamel, but there’s also a ton of melted cheese in the dish, which makes for a nice textural balance. The cheese blend itself is made with many different varieties, but the Swiss shines through the most (though there’s a nice Gouda and Parmesan kick as well). A delicate sprinkling of breadcrumbs completes the dish, giving a little crunch to the top layer of noodle.

As you can see from the photo, this mac is made with penne, an excellent choice as the shape can hold sauce in its hollow as well as within the ridges on the outside of the pasta. The penne in this dish is cooked beyond al dente, but the soft pasta paired with the decadent sauce just makes it more comforting, in my opinion. Al dente penne sometimes doesn’t hold cheese sauce as well, anyway.

Side note: E.A.T. does all carb and cheese pairings well: the grilled cheese here is one of the best in the city.

E.A.T., 1064 Madison Ave., 212-772-0022

maison hugo, upper east side

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I think French-style macaroni and cheese is definitely a category all its own. The sauce is usually thinner than American versions and it almost always is finished with a few seconds under the broiler. “Le Mac & Cheese” at new spot Maison Hugo is no exception and might even be the textbook version of this variation.

Here, the mac is doused in Mornay sauce (like a Bechamel but with shredded Gruyere and egg yolk added), mixed with Emmenthal and Parmesan cheeses, and studded with French ham. Even with the Mornay, this is on the lighter end of the mac and cheese continuum. The pasta and ham are only lightly coated with sauce and cheese, so this isn’t a gut-bomb of a dish. Plus, the portion is fairly small (but not too small), so you can polish it off and feel satisfied without getting rolled out of there.

My personal preference is for a slightly gooier mac, but the blend of ingredients in Maison Hugo’s version make it a very solid dish. The saltiness of the ham mixed with the light Mornay is a very French and very tasty combination.

Maison Hugo, 132 E. 61st St, 212.832.0500

heidi’s house, upper east side

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Heidi’s House is a place that has been on my radar for years, but because of its location (far, far away from downtown), it wasn’t until this week that I finally made it uptown to check it out. I wasn’t the only one with a craving for winter dishes that night: even at 6 PM the wait was almost an hour. Part of this, of course, has to do with the fact that the restaurant is tiny, but you can definitely attribute a large part of its success to its macaroni and cheese. Almost every table had an order, which is served adorably in the clay pot pictured above.

So, what sets this place apart from others? The attention to detail. Not only does HH use solely organic cheese in their mac, but they make each one to order. There’s a helpful note on the menu that the dish will take about 25 minutes to cook, so you can request it for your main course while still deciding on your appetizers.

It arrives, bubbling (please do yourself a favor and wait a few minutes for it to stop steaming before you dig in!), and perfuming the air with its wonderful mix of cheddar, mozzarella (underused mac cheese!) and parmesan. You can opt for various mix-ins; I went for broccoli, but the bacon seemed to be the most popular. There’s a wonderful crust, thanks to the combo of the mozz and parm and the interior sauce is more cheesy than saucy; this is the kind of mac that will have strings of cheese hanging off your fork as you reach for a bite. As for the flavor, this is lightly seasoned, the cheese blend is really the star here.

My one complaint was the noodle: HH uses the rotini, which is fine as a mac-scooper, but it was just a tad overcooked.

Is it destination worthy? I would say it’s neighborhood destination mac, but not quite as awe-inspiring as some of my other hands-down favorites.

Heidi’s House, 308 East 78th Street #3, 212.249.0069

arlington club, upper east side

photo credit melissa hom

If you’re anything like me, your landmarks in various neighborhoods are all food-related. “We’re on E. 12th St.? S’mac is only 2 blocks away!” Similarly, whenever I find myself on the Upper East Side, I’m always aware of exactly how many blocks away I am from Arlington Club, chef Laurent Tourondel’s clubby steakhouse (and sushi bar!) and its jaw-dropping mac.

Like any good steakhouse, AC has mac and cheese. But the version here is not simply phoned in to accompany the porterhouse. I even called it the best thing I ate in 2013 and I don’t mean that hyperbolically. As you can see from the picture, Chef/Partner Ralph Scamardella’s macaroni (I think technically rigatoni) stands upright in its ramekin. That’s because the smoky gouda sauce gets poured into each noodle. I’ll give you a moment to calculate that sauce/pasta ratio; it’s pretty impressive. Then, right before serving, the ‘tonis get a quick blitz under the broiler, giving it a nice crust on top while the bottom half swims in that ridiculous sauce. If I haven’t said it before, gouda, but especially smoked gouda, was born for macaroni and cheese. It melts very well but is still strong enough to pack an umami punch (#sorrynotsorry for describing it thusly).

This is destination mac, people. I would walk from Greenwich Village any night of the week for this. But word to the wise: eat it while fresh. I tried to reheat leftovers once and, while still tasty, pre-broiled noodles don’t really mesh well with a microwave.

Arlington Club, 1032 Lexington Ave., 212.249.5700

macbar/delicatessen, nolita

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For mac connoisseurs like myself, the fact that New York offers multiple establishments that just serve my favorite dish is reason enough to never leave the City. My two favorite mac-specific restaurants are S’mac and Macbar, although there are a few new joints that I need to sample.

The above bubbling skillet comes from Delicatessen, which is next door to Macbar and owned by the same team. All of the macs (and they are legion!) that are served at Delicatessen come from the petite, noodle-shaped Macbar shop, so I thought I’d combine both of these spots into one post. One note: when you order it at Macbar, they come in this sweet (also) noodle-shaped vessel:

Macbar_The Classic_Frances Janisch

As you can tell from the above picture, this is a super cheesy situation. The mac pictured here is The Classic, which is made with elbow macaroni, Cheddar and American cheeses. I’m not sure if they use a bechamel base, but my guess is they might because the sauce is fairly thick. The duo of cheeses means you get a solid crust on top from the Cheddar, but it’s still pretty gooey due to the American. While this certainly isn’t as light (well, as light as macaroni and cheese can be) as the version from Birds and Bubbles, I can snarf this down faster than Hometown Bar-B-Que’s. For only having two relatively-mild cheeses, the flavor in this is quite strong.

I love Macbar mac and cheese so much that it was actually the last thing I ate before I went on my wedding diet. And while the Classic is a damn fine basic mac, my favorite might be the Mac Quack, which is made with duck confit, fontina and caramelized onions. Are you drooling yet?

Macbar, 54 Prince St., 212.226.0211