How it worked: The chefs were given $50 each, sent to one of three predetermined shopping destinations (Union Square Greenmarket, Eataly, and a Mexican bodega), and told to prepare a picnic using only the ingredients they purchased there, plus pantry staples like salt, pepper, and oil. The picnic spreads were then packed up and whisked off to New York food critic Adam Platt and family for a blind taste test.
Where he shopped: Union Square Greenmarket (17th St. at Broadway; 212-788-7476)
What he made: “I didn’t want to do the usual suspects—you know, like sandwiches,” says Mattos, who admitted he struggled to keep the meal both fresh and portable. His gourmet spread included lettuce wraps made with raw beef, shiso, cilantro, and spicy cashew crumble; room-temperature soup with tomato, bell pepper, bread, egg, and basil; rabbit “rillettes” with garlic scapes and mustard; and grilled fava beans, romano beans, and green onions; and roasted rhubarb with fresh cherries, meringue, and goat cheese for dessert.
The Platt-family verdict: The Platts applaud the Greenmarket theme of this picnic, but the decoratively charred vegetables are semi-cold when we get them and taste “like tree bark,” according to Daughter No. 1. The tasty stew is also tepid and oddly gummy and could use an accompanying hunk or two of Greenmarket bread. The intricate tartare lettuce wraps aren’t exactly user-friendly, and I’m afraid my kids won’t eat them. The desserts are vinegary and warm when delivered, although they taste great the next day, after twelve hours in the fridge.
1 = Packaging: The actual packaging is excellent, but sadly the picnic is brought to us in three paper bags, one of which is grease-stained and about to break.
2 = Ease of use: We like the shiny stew tin, but there’s nowhere to stow our garbage, and there’s nothing in this Greenmarket picnic to drink.
4 = Cooking ingenuity: Forget what the kids say—the tartare lettuce wraps are world-class.
1 = General deliciousness: “Deliciously overwrought” is Mom’s succinct summation.
Where she shopped: Eataly (200 Fifth Ave., at 23rd St.; 212-229-2560)
What she made: “I’m a high-end chef that does a lot of plating, but if you’re doing a picnic, you need things that can be easily packed,” says Lo, whose spread included pork-tonnato sandwiches with sunchokes and fresh arugula; sugar snap peas with chive and basil; a lentil salad with bacon and mustard vinaigrette; and, for dessert, black-pepper shortbread cookies with local strawberries and Meyer lemon–ricotta dip. Money—or rather the lack thereof—presented the biggest challenge. “Eataly’s great, don’t get me wrong,” says Lo, “but it sure is expensive.”
The Platt-family verdict: “This is the most tidy picnic of all,” says Daughter No. 1, and we all agree. We like the functional (if slightly generic) picnic basket, and the fact that it keeps everything inside neatly packed and cool. We like the water bottle, too, although we wish there were two of them (along with some bubbly Italian sodas). The messy, overly rich pork-tonnato sandwiches sound great in theory (especially to Dad), but we’d prefer fresh bread, cheese, and that fabulous Eataly salumi. The side dishes and dessert work better (especially the tangy, pork-larded lentils, and the strawberries and cream), even if we’ve seen them a hundred times before.
4 = Packaging: “We need one of these baskets, Dad,” says Daughter No. 2.
3 = Ease of use: The sandwiches were a mess, and we could have used another water bottle and some cups.
0 = Cooking ingenuity: “This is what $50 gets you at Eataly?” asks Dad.
2 = General deliciousness: A good sandwich is the key to a fine picnic, and we didn’t get one here. One point for the side dishes, however, and another for the dessert.
Where he shopped: Zarazoga (215 Ave. A, nr. 14th St.; 212-780-9204)
What he made: “It’s not attempting to be a Michelin basket—it’s a freaking picnic,” says Warner of his laid-back but inventive spread, which included tortilla chips with “fall-apart good” tongue pâté and mango-and-black-bean salsa; a salad of underripe tomato and nopales; a torta sandwich with veal, chorizo mayo, and huitlacoche; and a “bonkers” creamy guava gel for dessert. In the end, Warner had ingredients to spare.
The Platt-family verdict: A good picnic should be nourishing, functional, and full of surprises, and this one has all of those things. The girls can’t decide what they enjoy more: the crunchy fresh-made corn chips or the packing crate, which doubles as a stool to sit on when the bugs arrive. Sergeant Mom likes the jauntily written menu-map, which tells us what the dishes are and when to eat them. Dad likes a dose of classic huitlacoche, or “corn smut,” anywhere he can get it, and we all approve of the old-style, south-of-the-border Coca-Colas for a sweet finish.
5 = Packaging: Sure, you have to carry the packing crate with two hands, but it’s worth the effort, provided you’re not on a jungle hike.
4 = Ease of use: The lighter attached to our Cokes with tape made for a clever bottle opener.
5 = Cooking ingenuity: Dad wasn’t wild about the tongue pâté, but he appreciated the effort.
4 = General deliciousness: One point each for the chips and mango salsa, the tomato salad, the sandwich, and the curiously refreshing guava-gel dessert.
Total: 18 Winner!