February 26, 2009
Please follow the continuing adventures of the Confined Nomad crew at www.confinednomad.com
Happy eating and wandering!
February 22, 2009
Once again, we have struck out: we failed to find any Bahraini restaurants in NYC (You will hear about our adventure searching for Bahamian food once Noquar gets around to posting the story. For now I’ve decided to go ahead and get this one up). Granted, we didn’t give the consulate a call this time (admittedly, this is simply sheer absentmindedness and laziness), but we did ask the proprietor of a Middle Eastern grocery store in Brooklyn if he knew of any Bahraini restaurants here, to which he replied, “Bahrain?! Those people are too rich. They don’t need to leave their country.” Fair enough.
So twice in a row now we have had to cook food from the country at hand. As much as I judge the success of this mission on finding authentic cuisine cooked by natives, I have to think we have also succeeded when we manage to find all the ingredients needed to cook a meal that would be found on a table half way around the world. And this is what has happened for Bahrain.
Bahrain is a tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf. It’s one million+ residents live on a total of 253 sq miles, which covers thirty-three islands. In fact, according to one source, the entire archipelago has less total land than the nearby King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia. That just seems like one big airport to me.
A few minutes of googling was all it took to figure out that the most well-known dish of Bahrain is machbous (or machboos, depending on how the Arabic spelling has been translated), which is a meat and rice stew. Kind of like a biryani, but more saucy. A bit more web surfing and I had come up with a menu for the evening. Now all we needed were the ingredients.
Bahraini cuisine uses many of the same spices that are used throughout the Middle East and South Asia. Because I often cook Indian food, I have quite a stock pile of spices on hand. There were a few, however, that required a visit to the local Middle Eastern grocery store.
One stop at the Oriental Pastry and Grocery at 170 Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn was all we needed to find every ingredient necessary for our dishes, including rosewater, bahrat (a Middle Eastern spice mix) and dried lemons, as well as a number of bonus items like delicious, sticky, sweet pastries. The store has only a narrow aisle down the middle that is not piled high with essentials: bulk items like rice and wheat, packaged goods, olives, and whole and ground spices. Far off in a dim corner in the back of the store is the pastry counter — if you ever pay a visit (and you definitely should) don’t miss it! The prices were right on and the staff very helpful. I highly recommend you stop by the next time you are on Atlantic Ave near Clinton Ave, even if just for one of the cheese filled sweets. Yumm…
Anyway, back at home we made a Bahraini baba ghanoush that we nibbled on with some pita as we prepared the main dishes: the machbous and a fish curry that I found here, which turned out to be no more than OK (I am of the opinion that the recipe wasn’t written very well). The machbous, I’m proud to say, was quite delicious.
I cobbled the machbous recipe together from a few that I found online, here and here. It takes a little while, but the results are worth the wait. We served it with dates and finished it all off with the fabulous pastries and an attempt at Bahraini coffee (we basically just added a dash of rosewater and green cardamom).
Here is my machbous recipe. Try it and let me know what you think!
2 lb lamb (I used the kind already prepared for stew)
1 tbs bahrat
1 1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin powder
3 tbs olive oil
2 large onions, finely chopped
5 black cardamom pods
2 dried black lemons or limes, with hole punched in each
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp black pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 quarter-sized slices ginger, minced
4 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
2 tsp salt
4 cups water
2 cups basmati rice, washed in 3-4 changes water
3 tbs rosewater
2 tbs lemon juice
1. Mix together the bahrat, turmeric, and cumin. Spread all over lamb. Set aside.
2. Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Cook the onions until golden brown
3. Add the cardamom, dried lemons, cinnamon, and pepper. Stir well and cook for 3 minutes.
4. Add the garlic, ginger, tomatoes, and salt. Stir well and cook for 3 minutes.
5. Cover the pot and cook for one hour.
6. Add the water and rice. Cook until water is absorbed, about 30 minutes.
7. Add the rosewater and lemon juice. Cook a few more minutes then serve.
Enjoy, but be careful not to bite into one of the dried lemons! You’ll be in for a sour surprise.
January 28, 2009
Well folks, we have terminated the first letter of the alphabet in our global gastronomical armageddon, and the last A may just have been the best. After traipsing from borough to borough (plus Elizabeth, New Jersey) for our first 11 countries, we needed look no farther for Azerbaijan than Cafe Sim-sim, 312 Ditmas Ave. in our own neighborhood of Kensington, Brooklyn.
As our core trio would once again be joined by friends, I thought it was best to call ahead to make reservations. After a good 25 attempts on which a woman’s pleasantly recorded voice told me that my call could not be completed, I came to the conclusion that the listed phone number for this place was defunct, so I decided to head over there to make sure this place actually still existed.
From the outside, Cafe Sim-sim could be mistaken for a gentleman’s club, package lounge, or some other such unseemly establishment, and walking through the door doesn’t entirely dispel that impression. The walls are all mirrored, as is the ceiling. The decor, along with the dim lighting, almost begs for a silver pole or two and a good deal of vinyl-upholstered seating.
I entered to the disorienting whirring of a CD skipping over a PA system and an older fellow with his back turned to me hunched over one of the tables. Despite his being no more than five feet from the door, he seemed completely oblivious to my presence (which was making a considerable amount of incidental noise I should add) not to mention the grating sound of the CD. I stood behind him for a good 15 seconds thinking that maybe he just needed to finish up what he was doing before he turned his attention to me. When it became clear that he genuinely had no idea that anyone else was in the room, I ventured a hesitant “hello?”
He turned and looked at me as if my standing in front of him made little to no sense. He looked at me long enough without saying a word that I started to laugh out of simple bewilderment. I finally pulled myself together enough to start explaining why I might have walked in the front door of what I assumed to be his restaurant. Before I got three words out, he pointed toward the back of the dining room where I saw a short, round, mustached man with missing teeth who, upon hearing my request of a reservation for six, demanded that I pay him a forty dollar deposit to hold the table. When I protested that such arrangements are fairly unusual and, besides, I didn’t have forty dollars, he interrupted me saying, “No problem, no problem. How much you have? You give me what you have.” We finally both agreed that it would be a bit silly for me to give him the $3.58 I had in my wallet, and he gave me the reservation on nothing more than my simple promise to actually show up.
When I returned a couple of hours later with the Nomad, Noquar, and the rest of our crew in tow, certain aspects of my previous encounter started to make a lot more sense. The older gentleman who had so baffled me earlier was, in fact, the evening’s (unfortunately camera-shy) entertainment and appeared to speak no English. As we were being seated, he was rather beautifully singing in what I assume to have been Russian over a blaring pre-recorded backing track, which would suggest some degree of deafness on his part, since there was no other possible reason for it to be that loud.
As soon as we had shed our heavy coats and were seated, our waitress came to take our drink order. We wanted alcohol and we wanted it to be Azerbaijani. It quickly became clear that the closest thing we were going to get was vodka. We asked what amount would be appropriate for the six of us and were encouraged to order 750 grams. We didn’t really know what that meant as none of us were particularly familiar with liquor measured in grams. What we got was a full liter bottle of Tanqueray Sterling which we wasted no time laying into.
When it came time to order food we once again relied on our server, who was really wonderful. She tried earnestly, but with varying degrees of success, to answer all our questions about the food, and when her English vocabulary limited her descriptions she emphatically entreated us to just trust her judgment, which we happily agreed to.
Our first round of dishes was comprised of soft, fresh homemade bread with eggplant spread and kidney bean salad, which closely resembled a lot of Turkish starters I’ve had, a basic green salad with tomato, onions, and vinaigrette, as well as a whole smoked trout alongside boiled potatoes. These were promptly followed by a plate of kutab, which are moist, perfectly textured lamb-stuffed pancakes, and a nourishing bowl of borscht, which got passed around the table.
We were duly impressed by these first few bites, but they paled when compared with what was to come.
As should be expected with Turkic fare, we were again dealing with the ubiquitous shish kebab. However, I, personally, was unprepared for how revelatory the introduction of fish into the whole kebab genre proved to be. On our server’s recommendation, we ordered the sturgeon, or as it visits me in my dreams, huge flavorful juicy nuggets of perfectly-seared white meatiness. As good as the assorted meat plate was that followed (and it was rock solid), it was always going to be like Usher trying to outdance JT.
For flavor and tenderness, the lamb kebab rivaled the best kebab meat I’ve had anywhere, including the Armenian kebab that captured our hearts a few weeks ago. The chicken was close, but not quite moist enough to meet the dizzying standards of the Armenian version, and the beef, while certainly as flavorful as the other meats, had had much of its tenderness grilled out of it. The kofta, meanwhile, was kofta. To be honest, I’ve never actually had kofta that really distinguished itself but am certainly open to suggestions. We ended things with a round of excellent lemon tea and a trio of overly sweet fruit cakes, which were superfluous anyway, as we were all pretty stuffed at that point.
I have left few meals drunker, happier, flusher in pocket, or more raring for a bar brawl. Cafe Sim-sim, you are a marvel.
January 17, 2009
On another one of those bitterly cold, snowy nights we’ve been experiencing so often this winter, we ventured out of the warmth of our Brooklyn residences and made the trek to the Lower East Side, where we met two friends at Cafe Katja. It’s a small place, with a nice bar and just a few tables. We were seated fairly quickly, which was lucky because not too long after our arrival the place became slam packed.
Cafe Katja is understandably popular. They serve an excellent selection of beers in true Austrian style — by the liter. There’s also the great wine list, which features red and whites primarily from Austria and Hungary. And then there’s the fantastic food. AND it’s affordable, especially for a hip Lower East Side joint. It’s hard not to enjoy this place.
Local sources tell us that the restaurant is inspired by traditional Austrian buschenschanks, little places to eat and drink, where farmers sell what they’ve harvested for the season. The food was fresh enough here, even in the dead of an NYC winter, that the comparison is acceptably fitting.
Despite the crowd encroaching on us, we took our time and sampled as much of the menu as possible. This slow dining experience was facilitated by the slight delay in service. Our lovely waitress was taking care of the whole restaurant, and the kitchen seemed to be running slow. All that was fine by us since the beer and wine kept flowing and the food trickled out at a perfect pace.
We started the with the aufschnitt teller, a sampler of cured meats, spreads and pickled onions and carrots. The roasted beet and goat cheese salad followed, along with a marinated herring salad. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of salty fish, but those at the table that do enjoy them raved about it.
Our main dishes were all stellar. I enjoyed a perfectly prepared and portioned seared trout with spinach and roasted potatoes, topped with a pat of garlic butter. Yum…
Across from me Supereg wrestled with a gigantic plate of beef goulash and spätzle, a traditional egg pasta that was served with a creamy sauce.
Despite his insistence earlier in the night that he would not eat any sausage, Noquar, who is still having nightmares after his horrible experience following our trip to the Argentine steakhouse, ended up ordering the homemade bratwurst, which he thoroughly enjoyed.
One of our dinner companions ordered the buckwheat spätzle, which was served in a heap with squash, nuts, and chopped brussels sprouts, and topped with grated parmesan. This is an exceptionally good dish, highly recommended for vegetarians who might be wary of dining at an Austrian restaurant where much of the menu is meat. The other friend ordered the sausage stuffed with cheese, a special for the evening. Also fantastic.
We finished the meal with the dessert special. A few people ordered coffee that turned out to be exceptionally bitter, but I couldn’t resist trying an Austrian liquer that smelled like a Christmas tree and had a delicious sweet, piney flavor. By this time a friendly man, presumably one of the restaurant’s owners, was working the floor, settled our bill, and ushered us out so he could seat a few more of the 15 or so people who were patiently waiting, sipping on their liters of beer. We stumbled back out into the snowy night stuffed and happy.
January 17, 2009
For the 10 readers who care, I take full responsibility for the delay in posting the details of our trip to eat Australian food. Because I appreciate you, dear readers, I will also provide you with a number of worthless excuses. I was busy. I was too full of ribs and pulled pork. I had exams. I was too excited about Tim Tebow and the 2009 Florida Gators. I was serving on jury duty. Thank you for understanding.
I wasn’t all that crazy about the idea of eating Australian food. In spite of my wife’s experience in the middle of last year chronicled here, I associated Aussie food with bloomin’ onions, soggy fish and chips and Foster’s beer. After finishing dinner at the Tuck Shop on First Street and First Avenue in the East Village, my prejudices, like most, withered in the face of the genuine article.
The Tuck Shop wasn’t fancy. There were a few stools at a counter to the side of the door and there was a table where we managed to squeeze in seven.
The menu was simple: pies. Small, personal-sized, flaky pies filled with meats and vegetables. We ate pies with ground beef, pies with thai chilis, lamb pies, and chicken pies. I ordered my beef pie swimming in thick split pea soup. The peas were fresh but just the right amount of mushy and mixed enjoyably with the pastry crust and beef. The combo meal, the Tucker box, was also popular for including two sides with a pie for $11. I tried someone’s vegetable of the day, brussels sprouts, and thought that they were prepared just right, simply with butter and pepper, tender with no bitter aftertaste.
We had a good time here with a number of friends who managed to put down a number of Coopers and Boags, rich Aussie beers that I tried for the first time that evening. While the Tuck Shop may have lacked elegance, it had plenty of charm and was surprisingly cheap given its location. Look for the place with the Vegemite in the window and make sure you order your pie with peas.
Thanks to Zach, Lynne, Elizabeth and John for helping us eat the heck out of some pies, and for the photos!
January 6, 2009
3200 miles in a 1992 Toyota Corolla.
Pork, pork, and more pork.
This BBQ tour focused on two of the four reputed barbecue styles in the US: Carolina and Memphis. In North Carolina, we savored the subtle yet distinct differences between Eastern style (vinegar based) and Lexington/Western style (vinegar with a hint of ketchup). In Memphis, we debated wet vs. dry. We also picked up a few ribs, pork sandwiches, and other delights along the way, with stops Richmond, Savannah, Birmingham and Nashville. We can safely say, we now know what constitutes a true “bbq joint.”
There is no way we could choose a best overall; the styles are just too different. Besides, comparing North Carolina and Memphis BBQ is like comparing apples and oranges (or, uh, pulled pork and ribs). But a clear winner in each category did emerge. Here were our favorites:
North Carolina: Lexington Barbeque – Lexington, NC. You just can’t get much better than the chopped pork, hush puppies, and bbq slaw they serve here. And once you make friends with the locals waiting in the line that is spilling out the door at lunch time, you won’t mind the wait one bit.
Memphis: Interstate Barbeque. There ain’t much to be said about the service or the decor, but the rib bones that fall out of the meat will have you ordering more, even after you’ve gorged on a plate full of them and downed a side of bbq spaghetti, a Memphis specialty.
There were of course many other joints that we thoroughly enjoyed stuffing ourselves at. We’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Many thanks to our family and friends who aided and guided us along the way!! We couldn’t have done it without your guest bedrooms and local culinary insight! You all will always have a place to stay and a few foodies to show you around New York City anytime!
December 13, 2008
Armenia marked the first time all members of our core trio were not fully involved in the mission. Noquar was preoccupied with his future outside of this project, so the Nomad and I grudgingly left him to his final exams and trekked to Bayside, in the outer reaches of Queens, where we found Sevan Restaurant, 216-09 Horace Harding Expy, Queens, NY 11364. Bayside is a strange land pairing the most nondescript houses you might ever see (the Nomad compared them to a child’s drawing of a house) with the most absurdly ornate Christmas decorations this suburban product has ever seen. We parked the car amid all this nonsense and braved the biting cold wind to find Armenia.
The attempts at a warm homey decor in the restaurant itself rivaled that of your favorite neighborhood funeral parlor or dentist’s waiting room. It was almost offensively inoffensive, with no trace of anything Armenian save the flat screen TV with a feed of the awkwardly staid music variety shows that seem to be an entertainment staple in Eastern Europe/Central Asia (this piercing insight is based solely on our having seen similar programming on our Albanian trip to the Bronx). At any rate, we certainly weren’t transported by simply walking into the place.
Still, the decor was not the point, we came for the food and to chat with our Armenian server. She was tall, thin and fair skinned, with curly blond hair. It wasn’t exactly my (admittedly ill-informed) image of what Armenians might look like. She opened her mouth to ask for our drink orders and out spilled the friendliest, most generic American accent. She could have been from California, Nebraska, or Florida, but she sure as hell wasn’t Armenian. We did, however, have some passing interaction with the super friendly Armenian owner and his family as they were passing in and out of the kitchen. He kindly moved the creepy, garish Santa Claus that was preventing me from pulling my seat out.
No matter, while we waited for our food and sipped our Armenian red and pomegranate wines, our experience was buoyed by the large, boisterous, obviously Armenian party feasting next to us. They provided at least a small window into what a communal, joyous experience dining in Armenia might be.
As there were only two of us this time, we ordered as wide an array of dishes as we felt we could handle. The food came out in a perfectly paced crescendo until we had quite a spread in front of us. We started with batsurma, cured sirloin strips with Middle Eastern spices, which reminded me, in texture at least, of proscuitto if it were made from beef. It was particularly delicious when wrapped in the oven-warmed flatbread that accompanied everything. Next came lahmanjun, a super thin pie filled with ground beef, mixed vegetables, and spices. We brought some frozen ones home for Noquar, and he is apparently already plotting where he can find more.
Yogurt and sour cream appeared to be particularly important components to Armenian cuisine. Our yogurt salad (simply fresh yogurt, walnuts, garlic, and mint) was fantastic in both texture and flavor and went beautifully with our main dish. The carrot salad came with a healthy dollop of sour cream and included garlic, nuts, cilantro, and olive oil. A sour cream sauce also accompanied our palmeny, which were bite-sized beef dumplings that reminded me of tiny momos, for any of you who are familiar with Tibetan food.
A fair amount of Armenian fare resembles that of its far larger and more culturally influential neighbor, Turkey, in that there is a whole lot of grilled meat. The most obvious exception is Armenia’s Christian acceptance of pork, which, I have to say, adds a new dimension to the whole kebab genre. Our mix shish kebab combo presented us with our second pile o’ meat in as many countries following our monstrous pile o’ Argentinian meat. This Armenian kebab, however, was on an entirely different plane from both the Argentinian organ fest and any other kebab I’ve ever had. My general problem with kebab meat is that it tends to be either dry, tough, bland, or all of those things. This platter, on the other hand, comprised of chicken, pork, and three cuts of lamb, seemed like someone had injected each piece to the core with whatever spices or marinade they were using, then magically sealed it off so that nothing escaped over the course of the grilling. After tasting each meat in its own right, the Nomad discovered that combining the meats with the yogurt salad and wrapping them in the flat bread created a near perfect sandwich, which led her to compulsively continue eating to the point of physical discomfort. This was very possibly the best meal, foodwise, of our mission so far.