End of A’s

January 28, 2009

001

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.

Mirrored ceiling...so you can watch yourself sprawled out drunk and fat

Mirrored ceiling...so you can watch yourself splayed out drunk and fat

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.

vodka_eggplant1

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.

beansOur first round of dishes was comprised of soft, fresh homemade bread with eggplant spread and kidney fish_taters4bean 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 meatpies6alongside 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.

sturgen1

meatFor 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, cake4which 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.

prettyvodka

glossary1

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.

bigbeer2

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.

sampler

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.

beetsalad

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…

trout

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.

goulash

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.

bratwurst

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.

buckwheatspatzle

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.

Aussie peas and pies

January 17, 2009

roo

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.

aussiebeer

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.

menu

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.

forknknife

fork and knife: ur doin it wrong

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.

peasonpie

insidepie

fullplate

Thanks to Zach, Lynne, Elizabeth and John for helping us eat the heck out of some pies, and for the photos!

13 days.

10 cities.

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.

Coarse chopped pork at Lexington BBQ

Coarse chopped pork and slaw at Lexington BBQ

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.

Rib and pork dinner at Interstate BBQ

Rib and pork dinner at Interstate BBQ

There were of course many other joints that we thoroughly enjoyed stuffing ourselves at.  We’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Fried chicken and bbq plate, Smithfield Chicken and BBQ

Fried chicken and bbq plate, Smithfield Chicken and BBQ, Clayton, NC

Pulled pork on texas toast, The Bar-b-que Shop, Memphis

Pulled pork on texas toast, The Bar-b-que Shop, Memphis

Barbecue spaghetti, The Bar-b-que Shop, Memphis

Barbecue spaghetti, The Bar-b-que Shop, Memphis

Wet and dry, The Bar-b-que Shop, Memphis

Wet and dry, The Bar-b-que Shop, Memphis

Cozy Corner, Memphis

Cozy Corner, Memphis

New Year's Eve ribs at Jack's, Nashville

New Year's Eve ribs at Jack's, Nashville

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!