End of A’s

January 28, 2009

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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.

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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

Armenian Meats and Treats

December 13, 2008

restaurant2

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.

Batsurma

Batsurma

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.

Pelmeny

Pelmeny

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.

Kebab

Kebab

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.

Ancient and Bearded

November 9, 2008

750px-flag_of_antigua_and_barbudasvg

Our resourceful Nomad found Antigua & Barbuda at Pyramid Exotic Bar and Restaurant 3825 White Plains Rd. in the Bronx.  What happened to Angola you ask?  Oh faithless reader, the Nomad had already lined it up for Nov. 9, so she forged ahead not wanting to break our momentum.

ducana2When we walked in, there were maybe three or four people standing around the bar and we were greeted somewhat warily by a tall, solid, serious-looking woman. Noquar timidly asked if they were serving food because it certainly wasn’t apparent.  The room was mostly empty with a live music setup in the front and two folding tables along the wall, the larger of which was being monopolized by a kid and his coloring.  The woman seemed a little confused as she told us they were, in fact, serving food (which, by the way, only happens on Fridays and Saturdays).   “Antiguan food?” we asked.

These two words triggered a warm, broad smile.  She still clearly had no idea how or why we had ended up there but she was thrilled we had. The poor kid and his coloring were promptly cleared from the table and we were installed.  There was no menu, so she listed what she had, and since we had no idea what she was talking about, we afish2sked her to give us three of her favorite dishes. Read the rest of this entry »

Ramadan, Algeria Style

September 6, 2008

Mediterranean Coffee Shop & Grill

25-75 Steinway St., Astoria, Queens, NY

It turns out New York is short on Algerians, which on consideration makes perfect sense.  Algerians are far more likely to immigrate to Paris or Marseille, where there are already large, deeply rooted North African communities.  Still, after some digging on a few online community boards, we discovered that the small Algerian community that does exist here has found a home among the hookah bars and North African groceries of Steinway St. in Astoria, Queens.

The neighborhood is primarily Egyptian, but we found a nice and well patronized Algerian spot there.  The dining room had a buoyant, communal feel with large long tables, and it was packed when we arrived (though it had completely cleared out by the time we left at around 9:30).  We were led through the restaurant and outdoors to a concrete slab graced with a few tables and folding chairs. If you were so inclined, it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine yourself in a small courtyard somewhere in the casbah of Algiers.

It hadn’t crossed our minds that Ramadan had started.  Everyone had come in after sunset to break his or her fast for the day.  Apparently, the restaurant discards its usual menu during the holy month, so everyone who comes in after sundown gets the same traditional post-fast feast, which suited us perfectly and added to the perceived authenticity of the experience.  Our waitress (who also turned out to be the chef) was warm and worked hard to make us feel welcome. Although she seemed to have an excellent command of English, her food vocabulary was strangely limited.  So our efforts to find out exactly what we were eating came to very little.  I’ll do my best do describe anyway.

We were started out with some orange juice obviously meant to get our glucose levels back up after a day without food.  This was quickly followed by a tomato-based soup  packed with vegetables, chickpeas, rice, and chunks of meat that we had a hard time identifying (after further research it turned out to be lamb, and the soup is called harira).  The soup was accompanied by a plate piled with a ratatouille-like dish mostly comprised of tomato and green peppers, two burek, which are crisp, almost egg-roll-style pastries filled with seasoned beef, and an Algerian version of the Indian confection, jalebi.  By the way, for those of you who have been paying attention, we also encountered burek in the last entry.  Algerian burek is much different from Albanian burek, however.  It’s more of a roll than a pie. Next came chopped liver in a punchy tomato-based sauce that I associate with a lot of North African food I’ve had, along with plates of prunes and raisins cooked in a sweet and tart syrup. The bread that accompanied everything was similar to Turkish bread and was perfect for soaking up the soup and liver sauce. Finally, for dessert, we got some healthy-sized chunks of fresh watermelon. We topped everything off with some incredibly strong coffee with milk and tea steeped with fresh mint leaves and lemon.  Our waitress then brought us some more jalebi and some delicious sticky sesame biscuits.

The entire meal seemed designed to provide as many essential nutrients as possible for a fasting body.  Even Noquar, who had been struggling mightily for most of the day after his exploits the previous evening, seemed to brighten as we worked our way through all the food.  From the vegetables in the soup, to the iron and protein in the liver, to the fiber and natural sugars in the dried fruits, we went home feeling very well nourished… perhaps even too well nourished by the time all that fiber had worked its way through our systems.