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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Armenian Meats and Treats

December 13, 2008

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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.

La Parrilla de Argentina

December 7, 2008

card

It was a blistering cold evening when we headed out to Queens for our Argentina experience, one of those where you are chilled entirely to the bone after just walking one block.  Even when you are wearing your heaviest winter coat, hat, and scarf.  And this was November!

decorLuckily we warmed up right away upon entering La Porteña (74-25 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, 11372).  The hosts’ smiles, tasteful wood paneling, and soft light quickly relaxed our shivers.  Knick knacks, Argentine collectibles, memorabilia and photographs of Carlos Gardel adorned the walls.  We settled in to our table, and prepared to devour some meat.

La Porteña is a traditional Argentine style parrilla, or grill.  The menu features familiar comfort favorites like pasta (Argentina was heavily settled by Italians) but the crowds flock here for the grilled meats.  And there was definitely a crowd that Saturday night.

We were a group of five that week, and one of our guests was half Argentinian.  So we relied on her to order us the true parrilla experience.   She started us out with some grilled cheese, or provoleta, which is nothing like the stuff that goes in those sandwiches your mama used to make you, and is a common starter before a meal of grilled meat.  We also tried some slighted spicy and very tasty chorizo, (grilled pork sausage) and fried calamari (no different from any other decent calamari you’ve had elsewhere). These items were all devoured instantly, along with the basket of french bread that was set on the table.  We still had half a bottle of malbec to work on, so we sipped and chatted and waited for the main event.  So far so good.

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It may appear that we’ve broken two rules of this game.  We left NYC to find the Angolan food described in this entry.  But our travels only took us to nearby Elizabeth, NJ, which is certainly well-situated in the greater metropolitan area (just over the water from Staten Island).  And, because it is home to what was formerly NYC’s only Ikea, most New Yorkers know the town and consider it an extension of the city since most of their furnishings came from there.  So, forgive us, dear readers.  We left the 5 boroughs, but not so much as to lose the heart of the journey. In all honesty, we knew Jersey would come into play at some stage.  It’s inescapable.

The second rule we kind-a sort-a broke was getting food from Antigua and Barbuda before sampling Angolan.  Though this is an apparent breach of parameters, I have an excellent argument otherwise.  Late in October, I rang up the Permanent Mission of Angola to the United Nations, to inquire about Angolan eateries in the area.  The charming and friendly receptionist told me that there were in fact no Angolan restaurants in the city.  Sad news indeed.  We chatted for a while, and I asked her where she goes to eat food from her homeland.  She answered, “At my house!  I cook Angolan food every day.”  To which I naturally replied, “Well, can I come over to your house?”  And she said yes!  But then decided it would be even better if we came to her church on November 9, when they would be having a celebration of their congregation’s second year.  A feast was planned following the service, which would include all sorts of Angolan dishes.  That was certainly worth the wait, so we went ahead and checked out Antigua and Barbuda in the meantime.

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Ancient and Bearded

November 9, 2008

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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 »