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.


Aussie peas and pies

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.


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.




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

Andorra redux

October 23, 2008

Because we couldn’t eat real Andorran food prepared by real Andorrans we went to Mercat in Manhattan to try Catalan food made by people who had once visited Catalonia. The room was tastefully lit and we sat at a heavy wooden table in the back of the restaurant. There were two shallow baskets containing plum tomatoes and green chilies on the counter in front of the open kitchen. A walk-in wine cellar, a large shelf, was built in to the wall above our heads.

On the very back wall of Mercat was painted a mural that looked like a drawing. In it, what I took to be a Spanish family sat around a long table. The women wore handkerchiefs on their heads and the man wore the clothes of a laborer. On the table were dishes and one steaming pot.  Maybe they were waiting for a more substantial repast, maybe someone outside the scene was preparing pots filled with rabbit stew and bringing in the wineskin from where it had been hung the previous night, but their eyes revealed their world to us. The artist included simple, single short lines, parallel to each other above and below the simple black dot eyeballs of each of her subjects denoting worry. These people were tired, and the lines in their faces betrayed their weariness and their fear that they would have to scrape by for another few days. They were tired and had little to share with us. They may have resented our intrusion into their lives.

In light of our recent forays into the outer boroughs and our research into our next country, Angola, we had started to expect welcomes into worlds that weren’t our own, but this trip served as a reminder that a lot of what people seem to be whispering and writing about Manhattan may regrettably be true. As we studied our surroundings, I couldn’t help but think that the worn down cobblestones running just outside had witnessed so much more than the conversations and goings-on of the well to do residents that lived at the architectural monstrosity across the street at 40 Bond.

40 Bond St, NYC

40 Bond St, NYC. Photo by Phillip Ritz

We had some interesting things. Grilled chilis, some spicy potatoes, a pasta with shrimp and black squid ink sauce. We had a decent bottle of wine and some cheese.  Everything was pretty good, but a tad expensive.  Maybe we’re the peasants, striving for something we think might sometime be attainable.  Peasants are supposed to be marginalized, some things are meant for people that can truly enjoy and understand them.  I felt that the simple, comfortable food here was somehow meant to be way beyond us.  We finished our bottle of wine and went to Red Mango.

A is for Afghanistan

August 30, 2008

Ariana Afghan Kebab Restaurant

787 Ninth Ave (Between 52nd and 53rd St), New York, NY

(It will pass)

Graffiti on the walls of a Kabul teahouse

– from The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad

Recently, we embarked on our first leg of a 192+ country culinary journey through New York City.  First up on the list: Afghanistan.  We will have to profess our ignorance up front for this one: we know nothing about Afghan (Afghani?  Afghanistani? We’ve seen all three.) cuisine.  We are fairly adventurous eaters (as we hope you will come to know), though this type of food none of us had tried before.  But hey, that’s why we’re doing this, right?  So where does one start to learn about a cuisine about which one knows nothing?  In this day and age, of course, Wikipedia is one important go to information resource (though we have a few more up our sleeves).  Through the Cuisine of Afghanistan entry, we learned a few things about the type of dishes to expect.  Rice is king in Afghanistan, breads and other grains are also staples.  For rice dishes, it’s Palow, with meat and spices blended in with the rice before it is baked, and Chalow, another basmati dish, which is baked simply with oil, butter, and salt, and then served with a Qorma (stew or casserole).

We had seen an Afghan kebab house out in Jackson Heights a few times, and thought about trying that one, but as we were in mid-town until fairly late that night, heading out to Queens didn’t seem like a wise option, especially to our grumbling bellies.  So we opted to check out two westside Manhattan Afghan favorites: Ariana and the Afghan Kebab House across the street.  After a peek through the window at the décor and clientele and a quick glimpse at each menu, we decided to go with the former.  Ariana has a pleasant and low-key vibe, with just a few tables, and a reasonably priced menu.  Rugs and pictures of landmarks and landscapes in Afghanistan adorn the walls, including some notable images, such as the National Geographic Afghan Girl photograph, and one of the 1500+ year-old Buddha’s of Bamyan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, just 6 months before the regime fell.

We walked in and were greeting by a smiling and enthusiastic waiter. The items listed on the menu were as we expected: many variations of kebabs, Palow, Chalow.  We decide that we need to try as much of the menu as possible between the three of us.  So we opt for the Combo Appetizer as a starter, which we are told will be a “surprise.”  It turns out to be two types of fried turnovers, or Bolanee.  One was filled with mashed potatoes and the other with pumpkin, both with lots of herbs and spices, and served with a yogurt dressing.  Also on the combo plate was some well-seasoned “fried” eggplant, which was more like an eggplant stew, served with pieces of flat, square bread.  The bread was dense, but fluffy in the middle.  Almost like a doughier panini.  All were delicious, although the pumpkin turnovers definitely stood out.

For the main course we each ended up ordering lamb dishes, but no matter.  The meat was seasoned quite different for each.  Here’s a quick breakdown of what we ate:

  • Kabuli Palow: This dish consisted of salad and rice with shredded carrots, raisins, and almonds.  The rice was topped with grilled lamb, tender and well seasoned.
  • Kabuli Palow with Lamb Tikka Kebab:  Similar to the above, though the meat was seasoned and cooked quite differently.  This dish also came with a side of potato, covered with a red sauce of indistinguishable, but tasty, makeup.
  • Bandenjen Chalow: Again with salad and rice, though this time the rice it was plain, with no raisins or carrots or anything.  One the side was a stew of eggplant and tender lamb cooked with onions, bell peppers and tomatoes.

The waiter suggested we put some of the spicy sauces sitting on the table onto the dishes.  One red, one green sauce, both blends of hot peppers, added a nice flavorful spice to the dish.  They also brought out a little bonus yogurt sauce, which gave the meal another nice dimension.

We finished off the meal by splitting the two desserts offered.  The Firnee came in a little pudding glass, was a firm but smooth, nutty pudding with pistachios and slivered almonds mixed in.  Beghalawa is essentially the same baklava that you’ve had before at Turkish restaurants or your local falafel joint, but served piping hot (fascinating that baklava can be found, with little variation, from the Mediterranean to Central Asia).  We ordered tea and Afghan coffee, both of which were spiced with cardamom and maybe a little clove.

The meal was good and the flavors well balanced, but this was certainly a New York City version of Afghan dining.  The fact that we each had a bottle of beer with our meals is probably atypical for Afghan dining.  Tea would likely be more of a staple. A colleague of mine, who recently spent six weeks working in Afghanistan with their National Archives, training staff to digitize rare manuscripts in an effort to preserve what little of their cultural heritage remains, noted that no situation was ever complete without tea.  Work couldn’t be started with out everyone first having a few glasses; meetings would not commence until everyone had a glass in hand.  Meals would certainly be served with tea.  I wondered, is tea in Afghanistan served like it is in India, with milk, sugar, and spices boiled together?  A little internet research reveals that Afghans prefer to drink green tea, made by boiling tea leaves and served without sugar or milk, so that it is quite bitter.  Our tea didn’t have sugar, but also wasn’t bitter and had some spices blended in.  Still we enjoyed our spiced tea and coffee: Noquar has since been inspired to add some chai masala to his morning coffee.

So we enjoyed ourselves, for sure.  But we can’t say that it was all that much better than the food that one might get from a good halal cart.  And we’re sure that the array of dishes and flavors one would experience in Afghanistan would be quite surpass what we had at Ariana. Looking at the pictures on the walls during dinner, I got to thinking about what it would be like to one day eat in Afghanistan, enjoying a table spread on the floor of someone’s house.  Apparently, dinner is a big family affair, and guests are treated like royalty.  The author Åsne Seierstad wrote about first meeting the main character of her book, The Bookseller of Kabul, “One day he invited me home for an evening meal.  His family – one of his wives, his sons, sisters, brother, mother, a few cousins – was seated on the floor around a sumptuous feast.” She eventually spent 6 months living with that family and shared many more such meals with them.  We can only hope that one day very soon, the possibility of actually visiting Afghanistan will be a reality for many more than just journalists, soldiers and politicians.

One of the goals of this adventure is to learn more about the cuisine of each nation (or region where the owners are from), and talk to the servers or owners about their homeland, living in New York, and how, if at all, this city has influenced their dishes.  We certainly failed to do that this time.  The restaurant was busy (it was a Friday night at 9pm in Manhattan), and we were engaged in a heated political discussion (the usual “will Obama win?” debate that makes our meals stressful these days) during most of the dinner.  So we dropped the ball on that front.  But we vow to dig up a litter more dirt next week, when we visit Albania.  Until then…