15 April 2015

Garifuna Day

BELIZE
GUATEMALA
HONDURAS

The Evangelical Garifuna Church and connected Community Center are not really the type of storefronts that you actively notice going about your business each day, but for one day in April the block of Brook Avenue between East 141st and 142nd Streets is taped off and the modest crowd spills out of the small venues into the street. The actual blocking did not necessarily appear to be sanctioned by the NYPD, but on this sleepy Mott Haven street, no one seemed to mind.

April 12th is Garifuna Day, in Central America and beyond, celebrating the first arrival of the Garifuna people in the area well over 200 years ago.

Inside, tables are set up and women in West African-like dresses speak to each other in Spanish. Yellow, white, and black dominate, as they are the colors that signify the Garifuna flag and culture from Belize to Nicaragua. I traveled in some parts of Garifuna Guatemala and Honduras, and was surprised after a long road in Central America to find people who spoke English. The Garifuna here in New York are mostly from Honduras and surprising to me, all spoke Spanish amongst themselves, rather than English or their Garifuna language.


Hand-written signs were taped to the walls showing off cities where presumably members of the community center were from, spanning all the countries. A table to the right had a wide assortment of sweets to choose from, which many were stacking and stuffing into bags to take home. Smiles were shown my way from everyone, as is usually the case when an "outsider" makes their way into a community. Many men shook my hand and all welcomed me.

Near the back, the prominent thud heard throughout the room was found to be a woman pounding plantain in the traditional way. She seemed to be very focused and only nodded her head when I said the word plantain as part of a sentence.


The only dish on offer from the kitchen in the back was machuca ($12, below), served as a bowl of coconut-based soup and a baseball-sized sphere of mashed plantain. The mash is dense and fills you up quickly, so tear it off sparingly and enjoy the contents of the soup first.


Garifuna people all live near the Caribbean coasts of their respective countries, and as such a big portion of their diet is based on fish and seafood. This soup had both, a nice hunk of fish was accompanied by a small amount of conch and one shrimp. If you sat down at a Garifuna table, everyone would have a bowl of the soup in front of them and a large ball of the plantain would be placed in the center for everyone to grab from while they ate, creating a very communal atmosphere. Here in the community center, I had only my own hands breaking off pieces from the ball.

"Machuca" actually refers to the plantain mash or paste.

Back outside after eating, a percussionist had set up and was entertaining the crowd. Later a man took to the keyboards and sang. For the most part, a DJ played upbeat Caribbean music that got everyone bobbing their bodies.

31 March 2015

We Are Georgian

GEORGIA

There is a bit of confusion, and quite a bit of anger, with the naming of this restaurant. Most people walking by would probably think the name of this Kings Highway Georgian restaurant is Brick Oven Bread, a name it would share with two other establishments around town. Unfortunately this seems to be the handy work of the awning maker, who made the decision for the shop owner, who named the restaurant "We Are Georgian." However the menus say it too. I am confused, but the owner said very clearly the real name.

Pizza boxes are stacked high like in a pizzeria, but these are for khachapuri here, which obviously does a swift takeout business. In front of these and some Georgian imported goods, is a refrigerated display with takeout meals and desserts on top. The proprietor of the place, known as "Aunt" will guide you through the process of selection from start to finish, and be thoroughly tickled when you are happy with your meal or any part of the experience. She is proud of her cuisine and very delighted to share it with customers, especially it seems when those customers are not Russian or Georgian.


We went in a different direction this meal than the normal cheesy selections of khachapuri, ordering the lobiani ($7, below), a bean pie with crispy dough and a thin layer of mashed kidney beans.


Traditionally, the beans are boiled with smoked ham to give them a more flavorful taste. A round pie of about 12" is cut into slices and piled up, guaranteeing that a group of three will be quite full after finishing this and their other choices.


One of the most exciting dishes of the evening was the nigvziani badrijani ($8, below), an appetizer. Walnuts, garlic, and plenty of spices imported from Georgia are baked inside of thin eggplant slices. A lone pomegranate seed is inside each piece, creating myriad textures and tastes, each bite a nice pop.


One of my most distinct memories while traveling in Georgian was going to bars full of men eating khinkali and drinking beer, not sure which part of the combination was more important. These men would all have twice the dumplings and twice the beer I would, but I think I was able to enjoy it just as much.

The khinkali ($8.50, below) here are some of the best in New York City, without the intense saltiness that is often found. We even received a short lesson in eating with your hands (duh) after our Ukrainian friend decided to eat his with fork and knife. Amateur.


New to me was the chakapuli ($9, below), a tender lamb stew that gets its green color from herbs and tarragon. Six or so chunks of the meat sit in the hearty stew, which is also fortified with white wine. I am not sure what the bread situation is here, but this would be beautiful paired with some homemade bread fresh from the oven.


Remembering the beautiful satsivi we had at Toné Café in Brighton Beach (also the home of an oven spitting out amazing bread), we asked Aunt for this but were steered to the bazhe chicken ($11, below), a dish oddly listed under salads. The walnut sauce is much less intensely nutty than its friend, not scraped and licked up like we had that night. Each hunk of chicken was welcome though, the bird being left on the bone and wonderfully moist.


For dessert we gazed over at the counter to catalogue our choices. The first that came back was a square slice of what was referred to simply as "ideal cake" by aunt. A quick online search calls this "men's ideal cake" and translates from the Russian muzhskoy ideal. Regardless of the name, caramel butter cream oozes out between layers, a hint of brandy shines through, and walnuts again are used. It is quite a treat.


I am unclear on the prices, but our bill grew by a whopping $4 after the two desserts arrived. A small piece of Armenian cada (below) was our second selection, a crunchy sweet wedge that was much more moist than it appeared. Our table enjoyed every bite of our two desserts, despite being supremely full.


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26 March 2015

La Morada

MEXICO

When people talk about their travels to Oaxaca, or give recommendations about the Mexican state to the southeast of the capital, most likely that conversation will revolve around food. I remember getting plenty of advice before my travels there, and being rewarded with a delicious plate at every meal. The biggest memory from my travels in the city also called Oaxaca was of a white sauce called mole blanco, as I was lucky enough to be traveling there around Christmas, one of the holidays where you usually find it cooked. Given the mixture of cultures that Oaxaca is known for, the cooking has evolved from many different directions over time and produces some thoroughly unique items.

Menus in New York do not include mole blanco, and to be fair, even the menu at La Morada does not have it! Some great reporting in Serious Eats last year sought it out, but it was still near impossible to get your hands on until the restaurant got the attention (with no credit to Serious Eats given) of the New York Times this year. Now apparently, you can roll up on any given Sunday and find the wonderful dish ready to go. In fact, four out of the five moles listed on the menu, plus the blanco were all available when I went.

Mole blanco ($12, below) is absolutely a star, but when tried, should be given a stage and served without other moles. It has the power of unseen chilis in its recipe, but its unique smoothness and nutty flavor beg not to be contradicted by other spiciness during the meal. It pairs better with rice and beans and cheese, maybe some plain tostadas or other unabrasive antojitos.


The nuttiness comes from four different nuts: two varieties of almonds, peanuts, and pine nuts, which shine through the brightest. It is a sauce of rare form and excellent craftsmanship. Those aforementioned chilis are habañeros, always playing their important role but never upsetting the balance between the nuts and garlic.

You knew I gathered my advice from before from experience (read: mistakes), so here were the other moles we ordered that afternoon in addition to the star. First, the mole Oaxaqueño ($12, below) which is the product of seven types of dried peppers that are rehydrated during cooking. It is the only mole listed as "VERY spicy" but we did not think it packed the punch even of the verde. The pork chops are the house recommendation for meat with this dish, but we found them less interesting than the succulent chicken.


The mole verde ($12, below) is good, and was the favorite of my two dining companions. This to me though is less unusual and contains all the very familiar (and very delicious) tastes of Mexican cuisine we usually eat, green chilis and habañeros. That being said, it certainly is worthy of being on any order here.


Towards the back of the restaurant is a large bookcase with quite a few titles and a makeshift lending library. One might think they were in an anti-establishment coffee shop had the smells been different. Protest stickers adorn different parts of the place, and you start to feel the owners are trying to stir more than their culinary pots. But those culinary pots are what will grab and hook you. The words "kushi vaa" are on the front of the menu and roughly translate to "healthy eating" in the Mixtec language of the owners, giving away the true higher cause of the establishment.

La Morada on Urbanspoon

23 March 2015

Atlas Mountain

MOROCCO

Since Bay Ridge's La Maison du Couscous closed years ago, the city has in my opinion had a void in Moroccan food that is not quite filled by the options available. A couple new places have opened or reopened around town, and Atlas Mountain is the first of those I will check out.

In Morocco, eating out was limited from what I saw to locals finding their way to a bowl of harira at a night market. Most cooking went on inside of the home, and tourists were left with sub-par versions of Moroccan tagines and other dishes at restaurants that were only in existence to feed them. Pulling up to a bowl of harira, always served with a healthy slice of good bread was a treat in itself though, and something I usually did at least once an evening. I was early to dinner at Atlas Mountain and thought there could be no harm in ordering the harira ($3.50, below) to tide me over until my friends arrived. At this price point, I was very surprised to see a giant mug of the soup arrive with a full basket of bread. Technically this is a vegetarian soup, but it is filled with lentils, chickpeas, and small noodles, and so is very hearty. The broth is tomato based, but the spicing of saffron, ginger, and pepper is what really leaves the impression.


A cup of Moroccan mint tea ($2, above) is about as traditional as it gets with the cuisine, and tea service for four will run you $6, coming in a silver pot with glassware. Be sure to add a lot of sugar if they haven't already, for when in Rome...

In addition to the steam table of tagines, there is a cold case with mainly vegetable options. We asked for a variety plate ($8, below) which contained (clockwise from beets) pickled beets, red and green peppers, a smokey eggplant, and slightly sour spinach, all of which were enjoyed.


Tagines here do not come in the conically-lidded ceramic plates you usually find, but are well-stewed nonetheless. The lamb tagine ($10, below) is a very large plate with a Flintstones-esque hunk of meat on the bone served with stewed vegetables and yellow rice. It is more than enough for one person. The lamb is tender and fresh, falling right of the big bone.


Part of the joy of Atlas Mountain is the atmosphere, as most or all of your dining companions will be local North African families, with kids running around and adults discussing the politics that are on Arab-language Al-jazeera TV in the front. Either way, it is fun to soak it all in even if only here for a cup of sweet mint tea, and the proprietors will treat you as their friend just as they do their regulars.

Atlas Mountain on Urbanspoon

28 January 2015

Cafe Rokhat

TAJIKISTAN

Cafe Rokhat is sort of a unicorn, at least in the world of former Soviet establishments in New York City. The place is full of smiles and everyone takes very good care of the customers, even those with a lot of questions. Our main waiter was so friendly I had to comment on it with my dining companions multiple times.

"Rokhat" after all, translates to "enjoy" in Tajik, and they made sure we enjoyed every moment of our experience here. The food followed form exactly and also won us over, dish by dish.

Sometimes dishes are said to float here and there around the city from Tajik cuisine, but these often tend to be only things shared with Uzbekistan, in one of the city's many Uzbek restaurants. Here at Cafe Rokhat, the city's only primarily Tajik eatery, many things seem unfamiliar and turn out magical.

Despite this, first on our list of plates delivered to the table was the Tashkent salad ($8.25, below), a pile of shredded radish and veal tongue in almost equal proportion, as well as crispy fried onion, dill, and a creamy sauce. This dish for me was very new, and very delicious.


Without asking, we were still brought two pieces of bread ($1.75 each, below), but raised no protest as these fluffy discs are necessary for any Central Asian meal. It shows up as "kulcha" on the receipt, but this appears to be traditional Tajik non.


The non was amazing when dipped into the clay pot of piti soup rokhat ($8.95, below), which had very tender chunks of lamb inside its rich warm broth. This word "piti" comes from the glazed crock that is used to cook the dish, which also contains tomatoes, potatoes, chickpeas, and saffron as well.


Lagman ($7.99, below) is always a safe bet at Central Asian restaurants, and was as well here. Thick noodles serve as the base for this rich soup of meat and vegetables, which also affords more opportunities for the use of non.


We initially ordered a plate of samsa gizhda, four round meat pastries, but the restaurant was out this day and brought over a regular samsa ($3, below) and charged for it. This triangle is on par with others in the city, the meat and juices piping hot and falling out when opened up.


Do not schedule any first dates if you plan on ordering the homestyle potatoes with garlic and herbs ($5.95, below), which are very heavy on the garlic. Otherwise, these are tasty and addictive as fried potatoes tend to be.


The highlight of the night, and my most excited reason for being here, was the kurutob ($9.95, below), the Tajik national dish. The name derives from the Tajik word "qurut," which is the process of dissolving dried balls of salty cheese in water. This is poured over strips of flatbread, which make up the bulk of the calories in the dish. Fried onions and fresh cucumbers and tomatoes are poured over this yogurt-like arrangement. Traditionally you would start grabbing things with your fingers from a communal bowl, but we divided up the dish between ourselves timidly.

The national dish of Tajikistan, qurutob

We did not order any traditional kebabs this day, but did ask for the lulya kebab rokhat ($8.95, below), served in a bowl. The chunks of shashlik here are taken off the skewer after cooking and added to a wonderful oily goodness. I thought this was a definite step up from the normal kebab with side of tomato sauce that is usual for Central Asian meals.


Any Tajik meal is supposed to end with plov ($8.95, below), and that is what we did here. The lamb is very good, while the base of rice and vegetables is just so-so. After getting stuffed on so many delicious dishes already, we hardly thought twice about the semi-weak ending and were very happy diners.


It would be a definite step in the right direction if the city started to have more Tajik eateries amongst its vast sea of Uzbek food. The cuisines are similar enough to be indistinguishable with certain orders, but there are a few Tajik outliers that make it a very exciting meal. For now, Sheepshead Bay can offer you the whole experience.

Cafe Rokhat on Urbanspoon

26 January 2015

8 Paet Rio

THAILAND

Despite the fact that the Southeast Asian communities in New York City still are quite small, Elmhurst continues to be the forefront of most of what good Thai cuisine we are afforded here. Red Hook, Brooklyn now has a champion, and Hells Kitchen still has a small list of adequates, but it is here where one can expect that any of the ten or so restaurants will be good examples of what the country can cook. Paet Rio is in its first year of business and is an easy inclusion on this list, the name a nickname for the chef's hometown of Chachoengsao, just east of Bangkok and probably one day swallowed up by its suburbs.

Unfortunately the dish called paet rio, (literally "eight slices," the method in which a fish is served in a local dish), is not on the menu. When I inquired about specials the place had, I was directed to all points out from center, somewhat disappointing when a place name shows up so significantly. Thankfully all the food was cooked terrifically, and the early disappointment quickly turned to smiling faces at our table.

On the menu, most of what seems interesting here shows up on the largest section, described simply as "House's Special." The chef directed us towards the dishes that seemed to be garnering the most attention in media, possibly a safe play in her mind for a table of non-Thais.



Before our entrees arrived, her first recommendation was one we took and really enjoyed, the miang kha-na ($10.98, above). Dried pork and peanuts make the bulk of the size here, but a healthy dose of chilis and lime wedge with rind on mix with shredded ginger and onion to create the multi-layered tastes you heap into a leaf of Chinese broccoli and place into your mouth.

After this gets your mouth watering, the sai krok isan ($7.98, below) seems very tame in comparison. This veteran dish of Isan and Lao cooking is always splendid, and the small wedges of sausage did not disappoint here, needing absolutely nothing for dipping or addition.


I was excited to cover the table with curries, and started with kaeng phet pet yang ($14.98, below), a red duck curry that usually features pineapple but here had lychee and grapes along with the basil and bamboo. This was definitely a first for lychee to appear in a curry I have eaten, and I would not hesitate to recommend this, as it seems like the perfect sweet fruit to hold in as much savory spicy curry as possible, giving a bite that literally bursts with all the dish has to offer.


Having recently been wowed by the dish at a new Brooklyn restaurant using it as a namesake, it seems khao soi ($10.98, below) is now making a surge in New York. Bowls I had here years ago always left me severely disappointed after enjoying the magnificent bowls you find in the north of the country. We were all very satisfied with our curry here though, finishing off the soft slippery noodles underneath, as well as the disappearing drumstick that no one claimed to have eaten.


If I had one dish I was not terribly fond of at the meal it was khua kling ($11.98, below), which did come heavily recommended. Typical of more southerly cooking, this is a dish of dried meat, here using pork belly which was far too soggy for my liking. I have had very good pork and beef renditions in southern Thailand and always found them to be a very sweaty and wonderful street eating experience, and while this did pack a nice punch, it just lacked the creativity of the other dishes on offer here.


From a second meal, the 

My only real regret this night though was only having two dinner companions with me, we needed a larger assortment. 8 Paet Rio is the type of place that is not afraid to serve non-Thais with memorable fiery meals, and that is just one more notch in the belt of the burgeoning, but still tiny, Thai scene here.

8 Paet Rio on Urbanspoon

22 January 2015

BG Café Creole

HAITI

According to the awning, this casual Haitian eatery is open 24 hours a day, but by the time the sun goes down it seems like they are past their prime. Walking in for a fairly early winter dinner, the selections were not exactly bountiful, and I hoped lunchtime saw greater options for patrons.

The wall behind the steam table lists all manner of choices written in nice handwriting, but it is best to simply check in with the person working and ask what is available. She will open compartments and show you dishes, maybe suggest a few here and there. We inquired about a few interesting things and were told they would have to be prepared, which seems like a normal scenario in a restaurant, but here seemed like the last thing they wanted to do. Our questions eventually become a hassle, but only because we were unfamiliar with the place I suppose.


The one main entree that was available up front was poule en sauce ($8, above and below), which goes by the name "stew chicken" in other Caribbean cuisines. We took it with rice and peas (beans), also available is white rice. She will ask if you want more sauce, and keep saying yes as this stuff is delicious and a lot is necessary to mix with the mountain of rice. All sorts of seasoning and peppers are in this sauce, a dark and delightful bite. Two fried plantains are also included.


When we seemed determined to have another dish, but none of our inquiries seemed desirable to cook, she went to the kitchen and asked us to wait. A minute later a small cup of legume ($8, below) arrived in our hand, which we immediately ordered. As you can see, I asked for more plantains instead of more rice, which we figured to have enough of. This is probably a mistake, as the thick vegetable stew needs rice. What might surprise a vegetarian is that legume, the french words for vegetable, actually contains chunks of meat and is completely unsuitable for them.


Thankfully for meat eaters, the stew is great and we polished it off. It is think and slimy and oily, but those are all used in positive ways here. Besides the rice, maybe a loaf of bread would suit it well.

This is an enjoyable place to hang out in, even if the jukebox does screech to a halt when you walk in. Haitian cab drivers and others fill the space with French language, and it all seems like a crowd in the know. I will try it again for lunch someday and report back the findings at midday.

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