23 November 2014

Toné Café


For about a year now, Toné has opened up literally on top of a small bakery that used to be named simply as "Georgian Bread." The only thing that remains of that tiny, sweaty place is the round stone oven used to cook all of the bread, which is the focus of the operation. The bakery still stands as a point of sale for take out customers who come here from surrounding areas to pick up shotis puri (below), the typical Georgian bread used at any meal.

For table service, the bread comes directly from the oven.

The restaurant does not have a ton of seating, and this can lead to a shortage at peak times since the place seems to already be popular with large Russian groups. They now serve well-priced bottled beer, as well as a very sweet Georgian lemonade ($2.50, below), which comes in a variety of flavors. If you want to have wine or liquor, you are allowed to bring that yourself as of writing.

It would be a shame to come all this way, to be in such close proximity to such a beautiful oven, and skip the delights that it can offer. They offer five types of khachapuri, of which I tried two on separate visits. There are many different ways to enjoy cheesy bread, the first of which is adjaruli ($13, below), which is also the most expensive. This is probably my favorite way to enjoy the bread, as an egg is opened right on top of the farmers cheese and butter that is laid within a boat-like form. As I lined up the bread for a photo, the server seemed concerned I was taking too much time and told me it had to be mixed while hot. As the thing was steaming the lens of my camera, I did not find this cause for concern.

Once mixed, the fun starts with breaking pieces of the bread off and dipping them into the concoction you have created in the center. Fingers start to get a bit gooey as you make your way inwards, but it hardly detracts from the deliciousness.

Served in a pizza-like presentation, imeruli khachapuri ($9, below) uses the same farmers cheese but also adds mozzarella. The cheeses are so rich and the bread so crisp, no dip or topping is necessary for complete enjoyment.

In addition to some type of khachapuri, it is very difficult to eat Georgian without ordering hinkali ($10, below), six steaming dumplings in thick skins. Pick up the piping hot pieces by the top and be careful as the ground beef, Georgian spices, and burning liquid inside comes rushing into your mouth.

For two dollars more you can have cheese or mushroom versions, but I have never tried these yet. The traditional versions just seem so perfect already. This might be my vote for the best hinkali (khinkali) in New York City.

A stand out of the appetizer list is the lobio nigvzit ($10, below), which can be served hot or cold. We tried the cold version, which probably allows the eater to discern individual ingredients better in each bite. Served in what appears to be a dugout canoe for Lego men, the red beans are coated in a walnut paste and a variety of Georgian herbs and spices, the effect being a powerful flavor punch.

The winner of the night was also on the appetizer list but seems more of an entree. The satsivi ($13, below) is chicken in a wonderful walnut-based sauce infused with garlic and spices. Even after the chunks of bird were gone, all four of us were dipping pieces of bread into this little bowl until every drop was savored.

The chanahi ($12, below), despite being tasty, was probably our least favorite main course. This is lamb cooked with eggplant, potato, and tomato, but compared to the rest of the dishes was much less flavorful. It is another good way to get your bread working for you though.

Lastly we enjoyed the ostri ($12, below), a type of beef stew that is tomato-based but has a wonderful tart pickled taste. The menu and servers only allude to tomatoes, onions and herbs in the mix, but there is more to this than that. Recommended.

It is nice to see this successful transition from bakery to restaurant for this place. It could have been easy for them to expand from their specialty and loose focus on what they did right, but they obviously brought in the right people for the job as the chefs are extremely talented. They are set to give Mtskheta Cafe a run for its money!

Toné Café - Georgian Bread on Urbanspoon

21 November 2014

Panamanian Independence Festival


Officially, Panama's separation from Colombia back in 1903 happened in early November, but I guess this Brooklyn parade and festival takes place in October if only to avoid certain cold weather, and perhaps the New York City Marathon. It runs up Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, past the one and only Panamanian restaurant in the city, and over Eastern Parkway to the festival grounds on Classon Avenue just east of Dr. Ronald McNair Park. In addition to the bands playing the parade, there is a DJ here and a line of vendors selling food and trinkets, amongst other things.

It is hard to move from stall to stall without noticing big steaming pots of bofe, a stew of beef lung, onion, and an assortment of pepper and spices. Flopped on a doughy piece of rich and amazing hojaldre, the stew soaks in and begs you to get your hands dirty. Those adverse to the iron tastes of innards may be put off, but this is still entry level offal, strictly because the dough and spicing is so intense.

Pots of another Caribbean specialty, caldo de pata de res, or cow foot soup, are also ubiquitous and tempting. The stew is full of content, at least part of a foot which you do not eat, as well as dumplings, corn, and a rich starchy broth.

Panamanian tamales should never be confused with their more famous brethren from up north. The photo may not show the large size of this item, but opening it up reveals an entire chicken leg still on the bone. The spices that this has been cooking in also make their way inside the casing, and so much taste is awaiting each bite. I literally sat with my mouth wide open in reaction to how delicious this was.

The 2014 parade took place on Saturday, October 11th.

10 November 2014

The Original Coconut Man


When you walk down a new street in New York City, especially in the boroughs that do not begin with an 'M' it is very likely that you will happen upon new and interesting things. On my way to the annual St. Lucian Jounen Kwéyòl celebration in East Flatbush, this exact thing happened on Church Avenue. With the sounds of reggae pumping onto the street, three men dressed more appropriately for winter were dancing and spinning in front of a little shack set up in front of an NSA Supermarket. We knew we would stop by on the way back.


90 minutes later, the music was still blasting, dancing was still in progress, and this Sunday party was still a three man shindig. We stopped and ordered a cup of sugar cane juice ($4), which came in a container that would put a Big Gulp to shame. The healthy stack of sugar cane made the choice seem appropriate, and we needed dessert after so much food.

Not wanting to leave the scene, we stayed and enjoyed our beverage, which was large enough for three. When we were almost done, the main proprietor (Coconut Man?) pulled us over to some BBQ grills that we had not even noticed being as full as we were from the festival. One was full of pork, the other chicken, both well marinated and crispy slow-cooked jerk style.

Before we could put into words how full our stomachs were, we were handed a mixed container of pork and chicken which had a splash of peppers, sauce, and onions on top to add quite a kick. This spicy mixture is sitting in a large jar on the prep table, and quite beautiful. The meat itself needed nothing though, especially the fatty pork which basically melted in your mouth and was delectable.

"If you don't like it, you don't pay."

We obviously knew this was not going to be a problem, but even in the end I did not get a real price. He tried not to take our money, then settled on $4 only, which seemed under the going rate but who knows.

A short chat with this Coconut Man and I learned that the stand had been open for 16 years. This information might be taken with a grain of salt, perhaps because he told me it was open Thursday through Saturday each week, even though this all took place on a Sunday. Who knows, who cares. The stand was in existence in 2011, confirmed from a look at Google Street View.

I would be really happy to return here in warmer weather, grab a fresh coconut and possibly a sour sop juice (more commonly found in Latin American restaurants as guanabana). This is real fun stuff.

09 November 2014

Xi'an Famous Foods


Instead of updating my review from 2010 with new information, I have decided to throw it out and start fresh with Xi'an, which now is an empire of six locations. As far as I know, the quality at each place has remained surprisingly consistent to the original, which you see below.

My go to dish is sort of their signature, the spicy cumin lamb noodles ($7.25, below). You are pretty much guaranteed happiness with any order containing their wonderful cumin lamb. After a few bites, lips start tingling and smiles start broadening, the flavors within are so deep. The thick heavy homemade noodles are all entangled and make for a challenge with the cheap wooden chopsticks on offer, as it all is ready to splash down in a puddle of spicy oily goodness.

Compared to the cumin lamb, the lamb meat soup ($4.75, below) is for me not as exciting, but I wanted to try something deviating from my normal orders. The glass noodles are not as pleasing to the teeth and tongue either, but a general rule may be to never mix cumin and non-cumin dishes, as the overwhelming tastes of the former will always make the latter less flavorful.

Well-known now by students in the genre of cheap eats is the spicy cumin lamb burger ($3.25, below), which sits besides $1 pizza and Mamoun's Falafel as some of the cheapest way to get your stomach full on a budget. This would certainly be my pick of the three though, blowing both of the others out of the water.

The noodles are all of course made in house, and you can enjoy the spectacle of this at some of their locations (Chinatown below). The thick noodles are always so fresh in anything you order.

For experience alone, the original underground location in Flushing's Golden Shopping Mall food court is still the best, to sit amongst stalls from other delicious food vendors as well. Extra stomachs will become necessary. The three locations I have visited are listed below:

Golden Shopping Mall Food Court
41-28 Main Street
Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

67 Bayard Street
Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

81 St. Marks Place
Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

07 November 2014

Kao Soy


On a Wednesday about two months after opening, I walked by Kao Soy as I waited for friends to arrive at 19:30 and the place was completely empty. The owner/chef Kanlaya Supachana rose from her chair to tell me that alcohol was not being served yet unfortunately, while they waited on a liquor license. I retreated to a bar across the street and returned as a group of three an hour later to find the place full, every table occupied. Since I had heard good things, I was terribly disappointed with the lack of business before and very happy to find things going well later. We grabbed the only available spots, at the no legroom bar, and settled in for our meal, with the aromas of good Thai food surrounding us.

Our first appetizer of the evening was the sweet and spicy yum pla ka tuk ($10, below), an anchovy salad made with crispy fried fish and thin cuts of fresh mango. The small peppers and thin sauce really set our mouths on fire and we all looked at each other in recognition of real Thai food in Brooklyn. The tiny fish may or may not remind you of anchovies, but no matter.

Rare cuts of marinated beef, slightly on the chewy side make up the focal point of yum nuer ($9, below). The cuts of sirloin are laid over a bed of lettuce and covered with shallot, tomato, watercress, and scallion. The chili paste and squeeze of lime really stand out after a few chews.

Our eyes all got bigger when presented with the yum som-o ($10, below), a knock-your-socks-off salad of pomelo that packs an explosion of spice in each wet bite. Packed into this array of textures and tastes is peanut, crispy shallot, baked coconut and watercress, while two healthy fresh shrimp adorn the top like the star on a Christmas tree.

The namesake dish of kao soy ($12, below) had to be ordered out of deference to the restaurant, and despite not being universally praised in our group, was my favorite entree of the evening. Soft egg noodles hide below in a sweet Chiang Mai curry that is thick with coconut milk. Fried egg noodles and papaya fritters top this and the two succulent drumsticks below to make a virtual bird's nest and a beautiful dish.

In northern and northeast Thailand it is hard to avoid eating a lot of sausage, and we succumbed to the lure of sai-oua ($14, below), a very herbal pork sausage that also comes with fried marinated pork jerky. The green chili sauce is great for dipping, and does enough to counterbalance the dryness of the sausage itself. This comes with a side of sticky rice and mustard greens.

Our final dish was the kang hung le ($14, below), another northern specialty, a stew of pork belly and top round. The dish itself is full of flavor and maybe a tad on the salty side, but more sticky rice is able to balance this. A drumstick is also on the plate on its own, but this is fried as compared to those in the kao soy, and made me want to have about five more it is so delicious. Three meats on one plate might normally have a hard time getting along, but that is no problem here.

So now the borough of Queens, until now the only real bastion of quality food from Thailand, has got a run for its money on its hands. It will take repeat visits to make sure everything here stays at the top of its game, but please go and see for yourself. Something special is cooking and is worth the effort that getting to Red Hook takes.

Kao Soy on Urbanspoon

04 November 2014

Taverna Kyclades


Even though it plays a prominent part of the exterior logo, do not expect dolphin to be on the menu here. Thankfully it is omitted from the wide range of seafood on offer. Since everything is so fresh, there are limited portions of each, and do not be surprised if your first choice has sold out by 20:30 or 21:00 on a Tuesday.

On any night of the week, there will be a wait, but the place has such an efficiency that they know their wait times and won't give you phony numbers. Leave your number on the list and have a drink nearby.

It may seem boring, but the cold antipasto plate ($9.95, below) is an absolute must. The tzatziki (far left) and taramosalata (middle) are absolutely excellent with the skordalia (right) coming in a distant third. The breads that are served with dinner are very good, and you can order pitas if you prefer.

Also essential is a large Greek salad ($10.95, below). Large is no joke either, as the bowl below is bigger than your head and very good. They are not stingy with the delicious feta, and all of the vegetables are so crisp and fresh.

After the appetizers, it is good to remember that you come here for seafood, not land food. If you have a group of four or less and cannot order so many dishes, why not start with the Kyclades special ($33.95, below). On the large plate, you get to try stuffed clams, stuffed shrimp, lobster tail, scallops, and a fillet of sole. The stand outs in our group were the stuffed shrimp, clams, and scallops, but lobster can never really be bad and was also scarfed down.

With most entrees, you are to choose an accompanying side dish, and one recommendation for that is the roasted lemon potatoes (below), which have an excellent texture and are surprisingly (or unsurprisingly?) full of intense lemon flavor.

When the sardines ran out, we turned instead to the Greek style shrimp ($21.95, below), which cook the shellfish in a tomato and pepper sauce. The whole dish has ample feta drizzled over it, and the tastes are very complimentary. This dish was completely clean when it was removed from the table.

Our last side was the horta (below), steamed greens supposedly with olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Besides the slice of lemon on the plate, there really was nothing besides the limp, tasteless greens. No matter, we were focused on the rest of the meal anyways.

The service does have a rushed quality to it, but these guys are running here and there and a bit understaffed for the amount of customers they have, especially when the restaurant is serving outside. It still feels welcoming, and the meals are enough to speak completely for themselves. Bring a date, some friends, and your whole family to enjoy as much as you can.

Taverna Kyclades on Urbanspoon