Saturday, September 09, 2006

Two Hidden Gems Above the Diamonds

New York City's diamond district, centered on 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, is home to a number of semi-secret kosher eateries serving the largely orthodox merchant community. At the end of August I had back-to-back lunches at two of these places, Diamond Dairy and Taam Tov, both in upstairs spaces, above the diamond exchanges and jeweler's shops.

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Diamond Dairy, in the National Jeweler's Exchange, at 4 W. 47th St., has no signage on the street; you just have to know. As a matter of fact, my friend Howard, who was supposed to meet me downstairs, was convinced I had given him the wrong address when he arrived before me. Silly Howard. He should have known that I knew.

You walk into the jeweler's exchange, and at the back wall, above the merchants' stalls, you see a picture window on the mezzanine level. Behind the window is the Diamond Dairy, looking like a fish tank from the floor below. You ascend a flight of stairs at the side of the main floor and enter a narrow place with a long, snaking lunch counter and some tables. Once upon a time, when New York had dozens of bustling kosher dairy restaurants, the Diamond Dairy occupied the entire main floor of 4 W. 47th. It was relegated to the mezzanine in 1950.

The restaurant has a classic Jewish dairy menu, as well as kosher Chinese and Italian dishes (which I have no intention of sampling). Some of the items, such as blintzes, are offered in small and large sizes, small comprising two pieces, large three. Howard and I shared three items: small orders of cheese blintzes, potato pancakes and noodles and cabbage.

The blintzes were long and thin, with a fairly light wrapper, a bit crispy at the edges, somewhat different from the squat blintzes with thick, chewy wrappers I remember from my youth. They were excellent, as were the potato pancakes, which were relatively light as far as latkes go, very flavorful and much better than the greasy heavy artillery favored by my former boss, whom I now think of as the Latke Monster.

Having grown up in a totally assimilated Jewish household I was unfamiliar with noodles and cabbage. Howard, on the other hand, whose parents came from the old country, grew up with the stuff. At Diamond Dairy the dish is made with bowtie noodles cooked pleasantly (and somewhat surprisingly) al dente, topped with sautéed chopped cabbage and black pepper. Satisfyingly simple.

Our silver-haired waitress was a sweetheart. Attentive and chatty, she was like the "nice" Jewish mother I never had.

The place is a trip. The secret nature is part of the charm, but the food and the service are what ultimately count. This speakeasy of starch and milk fat goes straight to the top of my "places to take visitors" list.

* * *

Taam Tov, which means "Good Taste" in Hebrew, is a kosher Uzbek restaurant. Rego Park, in Queens, is now home to a large community of Bukharian Jews from Uzbekistan and surrounding former Soviet republics. I haven't been out to that neighborhood, but several diamond district restaurants serve Bukharian food, which has many intersections with other Silk Road cuisines. Between the two Diamond District Bukharian restaurants I've been to there is no contest. Aron's, on 48th St., is one of the worst restaurants I've tried in recent months. Taam Tov is excellent.

Taam Tov is in an upstairs space at 41 W. 47th. One enters the building at street level and ascends two flights of stairs to the third floor; there is no elevator. Taam Tov moved to this location, formerly home of the legendary Gotham Book Mart, fairly recently from a building across the street. The Gotham Book Mart's motto was "wise men fish here." If you want to fish at Taam Tov there's something on the menu called "sea boss kebab."

Four of us had a copious lunch feast, most of which I ordered for the table. We had a basket of lepeshka, the wonderful, hearty home-baked Bukharian bread, and ate it with the most unSilkRoadlike dish, an avocado salad that was basically a mild guacamole (this was the one item that somebody else requested). The samsa—baked, knish-like meat pies with chopped meat and onions, redolent of cumin and other spices, were fabulous, one of the highlights of the meal. We shared several kinds of kebabs, which are ordered a la carte. The lamb shish kebab was wonderfully tender and tasty, and the lula kebab, a cigar-shaped spiced chopped meat kebab (I believe with lamb and beef), was excellent too. Lula kebab is similar to a number of chopped meat kebabs from around the world: Indian seekh kebab, Turkish and Middle Eastern kofte/kefta, and Serbian cevapcici.

The plov, an Uzbek pilaf with stewed meat and carrots was pretty good—moderately greasy and a bit sweet from the carrots. The manty, steamed meat dumplings, had an interesting sweet onion presence and a nice, delicate skin. It cost us $50 with a tip for the four of us, and they had to roll us down the stairs.

I wonder if Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, knows about these places.

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Postscript: A Sue Story

One of my Taam Tov lunch companions asked if I was going to mention her in the blog. I told her I would only if I could tell this story. She said OK.

Sue was my manager at my first IT job, in the '80s. One of the programming languages we used was a simple utility called Quikjob. One day I was in Sue's cubicle going over a Quikjob program when she got a call from a non-techie colleague. "I can't really talk now," Sue said. "Pete's in my cubicle giving me a Quikjob." I don't know what the other party said, but I can guess. Sue turned beet red and started laughing. "It's a programming language!" she protested into the phone.

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