A Mess Aspiring to Be a Lump
There's a story behind that last phrase, and it has nothing to do with the restaurant I'll eventually get to, which is neither a mess nor a lump.
As an undergraduate, at Brooklyn College, I was studying playwriting with Jack Gelber, best known for his play "The Connection." Indeed, before I turned to fiction it was my aspiration to be a playwright. Partly through Jack's influence, as well as through my reading of Pirandello and Genet and my awareness of trends in New York experimental theater, I was particularly interested in self-referential "metatheater." I was working on a play called "Audiences." It dealt with the witnessing of crime and atrocity as theater, and incorporated the Kitty Genovese murder, a notorious 1960s incident where a woman in Queens was murdered as neighbors looked on through their windows and nobody called the cops. It also incorporated the Lincoln assassination, including a performance of a section of the play he was watching, "Our American Cousin." Lincoln was to be seated in the audience, and shot by Booth when an actor said the fateful line, "You sockdologizing old mantrap!" In addition, for some reason known only to my long-bygone student self, one of the other characters was an anthropomorphized Tomato Herring. It was the kind of play that an ambitious nineteen-year-old could conceive, but not pull together, and I never finished it. But that's not the point of the story.
In one of my classes with Jack there was a guy, a middle-aged guy, named Arthur who was writing one-act plays adapted from Stephen Crane stories. The plays were flat and leaden, and we all wondered why anybody would devote his writing life to adapting Stephen Crane stories for the stage. On top of everything else, he was a pompous blowhard who liked to tout the fact that these plays were being produced by an off-off-Broadway theater. Nobody in the class liked him. I got a devilish pleasure when I read a review in the Village Voice of his adaptation of "The Open Boat" (or was it "The Blue Hotel"?). The reviewer referred to the play as "a lump aspiring to be a mess." We felt the same way about Arthur himself.
All of this, of course, has nothing to do with a Turkish buffet. But what, after all, can you really say about a buffet besides listing the items, commenting a bit on the quality, and noting the price? A favorite lunch spot near my new midtown-east office, the place I'm most likely to take friends, is Kanaat, a Turkish restaurant on East 55th that features a copious $10.95 lunch buffet. Formerly called Al Baraka, I believe the buffet format has remained unchanged. There's always a soup (the couple I've tried have been disappointing), a few salads (and the hummus is really outstanding), an array of hot dishes, and two desserts. The waiters bring some excellent hot clay-oven bread to the table that is identical to Indian naan. The hot dishes are a mixed bag. I've been there three times, and based on that I'm guessing that the four meat courses never change. The two I'm fond of are the lamb shank and the baked bone-in chicken. I've learned to avoid the bland stewed chicken and beef offerings. There are two or three vegetarian items, which do vary, and the mushroom and okra stews have been among the best. There are also two kinds of rice pilaf and two desserts, usually rice pudding and kazandibi (burnt-top pudding). It's not the greatest Turkish food in New York, and you won't find an array of grilled kebabs or pides, but at $10.95 it's one of the best lunch deals in midtown. And in case you're wondering, I don't take usually photos at buffets.
The last time I went to Kanaat I was joined by Holly Anderson, whose writing I would kvell about even if she weren't a friend. Holly has a habit of surprising people with food gifts. It was her birthday gift of wild rice from her native Minnesota that inspired my wild rice and chile challenge. Well, this time she handed me a jar of Swad Indian coriander chutney. I've always enjoyed coriander chutney as a condiment at Indian restaurants, but I never thought of buying any for my home. Holly has fallen in love with the stuff and gives jars out like calling cards. "It's great on so many things," she said. When I mentioned that I'd eaten a Cuban sandwich from El Gran Castillo de Jagua the night before, Holly said, "It would be great on a Cuban sandwich." I bet it would. I haven't tried any on a Cuban sandwich yet, but I did try some on a couple of Chinese tortillas, and it gave them a nice Indian twist. I like the surprise condiment gift concept. I might just do it with St. Dalfour kumquat preserves, a product I want to evangelize about.
One more thing. I was recently looking over some notes I made on dreams back in 2003, and I came across this food-related fragment. All I could remember about this dream was that I was on a plane, and it was mealtime. The flight attendant came by my seat with the food cart and asked, "Gnocchi or haggis?"
154 E. 55th Street (between 3rd & Lexington)