Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Winter's Meal

I would never try to tackle a Slovak meal on anything but a cold winter's day. No matter how thin you slice it, this is not warm-weather food. Surely there are warm, even hot summer days in Bratislava, but the cuisine doesn't have an adequate backup plan for those times.

I'd been curious about Milan's, a Slovak restaurant in south Park Slope, for some time, having passed it numerous times on my walks to Sunset Park. I gathered a group for dinner there on a February Thursday. Happily, it was a cold, windy night.

Except for a young woman and her toddler, we had the restaurant to ourselves. We perused the menu and proceeded to stock up on those needed (yeah, right) winter calories.

We started with an order of pirogies, a mix of mushroom-sauerkraut and potato-cheese. The choices of preparation were boiled and baked, but I'll be a monkey's uncle if the baked ones, which we ordered, weren't fried. They were excellent.

Halušky is a kind of Slovak pasta, gnocchi-like, and the bryndzové halušky is served with an artery-clogging sheep cheese sauce that has the consistency of sour cream. A further nail in the coffin is the lardy bacon garnish. Five of us couldn't make it through more than half of the enormous serving. I wonder if anybody eats an entire plate of this stuff. Unless you have a death wish, it's best sampled in small doses.

I liked the stuffed cabbage very much. It had a flavorful, dense meat filling and a not-too-sweet sauce. The roast pork loin was rather dry and unremarkable. We ordered a whole dish of this, and a small piece also came with the meat combination (domáca zabijačka) that included two kinds of sausage. The blood sausage was dry and overcooked, but the garlicy fresh sausage (kolbasa in Slovak, described as kielbasy on the menu, though it isn't cured like the Polish version) was one of the highlights of the meal.

Most of the main courses were served with potatoes or sauerkraut or both. That's about it for vegetables. Take it or leave it.

Blogger Dave Cook, who has Slovak blood (I don't know his cholesterol count, however), had urged me to leave room for the plum dumpling dessert. But his recommendation came with a caveat that I misheard at first. "Be forewarned that it's a Gotbaum dessert," I thought he said. What's he talking about? I wondered. Is this a favorite dessert of Betsy Gotbaum, and if so, why does it require a warning? Then my brain caught up with my ears and I realized that he had called it a "gut-bomb dessert."

My dining companions and I were unaware of how many bombs there would be, and how many megatons they each were, so we ordered two other desserts, the nut roll (a small piece of cream cake) and the raspberry palacinky (crepes). The palacinky, which in other Slavic restaurants are usually dusted with powdered sugar, were smothered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Was Milan trying to kill us?

The plum dumplings were good despite their leaden nature, but the favorite part of this dessert for most at the table was the brown sugar and butter topping.

Milan's is a little over a mile from my apartment, and I walked home as my friends headed back to Manhattan by train. I wasn't convinced that the walk was sufficiently therapeutic, and I seriously considered dropping in at Methodist Hospital for an impromptu carotid endarterectomy.

Milan's is at 710 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, near 22nd Street. Take the R train to 25th St.

Milan Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another Score for Ghana

Some of you may remember my paean to Florence's, a Ghanaian restaurant in Harlem. Well, Florence now has a rival for my West African culinary affections, Mercy, the woman who runs Meytex Cafe in Brooklyn. And Meytex has the advantage of being within walking distance of my apartment.

There's a printed menu, but on the night I ate at Meytex Mercy's verbal description of what was actually available superseded it. One of the items, not on the menu, was a whole tilapia. It had a spicy rub and was garnished with peppers and onions. It was served with a side of boiled white yam.

A spinach and egushi (pumpkin seed) stew was delicious, with a smoky taste I couldn't identify.

The spicy fried plantains were not as addictive as the crunchy version with ginger (kelewele) at Florence's, but the rice and beans were wonderful. Mercy explained that the dark color of the rice comes from a leaf they cook it with, but when we asked the name she couldn't think of the English word. She consulted with several men at the bar and told us, "bay leaf." She showed us a bag of a ground herb which didn't illuminate much. I don't know if it's the bay leaf we're most familiar with.

The rich peanut soup with goat meat rivaled the one at Florence's. Fellow diner Dave Cook of Eating in Translation is a serious photographer with a serious camera, and his shot of this dish puts mine to shame.

There are some major differences in atmosphere between Meytex and Florence's. While Florence's is a bright BYO place with kids running around, Meytex has a bar, which I suspect accounts for much of their business. I tried a Ghanaian beer, the eminently drinkable Stone Strong Lager. I understand they also serve palm wine. The night we went Mecry and several African men were watching primary results on CNN on the large-screen TV by the bar. The Meytex menu says it's the "1st Food/Chop Bar in NYC." "Chop bar" is a common term in Ghana for simple eating establishments. If you're sharing dishes at Meytex, Mercy will give you plastic dishes and forks.

According to the blog Across the Park, Meytex has killer fried chicken. Unfortunately, it wasn't available when I visited. Maybe next time, which will be fairly soon, I'm sure.

Meytex Cafe is located at 545 Flatbush Avenue, close to the Prospect Park stop on the B & Q trains.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Dream Featuring Roberto Benigni

In my dream I was watching an opera on television. Already this was strange, as in waking life I'm utterly uninterested in opera. It appeared to be a nineteenth-century Italian opera. A pair of twins—short, fat, bald, dark Sicilian-looking men in Renaissance costume—were singing an aria in unison. I knew that they were singing about guilt, but I don't know whether this was because I understood the words or was familiar with the libretto. Then I realized that one of the twins had just realized that the other twin was not his brother at all, but rather a manifestation of his own guilty conscience.

At this point, Roberto Benigni, the Italian comic actor, appeared on stage singing the same aria. He seemed startled and upset by the presence of the bald twins. He made exaggerated comic gestures that signaled his fear, as if in a silent film comedy. He ran to the back of the set and hid behind a curtain, then peeked out at the twins with an ambiguous smile on his face. At this point I could tell that Benigni had realized that the twins were not real people, but rather representations of his own guilt. This liberated him to leap out from behind the curtain and continue singing his aria. The twins had disappeared.

The perspective in the dream then shifted from the stage set on TV to the room in which I was watching the program. There was another man in the room, sitting in a chair with his back to me. He was a large, bald man. I had no idea who he was.

"What am I feeling guilty about?" I said to the back of the man's head.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Kueh Dadar at Overseas Asian Restaurant

I first had this sweet treat in Penang, Malaysia about fifteen years ago. I had bought it from an Indian who was hawking various sweets and cakes from a street cart. At the time I didn't know what it was called, but I fell head over heels in love with it. I learned later that it's called kueh dadar in the Malaysian language, kueh referring to various cakes and dadar being the specific type. Kueh dadar is a fluffy pancake rolled around shredded coconut and palm sugar. They're delicious and addictive. The bright green coloring is natural, coming from pandan leaves, which also add a subtle aromatic flavor. Although my first kueh dadar was purchased from an Indian, I believe it's a Peranakan, or Straits Chinese, specialty.

I was thrilled when I discovered these again a few years after my Malaysia trip in New York's Chinatown, at an Indonesian-Chinese restaurant on Doyers Street. They were fifty cents a piece, and I bought them regularly for a year or two. Then they stopped making them. When I inquired why they weren't available I was told that they're too labor intensive to make it worth their while, and the local clientele wouldn't be willing to pay more than fifty cents each. Consequently, I went ten years without a kueh dadar.

I had a pleasant surprise this afternoon. I was lunching at Overseas Asian Restaurant, a Malaysian place on Canal Street, and noticed a tray of kueh dadar among the sweets on display by the cash register. I asked the waitress for a couple of kueh dadar to go, but she didn't know what I was talking about, so I pointed. I then asked her what she called them, and she gave me a Chinese-sounding name. Perhaps she wasn't from Malaysia. I don't know if they have them all the time, but if you find yourself on the east end of Canal Street (between Orchard and Ludlow) it would be worth your while to stop in and see if they have some by the cashier. They go for eighty cents a piece.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What a Dish!

Itzocan Cafe, in the East Village (438 E. 9th), is currently one of my favorite New York restaurants. The cozy (yes, tiny) space, with seating for about 14 and an open kitchen, reminds me of a Lyonnais bouchon. The cuisine is a blend of Mexican and French that works beautifully. It's not the plaything of some young chef who wants to make his mark with a novel combination, but rather the brainchild of two brothers from Puebla who learned French cooking techniques while working in the kitchens of French restaurants in New York City. Itzocan Cafe's menu items, in general, marry French technique to Mexican ingredients. My favorite dish at Itzocan, one that would surely make my top ten New York restaurant dishes list if I ever compiled one, is the sweet corn and huitlacoche souffle cake, one of their appetizers. Back in July of '06 I waxed elegiac about this dish:

The most rewarding item we tried was the sweet corn and huitlacoche souffle cake with truffle oil. This dish was incredibly sensual (bordering on erotic) in both taste and texture. A forkful, or a spoonful, of this light, custardy, but lighter than custard, moist, foamy concoction caresses the entirety of the mouth and gullet as it makes its inevitable way to the digestive tract. Its bouquet is at once complex and subtle, its mix of flavors a stroke of culinary genius, the sweet corn base providing a cozy bed upon which the aromatic huitlacoche and truffle flavors are allowed to have their way with each other. Huitlacoche, by the way, is a kind of fungus that grows on corn, and is a Mexican delicacy. So the dish is even a marriage of new and old world fungi.

I didn't have a camera with me that time, but I brought one on a recent return visit and shot the souffle cake.

I hadn't been to Itzocan for a while, but I seem to remember that the dish was previously made with yellow corn rather than blue. When I first ate at Itzocan, a year and a half ago, the dish was a steal at $6. Alas, prices have gone up somewhat since then and it's now going for a more realistic $9.

Itzocan Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 10, 2008

How Was Everything?

The other day I went to lunch at Taksim, a Turkish place around the corner from the office I've been working at lately, and ordered an Adana kebab sandwich. It was my first time at Taksim. I was looking forward to the bread, as Turkish restaurants often have excellent bread. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I was presented with a wrap. A fucking wrap! My kebab was bound in a shitty, gummy flour tortilla. Surely the wrap phenomenon is the most egregious culinary mass delusion of the last twenty years. To add insult to injury, my wrap was puny. A puny $9 wrap.

When I was done the waitress came by and asked, "How was everything?"

"It was OK," I said, "but it was rather small and overpriced for what I got." I decided to forgo the wrap tirade.

The waitress's response? "Perfect! Can I get you some dessert?"

"How was everything?" is a rhetorical question, like "How are you doing?" Nobody listens to the answer. Nobody wants to hear, "The food sucked," or "My life sucks," or "The world sucks." Well, if the food sucks I'm gonna tell it like it is.

Some years ago I ate at a now-defunct West Village restaurant called The New Haven Pizza Company. They had an item on the menu that was highlighted as a special: fried kale. We ordered it. I think the premise of the dish was that the deep-frying process turns the fibrous leaves into a crispy treat. Well, the result was one of the greasiest, heaviest things I've ever tasted.

"How was everything?" the waitress asked when she presented us with the check.

"Well," I said, "the fried kale was one of the greasiest, heaviest things I've ever tasted."

The waitress got indignant. "Well! Most of our customers LOVE it." Good for them, I thought.

In the mid-eighties I went to Cincinnati to visit the Ty-D-Bowl man. A friend of mine who had recently graduated from business school had gotten a job as an assistant product manager for Ty-D-Bowl Toilet Bowl Drop-Ins. I'm always game for a visit to a new city, though Cincinnati was certainly a culinary wasteland. What can you say for a city whose greatest contribution to American cuisine is Skyline Chili? Greek-spiced chili over spaghetti! It wasn't bad, but once in a lifetime is sufficient for me. Anyway, while I was in Cincinnati I went out with my friend and his wife to an Italian restaurant that turned out to be abominable. In fact, I specifically remember the Ty-D-Bowl man saying, "This sausage is foul."

Our waitress, a perky, hyper-Caucasian, strawberry-blond Middle-American teen asked us, "How was everything?"

In a non-inflected monotone (is there any other kind?) I replied, "No good."

"Oh, thank you!" she said enthusiastically.

Sometimes the staff knows better than to ask "How was everything?" I remember a place near Madison Square Garden that served Portuguese and Italian food. We all ordered from the Portuguese menu, as it was clear that this was a Portuguese place that served Italian food to hedge their bets. The food was lousy. I'm sure you'd do much better in a Lisbon hospital. The waiters were all ancient, dour, unsmiling Portuguese men in black suits and bow ties. I was waiting for our waiter to ask, "How was everything?" I was going to tell him how everything was. But he never asked. I think he knew.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

New Daddy with a Mustache

My father died when I was two years old, and my mother remarried four years later. In the interim, while I was fatherless, I hoped my mother would marry a man with a mustache. I'm pretty sure this interest in mustaches had to do with Herbie. Herbie was a sort of father surrogate, but unattainable, I knew, as a real father. He was a friend of the family and the husband of my mother's friend Penny, who owned a women's clothing store, Penny's Little Shop. Dark and mustachioed, Herbie had a kind of Latin lover look about him, though he was Jewish. Herbie spent a lot of time at our house because he drove for a limousine service and often had time off during the day while his wife was at the store. Herbie used to come over to dance the cha cha cha with my mother. There is an 8-millimeter home movie of me and my mother and Herbie doing a cha cha cha a trois. I even remember one of the records, "Tea for Two" with a Latin beat. I liked Herbie a lot, but since he was unavailable I went looking for mustachioed fathers elsewhere.

Whenever I was out with my mother and saw a man with a mustache, any man with a mustache, I would go up to him and ask, "Will you be my new daddy with a mustache?"

My mother found this very embarrassing. "You'd ask anyone with a mustache," she told me years later, "young men, old men, store owners, construction workers. I remember, we were once in a cab and you asked the driver if he'd be your new daddy with a mustache. A colored fella!"

My mother remarried in 1962, when I was six years old, thereby sparing herself further embarrassment. My stepfather didn't have a mustache, but he had a big nose.

I visited my mother, a widow again, in Florida a couple of weeks ago. I decided to ask her about a suspicion I've always had.

"Were you having an affair with Herbie?" I asked her.

"No," she replied. "He was a good-looking guy, but he wasn't my type." Then she added, "I think he drove for the mob."