Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Walk to Sunset Park

I often walk south from Park Slope to Sunset Park, the neighborhood named for the park that is on Brooklyn's highest point. I generally go for lunch at one of the Asian restaurants on 8th Avenue, though I occasionally stop in at one of the Latin American (Mexican or Ecuadorian) places on 5th Avenue. It's about a three-mile walk each way, and I convince myself that I'm at least burning off some of the calories I'm consuming. Solitary walking is also my favorite form of relaxation.

I was recently joined for the walk by an old Manhattanite friend, and I decided to bring my camera to document some of the highlights.

Before we were out of Park Slope, we stopped off at the Bagel Hole and shared one of the best bagels in the city to fortify ourselves for the walk.

Then we went west from 7th to 5th Avenue, in South Slope. Further north 5th Avenue has become quite trendy, but below 9th Street it's dominated by downscale stores (much like those of Manhattan's 14th Street of yore). And then there are the historic spots.

The Grand Prospect Hall is a lavish 19th-century reception hall on Prospect Avenue between 5th and 6th Avenues. I've never been inside, but the website has lots of photos and videos.

Eagle Provisions, at 5th Avenue & 18th Street, is a big Polish food market that has been around since the 1930s. I don't shop there often, but I love their smoked loin of pork at the deli counter.

The Green-Wood Cemetery is Brooklyn's Elysian Fields. It was established in 1838 and is the final resting place of numerous famous and infamous individuals, including Horace Greeley, Boss Tweed, Henry Ward Beecher, Joey Gallo and Leonard Bernstein. Before the development of Prospect Park it was a favorite picnic spot for Brooklynites.

McGovern Florists, across from the main entrance to the cemetery, occupies a greenhouse that dates back to the 1870s.

There may be a Ralph Kramden statue in front of the Port Authority bus terminal, but Brooklyn has the MTA's Jackie Gleason depot. It's on 5th Avenue just south of the cemetery.

I love the signs at the Rainbow Cafe, on 5th Avenue and 39th Street. It's a legacy establishment in what is mainly a new-immigrant Latino neighborhood.

Right next door is the Puebla Mini-Market. They make wonderful, humongous grilled and pressed tortas (Mexican sandwiches). The west side of Sunset Park is predominantly Mexican, almost exclusively from the state of Puebla. Unfortunately, I haven't found any restaurants or taquerias I can rave about.

The park, which runs from 41st to 44th Streets and 5th to 7th Avenues, has fantastic views across the Hudson, but since it was a cloudy, foggy day I couldn't get any decent shots.

On the east side of the park is the beginning of Brooklyn's largest Chinese neighborhood. The main commercial drag runs down 8th Avenue in the 40s and 50s.

Yun Nan Flavour Snack, a fairly new place on 49th Street, is the only place I know of in the city that serves food from China's southwestern Yunnan province.

We ended up at Nyonya, my favorite Sunset Park Asian restaurant. It's a Malaysian place that also has a branch on Grand Street in Manhattan. Pictured is a roti canai (pronounced chanai), the flaky, multilayered pancake that was introduced to Malaysia by North Indians. It's served with a little bowl of chicken curry for dipping.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Dévi is History

Dévi, perhaps the best upscale Indian restaurant in New York City of recent years, has closed. According to an announcement on the restaurant's website:

Dévi has closed.

As the executive chefs of Dévi, both Suvir Saran and Hemant Mathur are extremely disappointed to learn that operational differences between the restaurant’s owner and the staff have led to the closing of Dévi. Having devoted themselves to creating the unique brand of Indian home cooking that has become their signature, both Suvir and Hemant regret that the culinary journeys that they enjoyed together in fulfilling their responsibilities for food preparation in the kitchen of Dévi have come to an end.

I don't know what the operational differences might have been, but Dévi's owner is also owner of the bafflingly successful Baluchi's chain, mediocre, downscale, cookie-cutter Indian restaurants around the city. When he staked chefs Suvir Saran & Hemant Mathur, formerly of Amma, in this restaurant it was intended as the classy jewel in the restaurateur's crown. Perhaps he couldn't handle the class.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Is Bianca New York's Best-Value Italian Restaurant?

If anybody knows an Italian restaurant in New York that is both better and cheaper than Bianca, please let me know. For now, based on a single dinner, I'm declaring Bianca New York's best-value Italian restaurant.

The restaurant, at 5 Bleecker Street, is a casual trattoria specializing in the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna, in Northern Italy. Bianca serves excellent versions of the hearty staples of the region around Bologna. It's not haute cuisine; it's solid, damn good cooking, executed with honesty and panache, at amazingly low prices. Pastas are $9-11.50, and meat and seafood courses are $14-15. It's cash only and they don't take reservations.

I've previously written about Via Emilia, another restaurant serving the food of Emilia-Romagna. Via Emilia is reasonably priced, but Bianca is cheaper, and I think as good. Though Bianca serves gnocco fritto, the wonderful fried dough with salumi that I enjoyed at Via Emilia, I haven't tried their version.

We didn't order from the appetizers section of the menu, but rather shared an order of the fritto misto, which is listed as a main course. This has been a favorite of prior reviewers. Bianca's version includes calamari, shrimp, fish filet and eggplant strips. Actually, I was disappointed by this dish. It was a bit too salty, and calamari dominated too much, with only a couple of small shrimps and a few tiny pieces of fish to be found in the large heap of fried seafood.

Bianca turns an excellent northern-style lasagna (with bechamel), and I found it superior to Via Emilia's version. The salsicce e fagioli featured three large, delightfully spiced sausages with white beans. The tagliatelle alla Bolognese was a thoroughly delicious, authentic rendition of the dish, the pasta perfectly al dente, the meat sauce bold and robust. All servings were extremely generous.

I only sampled one dessert, but it was a winner: an apple tort that had the consistency of a bread pudding.

If the large servings of excellent, dirt-cheap food weren't enough, our waiter and George, the owner, were extremely friendly. Who do they think they are?

Bianca on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sacco's Speech

Thanks to Donna Ratajczak for alerting me to the fact that today is the 80th anniversary of the Sacco & Vanzetti execution and requesting that I post this poem that I "wrote" over 25 years ago. It's a pantoum based on Sacco's speech to the judge after being sentenced to death. All the words are Sacco's; I just arranged them into pantoum form. It was composed while I was studying with John Ashbery, who is a great fan of fixed poetic forms. It was published in 1982 in Benjamin Sloan's magazine Mothers of Mud. Unfortunately, some of the lines don't fit within the column and I haven't figured out how to indent the spillover. Pantoum trivia: Rodgers and Hammerstein used the form as the basis for the song "I Am Going to Like It Here" in the musical "Flower Drum Song."

I am not an orator.
It is not very familiar with me the English language.
I never know, never heard, even read in history anything so cruel as this court.
After seven years prosecuting they still consider us guilty.

It is not very familiar with me the English language.
I know the sentence will be between two class, the oppressed class and the rich class.
After seven years prosecuting they still consider us guilty.
There will always be collision between one and the other.

I know the sentence will be between two class, the oppressed class and the rich class.
We fraternize the people with the books, with the literature.
There will always be collision between one and the other.
You persecute the people, tyrannize over them, and kill them.

We fraternize the people with the books, with the literature.
We try the education of people always.
You persecute the people, tyrannize over them, and kill them.
You try to put a path between us and some other nationality that hates each other.

We try the education of people always.
That is why I am here today on this bench, for having been the oppressed class.
You try to put a path between us and some other nationality that hates each other.
Well, you are the oppressor.

That is why I am here today on this bench, for having been the oppressed class.
I would like to tell you my life, but what is the use?
Well, you are the oppressor.
I am never be guilty, never--not yesterday nor today nor forever.

I would like to tell you my life, but what is the use?
I never know, never heard, even read in history anything so cruel as this court.
I am never be guilty, never--not yesterday nor today nor forever.
I am not an orator.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Few More India Pix

Madrassa of Khwaja Mahmud Gawan (15th Century), Bidar, Karnataka

Sunset, Kovalam Beach, Kerala

Family Portrait, Badami Caves (6th Century), Karnataka

Monday, August 20, 2007

Let Someone Else Tell You About What I Ate

I don't write about every meal I eat out, not even every good one. I prefer to write about great meals, interesting meals, and infuriating meals.

8th Avenue Seafood Restaurant, in Sunset Park, is a good, solid Cantonese place. I've had excellent dim sum there on several occasions, and I recently had my first dinner there. It was good and solid, but it doesn't earn the orgasmic kvells that I awarded to Flushing's Imperial Palace.

Dim Sum is a great bet at 8th Avenue Seafood Restaurant because it's easy to get a table, or part of one, even at weekend prime times, perhaps because it's a bit south of the main restaurant drag of 8th Avenue. The clientele is almost exclusively local Chinese.

Anyway, Krista Garcia, one of my fellow diners at the restaurant, has posted a brief review, with photos, on her blog.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Mr. Cherches Goes to India, Part II (conclusion)

On a restaurant menu in Trivandrum, soups are listed under the heading "From the Turin." This must be a typo, Mr. Cherches thinks. Surely these soups are not from the Detroit of Italy, home of the famous shroud, and of the great writer, holocaust survivor, and eventual suicide, Primo Levi.

* * *

On seeing Mr. Cherches's passport, a hotel clerk volunteers the information that his brother lives in Memphis.

"Do you know what Memphis is famous for?" Mr. Cherches asks the clerk.


"Elvis Presley lived there, and now many people make pilgrimages to his home at Graceland."

"I wouldn't know," the clerk replies.

Mr. Cherches decides not to try his luck with the song by Chuck Berry.

* * *

On the train to Kanyakumari Mr. Cherches is talking with a government employee on holiday. There is a lull in the conversation. Then the man points at Mr. Cherches's head and says, "You have lost your hair!"

* * *

Mr. Cherches phones the only decent hotel in Aleppy to make a reservation and gets a typically Indian commitment: "The room is reserved, but not confirmed." On arrival, Mr. Cherches is told, "We have no rooms left. Only a suit. Only a suit."

* * *

At a bird sanctuary in Kerala Mr. Cherches meets a local named Sebastian (there are many Christians in Kerala). Sebastian, an enthusiastic Kerala booster, is pleased that Mr. Cherches finds his state beautiful. "I welcome you to the land of lakes, latex, and letters," Sebastian says. "Letters because here in Kottayam district we are first to achieve one hundred percent literacy. And latex you know?"

"Condoms," Mr. Cherches replies.

Sebastian giggles. "Yes, condoms. And other things too. So welcome to the land of lakes, latex, and letters! You'll remember that? And my name?"

* * *

"Hello. Where are you coming from? America? Do you have American pen?" Mr. Cherches wonders: why is it that so many Indian boys and young men think that we foreign travelers come with an unlimited supply of pens to give away as souvenirs of our visit to their country?

* * *

Walking down the road in Kumily, Mr. Cherches meets up with three men, one of whom is carrying a boom box. They are listening to "We've Only Just Begun," by the Carpenters. Asians have the worst taste in American music, Mr. Cherches thinks, and remembers how often he heard Kenny G in China, and how he broke a little boy's heart in Shanghai by breaking the news that Karen Carpenter has been dead for years.

"That music is terrible," Mr. Cherches tells the men. "You should listen to James Brown, or Otis Redding."

"But we love the Carpenters. We love American music. We love Michael," one of the guys tells Mr. C. Walking down the road they converse. Two of the men are in their twenties and the other one is forty-five. The older one claims to be the grandson of the Maharaja of Travancore and is very drunk or stoned on drugs. It is 9:30 AM. "We are going to have a beer," one of the guys informs Mr. C. "Will you join us?"

Mr. Cherches doesn't like the odds. Three Indians and me, he thinks, I'll be subjected to a constant grilling, have to answer interminable questions. It's too early in the morning. "Sorry, I never drink beer before 10 AM," he tells them.

* * *

It's the phone system from another planet, Mr. Cherches thinks. There is no logic to the phone system in India. Sometimes the area codes have changed. Sometimes new prefixes have been added to existing phone numbers. But as often phone numbers are just swappedfor instance, a hotel's number is assigned to a private residence and the hotel is given a number that has been taken away from somebody else. Sometimes the new owner of an old number will have the old owner's new number handy, sometimes not. Sometimes a nonworking number will lead to a constant busy signal and no explanatory message, while sometimes you will get a message to "check your number." "Information," or "Phone Inquiry," if and when you can reach it, will as often as not have the old, obsolete number.

Don't visit India if you have a low threshold for frustration, Mr. Cherches advises.

* * *

Whenever Mr. Cherches phones a hotel to make a reservation and begins to spell out his name he is cut off by the voice at the other end. "Yes, I know, Mr. Churchill."

* * *

On the train from Madurai to Tanjore Mr. Cherches wants to discard some banana peels and an empty drink carton. He carries the refuse out of his compartment and walks toward the end of the car. He sees an attendant.

"Is there a place to throw this?" Mr. Cherches asks, pointing at the garbage.

The attendant looks confused, perplexed.

"Trash. Garbage," Mr. Cherches says.

The Attendant, still looking quite baffled, points at the window.

* * *

There are many fascinating temples in Tamil Nadu, both functioning ones and ruins. Mr. Cherches prefers the ruins, as he finds the practice of religion depressing.

* * *

At functioning Hindu temples Mr. Cherches constantly tries to dodge the greedy, relentless priests who follow him in a desperate attempt to impart some information in return for baksheesh. "I don't want to know anything!" Mr. Cherches protests.

* * *

Indians will always refuse torn currency, but they won't hesitate to slip some in your change. Mr. Cherches saves torn bills to give as "tips" for "services" that he never requested in the first place.

* * *

India has a ways to go when it comes to politically correct language, at least as regards things medical, Mr. Cherches concludes, having passed the Hospital for Cripples and seen a bus belonging to the Spastics Society of India.

* * *

Nearly all South Indian men wear mustaches. Many Tamil men are quite dark. Mr. Cherches notices a number of handsome men in Tamil Nadu who bear a striking resemblance to Billy Dee Williams.

* * *

In Madras Mr. Cherches passes a psychiatrist's office. The psychiatrist's name is Dr. Pannicker.

* * *

Indians tend to be a curious, loquacious lot. On countless occasions Mr. Cherches is asked his profession. He usually replies that he is a computer programmer. It's much easier than explaining that he's a writer of short, non-utilitarian texts.

* * *

On a tour bus to the Ellora caves Mr. Cherches sits next to a seventyish gentleman from Calcutta who had been educated under the Raj. When the man asks Mr. Cherches's profession, Mr. C. replies, "I teach English. Writing and Literature."

"You teach Shakespeare?" the man asks.

"No, mostly modern literature."

"Ah, modern literature," says the man from Calcutta. "Somerset Maugham and Pearl Buck?"

* * *

At the Ajanta caves Mr. Cherches is being followed by a relentless postcard hawker. Mr. Cherches is sick of having his space invaded by Indians who won't take no for an answer. Exasperated, Mr. Cherches tells the hawker, "You should be more patriotic. Why don't you bother some Indians instead of foreigners?"

A young Indian man who has come on the same tour bus says to Mr. Cherches: "You don't like India, do you?"

* * *

Mr. Cherches decides that although India is easier, and in many ways more pleasant, the second time around, familiarity has mitigated some of the excitement of a first trip to India. What is missing? Mr. Cherches, rarely at a loss for words, has trouble explaining it, to himself as well as to others.

* * *

Most travelers who have been to India have a love/hate relationship with the place. Whenever Mr. Cherches meets others who have been to India the form of conversation is usually a trading of war stories, a mutual litany of complaints. Neither party has a good word for India, yet both invariably sigh and say, "I can't wait to go back."

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mr. Cherches Goes to India, Part I

This was the first travel piece I ever wrote. It was written after I returned from my second trip to India, in 1996, and published the following year in Grand Tour magazine.

"You travel so much, and you're a writer, so how come you never write about travel?" many people have asked Mr. Cherches. Mr. Cherches sees the question as indicative of the utilitarian strain in western thought. Experience is no good unless you can profit from it. Why not capitalize on the experience?

Mr. Cherches has never before written about travel because he has never had any idea of what to write, nor any desire to write it. He travels to get away from the other things he does. He travels for travel's sake.

Besides, Mr. Cherches finds the narcissism of most travel writing annoying–the incessant "I" angling for attention. Mr. Cherches can't decide which he finds more loathsome: the writing traveler who portrays himself as "representative" or the one who portrays himself as "extraordinary."

I have nothing to say about travel, Mr. Cherches thinks, nor have I come up with the proper angle from which to say it.

Nonetheless, Mr. Cherches decides to give it a try, as an experiment. He will write about his second trip to India, and he will write it in the third person. He hopes that will mitigate the narcissism of the "I." He will write scattered fragments that will be of no practical use to anybody.

In India, Mr. Cherches takes notes with ambivalence.

* * *

Recently, when asked what he looks for most when he travels, Mr. Cherches replied, "Foreignness." Of all the places he has been, India is, without question, the most foreign. The westerner in India is Alice in Wonderland: the rules of the game are not only different, they can't be fathomed.

In November of 1996, six years after his first trip to India, Mr. Cherches returned, spending one month touring the south.

* * *

His first morning his second time in India, at a hotel near the Bombay airport, Mr. Cherches peruses the room service menu. One of the choices is:

Indian Breakfast, Rs. 80.

Lassi (Sweet or Salted)

Aloo Paratha with Dahi


Puri Bhaji

Tea or Coffee

Mr. Cherches orders sweet lassi, aloo paratha and coffee.

When the food arrives Mr. Cherches is presented with a bill for 105 rupees
there is an extra charge for the coffee. Mr. Cherches contests the extra charge and the waiter insists that the tea or coffee comes only with Puri Bhaji. Mr. Cherches had not realized the ambiguity of the first "or," though he does realize that he is now being charged more for a breakfast special than for an a la carte sum of its constituent parts. "Many guests are confused," the waiter tells Mr. Cherches, and Mr. Cherches figures the hotel is counting on just that. As he eats his aloo paratha, Mr. Cherches tries to remember the rule for "or" without parentheses.

* * *

At the beach in Goa, Mr. Cherches happens upon the following sign: DRUG OFFENCES PUNISHABLE WITH TEN YEARS RIGOROUS IMPRISONMENT. Mr. Cherches contemplates the possible meanings of rigorous imprisonment before moving on.

* * *

A Kashmiri shopkeeper in Goa stops Mr. Cherches. "Mister, do you know who you look like?" the Kashmiri asks.

"No, who?" Mr. Cherches asks back.

"Salman Rushdie."

Mr. Cherches does not know how to take this, but he remembers an incident from his last visit to India. The Gulf War had just started, and Mr. Cherches was checking into a Bombay hotel. The desk clerk, obviously a Muslim, on seeing Mr. C's American passport, proclaimed, "Saddam will bury you!" Mr. Cherches remembers having slept fitfully that night.

* * *

At the ticket counter of any railway station in India there is not an orderly queue, but rather a chaotic huddle of Indians, each trying to pre-empt the other, thrusting hands and voices at the clerk behind the cage. Surely Indians are the most incorrigible line jumpers in the world, Mr. Cherches thinks. Then he remembers some other places he's been. Mr. Cherches imagines a new Olympic event: the line jump. Without a doubt, India, China and Russia would take all the medals, though not necessarily in that order.

* * *

Indian soft drinks are served with the thinnest, softest plastic straws. You suck on them and they collapse. Drinking, like everything else in India, is difficult. Drinking a Limca, Mr. Cherches remembers a wonderful Raymond Chandler simile (from The Long Goodbye, he thinks): "He had a face like a collapsed lung."

* * *

Never wear sandals at night, in Kerala, if you're white, Mr. Cherches cautions.

Mr. C. had followed a lead on a restaurant in Ernakulam that specialized in traditional Keralan cuisine. The restaurant, Fry's Village, was an expansive outdoor place, set up like a series of traditional village huts. Mr. Cherches was the only westerner in the entire restaurant, and the mosquitoes had a field day. Here was a break from the usual, boring Dravidian fareexotic American food (or, even more exotic, had they known, Russian Jewish food!). Mr. Cherches's enjoyment of his own meal of fish moily and kadala (a chick pea dish) with idiappam (rice noodle "string hoppers") was severely compromised by what had to be the two itchiest feet in Ernakulam.

* * *

"America–a fine country!"

Every Indian male and his brother, it seems, asks Mr. Cherches, "Where are you coming from?" It is not a question of perspective, nor of last place visited, but rather the Indian-English way of phrasing, "Where do you come from?" For some reason, the words United States or USA don't register immediately with Indians. There is always a pause, then recognition: "Ah, America!" So Mr. Cherches, no longer worried about being sensitive to the feelings of South Americans, begins to tell Indians he is coming from "America."

Sometimes, however, hardcore New Yorker that he is, Mr. Cherches will say he is from New York.

"Where in New York?" a hotel clerk asks him.

"New York City."

"Ah, not Long Island or Brooklyn?"

Mr. Cherches is impressed with the clerk's knowledge of geography. "Yes, Brooklyn," he replies. "But it's part of New York City. I didn't think many people in India knew Brooklyn."

"Yes, but I know because I am crazy for America," the clerk replies. "I know that Albany is your state capital."

Mr. Cherches is reminded of a little boy in Kathmandu, six years earlier: "I learn all about America at school," the boy had said. "I know Washington is the seat of your kingdom."

* * *

After about a week of eating nothing but Indian food Mr. Cherches notices that when he sweats he begins to smell like a sweaty Indian.

* * *

"Which way is Mahatma Gandhi Road?" Mr. Cherches asks a man on the street in Trivandrum.

"Where are you coming from?" the man asks.

"America. New York City," Mr. Cherches replies.

"You are Jew?" the man asks.

Startled, Mr. Cherches thinks for a moment, then decides to say yes.

"I am Christian," the man says. "Do you believe in Jesus Christ?"

"No," Mr. Cherches replies, then adds, "but I don't believe in anything."

"That is the way," the man says, pointing toward Mahatma Gandhi Road.

* * *

At the train station in Trivandrum an American with a vacant stare begins to chat with Mr. Cherches. The man explains that he has come to Trivandrum to see the dentist, but that he is living at an ashram several hours away. He then proceeds to bend Mr. Cherches's ear about his all-knowing, all-seeing divine mother. "She knows everything I did yesterday, and everything I did a hundred years ago, and everything I'll be doing a hundred years from today," he says. Mr. Cherches nods politely.

Sometimes, Mr. Cherches is amazed at how polite he can be.

* * *

Many people go to India to find themselves. Mr. Cherches goes there to lose himself.

* * *

To be continued . . .

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Flamingo Trial

You don't hear much about the Snopes Flamingo Trial. Clarence Darrow never stood a chance with that one. It had to do with the contention of Clem Snopes, a Mississippi restaurateur, that the turtle is a direct descendant of the flamingo. Snopes was being sued for false advertising by an irate customer who had ordered a bowl of turtle soup at Snopes' Oxford, Mississippi diner. The customer knew something was not quite right the moment he tasted the soup–it just didn't taste anything like turtle. So he confronted Snopes. "Suh," the man said, "I think there's been a mistake. This here don't taste nothin' like turtle soup. Tastes to me more like chicken soup."

"Ain't chicken," Snopes replied. "I make my turtle soup with flamingo meat."

"Flamingo meat!" the man ejaculated. "How you get off callin' it turtle soup then?"

"Because the turtle is a direct descendant of the flamingo. So it don't matter one bit whether I use turtle meat or flamingo meat."

Why Darrow ever agreed to take the case, I haven't a clue. When the lawyer couldn't find even one expert witness who would support his client's claim he resorted to the insanity defense. But it was hopeless, even for an attorney as skillful as the great Darrow. The jury deliberated for less than five minutes. When they returned, the judge pounded his gavel for order in the court and asked the foreman to read the verdict. The foreman spoke. "The jury finds for the plaintiff, Mr. Faulkner. But seein' as how this was a pretty frivolous action to begin with, the jury recommends an award of one dollar."

To tell the truth, Snopes didn't do so bad after all. After the publicity of the trial people began to flock from all over the state to Snopes' recently renamed Flamingo Diner for a bowl of his justly famous flamingo soup.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Noshing Around Montreal

I must have visited Montreal about twenty times since 1985. I try to go for a few days every year. It's a relatively easy trip from New York to another world-class city, and the music festivals are a draw for me. I usually go up for the jazz festival, but this time I caught Les Francofolies, the international Francophone music festival. The train ride on Amtrak's Adirondack, which I usually do in one direction, is one of the most scenically spectacular in North America, if not the world. And, of course, food is always on the agenda. This time I resolved to try a couple of Montreal's Jewish legends that I had somehow always managed to miss, as well as several other ethnic eateries and an esteemed sandwich place.

St. Viateur Bagels is Montreal's most famous bagelry, indeed probably Canada's. The Montreal bagel differs from the New York bagel most noticeably in its malty sweetness. Montreal vs. New York bagel debates can reach the intensity of New Haven vs. New York pizza debates. For some reason I wasn't even aware of the Montreal bagel tradition until 3 or 4 years ago, and had never managed to get over to a St. Viateur location until this trip. The flagship branch, opened in 1957, is on St. Viateur, but I decided to go to their sit-down cafe on Mont Royal East. Though I'd tried several Montreal bagels before, St. Viateur's did have a certain extra je ne sais quoi. It really is a different animal from a New York bagel, though one might argue that there are no longer many places that make a classic New York bagel. The gargantuan grotesqueries that one encounters about town have little to do with the chewy little gems of my youth. One of the few places that does turn out a classic New York bagel, happily, is the Bagel Hole, right in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Though St. Viateur was founded by two fellows with blue-chip bagelmaker monikers (Hyman Selikman and Meyer Lewkowicz), the current owner, who came up through the ranks, is Joe Morena. You don't have to be Jewish.

Schwartz's is the mecca for smoked meat sandwiches, Montreal's answer to corned beef and pastrami. Made from brisket, smoked and spiced, it is a kissing cousin of both. Schwartz's is a major tourist destination, and therefore there's always a line out the door, which is why I had never eaten there before. This time I was determined to try Schwartz's, so I went at a relatively quiet time (Monday at 5 PM). There was a line out the door waiting for take-out, but I saw that there were a couple of open stools at the counter and I was in.

Schwartz's is on Rue St. Laurent, which was traditionally the heart of immigrant Montreal. Now home to trendy bars and restaurants and cheap ethnic eateries, a number of the old Eastern- and Central-European businesses are still standing, including a Hungarian charcuterie with absolutely addictive garlic sausages. Schwartz's has been at the same location since it opened in 1928.

Until I got to Schwartz's I thought I didn't like Montreal smoked meat. I had first tried it at Ben's, which had a reputation nearly as lofty as Schwartz's. By the time I got to Ben's, however, it was apparently a shadow of its former self (it has since closed), and the sandwich was decidedly mediocre. But Schwartz's smoked meat sandwich is as good as anything in a New York deli (of course, a good New York deli is about as hard to find as a good New York bagel these days). Hearty, moist and flavorful, Schwartz's sandwich is also an incredible bargain at $4.95.

I had another memorable sandwich in Montreal this time around. I lunched at Olive + Gourmando, a gourmet bakery-cafe in Old Montreal, which is open only during the day, Tuesday through Saturday. They have a stellar reputation, and I was lured by the promise of their Cuban panino, having an interest in any bold variation on the Cuban sandwich. Well, it was heavenly. O+G's Cuban is made from braised pork, ham and gruyere (brilliant!), pressed on their homemade bread with a mayo flavored with chipotles, pickles, lime and coriander. The spicy smokiness of the chipotle mayo, and its marriage with the meat and cheese, was a thing of beauty. The bread was damn good too.

That night I dined at a place I'd been to once before, Restaurant Uyghur, in Chinatown. Serving the food of Xinxiang province (if you're the Chinese government) or East Turkestan (if you're Uighur), it's far superior to Brooklyn's Uighur restaurant, Cafe Kashkar. I really wanted to try the famous Uighur dish, da pan ji (literally "big plate chicken"), spicy chicken and potatoes, served with noodles on the side. However, the dish, true to its name, cannot be ordered in a portion reasonable for a single diner, so I went instead with the lamb lagman, which was made with wonderfully chewy hand-pulled noodles. I also had a samsa and a hoshang, similar little buns stuffed with chopped meat and onions. The difference was that the fluffy samsa was steamed and baked (unlike Uzbek samsas, which are crisper and flakier), and the fluffy hoshang was steamed and fried. The next time I'm in Montreal with friends I intend to try the da pan ji.

Another place that had been on my Montreal wish list was Le Petit Alep, near the Jean Talon market. It's a casual Syrian-Armenian place (I assume run by Armenians from Syria), annexed to a more formal restaurant. I had an excellent Armenian sausage sandwich. The spicy sausage was similar to merguez, but made from beef instead of lamb. It was garnished with mouhamara, a red pepper, pomegranate and walnut dip. The desserts all sounded tempting; I went for the mamounie (or maamuneeya), a warm semolina paste topped with ricotta, pistachios, and cinnamon that's a specialty of Aleppo. It's a popular item at Le Petit Alep, but I was a bit disappointed, as it was just too sweet and buttery for me. In Syria maamuneeya is also eaten as a breakfast cereal.

I also did some ogling at the Jean Talon market while I was out that way.

Schwartz's World Famous Smoked Meat on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Aster Indicus, Anyone?

I wish I could recommend Yeah Shanghai Deluxe (65 Bayard Street); the staff were so friendly. But it is definitely not one of New York's better Shanghai restaurants. Most of the food was too heavy and/or too salty. Their soft shell crabs were abominable: overly breaded and fried too long, leaving the meat inside dry and tasteless. A pea shoot version of xiaolongbao (steamed tiny buns) seemed promising, but the steaming process sucked all the life out of the vegetable.

I generally don't write about restaurants I don't like unless they've been overhyped or are guilty of unpardonable pretensions. In the case of Yeah Shanghai Deluxe I'm writing because of a particular menu item with the delightfully Linnean name Aster Indicus. I've never seen this on any other Chinese menu, and I was intrigued. It's served as a cold dish, mixed with chopped, dried bean curd. The vegetable is incredibly green and tastes incredibly green. It must be full of chlorophyll. It was actually one of the few dishes we liked.

I did a Google search on Aster Indicus. I didn't find out much, but I did learn that it's classified as a famine food (i.e. a plant not normally considered a crop), and grows wild in China. The availability of Aster Indicus might be reason enough, for the curious, to give Yeah Shanghai a try. Maybe you'll have better luck than I did. You might want to make a meal of cold appetizers, as the kau fu (wheat gluten puffs with black mushrooms) was also pretty good.

New Yeah Shanghai Deluxe on Urbanspoon