Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Brilliant Food Finder, an Amazingly Stupid Restaurateur, and Finally, Mughlai Paratha

Last Sunday morning I had a craving for mughlai paratha, something I hadn't eaten in years. It's an Indian stuffed bread that I used to see on menus at 6th Street Indian restaurants, before I developed a palate for good Indian food and stopped patronizing those sorry joints. I never see this bread on the menu at any of the Indian restaurants I frequent now. I suspected it must be a Bengali specialty, as most of the 6th Street holes are Bangladeshi-owned. A little research bore out that mughlai paratha is indeed a Bengali specialty.

According to some recipes a mughlai paratha is simply a paratha (fried wheat flour bread) with eggs, but the kind I'm talking about have a keema (spiced minced mutton, goat, or, if you're not a Hindu, beef) filling, garnished with coriander leaves in additon to the egg. It's somewhat similar to the Indonesian martabak daging, a multilayer pancake with a meat and egg filling.

Where could I go to satisfy my mughlai paratha craving, I wondered. Would I have to head over to 6th Street? Then I remembered a wonderful resource that I don't use frequently enough, the Find-a-Food feature of Menupages. You enter the name of a dish you're looking for, and it will return links to the restaurants that feature that item on their menu. My search for mughlai paratha yielded 26 results, and a good many of them were on or around 6th Street, while a number of others had Bengal in the name. I noticed that one place on the list, Joy, was a short walk from my apartment, on Flatbush Avenue in Prospect Heights, so I decided I'd go there for lunch. I'd been there once before, several years ago, shortly after they opened, and found them decidedly mediocre, basically at the level of the 6th Street dumps. But I was, after all, on a mughlai paratha mission.

When I got there the place was empty. I took a seat at a table for four that gave me good window backlighting for photos. I was approached by a guy I assumed was the owner (he was wearing civvies and sitting at a table talking on the phone when I arrived). "How many will you be?" he asked.

"Just one," I said.

"Could you please move to this table," he said, pointing to the lone table for two in a cramped corner.

"I'd prefer to stay here," I said.

"But this is a table for four," he said.

I was starting to get annoyed. "Are you serious?" I asked. 'Do you expect to fill up all of a sudden within the next hour?"

"I'm sorry, but this is a table for four. Please take the other table." I couldn't believe this guy (who was still on the phone, by the way).

"Would you rather lose my business than let me sit at this table?" I asked.


I went ballistic. "What kind of idiot are you? You'd rather lose my business than let me sit at this table?"


Idiot escalated to asshole. I started shouting a string of invective at him. My adrenaline was pumping. It was great! Almost as much fun as shouting down an evangelist. "You'll hear from me online," I told him. It's the closest I've ever come to "You'll hear from my lawyer."

I left the restaurant. Unfortunately, I somehow hadn't noticed on Menupages that Amin, a Park Slope restaurant closer to my apartment, also serves mughlai paratha, so I had to figure out lunch plan B. I decided to stop by Olive Vine for one of their lahmbaijin (literally "meat with dough") pizzas, a variant of the Turkish lahmacun, something that would satisfy my spiced, chopped meat and bread craving.

The following day, at the office, I went back to Menupages to see if any place near my midtown east office had mughlai paratha. I came up with Shamrat, a bit of a walk at First Avenue and 73rd. I decided to go for it.

I ordered my mughlai paratha and asked the waiter if the owner was Bengali. He looked taken aback, was silent for a few seconds, then said, "Calcutta."

"I figured," I said. "You generally only see mughlai paratha at Bengali Indian restaurants."

The mughlai paratha was decent but the egg wasn't noticeable. It was drier than the mughlai parathas I remembered, but it was years since I'd had one, and I wondered if I was confusing it in memory with the generally moister Indonesian martabak. Still, I also wondered whether it was really just a straight (egg-free) keema paratha (more common on Indian menus), or if perhaps the dough had only gotten a light brushing of egg.

This mughlai paratha thing had taken hold of me, and the following night I got one as takeout from Amin, in Park Slope. Amin is another one of those forgettable Indian restaurants that I had tried once and never returned to.

I got home, took my coat off, and unwrapped my mughlai paratha. Yes, this was what I remembered, the stuffing a mix of minced meat, egg, chopped onions, green peppers and coriander leaf. This was exactly what I remembered.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Instant Gratification

I've been publishing my fiction for 32 years. Often I'd send a story out and hear nothing for months. Some stories actually appeared in print several years after they were accepted.

Times have changed.

Today, at 1:51 PM I sent a story to the online journal Flash Fire 500. At 4:36 PM I received an email that the piece had been accepted. At 6:50 PM I received an email that the piece had been posted on the site.

If this were 1977 I'd still be looking for a stamp.

Read "A Man Who Loved to Polka" immediately!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Penis, a Pair of Biographers, and an Imaginary Pet

See what I have to say about all of these in 3:AM Magazine.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The 42nd Sentence

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Panoply of Panini

I have a favorite new sandwich destination within walking distance of my office. Cipolla Rossa, at First Avenue between 60th & 61st Streets, occupies the space that for some years was home to the excellent Cantina Toscana. Tough economic times took their toll on that dinner-only room that specialized in wild game, and now it's a more humble Tuscan trattoria, the second branch of Cipolla Rossa (the first being thirty blocks further north). They're open for lunch and dinner, and they encourage take-out. The menu looks intriguing and authentically Tuscan. I'm sure to do dinner in due time (the wild boar meat loaf sounds interesting), but so far I've only tried the panini. I've tasted three and I've only scratched the surface, as the menu lists more than fifteen varieties ($7 each), and most sound pretty tempting.

The first time I went solo, and had the suckling pig with broccoli rabe and mozzarella. It was good, but I was disappointed that none of the pig's skin found its way into the sandwich. The next time there were two of us, and we shared two panini, one hot, one cold, both excellent. The very lean wild boar sausage with broccoli rabe and pecorino was a great mix of flavors. Completely different, and a great complement, was the prosciutto with mushroom mousse and arugula. Other vegetable mousses (asparagus and zucchini, as well as walnut) figure as components in several of the other panini. I've got a lot of panini to look forward to.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Galettes Have Arrived

I love it when very specific, non-ubiquitous local specialty items from faraway places show up on New York menus, so I was intrigued, one morning about a month ago, to discover Bar Breton, a new French place in the Madison Square area that was open for breakfast and serving a very Breton specialty, the buckwheat galette. Bar Breton is run by Cyril Renaud, proprietor of the highly regarded and considerably more upscale Fleur de Sel. To make sure he got his galettes just right, Renaud even flew back to his native Brittany last summer for a refresher course in galette-making.

The galette is a sibling to that other Breton specialty, the crepe. But the galette is made from pure buckwheat flour, giving it a particularly satisfying earthy flavor. Bar Breton serves four varieties of savory galettes ($12-14 each), as well as a dessert version, with whipped cream and honey. While the galette itself is made the traditional way, Renaud does take liberties with some of the embellishments. I ordered the La Guerande, which was stuffed with spinach and mushrooms and topped with a poached egg and shaved parmesan. I also tried a bit of the "Flatiron Edge," topped with smoked wild salmon and stuffed with horseradish creme and chives. Both were delightful and quite filling. I think next time I'll try the Chelsea, which has chorizo, eggs over easy and onion confit.

I'm impressed, too, that each of the different varieties gets a different presentation.

Bar Breton, 254 Fifth Avenue (between 28th & 29th Streets)

Bar Breton on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My Einstein Speech

For as long as I can remember I've had a talent for ad libbing. I remember with particular fondness one incident in my youth. When I was in sixth grade my teacher, Mr. Malachowsky, asked me to give an impromptu speech on Einstein's theory of relativity. Knowing nothing of the subject I got up in front of the class and gave the following speech.

As Albert Einstein, the famous scientist and one of the many great Jews who have contributed so much to the weltanschauung of class 6-11, so rightly proclaimed, E=MC2. But what did he mean by that? It is not a matter easily understood by the undeveloped mind, so I ask you to listen closely, Mr. Malachowsky.

It is essential that we understand the terminology involved, so let us begin with the letter E. E is fifth letter of the alphabet. It is also the letter given to a vitamin reputed to heighten the libido, though my stepfather tells me this is merely an old wives' tale. What else can we say about E? That it's the fifth semitone of the C chromatic scale? That ought to be worth something. But let's move on. Next we come to the equal sign. Two parallel horizontal lines. Stop snickering, Mary Jo. Now, as Abraham Lincoln, whom my mother informs me also had Jewish blood, once said, "All men are created equal." Now that statement gave me pause when I first heard it because according to the rules of grammar drilled into me and many of my esteemed colleagues in this class by Mrs. Horstwessel, the she-wolf of the fourth grade, the proper phrase should be, "All men are created equally." But who am I to argue with a man in a top hat?

Let us review. We have the letter E, which is clearly Einstein's clever way of disguising what he really meant, which is the number five, or, if you believe old wives, heightened libido. And then we have the equal sign, which stands for all men. Contrast that with time and tide, which wait for no man. That Einstein was certainly a smart cookie.

Scanning from left to right the next cohesive unit we come across is the letter sequence MC. As I pondered that element of Einstein's famous equation I was convinced that I had stumbled upon the true soul of the matter, the poetry at its core, as it were. For aren't M and C the first two letters of the name McCormick? And didn't Miss Langostino tell us just last year, in this very building, that Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper? The reaper! Yes, the grim reaper, you reap what you sow. But shortly thereafter I realized the error in my reasoning. For the "c" in McCormick is lower case, whereas the "M" and the "C" in Einstein's equation are both upper case. So I returned to the drawing board and came up with another, more plausible, explanation for the letters MC--Master of Ceremonies! Now if any of you are unclear as to the meaning of Master of Ceremonies, I'd like you to think back to the Miss America pageant, which I know you all watched last week. Now I don't know about the rest of you, but I think Miss Tennessee should have won. She was gypped! She was definitely better than Miss Ohio. No contest. But that's neither here nor there. Remember that doofey guy who sang, "There she is, Miss America?" Well, that was Bert Parks, and he was the Master of Ceremonies--the MC.

So now all we have left is the squared. A square is a parallelogram with four sides of equal length and four right angles. I know this because my brother Harvey is in high school. But a square is something else too. A square can be a place, like Times Square, which is on 42nd Street. Stop snickering, Mary Jo. Times Square--a place with time in its name. Time and place, time and space--could Einstein have been thinking of Times Square? Perhaps, but I have another theory. Square is the opposite of hip. A square is someone who is not hip. And with that I thought I had solved the puzzle, except for one nagging detail, the number five. What could Einstein have meant by the number five? Everything else was so clear. For days I could think of nothing else. I was losing sleep, and this was adversely affecting my schoolwork. I had dropped back to third place in spelling bee, behind both Judy Kluger and Susan Lieberman. And then, one day, as I was trying to crack a jawbreaker, the answer came to me. If we discount the heightened libido theory of vitamin E, then we can subtract one from the number five, leaving us with four, which can be replaced with the homophone "for." And with that I had the solution to the true meaning of E=MC2:

"For all men, Bert Parks is not hip."

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Bread and Clouds

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Another Short

The latest Tuesday Shorts includes 91 of my words.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Mung Being is Cooking, and My Knish is in the Oven

The latest issue Mung Being is online, and the subject is food. Mung Being is a multimedia arts journal, and every issue has a theme. I'm appearing in Mung Being for the third consecutive issue, and I must thank editor Mark Givens for his loyalty, not to mention his good taste. I've published in scores of places over the years, in print and online, and every once in a while I connect with an editor who displays a trust in my work that would be the envy of any writer, or at least any writer who isn't in it for the money. In the past I've been fortunate to have such writer-editor relationships with Robley Wilson at North American Review, and with Joel Rose and Catherine Texier of Between C & D, which I wrote about in my memoir of the heyday of downtown.

My contribution to the current issue of Mung Being is the tale of a knish that clearly represents something other than a knish, though I have no idea what that something other might be.