Indigenous Food in the South Bronx

(c) La Morada 2015

Sometimes you eat something that’s blissfully unlike anything you’ve ever had before. For me, the mole blanco at La Morada in the South Bronx was one of those dishes that make you stop, get quiet, taste again, and search your senses, sniffing, almost listening for something, to comprehend the mystery.

Ladled over two huge chicken legs, the thick white sauce made of pine nuts and other items had a surprisingly warm, forceful stir of habaneros underneath the sauce’s slightly sweet blandness, made among other things of cashews, almonds, peanuts, coconut oil, and garlic ($15).

I kept wanting to taste it again and feel that warm, attractive spice calling to me from inside the deceptively homey, rather autumnal and vegetal blanket of mole. (The vegan sauce is made with 10 different kinds of nuts in total.) The dish came with a side of rice and black beans, but not just any beans: it was in fact the most distinctive, fresh-tasting, and well-spiced side dish of black beans I’ve ever had, as though someone actually cared to make the supposedly throwaway sides taste as good as entrées. If you’re from Mexico’s Oaxaca province, source of this restaurant’s cuisine, La Morada’s mole blanco may not be as much of a mystery to you, but then again, it might. The cooking at this inexpensive café run by an activist immigrant family is extraordinary, perhaps the finest Mexican cooking I’ve ever had in New York. Continue reading “Indigenous Food in the South Bronx”

Sex and Italian Food

Hugo pizza

From my new review in in Gay City News: Hugo and Sons, Park Slope, Brooklyn.

The waitress welcomed us as though she had been waiting all her life just to ply us with glasses of nerello mascalese and plates of pasta à la chitarra with tuna, chilies, and mint.

That’s the kind of service I like. When you pay your hard-earned money to a restaurant, you should be treated as though you were making each staffer’s day just by sticking your foot in the door and exciting them for life just by placing your queenly butt in their chairs. Hugo and Sons, a convivial, three-month-old Italian restaurant in Park Slope, offers a much better experience than its delicious but snooty next-door neighbors, Talde and Applewood. The tiny portions and cool welcomes at those eminences should by rights direct diners to this happy, generous new kid on the block.

A lot of the food will make you smile as warmly as the waitstaff do. That chitarra pasta (square-edged, long, spaghetti-like strands made on a traditional, cut-by-hand device) was surprisingly voluptuous, a special one night with unctuous lumps of cooked tuna. Lovers of pearls and diving, come to Brooklyn: I haven’t had cooked tuna this lewd in decades. (American chefs have forgotten how to make anything in between a near-raw sear and dead-and-dry.)

My own pearl girl and I were eating in Hugo’s pizzeria annex, which serves everything on the regular menu except entrées, plus pizzas and specials. The pizza place’s outdoor seating on 11th Street turns out to be Hugo’s most romantic setting, amid abundant plants, Shabby Chic red metal chairs, leafy street trees, and the nearby outdoor diners from Applewood and their dinner plates to gawk at and compare. It was only a South Slope pizzeria, but we seemed to be dining in Paris.

I was in the mood for a girly drink: a prosecco cocktail with strawberry purée making glowy red shapes at the bottom like a lava lamp, which I had seen two women drinking at the bar inside ($12). (Yes, I do call myself a butch. So sue me. If we can’t subvert our identities whenever we want, why be queer?) The drink was indeed pretty and festive, but I couldn’t taste enough strawberry. My aggressive femme partner had a glass of the nerello ($17), an earthy, tannic, dark-colored Sicilian wine that we both adored with her pizza fiamma (sopressata, crushed red chilies, pesto, tomato, and fior di latte mozzarella, $16).

Karen loved her pizza, and I liked it (it would have benefited from a more generous hand with the chilies, but was perfectly satisfying anyhow, like a little Mack truck made of sausage, cheese and tomatoes). The same went for a kale salad enmeshed in a rich Parmesan dressing ($9), also enjoyable to the max but not anything that could make me fall in love. I was falling in love with the evening, though, especially by the time my pasta came. The lesbo-friendly hosts and waitress smiled and winked at our arm-grabbing and knee-knocking in the warm June sunlight, the wine was delicious, and I noticed that the table next to us had a nicoise salad dominated by meaty-looking, blood-red slices of seared tuna (I like those, too) that I wanted to grab and eat.

Then came the bill, with a surprise: they’d comped our drinks because we’d had to wait quite a while for our entrées. I’ve endured far longer waits in restaurants without anything resembling an apology, much less free prosecco.

On our next visit, we took a luxurious, red-banquetted table in the main section, which has a jolly, let’s-eat-and-drink-life-is-short vibe. I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the “assorted crostini” – stick a bunch of stuff on little pieces of toast for $9? – but the chefs proved that sticking some stuff on crisped bread can actually be a matter of talent and even profundity. One had what looked like guacamole (actually, an odd, delicious spread made of sweet peas) underneath thin slices of funky, salami-like Tuscan pecorino cheese. My favorite was the crust with buttery balls of burrata set off with lemon, chili, and marjoram.

Karen’s strozapreti genovese ($16), literally “priest-chokers,” were fat, long, phallic, thickly-braided twists, perfectly shaped to stick on and into the braised-brisket ragú and sublime ball of ricotta that accompanied them. Yes, they were as sexy as fuck. (The glistening brisket sauce and breast-like ricotta helped in this.)

My entrée, however, was the worst thing I’ve been served in a restaurant since 2013. Chicken milanese ($18) came as deep-fried, unpounded, repellently thick ships of chicken breast (the word”cutlet” cannot properly be applied here), that had strangely not been touched by salt, spice, or even lemon. I don’t know if it was a good or bad thing that they served me enough to feed a large family.

An odd thing happened just before my entrée appeared. A handsome, swaggery man in a white silk shirt was walking the room, checking on the needs of the tables – obviously a manager (or perhaps it was the chef, Andrea Taormina, who owns the restaurant with his wife, caterer Rebecca Tory). I asked him for coffee – preferably iced, or if that was unavailable, decaf americano or plain old cappuccino. I basically wanted coffee of any kind. The preening man regrettably thought there was no coffee, especially not iced, but began to flirt heavily with Karen and me. He would, ah, try and see what he could do, but could make no guarantees.

I was surprised when a truly delicious glass of iced coffee turned up. The manager explained that while iced coffee would not have been offered to most diners, he had wanted to make some for me (I was lucky, he said, that the place was beginning brunch service the next day and so some coffee happened to be on hand). I began to wonder if he had recognized me as a reviewer. Or perhaps the dude was just into flirting as a hosting strategy? Still, the vibe at the end – that he was doing a real favor for me and I would owe him – was borderline unpleasant. He was overbearing, yet we also sort of enjoyed him.

Whether Handsome Man was Taormina or not, come and eat at his restaurant. The chef, who was born in Sicily, has also worked as a sommelier, and many of the the wines are little-known finds from southern Europe. All of them are minimally processed. And the place is fun.

Hugo and Sons, 367 Seventh Avenue at 11th St., Park Slope, Brooklyn. The restaurant is one step up from the sidewalk, but a side door provides level though perhaps slightly narrow access. The restroom is wheelchair accessible.

To view this post on Gay City News’ site  and to see my other reviews there, go here.

Sri Lanka by Way of Staten Island

Lakruwana image

Here’s my review of Lakruwana in Staten Island, in New York’s Gay City News:

I like looking at the people of Staten Island. I especially like looking at people who are waiting with me to board the ferry, not chic, never chic but beautiful. This man or woman with shaved sides of the head but long hair down their back, this woman fat with big breasts overflowing eating an ice cream cone and laughing with her friends, this guy with a large dagger tattoo holding his five-year-old’s hands, Puerto Rican, Italian, Liberian, African-American, Irish-Mayan.

Staten Island resists the homogenization that has been happening all over New York, and for this I celebrate it. The island is one of the last holdouts against gentrification, and one of the main ways it has accomplished this is by being poor. The other way is by being independent, and refusing to link to the rest of the city’s subway system. Staten Island is not the queer-friendliest place in the city, but Sarah Schulman teaches in its local CUNY college, the late, great Harry Wieder was an activist here, and queer folk live throughout the borough, some of them quite openly.

There’s also food you won’t find anywhere else. The island is home to the country’s largest population of Sri Lankans, and if you live off-island one of the best weekend daytrips you can take is a lunchtime outing to one of several extraordinary Sri Lankan restaurants. Unless you’re driving, take the ferry; it’s gorgeous, and it’s free. One of the food stalls at the Manhattan terminal sells excellent half bottles of wine, which you can drink on the ferry with one of their freshly-baked brownies, or carry to the BYO restaurants.

For today, let’s consider Lakruwana, whose weekend buffet is one of the few lunch buffets in Gotham I would recommend. A short bus ride from the ferry terminal (or a nice walk down sunny Bay Street, which runs parallel to the eastern shore), Lakruwana is surrounded on nearby streets by beautiful and unsettling graffiti murals (one shows a menacing hydra-headed figure, drawn in a Mexican idiom).

Because the restaurant is popular on weekends, service can be a bit disorganized. No matter. If you’re getting the buffet, as soon as you’re seated you can just grab a plate and start serving yourself. A member of the waitstaff will appear shortly with water and to see if you need anything else. Do take a moment to look around the room and notice the delirious assemblage of diverse artworks hanging from the rafters and climbing up the walls. As you come in, there are three august and enormous stone Buddhas standing next to the bar, dozens of masks by ingenious Sri Lankan sculptors, some of them brilliantly colored demon masks and others beige but intensely emotionally expressive, and metalwork depicting (among other things) women with unusually vibrant breasts and prominent nipples.

There’s much more, but you’re hungry. The buffet looks much smaller than it is, because instead of being laid out on an unappealing steam table, it curves around a wall in a procession of clay pots mounted over tiny flames. There are two kinds of tasty, fluffy white rice. Use either as your base. The first thing you might want to put on top of one of them is an odd but appealing dish of hard-boiled eggs floating in a mild, psychedelic-purple curry (asked what had made it purple, one of the owners, Lakruwana Wijesinghe, would only say, “the coconut.”)

For the rest – I have to come right out and tell you that the vegetarian dishes are far better than the meat ones. After the eggs, ignore the containers of pork and chicken next in line. Proceed immediately to the far left side of the group of pots and get yourself some of a strange-looking dense, black item labeled “eggplant curry.” (In a lovely innovation, Lakruwana posts little handscripted labels identifying every dish, avoiding a common buffet pitfall.) Unless you’re accustomed to the food of the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka (the majority ethnic group), it’s unlike anything you’ve ever eaten anywhere. Very thin, long strips of eggplant are fried seemingly forever and caramelized, and come out sweet, tangy, and smoked, with a consistency somewhere between chunky jam and the Jewish Sabbath dish *chulent* (beans simmered for many hours with brisket and other items). I kept going back for more, dishing it over the rice.

Nearby was pineapple curry, a dish Sri Lankans often eat for lunch. Note that it was not chicken or tofu or vegetables, say, in a pineapple curry. Pineapple was no mere condiment here, but the star. Coconut and a little curry leaf and cinnamon were the base for ample, juicy chunks of the fruit. To me, the dish felt like a fantasy fulfillment – I get to eat pineapple as a regular entrée? I’m not a stoner, but it did seem like ideal stoner food. Even absolutely sober, I found the pineapple curry and that eggplant the best things I’d eaten in months.

For the rest of the review, click here.

Ecstasy in Your Mouth, From Egypt

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook
Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook

 

This is from my review of Kabob Café in Astoria, published in New York’s Gay City News. Please pay no attention to the first paragraph about the rumored “vermin,” and go straight to the pomegranate molasses:

I was afraid of Astoria’s Kabob Café because of Yelp. I’m not proud of it, but I was. Several Yelpers had claimed there was “filth,” “cobwebs,” and even a roach spotted crawling on the unique Egyptian café’s art-laden walls. I try to be open-minded about restaurants, but I do draw the line at vermin.

Still, new friends Karen Taylor (the celebrated community organizer) and her wife, Laura Antoniou (the celebrated BDSM author), had recommended the place, and the food sounded thrilling: Lamb cheeks in pickled lemon sauce. Grilled goat cooked in honey. Oh vegetarians, I know I have neglected you in these reviews so far, so think on this: “Three kinds of mushrooms ground and spread… [with] spicy tomatoes and homemade yogurt,” according to Kabob Café’s menu, which only exists online and guides the physical distribution of food there only as a sort of spiritual template. Pumpkin dumplings, according to a Yelper. Humita (a Quechua Indian dish from South America, what was it doing on this otherwise Egyptian bill?): a “crêpe filled with stewed corn served in fresh tomato sauce and topped with homemade farmer’s cheese.”

When I met Karen and Laura there one wintry Saturday afternoon, I entered the tiny storefront on Steinway Street, in the far less yuppie and more Arab section of Astoria. I saw mismatched chairs with velvet cushions, and some variously beautiful and cheesy-looking paintings and souvenirs of Cairo, but no cobwebs or insects.

Many restaurants have been said to make you feel like you are guests in somebody’s home, but this is the only one that has ever really made me feel that way, for good or ill.

The chef and only staffer, Ali El Sayed, had just gotten back from vacation, and said his cupboards were barer than usual. As though he were our mom, he asked us to pick among the following things for lunch: cauliflower, beets with lemon, apples, garlic, and dill, green fava-bean falafel, lamb, duck, chicken, porgy, squid, and rabbit. Ali, tall, big-bellied, and gray-haired, in a black artist’s beret and chef’s whites, began to cook for us as my friends and I sat and talked. I knew from Yelp and from my friends that Ali’s meals take a long time, so we asked for hot tea, which he served us in glasses, with loads of mint leaves floating at the top.

The chef’s miniscule kitchen goes the length of the tiny room, and perhaps dominates it. I’ve eaten in restaurants with “open kitchens” before, but none has ever been as open as this. El Sayed is courtly and gracious, but he’s also occasionally overly talkative, on subjects ranging from politics (leftist, thankfully) to religion (he’s against it) and sex (he’s for it, in all of its varieties). Sometimes he even makes fun of his diners. Still, if you come with friends, he will not interrupt you much.

After Laura, Karen and I had discussed (solely among ourselves) A Song of Ice and Fire, Snape from Harry Potter, and a recent controversy in the International Ms. Leather contest, Ali brought out three naked plates for us, strewn decorously with the spice blend called zaatar and with sumac, plus a few drops of olive oil. Then he brought the first entrée for us to spoon onto those plates: roasted cauliflower in an extraordinary pomegranate sauce, with pinenuts, skinny slivers of red pepper, and sautéed chicory leaves.

I’ve had some amazing cauliflower dishes around town, but this one was different. This roasted cauliflower dish reminded me of a parable from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas where Jesus asks his disciples to tell him what he is like. One says, “You are like a righteous angel.” Another says, “You are like a wise philosopher.” But the disciple to whom Jesus gives the prize says, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying what you are like.” Jesus says (more or less), “That’s exactly what I wanted! You’ve become drunk from the intoxicating stream I have been tending.”

It was far better than (and amazing) similar dish at the Palestinian restaurant Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, hitherto my standard for the best Arab food in New York. I wanted to go on eating it until cauliflower came out of my nose.

Though in that gnostic text Thomas was rewarded for not trying to put into words what his own, spiritual version of that cauliflower dish was like, I will now put my foot in it and try anyway. With most attempts to make cauliflower taste good, the challenge is to temper its aggressiveness, but not so much that it loses its unique flavor. This cauliflower somehow blended with its tangy pomegranate friend (I believe lemon was also involved) in such a way that there was no tension between its pungency and the sweet, lappable sauce.

Next Ali brought duck, which, reader, is not my favorite animal to eat. But pieces of the roast thigh were succulent, with a wonderful, mysterious sweetness. They were served with dollops of a gelatinous-textured grain that Ali told us was a “polenta of cassava,” slim wedges of buttery roasted squash, and an appetizing wild green called horta. I like foods that quiver, and my fork went back again and again to that curious cassava jello-polenta. It bounced in my mouth.

For the rest of the review, click here.

Amazingly, Thanksgiving at Buttermilk Channel Was Not That Great

buttermilk Channel

Karen and I had Thanksgiving at Buttermilk Channel, a highly acclaimed yup restaurant in the strip of land between Carroll Gardens and Red Hook. We were quite sure that it would be delightful; it was more expensive than we could usually afford, but Buttermilk’s Thanksgiving menu was a little bit cheaper than those of other fancy schmancy restaurants in our city. So wearing our jewels, garbed in silk, we came on down.

I had on a gray silk blazer inherited from Karen’s sister, and a red Chinese vest inherited from Karen herself. Karen was wearing a gorgeous but not exorbitantly expensive brown flowered dress in which her figure soared, and Mexican gold-filled hoop earrings I had given her. I wore three rings, three more than I usually wear; it was Thanksgiving, after all. We ordered an entire bottle of wine, much more than I am usually able to drink at the age of 50 and on a medication that makes alcohol harder to digest.

The restaurant was dark with lovely candles throughout, and old swing music played from a speaker as small groups of people ate Thanksgiving meals. With a minerally white wine, we had popovers with sea salt and honey, which were extraordinary and made us feel rich. Then came the first course, which was the best course, for me at least: an autumn squash tart with ricotta cheese, covered strangely but toothsomely with shreds of raw red and green cabbage. Karen had a cream of cauliflower soup with pickled raisins that was only just okay.

Then we got hungry. We waited, and held hands, and drank, and drank, until the maître d’ had finally gotten the kitchen to deliver our main courses: turkey and stuffing mushed together on a plate, hard to tell apart in the dark and oddly hard to tell apart by taste. The stuffing tasted like nothing, and the turkey was dry; sadness. Cranberry sauce was only available as a miserly streak or two on top of some of the turkey slices. An “oyster bread pudding” was delivered and was good, but did not taste of oysters. A bowl of mashed potatoes was bland as porridge, some of the only mashed potatoes I have ever encountered that I did not want to eat. Brussels sprouts tasted good, but only because they came with a big mound of herbed butter.

Cornbread was moist but had no taste. A plate of sweet potatoes, I have to say, was nicely caramelized on top.

We held hands and drank the wine. Sweet potato-pumpkin pie was set down with a good dollop of whipped cream, which saved it, but only a little. We walked out into the night, singing, and came home and watched Star Trek.

 

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