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The Case for Polish Vodka

28 Mar

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Who do those Russians think they are meddling in our affairs? They fixed the election for their comrade Trump and now they are trying to disrupt all of Europe with their hacking and spying. Enough is enough, I say. No more borscht. No more blinis. No more Baltika beer. And most importantly, no more Russian vodka. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the sake of patriotism. I plan on doing my part by boycotting one of my favorite beverages. That means no Caucasians(white Russians), no martini’s with Stoli, and worst of all, no shots of lemon infused Russian vodka at the incomparable Russian Samovar. But I can only sacrifice so much, so instead of the Russian stuff, there is always our friends’ from Poland. They wouldn’t dare try to influence our elections. They have no aims to dominate the world. And they love America. In return, we love them. And now I plan to love their vodka.

I’m not sure Gerry shared my reasoning. Though he might not have been as passionate about my anti-Russian fervor, the prospect of a meal cooked by Polish grandmothers in the old-school cafeteria called Pyza, located a block from the liquor store on Nassau Avenue in gentrifying Greenpoint Brooklyn, was incentive enough for him to make the trip from Westchester.

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And he wasn’t complaining when he also agreed to accompany me to the Greenpoint Wine and Liquor store on Nassau Avenue where there was the opportunity to purchase budget priced but underrated Polish vodka. The store had a huge selection of vodkas including many Russians. There was Stoli. There was Imperia. There was Russian Standard and there were other, pricey Russian vodkas. There was no Putinka, however, the vodka named after the man behind the current mess we are in. Before we knew he was influencing our elections, I once bought a bottle of Putinka vodka and wrote about it in these pages  where I discussed the bizarre commingling of what was known as the a “vodka pizza” (On Pizza, Pomodoros, Putin, and Putinka).   Now, if I ever dare to order a slice of vodka pizza I’ll need to ask the pizza maker if Russian vodka was used in preparation. If so, it’s a no go.

vodka-pizza-015

Soft vodka named after a hard man

At the liquor store I now defiantly bypassed the Russian stuff  and grabbed a bottle of Wyobrowa and another of Stravinsky while Gerry nabbed a Lukosowa.

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The menu at Pyza

With our vodka stash in hand, we headed down the block to Pyza. The inexpensive meals were posted on the restaurant’s menu on the wall near the cashier. Both of us decided that the Polish plate, a combination of goodies such as pierogies, kielbasa, sauerkraut, stuffed cabbage, and potato pancakes, would give us a representative sampling of what grandma was cooking back in that kitchen. And we were not disappointed. Could there be a heartier food to line our stomachs while navigating the snow mounds that remained from the previous week’s blizzard? The only negative was that we couldn’t crack open the bottles just purchased and wash down the meal with a shot of the clear Polish stuff.

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Two Polish plates

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A Feast for Five Faux Kings in Greenpoint

30 Dec

Jadlo

“I had one of those korytos at another Polish place here in Greenpoint,” Zio told us all just before we were to order one at Krolewskie Jadlo. “The meat was dry.”

We hesitated, looking at him. The koryto in question was a platter of assorted meats enough to serve either a group of three or four.

After a moment’s reflection and realizing his declaration put a damper on our group’s plans, he said “But we should get it anyway,”

“You’re just saying that because you want the wiener  schnitzel,” I said to Zio.

“Yeah, I want the wiener schnitzel,” Zio nodded. “But that koryto at the other place was dry.”

We were in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, reunited with Rick, who, in 2014 had been absent for most of our gatherings. This was his choice and his only hesitation was that the chef was “Nobu-trained.” What would that mean to our pedestrian group who were more used to dining in restaurants where the chefs were trained by their mothers and grandmothers than at a four-star Japanese restaurant? And, to be sure, our only other previous Polish experience most definitely did not have a Nobu trained chef (see The Pierogies of Old Poland). Still he took the chance and, despite the rain and that it was a “Gridlock Alert” day,” all of us were present with the exception of Gerry. “I’ve got to go to a business party,” was his excuse. “And you know, bizness is bizness.”

One of the blonde Polish waitresses, of which there were many at Krolewskie Jadlo, came to take our order.

“We’ll have the Koryto for Four,” Zio said to rectify his gaffe.

“And an order of wiener schnitzel,” Rick added. After all, we were five, if anything our group tended to err on the side of excess. We couldn’t take a chance that even a huge platter of meats for four would be enough for our gluttonous group.

The five of us were seated at a chocolate brown wooden table. There was a royal motif surrounding the restaurant including an armored knight placed strategically by the front door. The restaurant’s name translated, so we were told to “King’s Feast” and on this night, we assumed that we were the kings.

The King's guardian

The King’s guardian

While we waited for our feast, we sipped a Polish beer recommended by the waitress called Lech. The beer was a disappointment, the Polish equivalent of Michelob, but the enormous wooden platter shaped like a hollowed out boat filled with meats that arrived promptly was not.

Before I could dig in, the tender meat in the “hunter stew,” a big piece of pork shank was gone with the exception of its thick covering of fat. And despite my tendencies, I couldn’t eat the fat especially with so many other options in the koryto to choose from including the hearty blood sausage, the grilled pork and chicken, the kebabs, and the cabbage and potato pierogies. The plate of wiener schnitzel we ordered, two pounded and breaded pork cutlets topped with fried eggs, seemed minuscule in comparison.

Das Boot

Das Boot

The meal was accompanied by platters of krauts; cabbage, beet, and carrot along with thick bread and a garlic, butter spread. The food was more than plentiful, but Mike from Yonkers, who was at the opposite end of the table and not within a long arm’s reach of “The Boat,” feared he would miss out on some of the boat’s goodies, so he made a point of rising from his seat, his mouth stuffed with food and fork in hand, and  moved closer, hunching perilously over my shoulder,  and then spearing a piece of kebab and perogie adding it onto his already cluttered plate.

The boat looked like it would be a challenge, but for our group of five; a koryto for four was easy work. Even the addition of the wiener schnitzel could not halt our assault. The only food that remained of this “king’s feast,” was some of the kraut and the skin from the pork shank, though Zio was tempted to not leave that behind.

Schnitzel

A “minuscule” Schnitzel

There were dessert options that came out on a separate smaller menu—something we were not used to—so we politely declined. The bill, totaled by the ever reliable Eugene, was well within our allotted budget. As we gathered outside the restaurant in the rain to say our goodbyes until 2015 Zio nodded and said, “I’d come back here.”

“So would I,” I said.

And with those words, Rick’s choice just passed the most crucial test of our group’s assessment of a restaurant’s success.

Neckbones’ Rum Diary: The Polar Vortex Rum Route

27 Jan

Polar Vortex rum

We had been informed by those who know about such things that a Polar Vortex had descended on the city.  All I knew that it was very cold as I emerged from my car on barren 134th Street just off the Bruckner Boulevard. I was in what is known as the “Mott Haven” section of the Bronx. I know it as the south Bronx.

The wind was howling as I pushed open the non-descript heavy steel door and made my way up two flights to the world headquarters of the Tirado Distillery. I could hear music playing behind a closed door—disco from the 1970’s. I knocked. The music stopped. Dr. Renee Hernandez, the owner of, according to Dr. Hernandez, the Bronx’s first distillery since prohibition, was expecting me.

The Tirado Distillery sign

The Tirado Distillery door sign

The heat was on in the brightly lit room where folding tables and chairs held samples of the products made at the Tirado Distillery, but I was still cold. I was more familiar with rum among palm trees and sugar cane fields; often being whisked beach side to warm weather distilleries. Now, however, I was exploring that same spirit on grimy city streets within the grips of a polar vortex. I tried to keep an open mind as Dr. Hernandez offered me tasting sips of his products. I started with the corn whiskey.

“It’s organic,” Dr. Hernandez told me. “We get the corn from farms upstate.”

I winced at the taste, not that it was bad , but that I wasn’t quite ready for the bracing jolt it gave me.

“Bronx moonshine,” Dr. Hernandez called it. “It goes great in a ‘sex on the beach,’” he said.

I looked at him. He had to go and mention the beach?

I next tried the black rum. It was hearty; heavy-bodied in the style of what is known as Navy rums.

“I like to mix it with passion fruit juice,” Dr. Hernandez told me and I couldn’t argue. It needed something to cut its denseness.

“Where do you get your molasses for the rum,” I inquired. “Puerto Rico? The Dominican Republic? Jamaica?”

“New Jersey,” he answered.

I nodded, but said nothing.

“From International Molasses,” he added.

I understood but didn’t inquire further as to where New Jersey’s International Molasses got their molasses.

Finally I sampled the distillery’s “Maple Delight,” a blend of whiskey with a hint of local New York maple sugar. Surprisingly smooth, the Maple Delight was my favorite in the Tirado Distillery repertoire.

The sips had taken the chill off and Dr. Hernandez took me into the production facility down the hall which featured rows of plastic buckets used for fermentation, a few small stainless steel stills and boxes of empty bottles ready to be filled and labeled. From the loft-like facility, you could see the flickering lights of Manhattan.

Tirado's fermentation tanks.

Tirado’s fermentation tanks.

“We only produce around 300 bottles a year and concentrate on making our products clean and smooth. You won’t get a hangover from our rum or whiskey.” Dr. Hernandez proudly proclaimed.

I thanked him for the personalized tour and made my way back out into the cold. I got into my car and turned up the heat. The last time I made the rum rounds was on the island of Martinique. There are eleven rum distilleries on that French Caribbean island and the local tourist board promotes visiting them with what they call “la route des rhums.” Here in frigid New York, after Tirado Distillery, I had two more to visit. Would my escapade qualify as a route des rhums?

One of the distillery's on Martinique "route des rhums."

One of the distillery’s on Martinique’s “route des rhums.”

My next stop was Brooklyn and I soon found myself in an industrial, truck-crammed area similar to Mott Haven. I was in Williamsburg—or was it Bushwick—searching for my destination TNE (The Nobel Experiment)NYC, the distillery that makes another New York-produced rum called Owney’s. And I soon found it—the TNE NYC painted in big bold black letters above a graffiti-strewn steel door.

The door to TNE's headquarters.

The door to TNE’s headquarters.

On one of my tropical, beach-centric rum assignments many years ago I met Owen Tulloch, the master blender for J. Wray & Nephew’s Appleton Estate rums in Jamaica. At the time, the esteemed Mr. Tulloch was grooming his young associate, Joy Spence, in both the scientific and the sensory ways of blending fine rums. Soon after we met, Mr. Tulloch retired and Ms Spence became the spirit industry’s first female master blender.

Now, almost twenty years later, many miles north of the Caribbean during—I have to say it again— a polar vortex, I was greeted by Bridget Firtle, the CEO and founder of TNE who is not only another female master blender of fine rum, but one who also operates every physical aspect of the rum making process as well as distribution. The Noble Experiment is literally a one-woman show.

What can you say about a young, up and coming Wall Street and hedge fund mover and shaker who gives up that potentially very lucrative, yet soulless career for one that , albeit risky, actually enriches others’ (speaking of my own) lives by following her passion and creating a beloved (by me) hand-crafted spirit in her polar vortex-challenged hometown? That is what Bridget Firtle has done and some might think that maybe inhaling too many alcoholic vapors might have compromised her career choice decision while others, me included, applaud her for chasing her dream.

The Noble Experiment, so named as a nod to one of the terms associated with Prohibition when rum running was the rage, was housed in an open, airy room where towering mashing tanks and copper pot stills glittered in the natural light that poured through the big windows. The machinery looked imposing to me, but Ms. Firtle learned to handle them all expertly enough to churn out 23,000 bottles in her initial 2012 batch, and to also earn Owney’s Rum, named in another nod to the Prohibition Era after notorious bootlegger, Cotton Club owner, and gangster, Owney Madden, a silver medal at the 2013 New York International Spirit’s Competition.

Some of the machinery at the TNE Distillery run by Bridgit Firtle.

Some of the machinery at the TNE Distillery run by Bridget Firtle.

Fortified with sugar cane molasses from Florida and Louisiana and made with that same coveted New York water that is credited with making New York bagels and pizza so good, Owney’s is a smooth white rum. The sip offered me at the handsome wood burnished bar in the lobby of the distillery reflected that distinctive water; clean enough to enjoy on the rocks with a wedge of lime or, even better, as the soul of a classic daiquiri. Firtle’s own experiment is not only noble, but very impressive and though Wall Street might be the “poorer” for losing her talents, the New York rum establishment, such as it is, is much richer for it.

Polar Vortex Rum

I wasn’t far from the next stop in my urban rum route, also in Brooklyn, and even though I found my way to Red Hook, I wasn’t really sure exactly where I was going and what I was going to see. My interest was in Cacao Prieto rum, but did that mean I needed to go to the Widow Jane bourbon factory that was associated with Cacao Prieto, which was also, as its name connotes, a chocolate making enterprise. I noticed the colorful mural of workers harvesting sugar cane on the wall of a warehouse. I knew I had to be close and then around the corner saw the old brick building with the prominent “Cacao Prieto” sign on it. I was where I wanted to be. At least I thought I was.

Harvesting sugar can in Red Hook during a Polar Vortex.

Harvesting sugar cane in Red Hook during a Polar Vortex.

The doors were locked but a sign on it left a phone number to call to gain entry or to “knock loudly.” I knocked loudly. A man in worker coveralls opened up. I told him what my interest was. Another man, bearded and heavily tattooed with a roguish, Captain Jack Sparrow smile, introduced himself as Vince Oleson. “I’m a distiller,” he said.

A distiller at a rum distillery could certainly help me. And Mr. Oleson did. He took me past the American and French oak barrels, copper pot stills, through a small yard where live chickens roamed, and then to the fermentation tanks in a back room.  Oleson told me how the rum was made from organic sugar cane from Daniel Preston’s, the owner and founder of Cacao Prieto, family’s farm in the Dominican Republic where the cacao for the artisanal chocolate made at Cacao Prieto also came from. He explained how the water used was from the “Widow Jane” mine in the Catskills and packed with minerals adding even more depth to the finished product, and how the cacao beans were actually fermented with the white rum to create their signature and unique “Don Rafael Cacao Rum,” and “Don Esteban Cacao liqueur.”

I did a lot of nodding as Oleson schooled me in the Red Hook rum making process. It all sounded almost too impressive. No one ever emphasized the water during my various other Caribbean rum tours. No one blended organic cacao with organic sugar cane in Martinique, Jamaica, Barbados or any of the other rum-making islands I’d visited. But this was Brooklyn, home of the artisanal food movement: I should have known.

Polar Vortex Rum

After the tour, Oleson set me up at their tasting bar with samplings of a number Cacao Prieto’s rums including a small batch produced of what they call Widow Jane Rye rum, or rum aged in the oak barrels formerly used to age the company’s rye. The result was a subtle smoky flavor from the rye. “With this you could make a rum sazerac,” I said.

“Now that’s a great idea,” Oleson replied, again with the rougish, Jack Sparrow smile.

After that sip I was full of great ideas and it got even better when I sampled Cacao Prieto’s Don Rafael Cacao rum; the company’s smooth white rum infused with their own rich chocolate. But this wasn’t just chocolate, this was “cacao,” and the flavor was both intense and clean. Finally I sipped the white rum. Like Owney’s, it’s was fresh, fortified by that mineral-rich New York water and would work just fine on the rocks or in a lightly flavored drink like a daiquiri or even a French Caribbean Ti Punch.

The Cacao Prieto Tasting Bar.

The Cacao Prieto Tasting Bar.

I let Mr. Oleson get back to work. There were rums to distill. My self guided route des rhums was over and I was stuck in traffic on the BQE. The windshield of my car was beginning to ice and I turned on the defroster. Now that my hometown had its own burgeoning rum making industry did I really need to travel all the way to those lush, warm tropical islands to experience what had been lacking here? As I pondered that question, there was more blather on the radio about the polar vortex.  By the time I crossed the Kosciusko Bridge into Queens, I pondered it no more.

On the Polar Vortex rum route.

The scenic Polar Vortex rum route.

Tirado Distillery
755 W. 134th St.
The Bronx
tiradorum.com

The Noble Experiment
23 Meadow Street,
Brooklyn
tneynyc.com

Cacao Prieto
218 Conover Street
Red Hook, Brooklyn
cacaoprieto.com

Curry Exotica

2 Jan

Amarin Cafe

“Why did you pick this place,” I asked Eugene as we warmed up inside Amarin Café, the “modern” Thai restaurant he chose that was surrounded by Polish restaurants in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

“Because  we haven’t had Thai in a while and I looked at the menu and it’s cheap,” he replied.

I tend to struggle with my picks for our group; trying to find something a little different, unique in its own way and of course meeting our group’s budget criteria. Unlike mine, Eugene’s process seemed effortless. Why had I not thought of it before?

There were four of us waiting in the small restaurant; an open kitchen providing well needed heat. Rick had put himself on the temporarily “inactive” list for our group as he dealt with family issues. But Zio’s absence was a mystery. No one had heard from him. I texted to see if he was on his way.

In the meantime, we went ahead and ordered appetizers; fish cake, Thai spring rolls and something I had never seen before on a Thai menu, mussels “a la mariniere.”

There was no response from Zio, so I tried calling him. He picked up after several rings. “Where are you?” I asked.

“Home,” Zio said as if my question was a dumb one.

“We’re at the restaurant,” I told him. “About to order.”

“Restaurant? What are you talking about?” Zio tends to get flustered, but this was worrisome.

“The food group? It’s today.”

“I didn’t know anything about that,” he said, now comprehending the reason for my call. Apparently, for whatever reason, he never got any of mine or Eugene’s emails. It was now too late for him to get to our table in Greenpoint from Astoria before our appetizers arrived. We would remain only four.

Before I could hang up, the fish cake, spring roll and a steaming bowl of mussels arrived on our table. The fish cake and spring roll were  standard Thai fare, but the “modern” mussels mariniere were nothing like you would find in a French Bistro or a New York Thai restaurant for that matter. The mussels were steamed in a herb broth made up of white wine, garlic, shallots and plenty of chopped Thai basil and chilies. The only thing missing was a loaf of crusty bread to soak up all that glorious broth. The lack of bread, however, didn’t stop Gerry from using his spoon and slurping it down like a soup.

Mussels Mariniere Thai style

Mussels Mariniere Thai style

The entrée decision came soon after we devoured the appetizers. As is our custom, we asked our waiter, one of two women also working the cash register, what the specialties were. She mentioned the “exotic” penang curry with salmon. Exotic curry appealed to me and I ordered it, but with chicken.

“How do you like it? Spicy?” she asked.

“I like it the way you like it,” I replied.

“I like it spicy, she said.

“Then so do I.” I nodded and she noted it on her pad.

“What’s the curry with the coconut milk? I want something with coconut milk,” Eugene barked to her.

“You like red curry then,” she said.

“If it has coconut milk, then I like it. With chicken,” he said, tossing his menu.

Mike from Yonkers ordered the same, but with shrimp while Gerry braved another offbeat Thai selection; the spinach spaghetti with shrimp. We rounded out our order with Pad Thai for the table.

A bowl of what looked like a tomato based curry was placed in front of me. There was chicken and a few other vegetables. I had a small taste. The heat of the spice instantly stimulated the nerve in my throat that controls my hiccupping reflex. The hiccups came despite swallowing some ice water and shoveling white rice into my mouth. Finally, my body adjusted to the spice and the hiccups subsided replaced now by a sheen of perspiration around my forehead. I had settled into hot sauce nirvana.

Exotic Penang Curry

Exotic Penang Curry

Eugene’s hiccups matched my own, though his red curry chicken was no match in terms of spice to my exotic Penang. Mike from Yonkers, deliberately mixing the white rice in with his red curry, taking his time to savor every curry-coated kernel didn’t have the same reaction as Eugene and I. And Gerry’s non-traditional Thai green spinach spaghetti coated in an Asian, cilantro, garlic and basil-based sauce, though not hiccup inducing, was a revelation.

Pad Thai

Pad Thai

“The only thing missing is a cold beer,” Gerry mentioned as we cleaned our plates.

“Maybe so,” Mike from Yonkers said. “But there is crème brulee on the menu.”

“Crème brulee? I don’t think so,” I said, maybe a little hastily after experiencing the anti-Thai mussels and spinach spaghetti. “Let’s go get some Polish vodka instead.” We were, after all in Greenpoint.

“Now you’re talking,” Gerry responded quickly rising from his seat.

Amarin Cafe
617 Manhattan Ave
Brooklyn

 

One Man’s Pizza

14 Jun

I consider myself a pizza aficionado (or should I say snob) and have sampled many of the legends. For old school, brick oven, coal fired style I’ve been to original John’s on Bleecker Street, Grimaldi’s just over the Brooklyn Bridge, Patsy’s in East Harlem, Lombardi’s in SoHo, and the original Totonno’s in Coney Island. I’ve experienced the pleasures of the perfect New York “regular” slice at Joe’s on Bleecker. For Sicilian slices, there wasn’t much better than Sal’s in Mamaroneck. Back in my college days, I often ditched dorm dinner to drive over an hour for the clam pie at Frank Pepe’s in New Haven or a meatball “apizza” from Zuppardi’s in nearby West Haven. But I had never been to the much celebrated Di Fara’s Pizzeria in Midwood, Brooklyn.

The crowds waiting to eat at Di Fara’s were as legendary as the pizza. Di Fara’s definitely took planning; open for lunch from 12 until 4:30 and then closed until 6 made the timing tough.  Do you get there before 6 and hang out outside waiting for it to open? Do you time it so you arrive after the first wave has ordered? Or do you make Di Fara’s an afternoon- long lunch break?  It all seemed too complicated until, finally, Gerry and I ventured to Midwood 2007; leaving in the late afternoon hoping to arrive just as Di Fara’s opened for dinner. It just so happened that our group was scheduled to convene the following night at a traditional, not so celebrated place.  What follows below is part one of what turned out to be an eating doubleheader.

Di Fara Pizza
1424 Avenue J
Midwood, Brooklyn

Gerry and I knew it would be a challenge. Zio couldn’t do it; the termites were beginning their early spring spawn and his talents were needed elsewhere. Mike from Yonkers claimed other commitments such as a job. Eugene claimed other commitments such as working out, if that can possibly be believed. Rick was a Di Fara veteran and a hard working executive; consecutive eating orgies might appear to be frivolous. That left only Gerry and I. We were braced for back to back expeditions to the outer boroughs and the culinary pleasures they promised starting with a long anticipated trip to the much hyped Di Fara Pizza followed by a trip to Queens and a Japanese place picked by Eugene called Yamakaze.

Normally we wouldn’t consider a food destination if we classified it “much hyped,” but for Di Fara’s we were willing to make an exception. Yes, the pizzeria had been ballyhooed in all the local publications, many claiming it to be the best pizza in the city. And after making the trek, finding it surrounded by Kosher bakeries and grocery stores on Avenue J in the heart of Jewish-orthodox Midwood, Brooklyn; the exterior non-descript, the interior cramped, the few tables either occupied or empty but with bits of  congealed cheese, olive oil, sauce, and crust from possibly a generation of diners still on the tables, the walls, where the paint wasn’t peeling or crumbling, covered with accolades from all the usual suspects: New York Magazine, Time Out New York, Newsday, the Daily News, the Times, along with a photo of Di Fara proprietor and master pizza maker Dominic DeMarco and his daughter with Rob Reiner, and a framed, and very apt quote credited to Mohandas Gandhi: “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

Gerry and I both were prepared for a wait. We knew Dominic DeMarco took pride in making every pizza himself and his way, which was, so we heard, painstakingly methodical. There is no defined ordering system at Di Fara. When we walked in there were a number of people scattered around the counter. Was there a line to order? I asked but all I got in return were bemused smiles and shrugs. I took that to mean that there wasn’t. But when Dominic’s daughter, who was the old man’s only help that evening, actually asked us what we wanted, we knew we had to be ready with a quick answer. That didn’t leave any time to peruse the options so Gerry and I went with the easiest; a regular “round” pie and two slices of “square.” And to our surprise, there were actually two hot square slices available as well as a just vacated, oil-streaked, tomato sauce-stained table. The slices would work as the perfect appetizer as we waited for our pie.

Square Pie

A stack of empty boxes that held cans of San Marzano tomatoes was piled next to the counter which I quickly attributed to the robust sauce on our “square” slices. When lifting the slice the olive oil slid gracefully over the cheese while the crust, cooked not in a wood burning brick oven and despite being saturated by the oil, retained a crunchy, almost fried-like texture. Before even tasting the slice, Gerry, reflexively, added granulated garlic which he almost immediately regretted; the addition totally superfluous.

  So we devoured our slices and then began to wait. We had no idea who might have ordered before or after us. People began to fill the small confines, gathering around the counter. DeMarco’s daughter had disappeared into the back; presumably to prepare additional ingredients like sausage, pepperoni, onions, and mushrooms. When she returned, she didn’t immediately go to the counter to take orders but went about her business oblivious of the hordes that were forming. I went out and bought a few beers for the wait and bagels from one of the kosher bakeries for the next morning’s breakfast. A half hour went by. A group of high school students who were there before us were still waiting for their pie. A man sitting and staring at the counter expectantly, also ahead of us, would occasionally get up, take a look at what was going on behind the counter only to return to his seat and resume his staring. The area around the counter was now three deep. Some were waiting for orders, others waiting to put in an order whenever the daughter got around to asking.

 Our appetizer, the square slices, instead of holding off our appetites, increased it. We were ravenous. The daughter noticed us and checked her pad; she confirmed that our order had been placed. “Just a few more ahead of you,” she said. That was reassuring.

Forty five minutes had passed. Our beers were gone. I was contemplating the bag of bagels. The high school kids finally got their pizza; we watched as Dominic, a bit stooped, accompanied the pie to the counter, hand grated parmesan cheese from a huge wedge and sprinkled it on the pie, added a slather of olive oil from an old fashioned spouted tin and then brought over a bunch of basil and using scissors, clipped a few leaves onto the pie. Gerry and I eyed the pizza as the kids began to eat. The man waiting next to us got up, made his way to the counter and tried to peer over it. Dominic noticed and nodded. The man acknowledged the nod. Progress. The next pizza out was his.

The hands of DeMarco at work.

 We were close. We had been waiting just over an hour when we got the nod from Dominic. Gerry got up and let Dominic prepare the pie the Di Fara way; a sprinkling of grated cheese, a few swirls of olive oil, and then the freshly scissor-cut basil. Gerry brought the pie to the table. We waited just a few moments for it to cool down while admiring its aesthetic perfection and then, despite hungry, envious eyes upon us, began to deliberately consume it, slice by slice, finishing in less than a quarter of the time of our wait for it to arrive.

 It was large pie and despite its somewhat delicate crust, still heartier than the thin, coal-fueled oven pies from say, Patsy’s in Harlem or Totonno’s in Coney Island. which made finishing it in its entirety an accomplishment or a blatant display of gluttony, depending on your point of view. Gerry and I certainly believed it was the former. What was the point in taking a slice or two home? We could have been generous and shared a last slice with one of the many now waiting anxiously for DeMarco to make their pizza. But then who knew when we would ever return to Midwood and subject ourselves to the bitter and the sweet of Di Fara Pizza? The pizza was extraordinary, but was it worth the long, confusing wait within Di Fara’s dingy, cramped confines. Di Fara’s requires work; you have to plan your visit, trying your best to avoid prime times, but, in a strange way, maybe the extra effort enhances the flavor and overall dining experience. Maybe Di Fara’s pizza would not taste so special if it were more accessible? If nothing else, it was something to think about on the long ride home.

Where the man works.

Since our visit in 2007, Gerry has returned to Di Fara’s several times, but I’ve never been back. Again, it’s the planning thing; I just haven’t cleared the afternoon/evening to make the trek.  And Di Fara’s is seemingly recession-proof; in 2009 they upped their slice to a whopping $5. But Di Fara’s is unique; the pizza cannot really be replicated. Or so I thought?  According to Di Fara’s website; www.difara.com, there is the sobering news that there will be a Di Fara’s debuting this summer in, where else, Las Vegas. The only good news about that is that the time it takes to get to Midwood from where I live in Manhattan along with the requisite hour plus wait for a pie,  it actually might be faster to  get a Vegas Di Fara slice into my mouth than a Brooklyn slice.

The Pierogies of Old Poland

15 Feb

I had never been to Greenpoint, Brooklyn before our visit to Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant in early 2005. It was an eye-opener in some ways to me. First, it’s not easy to get there from Manhattan via public transportation. The closest train is the G train which has no Manhattan stops. You need to take either the L to Lorimer Street in Williamsburg and switch to the G or take the 7 to Queens where you can connect to the G at 45 Road. Maybe because it’s so inaccessible that it has remained a strong Polish enclave. At least it was that way in 2005 when I visited and wrote what appears below.

Old Poland Bakery: circa 2005

Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant
(Now Northside Bakery)
190 Nassau Avenue,
Greenpoint

Rick deliberated long and hard before choosing the Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And the fact that whenever he called the place and asked—in English—about a reservation and to make sure they would be still open when we got there they hung up on him, was either a very good sign or we were in big trouble. But when we arrived, saw the faces that populated the restaurant—yes we were still in New York—and noticed the prices of the food written in magic marker on cardboard, we quickly realized that we might just have hit the mother lode. That this brightly-lit combination bakery and Polish diner was exactly what we all yearned to discover.

Of course there was a television and of course on the television was a Polish station with Polish cartoons and news of the Polish football league. Both were watched silently and intently by men with ample guts, close-cropped hair, ruddy faces and wearing colorful sweaters. Rick and I hoped for some help with the menu and some guidance on what we should order but our request was met with a blank stare and then a shrug by the pretty woman taking orders behind the counter. There was no table service here; you had to go up and pay when you ordered. We decided we should take shifts in ordering. I had the first shift and choose a selection of pierogies; meat, potato, and sauerkraut, and cheese blintzes. Inexplicably, the same pretty woman this time had no difficulty understanding me. While waiting we sampled a variety of Polish beers that, beyond their colorful names and labels, were not worth remembering though they did add a balance to the density of the pierogies. This starter selection of starch was seriously testing our mettle.

 

 

The next round—and really the last included something called a “Polish Plate.” With a name like that how could we pass it up? We also agreed on pork tenderloin, lima bean stew, and at Eugene’s unexplained insistence, that old Polish favorite, roast beef. The Polish plate consisted of a variety of Polish favorites like grilled kielbasa, potato pancake, more of those feathery pierogies, and an excellent meatloaf accompanied by pickled beets and red cabbage. The pork tenderloin was cooked perfectly and smothered in a thick, but not overly rich gravy. The surprise favorite of our selections was the lima bean stew, with chunks of smoked sausage and in a dense cabbage broth it was most definitely a hearty meal. The roast beef? Think college cafeteria.

Zio, who in less than a week would become a nonno, braved the bakery section and ordered carrot cake and a chocolate-covered cream puff, that was rivaled only by the sauerkraut filled pierogi in its density-quotient. But food density had yet to thwart Zio.

Though I wouldn’t put the cuisine of Eastern Europe high on my very long list of ethnic food favorites, a visit to Greenpoint where the Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant was located was worth it for the “we’re in another world” factor alone. Not to mention the ridiculously low tab of $11 per person including beers.

 

 

But things change. Though still a Polish enclave for sure, gentrification has crept into Greenpoint despite how difficult it is to reach via public transportations. The growth of nearby Williamsburg has extended into Greenpoint with new developments and restorations of single and two-family homes. Old Poland Bakery is now called the Northside Bakery (a Division of Old Poland Foods) and when I recently visited, I noticed that the space had been compressed into half of what I remembered. There is a small food counter and bakery space with now just a few tables. There was a television, and the patrons and women behind the counter were glancing at it, but not Polish news, cartoons, or sports;  instead they were all watching “The View.”

The Lamb in Sheepshead (Bay)

25 Jan

What made our journey to Bay Shish Kebab, the restaurant I’ve reported on below, so memorable was not so much the food, which I recall was very good, but the effort it took to get there. This was Gerry’s pick and his research did not figure in how difficult it would be to get to Sheepshead Bay, where Bay Shish Kebab was located, from our respective locations in Manhattan and Westchester. The first attempt to get to Bay Shish Kebab was thwarted because of bumper to bumper traffic on the West Side Highway. To get to Sheepshead Bay at anywhere near the appointed time was next to impossible. Communicating through cellphones, we diverted to a mediocre, thus, unmemorable restaurant in Chinatown. Gerry tried again a month later, but on the day we were to go there were several cancellations; enough to cancel the outing altogether. Maybe it wasn’t to be; maybe Gerry just had to pick another destination? But no, he was determined and a month later, we set out again for Sheepshead Bay.

Bay Shish Kebab
R.I.P

Gerry was insistent. He wouldn’t let the hour and a half drive to Sheepshead Bay be a deterrent in his pursuit of Bay Shish Kebab. Despite repeated protestations by his fellow food hounds and even after two failed tries, he would not give up his obsessive quest. This was becoming an Iraq-like fiasco with no end in sight. We had no choice but to gas up our vehicles and be prepared to sit in rush hour traffic in the middle of two of New York’s worst thoroughfares; the BQE for Gerry and Eugene and the West Side Highway for myself and Zio. But enduring the horrific drive would be the only way to free Gerry from the demons that were driving him to lead us all into the outer fringes of Brooklyn for what he had us believe would be the exotic cuisine of Uzbekistan.

 

 

There were no miracles; the trip did take an hour and a half with a foreboding sky-darkening downpour accompanying us throughout the journey. Even more foreboding was the fact that we were eating at a Muslim-run establishment on the beginning of the Jewish New Year. But, after numerous griping calls to Gerry as we sat in traffic, we finally made it to Sheepshead Bay and the elusive Bay Shish Kebab.

The restaurant, nestled prominently in the middle of a strip mall, was bright, and practically empty, yet the owners were waiting anxiously for “Gerry’s party.” Of course we were ravenous and thankfully pide, or freshly-baked Turkish bread, was brought to the table. The bread was Turkish, as were most of the items on the menu. There were a few Uzbek dishes, but the owner proclaimed that Bay Shish Kebab was a Turkish restaurant, not a Uzbek restaurant.

 

 

As soon a Rick arrived; his drive from Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn a mere 25 minutes, we began to order; cold mixed appetizers, mantu dumplings, and Turkish pies, similar to pizza, but minus the tomato sauce and heavy on the lamb. The mixed appetizers were mostly familiar; babagannus (as it was spelled on the menu), humus (also how it was spelled on the menu), stuffed grape leaves, tabuleh, but also a few surprises including a Turkish specialty called soslu patlican, eggplant with tomatoes, peppers, onions in a peppery red sauce. The pide was perfect to soak up the dips. Then the Turkish pies arrived along with the mantu dumplings, tiny ravioli-like dumplings stuffed with ground meat and swimming in Turkish yogurt.

 

 

Of course, the appetizers alone could have sustained us, but we were here for the famed kebabs. With the exception of chicken, the kebabs were all variations of lamb—hand-chopped, cubed, diced, and sliced. We ordered an assortment and one Uzbek specialty, palav, also known as pilaf, or rice with chunks of lamb, onions, carrots, and chick peas. The platters were gargantuan with the variations of lamb and chicken served either over rice or soaked in yogurt that was absorbed by cubes of bread and accompanied with hollowed-out, slightly hot peppers. The table suddenly became quiet as we began to work through the mounds of food, Zio, as usual, deft with his fork, leading the way. Gerry’s folly, and the long journey had been temporarily forgotten.

After all the meat, dessert was out of the question for me, but Gerry and Zio had much more in their reserves than I and ordered the Turkish rice pudding. They will have to elaborate on what made the rice pudding distinctly Turkish, as opposed to the familiar Greek variety.  Others thought coffee might help digest the enormous quantity of lamb we had just ingested, but the look on Eugene’s face when he took his first sip of his Turkish coffee was not promising. It brought back memories of the famed Filipino dessert with kidney beans and the Russian soft drink, Kavas; two of Eugene’s less than favorite exotic global eating experiences.

We were all quite content with Bay Shish Kebab and proclaimed it a winner until we received the check and Eugene added up the damage. We were way above our $20 budget for this one, but knowing how bizarrely meaningful this pick was to Gerry, let him slide. Next time, however, he will be held accountable.

 

 

Like Staten Island, where there are potentially many places that would fit our criteria, getting to Sheepshead Bay during the week at the height of rush hour, makes it next to impossible to venture. Maybe someday soon we will rise to the challenge. As for Bay Shish Kebab, my research has shown that it closed in mid-2010 for “renovations.” In other words:  R.I.P. Bay Shish Kebab.

Spanish Grease

11 Jan

After my second son was born in early 2004, the rest of that year seemed like a blur. I do, however, remember the trip to Brooklyn to El Viejo Yayo #2. And after re-reading what I wrote below, my exhaustion was evident and probably colored my less than enthusiastic response to our experience there.

El Viejo Yayo #2
317 9th Street
Brooklyn

 

 

It was tough; only the group of gluttonous gourmands could get me out for my first nocturnal venture since the birth of my second son, but out I staggered, on very little sleep, to Brooklyn, destination: El Viejo Yayo #2 (bonus points for anyone who knows what a “yayo” is).  This was Rick’s choice and, based on our Tandoori Hut experience, we were hoping history would repeat itself and that an inside tip, in this case a Latin restaurant recommendation from one of his Hispanic co-workers, would lead to a restaurant scoop.

Yayo 2 was in Park Slope Brooklyn in the increasingly trendy locale of 5th Avenue. But this was no trendy place. With the exception of the adornment of well-fed fish in a large fish tank, Yayo 2 was a simple, clean, relatively spacious, Dominican slanted, Latin restaurant. We were all able to assemble for this one and there was plenty of room for us. The meringue music was playing continuously and there was baseball (albeit exhibition baseball) on the television. The ambitious menu boasted not only Dominican specialties such as chicharron de pollo and an assortment of steaks and stews; it also had an “Italian corner” and a “Mexican corner.” All of us wisely stayed away from those corners and stuck to the Dominican dishes.

Unlike my local Dominican restaurant, El Malecon, Yayo 2 offered a selection of mofongos; double-fried tostones, stuffed with garlic, onions and pork cracklings, shaped into a cup and mixed with an assortment of meats and seasonings. To start we ordered two; one with pork chunks and another with sausage. They came to the table almost immediately and whether it was the density of the food along with the Presidente beer or whether it was my exhaustion, I was practically done before getting started. But the Yayo steak I ordered was soon to come and I was curious to sample Zio’s “horse steak Yayo style” as well as Gerry’s kingfish, Rick’s barbecue ribs, and Charlie’s chicken stew. The way he was protectively hunched over his fish, I knew better than to think I would get a nibble of Eugene’s fried tilapia.

 

Mofongo: The beginning of the end.

 

Soon my Yayo steak appeared; a slab of flattened, charred beef covered with onions and accompanied with a monstrous portion of yellow rice and red beans. Looking at the bounty in front of me, I knew I was in trouble. With the mofongo now anchored heavy in my gut, I began to labor my way through the tough, dry steak and pile of rice and beans. It didn’t help that opposite me I had to watch Zio heartily devour his horse steak—don’t worry, no ponies were harmed in production of Zio’s dinner. The steak was identical to mine, but covered with two eggs—over easy. I did sample a bit of Gerry’s kingfish, and Charlie’s chicken stew, but I couldn’t get myself to touch one of Rick’s ordinary-looking, and in his opinion ordinary-tasting, ribs. I was done; and to the surprise of the others, with half the slab of meat still on my plate.

Well, at least I thought I was done. I just couldn’t resist a tropical dessert and opted for the coconut pudding. A good choice, but not as good as the excellent flan I sampled from Gerry’s order.

 

 

As we left the restaurant having just barely met our $20 minimum, my stomach was beginning to misbehave. I do not blame Yayo #2 for this; exhaustion can do strange things to your body. But with the exception of the mofongo, which I very much liked despite its plaque inducing ingredients, and the desserts, Yayo #2 was a disappointment and not in the league of El Malecon in quality or value. Insider tips can be tricky; the insider might have an acquired taste for flattened, charred slabs of beef. You just never know. Despite how I felt the rest of the night, within 24 hours of the Yayo #2 experience, I was, I’m proud to say, able to regain my usual voracious appetite.

My son, the one mentioned being born just a few weeks before we visited El Viejo Yayo #2, will turn seven in a little over a month. Why does it feel then, like I was just there? And he was just a baby. Okay, that’s as deep as you’ll get me to go here.  I’ve not returned to El Viejo Yayo but from what I’ve gathered on the internet, it has not changed much. There is still a number one (36 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn) and a number 2, the one we experienced. It now has a website (www.elviejoyayo.com) and the menu, with a few minor deletions and additions, and, of course price increases due to inflation, has remained the same though El Viejo Yayo #1 seems a bit more stylish and doesn’t have the noted Italian or Mexican corners.

Spleen on a Bun

19 Oct

Rick was the last of us to make a pick during our first go round in this still experimental food group. His choice was a convenient restaurant close to his then apartment in Carroll Gardens called Ferdinando’s Focacceria. This was in 2002 and at the time I had no idea of the burgeoning gentrification and real estate boom that was happening in that neighborhood. I’m not sure Rick was even aware of it even while he was living in the midst of the boom. Looking back, the changing clientele in the restaurant at the time was a tip off though it was really just the start. Within a few years, townhouses that were owned for generations of mostly Italian Americans were being gobbled up for astronomical sums…and still are. The upward creeping prices at the ancient restaurant should have also been an indication. My recording of that meal in the fall of 2002 follows:

Ferdinando’s Focacceria
151 Union Street
Brooklyn

The red flags went up soon after I sat down at Ferdinando’s Focacceria Ristorante on Union Street in the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. Just a short walk from Rick’s apartment, Ferdinando’s was his pick, the last of our first go-round at this food adventure thing. The red flags were up because of what I noticed on the restaurant’s ancient (circa 1904) brick walls; plaques with a commendation from Zagat and another with a printed review by Eric Asimov of the New York Times in the $25 and under column he used to write. His review of Ferdinando’s appeared in 1993 when $25 and under went a longer way than $25 and under does now. And anyway, our aim wasn’t $25 and under, it was $20 and under. And commendations from popular guides like Zagat and of course from the Newspaper of Record meant that this was far from an “under the radar” establishment. Okay, so every place we go to can’t be a discovery, but could we at least be not too far off? I guess if you’ve been around since 1904 that’s pretty hard to do.

I’m mainly familiar with Carroll Gardens through Rick and the abundant barbecues he holds in his backyard. Whenever I visited, I’d see the old school Italian-Americans sitting in their rickety lawn chairs in front of their brownstones. These were the people, Rick claimed, who were the clientele of Ferdinando’s and that’s how he sold it. But on this Friday evening, the restaurant was inhabited not by those I used to see sitting on those lawn chairs on summer evenings. The diners at Ferdinando’s were more like the six (myself included) who waddled in from somewhere else. In other words, Ferdinando’s, like the neighborhood, was getting seriously gentrified. So because it had already been discovered by the New York Times and Zagat, and despite what looked like an intriguing menu, I was wary that Ferdinando’s might not pass the somewhat stringent and purposely vague criteria we had set for ourselves.

I confess as never having visited a focacceria and was unsure of what it was. I knew of foccacia and assumed Ferdinando’s specialized in typical focaccia, maybe with a brush of fresh tomato on top, or a sprinkling of olive oil and herbs. Ferdinando’s focaccia wasn’t quite typical. Rick recommended the “panelle” special so we had a few brought to the table. These “focaccia” were more like buns, made with chick pea flour and deep fried; the special was topped with ricotta and grated cheese. We also indulged on other of the smaller Sicilian specialties such as the “arancina,” a rice ball deep fried with chopped meat, peas and sauce, and an incredible “caponatina,” the famed Sicilian eggplant salad. No one, not even the adventurous Zio tried the “vastedda,” a sandwich made with calf’s spleen, ricotta and grated cheese. Zio, however, did not disappoint by quickly and decisively ordering his entrée of “trippa,” tripe stewed in tomato sauce with peas. Eugene was also very resolute when he ordered another Sicilian specialty, pasta con sarde, pasta with sardines, fennel, and pine nuts. Rounding out the orders were Rick with the pedestrian pasta con vongole, Gerry with linguini con seppia (squid in its ink), Charlie with the downright lame, chicken parmigiana and rigatoni, and myself with one of the specials of the day, pasta with baby polpo (octopus). As if that were not quite enough, Rick thought we should also try the calamari ripieni, stuffed calamari with mussels. The beverage of choice for most of us was the Italian beer, Peroni.

 

 

We soon finished off our appetizers and, while waiting for our entrees, devoured the endless baskets of fresh unadorned focaccia. Rick had noticed the diners as I had and a bit nervously assured me that whenever he had visited Ferdinando’s in the past, usually for lunch—the restaurant is only open until 9 on Fridays and Saturdays—that the locals; specifically, the old timers, were the only diners, not the gentrified groups we were seeing on this night. By then, though, I was no longer aware of the diners, only the food in front of me. The baby polpo on my linguini was perfectly tender, the sauce, sort of a sweet and sour sauce, maybe a bit too sweet for me. Zio’s “trippa” appeared hearty; the white lining of cow’s intestine swimming in tomato sauce.  And for some reason, with the exception of the courageous Gerry, he had no volunteers for samples. I was curious about Eugene’s pasta con sarde, but by the time I got around to asking for a taste, it was gone; Eugene enthusiastically proclaiming its virtues. Finally came the stuffed calamari and though Zio had previously and rancorously announced that he never ate anything “stuffed,” he relented and tried the calamari, which, filled with bread crumbs, garlic and herbs, he grudgingly acknowledged that it was “damn good for something stuffed.”

With the dry focaccia we cleaned the sauces on all our dishes reserving, incredibly, a bit of room for a cannoli sampling. This simple, classic Italian pastry was also worth noting for its perfection; the shell fresh, the cheese spectacular. Finally finished, our check was brought to the table. In the scrawl on a tiny piece of paper, Rick knew we had gone over our “budget.” Eugene did the math and the damage was $36 per person. It wasn’t as bad as it seemed at first glance. There were empty bottles of Peroni littering our table and drinks do not factor into our price limit, so that reduced the total somewhat. Add in the stuffed calamari extra and we were really only about three or four dollars over the $20 allowance. Rick did not meet the criteria. Not only did he not factor in our gluttony, had he read the Zagat review, he would have known that the total figured within that book was $22. Asimov’s $25 and Under review was another tip. Rick obviously just did not do his research. Not that I, or any of us were complaining

Looking back on our experience at Ferdinando’s, I’m very surprised no one had the courage to try the spleen. I think we were all a little raw at this and did not want to test our limits too much. That changed as the group evolved.  I  did revisit Ferdinando’s. It was probably in 2007 at the height of the real estate boom in Brooklyn. My experience was not as positive; the food not as good as I remembered from the above visit and prices had climbed so much that it was hard to imagine any of the old timers from the neighborhood (if any still remained) spending much time at Ferdinandos…even for lunch. Carroll Gardens was a much different place. Even Rick had fled.

Kvass and Vodka

12 Oct

Soon after we started this food group, we learned that Eugene had friends of many different nationalities. We don’t really know why or how he happened to befriend so many from other lands, but he made it clear that he had them. At our dinners he would often refer to a friend from India, or China, or Peru, to name just a few. Eugene would then pick the brain of that friend asking for a recommendation; a place where we could find an authentic replication of the food of that person’s particular homeland. For his first pick, Eugene called on a Russian friend who suggested Café Glechik. Below is what we experienced on a warm summer’s night in 2002.

Café Glechik
3159 Coney Island Avenue
Brooklyn

There was a slight delay in getting started on the trek to Brighton Beach, to the Ukrainian restaurant suggested by Eugene called Café Glechik. The delay was due to the sudden emergence of cockroaches and other less unsightly bugs in my kitchen. I needed expert help and there was no one else to call than Zio. For those not aware of it, Zio is a man of many talents. Not only can he make a first rate beef braciole,  he is also a talented illustrator. But it is his ability to kill termites, cockroaches, carpenter ants, the many variations of rodents, and all those other pests that is his true gift. I needed that gift and Zio delivered with a few well-placed shots of an extremely deadly, though not odorous concoction that the cockroaches, he claimed, just cannot resist. The other problem was the little bugs I had been seeing on the kitchen counter. We spent time shaking a few items in my cupboards seeking the source of these bugs, but were having no luck until we found a few lounging in a box of Festival mix I had brought back from Jamaica. Festival being the equivalent of fried dough and served usually with jerk pork and chicken. The bug Zio identified as a flour beetle. The Festival had to go. With it, I hoped also would go the flour beetles.

Finally we headed out, with Charlie in tow. Over the Triboro Bridge. Crawling through the BQE. Heading down Ocean Parkway. Finally, Coney Island was in sight and after an hour of driving, we made it to Café Glechik in the Russian/Ukrainian enclave of Brighton Beach.

The others were seated and waiting in the small, busy café when we arrived. The Café did not have a liquor license and Gerry had gone out in search of vodka. He was told there was a liquor store on a street called “Brighton 10.” He returned empty-handed. “Too many Brighton 10s,” he said shaking his head.  Apparently there was more than one. In the meantime, a young man called Vlad began to explain the items on the menu. He was helpful and patient though inexperienced. After a few really tough questions such as what would he suggest we eat to sample a true Russian meal at Café Glechik, he gave up and handed us over to another waiter, this one not as patient, nor as helpful. He wouldn’t even tell us his name he just wanted our orders—we were on our own here.

After my contact lenses cleared from glancing at the Russian language side of the menu, I was able to discern what we might be eating, starting with herring with potato, smoked mackerel and “vareniki,” the Russian version of a pierogi. We ordered one stuffed with potato and another with meat. After Rick, Eugene, and Charlie made the mistake of asking Waiter Number Two a few questions about some of the items on the menu, his glare flustered them so much they ordered whatever blurted from their tongues; in this case it was chicken stroganoff, beef stroganoff and grilled chicken breast respectively. Zio, aware of the wrath of Waiter Number Two, wasted no time ordering the rabbit stew.

One of the few things my Ukrainian-born Grandmother was able to cook competently was stuffed cabbage. It had been well over 30 years since I last tasted that stuffed cabbage, but it was a distinct taste and I was curious to see how this would compare, so my choice seemed easy. Under the pressure of the moment created by the gruff waiter, we didn’t realize until our main courses had arrived and that Gerry forgot to order one so, to the mix, and to Waiter Number Two’s rolling eyes, he quickly added stewed “Odessa” in a pot, a Russian variation on beef stew.  For our beverage, we all ordered the local carbonated, non-alcoholic drink called Kvass. It was said, though I don’t know who said it, to be a very good chaser for vodka.

To calm our nerves, we needed more than Kvass and this time Vlad gave us clearer directions to a liquor store. Gerry and I took a walk while the others waited for our food and drinks. The Russian-owned liquor store which shared a storefront with a video store had many Russian vodkas I was unfamiliar with. They were cheap and seemed like worthy companions to a Russian meal. But the store owner steered us away from the Russian stuff instead urging us to buy Absolut, proclaiming that it was much better. It was also much more expensive which might have been why he was pushing it.

 

The Kvass and the herring and mackerel were waiting for us when we returned. The Kvass, like the cantaloupe drink at Ihawan, turned out to be another unfortunate beverage choice. Made with water, yeast, sugar and raisins, it tasted like a sweetened version of the malta drinks popular with Hispanics. I’ve washed down rum with coconut water, ginger beer, and a grapefruit soda called Ting, but chasing the Absolut with Kvass just wasn’t working for me. It did not, however, dampen mine or anyone else’s appetite once the food began piling on our table. The vareniki, freshly made and as light as something so dense could possibly be, still began to weigh us down. That didn’t mean there were any leftovers. Everything was scraped clean. Soon the clay pots, in which all the entrees were served, began to arrive. We slowly cleared through them, picking at the meats, scooping up the sauces, not leaving anything. The meats were tender, the sauces heavy and bland. The stuffed cabbage still had that distinctive taste but was better than I remembered it. This was good hearty fare for a brisk night in the Ukraine. But it was summer in Coney Island and now our meal was weighing on us a bit uncomfortably.

When Waiter Number Two came to take our dessert order we were hesitant. We made the mistake of asking what was on the dessert menu. He responded brusquely with “fancy cake and cherry vareniki.” We shrugged; we would try one of each for the table. Apparently he took that to mean we all wanted to try a piece of the “fancy cake,” so he returned with six pieces of a non-descript cream-filled cake along with a huge platter covered with 100 pieces of vareniki dripping with sour cherries and their syrup. To Zio’s failing eyes the platter looking like what he called “cherriolies,” or cherry ravioli. I tried a few but almost lost a front tooth when biting into the so-called pitted cherries.

 

Despite the dessert oversight, and not factoring in the kvass or vodka, the meal came in just under $20 each. That was the good news. The not so good news was that it took the hour ride back, and then some, for the dead weight that had amassed in my belly after the feast at Café Gelchick to dissipate. It was dark when I got back. I turned on the lights in the kitchen. There were no bugs scurrying. The roaches were gone. And for that I was happy.

I’ve never been back to Café Glechik, but from what I can tell it’s been a very good eight years. The restaurant, much bigger now has the prerequisite website; www.glechik.com. And on that website I noticed that scary word I see much too often at ethnic restaurants: “fusion.” In this case it’s called “Ukrainian Fusion,” whatever that might mean. In 2006 the New York Times reviewed the restaurant in the paper’s “$25 and Under” column. Anthony Bourdain featured it on his program “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel. You can, of course, follow Glechik on Twitter and Facebook. They even opened another Café Glechik; this one in Sheepshead Bay. There’s also a full bar at the restaurant now and I’m sure kvass is available.  That funky beverage has prospered as well. Earlier this year, the Coca Cola company made a deal to import Kvass to the United States and a few weeks ago, at a nearby Whole Foods Store, I noticed that samples of the drink were being given out.  A server smiled and asked if I wanted to try some. I politely passed.

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