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Gentrified Couscous

10 May

As you will see below, Nomad was the initial pick for Mike from Yonkers and an unfortunate one. The good news is that he learned from his mistake as you will read in future installments.

78 2nd Avenue
East Village

There’s an old cliché in sports that by the end of a player’s first season the rookie is no longer a rookie. Mike from Yonkers has been our “rookie” in terms of experience with the group, but by now, at least a year since his first outing, he also can’t really be considered a rookie. So with that in mind, he was, for the first time, given the opportunity to choose our next destination. We had complete confidence that after observing the previous year’s picks he would understand our loose criteria. That he would find a place close to our $20 limit and one that was below the radar of the major food critics. It wouldn’t hurt if the place he found might also cause a stir by our group’s appearance;  where we would be the minority whether in ethnic origin, skin tone, or the language we speak.

 Mike from Yonkers ’ first choice was a restaurant in Astoria , presumably Greek, called Philoxenia. Our only Greek experience was the unfortunate Uncle George’s that Zio is still living down. Upon further research, however, Mike from Yonkers discovered that Philoxenia was no more. To his credit, he quickly came up with a Plan B: that being Sriprahai, the acclaimed Thai restaurant in Woodside, Queens.  Sriprahai might have been an excellent choice five years ago, but by now it has been crowned by critics everywhere, including the New York Times, as possibly the best Thai restaurant in the region. As a result, Sriprahai no longer fit into our criteria.

 Mike from Yonkers now had to scramble and this time, came up with a restaurant in Brooklyn called  Sweetwater. The first problem with Sweetwater was that it was in Williamsburg and that alone should have set off alarm signals to Mike from Yonkers. With tattoo-clad culinary grads on every corner, the new (nouveau) restaurants of Williamsburg are pretty much the antithesis of what we seek out. That Sweetwater had its own website didn’t help and a quick look at the reviews and menu that included items such as “saffron-tinged rice balls,” and “cornmeal-crusted brook trout,”  immediately eliminated it.

 By now, we realized that Mike from Yonkers was on the wrong track. Hoping to steer him back, Gerry offered guidance reminding him that very few places we’ve been to, if any, have a wine list and that we tend to “favor more ‘gritty’ type places—a place with a little greace (sic).”  

 After those words, Mike from Yonkers was on his own; we could do no more for him. So despite that it had its own glossy website; that it was in the now pricey real estate of the East Village and that it had a wine list; we were resigned to convene at the appropriately-named Nomad.

 Around the corner from East Sixth St and the cluster of restaurants known as Little India, Nomad, which claimed to serve the food of North Africa , was barren when we arrived. Once we were all seated, minus Rick who was in Arkansas and dining on pulled pork, the waitress came and, to our dismay, recited the restaurant’s nightly specials, one of which was something with “seared tuna.” Another one of our unwritten by laws is that any recitation of daily specials is strictly forbidden. The mention by the waitstaff of anything “seared,” an absolute no no.  We understood that she was just doing her job—she was blameless in this fiasco.

Chicken pastilla: Sweet +savory=confused.

 We did our best and tried to stick with what was genuinely “North African,” avoiding pedestrian menu items like endive salad, steak au poivre, Moroccan crab cakes, and duck confit Our first choice was zaalouk, a wedge of roasted eggplant with tomato, a very good octopus salad, with fennel, orange and mint, and merguez, gamy lamb sausage. For entrees, there was tajines including lamb with prunes which excited Zio at the hopeful prospect of regularity, and a chicken tajine, a bland stew with pieces of chicken and vegetables. We tried something called chicken pastilla; kind of chicken pot pie stuffed into a phyllo-dough turnover and topped with powdered sugar. The savory and the sweet not a good combination here. Couscous is, of course, a North African staple, and it came with the tajines, but you can never have too much couscous, so we ordered a “couscous royal;” topped with vegetables and sausage, and accompanied with stewed chicken and lamb in the same, undistinguishable tajine broth.

 The waitress announced the dessert special as a “rose water” scented crème brulee. Knowing that there was no way we would come under our allotted $20 per person food budget and given the extraordinary opportunity to dine on crème brulee, scented with rose water no less, at one of our gatherings, we succumbed and even threw in an order of North African cookies that Zio commented, were suspiciously similar to what one might find in an Entemann’s box. As for the crème brulee, I sniffed, but the scent of rose water was non-existent. As it turned out, Rick, with his pulled pork in Arkansas , fared best of all of us on this night.

North African cookes…minus the Enteman’s box.

In reality, the food at Nomad was not bad at all. But our group sometimes travels in an alternate reality and in that world our Nomad experience was, as I said above, a “fiasco.” For those who are interested, Nomad now has added that Moroccan specialty, tapas, to their repertoire. For those interested, here is their very slick website:

We were not fortunate to experience the “attractive back garden.”

Fire on Grand Street

16 Nov

When we visited Nyonya in early 2003, before the internet food site explosion, the Malaysian restaurant, though located in Little Italy a few doors from the great Di Palo Fine Foods, was still somewhat under the radar. At the time, it had a following, but nothing like it does now. It was our group’s first experience with Malaysian food and the unadulterated heat that distinguishes it.  We like unadulterated—heat or otherwise—so Malaysian food became one of our most repeated cuisines.

199 Grand Street
Little Italy

Zio confided that he had many options for our upcoming food destination, but the thought of crispy pork intestines, beef tripe noodle soup, fresh fish head cooked with lemon grass, and sooi pooi (sour plum) drink which Nyonya, the place he ultimately chose, offered, was too enticing for him to pass on. So all of us, Eugene excepted, who was on a Caribbean cruise and most likely at work on the unlimited buffet line, assembled in the bustling tiki-hut like restaurant in Chinatown. We were the few non-Asians in the restaurant; a very promising sign.

The menu was extensive and when not entranced by the bloated fish swimming in the tank behind our table, we had to concentrate on the task ahead: what to order. Crunch time came and all Zio could come up with after the promise of a variety of organ meats in coconut milk was the relatively conventional mango chicken. Eugene was probably experiencing more exotic fare on his cruise.  Zio’s selection was vociferously vetoed and after much urging switched to the more adventurous, kari ayam, described in the menu as chicken cooked over low heat with lemongrass and chili paste and simmered in thick rich coconut curry. Charlie stuck with chicken as well and gambled on the Hainanese chicken, steamed (room temperature) with a chef’s soy sauce. Gerry ordered the kang kung belacan, which translated meant sautéed “convolus” with spicy Malaysian shrimp paste sauce. We had to ask one of the dozen or so waitresses who were attending to our table for the translation of “convolus,” and were told that it was Malaysian string beans. Rick showed his fortitude by ordering cheng-lai stingray while I went with the comparatively mundane curry spareribs.



It wasn’t that the promise of gargantuan main courses was not enough for us. It was that Nyona’s appetizers looked much too good on paper to pass up. So we started with the so-called “Malaysian national dish,” roti canai, an Indian pancake with a curry chicken dipping sauce. Chicken satay and Poh Piah, a Malaysian spring roll stuffed with jicama and minced shrimp rounded out our first courses. To drink there was Chinese beer for most of us while Zio insisted instead on the fresh coconut juice. When his drink arrived in half a real coconut and a big straw, we wondered why the pink umbrella was missing.  Zio, oblivious as always, cradled the coconut in his hands and sucked the juice from the straw. We looked at him for a moment, savoring the absurd sight, and then went back to our beer.

The parade of waitresses began piling the food on our table almost immediately and just as quickly we began to devour it, eating the roti canai with our hands, dipping it into the murky, but very tasty curry, pulling at the tender satay, and wondering over the jicama in the spring roll. Rick’s sting ray (a.k.a. skate) was the first entrée to arrive and we picked at the perfectly cooked flesh, dipping it into a fiery sauce. At Nyonya, fiery was the theme; the curry spareribs particularly sinus-clearing while Zio’s chicken, also very spicy and falling off the bone. In fact, all of the food, including the sautéed “convolus” which tasted nothing like string beans, wax beans, green beans or anything else we had previously encountered, was hot with the one exception of Charlie’s wan-looking “room temperature” chicken, which many at the table found unappealing; though Gerry and I thought it’s blandness was the perfect antidote to the heat in the other dishes.



We worked through all the food at the table with only a few pieces of the above-mentioned Hainanese chicken remaining—and no volunteers to take it home. Our stomachs bloated, no one even mentioned dessert…not even the usually insatiable Zio. In Eugene’s absence, I was left to do the math and after tip and including drinks, we came in one dollar over our $20 budget—meaning, excluding the drinks, that we actually came under budget.

A few years ago Nyonya moved across Grand Street to a shiny new space. It also branched out to Brooklyn with two locations. I’m not sure if now Nyonya would qualify for our group. Too popular. Really almost a chain with three branches in the city. But that is now, and the above was then and none of us had any complaints about what we experienced in 2003.

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