SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
Ask any New Yorker what they love most about the city and you’re bound to hear “the diversity” in the top three answers. Diversity of people. Diversity of culture. Diversity of food. Then ask those same New Yorkers to put their monies where their mouths are and show you their Seamless order history, or name the last three restaurants in which they’d eaten, and you’re bound to get a slightly less diverse story.As a decade-plus city resident, I understand why this happens. When friends visit and inevitably declare that New York City is great but that they could never live here, having spent the weekend bouncing around from neighborhood to neighborhood, alternating between cultural attractions and food destinations, I think I could never live here, too. Not like that anyway. We New Yorkers create our own communities and make the city more liveable with familiarity and routine, just like you would in any other place on earth. But that doesn’t always make for the most diverse day-to-day existence, especially not with our lunches.
In the spirit of full disclosure, my last three Seamless purchases were for Thai, ramen, and falafel. So, that’s not so bad diversity-wise, right? Except that the three before that were Thai, Thai, and sushi. (But they were three different Thai places!) If I’m being perfectly honest with myself, it’s hardly even a matter of bouncing around from neighborhood to neighborhood. Queens, where I call home, is considered to be the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world. So what’s my excuse then? It’s possible that I am just, culinarily, a little lazy. If I’m going to personally claim diversity as a reason for being a New Yorker, I can do better than just those nations and cultures whose cuisines are more or less ubiquitous by now.
So I set about to make my own culinary globe trot via restaurants around New York City. Beginning in my own neighborhood.
On my first visit to Ćevabdžinica Sarajevo (don’t panic, pronunciation forthcoming), the other guests at this sparse but cheerful corner cafe were a pair of male Norwegian students. With a spread of grilled meats among them at 11 a.m. that only hungry young travelers could hope to take down, I casually inquired whether they were staying at an AirBnb. “No, we have a hotel,” one replied. “Really, in Queens?” I asked, puzzled. I mean, there are some, but still. “No, in Manhattan.”
And in one restaurant my case is rested. As travelers, they had the “taste all that there is on offer” mentality. They had gone well out of their way for Bosnian cevapi. I have lived basically around the corner for five years and have never bothered.
My first order of business when I met the owner, Ismet Huskovic, was the pronunciation. Instead I got a small etymology lesson. “It’s like steakhouse,” he explained. “It means, the place for cevapi.” As if to illustrate his point, I was ushered to a table and brought a plate of five cevapi—a small beef and onion sausage with a mince so fine as to almost render the texture creamy. That these better-than-burger delights have been within striking distance for as long as I have lived in Astoria made me want to renounce my New Yorker status on the spot. They were served with a small pile of raw onions and a roasted red pepper spread, along with a grilled, spongy bread that Huskovic has imported weekly from Bosnia.
With Ismet’s wife, I fared a little better on the pronunciation issue. “Ćevabdžinica,” she sounded out slowly: “CHAY-vop-JEE-nee-tsah. It means the place for cevapi.” Got it. The place for cevapi. Thank goodness I'd finally found it.
In confirming her name with her, she had a little fun. “Ifeta,” she explained, “like feta, with an I. I, feta!” she laughed at her own impressively-executed second-language joke.
“But not as salty,” I offered carefully. “No,” she laughed. “I like the sweet things too much,” she said, as she brought me a sugar-poached apple stuffed with walnuts.
Tourists are aware of phenomena like Chinatown and Little Italy, enclaves of particular cultures where authenticity may become a little suspect over time, but atmosphere may be worth a detour. Locals and savvier travelers may be wise to lesser known phenomena: the stretch of 9th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen that has the largest concentration of Thai restaurants outside of Thailand, or that for the real Szechuan food you have to take the 7 train to Flushing. But you have to be really paying attention, or at least live in Harlem, to be hip to the avenue-long stretch of W. 116th St. that is La Petite Senegal, New York’s destination for West African cuisine.
Thiebou Djeun (CHEE-boo JEN), considered the national dish of Senegal, is one of those dishes whose components are all seemingly simple and apparent on the plate, but whose flavor comes together in a much bigger way.
Abadou Pikine, the chef and owner broke it down for me: “Thiebou djeun, I can tell you, is like a burger here,” he said, laughing. “We have it every single day. In every house. One day red, the next day white, but every day.” Now, I wouldn’t say that I have a burger every single day, but certainly my ratio of burgers to international cuisine, given the relative accessibility of both in New York, is a bit skewed, and I was happy to rectify the situation.In order to prepare the dish to be ready by the 12:30 p.m. lunch open, the cooks must begin the process at 8 a.m., since it must be prepared slowly over a low fire in order to achieve the nuance of flavor you want for all of the ingredients. The result is a powerfully aromatic rice, studded with vegetables such as carrot, cabbage and cassava, and served with a salted red snapper.
Pikine returned to the family restaurant business after coming to New York for school, to continue a legacy that his father began in Senegal. “I’m doing it for my heart, 100 percent,” he told me.
As far as daily lunches go, I’d also say that thiebou djeun is probably better for one’s heart than a burger, 100 percent.
“One doubles and a chicken boneless? That will be $8.50, my friend.”
First of all, this seems like very little money to trade for the sheer weight of the paper bag I was handed. Second of all, that this young woman, managing the window of a utilitarian shop that even at the innocuous time of 3:30 p.m. on a weekday has a line 10 deep, has called everyone friend since I arrived seems a good omen. Third of all, that “doubles” is a singular item has my grammar brain protesting, but I’m keen to get over it, especially since the walls of this tiny shop are lined with one of my favorite things...
“Is there some sort of hot sauce option,” I meekly inquired, cradling the several-pound bag that would be my lunch. “You want hot sauce?” She asked, obviously puzzled, being that I appeared to be someone unlikely to have Caribbean heritage. Unspoken, but apparent in her tone: “Are you sure?”
Admittedly, I have a complicated relationship with habanero peppers, and we’ll leave it at that. But the coming together of Indian, African, and Spanish influences in these two Trini dishes was remarkably effortless. Simply put, the doubles was one of the most interesting, nuanced, balanced dishes I have ever eaten: two miniature fry breads with a curried chickpea stew and tamarind chutney, loosely sandwiched together with no sign of a fork. It was a mess. With the tangy habanero sauce one might even say it was a hot mess. But it was delightful. And it was a $1.50.
I got to speak with the proprietress of this arepera, Carmen Cavello, via a little translation help from the colorfully dyed, tattooed, and pierced young woman who was working with her behind the counter, an experience well-summarized by the sign on the door: “Venezuelan cuisine—Bushwick flair.”
One way to go about choosing international dining destinations in NYC is to poll your friends on social media. When a native Venezuelan suggests a place that “never disappoints,” you may be inclined to visit, even if it takes three different train transfers to do so.
Guacuco is named for a beach on Margarita Island in Venezuela, near the town of Porlamar where Cavello’s family comes from. As a coastal Venezuelan, her arepas and empanadas not only have the typical meat, cheese, bean, and plantain fillings, but seafood as well, in the form of shredded fish as well as shrimp, calamari, and mussels.
Further to the reversal of form I’ve experienced in the past with these dishes, the arepas were delicate in size, like sliders, while the empanada was nearly a calzone. In both cases, the cornmeal shells were just this side of caramelized, providing both a satisfying crackle to the texture, and a gentle sweetness that polarized the savory fillings contained. I was encouraged to try the three available sauces - a creamy cilantro, a spicy pepper relish, and a third mystery sauce whose components would not be revealed to me, even as Cavello offered me a bit of a (non-traditional) pasta she was cooking for her family. But I am confident there was mustard. I think.
“Those have Vegemite in them, by the way,” said Katherine Fuchs, nonchalantly, as I took a bite of a muffin tin-sized meat pie. “We get a lot of Australians here, and especially when we first opened, if they had something to suggest, I listened.” So when it was noticed that Vegemite was conspicuously absent beyond the impressive variety of bush tucker cuisine, Vegemite found its way in.
In Australia, bush tucker simply means “food.” Beyond Oz, it tends to refer to traditional Australian food, much in the way that Buffalo wings are simply “wings” in Buffalo.
Pub fare in New York is often synonymous with pan-Anglo food, but Fuchs, along with Alex Styponias, and their Australian-born business partner Christine Chellos, wanted to contribute a concept that was uniquely Australian to pub culture. This was achieved not only in menu offerings such as a traditionally dressed Aussie burger (toppings include an egg, pineapple, and “beetroot”) and kangaroo meat, but also in subtler components such as wattle seed, lemon myrtle, desert oak, and akudjura.
The approach is equal parts respectful and irreverent, taking cues not only from flavors but from culture and practice. Australian meats and seafood are sourced whenever possible, and otherwise Fuchs seeks out purveyors and programs that mirror the responsible food culture of Australia. “If we're really going to do it right here, then maybe we need to look at the way they do things in Australia with their animal husbandry. They're doing it right. You can taste it in the flavor of the meat like our lamb.”
Try the divine lamb lollies and, if you're thirsty as the namesake, why not go for a Budgie Smuggler cocktail. (Look that expression up on your own time.)
I'll admit, putting Bali on a list of nations to try during this food tour de ville felt a little like cheating. With its prevalence of satay, coconut, and lemongrass, Balinese cuisine seemed not at all a far cry from the Thai cuisine with which I am all too comfortable and which prompted this experiment in the first place.
But in the cheery space of Bali Kitchen I found myself an acceptable and convenient loophole: dessert. What respectable food pilgrimage would be complete without it? And who among us has routinely gone seeking Balinese when in the mood for sweets? But Bali Kitchen had a number of pastries to offer, and I was game to try some.
“Do you like durian?” one of the chefs asked me. Oh no, do I? Now what have I gotten myself into? Durian is one of those fruits with so strong an odor that it is sometimes forbidden in public places...in its native country. How it quietly made its way into dessert on East 4th Street in Manhattan, without a rash of concerned citizen calls, would seem a mystery.
Much to my relief, I could only perceive a vague musk amidst the silky custard within which the durian had a texture like a sturdy, shaved apple. Plus the Instagram-worthy layered lapis legit cake, a relic of the Dutch influence in Bali and aromatic with cardamom and cloves, was completely without controversy.
I mostly think of the term “sumac” as married to the word “poison” and something to be avoided during nature walks at Girl Scout Camp. But as Philippe Massoud, executive chef and owner of ilili, explained, it’s an amazingly versatile and approachable seasoning. “What’s ironic is that the Native Americans used to use sumac as a healing agent,” he laughed at my poison hesitation. “It’s very tart—you can use it as a substitute for citrus, you can make it into a tea, you can use it in pastry, you can use it in savory. If you toast it, it changes in flavor completely. There’s really nothing like it.”
I had one final point to prove in my quest for culinary worldliness, which is that while Americans often think of “ethnic” dining as synonymous with detours into hidden corners in search of eclectically divey cafes, in a city like New York one can also experience certain world cuisines in expansive, sensual spaces on Fifth Avenue.
Massoud describes Lebanese food as “the cuisine of the prophets” with many millennia of history and care to justify its place in high gastronomy, far beyond how it is usually served in push carts or at fast food counters. Now in its eleventh year, the goal of ilili was to create a big statement for the cuisine.
“I felt that in order to elevate the cuisine, in conjunction with reproducing it in an authentic way, it had to be given a platform that was respectful enough...In essence, when you think of its potential and its range, the way foods traveled throughout the (Ottoman) empire, there is a lot to that cuisine that is yet to be discovered. So that’s why I felt it was time for this conversation to start.” Consequently, “ilili” (pronounced “ee-LEE-lee”) colloquially translates to “tell me…”
At my end of the conversation, I was more-than-adequately told. I could not only taste but could veritably feel the result of care that was taken in delivering these prep-intensive, integrated dishes: kibbeh nayyeh (Lebanese steak tartare) with bulgur and mint whose texture was redolent of a silken pâte; a simple salad that nearly hummed with the energy of fresh herbs and sumac; and kebab kerez: savory lamb meatballs brightened by sour cherries and scallions, and nested in a crunchy array of kataifi—shredded phyllo dough. These are dishes that deserve to be plated, not packaged.
As for the majority of ilili’s clientele: “95% New Yorkers,” Massoud stated, “and I love the city for its adventurous diners.”