Fabulous coffee and tantalizing croissants summoned my taste buds back to Whynot Coffee—this time to its Lower East Side outpost on Orchard Street. Unlike the '60s Parisian motif of the original, the theme of this site is that of an art gallery. To maximize exhibit space, the barista station is situated within an island in the center of the café. The spacious interior affords a fine setting in which to enjoy coffee and the art surrounding it.
All the familiar delights from Blue Bottle coffee and Mille-Feuille bakery are here, too. Oh, and I discovered a new favorite: the raspberry croissant. Filled with a homemade raspberry preserve and dusted with dried raspberries, this bright, flaky pastry tasted of fruit, not sugar. I can't recall ever enjoying a more delectable croissant!
The savory items were tasty as well. Both the prosciutto-and-provolone croissant and the smoked salmon quiche were satisfying, even though the latter was a bit overly farinaceous.
Of course, the coffee was, as ever, superb.
The gallery's inaugural exhibit—works by Brooklyn artist Jeremy Penn—was officially launched on Thursday, 12 December. It was a splendid evening of paintings, pastries, and prosecco.
Whynot Coffee Art Gallery
175 Orchard Street (between Houston & Stanton Sts),
Lower East Side, Manhattan (map)
Have you been to the new café at the corner of Christopher and Gay Streets? Whynot? No, really, Whynot—that's the name of one of the newest arrivals on the Village coffee scene. Since it opened in May, this cozy little spot has developed quite a following. Wherefore has Whynot become so popular? Is it owing to the coffee or the café? A recent visit afforded a good occasion to find out.
Let me begin by spilling the beans about what's inside the cup. Whynot obtains its roasts from the Brooklyn outpost of the Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee Company, described as "the best coffee you may ever drink" by Fortune magazine. "Customers love it," manager Miki Mihajlov told me. My cup of Bella Donovan, an organic fusion of African Moka and Indonesian Java, was not your average joe. I drank it black in order to savor the rich, slightly citrusy flavor of Blue Bottle's most popular blend. (For those who do not prefer coffee au naturel, Whynot provides a wide variety of organic milk.)
Whynot offers delicious baked items to accompany their java. The viennoiserie comes from Olivier Dessyn's Mille-Feuille bakery a few blocks away. Delivered frozen, the croissants are baked in the convection oven behind the counter. "It's the best way we could do it," explained Miki. "Before, we got the croissants already baked, but they weren't that fresh." My Pain au Chocolat (chocolate croissant), made with organic unenriched flour and hormone-free European-style butter, was warm, delicately flaky, and délicieux. (I'm saving the almond and raspberry croissants for future visits.) A delightful gluten-free macaron added a sweet finish to my morning coffee.
Additional baked goods such as cookies and breads, many of which are gluten-free and vegan, come from LifeThyme Natural Market on Sixth Avenue.
The space itself is as alluring as the coffee. Owner Emil Stefkov transformed an erstwhile women's clothing store into a seductive neo-retro European-style café. Wishing to create a setting evocative of 1960s French culture, he approached Brooklyn artist Jeremy Penn to produce paintings of some of the most popular icons of the day—Brigitte Bardot, along with Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. Penn's artwork infuses strokes of masterly sensuality into the happening vibe.
A '70s-era Sansui stereo receiver (dare I call it a hi-fi?), replete with a vintage Yamaha turntable, complements the retrospective paintings with groovy aural reminiscences. That's right, vinyl—no MP3s, CDs, 8-tracks, or even cassettes. (Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water was the LP of choice on my visit.) There's even a Discwasher kit with which to whisk the records! The music and the artwork combine to transport the mind to another place and time. "A lot of the customers reach a bigger creativity when they sit here," asserts Miki.
Large windows on two sides add light and airiness to the 1,000-square-foot space, while providing a lens to the outside world. Outdoor benches augment the 40 indoor seats.
More than just a name, Whynot represents an attitude—a civilized escape from the daily grind. The accommodating, customer-friendly atmosphere is reflected in both the décor and the amenities. Despite its retro motif, Whynot is cablé, providing ample charging outlets as well as free wi-fi, and even accepting credit cards—conveniences not found at many other New York coffee bars. "We approach customers in a different way," says Miki. "Can I have this? Can I do this? The answer is always, why not?" A version of the George Bernard Shaw quotation that inspired Whynot's name and its very essence can be found throughout the café:
"Some people see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and say Whynot."
Whynot Coffee & Wine
14 Christopher Street (SW corner Gay St)
Greenwich Village, Manhattan (map)
By bus: M5 (uptown), M20 (downtown), M8
Comestiblab: In the south of France (from Poitiers down), the pain au chocolat is called a chocolatine. But ordering a chocolate croissant by that name in Paris is liable to be met with feigned ignorance and a derisive sneer. To Parisians, the word bespeaks a lack of sophistication—a trait they impute to southern French bumpkins.
What'll it be, Alaska glacial or Rocky Mountain mineral? Because water accounts for 60 percent of vodka's constitution, its influence in shaping the spirit is significant. Thus, after sipping the world and testing the water, so to speak, Leaf Vodka's Ukraine-based research-and-development team identified two sources that yielded the distinctive characteristics and flavors they sought: a glacier-fed lake in Alaska and a mineral spring in the Rocky Mountains. At last week's Leaf Vodka launch at Trump SoHo, I sampled both varieties.
I began by tasting the spirits side by side, neat. Leaf's Alaskan glacial water vodka (green label) revealed hints of sweetness, and a very round feel on the tongue—akin to a white wine that has undergone significant malolactic fermentation. The Rocky Mountain version (blue label), on the other hand, exhibited a noticeable taste of minerals. While both vodkas were smooth, the latter did not impart the prominent roundness of the former.
Both Leafs are easy to drink, and, at their suggested retail price of $16.99 to $19.99, easy to purchase. It would seem quite reasonable to have both varieties on hand to accommodate the preferences of one's guests, as the two render distinctly different cocktails.
As an example, the sweetness of the Alaskan glacial water enhanced the sweet and tart fruit flavors of the Pink Glacier's lime, pink grapefruit, and cranberry juices.
The mineral expression in the Rocky Mountain water, on the other hand, added an earthy "bite" to the herbal notes of the Bitter Re-Leaf's basil leaves and lime.
While Leaf Vodka's USDA organic certification is noteworthy, it's not a major selling point. "We want to focus on the core essence, water, which, according to tradition, breathes life into vodka," says Julius Criscione, National Sales and Marketing Director for Megapolis USA, the American subsidiary of Global Spirits.
Below are some of the other drinks I sampled. Please click here to view a complete list of recipes.
Leaf Vodka is currently available in New Jersey and Connecticut.
When I told an old West Sider that I'd been invited to Victor's Café, he recalled fondly his numerous dining experiences at the eatery's original site, adding, "it was the first place to serve Cuban food in New York." This year, in its third generation of family ownership, the city's oldest Cuban restaurant celebrates its golden anniversary in the space it has occupied in Manhattan's Theater District since 1980.
The story begins in 1957, the year Victor del Corral and his family left Cuba for New York. After six years of holding odd jobs around the city, Mr. del Corral, with the help of his wife, Eloína Ruíz de Ugarrio, finally realized his dream of introducing New Yorkers to Cuban cooking. In 1963, Victor opened his eponymous café at 240 Columbus Avenue (at 71st Street), whereupon, it became one of Gotham's most celebrated dining spots. As the years progressed, additional generations of the family entered the scene.
In 1972, Sonia Zaldivar joined her father's culinary team to initiate "the evolution of Cuban cuisine." Embracing the Nuevo Latino trend, she revised many of the patriarch's recipes, making them lighter and more healthful. Her introduction of olive oil and pan searing, for example, added a moderno flair to Victor's traditional fare, and helped to lighten the perception of heavy Cuban food.
Sonia continues to play an active role in the operation of the restaurant, albeit "via satellite" from Miami. Her daughter Monica is now at the helm, adding her charm and effervescence to the family's longstanding tradition of hospitality. Keeping apace with the times, Victor's is not your grandfather's Cuban café—unless, of course, you happen to be Monica Zaldivar. The ambiance is contemporary and sophisticated—a festive, yet elegant setting that would seem to befit a modern-day Bogie and Bacall.
We entered the restaurant to the stress-melting strains of Cuban music (performed by a trio in the Cuba Lounge), and were seated in the Skylight Room, a relaxing space with the insouciant feel of a patio. Its palm trees, colorful art along the wall, oscillating ceiling fans, and large windows to the sky transported us into a tropical world far from New York.
Our captain, Armando, a 13-year veteran of Victor's Café, navigated us ably through our culinary tour of Cuba. He and his team pampered us with exemplary service that was informative, ingratiating, and most of all, attentive without being intrusive.
We started with a couple of drinks to put us into the proper spirit, so to speak. Because Victor's Signature Mojito headed the list of cocktails, I had to give it a try. The combination of Atlantico Rum, fresh lime, mint leaves, and simple syrup yielded a potent and delicious apéritif. A swizzle stick of fresh sugar cane created a stir of sweetness. My Comestaccomplice's sangria—a blend of red wine, triple sec, brandy, gin, fresh squeezed juice, and oranges—included a Cuban twist: guava! This unusual ingredient added a delightful balance to the sangria's citrus flavors. While the libations were a bit sweeter than comparable ones elsewhere, the sugar in both drinks tasted very pure, clean, and smooth.
Our appetizers began with Mariquitas de Plátano, addictive homemade green plantain chips, accompanied by a salsa of tomatoes, red peppers, and a habañero or two for mo' heato. The piquancy of the red sauce provided a savory offset to the deep-fried sweetness of the mariquitas. Ah, but this was just the beginning.
Along with the mariquitas, the 50th anniversary prix fixe Taste of Cuba menu comprises four appetizers. Yes, four! Bartolito is one of the most popular. It's a sweet-plantain tower, filled with roast Berkshire pork, olives, and raisins, served over a zesty black bean sauce, and topped with goat cheese (of which I'd have enjoyed an additional crumble). My first bite convinced me of its superiority.
The final item on our sampler plates was the Chorizo Español, a Spanish sausage made from chopped pork and pork fat, spiced with smoked pimentón (paprika) to add both flavor and color. (Its taste is vaguely similar to that of pepperoni.) The chorizo is sautéed in olive oil with onions, red peppers, and olives to make this delectable tapa a bit less sinful.
We weren't finished with our starters, however. The next appetizing installment was Ceviche de Pargo, a superbly executed dish of chopped fresh Florida red snapper, marinated with lime juice, onions, and garlic, served over mango and avocado, and topped with shoestring sweet potato fries. This harmonious combination of contrasting flavors and textures—salty, savory, citrusy, sweet, soft, and crunchy—was exquisito. It was abundantly clear as to why this is one of Victor's most popular starters. The Ceviche de Pargo was, as Armando aptly described it, perfect.
But wait, there was yet one more starter: Taquitos con Lechón, a Cuban variant of Mexican tacos. This dish added an element of fun because it required assembly and could be eaten with one's hands. Armando deftly wrapped the soft yuca (cassava) tortillas around a pork hash that had been sautéed in olive oil with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and raisins. We both enjoyed the tortilla's subtle flavor, along with its light chewiness and silkiness. The filling was very flavorful, and the salsa complemented it well. It would be interesting to try these tortillas with a variety of different fillings.
After a second mojito, it was time for our entrées. The Taste of Cuba menu includes a triadic sampling of Victor's signature mains.
My fork was drawn initially to the house specialty, Ropa Vieja (literally, "old clothes"). This popular Cuban mainstay features shredded Black Angus skirt steak simmered in garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and onions. Seated on a bed of mashed plantains in a diminutive, tuliplike basket of plantain slices, the presentation could not have been more appealing. The meat was perfectly moist, with a rich underpinning of red peppers.
While I greatly enjoyed the foregoing dish, my favorite was the Lechón Asado al Estilo de Puerto Boniato. The hand-carved roast suckling pig, marinated in sour orange, olive oil, garlic, and herbs was flavorful, tender, and succulent. A delicious piece of crispy skin added an exquisite crowning touch. I'd gladly order this dish again.
My Comestaccomplice, on the other hand, raved about the Camarones Enchilados. While the large shrimp were above average, the zesty creole sauce of tomatoes, garlic, onions, peppers, thyme, and white wine was a standout. Its rich, savory flavors were seamless; nothing was out of place. This was by far her favorite among the entrée samples.
Yuca con Mojo was one of the accompaniments to the trio of mains. Tangy onions and garlic in olive oil gave the highly starchy chunks of boiled cassava their mojo. And what Cuban meal would be complete without Plátanos Maduros Fritos (fried sweet plantains), black beans, and rice?
We sipped on another round of mojitos before dessert. While my Mojito Passion, made with Don Q rum and passion fruit, was sweeter than the previous quaffs, it afforded my palate an impassioned transition to the course ahead. Equally sweet was my companion's refreshing Mojito de Sandía, mixed with Bacardi Grand Melón and fresh watermelon.
The Taste of Cuba Dessert Trio included one of the finest examples of its kind anywhere: an outstanding flan. Its subtle, minimally sweetened flavors of egg and vanilla, together with a rich, creamy texture, made Victor's Flan de Huevo ethereal. This Cuban-style egg custard literally melted in our mouths. It's difficult to describe just how good it was. Also included was the Guayabitas de María, a warm guava cobbler with a buttercrumb topping, capped by an eggshell-shaped scoop of Tahitian vanilla ice cream. Freshly baked and well prepared, this sweet dessert is Victor's most popular. An exceptional rice pudding, or Arroz con Leche (literally, "rice with milk") rounded out the trio. With strong influences of cinnamon, it had an interesting flavor we were unable to identify at first. Finally, Armando identified it as a touch of anisette. Although neither of us is particularly fond of anise, its subtle inclusion really did enhance this dish.
We ended the sweet course with Churros con Tres Salsas, Cuban-style "doughnuts," sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, accompanied by chocolate, dulce de leche, and condensed milk sauces. Having a crispy exterior and a soft, moist interior, the churros were tasty with or without the sauces—and splendid with coffee. They afforded a delightful conclusion to our sumptuous culinary voyage to Cuba.
Just as Victor had pioneered fine Cuban dining in New York 50 years ago, his daughter and granddaughter are blazing the trail toward brighter and lighter Cuban cooking today. It's a golden legacy of which Mr. del Corral would rightly be very proud.
236 West 52nd Street
(between Broadway & Eighth Av)
Theater District, Manhattan (map)
Forty vendors dished up a world of flavors to more than 900 eager tasters during Queens Taste 2013 at Citi Field's Caesars Club last month. Hosted by the Queens Economic Development Corporation, the eleventh annual gastronomic extravaganza included performances by a Big Apple Circus clown, an appearance by 1969 Miracle Met Ed Kranepool, a booth displaying work by local emerging artists curated by Jackson Heights-based Zoescope, and a stand up routine by Steve Hofstetter of the Laughing Devil Comedy Club in Long Island City. In addition, it was a special honor for your humble Comestiblogger to have been selected as one of this year's four Taste Masters.
Queens Taste 2013 through the eyes, ears, and gullet of Comestiblog:
The Appetizers and Entrées:
The gluttony began at the first table with a plateful of Mexican bites, enhanced by a half-dozen sauces, from Woodside's La Adelita Restaurant. The steak and shrimp were particularly moist and flavorful.
Who could resist La Rioja's hand-sliced Jamón Serrano? In addition to its dry-cured Spanish "mountain ham," the Astoria tapas bar offered a fine gazpacho.
Long Island City-based Rèst-âü-Ránt served some light, tantalizing bites, including bacon-jam adorned cucumber slices, shrimp dumplings, and Chicken Saté with peanut dip.
Chicken Saté was also among the eclectic offerings at Riverview Restaurant & Lounge, another LIC representative.
Leo's Latticini (known locally as Mama's of Corona) dished up superb fresh mozzarella (only a few hours old) with basil, tomatoes, and olive oil. In addition to their marvelous mozzarella, Mama's girls served Prosciutto Bread, Biscotti, Mini Cannoli, and, of course, their popular signature sandwich (2012 photo).
From fresh mozzarella to aged cheddar …
McClure's Pickles of Brooklyn and Detroit, another returning favorite, speared this year's Best Appetizer award for its spicy and garlicky gherkins.Redwood Deli's Spinach Pie (Spanikopita) was a strong contender for best appetizer. Furthermore, the Cuban Sandwich (roast pork, deli ham, Finlandia Swiss cheese, crisp pickle slices, and mustard on a hero) from this Forest Hills deli was a nice Latin companion to the Hellenic pie.
Another nominee for top appetizer was Bourbon Street's BBQ Shrimp. The dish of Cajun-spiced jumbo decapods, served in a "secret" sauce, was creamy and delicious. In addition, the New Orleans-themed Bayside café added a Southern twist to comfort food with its Pulled Pork Mac & Cheese. Was this merger of American classics a bit two much?
Austin's Steak & Ale House of Kew Gardens, a sister eatery to the aforementioned Bourbon Street Café, reprised its offerings from last year: tender, succulent slices of Skirt Steak, along with bite-sized spherical Crab Cakes.
A competing steak dish came from Christos Steak House in Astoria. This one featured tender slices of filet mignon on toasted bread, topped with wild mushrooms, bacon, and a small cap of Gorgonzola.
Following the success of its delicious duck confit its first time out, The Dog and Duck opted to serve various sliders—beef, lamb, pork, duck, and short rib—this year to kick off its late-May burger week. I think my Duck Slider had been ashore too long. Bring back the confit!
Some of my favorite selections came from Rocoto, a Peruvian restaurant in Jamaica. The affable husband-and-wife team of Jesus and Jennie Moreno prepared a couple of dishes I considered to be winners. While the Causa afforded a savory interpretation of (yellow) mashed potatoes, I particularly enjoyed the fresh, citrusy Peruvian-style (corbina) Ceviche and its tasty Leche de Tigre derivative. (Peruvians consider the so-called "tiger's milk" to be an aphrodisiac as well as a hangover remedy.) The biggest catch of the evening, however, was the beautiful boneless salmon. Moist, tender, and grilled to perfection, the 27-pound fish was gobbled up quickly by some voracious sharks.
Magna, recipient of last year's award for best entrée, returned with another pair of tasty dishes from its Flushing ristorante: Pollo Antonino (roasted chicken with garlic, sage, rosemary, white wine, and olive oil) and the somewhat chewy Pasta Bruschetta (a variant of the traditional antipasto, prepared with pasta instead of bread).
Another Italian dish shared top honors this year for the Best Entrée. Although the Chicken Milanese (pan-fried cutlets, topped with fresh mozzarella and roasted peppers, in a warm, balsamic vinaigrette) from Corona's Pine Restaurant (at the Holiday Inn LaGuardia Airport) was reported to have been the winner, the Chicken Scarpariello (a tangy mélange of chicken breast chunks sautéed in a lemon-garlic herb sauce, sliced potatoes, bits of sausage, and sweet vinegar peppers) was the Taste Masters' veritable preference. In either case, congratulations to Executive Chef Carlos Velez for a winning dish.
F. Ottomanelli Burger & Belgian Fries of Woodside shared the 2013 Best Entrée award with Pine. With the advantage of having his own butcher shop, Frank Ottomanelli is able to grind out what he calls "the freshest burger you can eat." I chose the Bacon Cheddar over the plain, and found it to be one of the tastiest, juiciest hamburgers I'd enjoyed in some time. Instead of placing the toppings onto the ground beef, chef Michael Proano blended the bacon and cheese into the patties to create his victorious dish.
Kudos to both chefs for their winning entrées.
Hard iced tea and cider …
A few wines …
The Rocket Ship Wine Company of Lodi, California offered a compelling element to its wines: each brand is linked to a corresponding charity. Its Mustache Vineyards line, for example, funds prostate cancer initiatives, while its Sacramento Trail label aids Pony Express history preservation. The slightly earthy Pinot Noir and the restrained Old Vine Zinfandel were highly drinkable.
And something harder: Kamasutra, a vodka in the "spirit of seduction."
While whiskey may not be my favorite distilled beverage, the infusion of maple makes it far more appealing. Cabot Trail's Canadian Maple Whisky and Maple Cream liqueur were smooth and downright yummy.
After Tropisec's triumphant appearance at Queens Taste last year (video), Blanca Lilia Narváez returned with another round of her delightful, dehydrated fruit. The mango and kiwi-banana samples I tried nearly scored her a repeat victory.
"A hybrid of chocolate truffle and ice cream," is how Becky Kestenbaum describes her Becky's Bites. Each "bite" contains a creamy filling that's rolled onto graham cracker crumbs, and dipped into Belgian chocolate.
Cinnamon Bread Pudding represented an encore for Bourbon Street Café.
Rudy's Bakery and Café, a konditorei in Ridgewood since 1934, served cookies, Red Velvet Whoopie Pies, and Mini Cupcakes. The diminutive chocolate cupcakes were crowned with a salted caramel icing bejeweled with little pretzel segments and a light drizzle of caramel.
In a unanimous decision, Take a Break and I'll Bake won this year's Best Dessert award for its excellent Southern-style sweets and polished presentation. The cream cheese pies, muffins, and Pineapple Upside-Down Cake (my favorite) were as pleasing to the palate as they were to the eye. Congrats!
Specializing in high-quality baked goods for fundraisers, special events, and restaurants, Faith and Luis Osorio's startup is one of many successful ventures hatched in the kitchen incubator at QEDC's Entrepreneur Space.
"We are extremely happy with how everything turned out, and I'm already looking forward to next year," stated QEDC Executive Director Seth Bornstein. "The food, the beverages, the networking and the upbeat, almost giddy, atmosphere really couldn't be beaten, and it looked like everybody had a great time. A special thanks to lead sponsors Fairway Market and Citi and the USTA, our honoree."
A special thanks also to Seth Bornstein and Rob MacKay for affording me the pleasure of serving as a Taste Master this year.
Queens Taste 2013
123-01 Roosevelt Avenue (126th St)
Flushing, N.Y. 11368 (map)
Tuesday, 14 May 2013, 6:00 P.M. till 9:00 P.M.
Queens Taste 2013 Facebook photo gallery
The Queens Economic Development Corporation and lead sponsors Citi and Fairway Market are proud to invite you to the borough's premiere food-and-networking event, Queens Taste 2013, at Citi Field's Caesars Club from 6 P.M. till 9 P.M. on Tuesday, 14 May.
The reasons to attend are endless. First, the food, which will be as diverse as the borough. Expect everything from sweet to savory, Mexican to Trinidadian, and crunchy to creamy. For example, Rego Park's Ceviche Bar is planning to bring Peruvian delicacies such as ceviche (of course) and chicha morada, a refreshing drink made from purple corn and cloves. Meanwhile, Sunnyside's Dog & Duck Gastropub will serve duck hamburgers, and Sac's Place will offer pastas that are handmade in Astoria by the owner's mother.
In addition, clients of the Entrepreneur Space, a food-and-business incubator that QEDC operates in Long Island City, will showcase their artisanal specialties such as gourmet cheesecake balls, and healthy chickpea concoctions.
Then there are the drinks. Forest Hills-based wine provider Nestor Imports and LIC's Court Square Wines headline a spirits group that includes Brooklyn Brewery, Genesis Brands, Manhattan Beer Distributors and Chopin Vodka. (Yes, some of the drink purveyors are based outside of Queens, but they all have a big presence in the borough.)
As a distinct bonus, this year's theme will focus on Sandy Recovery. QEDC asked Fairway Market to be the lead sponsor largely because the business took pains not to lay off any employees despite a lengthy shutdown of its storm-damaged Red Hook store.
Tickets to Queens Taste 2013 are priced $125 apiece, or $225 for two. Proceeds support the QEDC's ongoing efforts to attract and maintain jobs in the borough through business services, neighborhood development, the E-Space, and marketing attractions through the Queens Tourism Council, and the Discover Queens brand. As QEDC is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, proceeds are tax deductable to the extent permitted by law.
To purchase tickets online, please visit www.queensny.org/qedc/queenstaste. For more information, please visit www.queensny.org, call (718) 263-0546, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. See you there!
Queens Taste 2013
Caesars Club, Citi Field
123-01 Roosevelt Avenue (126th St)
Flushing, N.Y. 11368 (map)
Tuesday, 14 May 2013, 6:00 P.M. till 9:00 P.M.
* * *
To view last year's event, please click on the link: Queens Taste 2012.
For most of its existence, my palate has not enjoyed much exposure to the gastronomic delights from the crossroads of Asia and Europe. A recent visit to Tbilisi on Kings Highway in Gravesend, Brooklyn, however, afforded me a fine introduction to the marvelous flavors of Georgian cooking.
Simple and unassuming, this restaurant serves delicious, authentic dishes from its namesake, Georgia's capital (and largest) city. A spacious dining room, comfortable tables with white linens, walls adorned with photographs of old Tbilisi, and Georgian music playing in the background, virtually transported me to the Caucusus for my inauguration.
My feast began with Spinach Pkhali with Walnuts, a cold dish that originated in the western part of Georgia. Combining elements of a salad and a spread, this traditional starter blends finely chopped spinach and ground walnuts with fresh garlic, onion, cilantro, fenugreek, and cayenne pepper to produce a soft, spicy ball of flavor. While the garnish of pomegranate arils added appetizing contrasts of taste, texture, and color, the red onions and cilantro accentuated the flavors of the ingredients. Since I enjoyed the spinach pkhali (pronounced ხah·lee, where ხ refers to the voiceless velar fricative) with such gusto, I'm eager to sample the eggplant and bean variants on a future visit.
Next, I tried the traditional Khachapuri Imeretian (pronounced ხuh·juh·poor·ee ih·mer·ih·tyen, where ხ refers to the voiceless velar fricative), a bread stuffed with melted cheese. Round, flat, and savory, this is one of Georgia's culinary mainstays. Often described as "Georgian pizza," this khachapuri (literally, "cheese bread") hails from Imereti, a region in the center of the country. Although suluguni, the so-called "pickle cheese," is preferred for its consistency and slightly sour flavor, mozzarella can be used as a reasonable fill-in, so to speak.
On my next visit, I may try the boat-shaped Khachapuri Adjarian. This preparation, from western Georgia (near the Turkish border), features a concave vessel of dough loaded with cheese, baked with a raw egg. It certainly sounds interesting, if not dangerous.
My main course comprised boiled meat dumplings. Khinkali, with origins in Georgia's mountainous northeast regions, is considered a national dish. (The menu lists it under the rubric of "National Hot Entrées.") While a traditional ground lamb filling is used in the aforementioned mountains, a more contemporary mixture of beef and pork (the type served at Tbilisi) is more popular elsewhere. The rustic, unsubtle ingredients—salt, pepper (black and red), ground caraway seed, minced onion and cilantro—yield a meat filling that's literally bursting with flavor. The story doesn't end with the choice of protein, however.
Encasing the raw meat is a thick, doughy skin that is pleated and twisted together to form a nipple-shaped seal called a kudi ("hat") or a kuchi ("navel"). The dumplings are boiled in salt water (thus cooking the meat, and producing a flavorful broth within), and served hot. Adding coarsely ground black pepper at the table is de rigueur.
Consuming khinkali (pronounced ხing·kah·lee, where ხ refers to the voiceless velar fricative) is practically an art. Owing to the copious juices trapped inside, Khinkali must be eaten with one's hands to avoid spilling any of the precious liquid. The procedure requires holding the dumpling with both hands (using one's thumbs to support the nipple-shaped knob), taking a modest initial bite of the integument, and drawing out the broth—all without dribbling. I'm proud to report that I fared quite well my first time! Braggadocio aside, I found these aromatic, savory dumplings to be among the most delicious I've tasted.
Interestingly, the casing and the juices within—not the meat itself—are the basis of regular competitions in Georgia. While women are gauged by their skillful ability to prepare khinkali, men are evaluated by their deft ability to consume them. To wit, the more pleats a woman folds into her dumpling, the higher her rating—39 is considered ideal. And, as you may have guessed, the more dumplings a man eats sans spillage, the higher his score. (To maximize capacity for this contest of Georgian gorging, the doughy nipples are not consumed; the uneaten knots are used to keep count.) Despite all its pressure and difficulty, I think I prefer the male role.
What to drink with this sort of cooking? Although Georgian culture is entwined with its viticultural heritage, this restaurant offers no alcoholic beverages. Tbilisi does, however, allow BYOB. (What better opportunity to open the bottle of Georgian wine I'd bought on a whim a while ago?) My Khvanchkara 2005, a semi-sweet, unfiltered red wine from Racha in western Georgia, turned out to be a fortuitously fitting selection. Made with Alexandrouli and Mujuretuli grapes, its hints of berry, cherry, and pomegranate paired favorably with the spiciness of the comestibles.
Because I had taken along my own wine, I felt compelled to order another beverage of some sort. While the Zedazeni "fizzy drink" seemed appealing, the only flavor available was tarragon. Unfortunately, distinguishing this so-called "lemonade" from a carbonated mouthwash presented quite a challenge: I wasn't sure whether to swallow or to gargle. This was the only part of the meal I did not enjoy.
Notwithstanding the soft drink, Tbilisi afforded my palate a fine initiation into the flavorful realm of Georgian cooking. I found it to be a most pleasant discovery, and should highly recommend it to anyone who savors something deliciously different. Gaamos!
811 Kings Highway (between E. 8th & E. 9th Streets),
Gravesend, Brooklyn (map)
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