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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cafe Avat (CLOSED)

Today, I had the good fortune to join an expedition to the Bath Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn to try a Kyrgyz restaurant that Charles Bibilos, creator of the wonderful United Nations of Food blog, had heard about. Joining us was Dave Cook, creator of the amazing Eating in Translation. Lunch with the two of the most intrepid eaters I know was huge fun – all we needed was Joe DiStefano to complete the triumvirate. It’s a fairly long haul out there, but I’m delighted to report that Cafe Avat is worth it.

The Kyrgyz Republic is a former Soviet republic in central Asia that borders on Uzbekistan and China, among other countries, and those influences and more can be discerned in the food (the chef is from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek). As one would expect from any self-respecting former Soviet republic, there is a good-sized roster of Russian-sounding salads on the menu, but on the plate of pickled vegetables, one does not expect the presence of what is essentially kimchi (Chin-cha, or Чин-ча)!   That and the pickled cucumbers were the standouts:

I was pleased to discover that in Kyrgyz cooking, as opposed to Uzbek, Azeri, or Kazakh cooking, there is a certain measure of spiciness. Ashlyam-fu (Ашлям-фу) is a mildly spicy, vinegary, cold dish of handmade lagman noodles (central-Asian-speak for ramen), shredded cucumber, tomato, and strips of mung bean starch "noodles". Refreshing on a warm day.

This dish immediately struck me as tasting more or less Chinese. Come to find out in my subsequent research that it is a Dunghan dish. What is Dunghan, you may, as I did, ask? Ethnic Chinese Muslim (Cafe Avat is halal).

Gan-fan (Ган-фан) was a huge hit. A stew of beef, onions, bell peppers, tomato, and mushroom is ladled over a mound of white rice. One of those dishes that is more than the sum of its parts.

I was also crazy about hanim (Ханим) – my companions, not so much. Seasoned shredded potatoes are enshrouded in an ultra-delicate dumpling wrapper and steamed, served with a zesty mashed red-pepper sauce. Delightful.

The two kebabs we tried were both spectacular: lamb rib meat and lyulya (Люля - ground lamb). These are the first kebabs I’ve tried up to the quality and of the late, lamented Café Sim-Sim (because Cafe Avat is halal, there is no pork neck kebab, alas!). Juicy and very flavorful, and only four bucks apiece.

The only real miss of the meal was the home fries with sautéed mushrooms, a dish I requested precisely because Café Sim-Sim’s version was so wonderful. Here, it is merely some ordinary home-fried potatoes, sliced a tad too thick, with ordinary white mushrooms – no chanterelles. There are many, much tastier items on the menu with which to sate oneself.

The charming Uzbek fellow that waited on us went above and beyond the call of duty to make our first Kyrgyz dining experience a pleasurable one. It will not be the last.

Cafe Avat
2158 Bath Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11214

(D train to Bay Pkwy, walk 2 blocks SW on Bay Pkwy, then turn right)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Arirang (아리랑)

This evening, I had the some of the most wonderful Korean cooking I have ever tasted. Bearing in mind that my ideal food is made by someone's grandmother from the Old Country, the food at Arirang, in the Auburndale neighborhood of Flushing, must be what it's like to have someone's Korean grandmother cook for you. (Korean mothers have cooked for me, so I'm extrapolating – but not too much.)

The menu is small, and word is that everything on it is good. The two dishes we tried were great. They are especially well known for their dak kalguksu (닭칼국수 - knife-cut noodles in chicken soup, or... chicken noodle soup), and with good reason. The noodles are palpably homemade, as is the soup: small chunks of chicken in a rich, yet light broth. As close to perfection as I can imagine such a dish to be.

Although we didn't order the other noodle specialty of the house, su jae bi (수제비 - hand-torn noodles), luckily a few su jae bi bits tend to end up in the bowl with the kalguksu noodles. The slightly chewy patches of flat dough make a fun contrast.

The other dish on the table was equally outstanding. It's not even translated into English on the menu, so you need to know to ask for andong jjimdak (안동찜닭), or stewed chicken Andong style. It’s also rich, but not heavy, a bit sweet, a bit spicy - chicken pieces stewed with oyster sauce, soy sauce, jap chae clear noodles, chili pepper, garlic, potato, scallion, cucumber, carrot, sesame, and other goodies (as if all that isn’t enough). The wall menu says it feeds 2-3, but it can easily feed 4-5, especially if there’s a bowl or three of kalguksu on the table. Well worth the 32 bucks.

(This dish isn't actually too difficult to make if you have access to a decent Asian market, and there's an excellent recipe for it on the wonderful Maangchi.com.)

Aside from this and the noodles dishes, the only other type of food on the menu is pa jeon (해물파전 - haemul pajeon), a large, fried seafood and scallion pancake. Word on the street is that it’s great, too. I look forward to trying it next time.

Go early. On a Friday night, they were closing up by 9:30.

This is just the kind of home-style cooking that makes me very, very happy.

41-04 163rd St., Flushing  11358

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, then take the Q13 or Q 28 bus to 162nd St. It's a few doors south of Northern Blvd. on 163rd St.)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fare thee well, Traditional Hunan Style (天天湘上)

Another visit to Traditional Hunan Style in Flushing this evening – it's nice to see they're becoming popular. Unfortunately, the popularity is strong among rude, drunk Chinese. More on that later.

Their spicy beef tendon (or, as it’s listed on the menu, "beef tender") appetizer is excellent (湘味辣牛筋 - xiāng wèi là niú jīn) – ribbons of very thinly-sliced tendon in a delightful, complex spicy sauce. Indeed, the flavor of this dish was more complex than anything else we tried.

The sweet but confused waitress got our order wrong and ended up bringing a dish we hadn't ordered (for which we were charged, naturally – we only realized it wasn't the one we had ordered after we had eaten half of it and the one we did want arrived). It turned out to be the best of the three main dishes we tried: 湘式熏腊雞 (xiāng shì xūn là jī – Hunan-style smoked chicken). The menu calls it "House Special Fried Chicken": small, bone-in chunks of smoked chicken, stir-fried with red and green bell peppers, dried hot pepper, ginger, scallions, and black mushrooms. Reasonably tasty, although it was much like eating a chicken version of the White Jalapeño Chinese Preserved Meat I had last time, but not as good. In fact this place seems to use the exact same complement of vegetables for all their stir-fried dishes, as far as I can tell.

The chicken dish we actually had ordered arrived several minutes later, "House Spicy Chicken Szechuan" (三椒煸雞 - sān jiāo biān jī, or three pepper fried chicken). Minus black mushrooms, this dish was almost identical to the one already on our table, except the small chunks of chicken, rather than smoked, had been deep-fried. There was no need to take a picture of it because it looked... exactly the same as the first dish.

"Zi-Ran Lamb" (孜然羊 - zī rán yáng, zī rán meaning "cumin") was a dud. Once again, it looked exactly like the other dishes, with slices of lamb instead of chicken, plus a grainy, runny sauce in the bottom of the bowl.

It appears that I had two of their very best dishes on my first visit. I wouldn't order any of the above – except the beef tendon – again.

That question, though, is moot, since I will never again be visiting this restaurant. We were seated near a large table of drunk Chinese that were openly and loudly mocking us. One certainly did not need to be able to understand whatever Chinese dialect they were shouting (it sure wasn’t the kind of Mandarin one usually hears) to grasp the intent of their glances of derision and gestures of ridicule, and the staff feigned obliviousness to it all. I have never before been made to feel so unwelcome in any restaurant in Flushing (although friends of mine have), except once, but the vibe was so bad I left before sitting down. Interestingly, it was on the same block (with the singularly inappropriate name of "Welcome Inn") – perhaps the fact that 40th Rd. is chock-a-block with happy-ending massage parlors and tour buses to and from casinos in Connecticut has something to do with it.

My admittedly drama-prone friend made a show of wiping the slime off his feet and spitting on the ground upon exiting the restaurant. In fact, not an inappropriate gesture.

Traditional Hunan Style (天天湘上)
135-23 40th Rd., Flushing 11354

Friday, May 17, 2013

Li's (李記拉麵刀削麵) (New World Mall)

The stall formerly known as Sliced Noodle in the northeast corner of the New World Mall food court has received a facelift in the past few months. Now twice its former size, it sports a nifty new façade and a new name: Li’s (李記). Actually, the Chinese characters that sprawl across the façade say 李記拉麵刀削麵 (lǐ jì lā miàn dāo xiāo miàn, or "Li Ji" pulled noodle and knife-shaved noodle). The English fine-print signage also says "Lanzhou Hand-Stretched Noodles" and "Shanxi Sliced Noodles".

And with all the different place-names mentioned in its menu and signs, there is no mention (in English, anyway) that this place is actually Henan (in its "Sliced Noodle" days there were Chinese characters indicating that on prominent display). The menu, consisting mostly of dumplings, noodle soups and other noodle dishes, is quite similar to that of Henan Feng Wei and Uncle Zhou’s. They even have that Henan favorite from Xinjiang, dà pán jī (新疆大盤雞 - xīn jiāng dà pán jī), or "big tray o’ chicken" (there’s a description and picture of it in my post about Henan Feng Wei).

If you order hand-pulled noodles (拉麵 - lā miàn), the noodle guy comes up front and pulls some fresh for your dish:

Order some knife-shaved noodles (刀削麵 - dāo xiāo miàn), and if you position yourself toward the right-hand side of the counter, you can catch a glimpse of him shaving off the noodles from a block of dough into a pot on a stove in the back.

But when I come here, I can’t resist the pan-fried dumplings (開口鍋貼 - kāi kǒu guō tiē). They are made "open-mouth" style (開口 - kāi kǒu), i.e. not sealed up on the ends, and fried together in a pan in such a way that a starchy film connects the all the guō tiē, which are then turned out onto a plate.

And here’s one of the dumplings, open end visible and some crispy starchy film attached (it can be tricky when using chopsticks to keep the meat from slipping out of its sheath):

Have them with a mixture of hot pepper oil and black vinegar. Along with those at Nán Běi Shuǐ Jiǎo (南北水餃, in the Golden Shopping Mall), some of my favorite dumplings in Flushing. At $4.99 for eight, they’re not cheap, but still a good value.

Li's (李記拉麵刀削麵) - New World Mall food court, stall 12
Main & Roosevelt (enter on Roosevelt), Flushing 11354

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

More Szechuan Dish (美四川) (CLOSED)

It didn’t take me long to return to the purveyors of the greatest noodle dish in New York and keep my promise – I had ròu shào dòu huā miàn (肉紹豆花面) this evening. And it lived up to its promise – a really lovely dish.

What you can’t see below the surface of ground pork, soft tofu (豆花 - dòu huā - literally means "bean flower"), and roasted peanuts is that it’s a deep bowl full of noodles. The broth is spicy but not overpoweringly so, with the barest hint of sourness. There’s just enough of it to keep the noodles from sticking together, but not so much that it becomes a soup. It’s rather like noodles flavored with a delicate má pó dòu fǔ (麻婆豆腐). Works for me!

Delicious as this is, my heart still belongs to ròu shào gān nǎn miàn. Either one, though - or just about anything else they make - is sufficiently good reason to make a special trip to Beautiful Sichuan (the Chinese name of Szechuan Dish is měi sì chuān, or "beautiful Sichuan").

Szechuan Dish (美四川) - New World Mall food court
Main & Roosevelt (enter on Roosevelt), Flushing 11354

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing)

Friday, May 10, 2013

The greatest noodle dish in New York (CLOSED)

Tonight I ate a noodle dish that temporarily eradicated memories of all other noodle dishes I've ever eaten - it was that good - at Szechuan Dish (美四川), in the food court of the New World Mall. I wrote previously that on my first visit, ròu shào dòu huā miàn (肉紹豆花面 - noodles with soft tofu and pork) had piqued my interest to try the next time. But, for some reason, I skipped right over it this evening and ordered ròu shao gān nǎn miàn (肉紹干煵面 - sliced noodles with Szechuan chili-minced pork and peanut). It is, I think, the greatest noodle dish I've ever tried.

The picture does not begin to do justice to the magic of this dish. First off, the knife-shaved noodles are the most delicate I have ever encountered. They are positively light, almost lacy. In the bottom of the dish is a sauce of hot oil and spices, and sprinkled on top are minced pork, crushed peanut, and some chopped scallions. It is more than the sum of its parts, and eating it must be something akin to what Nirvana is like.

I was a bit puzzled by the Chinese name of the dish, and my thanks to Miss Audrey Lo for helping me decipher it (okay, for doing most of the deciphering for me). It seems that 干煵面 (gān nǎn miàn) is a type of noodle dish with lightly-fried sauce (apparently dàn dàn miàn (担担面) and my beloved zhá jiàng miàn (炸酱面) are both varieties of gān nǎn miàn), and 肉紹 (ròu shao) refers to the addition of minced pork.

And for the first time that I can remember, I had to know the name of the person who made this dish. His name is Yáng Kūn Qián (阳坤乾), and, as I noted before, is from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. This man can COOK.

Divine as those noodles were, they weren't quite a meal, so I decided try the hóng yóu chāo shǒu, wontons in red hot oil (or "Wontons in Roasted Chili Sauce" - 紅油抄手). By now not unexpectedly, the greatest version of these I've tried. They're quite similar in style to Little Pepper's - the red oil is practically a broth - but with MUCH bolder flavors. The wontons are meaty and HUGE... I've been served smaller dumplings than these.

Next visit I'm definitely going to sample that ròu shào dòu huā miàn. I swear.

Szechuan Dish (美四川) - New World Mall food court
Main & Roosevelt (enter on Roosevelt), Flushing 11354

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Traditional Hunan Style (天天湘上) (No longer recommendable)

Until the intrepid scoopG wrote about it on Chowhound, I had completely missed the existence of the recently-opened Traditional Hunan Style (天天湘上) on a crowded side street in Flushing. His review made me want to try it immediately, and now that I'm back from Texas, I finally got my chance. It is a worthy destination for lovers of spicy food.

As scoopG points out, its Chinese name 天天湘上 (tiān tiān xiāng shàng) is a play on the common phrase 天天向上 (tiān tiān xiàng shàng), or "improve every day". 天天 means "every day" or "day-to-day", but the key pivot syllable of the restaurant's name, 湘 (xiāng), is the name of the largest river in Hunan and is a sort of shorthand way of referring to the province.

Most of the dishes we ordered made me want to try most of the rest of the menu immediately. The only one I wasn't crazy about was the first of their "steamed spicy dishes" category, Steamed Spicy Shredded Pork, Squid, Chicken (水煮三絲 - shuǐ zhǔ sān sī, or "water-cooked three shreds). "Steamed" is a misnomer, here: the dish is meat and vegetables cooked in a spicy broth. The preparation is almost identical to its Sichuan couterpart (the name 水煮 (shuǐ zhǔ) is identical), minus the Sichuan peppercorns. It was good - shredded pork, chicken, and squid boiled with cabbage and bean sprouts - but it's not one of my favorite Sichuan preparations, either. I guess I had hoped it would somehow be more different.

The White Jalapeño Chinese Preserved Meat (白辣椒腊肉 - bái là jiāo là ròu) is pretty sensational. Dried, salted pork belly is sauteed with bell peppers and white, dried hot peppers, and it tastes even better than it looks.

Salt Egg with Shredded Potato (鹹蛋黄土豆絲 - xián dàn huáng tǔ dòu sī) reminded me at first of a one-dish breakfast. Potato shreds with vinegar is a dish I've enjoyed many, many times, but eschewing the vinegar in favor of salted egg yolk gives the dish a mellowness and richness that was somehow unexpected. I absolutely loved this dish.

There are several endearing mistranslations and typos on the menu... my favorite is "praised pork". I hope they never change it.

Open until midnight every day.

Click here for an update on this restaurant.

Traditional Hunan Style (天天湘上)
135-23 40th Rd., Flushing 11354

(7 train to Main St.-Flushing, 1 block south on Main, then right on 40th Rd.)