Food as Cultural Ambassador

There are those nights in NYC when the last thing I want to do is go to that place with the young, tattooed chef cooking million-ingredient new American cuisine. I don’t want the fancy crowds or the hour-long wait or the communal tables. And I really, really don’t want the scene.

What I want instead is an escape, to go to a place that feels immersive and homey and a vacation from the money-d sameness of downtown Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn. (Hey, we all have our cynical days.)

I’ve written about how Queens is a world away while only a 15 minute subway ride from Midtown. But there are places all over the five boroughs that offer the same kind of transportive experience.

My husband and I hit up three such spots, three weekends in a row.

First up was San Matteo Pizza and Espresso Bar on the Upper East Side. We were looking for something low-key after a visit to the Met, and this place was just right. It’s small, minimally decorated with maps and Italian football club scarves and churns out top-notch Neopolitan pies (I’d stick to the classic Margherita). Their specialty, though, is a panuozzo, a type of pizza dough sandwich that’s native to the Salerno province in Italy. The restaurant was filled with Italian tourists looking for a taste of home while on vacation.

Next was Chayhana Salom, a new-ish Uzbek restaurant in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. We indulged in kebabs, plov, a regional lamb and rice dish with as many variations as there are grandmothers, and lagman, a toothsome, homemade noodle, egg and beef creation, which turned out to be our favorite dish of the night. Around us, Russian and Central Asian families were indulging in a celebratory night out. And, of course, like other similar restaurants in the ‘hood, it’s BYO (vodka).

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The plates at Chayhana Salom

On the third weekend, we hit up BCD Tofu House in Manhattan’s Koreatown. This chain has locations all over California and an outpost in Seoul. Their specialty is a tofu stew called soondubu. The stew is spicy, funky, and filled with silken tofu as well as your choice of add-ins. It’s the ultimate cold-weather comfort food! The dish is served with multiple small plates called banchan. At BCD Tofu House, this means various pickled things, a fried fish and a raw egg to crack into your boiling pot of soondubu. Their bulgogi, a type of grilled and marinated steak, was saucy, sweet and delicious. It’s a great spot to enjoy the buzz of K-town and a variety of unique–and addictive–Korean specialites.

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Soondobu and bulgogi at BCD Tofu House

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The Inquisitive Person’s Guide to Russian Supper Clubs

Girls' night out at Rasputin

Girls’ night out at the now-defunct Rasputin

What’s a Russian supper club? For our purposes, Russian supper clubs provide dinner-and-entertainment experiences in Brooklyn’s Russian speaking neighborhoods. The food and the type of entertainment vary, though you can expect the former to be plentiful and the latter to be kitschy. Supper clubs were popular in the U.S. in the 30s and 40s, and though they’ve never quite had a true resurgence, the concept has been heartily embraced by other cultures. Russian immigrants who settled in Brooklyn’s oceanside Brighton Beach neighborhood began opening these clubs in the late 70s and 80s. The oldest examples have remained gaudy time capsules of that era.

Where are they? The more established restaurants are located in Brighton Beach, with a few of the newer additions in Sheepshead Bay.

I’m not Russian; should I go anyway? Do you love serviceable, sometimes delicious Russian food? Do you love fun? What about dancing? How do you feel about kitsch and cheesy entertainment? Do you drink vodka? If these bring out positive associations, then you’re in for a treat.

Great! How do I pick a place? I’ve really only been to two, Tatiana, and the recently Fed-raided Rasputin. (And yes, that does make me an expert.) Though Rasputin is now, unsurprisingly, closed, Tatiana is still kicking. It’s one of the grande dames of Brighton, as is the nearby imposing National. I’d say both are good bets. Or, you can try relative newcomers Passage, Winter Garden Aqua Grill or Baku Palace.

Should I come with a Russian friend? Yes, if possible. They’ll be able to explain some of the traditional dishes and translate the ridiculous songs. If anything, having a Russian speaker present will help you communicate with waitstaff and busboys, some of whom don’t know a word of English. A friend at Tatiana wanted a new glass, repeated the word multiple times and even pointed to a nearby glass as an example only to have the waiter leave flummoxed and return with an English speaking cohort.

What do I wear? Your glitziest outfit. Dressing up for a Russian supper club is akin to dressing for a night out in Vegas or Atlantic City. For the ladies, anything short, tight, sparkly and designer label-clad. For the gentleman, a suit sans tie. If you have a gold chain necklace, all the better. I guess you can wear something understated, but this is more an experience than just a dinner-and-show, why not have fun with the clothes, too?

What do I bring? Liquor and wine. Enough for your entire party for the duration of the night. Many places are BYO and let you to bring in as much booze as you want. Neither of the ones I’ve been to charged a corkage fee, either. They don’t advertise their BYO policy, so be sure to call and inquire. Many also offer a free bottle of wine or vodka for every 10 people in your party. Plan accordingly. (In fact, at Tatiana, we were given TWO bottles of vodka, when we took too long deciding between the options presented.) There is absolutely no reason to pay for the overpriced alcohol.

What’s the food like? Good! Mostly. You can expect lots of salads, made with eggplant, or eggs and cubed potatoes, or tomatoes and cucumbers, or chilled seafood. Also, liver pâté, baked potatoes with mushroom and shashlik skewers. Maybe some sliced meats and lox. Main courses include grilled fish, chicken and lamb or duck. Pastry and fruit for dessert.

When do I go? Any time of year! Definitely on a Saturday night. Though more expensive, it’s also the most festive night.

Do I make a reservation? Yes, at least two weeks in advance, and it’s preferable to go with a large party for obvious reasons. When you call, make sure to ask for a table close to the stage and for one with an unobstructed view. Also, if you opt for a price fix banquet menu, which I suggest for ease-purposes, feel free to pick the cheapest option. It will be plenty of food, I promise. In fact, our first course at Tatiana was so extensive, we were sure they’d brought out the entire menu. For a Saturday night, this option is about $100, and is $15 to $30 less if you go Friday or Sunday.

When do I get there? Between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. is probably good, though you don’t want to get there too early since the music often doesn’t start until after 9 p.m. The best part? You have your table for the entire night.

What does a typical night look like? Oh, man. That’s a great question! What doesn’t happen? Cold appetizers are sitting on your table as you arrive. After you’ve been sitting a few minutes, they start to bring out the hot appetizers and offer you your free bottle of alcohol. This is a good time to crack open the vodka and offer a toast. You can toast to anything: friends, family, a guest of honor, if there is one. Most important, either be sincere or sound sincere. It doesn’t really matter in this context. Low-tempo music is being performed on stage. At Rasputin, it was a Kenny G-type on a sax with long, bottle-blond wavy hair. At Tatiana, it was a guy singing Jason Mraz. This is a good time to get in an awkward slow dance.

Around 9:30 or 10, the music ramps up, with renditions of 30-year-old Russian pop songs (as in, my mother, who left Russia in 1989, and does not keep up with the country’s current music scene, was happily mouthing the words to every single song) or American Top 40 classics from 5 years ago. There are usually back-up dancers or singers involved. The kitsch-o-meter is definitely rising. Around now, the main course is being brought out.

They do something special at Tatiana, which is, when it’s your birthday, they call you and your entire party out to the dance floor, so you can blow out the candles on your cake. A photographer then takes a ton of pictures, which he’ll offer to you at the end of the night for a a pricey $15 per photo. (It will seem like a good deal at the time.) Our party had a modest cake, but everyone had over-the-top fondant creations. Shell out for a nice cake if you want to compete. It’s all very Bat/Bar-Mitzvah-esque. In the best possible way!

And now it’s time for the show. At Rasputin, it didn’t start until 11:30, but at Tatiana, it got under way closer to 10:30. There is dancing! There are ridiculous costumes! There are mediocre acrobats! There is a woman in a box being stabbed with a flaming spear! It’s silly and cheesy and all-around awesome. Don’t be a cynic–just enjoy yourself. A few highlights: At Tatiana, a group of male dancers broke into a Fiddler-style wine-bottle-on-your-hat-dance, complete with faux Orthodox garb and stick-on peyos. At Rasputin, the female dancers started the show dressed as Eiffel Towers.

After the official entertainment, the music reaches its zenith, with pop-y and club-y Russian and American hits flowing one after the other. This is the time to get on the dance floor and “twerk”, or do whatever the kids are doing these days. This is also when they bring out dessert, which you can munch on between “twerks.” (That’s correct usage, right?)

There might be a lull in the music around midnight, but don’t worry, it’ll pick back up! At both Rasputin and Tatiana, we left around 2 a.m., with the music still thumping.

That was fun, now how do I get home? I know, right? That was crazy! There will be well-priced car service sedans idling outside as you leave.

The Not-at-All-Definitive Guide to South Brooklyn

Brooklyn has become ubiquitous. A little over a year ago, GQ magazine named the borough the coolest city on the planet. The PLANET! Young creatives in Paris and Stockholm are reportedly trying to recreate its carefully curated patina. Here’s the thing: the majority of these shout-outs focus on very specific areas, namely northern neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, Park Slope and Prospect Heights, among others. And you can find plenty of guides to those areas. But they make up only a small fraction of the borough, maybe 25 percent.

There’s a world of Brooklyn left to explore, and it’s not glossy newness that makes it inviting. Just the opposite, in fact.

A list of destination-worthy South Brooklyn neighborhoods in no particular order:

Brighton Beach:

Coming here is the equivalent of taking a time machine to a 1970s USSR, if the Soviet Union at the time was filled with overflowing supermarket shelves and tacky Roberto Cavalli. I love Oceanview Cafe and Cafe Glechik for pelmeni or vareniki–Russian- or Ukranian-style dumplings–tossed with butter and fried onions and topped with a hefty spoonful of sour cream. Add herring with red onions and buttery boiled potatoes and wash it all down with a glass of compote. Nearly every place in Brighton is blissfully BYOV (vodka, natch). The boardwalk is lovely, too. Elderly Russians love the sun (maybe because it was so scarce where they came from?) and congregate on benches, gossiping or playing dominoes. These scenes make me happy. If you’re going to eat on the boardwalk, try Tatiana Grill, but keep in mind that all of the eateries will be overpriced compared with those on Brighton Beach Avenue one block over. KeBeer, precariously positioned in the vast, in-between haze that separates Russian and American cultures, is a good place to drink some beers after you’re done beaching (though I’d stay away from any non-Russian eats). If you’re taking provisions home, I really love the variety at Brighton Bazaar. Pick up a vobla–a dried, whole fish–take it home, smack it against the table a few times, pick at its innards and wash it down with a pint. The only time my mother drinks beer is when she eats vobla. True story.

Hangin' on the boardwalk

Hangin’ on the boardwalk

Flatbush:

Flatbush Avenue and its surrounding streets have a buzz that’s hard to match. On a recent Saturday afternoon excursion, I ventured to guess that it was one of the busiest streets in the city at that precise moment. The neighborhood is filled with immigrants from the Caribbean Islands, and with them they bring some of the best examples of the region’s specialties. Roti rolls are commonly consumed in the West Indies and can most succinctly be described as Indian- and Caribbean-ingredient-filled burritos wrapped in a “roti” or naan-like pancake. Not, very succinct, I’m sorry. I loved my curried potato roti at Trini vendor Rama’s Roti Shop. Jerk chicken is another specialty, and while I’m not entirely familiar with specific restaurants, the Village Voice did a recent best-of roundup.

Bensonhurst:

An old Italian neighborhood that is at once familiar and new. Parts, like 18th Avenue and surrounding environs, seem like they haven’t changed in decades. (I can attest to that. I lived there 25 years ago). Head to Villabate Alba for delectable Italian/Siclian pastries like cannoli, sfogliatelle and ricotta mushrooms. Feast your eyes on special occasion cakes in a variety of colors. A sign stating that they import their ricotta directly from Palermo, Sicily proves they mean business. Nearby, Royal Crown Bakery bakes some of the best bread in the city. Their chocolate bread, only available on Saturdays and Sundays, is worth an early weekend wake-up. Asian immigrants have been moving in over the past decade, bringing a slew of new businesses. Though technically in Dyker Heights, nearby East Harbor Seafood Palace is a great place for dim sum.

Display case at Villabate Alba

Display case at Villabate Alba

Ditmas Park:

Though technically part of Flatbush, this neighb has developed an identity all its own, slowly transforming into a northern-Brooklyn transplant with the addition of a few NY Times-reviewed restaurants on Cortelyou Rd. Among the options are a new-American restaurant (The Farm on Adderley), a flower store that doubles as a bar (Sycamore), a modern Filipino restaurant (Purple Yam), a stellar hummus place (Mimi’s Hummus), a wine and small plates bar (The Castello Plan) and a closet-sized gourmet market (Market), with more establishments on the way. Walk the Victorian section for your own escape to the ‘burbs. These quite streets are scouted by NYC-based movie and TV projects to represent small towns and leafy suburbs. Nearby Ocean Ave. is a hodge-podge of ethnic shops and restaurants.

Victorian Ditmas Park

Victorian Ditmas Park

(Image via Design Squish, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Common license)

Bay Ridge:

Bay Ridge feels like its own distinctive city, with bustling avenues of shops, apartment as well as expansive single-home dwellings, and access to a lovely waterfront with views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and across-the-bay Staten Island. Popular discount retailer Century 21 has an outpost here, and Tanoreen, one of the best Middle Eastern restaurants in the city, has called the neighborhood home for 15 years. Try the eggplant napoleaon and save room for a knafeh, a mesmerizing combo of shredded filo dough, cheese and syrup.

Eggplant napoleon at Tanoreen

Eggplant napoleon at Tanoreen

(Image via Watashiwani, Flickr.com, made available via Creative Commons license)

Midwood:

Ocean Parkway, flanked on either side by tree-lined medians and park benches, is one of the prettiest throughways in the city. Though mainly a Jewish neighborhood, Midwood is also home to immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. I love Kosher Bagel Hole for bagels and nearby Orchard for really fresh albeit really expensive fruit. Seriously, you’ll get sticker shock. They specialize in gift baskets, so just try to think of it as a special occasion place. Di Fara Pizza on Avenue J is a religious pilgrimage for the many pizza tourists who flock here daily. If you’re one of them, allot AT LEAST one hour for owner Dom to take your order and make your pie. He moves slooowly, as is expected for someone his age. Also, there’s no official list, he just tries to remember every pie order, which means chances are good someone who ordered after you might get their pie first. All in all, not a stress-free experience, but almost definitely worth it at least once. (Bonus: watch as Dom pulls your pizza out of a burning hot oven with his bare hands!)

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Di Fara Pizza

(Image via arnold inuyaki, Flickr.com, made available via Creative Commons license)

Sheepshead Bay:

A historically Jewish neighborhood with a large Russian immigrant population, Sheepshead Bay’s main feature is a pretty horseshoe bay with several marinas. Go fishing or catch a boat tour down to Coney Island. Locals and tourists love roast beef purveyor, Roll ‘n Roaster. Randazzo’s Clam Bar is popular for seafood, and if you’re feeling adventurous, plan a full night out at Russian supper club Rasputin. It’s bizarre in the best possible way and is sure to be a night you won’t soon forget (and you can BYO anything.)

Coney Island:

One of my favorite things to do is visit to the beach at Coney Island on a cold winter day. Bonus points if it’s snowing. You’re in New York City, yes, but you feel as though you’ve discovered an abandoned amusement park at the end of the world. Unless there’s a Polar Bear Club meeting, you’ll most likely have the place nearly to yourself. Which is not to say Coney Island isn’t a great destination during the summer. Catch the eccentric Mermaid Parade, or make a day of it with a visit to the recently reopened Totonno’s and a minor league baseball game. The Brooklyn Cyclones’ stadium is right on the water, and each Friday and Saturday evening game is followed by fireworks. Luna Park, a new theme park abutting some older rides, features a few modern, pint-sized roller coasters. If you’re into those kinds of thrills, be sure to ride the Cyclone, which seems not long for this world. The rickety, feels-like-it’s-going-to-fall-apart-at-any-minute wooden coaster will send you flying in every direction and leave you with a few prized bruises.

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A full beach at Coney Island

Sunset Park:

Located south of South Slope and Greenwood Heights, Sunset Park is a vibrant neighborhood with a large population of Central and South American as well as Asian immigrants. The park that gives Sunset Park its name is fairly small and unassuming, but it features a lovely view of lower Manhattan. Debates about the best tacos in the neighborhood are neverending. Eighth Avenue is filled with dozens of delicious Asian spots. To burn off all of those calories, head to Melody Lanes, a laid-back and inexpensive throwback bowling alley with a famous bartender.

Sunset at Sunset Park with a view of Lower Manhattan in the distance

Sunset at Sunset Park with a view of Lower Manhattan in the distance

(Image via skelastic, Flickr.com, made available via Creative Commons license)

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