The Players

Bisected by an open kitchen, the long dining room is pleasantly underdecorated—the red-faced Laughing Cow glued to one wall, a few shelves of old glassware up near the tin ceiling, and a blue mural at the end of the room showing three homburged peasants seated at a table while a standing figure watches, smoking a pipe. It’s a knockoff of Cézanne’s The Card Players, but indistinct hand movements and the complete absence of cards make it seem like the men are abusing themselves.

Lucien is a new French bistro just north of Houston—yawn-worthy news except that this joint adds a welcome Provençale twist to the bistro formula. First there’s lapin moutarde ($16), a big bunny split down the middle (you get half), roasted, smeared with Dijon, and deposited on an undulating bed of fresh fettucini. The sharp mustard has been mellowed with crème fraîche, making the sauce absurdly rich, and the noodles gradually absorb every last bit. Set your pacemaker on stun.

Another stretch for a bistro is the marvelous duck ($16), served two ways on the same plate. The magret, or breast meat, is pan roasted and sliced thick, each piece discretely ringed with fat and presented medium rare, rather than the bloody “sanguiné” the French prefer. The other half, equally as good, is duck confit—the leg and thigh portion cooked in its own fat and scented with star anise, more Chinatown than Champs Élysées. There’s a vegetable mélange underneath and some lovely split-and-grilled fresh figs on the side, which must be why the guys in the painting are so excited.

Less successful is the Amish chicken ($12), a half bird spectacular in its moistness, but not herby enough, upstaged by the garlic mashed potatoes. Just so you don’t forget you’re in a bistro, three steaks are offered—filet mignon, sirloin, and bavette, the latter a coarse and flavorful skirt that, at $13, is the cheapest, and plenty good enough for me. Skinny, scraggly fries add to the excitement.

The greatest challenge of the Provençale menu is, of course, bouillabaisse ($19), the fish stew that has flummoxed many local restaurants. The seafood array at Lucien is novel but effective: snapper, monkfish, clams, and a bundle of king-crab legs that sit atop the bowl like discarded props from Alien 3. The swarming broth is dark and viscid, thrust with rouille-smeared toasts—just the kind of lavish tuck-in intended by the Marseilles fisherfolk who invented it.

More Mediterranean victories are scored among the appetizers, like the pair of ample sardines ($8) grilled by the chef in plain view. They’re served with a squiggle of dark sauce for those who can’t imagine a meal without balsamic. Mussels ($12) are steamed in the usual white wine and shallots, improved significantly by cilantro. That yeoman of bar food, calamari ($8), is heroically crisp, and rescued from normalcy by its North African dipping sauce.

Outside of the pricey Payard Patisserie, I can’t think of a single bistro with really distinguished desserts, although the spectacle of crème brûlée being browned with a blowtorch is a good reason to order it anywhere. Nevertheless, Lucien has hit the bull’s-eye with its tarte Tatin ($5)—not the usual insignificant mouthful, but a substantial wedge of a big pie. Cooked upside down, the caramelized apples retain their juiciness and zip, while the flaky pastry stays crisp. It’s a specialty of the Loire Valley rather than Provence. But, hey, it’s just a bistro—purism not required.


Marco and Me

In search of an Israeli place that had vanished into the thick autumn air, we spied an unfamiliar Forest Hills commercial strip—a procession of Russian dried-fruit shops, take-out delis, and dry-goods establishments dwarfed by high-rise apartment buildings. On the northern verge stood Salut, a kosher café offering food from Uzbekistan, where the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent harbored communities of Jewish silk traders for a millennium. Harsh fluorescent light flooded the street from a dining room baited with the requisite chandelier and big-screen TV, on which a Soviet Michael Jackson clone in a Thriller costume cavorted on a pulsating stage. But what drew us inside was the unmistakable perfume of meat grilling on real charcoal.

Greeted warmly in English, we ordered from an inexpensive menu of soups, salads, kebabs, and sauces that reflected influences from Persia to China. Soon a plate smeared with babaganoush ($2.50) appeared, a strong odor of garlic and grilled eggplant wafting upward. Richly underscored with toasted sesame, it was one of the best babas I’d ever eaten, served with wedges of warm bread hacked from a turban-shaped loaf.

Next came the soups ($2.99). While shurpa—a thin broth of carrots, potatoes, and chickpeas—disappointed, the lagman was mind-blowing. The bowl was so heaped with cubed vegetables and lamb that no liquid was visible—a soup that could stand alone. On top perched a wad of cilantro and mint that eventually descended into the tomato-tinged broth, while underneath lurked noodles more udon than spaghetti, no doubt related to those Samarkanders prepared for Marco Polo in 1272.

As you might expect from a Silk Road café, salads were rife with international references. Armenian pickled cabbage ($1.99), thick slabs of a purple head soaked in strong vinegar, left a violet puddle on the plate. Korean carrot ($3) had a wonderful tart edge—shreds flecked with garlic and cayenne that reflected the chandelier’s light. It disappeared in a flash, leaving us to wonder yet again if this oft-seen dish is named after the nation or the local vegetable stand.

Part restaurant, part Asian tearoom, Salut also offers an assortment of filling snacks, taken with tiny cups of green tea poured from a Chinese pot. Uzbek mantu (described as “sluffed dough”) is a hump of oniony ground lamb with a hint of cinnamon in a slippery wonton wrapper, while Crimean cheburekes ($1.25) are expansive half-moon pies with an oily meat filling that oozes through the pastry, reminiscent of Brighton Beach piroshki. As one expects from a Russian restaurant, platters of jellied meat and smoked fish are also available.

As for the shish kebabs, the “chicken with bone” rocked hardest, the crisp skin intact around smoky flesh, the bone adding flavor. Khorovak, amorphous morsels of sweetbreads, were nearly as good. Mostly bargain-priced at $2.25 or less, kebabs also included too-fatty lamb ribs and the mysteriously named “beef (special cuts),” which were flavorful but tough. More expensive was lamb chalokhoch ($3.50), an oddly configured chop that the cook had struggled to get on the skewer—a gold mine for bone-gnawers. Our multicourse pig-out for three came to about $40 including glasses of ghastly kosher wine, but you could dine
spectacularly for under $8 with lagman, babaganoush, and a single kebab. And, while it took Mr. Polo three years to traverse the Silk Road, you can get there, eat dinner, and return home in less than three hours.


Hung Up On Hong Zao

Chinatown’s new frontier embraces the blocks around Grand Street east of Roosevelt Park, a region still dotted with discount lingerie merchants and purveyors of Judaica. This area is home to seven Chinese restaurants; the smallest and most obscure are lunch counters hawking the fare of Fuzhou, the industrial capital of Fujian. Halfway between Shanghai and Canton, this coastal province (formerly known as Fukien or Hokkien) produces the country’s most prized soy sauce, and has been disgorging immigrants to the Philippines and Malaysia for almost three centuries.

The lunch counters favor slow braising over stir-frying, deploying soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, and hong zao— a red paste of rice-wine lees— to create dishes of unexpected lightness and subtlety. Spring Boy Fuzhou Food is a microscopic establishment with a menu featuring memorable dishes like tortoise sautéed with vegetables ($5), rabbit cooked in hong zao ($8), the poetic “boneless duck hand with conch” ($8), and a supernally good platter of three butterfish braised in sweet soy sauce ($6). But most patrons order instead from the 14 metal trays that gleam in the window. No joint in the city can beat the price— $2.50 for three generous portions dumped over a swollen bolster of rice.

A scramble of eggs, crab, and cauliflower straddled the herd of receptacles one recent afternoon, the shards of crab imparting a wonderful aroma, establishing the principle that the best (or at least most requested) dish goes on top. Almost as good was bony duck in a gritty and musky hong zao sauce— a flavor sensation that turned the rice lurid red. My third choice was a slew of bitter and well-oiled mustard greens, rounding out a magnificent combo.

Each subsequent visit offered new surprises. One day pride of place went to a large baking pan filled with a wiggly egg custard rich with chicken stock and strewn with chopped scallions, recalling Taiwanese and Japanese cooking. The next time it was taai goo choy, a rarely seen cousin of bok choy that looks like an artichoke that’s been run over by a truck, pickled in vinegar, and laced with hot pepper. A dish described by the countergal as duck liver comprised chewy twists of uncertain provenance in a thin, sweet sauce chunked with carrots, celery, and pyramids of fried potato.

Obscurely located around the corner on Eldridge Street near a shop that specializes in rat poison, Fu Chow has a larger dining room than Spring Boy, decorated with a smiling-babies bas-relief. As I sat looking out at the tumbledown tenements across the street, restaurant employees kept sneaking up behind me and screaming in Chinese at the top of their lungs. At first I thought they were being playful, until I realized that a PVC pipe sticking out of the floor was their intercom to the basement kitchen.

The standard combo is vastly more expensive— $3— but also includes a bowl of pearly broth bobbing with mussels, in addition to three steam-table selections, which, as an added refinement, are served on a separate plate from the rice. My choices included a sumptuous fried kingfish steak moistened with a sweet and vinegary chile solution; surprisingly good green peanuts braised with tiny chunks of pork; and a generous heap of a vegetable textured like chewy lotus root. I couldn’t identify this mystery tuber— but a Westerner on the frontier must be prepared for such uncertainties.


Right in the Breadbasket

For years the storefront at the northeast corner of Washington and Christopher has hosted a series of foundering cafés–most notably Smilin’ Jack’s, whose facade was plastered with the face of the old comic-strip hero sporting aviator sunglasses and a leering grin. Malatesta–which means cracked in the head–is the latest occupant, and the frontage along both streets has been transformed into a series of French doors flung open in good weather to catch river breezes. Inside, patrons chat and drink red wine in a room decorated with Italian pulp-fiction covers. A flourishing restaurant on this seedy strip no longer seems crazy.

The menu offers simple Northern Italian fare with a focus on Emilia-Romagna. With its cities strung like beads along the Emilian Way just north of Tuscany, this region is home to Parmesan cheese, prosciutto di Parma, and balsamic vinegar, all lavishly deployed at Malatesta. One evening a delectable special of risotto con funghi ($13) was creamy with grana, a lighter, sweeter cousin of Parmesan, and underscored with white wine and mushrooms. Subsequent specials have been equally beguiling, including a salad of lightly poached calamari ($7) tossed with celery, tomato, parsley, capers, and olive oil, vivified with a few squeezes of lemon; and lobster ravioli ($14) in a light tomato sauce dotted with whole basil leaves, the occasional bits of shell enhancing its homespun appeal.

As befits a restaurant with its origins in the Italian breadbasket, baked goods excel. First there’s a focaccia drizzled with herbed oil and textured like pound cake, brought to the table with the menu and frequently replenished as the meal proceeds. More remarkable is piadina ($5), a regional flatbread that’s like a flour tortilla, only stiffer. It comes warm from the oven and folded over a choice of four fillings, of which the best is, unexpectedly, plain steamed spinach; with a glass of the fruity Sangiovese di Romagna ($24 a bottle), it would make a fine light supper. Another version mutes the bitterness of arugula with a mellow homemade cheese that’s like a cross between yogurt and feta.

Meat courses are generally forgettable, including a plate of four lamb chops ($14.50) grilled with rosemary and sided with mushy roast potatoes, and a chicken cutlet cooked like Wiener schnitzel garnished only with a small heap of lettuce and tomatoes. Better was a special of fresh tuna ($17) grilled with herbs in a gut-busting portion. But pastas are your best main course. Silky gnocchi ($11) is a particularly good bet, heaped with a weightless and aromatic sauce that highlights the taste of potatoes. So was a special of pappardelle laden with shrimp and shiitake mushrooms. The only dud was penne all’ arabiata: hot and sweet, but lacking the expected tang of capers, olives, and anchovies.

Predictably, the foremost pasta is tagliatelle al ragú ($10), airy ribbons in a hopelessly rich sauce of ground meat, butter, and disintegrating vegetables, a combination closely associated with Bologna. This pasta, the lightness of which is due to its egg content, is said to have been invented by a cook named Zafiramo, who was inspired by the blond tresses of Lucrezia Borgia when she arrived in 1501 to wed the Duke of Este, hot off a murder spree that left her previous husband and several others poisoned. Contemporary historians blame her father (Pope Alexander VI) and brother for the trail of bodies, leaving us free to thank her for inspiring this amazing plate of food.


Island Hopping

The regal-sounding King’s Roti Palace was only a lunch counter, but the rotis were some of the best in the city. Trinidad style, they married a lusty curry of potatoes and chickpeas to a generous ladle of conch, goat, shrimp, or, on Fridays, duck. It was a substantial meal for less than $5, and if you asked for spicy, they’d squirt a homemade habañero sauce that beguiled with its scent and then scorched like a bucket of hot tar.

I was bummed to see King’s deposed a few months ago, but after an amazing renovation that turned three tables into 12 and made a dour ’50s interior into a breezy cabana, it reopened as Island Grill. The new theme is Jamaican, yet the cafe has wisely retained many of its Trini dishes, even improving on some. Poullouri ($3.50), for example, have swelled in size and are now made to order and served hot. Dipped in a funky shrimp sauce, these fritters of chickpea flour laced with herbs were the high point of a recent meal. Another persistent choice is chicken pellau ($7.50), a simple dish that reveals its complex origins by tasting like Spanish rice and Middle Eastern pilaf at the same time. Dotted with chicken and pigeon peas, it comes alive when you spoon on the fresh mango hot sauce. And on weekends you can get doubles ($3.50), a sandwich of miniature flatbreads called barahs crammed with creamy garbanzos—a favorite street food in Port of Spain.

The usual Jamaican mainstays have been grafted onto the menu: braised oxtails, jerk chicken, escovitch fish, curried goat, and brown stew chicken. The pungent and bony goat was fab, as were the oxtails cooked with lima beans in a darkling gravy, but the jerk chicken was tired and without pep. Paradoxically, the jerk shrimp was excellent. Island Grill’s version of saltfish and ackee ($12.50)—dried cod scrambled with a strange fruit that cooks up like Egg Beaters—was OK, but the serving was meager. To compensate you’ll be offered a free side of breadfruit, a South Pacific staple introduced into Jamaica by Captain Bligh in 1779. The Bounty’s hold was filled with it when Marlon Brando launched his mutiny, and now we know why: it tastes like a wad of cotton moistened with Nutrasweet.

Reflecting the dietary preferences of Hindus and Rastas alike, many vegetarian dishes are available. Standouts include callaloo, the leathery foliage of the cassava plant, and pumpkin—not the jack-o’-lantern variety, but a Caribbean calabaza stewed to a concentrated sweetness and righteously accented with curry and garlic. A combo plate of vegetables ($9) makes a stunning meal, but the glory of the menu remains the roti. Resembling a big burrito, each is wrapped in a whole wheat flatbread with crumbled yellow split peas between its layers. This splendid “dahl poor” hitched a ride with the indentured cane cutters who journeyed from Calcutta in 1848. It was a nutritious meal in itself and probably all the immigrants had to eat. At Island Grill, the goat roti is my all-out favorite, but pumpkin comes a close second. The cafe also melds Trini and Jamaican by offering rotis stuffed with jerk chicken or ackee and saltfish.

Wash everything down with the excellent homemade ginger beer, pleasantly chunky and acidic enough to take the enamel off your teeth, and marvel that Trinidadian food survives in Tribeca, one more gift from its daytime laborers to its permanent residents.


Blisters on Bleecker

At a newsstand in Jackson Heights several years ago I bought a magazine called Femina, the Indian equivalent of Family Circle. It was a special food issue, featuring two or three illustrated recipes from each of 20 Indian cities, and leafing through the tantalizing pages I was disappointed to see how few of the dishes were available in New York, where Mughal cooking has long held sway. So be grateful for the current Indian fad. While many of the new places aspire mainly to bistro prices and Frenchified food piled high on the plate, most manage to serve several worthwhile new dishes that expand the metropolitan repertoire of Indian eats.

Searching for a hip crowd, newly opened Surya ambiguously bills itself as “Modern Cuisine of Southern India.” In addition to a list of expensive and forgettable invented cocktails, the menu features several items attributed to Chettinad, a dry region 250 miles south of Madras in the southernmost state of Tamil Nadu. Chettinad is home to the Chettiyars, a group who originated long ago in the Andhra Pradesh state to the north, where Hindus and Muslims easily mix, and where the food is rich and fiery hot. The Chettiyars became adept at international commerce, especially banking, and are now dispersed all over the world, but their food has been recognized as one of South India’s major cuisines, and their restaurants are found in most large cities throughout the country. Mention Chettinad and Indians will vigorously fan their mouths with their hands.

Surya’s greatest Chettinad triumph is nandu varuval ($9), an appetizer of soft-shell crab in a dark sweet sauce jumping with sharp flavors. Koli Chettinad ($14) is nearly as good: a couple of pieces of chicken, butchered bistro-style with most of the bones removed, and dropped in a delicious thick sauce boasting plenty of ginger, tamarind, and coconut milk and a pleasant chile burn. Indeed, one of Surya’s most appealing aspects is its willingness to wield the chile pepper. A similar sauce appears under (the gravies never seem to get on top of the food) surra putto ($16). This unusual dish consists of steamed and flaked shark tossed with potatoes, curry leaf, and cumin seed and formed into a moist gray cylinder that makes it look like a can of cat food; it is delicious nonetheless.

The Chettiyars are one of the few South Indian groups that eat meat. Surya counterbalances their presence on the menu with a selection of distinguished vegetarian dishes—not including their pallid and understuffed rendition of masala dosai ($11), South India’s fermented-rice-and-lentil crepe. Instead order iddly ($9), three larger-than-usual spongy dumplings accompanied by three brilliant sauces: creamy orange tamarind, chunky coconut and black mustard seed, and an intensely green and flavorful mint. Good also is sundal ($7), a salad crammed with sprouted mung beans, squiggles of fried gram-flour noodles, and miniature black chickpeas, seasoned with fresh curry leaves, cilantro, and whole cumin seeds. It’s been different each time I’ve had it. Request mint chutney to moisten what might otherwise taste too much like bunny food.

Probably the best dish on the menu, though, is vendakai mandi ($12), okra al dente log-piled in a dressing the menu rather grandiosely describes as “concasse of tomato, onion, garlic, and kokum.” Only an expert would be able to certify the presence of kokum, an obscure Indian fruit that is difficult to acquire here. Be it hokum or kokum, however, the sauce is deliriously good.