Thursday, June 5, 2008

Bright-eyed in Brighton Beach: Cafe Kashkar, M & I International Foods, La Brioche

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Ah, Brighton Beach. I've long wanted to check out this intensely Russian area of New York City, but only a handful of friends would even entertain the idea of venturing out to the tip of Brooklyn for a day. Luckily, AT is one such friend, and on one beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon, we met up on a train platform in Astoria to head towards Little Odessa. When I stepped off the train at the end of the Q line I was tickled to see how much the area looked and felt like Jackson Heights and Woodside, with Russians replacing the Pakistanis and Columbians and Filipinos.
The first stop we made was at Cafe Kashkar, one of the only restaurants in NYC serving the food of the Uighurs, who are "not Chinese, not Russian, not Uzbek, not Kyrgyz." How could I pass up the opportunity to eat food by a people who are defined by "nots"?
Though the list of salads on the menu was long, when we tried to order it was a different story. I pointed to one after another only to be told they weren't available, until finally our waiter directed me to the refrigerated glass case where what they did have was on display. In the end we chose an eggplant salad, and while the marinated peppers, garlic, and carrots tasted fresh and vibrant, the fried eggplant had sucked up a bit too much oil (as is its wont) and needed a good dousing of the chili-infused vinegar on the table to cut its richness and to bring the dish to life.
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Both the manti and the samsa contained essentially the same filling of spiced, fatty, tender ground lamb. The only difference was the dough: while thin pasta skins held the filling for our four manti, the large samsa used a flaky baked crust. Unfortunately, despite appearances the samsa wrapper was tough and chewy, as if it had been baked and then nuked extensively in the microwave.
The lamb-filled dumplings weren't much more than tiny versions of the giant, round manti, but served with sour cream on the side, which is still a strange combination to me. Where's the soy sauce? The black vinegar? The chili-garlic paste? So now, after having tried both Turkish manti (tiny, with chewier skins, and heavily sauced in yogurt) and Uighur manti/dumplings, as well as numerous Korean and Japanese varieties, I still conclude: Chinese dumplings kick all ass.

We made it through about half of what we ordered, and then packed up the rest. Plenty of other delights lay ahead, after all.
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At La Brioche, a charming, rustic bakery, AT picked up a sweet bread filled with poppy seeds and a ricotta muffin of sorts, and we were helped by a very serious little girl who did her best to sell us even more until the very end.
We stopped in at a market (I don't know the name) that had one of the most impressive by-the-pound displays I'd ever seen: three or four long, massive buffets filled to bursting with roasted meats, pastries, pickles, salads, and stews. We didn't get anything here, but I was sorely tempted.
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And then at M & I International Foods, a wonderland of Russian groceries and prepared food, we stopped in awe before the giant slabs of cake on display, slices of which were sold by weight. Having read about the virtues of their carrot cake here and here, I gestured for a wedge, which at nearly half a pound ended up filling almost the entire container. We also got a smaller piece of the impressively Rococo creation that you see in the top right photo, above.
When we stumbled upon an outdoor cafe area upstairs, AT and I knew it was time to sit and sample the goods.
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Armed with cups of coffee, we unpacked the carrot cake, the hunk of swirled cake, and the poppy-seed pastry and ricotta muffin from La Brioche. While the poppy seed bread and the Napolean-like swirled cake (studded with walnuts and layered with custard, and just sweet enough) was tasty, it was the carrot cake (right) that stole the show—people write paragraphs about this cake for a reason. Though I would venture to call it less a carrot cake and more a concoction of baked fruits and nuts bound with only the barest of carrot batter.

The ricotta muffin, on the other hand, was ehh. The texture was heavy and rough, almost to the point of grittiness, and the flavor was overwhelmingly lemony.

We sat for a while with our coffee and pastries, feeling like we were in another country, or at least not in New York City. Soon enough though, it was time to go. We did make it to the boardwalk however, and walked to Coney Island for a gander at the Wonder Wheel and Shoot the Freak before we got back on the subway.

Our time in Russia over, I would also stop in China—aka Chinatown—before the day was done....

1 comment:

  1. M&I also has these ridiculous cheese triangle puff things, they are all the way on the back counter, I know there's a formal name for them. sweet cheese inside flaky pastry, one is a killer. oh! its their blintzes. nuts yo.