At approximately 5:58pm Sunday evening, I was walking up 1st Avenue. Past 3rd street, 4th street (hang a left here and you’ll be at the front door of Pinisi), past 5th, 6th, and finally 7th. At 7th, I turned in the direction of 2nd Avenue. I was to meet Kevin at abraço. The message was, “6pm, abraço, tiny coffee stand.” Of all the people I’ve met and dined with in the past, Kevin must be the most intriguing.
At 6pm I paused near the entrance of abraço and looked though the glass window. There was Kevin, leaning ever so casually again the counter, warm mug of latte in hand, chatting with the charming and bubbly proprietor – Jamie is ever so welcoming and his enthusiasm is contagious. Kevin looked out the window, we made eye contact, and I took the three steps that would separate me from the rainy evening and the cheerfully warm interior. A few minutes of exchanges – minutes that I will keep for my own, and soon enough I had a glass of piccolo milch in hand. A sip of this liquid, near buttery, if coffee could ever be buttery, deep without the barest notion of bitterness – was unlike any coffee I’ve tasted. Granted, I am no coffee connoisseur but this, the instant I took a sip…there really was no returning. It tasted of no coffee that had ever past my lips. It made me wonder if what I’ve been drinking for the last decade of my life was even coffee to begin with. It threw me off terribly, but in a most wonderful way. I lack the proper vocabulary to judge coffee, so I will not butcher words for you. Just imagine for yourself. Or better, give this a try in person, you will not be disappointed.
When he was not busy churning out orders with movements crafted by years of experience, I asked Jamie about his almond milk, something I had heard about quite a few times through word of mouth, and instantly, his eyes shone, his hands did some crazy magic and out came a tiny glass filled with silky liquid of wonders. Kevin and I took turns sipping the chilled pure white milk with subtle almond undertones, the flavour, unmistakable. There is only the barest dabble of sugar to suggest a slight whisper, a fancy of sweetness. And that’s the way it should be.
Half hour later we set back out onto the Manhattan streets towards Union Square. The rain was light, the gentle sort of rain. The kind you don’t mind, enjoy even, falling softly on your hair, on your face. It’s nice. “Change of plans,” he said “let’s eat Uighur food near Coney Island.” The original plan is irrelevant. Just come along.
The Q train arrived the minute we arrived. Timing was perfect. We rode the Q train to Brighton Beach, one of the last few stops in Brooklyn. As far as my experiences in Brooklyn go, I’ve never gone this far east. We exited to chilly air. And pouring rain. We went to Walgreens. Bought a big black umbrella. And set off to find this restaurant in the dark damp night. We past Uighur markets and found the persimmons Kevin talked about on the train, “the kind you let ripen till the skin is spotty and then you use them to bake soft cookies.” We saw packages of pasta advertised as 4/$1.00, and yogurt for an even lower price.
And then we found Cafe Kashkar.
You see, I’ve never had Uighur food before. So this was a first. I love ‘firsts’. Because repetition, while useful in many cases, often results in boredom.
But Kevin knew his Uighur food, quite well, having spent time doing his studies in neighbouring regions. And he knew what to order. Which is important. Cause if you had left me alone, we’d likely end up with one of everything on the menu. Reckless abandon.
Nonetheless, we ended up ordering far too much food for two people. Nine dishes. It would have sufficed to feed four or even five. But that is what happens when one encounters a menu where everything sounds intriguing, and you have two individuals: one individual who’s never had Uygur food and another who loves Uygur food.
We were seated at the table beneath the florescent lighting, perfect for the occasion. The menu was four pages. It was straightforward. And daunting at the same time. We hemmed. Hawwwed. Declared to one another we wanted everything. And then ordered many things. As we waited for the dishes to arrive, a jar of spices perched along the table end caught our interest. Kevin picked it up. Shook some on his palm. Licked. “Pepper?” I asked. He nodded. “I taste sumac too.”
I don’t even know what sumac taste like.
Our meal began. First came the bread, which went by Naan on the menu. It was an obscenely large and gorgeous wheel of baked bread. It came warm, slightly above room temperature, but far from the warmth you’d most desire: oven hot, a thick crusty skin one could tear open to reveal plush baby white innards releasing endless gasps of steam.
We tore it nonetheless, and ate it in junction with a marinated eggplant salad. Kevin spotted something and picked out a thick circular white slice. He popped it in his mouth. “they use garlic unbashfully, a huge piece. Raw.” And this was when I realized I was inadequate. Kevin, you see, is a perfumist. And that, for me at least, sets him in a league like no other. He can smell. I was so fascinated by how he picked each individual flavour and spice in a dish. It was like a magic show. Of the best kind: the culinary sort. Through my eyes, the salad was chilled chunks of eggplant mixed with garlic, bell peppers and carrots. Spices? I could tell you I liked them, I could not tell you the names. But Kevin could. And that I found impressive.
And because you should never have just one salad when you could have two, we also dove head on into the Langsai, a chilled noodle based salad with lamb, bean sprouts, cucumbers, bell peppers, and again, more thick slices of raw garlic. It was here were started discussing how people eat. Not what they eat, not how the physically eat. But how they perceive-eat. I eat by texture. Texture and how what you eat feels in your mouth is important to me. I’ve always been a lover of soft and plush foods: gnocchi, bone marrow, pudding, sweetbreads (both of the innards sort and the local Hawaiian sweet bread). Kevin eats by the individual flavour, the spices…no wonder he loves Central Asian food.
Not a minute too soon came the lagman noodles, a noodle soup dish in which the ‘noodles’ is just a single incredibly long noodle. The best part of the night was when Kevin picked up some noodles with his chopsticks and exclaimed, “look at this, look at the difference in width!” It wasn’t so much what he said as much as it was how it he said it. You needed to be there to experience it, to hear the enthusiasm echoed in his voice, the genuine interest in the very fact that, yes, this is actually one very long noodle, but look how different one end is from another! And I suppose I took to that just because, sometimes I think I’m the only one who finds such oddities fascinating. This one long noodle swam in the darkest of broths, cubes of lamb meat bubbling along beat, a thin layer of vibrate red oil, a suggestive sign to what lies beneath.
We exchanged bowls, and each had his and her own experience with the tiny lamb dumplings in a clear soothing broth – the Uighur answer to matzoh ball soup? Each one of these dumplings makes for the perfect single bite. Pop. Spotless. Baby thin skin and the most darling nugget of ground meat tucked neatly within.
Noodles and dumplings barely polished, out came the Samsa, a lamb stuffed pastry. Similar to the char siu sou often encountered at yum cha or Chinese bakeries, but with substantially more heft.
Dense. The pastry didn’t realize its’ potential flakiness, perhaps this was due to the fact that we dine towards the closing hour. End of the day pastry. But the mix of lamb, onions, and those elusive spices only Kevin could locate, while I remained a cadet focused on a play of textures, were surely memorable.
We chased the Samas with a quartet of Mantys, the monster sized sister of Chinese dumplings. Supple smooth skin, a filling wealthy in, what else, more lamb! Hehe, were you expecting another meat? I found the high proportion of soft cooked onions in the mix most appealing. My dad eats raw onions whole, the way others eat apples – he must have passed that love of onions down to me.
And just when we thought we could handle no more, the Lamb Plov mystically found presence at our overflowing table. A rice dish of sorts with lamb both fried in with the rice and crowning the dish, with a lovely char and meat that easily yielded to the knife. Kevin found this to be a letdown from what he remembers eating during his schooling years, not flavourful, not rich enough, he noted. But because I have no prior lamb plov experience to judge this again, I thought it was quite dandy. Rice itself, though, could have used more oomph…you know what I mean? Flat, and hard. I mean, you just know when you’re eating good rice. Like the basmati rice when you eat Persian food? Now that’s crazy good! The Persians sure as hell can cook rice. Oh man.
To close off the night, a duo of kebabs, one each of the lamb and lamb ribs. Tummies slowing down, but appetite still eager, we cleaned up both kebabs rather nicely. The fat to meat ratio was severely skewed towards the fatty side, but gah, it was crunchy fat, and I love crunchy fat. So I ate it all. This was the only dish that stumped Kevin in the spice department. He could not name them all. And it bothered him but “maybe that’s why I like it so much.”
We could have easily sat there the rest of the night, discussing the meal, discussing food, and all sort of odds and ends that are only fun discussing with certain people. But alas, at a quarter past nine our waitress, an ever accommodating and sweet lady, brought out the bill and softly told us that the restaurant had closed. We paid, bellies well packed, and walked back out into the night air. The rain had died down. It was the same type of rain as when we left abraço – light and gentle. We stopped in at one of the few open markets to explore…more farmers cheese than you’d expect, sausages I’d never be able to identify, but of course, the main thing that caught my eye, or nose in this case, was the smell of baked pastries out in the open.
We climbed the stairs up to the subway station, and as luck would have it, the Q train pulled into the station as we reached the top step. Perfect timing once more.
86 E. 7th St.
NY, NY 10003
1141 Brighton Beach Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11235