The Food Maven Diary
First Favorite Restaurants, Inlcuding Ramps
I hope you know me by now. I don't have a favorite anything. I have strong preferences, for sure, but not necessarily absolute favorites. If you ask me to name my favorite something - restaurant, food, and wine come up often -- I feel compelled to name several somethings. I even have two favorite colors. Red excites me; any tone, even verging on orange. Okay, orange, too. Muddy greens, like olive green, calm me. But then there's yellow, which ... See what I mean? (Maybe this is just indecisiveness.)
In fact, when it comes to food, I've adopted Baronessa Cecilia's expression. "You must like cheese," you might say to her as she devours a whole mozzarella. "It's one of my 100 favorite foods," she'll answer.
In that spirit, I am trying to compile lists of my 100 (give or take a dozen) favorites in various categories. Eventually, I envision lists of favorites as a permanent feature of my website, www.thefoodmaven.com. Only because you keep asking. I know, I know. I have been promising that forever. But now, one or two favorites at a time, I am going to finally write it.
FAVORITE BROOKLYN RESTAURANT #1
Let me repeat: TACI'S BEYTI is only one among many "favorite" Brooklyn restaurants. I'm calling it #1 only because it is the first one I am writing about.
Taci's Beyti is Turkish. Taci, pronounced Ta-gee, is the first name of the owner, Taci Bek. Beyti is a kind of kebab, named after the man who created it, Beyti Guller, who, with his father, had a small, but very famous grill restaurant outside Istanbul. These days, Taci's adult son, Ersin, presides over the restaurant more than his father, but one or the other or both are usually around to supervise the very well-oiled young service staff, as good looking and attentive a bunch of young men and women as you'll find anywhere (tip them well).
Taci's is at 1955 Coney Island Avenue near Avenue P. In my youth, we would have called this Flatbush. Today, it borders on Midwood and King's Highway. (If you live in this neighborhood, I'd love to know what it is being called these days.) The restaurant is two long storefront rooms lined with mostly large tables to accommodate the groups of Russian friends and families that frequent it. Russians and Ukrainians love Turkish food. I think it is because in the Soviet days the only good food in Russia was from Soviet (now the Republic of ) Georgia and Georgian food is not far removed from Turkish. They are first cousins through the Ottomans. There are many Turkish restaurants in this southern tier of Brooklyn. As the Russians and Ukrainians have spread out from Brighton Beach to neighboring communities, such as Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach, the Turkish restaurants have proliferated. I like Taci's food best of those I've tried, and I've tried most of them. In addition to serving carefully prepared fresh food, the prices are unbeatable. We rarely spend more than $25 a person for a feast, although the restaurant is BYOB and bringing your own wine is always a savings.
What I order: Always, always I get the "Shepherd's Salad," a chopped mixture of tomato, cucumber and red onion with herbs. I don't usually take it with a coating of grated feta cheese, as most of the Russians do, but you might want to try it that way. We also always order too many appetizers, but you could eat only appetizers here if you like. Taci's kitchen makes great taramosalata, the whipped dip based on potted cod roe, and cacik, which is thick strained yogurt with garlic, cucumber and dill. I love the tarator, yogurt blended with sesame seed paste - tahini. I must also always have at least one of the several eggplant appetizers -- I am partial to the spicy, chunky one - and at least one of the stewed vegetables, such as the green beans or artichoke hearts. I like the red beans, too. Those are just a few of the cold appetizers. Among the hot, the "cigars" of phyllo pastry filled with cheese are sensational, as are the lamajuhn, little flatbreads (okay, call it Turkish pizza) topped with minced lamb and spices (not hot). If I have someone else at the table who even vaguely likes chicken liver, I'll order the cubed fried liver appetizer. It comes with the standard Turkish salad of thinly sliced red onion sprinkled with red sumac, a spice with a tart taste. I also usually order a freshly baked stuffed pide (that's Turkish for flat bread) - like the one with a custardy filling of cheese and egg, or the one with hot cheese and thin slices of basterma, an air-cured beef product that is the antecedent of pastrami.
After all these appetizers, it's hard to consume an entire entrée a person, so we usually order fewer plates than there are people at the table. You can't leave without trying the Adana kebab, highly seasoned ground lamb grilled on sword-like flat skewers. I spent five days in Adana once, Turkey's third largest city, eating Adana kebab every day, so I like to think of myself as an Adana kebab expert. Taci's is the best I've eaten in New York. Given that Taci, the owner, is from Adana, it makes sense. I also love Taci's Iskender kebab, which is thinly sliced Doner kebab, the compressed ground meat from the vertical spit (like Greek gyro), layered with tomato sauce and yogurt on a base of fried bread. Think open-faced sandwich with gravy. Well, maybe don't. Lately, when I can tear myself away from those two (and the beyti kebab, which is another form of ground meat skewer), I order the sautéed lamb or the sautéed shrimp, both of which come on sizzling platters with lots of sauce to mop up with the excellent bread baked on the premises.
There are big platters of fruit for dessert. Russians love good fruit and Taci's makes magnificent looking and tasting displays of cut fruit and grapes. There are pastries, too, including individual pans of kunafe, a hot, syrupy, cheese-filled dessert based on kadaif, which is a pastry made by streaming batter on a griddle.
FAVORITE MANHATTAN PIT-STOP #1
Lately, when I have reason to be on the Upper West Side, I try to stop in at SALUMERIA ROSI for a snack. It's at 283 Amsterdam Ave., near 73rd St. I have yet to have dinner here, or a big lunch, but the menu is composed of small tasting-size portions so it's the perfect place for a light bite. (The Beacon Theater is around the corner, making it perfect for pre-show meals, too.)
The establishment is divided into two sections. When you walk in you are in the salumeria, that's Italian for a store that specializes in cured pork products, salumi. In the refrigerated case are the salumi from Parmacotto, the Italian ham producers, who opened the restaurant with Cesare Casella, a Tuscan chef (from Lucca) who transplanted himself to New York about (could it be as long ago as) 15 years ago. Casella supervises the kitchen that prepares food for the other half of the place, a very smart-looking café, mostly with tables for two, but also some counter space. Besides having owned a few restaurants himself, Casella is the director of the Italian Culinary Academy, which is associated with the French Culinary Institute.
At the tables, you can order a sampling of the cold cuts and/or cheeses in the refrigerated case, or take a dish from among more than 25 or so small plates, including a few pastas and soups (let me recommend the farro soup, made with the grain that we call spelt in English), vegetable dishes (caponata, roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta, a great leek tart), and a few seafood items. Small plates are priced from $4 to $9, with most $5 and $6. One plate is a mere snack, but several plates with a glass of wine make an awfully good full meal and shouldn't cost more than $30.
At Salumeria Rosi two weeks ago, the special was a fried egg on bruschetta (toast) with sautéed ramps, otherwise known as wild leeks, and two crisp slices of pancetta. It was one of the most perfect things I've eaten in a restaurant in a long time, and so easy to make at home that I did that the very next Saturday, when I found ramps at my Greenmarket.
Ramps are a wild spring delicacy. Their flat, tapered dark green leaves appear among the first things that grow in April and May. Under the ground, they have white, scallion-like bulbs. The bulbs are there all year, of course, but you can only find the ramps, which grow in and at the edge of woods, under deciduous trees, when the leaves give their presence away in the spring, then later in the season when their flowers indicate their location. After the leaves die back, the plant gives off a lovely white flower on a long stem. You want to eat ramps with the leaves, however, which is why they are mainly harvested in early spring. They have been in the New York City farmers' markets for several weeks now. They may be difficult to find this late in the season. For instance, in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, where ramps grow profusely, they have ramp festivals in March. If you can find ramps, try them chopped and sautéed and incorporated into scrambled eggs or a frittata (by the way, ramps exist in Italy, too), or sauté them whole and just place on the same plate with the eggs, fried or otherwise.
I like to sauté the ramps whole, because when you do the leaves puff up like balloons, and -- I don't know -- it's just fun to do and see.