Hmm Hmm Hummus

As far as palate goes, I find that mine is ever-changing, evolving, but sometimes devolving, finding my tolerance and craving for certain foods tied into emotional needs and culinary curiosity.  Coming from such diverse roots, I am open to various types of cuisine, but often balk at staples I am supposed to enjoy.  Take black beans, a basic Caribbean representative at any Latino table.  I hated the stuff until my late twenties.  My grandmother, who is part Syrian/Lebanese, filled our meals with Arab delicacies like kibbe and stuffed grape leaves.  But I seldom found myself in a hummus parlor or craving falafel or babaganush.  There are better ways to serve meat in my opinion than kebabs, and as an opponent of vegetarianism (don’t even mention the other V word), I foolishly associated this cooking to be unfulfilling.
Recently, I have had numerous hankerings for Middle Eastern and Indian comfort food, choices which were always at the bottom of my list in the past.  What sparked my revolution is tough to pinpoint.  Intellectually speaking I must broaden my horizons to be considered a true foodie (although monkey brains I am staying clear).  My appetite drives me, as my grandfather loves to point out – I am a slave of food and wine.

Start out at the best places possible – I think – so at least I have given a particular food its due at or near its peak performance.  The same doesn’t hold for wine, by the way.  I drank Yellow Tail like everyone else, and my tastes continue to evolve with each glass.  But I am glad I started at the bottom first so I can appreciate superior products later.

On a tip from my friend Evan, I headed over to Hell’s Kitchen (that’s right, Clinton was a President, not this neighborhood) to Gazala Place on ninth avenue.  The cuisine is labeled as Druze, originating from the mountains of Syria, Israel and Lebanon which features much of the same standard fare one would find at a hummus parlor, plus a bonus of crepe-like pitas and pastries which are crafted on a griddle called a saag.  Chef Gazala Halabi utilizes the spices from her family back home, and the quality and seasoning combination stand out.

My excitement for the home style cooking here was rewarded with brightness and good flavors with a light touch.  My disappointments may be tied into my own shortcomings and understanding of this type of food.  Like all ethnic cuisine, you have to be in the mood for it.  If you want sushi don’t get Mexican.  If you want Thai, don’t look for Italian, etc.

I imagine that judgment of any Middle Eastern place should begin with its hummus.  While the hummus here is very organic and delicious, it does not have the same consistency I am accustomed too.  It is too whipped, and does not hold its form.  The tahini is fresh, and with the choices of chick peas or fava beans, a delight.  Rather treat yourself to the labanee, creamy goat cheese accented with zahatar, fragrant olive oil and a zing of lemon.  I only wish the homemade crepe-like pita were more solid.  My attempts at scooping up the labanee often ended in failure.

A close second is the babaganush.  The eggplant is not too smoky (I detest overly smoked anything, especially barbecue), and coupled with tahini, probably the best I have tasted in some time.  You will forgive me that I did not try any of the salads, but con attest to the bright quality of the tabouli.  If I could douse my body with this after a shower I would.  It gives anything green a good name.  I have not tried the kibbe, but have heard they are competent.  Kibbe is one of the reasons my grandfather married my grandmother.  Hers are unbelievable, and the knockoffs that exist always disappoint me.

Moving onto what separates Gazala Place from the rest are the homemade breads and pies.  Upon looking at them, located in the front window, they look like pastries from a street breakfast cart, an appearance of too much dough and staleness with an amateurish sprinkling.  These burekas are spiced with sesame and filled with goat cheese, tomatoes or chicken.   In reality each bite gets better and better, and coupled with yogurt are irresistible.  Save room to sample these.  The shell is flaky, the fillings moist, the balance correct.  Not as successful are the fresh baked pita shells, which are a tad greasy and uninteresting, the meat on top unremarakable.
Instead have the falafel, just lovely testaments to a chef Gazala’s hand, light and crispy and ideal.  I am upset that they are so far away from the Upper West Side.

I still have not tried any of the kebabs or the fish dishes, again holding onto my own prefabricated beliefs about what the essence of this type of food really is.  Who knows, maybe sometime in the near future, I will head over to a place like Angelica Kitchen, because I am in the mood and ready for a plate of fine vegetables.  Until then, break me in with a little hummus, babaganush, labanee, tabouli and a grape leaf or two and chalk that up to progress.

Pedestrian Pancakes

By KC Koonce

It should be simple—all of the ingredients are ordinary, inexpensive, and the same color—but somehow the elusive pancake is almost impossible to find. Too many people (and restaurants) don’t take their pancakes seriously enough, and Upper West Siders are faced with a plethora of pedestrian pancakes.

But I take my pancakes seriously and think if we all did, restaurants would be forced to serve better ones. One need only visit the great state of Vermont for comparison.

Good pancakes, most would agree, are something we go for when we’re seeking weekend decadence. We enjoy pancakes with good company, and good coffee, juice, meat, and perhaps a boozy beverage. We expect them to be fluffy, cloud-like sweet treats that we’ve worked hard for all week and deserve. Or don’t deserve, but eat on credit from the future workout we promise to take.

Regardless of the circumstance, everyone deserves good pancakes.

Good pancakes are light gold in color. They are soft to the touch, roughly a half-inch thick with bubbly edges; the underside is slightly lighter than the top. When you cut into the pancake it is slightly doughy, it absorbs syrup easily, and when you put it in our mouth you know you have the perfect pancake.

I like to taste the tang of baking soda, just to ensure that the pancake didn’t come from a box. The slight imperfection reminds me of the care human hands took to make the pancake, like a slightly asymmetrical hand-woven carpet.

Accoutrements are as important as the pancakes themselves.

SYRUP

It sounds bourgeois, but there is no substitute for real maple syrup. “Syrup” substitutes (the kinds that come in plastic bottles) contain frightening ingredients with “x’s” and “z’s” and more than 10 letters. Maple syrup is healthy and works as a great substitute for sugar – for more than just pancakes. I know these are tough times, but I strongly advise against cutting corners with syrup.

CONFIDENT COFFEE

To me—and I know I’m not alone—coffee is an absolutely essential part of the day. Coffee is not expensive – so why do so many eateries skimp on coffee? There really is no excuse for ruining the start of our days, and yet so many places do it. We deserve to feel confident that we will be served good quality coffee with brunch. I brew and drink my coffee at home before going to brunch, because a mediocre coffee on a weekend morning is one of life’s greatest disappointments.

SAVORING THE SIDE

Pancakes can be too sweet to stomach alone, so it helps to have a salty side, such as sausage or bacon. A good breakfast sausage is my favorite. I’m always happy when restaurants make it easy to order a side. If sausage and bacon are too decadent, not many meat-eaters will turn down an offer to share your bacon or sausage. Two bites of pancakes per one bite of your side meat dish is just heavenly, and the protein will keep you full for much longer than pancakes alone.

RECOMMENDATIONS ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE

Upper West Siders face an uphill battle for good brunch. Who wants to stand on those lines only to be served mediocrity at best? Perhaps you should just skip the idea altogether and have a burger; I recommend the Shake Shack (finally, fast food done correctly), but if you really have a craving and you can’t, or don’t have time to make them, I have two recommendations.

The first time I tried Community pancakes I was in heaven. They are thick and perfect and the sausages are also delicious. The unusually good coffee was a pleasant complement to the breakfast. Warning: Smack in the middle of Columbia University valley, there are obscene crowds.

Another classic pancake can be found at French Roast. The pancakes don’t disappoint. The side of sausage is good and the coffee is decent (but the selection of Belgian beers is even better).

But I rarely go out to brunch these days. Even if I had a larger budget, I would still have a hard time paying for the mediocre choices. I can’t tolerate half-assed coffee and pancakes, so I just don’t bother.Below is an adapted recipe I like from Epicurious.com

Ingredients

* 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
* 3 tablespoons sugar
* 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
* 1/4 teaspoon salt
* 1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
* 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
* 2 large eggs
* 1 teaspoon vanilla
* Accompaniment: maple syrup

Pancakes

Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together buttermilk, 2 tablespoons melted butter, eggs, and vanilla in a large bowl until smooth. Add flour mixture and whisk until just combined.

Brush a 12-inch nonstick skillet with some of remaining tablespoon melted butter and heat over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Working in batches of 3, pour 1/4 cup batter per pancake into hot skillet and cook until bubbles appear on surface and undersides are golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip pancakes with a spatula and cook until golden brown and cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes more. Transfer to a large plate and loosely cover with foil to keep warm, then make more pancakes, brushing skillet with butter for each batch.