There are discriminating types, ones who have favorite cuisines and rarely stray. Say, someone devoted to Upscale American, French and Italian. For these types, maybe Japanese, if it is cooked. Maybe Chinese, if it is hot enough. Thai? Probably not. Mexican? Oh, no, definitely not.
There are as many foodie opinions on Mexican food as there are the strains of that cuisine. Most opinions are not good. And it’s all based on the variations of Mexican food we get to sample. But authentic Mexican? Very hard to find, even in New York City.
Yet, now there is a breakthrough in New York. There is La Camelia, 64 Downing Street at the corner of Varick. You walk out of the subway, turn the corner, and there is lovely, lovely food.
Mexican cuisine gets a knock because much of what is served in this country is either an Americanized variant [Tex Mex] or is so bloody fast-foody that there has been no time to nurture flavor. Cheap ingredients and preparation in under 45 seconds can only result in one thing: bad food.
Take chile relleno, for example. I’ve tried it many times and disappointment had always been my verdict. Then, once, in Santa Fe, I had the chile relleno. It was like eating the French cheese epoisse for the first time. It was brilliantly perfect. I returned to that restaurant five times over the next decade. Each time the chile relleno was abysmal. And so I despaired.
La Camelia is a newcomer on a foodie street in the West Village. I’d clipped an “opening notice” from the newspaper, planned to go, and then checked the menu online. And there it was, their chile relleno:
Chile poblano stuffed with Chicken, raisins, walnuts, sweet plantains, and fresh apple and topped with spicy chile de arbol sauce and Oaxaca Cheese
Now, that description has distinction. Open up a good Mexican cookbook, say 1000 Mexican Recipes by Marge Poore, and you find most relleno recipes are much simpler than La Camelia’s. La Camelia offers complexity and richness in their recipe. I had hope.
I ordered. I waited. I waited more. They have signature margaritas and I ordered another. The chips come with two salsas, a strong vibrant green that tingles your tongue and a subtle orange-colored one that the waitress warns you is hot. No, it’s very, very hot.
Did I mind the wait? Not at all. The drinks were good, the salsas interesting, the space itself pretty and quiet. And the wait told me that they were taking their time in the kitchen. Would interesting ingredients and that time produce great results?
This is the best chile relleno I ever had. Better than that great one in Santa Fe. Better than anything. Why? It was cooked to the right second, not just the right minute. You don’t want it undercooked, so that you need a knife with the pepper hard to chew and harsh to taste. You don’t want it overcooked into a soggy, limpid lump. And you want it blackened gently, not crisped. You want it cooked so it cuts with a fork and adds that unique pepper tone to what is inside.
The filling needs to be enchanting, not just a glob of cheap stuff. The dish needs to be broiled, not deep fried. It needs to be what they do here at La Camelia.
Their filling is complex in terms of the number, variety and categories of ingredients. You do get kaleidoscopic hints of those flavors with each bite, yet the overall feeling is of a rich “something” that you immediately love but can’t easily describe. All you say to yourself is “more.”
I’m headed back to La Camelia. If I can get the recipe to share with you I will. It’s that, that good.
“We need to do it,” I said.
“Leave Manhattan?” Suzen was concerned.
“Yes,” I said and waved the car keys.
Like many New Yorkers, we tend to stay far too close to our local neighborhood and miss the treasures in other parts of the city. We live, work, and stay in Lower Manhattan. Yesterday we ventured to Brooklyn for three reasons.
First, we visited Ann Nurse, a culinary deity who has mentored and mothered Suzen for years. Ann is lovely at slightly beyond 65, and loves to talk about food, people, and places. She treated us to a copy of James Peterson’s new book, Kitchen Simple, which we’ll blog soon.
Second, Suzen needed olive oil. Gallons and gallons of good oil. A mile from Ann is D. Coluccio and Sons, an Italian market and importer of exceptional quality. It’s worth the visit to the Sunset Park store just to walk in and smell the cheese. If you close your eyes, you’ll be convinced that you have flown to Rome. It’s a wonderful store with shelves overflowing with pasta, sauces, condiments, and treats that can be on so hard to find.
Ah, they carry olive oils. With our ten, yes ten, gallons of oil packed in our car, we asked Louie Coluccio where to go to eat. We expected directions to one of the hidden Italian eateries scattered across the borough. We were surprised. Our directions were to a Middle Eastern restaurant we had certainly heard about but never explored: Tanoreen located in Bay Ridge, as lovely a community as you could hope to find. There are side streets filled with lovely homes and apartment buildings solidly standing with brick and stone walls. And there is 3rd Avenue with an awesome array of eating establishments that stand toe-to-toe with Manhattan.
On 75th Street and 3rd is the new version of Tanoreen. Owner Rawai Bishara has expanded to a beautiful new space filled with color, wonderful scents, and a hungry crowd ready to taste Middle Eastern cuisine raised to a superior level. There is a simple way to describe the food here: classy. The names may be the ones you know from local “food stands” — for example falafel. But here at Tanoreen, only the name is the same. The care, the execution, the quality of ingredients, and the perfect cooking give new dimensions to all the dishes. Oh, and the presentation. That picture above shows a typical Tandoreen plate and is a metaphor for the food experience. That circle of parsley is the gateway to dishes that are abundant in flavors, scents, and textures.
The nightly list of specials is almost as long as the regular menu. I had pea-sized handmade pasta balls paired with chicken, onions and pearl cous cous in a broth you wanted to swim in. The pasta and chicken had been cooked to the perfect minute, then plated and rushed to my table with steam still rising. Suzen had shredded lamb mixed with yogurt and vegetables. It was tangy, yet subtle, the kind of comfort food you could not stop eating. Fortunately, the servings are gargantuan. We left with two bags of leftovers to enjoy for today’s lunch. It’s 11:20 as I write this. Lunch will be at 11:25.
The staff at Tandoreen is intelligent, helpful and gracious. If it is your first experience with Middle Eastern food, they will carefully guide you to a delicious start. If you are an experienced foodie, there is always more to learn and experience. At Tandoreen, they can take you for an extended, exceptional journey.