Restaurant Review: Baku Palace

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

Azeri Cuisine - Baku PalaceBaku Palace, in Sheepshead Bay, is one of the very few Azeri restaurants in New York. But if you imagine a hole-in-the-wall serving kebabs with an old Caucasian singer in the corner, you’re in for a surprise. With four restaurant rooms on two floors, the place is quite massive, and covers the better part of a block. It’s also more than a restaurant: like the other big floor show ventures in Brooklyn, it turns into a night club during weekends, and offers catering and private parties.

I’ve been to Baku Palace many times over the years, and this post is long overdue. In fact, I started the review just before Hurricane Sandy last year, and then had to wait until they reopened before I could pay them one more visit. Continue reading

Restaurant Review: Apsheron

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

In the inland part of the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn, Apsheron is an Azeri restaurant named after the peninsula where Baku is located. At times like these, when you often have to book a table a good two weeks in advance to get off-prime time seating in a not-so-desirable corner even for lunch, it’s good to know that there are still places like this, places where you can be the only customer during the whole service:

To be fair, I would imagine the restaurant gets a lot more crowded in the evening, as we heard many people telephoning to make reservations. Note also that they didn’t have an alcohol license at the time of our visit, but the owner invited us to shop at the liquor store around the corner. So this can be a go-to place for affordable “lively” dinners!

The menu mixes Azeri specialties with Russian standards and a selection of seafood dishes that seems to be common in the local Soviet restaurants, probably because, technically, we live by the sea − there are even fishing charters in Sheepshead Bay. This is also the second Azeri restaurant in New York where I’ve seen foie gras on the menu, for some unknown reason.

The Azeri appetizers were limited to a few classics. We started with a meat kutab (not photographed), and the Baku-style eggplant, fried slices of eggplant topped with a garlic, walnut and turmeric paste; both were pretty good.

There was a good choice of soups, including piti, kharcho, kiufta-bozbash and Baku-style dushpara. We tried the latter: tiny lamb dumplings in a flavorful, though salty, herb broth:

The gyurza, dushpara’s big brother, was offered either boiled or fried. The fried version was rather disappointing, with good lamb filling but thick and dry dough:

The kebab selection is extensive. Lamb alone can be ordered as chops, ribs, cubes, or lyulya kebab. Seafood renditions include shrimp, sturgeon and salmon. There’s also chicken, liver, quail and ram testicles! And potato lyulya kebab, mashed potatoes finished on a skewer! Here’s the mixed meat kebab platter:

The lyulya kebab contained a lot of onion, which had the benefit of moistening the meat, but gave a too-strong onion taste (duh). Making a great lyulya can be much harder than it seems. The other meats were all tender and juicy, and the fries weren’t bad either.

Unfortunately, the menu didn’t feature many other Azeri entrées, save for baby lamb tongues and dzhyz-byz (fried lamb offals and potatoes). While Manhattanites are rediscovering offals in fancy restaurants, Apsheron had been serving them all along! We might have to come back another time to have an offal-centered meal.

For this time, we decided to give a try to the beef Stroganoff instead, thin strips of beef in a thick, bland mushroom sauce with lots of thyme. It was probably above average — it’s just that the average can be pretty bad. The leftovers sit unclaimed in our fridge.

And I finally got my pakhlava! I salute the effort, but personally I would have made thicker, fewer layers with more honey — I like when the pastry sticks to my fingers.

For the record, the menu also listed shaker-bura (a sweet baked dumpling) and a couple napoleons.

Cuisine: Azeri
Picks: soups, kebabs
Food: 5.5/10

Restaurant Review: Chinar on the Island

A note about my restaurant reviews: New York City counts many Eastern European restaurants scattered across the five boroughs, most of them ignored by restaurant critics and diners alike. I intend to visit as many as I can and report!

What to do on Black Friday on your way back to New York after a Thanksgiving family gathering? Stop for lunch at a Staten Island restaurant, of course!

Chinar on the Island “honors the breadth Mediterranean cuisine by bringing fresh, wholesome cooking from almost all regions of Middle East to an elegant, contemporary and comfortable setting [sic]“. However, as they answer phone calls directly in Russian, you may start realizing that this joint isn’t quite Mediterranean, and they don’t really serve Middle-Eastern food either. A glance at the menu reveals this is actually one of a handful of Azeri restaurants in New York — the other ones I’m aware of being Apsheron, Baku Palace and Cafe Sim-Sim.

Apparently, the Soviet community has recently boomed in the forgotten borough, and although you won’t feel the same kind of immersion as in Brighton Beach, there’s a local Russian-language newspaper, and a few stores and restaurants.

Chinar’s dining room is pleasant and not too kitsch, save for the (uh-hum) fountain and golden trees in the center — “[the] branches are bringing peace and relaxation into today’s stressful life”, we are told. You can check out the pictures on their web site, but looking at my own snapshots of the bar, I now see that not only can you watch the Kremlin’s official programs on Russian Channel 1, you might also be able to smoke the hookah:

The menu offers a commendable selection of Azeri dishes, above and beyond the usual shashlyk assortment you find in other places, even in Azerbaijan.

We started the meal with piti, a broth with lamb, potatoes and chickpeas:

The soup was good but slightly lacked complexity. I’ve seen piti recipes where onions, tomatoes, plums and various herbs were also added. The flat bread was everything bread should be: warm, freshly made and fragrant (quick scientific explanation: bread contains lots of starch, and starch “retrogrades” and traps flavor when cooling, which is why bread tastes so much better when it comes straight out of the oven).

Next came two appetizers on the same platter, the meat kutab and gyurzas:

A kutab is a disc of thinly rolled dough, stuffed, folded, then fried. The small amount of filling is traditionally made of lamb, greens or pumpkin. Our meat version was nice and juicy. The dumplings, called gyurzas, also contained a delicious lamb mixture. In the recipe I knew, they are simply boiled, but these were boiled then fried. The appetizers were served with katyk (a kind of thick yogurt) mixed with dill. Sumac, the red spice you see on many of the pictures, adds a lemony taste to the dishes.

We tried only one of the shashlyks, the lyulya-kebab, ground lamb grilled on a skewer and wrapped in flat bread:

This was fine but a bit disappointing after the appetizers. The meat was too compact and not juicy enough to my taste. The mashed potatoes were nondescript and the ketchup-like sauce unnecessary. I would have been much happier with some narsharab, a pomegranate sauce.

The entrées kept coming, and here’s the lamb soyutma, lamb shanks slowly cooked for 5 hours:

The meat was very tender but could have used more seasoning. I guess this was what the mustard sauce was for. Although I’ve never heard of mustard being used in Azeri cuisine, I wouldn’t have minded if the sauce was good, but it was only moderately successful…

The menu offered several kinds of plovs, and we chose the Govurma plov, with lamb, onions, dried apricots and chestnuts:

In Azeri plov, unlike its Uzbek couterpart, the rice and the garnish are cooked separately and put together only at service time, yielding a somewhat drier, less greasy dish. This was pretty good, but the lamb was mostly bones. I find that it makes more sense as a side to eat with shashlyks than as a full-meal dish.

Unfortunately, the restaurant doesn’t make its own desserts and only offers “Italian-style” cakes. Too bad — I would have gladly finished with a piece of Azeri baklava…

In retrospect, I wish we’d tasted more of the kebabs. This is the eternal problem with Azeri cuisine: either you order the shashlyks and you complain you never get to try anything else, or you order other entrées and you miss eating the shashlyks. I could totally see myself coming back with friends on some weekend night and trying many of the things we skipped — the kebabs, the quail, the other plovs, the hookah. But then… how are we supposed to get home from Staten Island in the wee hours???

Cuisine: Azeri
Food: 7/10