I can mention nearly any international ethnic cuisine to my friends these days and elicit barely a shrug.  The one region that is guaranteed, however, to elicit a “huh?” reaction is central Asia – the cuisine of Uzbekistan, specifically.  Few have traveled there or know someone with ethnic roots from there, and let’s face it, former Soviet republics aren’t usually known for their cuisine – an unfair byproduct of cold war misconceptions and the actual truth of communist-era deprivation.  It is a misconception worth fighting: certainly Russian food has much to offer**, and enough silk road cuisine has migrated northwest towards European Russia over the years that the source deserves even a closer look – that is, if you can find it.

Prior to my recent trip to Vienna, I hadn’t eaten Uzbek in several years.  So when we were searching for non-schnitzel alternatives for dinner on a Sunday night, I got pretty far into googling the (extensive!) array of ethnic joints before taking a flier on “uzbek restaurant vienna.”  What a surprise to find Restaurant Samarkand, and even more of a surprise to note that it’s located relatively close to the middle of the city!  We immediately got to walking from our Pension.

Given that we ate al fresco, I can’t comment on the restaurant’s atmosphere (you can check others’ photos here, including some of the dishes we didn’t order).  I can state that the wait staff is relatively proficient in English as well as German, which was much to the relief of the table of Americans (how odd?) that pulled in behind us.

The food, however, was great.  Our mutual favorite had to have been the plov, pictured at upper right.  It’s far closer to fried rice than the box pilaf your mother buys at the grocery store – the grains of rice glisten, and the peppers and carrots provide some yellow-orange glow.  The lamb chunks had excellent flavor, and had indeed lent some of that flavor to the rest of the dish upon cooking.

The other favorite was the Manti dumplings (second photo), which I think would be found very often in a Russian restaurant as well.  Thick-skinned and filled with lamb, this time accented with onions, and sprinkled with dill (a frequent Russian ingredient), these have to be some of the best dumplings around.  With a little sour cream dip they become truly decadent.

I was a little disappointed by the laghman – this beef stew with hand-pulled noodles has never been my ultimate favorite (I prefer the Xinjang stir-fry version Giro Laghman), but I usually just order it for the noodles.  This time I felt they were a little overcooked.

Conversely I was more than satisfied with the Uzbek bread we ordered.  Given that the restaurant had two other tables filled on a holiday weekend, I had felt there was little chance of getting fresh bread.  (How do you say “Wrong again, genius!” in Russian?)

I hope to be back in Vienna soon to sample the rest of the menu; this review is obviously incomplete without trying any of the kebabs or the other dumplings.  My most fervent hope, though, is that it’s not a few years before I have a decent Plov again.

Restaurant Samarkand

Eschenbachgasse 4

A-1010 Vienna

* My first review of Cheburechnaya is one of my most-viewed posts still, mostly due to it being linked to from the restaurant’s website.

** I infamously took a course in it, in fact, at The Esteemed Educational Institution.

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“Bucks” in a land of Francs.

Reviewing restaurants is a fool’s errand in a lot of ways, one of which is that you have to qualify your opinion – like cars, you should sort by some combination of price range and ambition, and deliver a statement on the overall value.  To extend the metaphor, in Zurich, as with the cars in its parking lots, the restaurants range from Lamborghini to Fiat 500 (there isn’t much of a Yugo market, in other words).  This has hampered my thoughts of continuing this blog for some time – I used to cover strictly the cheap market, with the occasional Michelin launch piece or expensive dinner out thrown in.  Five years ago, I made the decision that I couldn’t change the direction of the blog drastically to cover the kinds of places available in Switzerland and threw in the towel.

I’m going to reverse that decision and resume writing occasionally, even if the articles don’t exactly fit the original mission (which was, lest we forget, to tick restaurants off a list published over six years ago).  I’ve been reviewing restaurants in my head for five years, and it pains me to admit that those thoughts have then gone to waste.  Having gone over my posts recently while migrating to a new blogging platform, I realize the personal value of these posts in retrospect.  It may not function as the blog my original readership liked, but it’ll function as something I like, and that’s enough.  Perhaps some of you readers will come with me on this new journey, and if so, I look forward to your reactions.

I’m still in Switzerland, so the writing will skew heavily in that direction (although I’m excited to cover my myriad travel destinations as well), and I’ll run the gamut of restaurants that are available here.  I will not pick and choose based on price but hopefully somewhat effectively on value for money – always a tricky subject to cover in Swiss Franc-land, but one after five years I feel practiced enough to have the hang of.

Hope you enjoy this relaunched blog and, as the Swiss say, “En Guete!”


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The Daily Catch – Boston

I am severely late to this party, but I’ll say it anyway: The Daily Catch in Boston is one of the best restaurants anywhere.  For the last few years, my girlfriend and I have made it our last stop on the summer holiday to Cape Cod – taking the trip into the North End to have some really great Sicilian-American pasta, then catching the late flight back to the land of cheese and yogurt.  (Making friends on a plane is easy when you smell like garlic…or not.  Depends on the airline.)  It’s a way of making the end of the favorite vacation of the year seem less ominous for a few enjoyable minutes.

I first went to the Catch at the beginning of a Massachusetts vacation in 2008, on the recommendation of and with a friend of mine who is no slouch herself at hunting down deliciousness.  I was slowly on my way to a college reunion in the northwestern corner of the state and had taken up residence at the esteemed Long Wharf Marriott* for a few nights beforehand.

I hadn’t been to the North End more than a couple of times despite being in Boston quite a bit over the years, and even having lived there for a few months in 2003.  I recall one house party of a college friend, and one dinner with the editor of the Boston Globe** – that was the sum total of the North End for me.  So I enjoyed the walk up from Long Wharf and marveled at how much nicer it was to have the Big Dig finally dug.  Boston just gets nicer by the year as the city figures out how to best use the Greenway but at that time we were just thrilled that the green wasn’t actually rotting steel girders on the X-Way.

The Daily Catch’s original Hanover Street location, for those who haven’t been, is a hole in the wall.  Charitably.  The tables are set tightly together and/or pushed into corners.  You can pre-inspect the wall-mounted chalkboard menu here to save some neck strain; from certain tables it’s a difficult read.  The kitchen is, well, right over there – from pretty much any seat in the house – so you can watch Chef Basil cooking your selection of choice, as well as eavesdrop on the banter between the chef and his brother (the waiter) and the other employees.  It’s a treat if you enjoy regionally-accented ball-busting.  I assume the delivery of your food in the frying pan is a necessity of lack of storage space for plates and a desire to minimize (all-human) dishwashing, but it would make a fine contrived addition to most restaurants’ atmosphere as well.  Pretension is definitely not on offer, nor advised to bring with.

We were indeed offered a selection of fish, some of which had been caught by the chef himself – the fresh-caught striped bass was hardest to turn down.  Taking leave of my usual Italian-American restaurant ordering method (always get the special!) since we typically only make it once a year, I had my usual Puttanesca (see photo above right), while my girlfriend branched out into the unknown by ordering the ground squid/Aglio-Olio pasta (both $21).  Both of these dishes utilize one of my favorite noodles: the squid-ink infused linguine ribbon offers a slightly brinier flavor, although it’s very subtle.  Obviously with ground squid in the mix, it’s an all-parts-of-the-animal architectural victory – but how did the dish taste once built?

Well, we both thought it was one of the best things we’d eaten in forever.  The squid is ground up very finely, like small pellets of hamburger, to the point where it is difficult to distinguish whether you’re eating ground garlic or squid – this also because the garlic flavor is like WHOA.  We didn’t think it was possible to renovate something so simple (Aglio-Olio is on every European Italian menu) into something so fresh and delicious, but we were more than pleasantly surprised.

Aglio-Olio competed well with my longtime (since the original visit!) favorite Puttanesca, which I like so much I’ve started riffing on it at home.  It ostensibly involves a kalamata olive and anchovy base, and the Daily Catch version also leans on very coarsely chopped peppers and onions and (naturally) a whole lot of garlic.  It is a wonderful dish; you’ll be sopping up the sauce after you’ve wolfed down the noodles. At home, I’ve tended to go heavier on the fish, including sardines in the mix instead of the peppers and onions, but then I have a long way to go to achieve honorary status in the Freddura clan.

Which reminds me of last year (2010), the first year I took my girlfriend with me.  Mama Freddura came waltzing in with a stack of T-shirts, in what seemed to me to be an answer to a question that had been asked before I got there, but might also have been just an effort to clean out a closet.  As she shouted out sizes and her son tossed the shirts around the room, I remained silent, not wanting to claim something that might be intended for someone else.  As the pile dwindled, she called out XXL for the second time, with no answer.  Even though it was a size too big, I raised my hand and got a T-shirt from Mama, and I’m happy to say it’s the same design that one of her kids is wearing in the family photo on the wall.  Wearing it is, I think, as close to Sicilian-American as I’ll ever be.

The Daily Catch

323 Hanover St

Boston, MA

*I wasn’t paying; those were the days.

**As you do.

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No more crappy kebabs!

This post originally appeared on the abortive KREIS5.NET blog.

Some (probably less-addled) folks like to compare the prices of a liter/gallon of milk as a framework for bitching about inflation or where to live more cheaply.  I, on the other hand, have long used the esteemed Döner Kebap as a marker of relative food cost between different cities.  For example, when I was a student in Berlin, I think a kebap cost about €2.10, which was under US$2 at the time – both the exchange rate and the cost relative to other cities made it a quite excellent place to be a student.  Austria, if I recall, was only a bit pricier at around €3 (and infinitely more delicious, so much so that I wrote an article about Graz kebaps from memory on my old blog).

So I’m super glad I wasn’t a student in Switzerland, because the crash of the dollar has left the 8 franc döner almost absurdly expensive for what it’s worth.  And they don’t even cut you fresh meat here, preferring to let it marinate/dry out in some sort of steam table.  It’s just nasty!  (Don’t even get me started on the bread…)

However, I am easily seduced by quality even at those prices, and that’s why I’m so happy to have found Libanon il-Achdar on Hafnerstrasse.  Instead of the usual generic döner mystery substance, these guys have substituted a nearly unparalleled range of meats: rosto, a kind of roast beef; kafta, herbed ground beef; sujuk, the Lebanese lamb sausage similar to merguez; and several kinds of chicken: one that’s mixed with veggies, one that’s not, and one that actually gets cut off a proper spit right into your pita bread – that’s right, boys and girls, an actual schawarma!

The delight doesn’t stop with meat selection.  Unless you get the chicken-on-a-spit, your meat will need to be thrown on the grill.  So, while that’s happening, you will be asked to pick your secondary ingredients.  I suppose you could be picky, but I have always entrusted the counter staff to put on “alles,” and I have not been disappointed.  You’ll always get pickles, cabbage, onions, and, to my great delight, french fries – your lubrication (ie the spread applied to the pita) will change depending on the meat (with the lamb it usually seems to be mayonnaise, but I think when I ordered beef, they used hummus or babaganouj).

While the lamb is advertised as spicy, it’s not terribly hot.  If you want a bit more heat, ask for it – while there isn’t any particularly unique hot sauce to try, the Sriracha hot sauce sauce goes surprisingly well into the mix with almost any meat, and may remind you of banh mi gone by (if only we had some Vietnamese sandwiches here).

I would gladly pay 8 francs for one of the many variations of this delicious sandwich.  However, you don’t have to.  The price for any meat sandwich at Libanon il-Achdar is CHF7.  CHF7!!!! now CHF8 (but still). Oh, happy day.

So next time you are pondering waiting in line for a crappy kebap with the snotty Swiss teenage boys on lunch break, steer yourself instead to Libanon il-Achdar.  There will probably be a line there, too, but you can be assured that the wait is actually worth it.

Libanon il-Achdar
Hafnerstrasse 13
8005 Zürich

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Nimmi saves me from food doldrums.

This post originally appeared on the abortive KREIS5.NET blog.

I am quite fond of Nimmi, one of several Sri Lankan restaurants on Josefstrasse. But let me back up a bit. For a year after arriving from NYC to Switzerland, I was living in the burbs. Not only did I not have any cheap ethnic food nearby, I really more or less had no food nearby – I was at the top of a hill and, while I doubt I’ll ever have a more magnificent lake/mountain view, I planned two separate vacations around going back to the city just to eat things with any amount of spice in them.

While the opening of the Thalwil Thai restaurant was an important bridge, it’s not really cheap, per se. That’s why I was so happy when I discovered Nimmi, which IS cheap by Swiss standards, and served as the harbinger of restaurants to be discovered once I moved to Zürich.

Actually I went to Nimmi for the first time on the day I viewed my current apartment, dragging two visiting friends through the neighborhood while I had my internal debate about whether to take the place. Nimmi looked appealing not just because it was different, but because it looked like the kind of places I used to eat in New York – the timeless hole in the wall, though Nimmi is perhaps cleaner than the average NYC joint.

Aside from my own personal reasons, I am fond of Nimmi because the food is commendable. CHF12.50 will buy you Kottu Rotti, which is cut up roti bread mixed and pan fried with the curried meat of your choice (lamb’s a good bet), onions, and chilies (I don’t know if that’s a comprehensive list of ingredients but it gives you the idea). You can put some other goofy starches in there, too, if you are feeling carb-deprived.

In a similar price range, the Masala Dosa is an excellent iteration of the traditional Indian/Sri Lankan stuffed pancake. It doesn’t take the tubular form of the previous Dosas I’d had (specifically Newark Avenue in Jersey City, New Jersey), but makes up for the lack of presentation with roughly twice the spiced potato filling in a folded-over omelet kind of format. It often comes with homemade (and red!) coconut chutney, which is to die for.

There’s plenty else on the menu – for instance, a case full of pre-prepared curries that can be nuked in a variety plate that’s actually pretty good, and I spotted some string hoppers the other day, which is a Sri Lankan specialty I last had on Staten Island. But I keep coming back for the Dosa.

Again, I love Nimmi, so let me couch this next sentence in kindness: the proprietor’s sense of hospitality extends to serving you a dessert that I think is pretty wretched. It consists of generally good, ripe sliced melon and/or pineapple, but drenched in some kind of strawberry syrup that probably would appeal to kids as an ice cream topping. I mean, it’s SWEET. And it comes out before you can even decline.

So, I’ve taken to trying their other desserts as a means of avoiding the dreaded syrup. But even that strategy was foiled last time. Upon hearing they were out of everything but a spherical fritter they called a banana ball, I blanched a bit, but was actually pleasantly surprised to find no fried bananas were contained within. Instead it was a quite dense cake that was neither too banana-y nor too sweet.

How were my machinations stymied, then, you ask?
As I watched in (concealed) horror, they scooped some fruit on top and squirted a long dollop of the strawberry syrup on top…foiled again.

Josefstrasse 137
8005 Zürich

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Chicha: nature’s pepto-bismol?

Need a schwack of food to kill a hangover? In the East Village? Caracas, the Venezuelan “arepa bar” at 91 E. 7th Street, might well be a candidate. Their breakfast specials, served on plates deceptively small in circumference, might be two of the bigger gut bombs in the region. Besides the plain arepa, both combos feature perico, an egg pie sans crust. I’d pick the vegetarian combination with beans, plantains, tomatoes and avocadoes over the combo including the slightly generic and sweet shredded beef, hearts of palm, and a salad (though the fried cheese with the meat platter was darn good).

You’d be equally well off, though, just grabbing whichever arepa sounds most appealing and indulging in the molasses-thick Chicha, the rice milk and cinammon conoction that practically annulled any trace of the previous night’s activities even before the food was served. It’s just cool and gooey enough to be soothing and coat the stomach, though I’d probably opt for the smaller of the two sizes next time.

The coffee was brewed with sugar, though not an obnoxious amount.

I think the best thing I ate was the Yoyo, though. It’s hard to argue with plantains engulfed in a bready dough, deep fried and slightly salted. It’s like a dumpling with a treat in the middle.

I had been curious to try Caracas for several years, and while I wouldn’t call it a destination attraction, it’s not a bad place to end up after a night of drinking. Waking up in Tijuana, on the other hand…


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Sausage stars.

Not many culinary bargains to be found in Zürich, I’m sad to say, but one that I’ve recently been introduced to would be a bargain in any hamlet across the globe. The Sternen Grill is a cross between a free-standing cart and a lunch counter, and serves the finest bratwurst I’ve yet encountered in this country.

Located in the alleyway called “Freieckgasse” just across the street from the Bellevue tram stop (over the bridge from Bürkliplatz), Sternen’s featured items are a pair of sausages, of which one is a St. Galler bratwurst made with veal. At most joints, this is my least favorite sausage because of its overall blandness, but Sternen must have a good source for these things, because they certainly don’t lack for flavor, and they have a fantastic “melt in your mouth” texture.

Six francs fifty (about five and a quarter US dollars) will also get you a piece of chewy, crusty bread and a plastic tub with just the right amount of sinus-attacking mustard. I think the bread and mustard would probably be worth going back for alone, in fact – that they come with such an exceptional sausage makes this the bargain to beat. The beer is kind of spendy (five francs for a can of Calanda), but there’s a beer garden right across the river, so eat your wurst and go soak up the atmosphere and suds there afterwards. Viva!


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