Never a Dal Moment: A Recipe and a Reflection



Dal, a lentil-based soup, is a staple of Bengali cooking — at least in my family. It didn’t matter that we grew up in Ohio, about as far from Kolkata and Dhaka as you can get, we had dal with dinner almost every night. Moog dal, musoor dal, cholar dal, toor dal, yellow split-pea dal. You know that whole Forrest Gump riff on shrimp? That was the Bhattacharjee household’s relationship to every kind of lentil in existence. It was one of my late father’s favorite dishes, and my mom liked to joke that he could eat just dal-bhaath (lentils and rice) for every meal. Me? Not so much. I looked upon dal with the kind of horror that middle American white kids saved for their broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

The only way you could get me to enjoy lentils was in khichuri, a classic Bengali comfort food that combines dal, rice, spices and ghee and usually comes with a side of something fried. Let’s face it, fried potatoes on the side make any dish a winner.

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A little salt, a little fat, a lot of bliss!

This week a friend and I tried out a new small plate restaurant in Sunnyside, Salt & Fat. It joins fellow newbies Molly Bloom’s and Cafe Marlene — slightly upscale establishments in a neighborhood that could definitely use more options besides Thai restaurants and pubs! Don’t get me wrong, I love Thai restaurants and pubs, but it’s nice to be able to have an inventive meal without hiking into Manhattan and paying Manhattan prices. Salt & Fat is a surprisingly large space for this neighborhood, narrow but long. White walls accented with stone help give it an airy quality. But it’s the food that really lights things up!

S&F starts you off with a little bag of popcorn popped in bacon fat. Jen and I practically demolished the serving as we pored over the menu. We picked four dishes to split, and it actually proved to be too much for us to finish!

We started off with the utterly sublime “crack” and cheese — fried gnocchi in a cheese bechamel sauce, with this amazing thick-cut bacon interspersed throughout. We instantly decided that regardless of what else we ate, that alone had made the trip worth it. The gnocchi was airy, the cheese perfect, and the smoky bacon the perfect accent for it all.

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Hungry like something that’s not a wolf.

It’s amazing how a rainy — okay, thunderstorm-y — day can so thoroughly impact one’s mood. All I want to do is be home with comfort foods like mac & cheese, watching Bollywood movies all day while the rain pounds against the windows. Sadly, that is not an option. So, instead, I’m going to drink dishwater-flavored coffee from the office’s Flavia machine and keep the TV on low volume while the rain pounds against the windows.

I haven’t done a recap of my recent trip to L.A., but one of the significant things from that trip was that I finally got on the sushi train. We went to The Geisha House, an uber-trendy sushi place in Hollywood, that made me surmise that the more trendy and upscale you are, the less lights you have on in your establishment. We had to ask for another candle to help us read menus, and I wound up twisting around to the little artsy twinkle lights behind my banquette. And oy, did the waiter have attitude about our lack of ability to see in the pitch darkness. At any rate, I got their “Cherokee” roll, with salmon, avocado, cream cheese, and asparagus with a tempura coating. I did actually enjoy it quite a bit. So much so that I’ve returned to the city with a yen for sushi and I had a salmon avocado roll from Washoku Cafe on 37th between 5th and 6th for lunch on Friday. I’m not exactly an expert on sushi yet, obviously, but Washoku’s prices are remarkably reasonable for the lower edge of Midtown and the salmon tasted fresh. I’m also hopelessly addicted to wasabi and candied ginger.

Another recent experience was a relatively new Australian-themed bar in Kips Bay, Van Diemen’s, which earns automatic points from me for having my “diet beer” Amstel Light on draft. Their drink specials are pretty good as well. Their menu is pretty standard American bar & grill fare with a few Aussie-themed dishes thrown in as well. The day I was there, I wasn’t particularly hungry, so I really want to go back and fully appreciate the Moroccan Chicken Salad Wrap I had and try some other things. T. had their Aussie Sliders, which she really seemed to like.

Then there’s Claret, a wine bar that opened in Sunnyside a few months back. As one might expect, it has a really, really decent wine list with a good range of both whites and reds from California, Chile, Italy, France, South Africa, and Australia. They had a Pinotage so, naturally, I had to have that. My only complaint, and I guess it IS a major one, is that their cheese and meat plates are a rip-off. For $12, you can choose three items…and they bring them out on a long rectangular platter. The presentation is lovely, but once you look at the plate you realize how skimpy the offerings are. There’s crackers, a few pieces of French bread, and really barely enough cheese and meat to warrant the price tag. In comparison, Riposo 46, a wine bar in Hell’s Kitchen I also visited recently, has more expensive wines but they do NOT skimp on the food.

And since I’m over in the area, I must mention a surprise find: The Hourglass Tavern. It’s literally a hidden gem on the bustling, busy Restaurant Row, because I can’t even tell you HOW many times I’ve walked past it without even really registering its presence. It’s under new management and currently in “soft open” mode, as they continue to refurbish the place and make it their own. Like all of the places on that stretch of 46th, it has a prix fixe menu. You get salad or soup, an appetizer, a main dish, and then coffee and dessert. Their range of dishes is really quite diverse and my three friends and I all got very different things and were each happy with our orders. The place itself is a charming, three-story restaurant. Each floor seats about 20 people and has a really intimate feel.

God, now I really want to eat something!

Please, Sur, can I have some more?

I think I have an unhealthy addiction to the empanadas at Sur. Located at 45-57 47th St. in Woodside, I have the fortune/misfortune of passing Sur on the way back from work every day. You’d think I’d learn my lesson and take another route if my problem is so bad, hmm? Ah, well.

So, I stop in there once a week, if not twice, for their highly addictive butternut squash soup (they ran out tonight! woe!) and 2-3 empanadas. I’ve tried all but five of their regular varieties — one of which I’ll never try because I’m allergic to crab. I think my favorites so far are probably the chorizo, salteña, and ham & cheese.

I need an intervention.

What’s cookin’?

After a brief hiatus from all things culinary, I’m finally getting back on the cooking horse again…as much as I ride, that is. So, to make sure I haven’t turned into a complete idiot, I decided to whip up my Technicolor Dream Rice, which I probably haven’t made in at least six months.


Not bad, right?  You can’t quite see that it’s actually a pale yellow color from the turmeric, and lest anyone get squicked, the things that look suspiciously dark and insect-like are actually dried cranberries. The finished product actually tasted quite good… after a little extra salt. I still haven’t mastered the art of casually throwing spices in and getting the amount magically correct. LOL.

I’ve also been tinkering with a mac and cheese recipe. Nothing particularly complicated there, but still a work in progress. Maybe one day I’ll be able to actually foray back into cooking…meat. Gasp.

Holy De Mole.

So, I’ve officially been a Sunnysider for nearly seven days now, commuted to and from work successfully for three out of those seven, and am generally settling into the neighborhood. Naturally, for me, that means checking out the food. Unfortunately, Menupages.Com only covers Manhattan and Brooklyn, so I’ve had to resort to Yelp.Com to familiarize myself with the local cuisine.  It’s one thing to walk past a storefront and take note of the name, it’s another thing entirely to know if the kitchen is worthwhile. The Yelp reviews, while limited, do help a bit. Several new places have sprung up since I last lived in the area, and, of course, there are several old places that I’m not familiar with because I was such a basketcase when I moved here initially that I didn’t venture beyond a three block radius. 

This time around, I’m determined to be more adventurous.

I have actually made the effort and gotten takeout twice this week (I know, I know, not cost effective. Sue me.). First, from Dee Thai at 46-17 Queens Blvd., because I was craving Thai food liek woah. I have a basic Thai restaurant test: The pad thai test. If you screw up something as basic as pad thai noodles, odds are your restaurant isn’t worth a damn. And I think I’ve mentioned before that I have bizarre standards, thanks to being spoiled rotten by Phan Shin, the local go-to in my hometown. So, the last time I had pad thai, from Red Curry in the city, it scarred me for life. It was pathetic. Luckily, the same cannot be said for Dee Thai’s version. It was delicious. The portion lasted me two nights. The chicken was perfectly cooked and in small pieces in so as to mix with the noodles and the sprouts, not sit there like chunks on top. I also got fried tofu, which you’d have to pretty dumb to screw up. It came with a delicious peanut chili sauce that might have to go on my Condiment Lick list. Further testing must occur. ;)

Then, tonight, I broke down and made the trek down to De Mole, on the corner of 48th Avenue and 45th St. It has tons of reviews on Yelp and is apparently considered THE best Mexican restaurant in the area. Now, with a reputation like that, how could I not try it out? I actually have to give myself credit because I’ve been looking at restaurant write ups for the last four days and it took me that entire stretch of time to break down and hightail it to De Mole. I tried to resist, I really did. I paced. I angsted. I told myself I could eat a variety of Lean Cuisines I had in my freezer. But, alas, the lure was too great. So a brisk five minute walk took me to the tiny but really cute and neat restaurant. It’s not a hole in the wall at ALL. I kept my order basic (at some point I clearly have to try their mole sauce, see if it’s lickable, etc.), and just got tacos pastor, which were pork and pineapple tacos, and guac and chips. Is the guac as good as El Rio Grande’s? No. In fact, it could benefit from some more salt and chilis, but it was still good. And the homemade chips had the salt that the guacamole didn’t. (Cautionary note: If you have paper cuts or you clipped your nails too closely, the chips will sting.) The tacos, meanwhile, were great. The marinated chunks of pork had a distinctly pineapple-y flavor, there were bits of actual pineapple, too, along with chopped onion and cilantro, and there were two soft tortillas on each taco instead of just one, which definitely helped the structural integrity. Verdict? Muy bueno! Definitely worth the hype. It’s good, it’s cheap, and it’s filling. I’ll be going back to try other dishes, like their enchilada con mole poblano, their coconut flan, etc.

But not that soon. Freezer. Lean Cuisine. Etc. I must try to be strong and space my fits of gluttony out.