Jim Leff

Jim Leff

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 31 2000 7:11 PM

Jim Leff

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I can't say that I'm thrilled to be back in New York; work has piled up nastily. There are business plans to mail, spreadsheets to tweak, potential investors to schmooze. It's funding-madness time for Chowhound.com, and as the founders of one of the last established Web brands to walk down this surrealistic path, my business partner and I have found ourselves so immersed in it all that some days there's scarcely been time to eat. I've actually dragged suits up to the Bronx for dinner meetings so I could sneak in jerk chicken checkups.

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But all work and no chow make Jimmy a dull boy, so I heeded my chowhound friend Barry's exhortations to accompany him to an enchanted block in Brooklyn where he'd made a particularly momentous discovery. Barry is never wrong.

Barry (who, when he's not eating, writes Hollywood movies) is typical of the myriad savvy chowhounds all over the country who scout great eats as skillfully as any professional. More skillfully, in fact, because their collective wisdom is vastly broader and deeper than that of any one critic. I established the Web site to give voice to chowhounds like Barry, and this once-disenfranchised community has proved itself a far richer source of cutting-edge food info than the likes of me. I suppose I'm the Mikhail Gorbachev of restaurant critics; my every move has sealed my own annihilation. So be it. I've always encouraged people to liberate their taste buds from authority figures … as well as from the blandly numerical misreckonings of Zagat.

Back in Brooklyn, we hit an old Barry standby, the Orchard. This is a nondescript produce shop you could drive by a thousand times and never notice. And to miss it would be a tragedy, because the Orchard is by far the best source for fruit (and some vegetables) in town. The owner sources his stuff from outside standard channels, and he's a maniac for quality. He loves to ply customers with samples; he's forever cutting up melons and exhorting you to "Taste that! Taste that!" And you want to try everything, because it all tastes so much more multi-dimensional here than elsewhere. The Orchard's muscat grapes can brighten your entire week. Baby oranges are juicily exquisite, tiny New Zealand greengage plums offer layers upon layers of luxurious flavor, and organic red Bartlett pears made me shut my eyes and pound the counter with my fist. I noticed that the Orchard's counter has plenty of dents in it.

The catch is that despite ramshackle ambiance, prices are take-out-a-second-mortgage astronomical. But while chowhounds appreciate bargains—and hate paying beaucoup bucks for mediocre food—we'll gladly climb way up the curve of declining results in paying more for better quality.

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We headed down the block to stock up on some time-machine Jewish baked goods from Chiffon's Bake Shop. Their cheese Danishes contain especially dense, intense filling (think distilled cheesecake), and their corn bread (like rye bread but made with some corn flour) is remarkably heavy, sturdy, and full-flavored. Few people suspect corn bread like this exists anymore; it just goes to prove that one must never give up hope. My eyes bugged out when I spied golden loaves of potato nik, a very rare grail. The homeliest, densest of Jewish soul foods, potato nik is a bready block of compressed potato. A neutron star of spuds.

I was relieved not to be transformed into a pillar of salt for smuggling Chiffon's takeout bags—containing (gasp) dairy—into Olympic Pita, a glatt kosher meat place that recently opened on this same miraculous block. They do fantastic pita and lafa bread in a tandoori-like oven right in front of the window, and just as scenic are the gargantuan spinning logs of turkey shwarma (a k a gyro). We watched as three Mexican-American cooks bore a new shwarma out from the kitchen with the intense, cradling gate of rabbis carrying the Torah.

This shwarma is pretty holy; so meaty, so spicy, with an optimal balance of tender shreds and crunchy nuggets. Succulent brochettes of baby chicken and ground meat belie the suspicion that kosher meat is a religious asceticism. We also opted for the Salad Deal, which involves 10 little plates of vegetarian salads, all replenishable (disorientingly—literally!—similar to Amish tradition), plus a bottomless basket of that great bread, piping hot from the oven. Each salad tasted even better than the last. Melt-in-your-mouth marinated spicy mushrooms are beautifully subtle, and oniony tomato salad is dosed with Indian spices (the chef is Iraqi-Jewish, which makes for a delicious confluence of culinary influences). There's nutty, silken hummus, and … oh, the falafel. Olympic Pita's falafel blows away all other versions; how can anything possibly be so crunchy? It's so hearty that it's downright meatlike, and that effect is enhanced by deft, complex spicing. What a pleasure to eat food prepared with such a consistently sure hand. Nothing needed it, but there was, of course, tangy, ballistically hot umbar (the trademark Iraqi sauce) on hand, and it could perk up Styrofoam.

My Russian-Jewish ancestors never even heard of Iraq; I personally feel more at home in Czech beer gardens and Cantonese banquet halls than I do here, among my distant cousins. But a chowhound never feels very foreign anywhere. Since we really are what we eat, I'm convinced that if you ingest enough arroz con gandules, over time some part of you does become Puerto Rican. And this offers an opportunity to bring people together. Who can be anti-Semitic after swooning over Olympic Pita's shwarma, or speak ill of African-Americans after tasting the blessed banana pudding at Charles' Southern Kitchen? It'd be sheer self-destructiveness to scorn a culture when you have a stomach full of their chow. So, let's eat up, folks.

For more information on places mentioned, click.