Saturday, February 28, 2015

Gurra Café: “No, I am not Albanian, but I do like Albanian food!”


By Benjamin Ramos Rosado, http://Sofritoinmysoul.blogspot.com

Walking into certain restaurants can make you feel as though you’ve traveled to a foreign country.  These restaurants have a unique blend of clientele, menu, and ambiance that immerse you in another culture; very few places possess this magnificent gift. The Bronx’s Gurra Café is one of these “gifted” restaurants; every time I visit I feel I’m swept away to far off Albania.

Located in the Belmont section of the Bronx, Gurra Café is a cozy restaurant with 7 tables, Albanian artwork on the walls, and wood paneling. Another food critic once referred to Gurra Café’s décor as resembling a Swiss chalet. To be honest, I’ve never been to Switzerland, but if the chalets are as clean and welcoming as Gurra, then I’m sure I’ll enjoy my visit to Geneva.

Since the 1970s, Belmont (AKA Bronx’s Little Italy) has steadily become an Albanian enclave. As the Italian immigrants moved out, Albanians and other Eastern Europeans replaced them. Naturally, this new migration has had a culinary impact on Little Italy. Goulash and Albanian sausage have become as much a neighborhood staple as gelato, pasta, and pizza.

The last time I visited Gurra, my young server, who became my adviser on Albanian cuisine, welcomed me and immediately made me feel at home.  She asked me, “Are you Albanian?” to which I replied, “No, I am not Albanian, but I like Albanian food!” She nodded in obvious disbelief and continued her incredible service.

As I reviewed the menu, I noticed some of the patrons (all older gentlemen) were arguing in Albanian, with occasional outbursts in English.  From what I could gather, they were having a heated political debate.  Some of the gentlemen punctuated their remarks with closed fists bangs on tables and frustrated moans and groans. Hearing all of this Albanian made me feel like I was somewhere in Tirana (Albania’s capital).

Having braved the Artic weather to get there, I decided to order the Grosh, a simple white bean soup, to unchill my frozen bones. My server assured me that this classic Albanian soup would warm me up and help me fight a cold if I had one.

Before my soup arrived, I was served a simple lettuce, tomato, and cucumber salad topped with shredded feta cheese.  Gurra Café always serves a complimentary salad to their patrons. The feta cheese, purchased from local cheese makers, elevated this simple garden salad to something worth writing about. Usually, I find feta cheese to be acidic and harsh, but this one was light and delightfully salty. It was the standout ingredient of the dish and enhanced the flavor of the crisp veggies.


As I enjoyed my salad, I admired the gorgeous Albanian artwork on the walls.  The paintings of landscapes and black and white photographs of small villages were captivating.  It sparked my curiosity, so I Google searched Albanian artwork on my phone.  I read that popular Albanian artwork combines their Mediterranean and Eastern European heritages to create distinctly unique pieces.

Within minutes, my Grosh arrived along with the biggest portion of bread I have ever been served. As I tore off a huge chunk of the locally baked bread, Gurra’s Chef walked over to my table, welcomed me, and shook my hand.  He looked at me with an inquisitive expression and then asked, “Are you Albanian?” I replied, “No, I am not Albanian, but I like Albanian food!”

He told me he was curious because I didn’t look Albanian to him. When I told him I was Puerto Rican he responded, “Really? You look more Irish, then Puerto Rican.” I replied, “I get that a lot.” He laughed, wished me a good meal and sat with a few of the older Albanian patrons. Hungry, I turned my attention to the aromatic bowl of soup in front of me.

The hearty and simple Grosh was wonderful! The beans were soft and savory; the broth was thick and seasoned to perfection. The bread and soup pairing was a great idea; it allowed me to sop up the rest of the delicious broth at the bottom of the bowl. 



My server noticed my clean bowl and jokingly asked if I had liked it.  I responded with a sarcastic, “It was ok…” We both laughed!  Beaming with pride, she asked for my entrée order and I enthusiastically responded, Albanian Goulash! She smiled and assured me I would like it, as well.

Goulash is an Eastern European stewed beef dish served with mashed potatoes or rice. It’s another simple, yet tasty dish that is eaten every day throughout Eastern Europe. Gurra’s version of this classic dish doesn’t disappoint! The beef was tender and delicious; the stewed tomato based broth was hearty and flavorful. The small mashed potato portion was creamy and buttery. This combination of flavors and textures was spot on. I enjoyed every bite and cleaned my plate, again, with my leftover bread.



I noticed my server had placed a spice shaker filled with a yellow seasoning next to my plate. She called it Vegeta and explained that it’s a common Albanian seasoning made of salt, garlic powder, and other dried ingredients; it’s essential to Albanian cooking.  I smelled it and told her that it reminded me of Adobo.  Immediately, she responded that many Albanians use Adobo when they can’t find Vegeta.  I think it’s amazing that some Albanian kitchens are using Latin flavors to make Eastern European cuisine! That’s multiculturalism at its best!



As I bundled up to brave the crazy winter weather, one of my neighbors asked if I had liked my dinner.  I told him I loved every bite! He smiled and then asked me, “Are you Albanian?” and I replied, “No, but I LOVE Albanian food!”  He laughed and said, “Come back anytime, Gurra is for everybody! Bye bye!”  That last bit of hospitality cemented my appreciation of Gurra.  It’s always wonderful to feel welcomed at such a homey and intimate place.

As I stepped out of Albania and back onto the snowy streets of the Bronx, I daydreamed about traveling all over Eastern Europe!  Who knows if this dream will come true or not?  But, what I can count on, is that Gurra will always be my Albanian home away from home.  Now it’s your turn to visit! Go taste for yourself! ¡Buen provecho!

Gurra Cafe
2325 Arthur Avenue
Bronx, NY
718-220-4254

HOURS: Monday-Friday 11am-9pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am-8pm
ATMOSPHERE: Calm and relaxed.
SERVICE: Excellent.
SOUND LEVEL: Conversational.
KID FRIENDLY: Yes!
RECOMMENDED DISHES: Albanian Gulash, Grosh, and the salads.
BEVERAGES: Beer, water, soda, tea, and Albanian Coffee.
PRICE RANGE: $8-$24


Monday, February 9, 2015

A Spoonful of Sofrito: Tryon Public House

A Spoonful of Sofrito:  A Pinch of advice that will add a lot of flavor to your life!

 Tryon Public House


Tryon Public House is Inwood's newest craft beer bar and restaurant and as the menu develops it becomes increasingly delicious.

I love the creamy Macaroni and Cheese with bacon!  It's a wonderful appetizer, it's light and flavorful.  The portion size is generous and should be split with a friend.


Tryon's Grilled Chicken Chipotle Sandwich with French Fries (you can decide between fries or a small side salad) was also quite delicious.  Soft, moist, and tasty, this sandwich's flavors are as interesting as the metal tub they're served in.


 Tryon Public House
4740 Broadway 
New York, NY 10040
 (914) 525-5331


















































































Monday, January 26, 2015

A Spoonful of Sofrito: Yatenga French Bistro

A Spoonful of Sofrito:  A Pinch of advice that will add a lot of flavor to your life

Yatenga French Bistro

  French food in Harlem?  Yes and it's amazing!  Yatenga French Bistro is a cozy bistro in Central Harlem with a simple menu that focuses on quality over quantity.  With clientele from all over the City and a fun atmosphere, Yatenga is bursting with life, music, and delicious food.

The Macaroni and cheese with diced ham is creamy and rich, yet light and not too filling.  Considered an appetizer, it could easily be a satisfying and popular entree.



 The Braised Lamb Shank with Polenta mash was also delicious.  The lamb was well seasoned and the meat was falling off the bone.  The Polenta mash was delightful; it was creamy, moist, and flavorful.  I loved dipping the polenta into the lamb sauce.




Yatenga French Bistro
2269 Adam Clayton Powell Junior Boulevard
New York, NY 10030
(212) 690-0699

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Garden Café: A great place to eat, drink and decide my fate



 
By Benjamin Ramos Rosado, http://Sofritoinmysoul.blogspot.com 

Has the universe ever sent you a message in multiple forms throughout the same day?  A few weeks ago, the universe presented me with an idea so interesting and amazing, that I spent an entire evening mulling over the pros and cons of it at one of my favorite restaurants in Inwood: Garden Café. 

Garden Café is a cozy medium sized restaurant with wooden tables, dim lighting, and a gorgeous open garden in the back.  The space radiates warmth and comfort; I consider it one of the few places in the city where I can relax and enjoy a good meal.  The clientele are neighborhood locals and uptown foodies looking to have a good time.

After an arduous day at work, I decided to treat myself to dinner at Garden Café.  I knew the laid back atmosphere would allow me to think in peace.  You’re probably wondering what had me so preoccupied, right?  It all started that morning!

Before leaving for work, I had an enlightening conversation with a professional food critic, who complimented my work on this blog. He said I had the potential to be a great professional food critic and recommended that I attend culinary school.  He said the technical training and experience working with food would enhance my critique and perspective on food.  I had never considered training to be a chef or writing reviews professionally, yet the more we discussed it, the more intrigued I became. 

As my server handed me the menu, he asked if I needed a good strong glass of wine.  I declined and laughed; I think he read my mood and thought a nice glass of wine would set a relaxing tone. I love it when servers have good instincts.  Garden Café’s wait staff is always friendly and accommodating.

After reviewing the appetizers, I ordered the homemade Beef and Barley soup, one of my favorite soups on the menu. Usually, I order the Sweet & Spicy Citrus Glazed Wings with Chive Cheese or the Chorizo Quesadilla with Spicy Sour Cream & Pico de Gallo, but that cold and bitter night I couldn’t resist a delicious homemade soup.

Remember, how I mentioned the universe sent me multiple messages?  That same day, during my lunch break, I came across an article about Gail Simmons-she’s a judge on Bravo’s Top Chef-and it mentioned how going to culinary school was the best decision she had ever made as a food critic.  I couldn’t believe it!  Wham!  Second message received universe!

After waiting a few minutes, my steaming bowl of soup arrived, it smelled and tasted wonderful! The celery and carrots were sweet and soft, but not overcooked.  The earthy and rich potatoes enhanced the flavor of the broth and the beef was tender, savory, and delicious.  The soup warmed my tummy, helped me relax, and set a delicious tone for the night.


The third “universal message” came to me in the form of an email from NYEater.com.  That afternoon, I opened the email on my phone and it read, “Join the CIA!  You too can make your culinary dreams come true!  You could be an Iron Chef, Chopped Champion, or the next Anthony Burdain!” 

For those who might be confused, the CIA is the Culinary Institute of America, one of the best cooking schools in the country.  And, Anthony Burdain is a world famous chef, restaurateur, and one of my favorite food critics. The coincidence was incredible!  The convergence of these three messages in one day was pretty amazing and hard to ignore.

For my entrée, I ordered the French Cut Pork Chop with Lime Butter Sauce, Sautéed Spinach, and Roasted Potatoes.  I think better with a belly full of pork, it’s brain food; I’m not sure that’s accurate, but I believe it nonetheless.  Besides the chops, I love their Grilled Skirt steak with chimichurri, the Pumpkin and Sage Ravioli, and the Grilled chicken with linguini.

The pork chop was soft and moist; the lime butter’s acidity added a wonderful kick of flavor to the dish.  The sautéed spinach was a bit soggy, but I still loved it.  The roasted potatoes, covered in dry herbs, were soft and full of flavor.  This dish’s flavor combinations blended well together and made for a hearty dinner.



Throughout the meal, I thought about what I wanted to do with my life.  After years of trying to get back into college, I was about to start CUNY in the spring. Should I defer again and research culinary schools?  Should I go to CUNY to improve my writing and then consider culinary school? Should I forget this impulsive whim?  I had many questions and no idea what to do.

I decided dessert would help clear some things up for me.  I ordered the Warm Pecan pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  The pecan pie was warm, gooey, and sweet, but not overpowering.  Some pecan pies can be nauseatingly sweet, but Garden Café’s pie has the right balance between sweet and nutty flavor.  The cold vanilla ice cream perfectly complimented the pie with its creamy texture and opposing temperature.  As always, pairing simple and delicious flavors together makes for a wonderful culinary experience.


Despite having thought about it nonstop, I was no closer to deciding what I wanted to do.  I didn’t understand why I felt a sense of urgency to make a decision.  Maybe, it was anxiety or fear.  Maybe, I felt if I didn’t decide immediately, I might convince myself not to do it.  Maybe, I was facing a dream I’ve never allowed myself to consider and wanted to pounce on it.  I was confused, but what I did know was that the universe telling me something and it was up to me to listen.

As I write this, I'm still weighing my options; I've got a few culinary school open houses to attend.  There’s much to consider and I want to make the right decision.  I think it’ll take a few more pensive dinners at Garden Café before I decide my fate.  I hope you’ll join me!  Come taste for yourself!  ¡Buen provecho! 

The Garden Café
4961 Broadway
New York, NY 10034
(212) 544-9480 
http://www.gardencafeny.com 

HOURS: Monday-Friday 11am-11pm and Saturday and Sunday 10am-11pm 
ATMOSPHERE:  Calm, peaceful, and friendly. 
SERVICE: Excellent. 
SOUND LEVEL: Conversational, a bit louder in the garden. 
KID FRIENDLY: The garden part, not the inside. 
RECOMMENDED DISHES: French Cut Pork chop, Grilled Skirt steak with chimichurri and Pumpkin and Sage Ravioli, and Grilled Chicken with linguini. 
BEVERAGES: Alcohol, soda, water, teas, coffee and sparkling beverages
PRICE RANGE:  Check the dinner menu: http://www.gardencafeny.com/menu9.html

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Spoonful of Sofrito: The Cecil

A Spoonful of Sofrito: A pinch of advice that will add a lot of flavor to your life.

The Cecil

Hidden away on St. Nicholas Avenue in Central Harlem, The Cecil is an incredible restaurant where the decor, ambiance, and menu combine to create an almost idealistic dining experience.  The space is large and can be quite crowded and loud, but if you're like me, you'll forgive the chatter after you've tasted the impeccable Okra fries!



The Country Breakfast (Chicken Sausage, coconut cornbread, scallion grits and herb and cheese scrambled eggs) is mouthwatering and has an incredible array of flavors.



The Cecil
210 West 118th Street
New York, NY 10026
212-866-1262
http://thececilharlem.com



Monday, December 8, 2014

A Spoonful of Sofrito: Miss Lily's

A Spoonful of Sofrito: A pinch of advice that will add a lot of flavor to your life.

Miss Lily's

Miss Lily's is a Caribbean restaurant in the West Village with amazing Caribbean fare and excellent service.  The restaurant is fun, energetic and the decor is amazing.


The Grilled Jerk corn was delicious!


The chicken sausage in jerk sauce was unique and tasty!


The roasted potatoes were soft, spicy and wonderful.




Thursday, October 30, 2014

Carnitas El Atoradero: Bolivia, Bolivarianism and Burritos!



By Benjamin Ramos Rosado, http://Sofritoinmysoul.blogspot.com


  You never know what is going to happen when you visit a restaurant.  Being an experienced foodie, I visit every restaurant expecting the unexpected, but little did I know that my innocent dinner at Carnitas El Atoradero would become a lesson in international politics and human rights.  Who knew I would learn so much about Bolivia over tacos and burritos?

Located in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, Carnitas El Atoradero is the restaurant half of two businesses; the other being a Mexican bodega (called El Atoradero) that sells imported products. The restaurant is a small mom-n-pop style eatery with wooden lacquered tables, a large take out counter, and a television mounted on the back wall.  The hideous neon green walls feature a few scattered pictures of Mexico and old newspaper reviews of the eatery.  The décor is nothing to write home about, but the menu more than makes up for the lack of atheistic appeal.

After a LONG and STRESSFUL work day, I hailed a cab and trekked down to the one place in the Bronx I knew I could satisfy that gnawing desire for tacos and relaxation.  Upon entering Carnitas El Atoradero, I noticed it was practically empty with the exception of someone buying take out and a middle-aged man eating alone watching the Telemundo news.  This was strange; Carnitas is usually a beehive of activity. I guess the Columbus Day rain kept some of the usual patrons at home.

Eager to eat my stress away, I sat down and impatiently waited for my server to bring me the menu.  I was going to order my favorite Taco de Carnitas (fried pork), but I wanted to see if anything else on the menu piqued my curiosity.  My server handed me the menu with a big smile and a welcoming, “Buenas” (good evening in Spanish).  The wait staff at Carnitas El Atoradero is always welcoming and sweet.  I’ve always appreciated their attention to detail and customer service.

The menu is divided into 13 sections: Tacos, Quesadillas, Tacos Placeros, Tortas, Cemitas, Burritos, Sopes, Huaraches, Tostadas, Flautas, Pupusas, and Especiales de la Casa.  Hungry and cold from the rain, I decided to order a taco de carnitas as my delicious appetizer; the Sopa de pollo (Chicken soup) to warm my bones; and a steak burrito to fill my tummy.

I noticed the middle-aged man watching the news clapped and whistled when they announced that Evo Morales had been re-elected President of Bolivia. After his sudden out burst, he turned in my direction and apologized for being loud.  We both laughed; I told him that I agreed it was excellent news. I asked him if he was Bolivian and he raised his Jarritos bottle, and proudly replied, “No, I’m a Bolivarian.”

I returned his toast with my Diet Coke and began to eat my taco.  The tortilla was warm, soft and had a wonderful taste of corn meal.  The carnitas was perfectly grilled, well seasoned, and moist.  The radishes and onions were crunchy and added a spicy and sharp flavor to the taco.  The cilantro-my favorite part of any taco-imparted that delicious freshness and herbal flavor that makes it an essential taco ingredient; any taco without is always lacking.


I asked him if he was Venezuelan, because many of them refer to themselves as “Bolivarians” because of their belief in Simon Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America.  He replied he was Mexican, but considered himself a citizen of all of Latin America and a devotee of Simon Bolivar.  He added he was a political science professor at his university in Mexico; his main areas of study were Venezuela and Bolivia.  For the past 5 years, he traveled to both countries to study their political development and social justice movements. He enthusiastically began to tell me about his experiences in Bolivia.

As I listened, I enjoyed my steaming bowl of Sopa de pollo.  The simple and delicious piping hot broth warmed me through and through.  The chicken was soft and flavorful; the carrots and corn imparted a delightful sweetness that contrasted the onions’ sharpness.  The hearty chayote’s mild squash-like flavor gave the soup an intriguing earthy flavor.  Generously sprinkled with cilantro on top, the Sopa de Pollo reminded me of my mother’s homemade soups, which cured colds and made dreary rainy days tolerable.


I couldn’t believe my incredible luck!  I went to Carnitas El Atoradero for a good meal and ended up getting my own personal class on Bolivian history and politics.  We discussed how Evo’s agrarian reforms were empowering the indigenous population; how the government was working to eliminate illiteracy; and how medical care was becoming universal.  I was so intrigued by his stories that I almost ignored my recently arrived steak burrito. 

Impressed by my order, my new Poli-Sci professor paused mid-sentence to compliment my entrée choice.  He loved Carnitas El Atoradero because of its authentic food; he dined there whenever he visited New York City.  He continued his lecture, but I have to admit I barely paid any attention; I was captivated by my delicious meal.  The steak was soft, well seasoned, and plentiful; the rice and beans inside was savory and filling.  The tangy sour cream and salty white cheese topping gave the burrito a wonderful flavor complexity.  Just to add an acidic bite, I squeezed a lemon on to the burrito and it opened up the flavors even more.


Mid-lecture, the professor looked at his phone and realized he was late for another appointment.  Thinking he had monopolized my time, he apologized for talking so much; I reassured him that I loved our conversation.  I told him his stories had reinforced my desire to visit Bolivia to see its social transformation for myself…and to try the incredible food as well.  As he walked out, I realized how ironic the night had been: It was Columbus Day and I spent the night learning all about an anti-imperialist social movement led by a newly re-elected Indigenous president.

I can’t promise you’ll receive political education, when you visit Carnitas El Atoradero, but I can assure you that you’ll have a wonderful meal.  I hope your first visit turns out to be as amazing as my last.  Go taste for yourself!  Buen provecho! 

Carnitas El Atoradero
800 E 149th St
Bronx, NY 10455

HOURS: Monday-Friday 10am-10pm, Sat. and Sun. 10am-10:30pm
ATMOSPHERE:  Friendly and fun.
SERVICE: Very good.
SOUND LEVEL: Conversational.
KID FRIENDLY: Yes.
RECOMMENDED DISHES: Burritos, Tacos, Sopas, and Quesadillas.
BEVERAGES: Jarritos (Mexican sodas), Agua Frescas (natural juices), and Pepsi and Coke.
PRICE RANGE: $2.50-$15.00