Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The MTA Dining Car pulls into Bay Ridge

Last month I shared the details of the first meeting of the MTA Dining Car, a budget-minded yet adventurous eating club that I co-founded with my friend Kiera. That event took place in Woodside, Queens; this month, for our second-ever meeting, we decided to switch up the borough, casting our glances (and appetites) on Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Brooklyn's food scene has received a lot of attention of late, mostly due to the presence, here, of a disproportionately large (when compared to the other boroughs) population of young, fairly daring, eco-conscious restaurant owners and food purveyors. OK, so Brooklyn is hip, and its culinary achievements are no exception to that rule. But while Brooklyn hasn't always been viewed as hip, it has always been home to the food-obsessed: that's just what you get in a borough populated, traditionally, by Italians and Jews, two of the most food-focused cultures that I know of. So while the kitchen supply stores and chocolate shops in Williamsburg garner the media's praise, the traditional, old-school restaurants and bakeries in Bay Ridge and nearby Bensonhurst continue to provide residents with dependable, delicious food--yet they remain under the radar.

But these establishments don't escape the ever-watchful eye of the MTA Dining Car. Quite the opposite, in fact: these unassuming, neighborhood-oriented restaurants and shops are the ones we like best. Bearing those descriptors in mind, this month Kiera and I decided to bring our crew of eaters to Tanoreen, a home-style Palestinian café modest in its size but not in its culinary ambitions.

I've eaten at Tanoreen several times, and on each occasion the restaurant's offerings have blown me away. Bold, punchy flavors show up in each dish, whether in the form of a veritable mountain of chopped parsley; in the sour tang of copious amounts of lemon juice; or in the smoky char of a piece of grilled meat. The food at Tanoreen is vibrant in its presentation, too: colorful little piles of shredded red cabbage adorn most dishes, and jewel-like pomegranate seeds stud some of them, too. And so without further delay, I'll show you what I'm talking about.

Fatoush Salad
Shown next to a dish of olives and pickled beets, this refreshing salad featured lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, sumac, lemon juice and olive oil, all tossed together with crushed-up pieces of toasted pita bread. A sort of Middle Eastern Caesar salad, if you will, and a perfect start to our dinner at Tanoreen.

Lentil Pilaf
Of all the delicious things that I ate during this meal, I think that these lentils may have been my favorite. What's so exciting about lentils? you might ask, and for good reason. I don't know quite what it is about lentils, but I happen to love them. This dish allowed them to shine through in all their glory. It was incredibly complex, featuring soft yet toothsome lentils that were warmly spiced with cumin, red pepper flakes, and perhaps a touch of cinnamon, then topped with sweet, sticky caramelized onions. Though this version didn't include rice or any cooked grain, it was a close relative to the classic Middle Eastern dish mujaddara.

What is there to say about falafel? These spiced, deep-fried chickpea (or sometimes chickpea-and-fava-bean) patties are the quintessential fast food. Though they originated in Egypt, they're now popular all over the world, but especially throughout their home region of the Middle East. Though I ate a falafel sandwich a day on a short trip through Israel a few years ago, I can unequivocally state that these falafel, at Tanoreen, were the most exquisite falafel I have ever tasted. Shatteringly crisp on the outside and creamy yet textured on the inside, they were heaven piled into a wedge of pita and drizzled with tahini.

Beef Stew with Green Beans
If the falafel was my favorite dish of the night, this was my second favorite. There wasn't much to it: simply chunks of well-browned, meltingly tender beef surrounded by soft green beans in a rich, sweet tomato sauce. Served next to fluffy rice shot through with tiny pieces of crispy brown pasta, this was comfort food at its best.

Chicken Kabobs
I know what you're thinking: what's so great about chicken kabobs? because I thought the same thing when the manager at Tanoreen presented us with our menu. I like chicken OK, but it's not very exciting, and I like kabobs OK, but I make them myself with some frequency and therefore don't really need to order them when I dine out. Here's the thing, though: I've never made kabobs like this. The chicken was so juicy and tender, and moreover was completely suffused with the succulent flavor of whatever marinade the restaurant uses on the meat. These kabobs were truly exceptional.

Braised Tilapia in Pesto Sauce
This was a simple-looking dish that was anything but simple in flavor. It was a firm, perfectly cooked, flaky piece of white fish bathed in a rich parsley-and-olive-oil sauce that the restaurant called pesto, perhaps because the mere word acts as a sort of Pavlovian bell for most Americans, causing them to salivate at the very thought of eating some. Anyway, I digress. The sauce covering this fish was decidedly not pesto, but it was, decidedly, delicious. As was our whole meal. As was our whole experience. And here's the photographic evidence:

Just look at all those shiny, happy youngsters! 38 of us, in fact: we closed out the whole restaurant. This Dining Car is gathering steam, and if you want to hop on board, you'd best email us at mtadiningcar@gmail.com.

7704 Third Avenue (77th Street)
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
(718) 748-5600

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