Our last (for the time being) adventure in Bukharan cuisine takes us to Taam Tov on West 47th Street in Manhattan. As I make my way toward Sixth Avenue, deep in the heart of the diamond district, people thrust flyers in my hand, offering to buy every ounce of precious metal on my body, and with gold at $1,140 an ounce and the economy still sinking, this may not be such a bad idea.
The restaurant’s on the third floor at 41 West 47th, and the easiest way to find it, at least on weekdays, may be to look for the guy in traditional Uzbek dress—a deep-blue tunic richly embroidered in gold—wearing a sandwich board advertising the house specialties: shish kebab, shavarma, “bbq steak,” and pilaf. At lunchtime, this is a bustling place, packed with construction workers, jewelers and gem dealers, and other neighborhood regulars, with nary a Yuppie in sight.
The menu runs a by-now-familiar gamut of hummus and “borsch” to lagman soup and kebabs of lamb, beef, veal’s liver, or fish. Many of these are helpfully if primitively pictured on the menu, the different dishes arrayed around a central image of what looks to be either a peculiar delicacy from Carvel, with two scoops of ice cream on top, or a mummified umbrella stand. But no, Dave informs me, this thing called shvarma or shavarma is a sandwich-like wrap of shaved meat wrapped around a vertical spit and grilled for as long as a day, tenderized and kept juicy by chunks of fat tucked within.
Well, fine, but not for lunch, I think, watching big platters heaped with golden fries glide by. I’m drawn to a picture of stroganoff on the menu, stirred by memories of one of my suburban mother’s favorite 1960s party dishes. So we order that and stuffed cabbage and another plate full of pilaf and a couple of diet Cokes to wash it all down and keep the calorie count lower than the price of gold (though, we learn later, beer and wine are also available).
The stroganoff proves disappointing: tender strips of beef in a tomato-based sauce (my mother always added sour cream to hers). It’s sadly short on oomph. Dave claims the Afghan versions he’s sampled in Kabul are considerably more robust and spicier. The stuffed cabbage, though, is hearty and satisfying, and the pilaf, laced with meat I can’t identify but the waitress says is chicken, is a tantalizing mélange of grains spiked with cumin, cardamom, and cloves.
The three generous entrées run up a tab of about $10 each, and with gusto but some embarrassment we polish off almost everything put in front of us, including the “cake of the day,” a kind of doughy croissant wrapped around a chopped walnut filling ($3 for two).
With its blue-plastic tablecloths, Taam Tov bears more of a resemblance to a roadside eatery on some back-roads blue highway rather than a midtown lunch joint. But one of its more curious features is a terrace overlooking a construction site, and because it’s a bright sunny day, several people move outdoors.
“Hey, Dave,” I say, “imagine this scenario: You’ve just bought your fiancée a knockout engagement ring in one of the stores around here and you bring her to Taam Tov for a romantic feast on the balcony. How do you think that would play out?”
Dave gives me a look. And then changes the subject by popping a sprig of parsley in his mouth. “At least you know you can eat the greens here.”
“What do you mean?”
“In Afghanistan, they use night soil as fertilizer. You don’t want to have much to do with vegetables. Sometimes they wash carrots in the ditches, because that’s the only water available. They dump them from bags on the donkey and then jump up and down on them to wash off the dirt.”
I give Dave a look.
“We once saw a skit in which the lead character runs around wailing, ‘Abdul, why do my carrots taste of feet?’”
Yeah, well. That’s in Afghanistan. The food here is hearty, if not inspired, and if you consider that you can get a steaming bowl of shurpa (beef) or lagman (noodles, beef, veggies) or a big salad plus a soda or Israeli fruit juice for about the price of lunch at the nearby McDonald’s, this is a steal. And a healthier one at that.
And if you are concerned about whether the kitchen’s kosher, check out the well-fed rabbi guarding the door.
IF YOU GO: Taam Tov is only a few blocks from Grand Central at 41 West 47th Street. Here's more info from New York magazine: http://nymag.com/listings/restaurant/taam_tov/