It's Not Uzbekistan, but It's Tasty. Now, Pass the Horseradish.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

11:54 a.m. I'm on my way to the Diamond District, where young men in doorways mutter, "We buy gold, we buy diamonds," while Hasidic men hurry past window displays of sparkling jewelry. At 41 W. 47th, I walk up two flights of stairs, past the appraisal shop on the second floor and on to the dining room of Taam-Tov, a kosher Central Asian restaurant that has been getting attention from the New York press for its juicy meats, hearty portions and low prices. I'm there because, after I happened upon a review a few weeks back that mentioned that the food was from the Bukhar region, I had to Google "Bukhar." (It's in Uzbekistan.) I was curious, since that's not a cuisine I've ever encountered in the District. That's why I'm here: to seek out foods Washingtonians have to travel to New York to find.

12:40 p.m. After a delicious plate of bakhsh (Bukharian pilaf studded with chunks of meat, carrots and cilantro), I'm sated but realize I made a rookie mistake: carbo-loading at the start of a food safari. I'll have to pace myself better. The restaurant's filling up, and I want to hit the Union Square Greenmarket before my scheduled food tour, so I cede my table to a group waiting in the doorway.

1:33 p.m. I'm all turned around. The subway map made it look like the D train would go from 42nd Street to Union Square, but the train zoomed from 23rd Street to West Fourth instead. In the West Village, streets cross each other and I can't navigate by skyscraper with the dense fog blanketing the top of every building. Looks like the Greenmarket's out. Instead, I find Houston and start walking east, past indie coffee shops and alluring boutiques, but I'm never going to make it to the Essex Street Market at this pace. I finally flag down a cab.

1:47 p.m. Surprise! I'm actually early for my "Melting Pot" tour of the Lower East Side, so I dawdle in the Essex Street Market, on Essex between Rivington and Delancey, passing the fish seller, the cakemaker and the St. Lucia religious shop, where statues are surrounded by wire cages full of dollar bills, and signs implore visitors, "No Photographs."

3 p.m. The Enthusiastic Gourmet guide, Susan Rosenbaum, is a Baton Rouge native who has been in New York for two decades and studied at New York's French Culinary Institute; also along for the tour are a British couple and my pal Abby. Rosenbaum introduces us to shop owners in the market, and we sample muffins and cake at Rainbo's Fish Market, absinthe truffles at Roni-Sue Chocolates and a cheddar-like Ouray at Saxelby Cheesemongers. The market, we learn, started when Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia wanted the local immigrant pushcart vendors off the streets and into one centralized location back in 1940. Over the years, the neighborhood's demographics went from German to Jewish and Italian; then Puerto Ricans and other Latin Americans moved in; and now the area is a hot spot for wealthy New Yorkers looking for a hip place to live.

I've probably been to New York close to a hundred times, but never to the Lower East Side, Chinatown or Little Italy. Rosenbaum says her goal is to introduce us to this area so maybe sometime we'll come on our own.

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