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.

5:12 p.m. We've been all over: At the Pickle Guys shop, wooden barrels are filled with not only cucumber pickles but also pickled garlic, string beans, green tomatoes and peppers (and, in the summer, watermelon). It's a week before Passover, so they're grinding horseradish out on the sidewalk, a messy, loud and pungent affair. We try new, half-sour and full-sour pickles, plus some freshly ground horseradish, the faces of the five of us a tableau of puckered mouths.

We stop at the Chinese Lucky King Bakery, with all kinds of spongy, flaky and multi-hued cookies, cakes and dumplings; a fruit stand where a vendor chops a foul-smelling durian fruit; DiPalo Dairy, an Italian import shop with tire-size cheese wheels; and Alleva Dairy, where we sample marinated mozzarella and rolls of prosciutto. A friend in the District had told me that one thing he missed about New York was rice balls. Alleva just sold its last one of the day, so I'll have to go back to see what my buddy was talking about.

At the moment, we're sipping espresso and eating mini cannolis at the tour's final stop, Ferrara Cafe, an Italian bakery on Grand Street.

6:02 p.m. Abby and I travel uptown on the subway to Xai Xai Wine Bar to meet her fiance, Christian, and some friends at the hopping (and tiny) new South African restaurant and bar. We're starving; on the tour, we had only small samples wherever we went, nothing close to a meal. At Xai Xai (pronounced a little like "shy-shy"), there's not even room on the table for the jelly-jar water glasses after we order a bottle of pinotage and some food: a delicious bread fritter stuffed with minced beef (called vetkoek) and two orders of mini bunny chow, a curry made with lamb, potatoes and Indian spices served in a bread bowl.

7:28 p.m. The Philip Glass opera "Satyagraha," about Gandhi's years in South Africa, is having its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House. Our seats are so close to the ceiling I can see the artful cracks in the gold paint. Our seats may be nosebleed, but the tickets were $25 a pop -- almost unheard of for opera in Washington.

12:14 a.m. It's raining out and we're grumbling and laughing about the drawn-out third act in what was an otherwise stunning performance. Christian admits that during the last 20 minutes, he was so hungry he started superimposing a pizza on the tenor's head.

1:08 a.m. At Big Nick's Burger and Pizza Joint, at 77th and Broadway, we command a table in the back where we can dig into New York's famed pizza. Tall glasses of beer and thin-crust pie taste so good, I forget that I've been up for more than 20 hours, eating for most of them.

3:13 a.m. After cabbing to Abby and Christian's Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, we walk the dog, brush our teeth and rehash the day. I drift off to sleep with the opera's coda in my head.

11:54 a.m. Christian makes the coffee, I set the table and Abby passes around the basket of fresh bagels and cream cheese she bought at a bagel shop around the corner on Montague Street. I scarf it all down. I can't believe I'm hungry again.


Sunday, 1:32 p.m. Back at Alleva Dairy, I finally snag a $1.75 rice ball: a baseball-size concoction of cooked rice, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, ham and peas, breaded and fried. Delicious.

-- Christina Talcott

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