Thelewala Brings The Kati Roll From Kolkata To NYC

Here is my latest restaurant review in Brown Girl Magazine for all the desi foodies out there!

Every New Yorker knows that you can only eat so many salads and sandwiches before you get sick of them. There are only so many options to grab-and-go for the busy, always-running-to-the-next-meeting, New Yorker. That’s why easy to eat, portable food from other countries have become so popular in the Big Apple. One such example is the kati roll.

Traditionally, it’s a kebab wrapped in a paratha, or type of Indian flatbread. Nowadays, the filling can be vegetable or meat, often with some condiments and chopped vegetables to accentuate the flavor. This is the simple-to-make meal that South Asians everywhere found in their lunch boxes or ate when they came home from school.

What most people don’t know is that the kati roll originated at the Nizam restaurant in Kolkata, India. This place has been around since 1932. Every visit to my mother’s hometown always included at least one mandatory midnight snack at Nizam’s. In fact, I know some family friends who often take the overnight flight from Dubai to Kolkata to satisfy their Nizami roll cravings!

Obviously, I was more than pleasantly surprised when I found out that a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Thelewala sold the same Nizami rolls. As a kid, there was so much hype around this dish that I was glad to find that this tiny piece of my heritage had found its way to my vicinity. It’s been a while since I’ve gone to Kolkata, but my mother, who visited this summer, said the Nizami rolls at Thelewala come “pretty damn close” to the original thing.

The restaurant is located on the most happening block of New York called MacDougal Street, opposite their competitors, Kati Roll Company, but there’s no argument that Thelewala is better. Plastered on their walls are reviews by the New York Times calling them one of the “Ten of the Best Inexpensive Restaurants of 2011.”

thelwalaMy favorite items on the menu are the chapliroll, okra roll and puchkas (which are Kolkata-style pani puri). The most expensive dish is their famous chapli roll, which is only six dollars, consisting of lamb patties with red onions, lime and fried egg: Perfection in every bite. The lamb is juicy and has a smoother texture than the shami kebab, which is found at Kati Roll Company. The red onions are slightly pickled so the heat from the raw onions doesn’t overwhelm one’s palette. The pickling of the onions also introduces a sweet element to the dish. The addition of lime brings in a much-needed acidity and, in a way, doesn’t let the egg’s distinct flavor become the boss of the dish.

The beauty of the Nizami rolls is that they use sharp ingredients and then tame them down to complement each other. This ensures a balance, not only with the other fillings inside the roll but also with the paratha.

The okra roll is simpler in terms of ingredients and flavor profile but that doesn’t mean it’s any less delicious. There’s plenty of crunch from the crispy okra and fried, pickled onions and, like the chapli roll, the lime accents all the flavors with its bright tartness. However, in this roll, the lime is allowed a little more leeway because there is a magical punch when eaten with the okra.

The puchka is the one thing people don’t like as much, but mostly because it doesn’t taste like a traditionalpani puri. The puchka has more tamarind in the paani, or flavored water, and therefore, is tangier than the pani puri, which originated in Maharashtra and Gujurat and is more commonly found in Indian restaurants around the world. I’m particular biased to sharp and sour flavor profiles and for that reason, I’m particularly partial to the puchka. Beside the tamarind syrup is the masala, which has a mixture of potatoes and Indian spices.

To eat this, you poke a small hole in your puri (a fried, crisp, round ball) using your thumb and fill it with the paani and masala. Then, you put the whole thing in your mouth and let it erupt as the puri crumbles and the fillings overflow in your mouth. It’s an experience.

Clearly, this isn’t the best place for date night since the puchka isn’t a particularly graceful food and there are onions in everything. However, this is an extension of Kolkata’s history for New Yorkers to enjoy and like I said before, the rolls are easy to carry around and eat on the subway. Just make sure you have some breath mints before you run back into office so your coworkers don’t smell your breath and get jealous of that insanely delicious onion-y meal you just indulged in!

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New York Restaurant Week with David Burke!

photo 1-1When I saw that David Burke Kitchen (23 Grand St b/t Thompson St & Avenue Of The Americas, South Village) was one of the restaurants that had a special menu for New York Restaurant Week, I knew that I had to go and write about it.

Firstly, because I can’t afford his restaurants at any other time during the year. For a set menu, there was a fixed price of $25 for lunch. This does not include drinks or additional add-ons indicated in the menu. Secondly, at the time, I was taking a break from Chopped and binge-watching Top Chef Masters Season 5 where David Burke was one of the competing chefs. 

David Burke Kitchen is located on the lower level of the James Hotel in Soho. The decor inside was rustic but swanky and surprisingly sunny for a restaurant located below ground! Also, there were some hilarious pictures up on the walls.

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Anyway, enough about interior design and on to the food! David Burke’s style is contemporary American cuisine with high-quality ingredients. This category of food is extremely common among high-end restaurants in New York but his interpretation is what sets him apart.

photo 2The first dish put on the table was the complimentary fresh red grapes with pickled carrots. I found this bizarre at first but then I realized how the sweet juice from the grapes worked so well with the tartness of the pickled carrot. Who knew? I don’t even like carrots.

For my afternoon cocktail, I had a Kitchen Arnold Palmer. One word: deadly. From a single sip, I got all the flavors from the mint, honey vodka, lemon ice tea and whatever else was in that thing. The deadly aspect of the cocktail was that I couldn’t detect the alcohol no matter how hard I tried. As a result, I drank more Kitchen Arnold Palmers than I care to admit.

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My appetizer was a parfait of salmon and tuna tartare with creme fraiche and rye bread. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything so complex and yet so simple in my life. The tuna was elegantly smooth and the salmon was seasoned with a seemingly effortless assortment of herbs. I was amazed by how much Burke held back on the acidity but turned up the volume on the brightness, merely by highlighting the quality of the ingredients. (PS: I totally pretended that David Burke was in the kitchen cooking for me and that’s why I keep saying “he cooked it like this.” Unfortunately, he didn’t.)

photo 3The little dots on the side are large drops of creme fraiche with a dap of honey in the middle. This didn’t overwhelm or even significantly change the taste of the parfait. Instead, it was placed there solely to accentuate the creamy texture of the dish. I was utterly gobsmacked by how he managed to use a sauce in that manner, especially when you have the sharp zest from the honey. And as always, with every dish, crunch is key. The rye bread didn’t only add a crunch element to the dish but also was the perfect vehicle to carry to delicate parfait.

The entire strips of chive didn’t bother me but reminded me of the billion times Chopped contestants were criticized for putting inedible garnishes on the plate. But that’s a tiny Presentation issue in light of the intensely creative dish.

photo 4My main course was the lobster roll and again, the spotlight shone brightly on the ingredients. There was great acidity from the specks of tomato with hints of bitterness from the lobster and parsley. Of course, the lobster was fresh, fresh, fresh. The bread was toasted to an impeccable golden-brown. Unfortunately, after the mind blowing appetizer, this dish was a little bit of a letdown. Only a little bit though!

It was clean, classic but not a wow. It didn’t have that oozy, buttery lusciousness I was looking for. I admit that maybe it wasn’t the best decision to go a restaurant like this and order a lobster roll. However, like I’ve said before, I think the best way to test a chef’s talent is by ordering the simplest dish on the menu. On the plus side, the fries were AWESOME! A little salt, pepper and chives and you’re good to go.

Side Note: my boyfriend ordered the short ribs and they were crazy good! I don’t like the texture of mushrooms so that’s why I didn’t polish off his plate. But if that’s your jam, the cavatelli pasta with the truffle mousse is to die for.

By the time dessert came around, we were stuffed like never before. Placed in front of us was this plastic tree with different types of cheesecake lollipops popping out. There is no doubt in my mind that takes the prize for the most Creative and trippy dish I’ve ever had. It looks like a tree from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory that I wish I could take home and grow so I can get a lifelong supply of goofy, cheesy scrumptiousness. David Burke actually made this for Curtis Stone’s surprise party on Top Chef Masters and Curtis loved it. Obviously. You have to taste it to believe it. 

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The chocolate ones had a thin layer of richness with a pure core of cheesecake underneath. The strawberry cheesecake lollipop was my favorite because, well, it was a strawberry cheesecake on a stick! The nutty one was also yummy because it was in-your-face sweet. Yet, thankfully, it not as heavy as the others so it was easier to eat. On the plate, there were also raspberries that helped cut through the richness from the cheese and chocolate. On the other hand, the mini-jar of strawberry whipped cream was meh and didn’t really taste like anything. 

Eating at David Burke Kitchen was a transformative experience but I felt like I needed a stretcher to carry me out of there. By the end of it, I just didn’t feel full in a pleasant way. The portions were way too big and when you have such rich food, you do not need humongous helpings. 

That being said, I cannot adequately explain how delicious the food was. Totally recommend it. Especially that cheesecake-lollipop-growing-tree. Oh my god. It was crazy.

The Taste of Tamarind Saves the Day!

I feel like you’re not a real NYC food blogger until you write about Smorgasburg. So here goes!

This weekend, I spent close to three hours eating at Smorgasburg, a flea food market that takes place every weekend in Brooklyn. So obviously, it would be crazy to review all the things I ate! Also, at these Brooklyn markets, there is A LOT of columbusing that happens when white people serve bland versions of rich, South Asian food (I’m not even going to start listing those places). 

Anyway, my friend came back with this unfamiliar beverage that also had a spoon in it? I was intrigued.  I learned that it’s called a chamoyada and the best way to describe it is a Mexican slushie of sorts.

Actually, this image is the best way to describe it: 

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 Of course, when I went to find it, there was a white hipster dude at the La Newyorkina stall who totally crushed on my Keith Haring T-shirt. La Newyorkina typically sells Mexican ice and sweets out of a variety of confectionaries in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, at Smorgasburg, they were selling fresh juices and chamoyadas.

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For the fruit ice part of the chamoyada, you could choose mango, hibiscus or both. I’m Indian so the obvious choice is mango and that’s what I went with. The complete ensemble looked like this (excuse my pigtails and odd facial expression).


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The Presentation was great, especially since it looked so cooling in that New York summer heat. Unfortunately, the Taste missed the mark due to a disproportionate ratio of chamoy to fruit ice. The chamoy (pickled plum juice) was cloyingly sweet and overwhelmed my taste buds, causing me dig further into the mango fruit ice with a frenzied desperation. The mango fruit ice helped cool down the intense flavors but there was just too much chamoy and tajin (salted chili powder) trickling down to the bottom of the glass. Despite my initial excitement about the chamoyada, I could only eat/drink about a quarter of it before my stomach started hurting.

I was missing Aaron Sanchez at that point because I knew he’d make the same remark about the overbearing sweetness. This is why I need to be a judge on Chopped, guys!

The best part of chamoyada was definitely the tamarind stick. Warning: This is for tamarind lovers because it was super sour but in the best way possible. The tamarind was coated in chili powder and that added an extra zing without becoming too spicy. Honestly, the tamarind stick made the chamoyada absolutely delightful and I was hoping I could have two more to make up for the rest of the dish/drink.

As someone who was unfamiliar with chamoyada until this weekend, I don’t know if I can rate its level of Creativity. It reminded me of a street food snack you can find on the streets of India but it is the distinct Mexican flavors that make the chamoyada truly unique.

This weekend, I fell in love with the concept of a chamoyada and am on a mission to find the right one for me. Accepting recommendations!

Simple and Delicious, What More Do You Want??

xemayniravOnce upon a time, there was an extremely underrated vietnamese sandwich shop called Xe May Sandwich Shop (96 Saint Marks Pl, New York, NY) in the East Village. Then one day, some jackass spray painted all over the front sign so people kept walking past it. During Ailsa the food blogger’s next visit to Xe May, she saw this, got very very angry and decided to write about how AMAZING their sandwiches are. xemay

Let me start off by saying that I don’t usually get excited by sandwiches. A lot of places have these huge things that you have to shove in your mouth and then the sauce is dripping on your dress from the other end and vegetables are falling out of the sides…

Anyway, I digress.

Xe May is a little sandwich shop with seating space for seven to eight people in St. Marks Place. It takes a while for your order to come out because each dish is made fresh and from scratch. The banh mi-inspired sandwiches at Xe May are the perfect proportion of crunchy and juicy.

I ordered “The Pilot,” which is a lemongrass chicken sandwich for $6.50. Points for reasonable pricing! Too bad affordability isn’t a criteria for Chopped! The bread was toasted to a beautiful golden brown. It had crunch and enough chew to keep you going. The chicken had absorbed a lot of the lemongrass flavor and was packed tightly in the bun with carrots, cucumber and coriander. The compact nature of the sandwich means high Presentation points because it’s so easy to eat whether you’re sitting or standing. No dripping and you could get a little bit of everything in your mouth with a single bite. Also, you could choose the spice level: Medium, Spicy and Xtra Spicy. I chose Spicy because it included Sri Racha and Jalapeño. xemaysandwichI was a little hesitant about adding Sri Racha since it can overwhelm a dish but instead, it augmented the acidity and helped swallow down each bite down.

The only manner in which the Taste let me down is the jalapeño. There were huge raw slices with the seeds and all! The intense heat from the jalapeño overwhelmed my palette and distracted from the wonderful flavor. I was hoping that it would be a pickled jalapeño but now that I think about it, I’m wondering if that would be sacrilegious to the rest of the fresh ingredients in the sandwich.

For that reason, I’m not judging too harshly on Creativity because the charm of this sandwich shop is its simplicity. They managed to make light, refreshing ingredients shine through something as universal as a sandwich!

I once heard that the best way to judge a chef is by going into her/his restaurant and ordering the simplest dish. In Xe May, they offer you the most seemingly uncomplicated dishes and masterfully showcase their talent in the kitchen.

Swimming With Mermaids

Alright, so for my first blog, before I continue with my food reviews, you should know…

I LOVE OYSTERS!

I think they’re amazing! It totally helps that they’re one of the most effective aphrodisiacs and they look like vaginas. So when I started craving oysters one day, my boyfriend and I yelped it and found a place called The Mermaid Inn (96 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003) in East Village. This was on the pricier side but good for a much-needed date night.

Upon entering the restaurant, I noticed that it definitely had an East Village vibe. You know what I’m talking about right? Dim lighting, earthy furniture… Luckily, I dig that sort of thing.

ImageWhen you sit down and take a look at the menu, there is a little note about a phone app the restaurant created. You can download this app to rate and check off the oysters you’ve eaten. Genius! It’s called Oysterpedia. I think this is so great because many people don’t know what type of oysters they like. As a result, they get an oyster that really doesn’t suit their taste palette. At another restaurant, they’re likely to eat something similar again without knowing how to pick one from a large collection of funny names and locations. With this app, you can keep track of all the oysters you’re eating and fill in its information wherever you go. (By the way, I usually stick to oysters with low or medium salinity because they’re not too strong or fishy.)

But first, Cocktails! I ordered the Bloody Mary and it was really good too. I always like it when its a little briny because it adds a nice texture to the drink. Also, you get a little shrimp cocktail with it, no complaints there!

So first up was, obviously, the oysters. Absolutely lovely and fresh! The Naked Cowboy and Barcat oysters were definitely the best with its clean, crisp flavor. The only thing is I wish they cleaned the oysters a little better. While downing those suckers, I got really small pieces of shell in my mouth on two occasions and that’s never a pleasant feeling. If this was Chopped, Chris Santos totally would have gotten those bits on his plate and taken off marks for Presentation.

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Now the octopus dish, that was Divine (notice the capital D?). They served these small pieces of octopus with chickpeas and a hot sauce with just enough heat to please both people who like hot food and those who don’t.The octopus was unlike any I had ever tried before. It was so smooth because it didn’t have that rubbery feel that you usually get with tentacles poking out. They also charred the octopus in order to inject an extra layer of flavor into the dish. The Dubai side of me was definitely jumping for joy at the sight of chickpeas! The chickpeas weren’t too mushy but soft enough to melt a little in your mouth. All this was topped off with a little watercress salad. I don’t think this dish could have gotten any better even if I tried. I’d want Marcus Samuelson to try this because the hot sauce is similar to one he serves in his restaurant Red Rooster and also because he appreciates layers of textures and flavors like no other.

Overall, the original manner in which this dish was composed resulted in some seriously high Creativity points for The Mermaid Inn.

For a side dish, we had kale. I had never eaten kale before because I presumed it was a flavorless health fad (which it kinda is). But I tasted the kale and it was surprisingly delicious! This restaurant cooked it in a little olive oil and garlic and it worked! Mad Taste points, yo.

I wish I took a picture of more than just the octopus because the Presentation renders a lot of tummy-grumbling. Except for the slight hiccup with the poor cleaning of the oysters, my time at The Mermaid Inn was a pretty fabulous experience and HELL YES I would go there again!

Introduction To My Concept (And Me!)

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Hello Everyone!

My name is Ailsa (pronounced like a supermarket “aisle”-sa) and I’m an Indian from Dubai, UAE.  I’ve always loved food but when I went to college in the middle of Massachusetts, I started runing away to New York whenever I could to eat a great meal. That’s when the appreciation really started.

A lot of people have asked me if I have a food blog. Now that I have graduated and moved to New York, I can finally start it.

So my blog isn’t only about food. It’s about my love for Food Network’s Chopped. I used to watch Chopped all the time and I wanted to start a food blog that judges different restaurants based on the criteria that the Chopped judges use: Presentation, Taste and Creativity.

Also, since I’ve watched so much Chopped, I feel like I can predict what certain judges would say about certain dishes. I’m really excited about this and hope you enjoy my recommendations!

 

PS: The picture of me is actually at Chopped judge Alexandra Guarnaschelli’s restaurant Butter Midtown. But that’s a fancy night out, I’m writing about cheap to medium-priced eats in the city.

Using Food Network's Chopped to Critique Food in New York