From the Office and Backyard to the Road, Boat, or Plane–Backstories and
Side Stories While on Assignment. Updates on Personal Projects, Too.

Archive for June, 2008



Klobasa and Kabab

Kabab Cafe

It was supposed to be raining last Sunday afternoon in Manhattan, but when Peter Frank and I got there (we had an assignment that wouldn’t start until the next day) and the sky was clear, I said “beer garden?” Our friend, writer Bronwen Dickey knew where to go. I called Natalie Rivera, another friend who’s a jewelry designer, and we all took the N train to Astoria, then walked a few blocks to the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden. Built between 1910 and 1919 by Czech-Slovak immigrants, the story is that it’s the last remaining of hundreds of beer gardens in NYC, but all you really need to know is how to point to a draught knob – there are at least 10 European beers on tap – and hand over some cash. (The bartenders that night looked like the soccer players on the television screens above them – tan and fit and speaking mostly in what sounded to be Eastern European accents.) We also ordered a plate to share of thick Klobasa sausage with sauerkraut and fried potatoes… and then another pitcher of Hoegaarden, the Belgian witbier (white/wheat beer) that we’d all decided would be our table’s choice. (And for the rest of the evening and ever since, Bronwen has affectionately called the whole scene “Hoegaarden.”) We could have stayed longer – the people-watching was terrific including one woman in pink hair, who between cups of beer, was often in full kiss with her boyfriend. And I was wearing my “Writer for hire” T-shirt, which always adds adventure… including a man and his friend calling out, “how much for a poem?” as I walked up to the bar to order that second pitcher.

But we didn’t stay much longer, instead walked about 10 minutes to our next destination – another Bronwen pick – a tiny restaurant that felt more like someone’s kitchen-living room, where there just happened to be one four-person bench open, and we happily filed in and sat along it in a line facing the long table opposite for the next couple hours. This was a feast I couldn’t have predicted. We’d come to Kabab Cafe, an Egyptian restaurant where chef Ali El Sayed was celebrating his birthday doing what he’s done for 19 years – cooking what he wants to cook for whoever comes in. It was comfortable from the start. The café’s 16-20 seats fill a narrow space with walls lined to the ceiling with gilt-framed photographs and mirrors, pendant lanterns, and drawings and masks of Egyptian mummies.

Seated along our bench piled with folded blankets, Chef Ali (at least that’s what we called him) came from behind his cooktop in the center of the room to tell us first what dishes he could prepare that night, and then – gauging our reactions to his descriptions – returned to let us know which of those we’d be having… leg of lamb, grilled sardines, fried soft-shelled crabs, and a meze platter of hummus and baba ganouj with hot pita bread. All of these plates were intended to be shared, and they were, we did. Somehow we thought it a BYOB restaurant and just after sitting down had sent one in our party out for wine (he failed, returning only with a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor), but Chef Ali seems to see all in his restaurant, and he quickly appeared at our table with a bottle, a Malbec that matched perfectly with our first platters – each plate comes one at a time, as he cooks them. And when we finished that first bottle, the chef produced and corked another, and when the family with grandparents, parents and baby who sat across from us – a party of 10 or so, got up to leave, they passed along the remainder of their bottle, along with a square for each of us of a “passionfruit torte situation,” from a cake they said they’d brought from an Egyptian bakery across the street.

Before they left, we talked some with the family group – one said he’d been a chef in Phoenix for two decades and had rarely seen a restaurant serve lamb marrow bones as Chef Ali had done for them that night – one of the 16 dishes he’d made for them… ”if I eat anymore, I’ll go blind,” the man told us. And throughout this whole-café dinner party, a most curious soundtrack played, from Otis Redding, to a symphonic march, to middle Eastern sounding tunes, to Elvis’ “All Shook Up.” In all, the evening was remarkable, delicious, and we each kicked in our $60 share, plus tip, and talked of our evening all the way back to the subway, where our Upper East and Harlem friends went their way, and we made it back to our lower-mid lodgings, feeling our one night in Astoria, Queens well done.
Kabab Cafe duo

– Sandy Lang, June 2008

Comments Closed

Food, Travel



West meets South

June 2008 cover

My travel piece about the Seattle food scene earned a headline on the cover of this month’s Charleston Magazine. The cover image is by Peter Frank Edwards, who besides shooting the Seattle piece and wine piece, below, has 18 pages of very cool location fashion in this issue. (In pre-production, I helped with props and locations, so I’m particularly proud of this shoot.) The Seattle piece ran 12 pages strong, with a nice layout and a sidebar to debunk how much it rains… much of the East coast actually gets more inches of rain each year, it’s just that Seattle has many more cloudy days.


The opening paragraphs of “Seattle by the Forkful”…

Within an hour after our plane flew over the still snow-capped Cascades and touched down in Seattle, we were walking down the steep streets to Pike Place Market to skirt around the men tossing fish up to be weighed, wrapped and iced for customers (we’d watch that spectacle more intently later on), and followed the walkway to Place Pigalle, a narrow café nearly hidden on the backside of the landmark market. From a table by a window we watched a rainstorm bring a wash of gray across Puget Sound and drank a couple glasses of Washington state red – I don’t remember the vineyard, but know if was fine, perfect even, with a plate of smoked tomatoes and Alaskan halibut, a vinegary red-skinned potato salad. (Set so far up the coast, Alaskan fish is considered local/regional here, with Seattle marinas lined with “Deadliest Catch” style boats and stacks of huge iron crab pots.)

This was a good start. I’ve spent time in San Francisco and visited Vancouver, but had never been to this Northwest city where the rugged mountain-meets-the-sea landscape has given rise to Bill Gates and his Microsoft, to Jimi Hendrix and his psychedelic guitar riffs, to the coffee world domination of Starbucks. What a mix, a draw. So on a late winter Friday, we’d made the eight-hours of flights (one connection), not only for the Pacific scenery and the cool vibe, but to taste some of the freshest food to be found in the country these days. At least that’s what I’d heard… that up in Seattle the farm-and-sea-to-table scene is tremendously rich, sometimes trendsetting. Not to be overwhelmed by all the possible sights and activities in such a city, it seemed the thing to do in Seattle was to allow food be our guide. We’d let the smell of coffee and the clink of wine glasses lead us through this unfamiliar city that’s smaller in land size than Charleston, but with even more water in its boundaries – it’s dotted with islands, criss-crossed with ferries – and is home to seven times as many people…


– Sandy Lang, June 2008

Comments Closed

Food, In print/published, Travel, Wine



One for the Road

Also in the June issue of Charleston Magazine is a short article about an afternoon spent in Sonoma County last year, when we talked our way into a private barrel tasting at Fritz Winery, with advance help from friends in South Carolina. Here’s an excerpt, a slightly different version than what ended up in print:

She was from northern Germany, we were from South Carolina – and I’m not sure where Chancellor, the vineyard’s regal yellow Labrador was from. That afternoon we were all in a cool hillside cave in Sonoma County surrounded by barrels of wine, of French oak. This was a trip to the source. On the recommendation of Bruno Rosin, the Vicenza, Italy-born wine consultant at a grocery store near my house (just had to slip in another international reference), we’d included a visit to the Fritz Winery on a trip to San Francisco last year. (Bruno’s fondness for wines comes naturally, growing up visiting farms and vineyards with his father, a bread baker in Vicenza, Italy.) The suggestion was a good one.

Christina Pallman, the German-born winemaker we met there, was gracious enough to give us a casual barrel tasting in the bunker-like caves that the Fritz family first built into their vineyard’s hillside in the 1970s. As Chancellor followed along and Christina spoke in German accents, we explored the cool subterranean rooms that have proven perfect for the making and aging of the small label’s wines. Here and there, she would stop and turn a tiny tap, releasing the cabernets, the zinfandels, the pinot noirs – whether they were ready or not. We were in luck, as so many were delicious. Fritz has a focus on single-vineyard wines – some bathed by Pacific Ocean air – and creates limited editions that are sold only in California. But some Fritz wines can also be found in South Carolina, brought here by John Hilton and Palmetto Distributing. And that brings me back to how this all started, with a conversation around the grocery cart with my longtime “wine guy” and friend Bruno, who arranges the wine department at the Harris Teeter store on Folly Road, including three or four varieties of Fritz. Many times since I’ve brought home a bottle, and let the Sonoma afternoon memories flow again. Cincin!


– Sandy Lang, June 2008

Comments Closed

Travel, Wine

H&A woman

No, this is not an illustration of me with my notebook… it’s a graphic from Home&Abroad, an online travel planner. I worked on a research and writing project for the company this spring that has just been published on their site. In the travel pages about Hilton Head Island, SC, I wrote about the Native American and Civil War history of the region, of Gullah culture and art, and of dolphins and other wildlife to be seen in the saltwater creeks.

Thank you to Michael and Clarissa at H&A for the assignment.

H&A logo

– Sandy Lang, June 2008

Image 01 Image 02 Image 03 Image 04