Ok, get this straight: The New York Times gives out a maximum of four stars, most of which go to expensive uptown restaurants, the cheaper restaurants relegated to the “$25 and Under” column. New York Magazine, on the other hand, gives out a maximum of five stars, most of which go to expensive restaurants, though not necessarily uptown, and the cheaper restaurants aren’t relegated to a separate column, they’re relegated to a separate star system–a HOLLOW star system–so if you look in the back of New York Magazine and see five black stars next to a restaurant, you know it’s an expensive five-star restaurant, and if you see five hollow stars next to a restaurant, you know it’s a cheaper five-star restaurant. At least when I last subscribed. Did you follow all that?
Don’t worry. All you need to know is that when New York Magazine did it’s Cheap Eats issue, last year, they gave this restaurant–Tanoreen–five stars (hollow stars) and ranked it the #1 best cheap eat in New York:
Said New York Magazine: “We’re not unreasonable people. We wouldn’t send you to the ends of the earth (not the earth, maybe, just the R line; it’s the third-to-last stop) without good reason. That reason is spice alchemist Rawia Bishara, whose métier is the cuisine of the Middle East, as her mother cooked it in Nazareth and as Bishara brilliantly reinterprets it. The modest storefront’s display case contains treasures untold, garlic-amped parsley-ringed platters that challenge long-held perceptions about the true nature of things as pedestrian as hummus and baba ghannouj.”
A description like this sticks in ones craw, and a full year later, while chatting with Patty online, I convinced her to join me and Craig for a journey out to Bay Ridge to eat at the Per Se of cheap food. This is the story of our dinner at Tanoreen.
Actually, there’s not much of a story.
We rode the subway out and thought it was really fun to be in a new neighborhood. One thing that’s great about the Cheap Eats issue of NY Magazine (or Robert Sietsema’s columns and books; or, for that matter, Jim Leff’s) is they give you an excuse to explore new areas of New York. Whereas, one might be hard pressed for a reason to visit Bay Ridge (unless you have family there), when you’re a foodie who wants authentic Nazarethan food, you have a definite reason to go.
The neighborhood was quaint and it was a beautiful night. It was just a short walk from the R train to the restaurant proper and once inside, I was surprised to see how restaurant-like it was. I thought it might be a counter with brusque service, it being a cheap eat and all. But it was closer to a down-scale neighborhood restaurant, albeit one with cool paintings and an open kitchen.
Let’s get to the food. We ordered the obligatory hummus and baba ganoush:
The hummus was wonderfully creamy–something I appreciated, having made cement hummus a few weeks earlier from a not very good recipe. The baba ganoush was also surprisingly creamy and, as you can see, surprisingly beige for something that comes from an eggplant. It was a good start to the meal and so was the bread we ate it with:
And so, for that matter, was this lemonade:
Patty ordered one too and we spent a good while trying to figure out what the secret ingredient was. When the waiter came by, I asked him and he said, “I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”
“Is it rose water?” I guessed.
“There’s rose water,” he admitted, “but something else and I can’t tell you what.”
Fair enough. But it was good, if a bit soap-like.
Now for the disappointing part. I really wasn’t that wowed by any of our entrees. I had the Baked Mediterranean Eggplant: thinly sliced eggplant with ground lamb, onions, garlic, tomatoes and potatoes, Tanoreen spices, baked and served with rice pilaf:
I guess I was waiting for a big wallop of flavor, but the wallop never came. It was all very muted; fresh, but underwhelming. I felt the same way about the dish Patty and Craig both ordered: the Kafta—finely ground lamb, onions, parsley and spices, topped with tahini or tomato sauce, baked and served next to rice.
Again, it was very good and artfully presented with the ring of parsley around the plate, but reading the New York Magazine description above, didn’t you expect a powerhouse of flavor, something to knock you out of your chair? I sat firmly in my chair and ate thoughtfully, my mouth perfectly happy to chew, but my heart a bit let down. No wonder those five stars were hollow.
The baklava for dessert was fine:
But, all in all, I’m not rushing back to Bay Ridge for another meal at Tanoreen. Plus, for a cheap eat, this meal was pretty expensive at $28 a person. Maybe those stars should’ve been black after all.
Any lists like the ones New York Magazine comes up with are going to have their detractors. They’re all subjective and personal and often quite arbitrary. But I’m grateful that these lists exist because they give us reason to try new things. Because Tanoreen was #1, I got to see Bay Ridge. And eat really good hummus. And for that I am very thankful.