Eugene’s already swarthy skin was a shade darker when he walked into Neerob, the Bengali place in the Parkchester section of the Bronx he choose for our group’s tasting prompting Zio to comment that he fit right in with the rest of the restaurant’s clientele. And it was true. Eugene could pass for a Bengali. He could pass for an Arab, Latino, mulatto, Greek, or Sicilian. He had that versatile, dusky look; our own Anthony Quinn.
His skin had darkened from a week in Punta Cana, at a resort where he happily exclaimed that you never had to leave the property. “They had 11 restaurants,” Eugene crowed. “Italian, Asian, Tex-Mex, a Brazilian where they come and slice the meat for you. The place was so big they take you around on mini buses.”
Apparently there was no Bengali food at the Punta Cana resort though and when Eugene looked around the small restaurant he nodded approvingly at his choice. “Now this is the kind of place for us,” he proudly proclaimed.
He made no mention of the framed New York Times review on the wall. Or of the Daily News and Time Out New York blurbs that were also displayed. And when we first started convening, now over ten years ago, framed New York Times reviews would have been a problem. If the Times had written it up, the place had officially been “discovered” and we had very loose rules against that. We needed to make the discovery and let the Times unearth it after our experience, and many times that is exactly what happened. Now, however, the restaurant world, even the one we lived in, had changed. Nothing was undiscovered anymore whether by the Times or on the internet
As it had at Singh’s Roti Shop, (A Double(s) Dose of Roti on Liberty Avenue) where we last met, that I was taking pictures of the restaurant and its food, caught the eye of Neerob’s owner. The camera being a giveaway that this group of non-Bengalis (Eugene aside) and non-Parkchester regulars, were either food critics or food bloggers. He immediately took an interest in our group, arranging tables so our party of six would have enough room and then bringing us a sampling of vegetable pakoras accompanied by squeeze bottles of a hot chili sauce and a cilantro based condiment.
Once everyone found parking, which wasn’t easy, and got to the restaurant, we crammed around the glass enclosed steam table looking at the offerings. Our very friendly host explained what we were gaping at; goat biryani, chicken curry, fried whole tilapia, bright red chicken tikka, saag with chicken, okra, lentils,and a smaller whole fish smothered in a red, tomato-based sauce.
“It’s a fish like we have in our country,” our host said when I asked him about the smaller fish. “Like a sardine. One bone. Very good.”
He pointed to something that looked like semi-mashed vegetables and said that these accompany the fish.
I knew I wanted it and the others let him know what they were interested in.
“Leave it to me,” he said.
And we did.
A few moments later, the paper plates and bowls with our favorite utensils; plastic forks and spoons, began to arrive.
The mashed vegetables were placed in front of me. They were powerfully flavored and fiery in spice, obviously an accompaniment to the main dishes. I found out later that they were called “bhartas.”
The small fish was delectable, moist with oil, and separated easily from the small bone. We somehow ordered two plates of goat biryani but no one was disappointed; the tiny pieces of goat a gamey match to the bland basmati rice.
We shared the bowls and plates as they made their way around the table, the fish cheeks of the tilapia, however, were gone before they got to Zio and I; Rick making quick work of them.
Whatever was left was easily finished with the accompanying warm nan bread. And though we ate like the gluttons we are, we wanted more. There were sweets and our host wanted us to sample some. Who were we to refuse?
He brought fried gulab jamun balls in syrup and two, pale sweet balls that had Zio scratching his thinning hair. “It’s a matzoh ball?” he said, staring at it curiously.
But it was more like a sweetened cottage cheese ball. And it and all the sweets helped take the fire out of our mouths.
The almost indecipherable check was brought to us. Eugene squinted but was able to add it up, and when he told us what we owed for the feast we just devoured, I, and everyone else, couldn’t care less that the New York Times, among others, had scooped us. Neerob, in Eugene’s words, was most definitely, “our kind of place.”
Brian Silverman chronicles cheap eats, congee, cachapas, cow foot, cow brains, bizarre foods, baccala, bad verse, fazool, fish stomach, happy hours, hot peppers, hot pots, pupusas, pastas, rum punch and rotis, among many other things on his site Fried Neck Bones...and Some Home Fries. Twitter: neckbones@fried_neckbones.