People often ask where (and what) I’ve eaten lately, so in response, I’ve been posting photos of some of the tastiest dishes from my favorite restaurants under the category You Asked For It. You can find these and more on my Instagram account, @ethnojunkie.
One of my favorite ways to dine is with a large group of foodie-type folks. There’s a method to my menu madness, of course: if you gather a crowd of eight or ten around a mountain of ethnic food, everyone gets to taste a bit of everything. (That’s essentially the idea behind my ethnojunkets as well.)
And that’s what we did at Village Café (aka Five Star Village Café, and possibly aka Café Village), one of my very favorite places to bring a hungry throng. First, because the food is excellent (follow my recommendations below for the very best), second, because the staff is delightful, and third because I get to have the exquisite pleasure of introducing folks to Azerbaijani cuisine, something that’s unfamiliar to many people. Azerbaijani food is similar to the cuisine of Georgia (FSU Georgia, that is) but they lay claim to certain dishes such as kutaby as their own. You’ll recognize some items like shish kabob, but there are others that will probably be new to you. Trust me! All of them will be delicious!
Here are some photos of the extensive indulgence we enjoyed. (Click to enlarge.)
Veal Tongue Salad
Even if you think you might not like tongue, you’ll love this salad: thinly sliced veal tongue, daikon (white radish), fried onions, cucumber, carrots, and mayo. One of my favorites and not to be missed.
Smoked Eel Salad
That’s shredded kani (the type of faux crab meat sticks you’ll find in certain sushi rolls) piled on top of the smoked eel. Curiously Japanese!
The taste of this one is at odds with what you’d expect from its appearance, and it’s marvelous. It features fried eggplant, nuts, feta cheese, and more in a sweet and sour dressing – it’s all about that dressing! Another must-do.
Journey to Baku
Grilled eggplant and tomatoes, chopped together “in the form of caviar” as the menu states. The Russian word pronounced ikrá (икрa) means caviar and is often applied to vegetables puréed like this; the Japanese word for caviar is ikura (イクラ). Yes, they’re cognates. And yes, the Russians had it first!
Kutaby with Lamb
A thin, griddled crepe filled with seasoned ground lamb and folded in half. That’s sumac sprinkled on the top – no, not the poison kind, of course! It imparts a tart but earthy, citrusy flavor to the dish. Sumac is very common in this cuisine and it’s often used as a garnish. They also make a version with greens instead of lamb, but you should definitely do the lamb.
Not julienne like French cut vegetables, but rather a gooey, cheesy, mushroom side dish. This is the definition of the word “rich”.
Shish Kabobs – Lamb, Lamb Ribs, Chicken Lulya
All of these are delectable, especially the fatty lamb ribs. Chicken Lulya is seasoned ground chicken, served here in wraps. I once brought my friend and former New York magazine food critic Gael Greene here. She adored the place. Gael doesn’t particularly care for ground chicken, but I insisted that she try these juicy little wonders; she loved them, pronounced them “luscious”, and might even venture back one day. Mission accomplished!
This is an Azerbaijani miracle of roasted sheep kidneys, heart, testicles, liver, potatoes, and onions. Wait! WAIT!! Don’t stop reading yet! This scrumptious offal is anything but awful. When I’ve ordered it for a group, I sometimes detected a look of trepidation passing across their faces. But believe it or not, I promise you that it never fails to be one of the stars of the show!
A few potatoes were all that remained of the Djiz-Biz. Believe me now?
I’ve saved the best for last. This handmade pasta must be ordered in advance and refrigerated overnight so that it can do what dough does. Featuring thick, buttery, luxurious pasta sheets topped with lamb and onions and served with a yogurt sauce, I refer to it as Azerbaijani comfort food. Once you’ve tried it, I guarantee you’ll want more. Get. This. Dish.
And then some: If you check out the menu, you’ll also see something called “Ravioli”. Presumably, this is the “English” translation of pelmeni, savory dumplings that ravioli can only aspire to. They’re great too, particularly the lamb variety. So many dishes, but these are the highlights; you won’t be sorry with any of these!
Village Café is located at 1968 Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn, NY
(Note that the restaurant itself is set back from the street so it can be easy to miss if you’re zooming past!)