Saturday, October 23, 2010

Some Places I Would Like To Revisit, But Can’t, Part 2: Meson Botin and Darbar (Stuffed Peppers and Palak Shorba)

Spanish Pavilion, New York World's Fair, 1964

Wishing to add two locations to my list of  places I would like to revisit but can't, I think immediately of Meson Botin and Darbar, two New York City restaurants where I spent a great deal of very happy time.  I haven't been able to locate photographs of either place, but can see them in my mind and feel their presence daily and acutely.

Meson Botin was a Spanish restaurant on West 58th Street in Manhattan. Its story is similar to that of the legendary French restaurant, Le Pavillon, at Park Avenue and East 57th Street.  Both restaurants sprang from national pavilion restaurants organized for the New York World's Fair (Le Pavillion from the French Pavilion at the 1938 World's Fair and Meson Botin from the 1964 fair's Spanish Pavilion), and both establishments influenced New York's culinary landscape by giving birth to additional restaurants in the city when members of their respective staffs eventually struck out on their own.

Because of the primacy of French cuisine in the culinary universe, Le Pavillion gained far greater renown, hosting during its heyday kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, Kennedys, Onassises, and (naturally and inevitably) the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. 

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor

Meson Botin lived a successful, but distinctly quieter, West Side existence on the block between Seventh Avenue and Broadway.  It was more of a neighborhood place offering wonderful food and wine from all of Spain's provinces, privacy (if you desired it; it always seemed like it would be a good place to conduct a clandestine romance or conclude a secret business deal), or the excellent conversation of Pepe Russo, the owner, if you preferred company instead. 

Botin was frequented by the rakish and raffish -- Spain aficionados of all sorts, members of the New York Bullfighters Club (who gathered there monthly for meetings), the owner's art clients (Pepe had an art business on the side; we once bought a charming painting of a girl holding a white cat from him that was painted by a formerly famous Broadway actress), and some quiet weirdos.  Tourists regularly arrived demanding margaritas at the lovely bar, failing to realize that Spain is not Mexico (and vice versa), and Pepe obliged them by making the best margaritas ever served in New York.

What made Meson Botin Madrid in New York was its quiet, dignified authenticity.  Years before tapas became an expensive fetishist affectation in Manhattan (missing the whole point of the cuisine and custom and denaturing this most natural way of dining), Pepe presented a fairly extensive, uniformly excellent, and reasonably priced  tapas menu (in the bar only, as is proper).  I think I miss his tortilla espanol and croquetas de jamon more than any two foods I've ever eaten. My favorite menu item, however, was Botin's stuffed peppers, always perfectly flavored and cooked, which were served in a glossy mahogany-colored sauce.  This isn't a photograph of the dish as Botin prepared it (the photo, as you can see, shows red peppers), nor their genuine recipe.  But this version from Penelope Casas' The Foods and Wines Of Spain is as close as I can manage and looks excellent.

Pimientos y Calabacines Rellenos (Stuffed Green Peppers and Zucchini)

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large onions
3 cloves garlic
2 lbs. chopped beef or a mixture of beef, veal and pork
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons minced parsely
2 tablespoons dry red wine
2 tablespoons minced cured ham
2 fresh tomatoes, skinned and chopped
3 medium zucchini
1/2 cup cooked short or long-grain rice
6 green peppers
3/4 cup tomato sauce, preferably homemade

Heat the oil in a skillet and saute the onion and garlic until the onion is wilted.  Add the chopped meat and continue cooking, stirring frequently until the meat is lightly browned.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the parsley, wine, tomato, ham and chopped tomato.  Cut the zucchini in half crosswise and hollow them out, adding the flesh to the meat mixture and reserving the shells.  Continue cooking this mixture for 5 minutes.  Stir in the rice and cook 5 minutes more, uncovered.  Cut off the caps of the green peppers (reserve them) and scoop out the seeds and the membrane.

Dilute the tomato sauce with 3/4 cup water.  Season with salt and pepper.  Pour into a baking dish.  Stuff the zucchini and peppers about 3/4 full with the meat mixture.  Close the peppers with the reserved caps.  Arrange in the baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour, basting occasionally and adding more water as the sauce thickens.  Serve with a light red wine such as Spanish Claret.

The Delhi Darbar of Akbar II by Ghulum Murtaza Khan, ca. 1813

We had a long, odd, but cozy relationship with the staff and owners of Darbar on West 56th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The restaurant was adjacent to Caroline's EMI Records offices and it took us a while to try it out because, in an earlier incarnation, the space housed a place called Arthur's that featured singing and performing waiters looking for their big break.  The only time we previously stopped in there for drinks, they tried to dragoon me into the floor show, which was embarrassing and horrible.

When we finally visited Darbar, we found that it was an Indian restaurant of uncommon refinement, excellence and elegance.  We began coming for dinner fairly often, but mostly stopped by either for post-work drinks or for a light lunch of their palak shorba, a phenomenal spinach soup made especially distinctive by the inclusion of a small amount of cream (which I was given to understand was non-traditional) and a feathering of mustard oil  across its surface. With some samosa, bhajia or one of their good flavored breads (their onion kulcha was sensational), it was the perfect light lunch.

Dave Davies

Because of its central Manhattan location, Darbar was extremely, if quietly, show-bizzy.  David Letterman was often there with senior members of his staff.  My personal all-time hero, Dave Davies of The Kinks was a regular, departing evening meals with a cheerful, friendly, incredibly high-pitched (think "Waterloo Sunset" and "Funny Face") farewell of "Tomorrow", announcing and promising his inevitable return.  (Dave is a vegetarian and Indian cuisine is obviously paradise for those who never eat meat.)

As with the previous entry for Meson Botin, this is not Darbar's recipe for palak shorba, nor is it a picture from the restaurant.  These, sadly, are lost to me. However, I visit Meson Botin and Darbar frequently in my dreams.  I do wish Caroline and I could take Jane there so that she could know this part of us a little better.   She knows so much already.

Palak Shorba (Spicy Spinach Soup)(Sanjeeve Kapoor Recipe)

Preparation time:  10 minutes
Cooking time:  10-15 minutes
Servings: 4

Spinach -- 2 bunch (approx. 1 1/2 pounds)
Olive oil --2 tablespoons
Black cardamom -- 3
Clove -- 2
Cinammon -- 1 inch piece
Refined flour (maida)(use Wondra) -- 2 tablespoons
Ginger (chopped) -- 3 inch piece
Garlic (chopped) -- 5 cloves
Onion (chopped) -- 1 medium
Black peppercorns -- 4 or 5
Bay leaf -- 4
Salt -- to taste
White pepper powder -- 1/4 teaspoon
Roasted cumin powder -- 1 teaspoon
Mustard oil

Blanch spinach leaves in boiling water for two to three minutes.  Drain, refresh in cold water and puree them in a mixer.  Heat olive oil in a deep pan.  Add black cardamoms, cloves, cinammon and refined flour and saute for two to three minutes.  Add ginger, garlic and onion and continue to saute for about five minutes.  Add black peppercorns, bay leaves, salt, white pepper powder, roasted cumin powder and five cups of water. Stir and simmer for ten minutes stirring at intervals.  Strain the stock.  Add the spinach puree to the strained stock and mix well.  Cook for four to five minutes.  Serve hot with a little mustard oil drizzled over the top of each serving.

Another recipe for Palak Shorba written in Urdu

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