January 7, 2013 | BITE: My Journal
Azuri Cafe Heartbeats
Get the falafel plate with marinated eggplant, hummus, tabbouleh and a cauliflower side.
We met one evening at a dinner for nine in Brooklyn. I liked his style. He brought me a box of small cherry pies and ordered everything on the menu. He suggested my life was incomplete if I’d never had the falafel at Azuri Cafe. Entering my 45th year as a restaurant critic in the best eating city in the world, my credibility was being questioned.
“Have you tasted the falafel at L’As du Fallafel on the Rue Rosiers in the Marais?” I countered. “That’s the ultimate falafel for me.” He was not moved. So I thought well, yes, maybe, okay. If Pete Wells could blow half a page in the Times on a joint in Jersey City, I could take two hours on Wednesday to discover a new falafel and a cosmic shawarma.
I expected a hole-in-the-wall and Azuri Cafe is, but warm and cozy.
He warned me the owner was notoriously gloomy. “He’s like the soup nazi,” he said. “Except he’s the falafel nazi. He never smiles.”
We agreed to meet at 465 West 51st Street at 1:30. It was the coldest day of the year. Okay, it was just the second of January, but hell, it was arctic. I walked from Tenth Avenue because 51st Street is one-way the wrong way. I’d layered two sweaters under two coats and even inside my knitted wool cap, my ears were freezing.
Azuri’s historically gruff owner, Ezra Cohen serves. An assistant delivers.
He was waiting for me at one of the three tables inside the pocket size canteen. The man behind the counter did not smile. “You order,” I said. He approached our host properly humble. Without a comment, maybe with just a hint of a grunt, the boss started slicing meat from one of those grey skewered hunks you see on Middle Eastern food trucks. I looked up. Over the bathroom door, above the no smoking notice, was a street sign: Elvis Presley Blvd.
A Las Vegas souvenir above the bathroom door catches my eye and makes me smile.
“Are you an Elvis fan?” I asked the unsmiling proprietor, lean in jeans and a navy blue sweatshirt.
He grinned under his baseball cap. “Yes, I am.” He was filling up our plates from the assortment of vegetables and salads in the refrigerated counter, piling them high.
“Shall I tell him?” I asked my companion, who claimed to have read my memoir, Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess.
“This lady had sex with Elvis,” he blurted out.
The so-called falafel Nazi turns out to be a champion of Israel and Elvis, maybe just shy.
“Well yes, I had an afternoon with Elvis,” I said. “The very young Elvis,” I went on, never wanting anyone to imagine I’d have congress with the tragic dissolute that pale, adorable 21-year-old would become. “We were both young, early in his career, my first job. It was in Detroit. In the hotel between concerts.”
“Did you get pictures?” our host, excited, obviously impressed, wanted to know.
Fresh, clean, chilled, you can choose your fixings or let Ezra decide.
Pictures. “Of course not. No one carried a camera in those days unless they were a photographer. No one had cell phones.” I thought about it for a moment. No photographs. Of course, no photographs. If it were today, surely one of Presley’s Memphis pals would have caught it on his phone and I’d be naked on YouTube. I marveled, remembering when life was not lived to twitter about. I didn’t tell anyone about Elvis for years.
Under the salad and falafel, delicious marinated eggplant, pickles on top.
I tasted the falafel. It was no match for Rue de Rosiers. It suffered too from vivid memories of Daniel’s elegant falafel at Boulud Sud which I order now almost once a week. But Azuri’s crumbed and fried cauliflower, just $1.50, was fabulous. And I was happy enough with the tabbouleh, the hummus, the baba ganoush, and delicious marinated eggplant on the falafel platter. And the warmed whole wheat pita. If Elvis had lived I wonder how fat he’d be today.
I have to assume schwarma is a cultivated taste. But I rather like the mish mash.
My companion seemed delighted with the curls of meat from the shawarma gyro, a fetish I’ve never quite understood (although I liked the gentrified version at the Plaza Food Hall the one time it came rare). I had to snatch a forkful of the meat from his plate before it disappeared. The smartly seasoned tomatoes helped, as did the pickles. I rather enjoyed the mish-mash effect. I wish we’d tasted the soup, white bean or maybe split pea.
“I’m making you a special drink,” the animated owner announced. He brought two big water glasses filled to the brim and steaming. “It’s honey with ginger and lemon,” he said, so affable now he could run a Danny Meyer restaurant. Eventually it cooled enough to sip and was brilliant, a nectar that could discourage threatening colds for at least a week.
Our host surprises us with steaming ginger-honey-lemon nectar and sips a glass himself.
My friend let me pay, $49.00 with the tip, credit cards accepted over $20 “except American Express.” He handed me a carryout menu with its rave for “the gruff owner, Ezra Cohen.”
“Yes, I prepare everything on the premises,” Cohen had written below the review. “I have made my life happy by adding love to my work and end up with wonderful, heavenly food. Yes, we are small and so is ISRAEL. But with a heart. If you can’t go to ISRAEL, come to AZURI CAFÉ. Where the heart of ISRAEL is.” Above the interlocking triangles that formed a Jewish star he had posted the yin-yang symbol.
Add .50 for take out.
L'As Du Fallafel, Le Marais, Paris. Photo by Steven Richter.
465 West 51st Street near Tenth Avenue. 212 262 2920 Sunday through Thursday 10:30 am to 9 pm; Friday till 4 pm sundown. Closed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
L’As Du Fallafel 34 Rue des Rosiers 75004 Paris. Metro Saint-Paul
Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.
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