Brains and Brawn
Now that the Times has finally discovered that many Arthur Avenue Italian restaurants are being run by Albanians, the real story is that restaurateurs are coming out of the closet. Proudly festooning their awnings with hard-to-pronounce names, replacing the Italian tricolor with the two-headed black eagle, they've begun serving their own country's food. Restorant Shqiptar takes its moniker from the Albanian name for Albania, and it seems to have replaced a much older Neapolitan joint. Spilling tables onto the sidewalk, this raffish hangout is populated with dudes smoking, playing cards, and nursing Buds. A well-worn oak bar dominates one side of the room, and flames leap up from a grill in a corner kitchen.
The menu is less complicated than it looks. The section designated Makarone lists familiar Italian pastas, and the poultry section remains Italian too. Who could resist the poetic "chicken shoemaker" ($9.95), even if you know it will turn out to be rather prosaic breast tidbits swamped in mushroom sauce? Still, if you're looking for real Albanian food, turn your attention instead to the sections headed Salad, Fish, and Meat. Sallate turshie ($3.25) is a platter of cucumbers and red peppers, pickled and pinned down with a plank of fetaa refreshing starter. Entrée-wise, peshk zgare ($9.95) grills an entire sea bream till the thick skin is crisp and the yellow-tinged flesh aromatic of lemon and garlic. Also remarkable is qofte, a chef's special that features a patty of ground beef thatin a wonderful feat of food architecturesquirts sour cream when you slice into it. But blowing everything else away is qingj I pjekur ($14), a sizable haunch of baby lamb roasted deep brown and plated elegantly with just a pair of lemon wedges.
There's no Italian component at Gurra Café, just around the corner, where the awning grandly proclaims "Shqiptare Cuisine." The interior resembles a Swiss chalet, with exposed beams and peeling murals of snowcapped mountains that look suspiciously like the Rockies. When asked for a menu, the owlish waiter smiles and shakes his head, offering instead, "I make assortment for you." Five minutes later he materializes with a metal tray bearing a landscape of meat mountains separated by meadows of iceberg dotted with tomatoes and crisscrossed with picket fences of feta. The peaks are indeed awesome, formed from pounded-thin filets, short skinless sausages, and hamburger patties that glow with tallow and exude a faint odor of smoke. Pointing and beaming, the waiter boasts, "All veal!" With more than a pound allotted to each diner, we didn't leave hungry ($10 per person).
Just across the street is Arthur Avenue's longest-running Albanian, the All Star Café & Restaurant, which took an odd turn last year when it was bought by a pair of Swedish dames, who soon imparted a Scandinavian spin to the menu. Though it doesn't come with lingonberries, there's a nicely grilled salmon filet, and a pair of ethereal crumbed and butter-sautéed trout that would find a hearty welcome in both Sweden and Albania. But where All Star really distinguishes itself is in the fulfillment of the Albanian passion for variety meats. Well-cleansed kidneys come doused with butter and garlic, while brains can be had two ways: simply grilled and drizzled with lemon, oreven betterbattered, fried, and inundated with a light lemon sauce. Finally, there's a homely stew of navy beans that tastes just like Campbell's Bean With Bacon. Not bad. It comes bobbing with slices of a thin sausage flagrantly named suxhuk, a Kosovar specialty with an intriguing winey aftertaste. But residents of the neighborhoods surrounding Arthur Avenue will identify it differently: chorizo.
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