Kavkaz: Nuts to You
In a borough famous for its pickle platters, this one was exceptional. The tantalizing assortment flaunted big leaves of cabbage tinted bright pink with beet juice, slender green pepperoncini, a puckeringly tart carrot slaw, sliced unripe tomatoes, pale gooseberries with wrinkly skins, miniature purple plums turned a lovely shade of brown by the brine, and, of course, half-sour cukes. But there was one pickle we couldn't identify—small and spotted with a woody stump where the stem had been, with crumbly coffee-colored flesh. Was it a fruit or a nut? Despite extensive postprandial inquiries, we never found out.
My friends and I weren't dining in Williamsburg—where creative pickles are routine—but rather on Coney Island Avenue in far-off Ditmas Park. Instead of the press of thrill-seekers and scenesters, the street outside held only the occasional yarmulked Jew or pillbox-hatted Pakistani, scurrying for the rare points of light along the bleak thoroughfare. One of those points was Kavkaz, lit up like a Christmas tree. Inside, we found parallel dining rooms separated by a low wall—one semi-dark and depressed four feet, the other at ground level and painfully bright. Both were decorated with paintings featuring rearing pastel steeds, improbable castles, and fur-hatted figures toasting each other and dancing like dervishes.
Despite the familiar Georgian iconography, the restaurant describes itself as Kavkazi—referring to all the ancient kingdoms of the Caucasus Mountains, including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Dagestan, Chechnya, and several others. Although grounded in Georgian cuisine (with some notable, head-scratching omissions), the menu turns out to be a voluminous grab bag of commonplaces from the entire region—plus additions from Central Asia, Russia, and Turkey. Perhaps luckily, only a small proportion of the offerings are available on any given evening.
When was the last time you had stuffed grape leaves (dolma, $9) not pulled from a can? A dozen ragged, astringent leaves are rolled around rice and dilled meat in a mild broth littered with flat-leaf parsley like lily pads on a pond. It was a simple dish, to be sure, but one that illustrated the general brilliance of Kavkaz's cooking. Hopscotching through the menu among potential starters, you'll find trumpet mushrooms drenched in vinaigrette ($6.90) or fried with potatoes ($7.90); green salads dotted with clumps of the region's salty bryndza cheese and draped with sun-dried mutton; and kutabi—fist-sized pastries stuffed with pumpkin or lamb, black sesame seeds glued to their flaky tops.
There are magnificent dumplings, too: Siberian pelmeni ($5.90) crammed with lamb and onions, bigger by half than the usual article, and gyurza, which are enough like Japanese gyoza to make you wonder if the name is more than just an etymological fluke. Organ meats gloriously festoon the app menus, and you can have tongue in a half-dozen different ways. The boiled veal tongue is lovely in its tenderness, and amateur anatomists will be delighted by the cross-sectional presentation. But there's no dipping sauce, and you keep wishing there were. Sheep tongue in a garlic confit is a better bet, but only if it's actually available that evening.
There will be balls, too. "Mutton eggs" ($9.90) refers somewhat evasively to some impressively large and undoubtedly semen-filled sheep testicles—you'll have no trouble identifying them in the spud stir-fry they come in. Along with hearts and kidneys, smaller and cuter baby lamb testes are incorporated into the organ tour de force usually called jiz biz but here unpronounceably known as "dzyhyz biz."
Ultimately, you'll arrive—like a Q train pulling into the nearby Newkirk Avenue station—at collections of meat and fish grilled over charcoal, which is any Caucasus menu's compulsory centerpiece. Our surprise favorite was not the usual kebab featuring lamb or chicken but rather one made from big oily swatches of sturgeon, which absorbs smoke like all get-out and arrives thoughtfully strewn with raw onions and fresh dill. (Hopefully, the fish is sourced in Canada's sustainable sturgeon fisheries.) The lula kebabs—made from lamb and onions ground together—are nearly as good as the sturgeon. Short, bulbous, and oozing juices, the ground-meat batons come wrapped in thin flatbreads like a flour tortilla for mess-free munching.
Still, we were flummoxed to not find two Georgian signatures on the bill of fare. There was no chicken tabaka, which became a standard on two continents during the Soviet era, nor khachapuri, the glorious cheese-stuffed flatbread beloved of vegetarians. On the other hand, you can get those standards at dozens of Russian-speaking places on Coney Island Avenue and vicinity. But where else than Kavkaz can you find such a magnificent pickle platter plus lick some balls?
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.
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