No Balls at Café Sim-Sim
It's been a long time since there's been an Azerbaijani café in sleepy south Kensington. So when my friend Brian and I were bombing down Ditmas Avenue the other day and saw "Kavkaze" ("Caucasian") stenciled on a blue awning, we screeched to a halt. The place was called Sim-Sim ("Sesame" in Arabic), and the interior looked like the Jersey version of a Roman bathhouse, with arches of Garden State brickface held up by golden Doric columns. Need I tell you that, in the style of former-Soviet restaurants, a disco ball dangled overhead? At the end of the room, twin oil paintings showed a thatched cottage overhanging a millrace next to a cityscape of Baku, the country's capital on the Caspian Sea, where oil wells sprout like gray lilies within the city limits.
The menu characterizes itself as "Caucasian, Russian, and European." The Russian part is instantly familiar (chicken Kiev, pickled herring, etc.), and the European part is held down by the usual cream-heavy interpretations of French food popularized by the czars (lobster bisque, chicken "roulet"). Naturally, we honed in on the Caucasian part, not because we were a pair of white dudes, but because we love the cooking of the Caucasus Mountains, a region north of Iran that includes Georgia and Armenia as well as Azerbaijan.
That first visit, we enjoyed a modest meal of dushbara ($4.90), a dumpling soup in a thin broth sprinkled with mint. Though the ground-meat stuffing was decidedly bland, the soup exploded when we poured in the little pitcher of crushed garlic in vinegar that came alongside. The soup called kharcho was another hit, a rich red broth dotted with rice and lamb. We finished our meal with a fistful of charcoal-grilled kebabs ($6.90 per pair), resolving to return soon.
312 Ditmas Avenue
The next week, with a native speaker of Russian in tow, we reassessed Sim-Sim. When we called ahead to make a reservation for our party of eight, the proprietor insisted that we order ahead of time, then argued with us over several of the dishes we'd requested. Clearly, the size of our party put us in Russian-banquet territory, where vodka-fueled set meals are the norm. We stuck to our guns, and we were very glad we did.
The food turned out to be as spectacular as it was the first time. As soon as we sat down, we were presented with eggplant salad, Baku style (a tomatoey mince in luxuriant quantities of oil, $4.90), and lobio (gorgeous vermilion beans heaped with chopped garlic and walnuts). Soon, a slaw of shredded green radish and lamb tongue appeared, flooded with thick mayo ($6.50). A plate of sliced smoked sturgeon provided a cool counterpoint. (Since Caspian sturgeon is endangered, we hasten to add that the fish was identified on the menu as Canadian sturgeon.)
The dishes arrived in waves, and the highlight of the next grouping was a plate of crisp home fries heaped with chanterelle mushrooms ($11.90), and a greasy stir fry of potatoes and loamy veal organs called (I'm not kidding!) "jiz biz." The semen jokes began to fly. To extend our organ binge, we'd also requested a stew of lamb testes. ("We're all out of balls!" the proprietor had shouted into the phone.) Also in this grouping of dishes was the Georgian standard chicken tabaka ($8.90)—a full bird partially deboned, flattened, fried deep brown, and coated with crushed garlic. It slayed, and we dubbed it "road-kill chicken."
However likeable the first and second courses are, it's the charcoal-grilled kebabs that the patrons of Sim-Sim crave. Removed from the skewers, the kebabs sail in on a single long platter, with the meat heaped around excellent, dill-decorated french fries. With our party of eight, the platter was the size of a small Russian tank. Ignoring our specific order, the cook had basically given us samples of all the meats available, and for once we were grateful.
One of our favorites was lulya kebab, ground lamb shot with onions. As succulent as an overripe piece of fruit, each meat torpedo came wrapped in a ribbon of thin flatbread that might be mistaken for a Flushing Avenue tortilla. And, man—meat doesn't get much better than that. Pork-neck kebab was the very best, big gobbets of coarsely textured meat glistening with fat. You won't find that in Rego Park's kosher Uzbeki kebaberies—although, in common with those places, a photo of the late Rebbe Schneerson hangs on the wall of Sim Sim's kitchen. He seems to grimace as the cook grills the pork.
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