In “Big Yellow Taxi” Joni Mitchell laments, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” And her sentiments have never rung truer. It was barely two weeks ago that I ate my very last restaurant meal, and the bright memory lingers.
A fellow East Village community gardener had invited me to try her favorite restaurant in Jackson Heights. We went on a Saturday evening, her husband and my wife in tow. Detraining at the Roosevelt Avenue and 74th Street express stop, we headed north on 74th past a nearly empty Jackson Diner, and a Patel’s supermarket at the point of meltdown, with long lines and decimated shelves.
But other than that, the scene in the streets was pretty much as usual for a warmish early spring evening, even though the novel coronavirus outbreak was already under way in New York. As we turned the corner from 37th Avenue onto 73rd Street — the nexus of the neighborhood’s Bangadelshi community — we encountered pedestrians shopping at vegetable stands that displayed in abundance such favored fruits and vegetables as ridge gourd and bottle gourd, cooking banana, calabash, beetroot, okra, and papaya.
Vendors selling religious objects had set up tables, while stalls selling children’s wind-up toys spilled their wares onto the sidewalk. A butcher in a white apron pushed a shopping cart that contained a whole calf into a halal meat and fish store. Shoppers passed with shopping bags swinging at their sides, some holding the hands of children.
Up ahead loomed our objective, Khaabar Baari, a big and boxy, 24-hour cafeteria that’s long been a fixture of the neighborhood. Its neon sign glowed above large windows, through which we could see two dozen booths and tables, nearly empty at this twilight hour. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, as social distancing was already being advised.
The entrance was up a ramp on an alley that ran beside the building, and we decided to explore it first. It was lined with small businesses, including a shipping company, barber shop, party store, and at the very end, an entrance to a mosque. Worshipers were filing into the door for evening services as we watched, and the shops seemed about to close for the night.
The four of us went into the restaurant’s dining room and examined the double steam table at one end, which contained about 30 dishes, including kebabs, biryanis, vegetable melanges, dals, and curries of chicken and goat. We chose a large table near the windows, so we could observe the shopping hubbub on 73rd Street.
My fellow gardener was a regular, and spoke to the guy behind the steam table. They worked out a plan for the meal: It was to include a dozen dishes, some of which she’d picked out, others I’d requested.
Have you ever sat down in a restaurant with people you didn’t know well, and realized during the course of the meal that you were destined to become friends? I realized that most of my friendships over the past few years had been initiated while eating, and that in fact much of my enthusiasm for the world’s varied cuisines has come from dining with eager companions.
What a meal it was: Each newly arrived dish alternately engendered sighs and gasps, though the four of us didn’t begin eating in earnest until the last had arrived. One surprise for me were four vegetable purees called bhortas; they reminded me of baba ganoush, but with infinitely more variation. Sheem bhorta featured fresh pole beans and cilantro coarsely pulverized with dried chiles, fresh chiles, and mustard oil for a mild but sustained triple burn. Another featured eggplant, and a third, bottle gourd. A dish of simply cooked okra also figured prominently in the spread.
As the conversation progressed, we discussed our jobs (they both worked in advertising, while my wife is a textile designer), and our mutual love of gardening. We talked about places far away that we had been, movies we’d seen, and gossiped a bit about our East Village community garden.
Another dish we oohed and aahed over was a specialty of the house with the disarmingly simple name of “roast chicken.” It was a half bird on a platter thickly coated with an agreeable brown sauce that threatened to spill over the sides of the plate. Two kinds of biryani were served, along with white rice that went exceedingly well with many of the dishes.
Another highlight was an imported freshwater fish called hilsa. “It has many small bones,” our fellow gardener warned us, but was absolutely delicious in its yellow-tinged, gingery sauce. At this point in the meal, the front door began to open with some frequency to admit more diners. Nearly all men, they made for a convivial cosmopolitan crowd, but as the dining room became more crowded, we grew slightly nervous as the social distance closed.
Unrequested, our host brought us several desserts, the best of which was a thickened yogurt pudding named mishti doi, made with jaggery. It was smooth and sweet on the tongue, and richer than any other type of yogurt that I can think of. We also enjoyed a rolled pancake and a spongy dessert of fermented and steamed rice batter stuffed with coconut and spotted with molasses, reminiscent of idly but slightly sweet.
Vowing that we’d meet again soon for another meal, this time at a restaurant I’d pick, we retreated to the street and stood in the light of neon signs, hesitant to bring the evening to a close. Then our friends went north to shop at one of the vegetable stands, while we went south to the subway station. Back then, it seemed like restaurants would remain open, but with enforced social distancing. Little did we realize that even this palliative measure would prove inadequate, and that this would be our last meal in a restaurant for a long time. As of Monday, Khaabar Baari’s phone line seemed to be disconnected, suggesting that like many of the city’s restaurants, it is closed. Luckily, the last meal was one worth savoring.