Pera Mediterranean Brasserie

(New York, NY) On our second evening out on the town, we cabbed it just south of the theater district and east of the New York Public Library to a place called Pera Mediterranean Brasserie. OpenTable.com members rated it highly, with good reviews. We were looking forward to something out of the norm, seeking to stretch our culinary adventurous spirits a bit. After our cab dropped us off at a cross-street, with only minutes to spare before our reservation, we had a panicky minute when we couldn't find the storefront. Finally Juliet spotted it and we went into the warmly glowing interior with high expectations...

He Fed:
Sometimes you can tell, just walking into a place that it's going to be good. The servers are smiling, the cooks are intent on their work, and there are great arcs of fire coming from the open air kitchen. Alchemy at work! We are shown to a small table (but not too small) in the center of the restaurant, where we have a good view of one wall filled with bottles of wine and the rest of the patrons. There is a family of six, with small children, clearly enjoying a late dinner out. Other tables seem to be mostly couples, making eyes at each other over glasses of vino. The atmosphere is cozy, warm and inviting; the smell is smoky enticement.

Our waitress seems a little out of place and perhaps a bit too eager to please, but she is competent and pleasant. We decide to take the pace a bit more lax than usual, starting with some small plates before the main course, just to try Pera's offerings. Although I enjoy Mediterranean fare, it's not my first choice when I think of going out for dinner. I'm not exactly sure why...probably some deeply-ingrained need to see a slab of meat on a plate and when I think Mediterranean, I think hummus. I love hummus -- don't get me wrong! -- but forking over hard-earned cash for a bowl of mush just doesn't compute, sometimes.

Looking over the menu, I begin to notice a theme: lamb, lamb, and more lamb. Never mind that; we order Warm Hummus with Pastirma to start. It is warm, creamy and tinged with a salty lemon taste. Best hummus ever? Maybe. Juliet makes a mean homemade hummus, but this rivals her best efforts. What is Pastirma anyway? Wikipedia notes it is a salted meat that has been dried for days on end before having the blood and salt squeezed out of it. Then it's rubbed in cumin paste and air-dried. The resulting chunks are spicy, kind of like pepperoni or lamb jerky. It goes very well with the hummus and the fresh-baked bread.

The Pastirma is such a hit, we decide to try more of the meat wrapped around cooked dates stuffed with Feta cheese. Delicious! They have a more delicate, complex taste than the bacon-wrapped dates we make at home, sweet and smoky with just a hint of hotness before the Feta mediates the two contrasting flavors. On a roll, we decide to get the fried artichoke hearts as well. Artichokes have been a passion for Juliet ever since we came back from Rome. There, we'd experienced the best variations on artichoke preparation and we've enjoyed preparing fresh artichokes at home, but it's a tricky vegetable to cook and to eat. I'm reminded of this as I bite into a dry, tough artichoke heart that does nothing for me. The breading isn't compelling and the interior is just too much work. Oh well, can't win them all.

Finally, we head to the entree. I decide on the Chicken Brochette (having had my fill of lamb). Before ordering I ask our server if she can recommend a good pairing for the dish; after some deliberation with another server with more wine experience, she offers up a Malbec or a pretty ordinary Shiraz that I've had several times before and am frankly amazed she would suggest it. I think it goes back to the new philosophy, if the customer doesn't ask for a specific vintage or price point, you are to offer them a range of two or three price points. So, on that point I can't blame her for suggesting the Shiraz...but it still ruffled my feathers a bit. I go with the Malbec, obviously.

My fire-roasted cubes of tender marinated chicken arrive on a plain platter, almost blushing in deep red tones like the devil's own flesh. One bite, though, corrects my impression. This is heaven! The chicken parts easily with my fork and the taste wavers between smoky, spicy and juicy. With some difficulty, I manage to clean the plate. We finish our wine slowly, reluctant to leave but too full for any dessert this evening.

As we pay our bill and flag down yet another taxi to take us back to the hotel, we agree the adventure warrants another visit in the future. The problem is, Manhattan has so many other noteworthy establishments that require our attention and appetites. Still, Pera ranks up there with some of the best eateries we've encountered. Next time I'll try more lamb.
She Fed:
I have been fascinated with hummus since finding a recipe in a 2008 issue of Food & Wine for what was called "the definitive" hummus recipe. Made in a small eatery in Israel, the hummus is rumored to be so incredible, tourists trek to the restaurant from foreign lands just for the experience of eating it. I've made the recipe many times, varying it with the addition of mint, harissa or olives, and each time it is better than any hummus I've ever had. (And yes, you really do need to start with dried garbanzos and not canned; canned will do in a pinch, but you will taste the difference.)

In any case, I knew before we walked in the door that I would be ordering hummus. Our cab ride is unexpectedly long due to traffic and we actually talk of making faster time by hopping out early and hiking it, but my feet are throbbing from a nine hour day standing at the trade show and I beg off, dreaming of the hummus that awaits.

I am not disappointed. Pera has an extensive list of small plates and we choose three: warm hummus with pastrima, fried artichoke hearts and pastirma-wrapped feta-stuffed dates. Pastirma is air-dried salt-cured meat, often seasoned with Middle Eastern spices and Pera's is made with lamb.

The warm hummus arrives with a sprinkling of slivered pastrima, a generous drizzle of olive oil on top, with a basket of sesame-seeded square-shaped breads piping hot from the oven. The hot bread schmeared with warm hummus tastes better than it sounds. The bread tastes like no pita I've ever eaten before and the hummus is creamy, nutty and garlicky all at once. Still not as good as the Israeli recipe, but good enough to warrant a refill on the bread basket to finish it off.

The artichoke hearts have a light crispy coating and come with a spicy (maybe paprika) dipping sauce. The artichokes are good, but some of the sharp, dry outer leaves have been left on which leads to some unpleasantness mid-chew. The dates just don't do it for me. They're fine, but I've had better ones stuffed with various cheeses and wrapped in bacon. Maybe my tastebuds are acclimated to the strong flavor of bacon, while the pastirma is less assertive? I'd hate to think I'm too jaded for lamb bacon!

I have every intention of ordering lamb tonight, but the question is, "In what form?" The menu includes lamb brochette, chops, loin, adana, steak, tenderloin and riblets. The weird thing is, after last night's beefy steak, none of the lamb is really appealing to me. Neither is the fish or seafood, so I opt for the moussaka, something I've only had once before.

Unlike other moussaka dishes which are typically baked, made with ziti or penne and served as a square slab on a plate (think Greek lasagna), mine arrives freshly composed in a large bowl and made with pappardelle. I am a sucker for pappardelle, having first had it with wild boar ragout in NYC three years ago. There's just something about that long extra fat ribbon of pasta that I love. It reminds me off a "double-wide" version of fettucine and even though pasta is more about the sauce than the pasta, I just love the appearance and even the mouthfeel of pappardelle.

The pasta is smothered in a thick ragu of lamb and eggplant, drizzled with bechamel and topped with shaved parmigiano. The meat sauce is hearty, robust and comforting; the perfect thing after a long, hard day of work. The bechamel is seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg, which might sound a little odd, but it works. Those spices, more like ones you'd use in holiday cookies, add richness and even a bit of sweet heat to the ragu. And my beloved pappardelle is the ideal vehicle to wind around it all and scoop it up. This moussaka is deeply satisfying and intensely flavorful. I pronounce this the best meal I've had in the city so far this trip, finish every last bite and try to figure out how I can fit my head in the bowl to slurp up the sauce my fork can't get.

Definitely worth a return visit. Makes me want to move to NYC just to go for after-work beverages and small plates.
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