By Steve Herte
Global Kitchen: A new exhibit at The American Museum of Natural History
79th Street and Central Park West, New York City
One of the privileges of membership in this great museum is being invited to previews of new exhibits before the general public. It is a chance to meet fellow members and participate in a reception featuring wine and light snacks as well as view the exhibit at a more leisurely pace.
Global Kitchen teaches the history of agriculture, food preparation, ethnic cuisine through the ages, and the way people use and abuse food. The problem of obesity is addressed as well as nutritional needs. The problem of how to feed a growing world population is discussed and possible solutions proffered. I had no idea how large a cassava root was. Tied into this part is a dramatic Plexiglas tower filled with food products (only representations, not real) to demonstrate the rate at which food is being wasted. A geodesic dome containing a spiraling garden suggests a solution to urban nourishment.
As you wind your way through the exhibit, you get to smell various cooking scents at the press of a button such as Lemon, Lavender, Garlic, Cinnamon, Fennel, and various herbs. There is a pool-table-sized flat touch screen on which you can prepare a virtual meal by following the prompts in the recipe.
In a glass-enclosed room you may try selected food (we had apple cubes on tooth picks). Taste buds are described and the five tastes – sweet, salty, sour, savory and bitter – are discussed. Also, the experience of flavor is dictated by all five senses per several displays such as what your mind may interpret the flavor of a wine might be just by the color. A plate of food in all wrong colors (the T-bone steak is blue) further demonstrates this. I had no idea that it takes 340 different molecules to create the flavor of “steak.”
You can stroll through an old Middle-Eastern open market (might be Persia) and view the dining styles of Japan, Imperial Rome, and Victorian Europe through the aid of dioramas set into niches. The various tools used throughout the world for food preparation are on display as well as cookbooks in many languages. There are informative videos to watch at both ends of the exhibit with seats shaped like vegetables.
I applaud the museum on this exhibit for two reasons. It is a serious, well-thought-out and planned display meant to educate and inform. Second, it is not for children. The topics are mature and intend to enlighten and increase awareness of the place food has in the life of this planet.
Bodrum Mediterranean Restaurant
584 Amsterdam Avenue (88th/89th), New York City
As you pass through the “New York airlock” (an artificial extension of the front door to keep cold out and air-conditioning in) you find yourself in the middle of the single room facing the fiery semi-circle that is the brick oven. The hostess leads you to a table by a wall and you notice the cherry wood slatted ceiling and matching windows to the street. A tapestry hangs on the far wall above a mirror looking like a negative photo of a forest glade. The sconces providing some of the light are silhouettes of slender women holding large candles over leaping dolphins while spots set into the ceiling slats bath the room in a soft glow.
As soon as I was seated the bread man arrived and placed two slices of fresh Turkish bread on my plate (this man was serious about his job – if he couldn’t find your bread plate, he made sure you had one.) My waiter Jahmeek presented me with the menu (a single laminated card), the wine list and the cocktail and beer menu. Even though they had my favorite German wheat beer (Weihenstefan) I chose the Pomegranate Martini which turned out to be very nice.
The choices on the menu are Mezze (special first courses), Soups and Salads, Appetizers, Main Courses, Kebabs and Sides. There is also a menu for their brick-oven pizzas. I chose the Red Lentil Soup (a turnip-colored almost-purée of lentils and potatoes, steaming hot and delicately spiced with bread croutons) and the Grilled Haloumi (a grilled cheese dish in a vinegary sauce with diced tomatoes and vegetables). Both were excellent. My main course was Turkish Braised Lamb Shank (slow cooked in tomato sauce and served with Israeli cous-cous with pine nuts, raisins and dill). It fell off the bone at the touch of a fork and became rapture in the mouth. Israeli cous-cous has larger grains than other types, almost like a very small pasta and just as fun to eat.
Since they served my favorite Turkish red wine (Kavaklidere 2007) by the glass, there was no decision to make, although there were several other wines. At this point I couldn’t help but notice the dishes the two ladies to my left were having and the enjoyment they both expressed. One had the Stuffed Cabbage (ground lamb, rice and fresh herbs wrapped in steamed cabbage, served with yoghurt and tomato sauce). The other was cooing over her Beyti Kebab (ground lamb with herbs, lightly spiced, - she said it was spicy - wrapped in lavash bread, topped with creamy yoghurt and tomato sauce and served with red onions, sumac and arugula salad). They both sound like a second visit to me.
The ladies were too full for dessert, but not me. There was a Wild Strawberry Cake to enjoy. Imagine a light filo crust topped with dense almond paste, then a layer of vanilla gelato and crowned with glazed wild strawberries. I could have had a second piece and not hated myself. Of course one has to have sweet Turkish coffee with this, and a nice glass of Grand Marnier never hurts. Bodrum may be a small restaurant but they are really big on flavor and selection.