Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Flipping Your Street Smarts

I'm cursed with street smarts.

My first gig out of college was playing the blues in a crack house in a slummy part of Roosevelt, Long Island, where gunfire erupted on more than one occasion (the trick: never stop playing; no one shoots at musicians). I've played in dozens of countries, and had wild experiences with wild people. Over the course of three careers, I've met and befriended an unnaturally broad range of characters, from crackheads to murderers to movie stars. Having been through innumerable tight situations and seen innumerable people of every background behave under stress, I've developed a faculty for knowing what to expect.

I always figured my street smarts - my ability to instantly know who's who, and what someone's capable of - were a good thing. There's no disputing that they've come in very handy. But I recently realized what street smarts actually are: a nonstop subconscious monitoring and gauging of the very worst in people.

That may sound anxious-making, or even paranoid, but it's actually not. On the contrary, this low-level monitoring makes me feel calmly secure, because I always know what I'm up against. And whereas paranoia is delusional, this scanning provides true, useful info. Much experience over time has borne that out.

I'm not a negative person. This stuff is all unconscious, and it never dominates. Consciously, I appreciate the positive aspects of people I meet. I'd be completely enjoying my conversation with you (not worrying whether you'll attack me!), because you're a nice person! But if the stranger sitting behind you suddenly goes nuts, I'll have spotted him first.

But here's why it's a curse. Human beings have dark depths. Some of us "go there" more easily (and I can smell those people effortlessly). But we also have divine heights. And street-smart people don't monitor for that. There may be conscious appreciation, but it's not part of the humming substructure.

Like most street-smart people, crowds make me edgy. Lots of information, lots of negative potential. But lately I've been experimenting with flipping it. I scan crowd faces (which, if you pay attention, are almost always glum, drained, self-absorbed, burdened, and/or angry in the rich First World), and intuit how close everyone is to erupting into radiant smiles.

It's startlingly, disarmingly easy. To my amazement, it's even true. My radar confirms it's in there! The potential does exist! Always!

And I'm aiming for an even bigger flip. When I talk to people, I'm trying to speak to their latent smile, rather than to their latent darkness. I don't necessarily aim to draw out that smile (which would feel manipulative); I just "get" them in their hidden light, rather than their hidden darkness.

It is, again, surprisingly easy.

[Note - this was close to that, and true. But this is truer]

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Anti-Intellectualism/Intellectual Arrogance

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” - Isaac Asimov (via Daring Fireball).

True enough. However, there's a much older cult, transcending national boundaries, of arrogance among intellectuals, nurtured by the false notion that "my intelligence is better than your creativity, your physical skills, your mechanical ability, your bravery, your resourcefulness, or your virtuousness."

We're all born with certain gifts and deficits, and there's a natural tendency to measure others by the faculties in which we excel. But no group does so with more blunt intolerance or withering condescension than the intelligent (having met Isaac Asimov, I can report that he struck me as the very poster child for intellectual arrogance [note: this observation is rebutted in the comments]). This has, for time immemorial, put less intelligent people unfairly on the defensive. And it's perfectly proper in a democracy not to deem oneself a lesser citizen because one's skill set is jiggered this way or that.

So pushback is apropos. But one fault of all human beings is our inability to respond to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism. And so the pendulum has swung too far, and unintelligent people are supported for leadership positions requiring intellect, solid scientific theories are blindly opposed, and intellect, generally, is shunned in some quarters. But it didn't happen in a vacuum. Intellectual arrogance spurred this mess.

Each of us has deficits. The trick is to recognize when you're over your head - no one would play Stephen Hawking as an NFL linebacker - without losing respect for self or for others.

Monday, November 28, 2011

TMDTIATW: Desi Food Galaxy (Somerset, NJ)

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW) was en route to the most disgusting thing I ate this week (same acronym).

My relatives enjoy playing "Let's Torture Uncle Jim" by forcing me to endure horrendous food (recall my memorable experience at Tavern on the Green).

This year, Thanksgiving was to be celebrated at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Princeton. (I won't recount the meal except to say that both Ruth and Chris ought to be hustled out to the parking lot and strangled. Oh, and memo to the manager dude who came around to magnanimously accept our congratulations at meal's end: I'm not sorry if you overheard my stage whisper to my niece about your position in the world being indistinguishable from a Burger King supervisor. If the truth hurts, it's not my fault. Believe me, the evening hurt me a lot more than it hurt you.)

I was, obviously, not looking forward to this gustatory hazing. And so when I pulled off Route 1 to escape the mind-numbing traffic in favor of back roads, some dormant inner juju ignited, and worlds of glory were somehow conjured up amid the bland subdivisions of central Jersey. Great place after great place appeared (see details in Saturday's posting), and I started collecting takeout menus from the ones that were open Thanksgiving day.

One might have gotten the impression that I was in no hurry to get to dinner.

My main function for the evening was to chauffer my Mom, who was beginning to fume in the passenger seat while I grew ever more giddily distracted by the accelerating cascade of discoveries. I composed myself and prepared to drive directly to the waterboarding dinner, when, out in the distance, I spotted a sign bearing a phrase I could not possibly ignore. The sirens of central Jersey called out to me, and their name was "Desi Food Galaxy", and I was powerless to resist.

Desi means, loosely, "homestyle Indian". The real thing. A galaxy of the real thing!

Blood pumping hard in my temples, I pulled into the parking lot to grab a menu. But in the vestibule I found about twelve takeout menus. Puzzled, I figured the owner must also own other local places. But then I swung open the door, and viewed a miracle.

Before me was a large space lined with concessions. Gujarati, Hyerbadi, Punjabi, Indian-Chinese, Tamil-ish Southern, a small operation tucked toward the back staffed with shy Pakistani women in head scarves, and, more segregated still, some dude with wild eyes who does something he calls "Indian/Italian", with a menu that made my head explode (click photos to expand):

Also: a juice/lassi bar. A paan (and newspapers) stand. I may be forgetting a few. Oh, and it smelled just fantastic. Sort of like how South Asia must smell from the International Space Station.

Each concession is a separate, independently owned restaurant, with a full-service kitchen turning out not just a few snacks, but a complete menu of impeccably authentic regional treats (including plenty of rare dishes even full restaurants don't often serve).

My mom protested weakly as I pulled her out of the car while making incomprehensible noises of ecstatic excitement, but she soon was won over by scrumptious plates of samosa chat (Punjab), momo (Nepal), and kati rolls - both chicken tikka and paneer achar (Bombay). It was amazing. Furthering the this-can't-really-be-happening vibe, two bottles of Poland Springs water cost $1, total.

We returned the next day and had, from the Southern guys, the best rava masala dosa of my life (even better than at Flushing's Dosa Hutt):

....and very good sarson da saag accompanied by traditional (and exemplary) makki di roti, i.e. corn bread (Sikh/Punjab):

....and, from the Pakistani counter, glorious goat haleem, the best version I've ever had (including killer haleem made by the great Mina in Queens):

The women there were also flame broiling the best-looking chicken kebabs I've ever seen. I yearn for these kebabs, which I didn't get to try:

Quality ranges from very good to earth-shatteringly great, and everything is diligently authentic (this is no shiny, pandering EPCOT-ish gringo ploy; this place is organically Desi all the way). The catch, which worries me, is that prices are, quite properly, restaurant prices rather than snack bar prices. Non-Indian Americans would never accept this, given the visuals. Hopefully their Indian clientele is cool with it. Me? I gladly pay for quality, period.

Desi Food Galaxy is worth a ride from the city. It's worth renting a hotel nearby for a few days. And lord knows it was worth filling up at en route to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.

Desi Food Galaxy
2021 Rt 27, Somerset, NJ
The Desi Food Galaxy Online (before clicking to their (outdated) site, be sure and turn your volume up for the full audio experience)

P.S. - Want to know why you can't trust Yelp? Have a look at the complete morons' view.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

SIGA Stress

I started buying stock in SIGA (a firm that's developed an impeccably safe and effective cure for smallpox - including the weaponized varieties which are a major bioterror threat) at about $3.50 (my average is about $6), and, after remaining in the mid-teens as recently as June, it's now down to $1.90. I'll be holding onto my eight year old Toyota for a while.

All of this story is painful, but some of it's interesting, even if you aren't a SIGA investor. I'll compress it as tersely as possible. First, let's review the villains:

SIGA lost a lawsuit this year. Pharmathene, the company with whom they long ago discussed merger (but never signed a deal - all paperwork was stamped - by Pharmathene! - "Non-Binding") was awarded 50% of profits from SIGA's lead drug, ST-246, without any risk or participation in development or marketing. Nice work if you can get it! If that seems crazy, thank Delaware Chancery judge Donald Parsons. Oh, and just before this judgement came out, SIGA's stock was shorted massively

Note: a "short" is a bet that a stock will go down, and it can be hugely profitable when it works - because you don't put up any actual money.

Chimerix is SIGA's only competitor in smallpox antivirals (not vaccines; ST-246 is an out-and-out cure, which works even after infection, and works on weaponized varieties, which vaccines do not). Their drug doesn't cure smallpox in monkeys, and since we can't infect humans with smallpox in order to test it, that makes it a deal-killer, according to the FDA, according to the government agencies that want to stockpile a smallpox cure, and according to most scientists in the field. Chimerix won't go quietly into the night, however. They've protested every effort of the government to award a large stockpiling contract to SIGA. Their monkey-killing drug couldn't win the contract, but they could stall the bejesus out of the process via endless protests (finally, the government, in frustration, made it a sole source contract just to get the damned thing done). And, oh: before each stall, SIGA's stock was shorted massively.

Darrell Issa is an extraordinarily wealthy Republican congressman with numerous ethical and financial issues (for starters, this and this). A few months ago he made noise about a potential investigation of SIGA's contract. Issa proclaimed that this was a sweetheart deal, using a slippery sole-source contract, perpetrated by Obama (never mind that SIGA was supported and nurtured during the Bush administration, or that it might actually be good to protect millions of citizens from bioterror).

The investigation never occurred. But neither did Issa ever retract his allegations. The threat tanked the stock (already weakened from the lawsuit and the collapse of the biotech sector as a whole in light of the Tea Party slash-and-burn ethos - which actually won't affect SIGA, because funding for bioterror countermeasures is pre-allocated). And...just before Issa made his announcement, SIGA's stock was shorted massively.

Getting the picture?

It was revealed that Chimerix' lobbyist, McKenna, Long, and Aldrigde, is a longtime contributor to Issa. So the football was handed off to the right-wing press, salivating for another Solyndra-like boondoggle to trumpet. Last week's press wave was started by a journalist with impeccable credentials and no visible ties to Issa, Chimerix, or McKenna, Long, and Aldrigde, who published a wildly unbalanced and inaccurate hatchet job in the LA Times. I won't take time to rebut the article point for point, so let me just characterize it with a single word: "No."

Fox News picked it up, as did Rush and Glen and all the rest. Obama is throwing big money to SIGA (even though smallpox has been eradicated!) as payback to Ron Pereleman, the company's major investor, because he's a Democratic contributor (Pereleman also contributes to Republicans, and Frances Townsend, Bush's homeland security advisor, sits on SIGA's board, and, again, this deal was brewed by the Bush administration, plus - yes, I'm nearly hysterical at this point - this is the sole safe/effective cure for a major national security gap considering that any smart scientist with the right tools can synthesize smallpox virus in a lab and it's a dandy way to make tens of millions of Americans die....but, hey, let's not quibble).

Need I mention that SIGA's stock was massively shorted before this press onslaught launched? You see, shorting's where the real money is! It's hard to make a stock go up, so better to bet that it'll go down, and then do stuff to make it go down! That's a much smarter bet! Not unrelated, you may have seen the 60 Minutes report last week revealing that congressmen are free to short the bejesus out of stocks without restraint - even stocks impacted by their own actions.

Meanwhile, SIGA's drug is very close to FDA approval...and has been for a couple years. The hold-up is determination of dosage - a technicality. Why's FDA stalling? They're not an apolitical agency, so the aforementioned shenanigans are almost surely at play. Next month FDA makes a crucial ruling as to whether, gee whiz, monkeys are really the best test after all. Obviously, Chimerix - which is about to IPO, by the way - would love to see the rule overturned. This has been their game plan: use political leverage to overturn the monkey rule while stalling SIGA in every possible way. FDA's super-sluggish treatment of SIGA indicates they may be sympathetic - or even shorting! Stay tuned for more laughs and excitement.

So that's how my "sure thing" wound up at $1.90. It's basically deus ex machina. And if, meanwhile, terrorists unleash smallpox, just duck and cover. Works like a charm.

On the positive side: forces this titanic aren't randomly unleashed. This is all happening because there are, indeed, gobs and gobs of money at stake (which is why I invested in the first place). So unless SIGA completely dies, which I don't think it will, there should be eventual success. They may be forced to share profits with Pharmathene, thanks to the nutty judge. And they may split contracts with Chimerix, thanks to the crooked Congress and agencies. But it's a great big pot. And right now the stock price doesn't even reflect the $40M shortly due free/clear as down payment for their signed contract with BARDA. But even at $1.90, the shorts are still all in. So it may well go lower before then. The upshot is, as I wrote in September, the stock will go nowhere until multiple contracts are signed (for example, with any country concerned with bioterror) and money's in hand. At this point, news won't do it; only revenue will. So I hold and wait.

The best potential of all is completely undiscussed: ST-246 cures eczema vaccinatum (EV), a rare but life-threatening complication of vaccines that's very similar to smallpox. And lots of major impending medical breakthroughs depend on delivery via vaccine. Plus: don't even get me started on SIGA's pipeline of other drugs (it would be nice if SIGA would update us on them).

On the negative side, SIGA is not defending itself or talking to stockholders. They have not even issued a press release to (easily) rebut the outrageous claims of the recent press blitz. Which makes me wonder about Ron Pereleman's role in all this. I'm not nearly smart enough to see through the veil, but one thing's certain: so long as this company, with prospects so bright as to attract a blitzkrieg of nefariousness, remains a near-penny stock, we'll need to worry about Perelman finding some way to take it he gets all the money (could he be shorting? My head hurts!). This remains my main long-term concern.

In the short and medium term, it's all about yet more patient waiting. Hey, I said from the start that the way would be slow and bumpy!

[Update: there've been some good comments to this post. You may want to give them a read]

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Wasteland Wonderland

Ten miles south and across a river from the Indian conclave of Edison, NJ lies a no man's land of central Jersey. It's so nondescript that the area doesn't really have a proper name. Call it Somerset, or call it North Brunswick, what it mostly is is the wasteland to your right as you drive down the clogged artery of Route 1 between New Brunswick and Princeton. It's all strip malls and sterile housing developments where an enormous unseen hand has plunked down ghastly cookie-cutter abodes in tight, nervous clusters. Welcome to freaking nowhere!

The surprising news is that "freaking nowhere" has the most exciting food scene I've found in years. I spotted a dozen Indian restaurants of scattered regionality, serving a new community of Indians fleeing Edison (Indian immigrants tend to cluster, then develop an irresistible urge to disperse but then all wind up together again in some new enclave....rinse and repeat).

But there's way more than just Indian food. I spotted the following great-looking spots, shopping strip holes-in-walls all, which my chow-dar pronounced killer: Luca's Ristorante (2019 Rt 27, Somerset, NJ; 732-297-7676), an unsettlingly authentic-looking Ischian spot right next to La Casa De Tortilla (2017 Rt 27, Somerset, NJ; 732-398-0660), which appears to offer that rarity of rarities: good Tex-Mex. Just north of those two is a brand new Afghan restaurant (which doesn't google, but I think it was called Chopan). And my chow-dar perked up big time at Istanbul Restaurant & Patisserie (1000 Aaron Rd, North Brunswick Township, NJ; 732-940-1122), right next to an Egyptian grocer, and also at Szechuan Ace (1721 Rt 27, Somerset, NJ; 732-937-9330). Amid all this wonderment is also (as I discovered later, via web search) a location of that great Hyberbadi restaurant I raved about in Norwalk CT. This branch is Paradise Biryani Point (1980 Rt 27, Somerset, NJ; 732-821-6300).

One amorphous "town" south, I'll bet Pho 99 (3151 Rt 27 Unit K, Franklin Park, NJ; 732-821-1828) makes terrific Vietnamese soup, and Aroma Royal Thai (3175 Rt 27, Franklin Park, NJ; 732-422-9300) and Paratha Hut (3191 Rt 27, Franklin Park, NJ; 732-940-1005) are worthy, as well (of course I'm a sucker for anything with "Hut" in the name, Pizza Hut being the obvious exception). Even further south on the same road, I actually got to try Main Street Eatery & Gourmet Bakery (56 Main Street, Kingston, NJ; 609-921-2778), and found their brownies and raspberry bars excellent, though a couple notches two sweet. Their cookies, though, are primo.

But none of this is the really big news. That - the find of the year - will have to wait till Monday.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Evolution of Beer Festivals

1980-1995: Closeted beer geeks - taste pariahs in a Bud Lite nation - thrill at the chance to sample lots of great beers all in one place. Brewers bring their best suds, bonds are formed. Food: pretzels if you're lucky

1995-2010: Beer geeks have gone mainstream, and therefore are jaded by omnipresent long beer lists. So beer festivals now mostly serve newbies, and are mostly drunken affairs. Brewers steer clear, sending sales reps with kegs of their most obvious and cheapest products. Food: crass, crappy mustards, novelty beer-flavored cheeses, etc.

2010 - : Hyper-geeky alterno-fests cater only to elite devotees, charging a prohibitive price to filter out drunks and riffraff. No obvious products are served - only the purest and most esoteric beer porn, selected by geeks who know more than you do. Food is awesome and surprising.

In New York, the new crop is best exemplified by New York's Get Real guys. These ever-creative organizers are trying something new, a Get Real NY Beer Bar Fest, on Saturday, December 10 at 404 10th Ave in Manhattan. Here's some P.R. (caution: despite what I wrote above, Rattle 'N Hum's food is anything but awesome...but I'm sure there'll be good stuff, as well):

WHAT: Get Real NY returns this December with its fourth festival – the Beer Bar Fest NYC. The Beer Bar Fest, a premiere craft beer and food event, will bring eight of the city’s best beer bars to one location. Long gone are the days when craft beer bars were known just for their exceptional craft taps.  Today, beer bars are launching serous food programs and awakening to the wonders of how well artisanal foods pair with craft beer. Beer Bar Fest NYC Attendees will relish small bites from each bar artfully paired with some of the finest American craft beer available. A cask and oyster festival will also take place on the second floor and educational seminars on beer and food pairing will be given throughout the sessions. 12% Imports, a premier Brooklyn-based craft beer importer, will be serving a carefully curated selection of their finest kegs during the VIP hour.

WHEN: Saturday, December 10, 2011 over two sessions: 1-4 pm and 7-10 pm. VIPs will gain entry at noon and 6 pm, respectively.

WHERE: 404 Space, 404 10th Ave at 33rd Street, New York, NY, 10001

WHY: The National Restaurant Association Chef Survey (results) recently cited “food-beer pairings/beer dinners” as the number four alcohol and cocktails trend to watch for in 2011 (“locally-produced wine and beer” came in at number two). New York City bars are integrating the enjoyment of exceptional craft ales and lagers with artfully crafted food. The Beer Bar Fest is designed to showcase the finest food and craft beer that New York City has to offer.

SAMPLE PAIRINGS: Rattle n Hum will be pairing its first dish - house ground sea scallops, tiger shrimp and cod fish with herbs and hop salt served with garlic mayo and basil on a toasted brioche bun - with the Stillwater Stateside Saison, a Belgian-style ale brewed in Baltimore. The Bronx Ale House will be serving braised short rib chili, which will be paired with the local Bronx Brewery Pale Ale.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Brain Storm

Wow, this is some seriously rich and brilliant comedic stew...and I don't even get most of the insider references. Adding Mel ("oy vey!") Gibson was pure genius, but so's his contribution. Thanks to Barry Strugatz for the tip.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Cookie Video Dissected on Chowhound

There's a very interesting Chowhound discussion going on about that cookie video. There are lots of interesting insights, but, most practically, people have spotted some subtle quirks in how Von does things (like this posting).

There are also some good points made in the comments to the original Slog piece.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mexican Coke

I just learned something new. Did you know that Mexican Coke - the kind made with cane sugar instead of fructose, which comes in old-fashioned heavy glass bottles, usually found in Mexican grocers and taco shops - is distributed to those grocers and taco shops by regular American Coca Cola bottlers? I'm not sure who does the importation, but it sounds like Coca Cola is likely handling that, as well.

I can't even begin to parse out the biz angles involved. But there you go...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies

I've finally completed the video about the great cookies (the trailer was posted a few days ago). There's a story behind why it's so amateurish - I'd originally intended to bring up a production crew - but this isn't the time to tell it. As-is, I invite you to roll with the rough editing, mismatched sound, and fever dream-ish driving footage, and concentrate on the central mystery: why are these cookies so superbly great, when they're made from the most pedestrian recipe and lousy supermarket ingredients? Regular Slog readers will recognize this as a perfect example of the issue that most fascinates and inspires me (see previous articles here, here, and here).

Here's the video (note: you can play it in HD by clicking once in the video frame and then clicking "360p" near the bottom and choosing "HD"). Also: scroll down for the recipe (which I've annotated based on my cookie baking afternoon at Von's). If you try it for yourself, please post your findings in the comments!

Von's Oatmeal Cookies

Crush lumps in 7 oz dark brown sugar (1 cup)

Cream in:
1 stick of Crisco shortening at room temperature
7 oz granulated white sugar (1 cup)

2 beaten large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

7 oz flour ( 1 1/2 cups)
1 tsp baking soda
a bit less than 1 tsp salt

At this point, move quickly, because the baking soda is working!

9 oz oatmeal (3 cups)
1/2 cup well-chopped walnuts
1 handful (approx 1/3 cup) Heath bits (found near the nuts at the grocery)

Shape dough into balls, put on parchment paper atop a cookie sheet, flatten to 1/2 inch with a spoon while pushing the edges inward with your other hand.

Put sheet low in preheated oven, atop a second (empty) sheet. Bake 7 minutes at 350 while preparing second sheet.

Move first sheet to a higher oven position and replace it with the second sheet. Bake another 7 or 8 minutes, and continue similarly with subsequent sheets.

Transfer cookies to cooling racks one minute after they're removed from oven

if baked for the right length of time and at the right temperature, the cookies will rise and stay risen, which is ideal. If not, they will collapse slightly. Either is ok, though. The taste is the same.

Update: read a fascinating and insightful Chowhound discussion about the recipe and video.

Update 2: After ten years of pondering this mystery, I figured it out.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"The Enigma of Von's Cookies": The Trailer

I'm working on a video about a guy who bakes the best cookies I've ever had. When I went to his place to shoot the process, I was hit with a great big honking surprise, and I've decided to spoil it right in the trailer.

I'm busily editing the final video right now, and hoping I can make some sense of it all. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, the trailer:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

TMDTIATW: Another Connecticut Indian Score

Astonishingly, Connecticut is home to the two best Indian restaurants I currently know. And my latest discovery, Paradise Biryani (280 Connecticut Avenue, Norwalk, CT; 203-956-7133), demolishes the previous fave, Danbury's highly-under-radar Kabab Grill. My meal there last night was the most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW).

Paradise Biryani is part of a chain, with outlets in places like New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, and, according to that last link, new ones soon to arrive in Manhattan and Long Island. But that's ok; Indian chains are good (e.g. this one).

There are accomplished chefs who work with great precision and flair, and possess a keen sense of balance and a careful eye for detail. And there are more grandmotherly chefs, less fastidious and refined and fuzzier about details, but whose work devastates you with enveloping soulfulness. The chef here is both: an uber-fastidious technician of great skill and confidence who's easily capable of launching you into a woozy reverie. This incredibly rare combination makes this restaurant well worth a trip from pretty much anywhere. The chain's other locations may be perfectly good, but they certainly won't be the same. Chefs with both chops and soul aren't mass-produced.

Every dish is like a new world, with its own seasoning and lots of unique touches. Don't even imagine you won't need to eventually try every single dish. And don't insult the place by asking me to recommend "what's good". It's not one like that. This is greatness. So much so, in fact, that I'm not entirely sure I deserve to eat here.

The meal was like an Escher painting, in that each new dish surpassed all those preceding, yet, as we returned for second bites of previous items, we always found them better than we'd remembered. Perhaps the experience of each new miracle had made us better people, with improved palates and increased capacity for appreciating greatness. In any event, the math sketches out like this: A is better than B. B is better than C. C is better than A. B is better than A or C. A is better than B or C. Everything is, simply, better.

The place is BYO, but it would be a crime to bring anything less than exquisite to drink. We paid $40 each with tax and tip for a pretty serious repast.

Paneer 65. Grown-up cheese; so much more firm, mature, and nuanced than the norm. It's sauteed until centers are moist and edges crispy. The sauce, like all this kitchen's sauces, makes my head spin. Tons of curry leaf flavor.

Chicken pakora. A cumin-y miracle. So crisp yet so moist. So light and greaseless, you expect them to float. I couldn't escape the feeling that eating these was making me lose weight.

Fish curry. You don't want to fall into the trap of ordering only enticingly-described dishes. This was just: fish curry. But it left me giddy from deliciousness. Sorry for lack of specificity; as I explained once, at a certain quality level, analysis becomes impossible.

Mirch ka saalan, one of many dishes built around chili peppers. The sauce is sesame-based, but tastes a bit like the Lebanese/Turkish approach to lentil soup.

The biryani was puzzlingly similar in appearance to Uzbek plov, the least refined branch of the pilaf tree. The fine basmati rice made it another thing entirely. Yet this, the restaurant's signature dish, which we ordered as a goat version, was merely good-not-great. A great biryani should offer a grab bag; each bite delivering a different mix of components. This was uniform and a bit simple. The meat was added late (and tossed into the bottom, hard to extract), adding little essence to the rice.

Not pictured: Mango lassis weren't made to order, but made use of particularly classy mango. Breads were based on Bisquick, like most places do it, but presented uncommon subtleties of flavor and texture. For dessert, double ka meetha, a buttery Hyerbadi bread pudding, was terrific, but way too rich for me.

Service borders on maddening. It took a half hour to get water and menus (admittedly on a busy night), and we were really looking forward to masala chai at meal's end, but it took a full ten minutes before we were informed that they were all out (and, by this point, the room was pretty empty). Our waiter told us this with a big cheery smile, as if it was really good news. On the other hand, everyone down to the busboy is so absolutely stoked about the food quality here that when they ask how you like everything, they do so with huge Cheshire cat smiles and burning eyes - conspiratorially, as if to say "This is an absolute frickin' miracle, isn't it?" It's exciting.

I'll offer, as a mere lagniappe, a tip about the Polish deli a few feet north up Route 1. Taste of Europe (239 Westport Ave; Norwalk, CT; 203-846-9668) is, I believe, a major culinary point of light. Arriving too late for buffet lunch, I harpooned the remaining single tiny morsel of pork tenderloin from beneath a sea of lukewarm gravy in its steam table tray and found it supernal. There's a short menu of prepared dishes, too - goulash, potato pancakes, etc. I ache to try them. I did grab a take-out slab of Polish cheesecake, and it was as good as I've had. Again and again, I've found that greatness tends to cluster.

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