Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Chowhound Tip: Avoid Djelalis

Many years ago, I accompanied a restaurant critic colleague to a research breakfast at a downtown restaurant whose name I've forgotten. We made our way into a cavernous basement filled with a sea of empty tables, and were greeted by a friendly and personable manager who was very pleased to have customers break the disquieting silence of his establishment.

The menu included traditional American breakfast items along with some dilutedly Jewish-ish touches. I think I recall blintzes, smoked salmon, and various applications of challah bread. It was a perfectly commendable breakfast, really; we were pleased with the discovery when, over a final cup of coffee, a conversation was struck up with the manager, whose name was Djelali (juh-LAH-lee). He spoke with a hard-to-pin-down accent, so we asked where he was from, and he replied that he was Afghan - in fact, the entire restaurant was staffed by Afghans. We launched into a happy conversation about Afghan cuisine, name dropping all our favorite dishes and trading tales of pumpkin fritters and leek turnovers.

As you might imagine, this was mind-blowing for Djelali, who hadn't expected New Yorkers to know his cuisine - much less New Yorkers scarfing down buckwheat pancakes and cherry cheese blintzes right there in his restaurant (which had nary an Afghan dish on its menu). He rhapsodized about food back home, explaining the mechanics of proper yogurt sauce and toothsome kebabs, proud and delighted to have met a tableful of Afghanopiles.

The other critic and I caught a glint in each other's eyes. We knew, and we knew we both knew, that we simply had to arrange for Djelali and his kitchen staff of repressed Afghan cooks to prepare us some serious Afghan food. We asked if he'd consider throwing us a special dinner if we brought a reasonable number of people and paid him whatever price he asked. Djelali stood up tall and straight and set his jaw and solemnly promised to cook us an unparalleled repast, given sufficient advance notice. The restaurant usually closed at 3 p.m., but they'd reopen after-hours to accommodate us. He took the offer so seriously that it seemed akin to a patriotic oath.

My friend put the review on hold. Sure, we'd enjoyed terrific omelettes, grits, and french toast, but the story wouldn't be complete until we'd also dug into aushak, bandanjan burani, and dough (pronounced like Homer Simposon choking).

It's harder than you might think for food critics to find companions. People get busy, they go on diets, they grow jaded and unwilling to investigate unproven venues. As a result, overbooking is de rigueur; you invite ten to be certain of four. To make the banquet worth Djelali's while, we aimed for ten or fifteen by calling practically everyone we knew.

Of course, everyone said yes, so Djelali was informed that we'd be bringing 30 to dinner.

We'd neglected to settle price in advance, having expansively offered the gracious Djelali free reign. The newspaper's expense budget would be badly strained, but a major discovery like this would surely be worth the cost. Anyone who could create such magic with pumpernickel toast would surely prepare us an Afghan feast of unimaginable quality. It would be the story of the year.

The appointed day arrived, as did our 28 guests. The throng was seated, Last Supper-style, at a single very very long table. Djelali seemed different; the confidant breakfast manager, so charming and assured as we'd sipped mimosas, seemed awkward and nervous at 8:30 p.m.. He and his staff, probably there since 4:30 a.m., were exhausted. And embarrassed. And we soon learned why.

It wasn't the worst meal we'd ever had in our lives. But it was close. The hoped-for Afghan repast was literally as bad as if we'd asked the staff at Denny's to whip us up a kaiseki meal. We were served a hallucinatory hodgepodge of 1. leftover breakfast and lunch items, and 2. leftover breakfast and lunch items primitively shaped into a flimsy semblance of Afghan food. It was a joke, a hoax. As the meal progressed and stony silence fell over the crowd, the mortified Djelali appeared to be drenched in flop sweat, complete with facial tics. My critic friend had yet more sweating to do when the check came - I believe it totalled nearly a grand. We'd not had a single bite of real Afghan food. We'd not had a single bite of real ANY food.

The restaurant closed soon thereafter, even though they'd been given a good review for their breakfast offerings (without any mention whatsoever of the disastrous dinner). It was as if the shame of this meal had sucked all the life out of the place and they'd crumbled up and blown away. We'd killed them.

It was a lesson I'd actually learned several times before, but never as dramatically. Since that night, the inflictees and I have used the term "djelali" generically to describe any foolhardy attempt to persuade restaurateurs to do something other than what their operations are explicitly set up to do. Believe me: you don't want the Mexican broiler guy at the French bistro to fix your party something special for Cinco De Mayo. Let the Greek-owned diner serve you their standard moussaka and pastitsio, but don't even imagine requesting a special octopus or baby lamb dinner. Most of all, never assume inauthentic restaurants hide secret authentic wonderfulness back in their kitchens. I promise you: shlock is all they know how to do, and attempts to plumb depths will lead to the heartbreak of a djelali. Sorry, the suburban Chinese place with moo-shoo everything is never going to whip you up a serious Hong Kong banquet. In the resultant djelali, you'll lose all your money, anger all your friends, and eat food likely to forever shake your faith in deliciousness.

I'm doomed to keep attempting djelalis, though. I never learn. A few years later, I dragged thirty five people to a djelali in a touristy Chinese restaurant which I'd heard rumored to be the NYC venue of choice for state dinners by the People's Republic of China. We told the owners, when reserving, that we wanted only serious Chinese food - no Americanized dishes. Upon arrival, I glimpsed, with abject horror, little dishes of mustard and duck sauce atop each table. It went downhill from there; I'll spare you the details about the spare ribs, the canned shrimp and peas, the whole nightmarish event. It was bad, very bad.

It says something about chowhound nature that I'm irresistibly drawn to repeat this mistake. Since we hounds constantly angle and strategize - operating with the assumption (I call it "defensive eating") that everyone is trying to feed us all the wrong stuff for all the wrong reasons - we get over-enthused when we glimpse an end run to treasure, even when it requires an impossible degree of restaurant deconstructionism.

Reign in that impulse. Don't let a djelali happen to you.

[Note: the first law of djelalis - if you, too, are hopelessly doomed to keep trying this sort of thing - is to always pay ahead. Restaurants budget their food very carefully, and special orders wreak havoc with the system. If a restaurateur isn't positive you'll really show up for the djelali, s/he'll be less inclined to buy the proper fixings. Shower advance money and they may at least make an effort to have provisions on hand. But, really, just don't do it.]

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