Thursday, September 19, 2013

A Palestinian makes a go of a Middle Eastern restaurant that serves falafel but no alcohol in a Southern college town

(To the left is local restaurant owner Maher Alqasas. This little feature by Joe Atkins appeared in the Sept. 4-10, 2013, edition of the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.)

OXFORD, Miss. – The great journalist, raconteur, and connoisseur of good food A.J. Liebling loved to venture off the beaten tracks of New York and Paris to find little restaurants and bistros overlooked by the culinary critics and trend-setters but where a man with a taste for good dining could enjoy himself.

Liebling knew such places—“lost Atlantises” he called them--often have a precarious existence. “The small restaurant is evanescent,” he writes in his 1959 classic Between Meals. “Sometimes it has the life span of a man, sometimes of a fruit fly.”

A more recent writer, the former chef and current TV food and travel personality Anthony Bourdain, had this to say about the perils of the restaurant business in his own book Kitchen Confidential: “To want to open a restaurant can be a strange and terrible affliction. What causes such a destructive urge in so many otherwise sensible people? Why would anyone want to pump their hard-earned cash down a hole that statistically, at least, will almost surely prove dry?”

Maher Alqasas, 50, a native of the Mount of Olives in Palestine and longtime resident and veteran restaurant owner here in Oxford, acknowledges the risks. “This is a tough business. Imagine working 12 hours a day and having a smile on your face for 12 hours, and to like what you do. The kitchen is a fireball, booming, loud, and I have to be a part of that. What makes it worth it at the end of the day in seeing the smile on their faces.”

He’s talking about the smile on the faces of customers at his Middle Eastern-Mediterranean restaurant Petra Cafe, open since February, a long, narrow stretch of a place in the corner of the town’s famous Square that once housed Wiley’s shoe shop and later Parrish’s bar. “Food is the moment of celebration,” says Alqasas, who grew up in Qatar, “because when you are hungry you are willing to eat anything, but if you know you are eating something good, it is a joy. You are nourishing your body.”

The food at Petra--falafel, kibbeh, hummus, labneh, dolmas, chicken shawerma, shish kabob, gyros with tiziki sauce—isn’t exactly what you’d find on the tables of most Southern homes. But it’s just as homemade and just as likely from old family recipes, says Petra chef and Alqasas’ wife, Angela, also a native of Palestine. “My customers come to my kitchen and tell me it’s the best falafel they’ve ever had, customers from Chicago, Michigan,” she says with pride. “I love it. I remember when I was a kid, my mom asked me to do the falafel. We used to help my mom. I learned from my mother and my mother-in-law.”

The Alqasas—their three children work at Petra, too--like the idea of a homey atmosphere, even though home for them would be exotic to most Oxonians. The walls feature paintings of street scenes and merchants from Old Egypt. The music is Turkish, the carpet at the front door is Persian. “I’m trying to keep the Oxford look, too, the old and new,” Maher Alqasas says. “This is an old building (a century old, he estimates) but with fresh legs … new ceiling, new floor, new electrical, new everything.”

Still, running a successful restaurant on Oxford’s Square can require more than good food and good atmosphere. Most of the two dozen or more restaurants and bars on or near the Square also serve alcohol. They’re why the town’s thriving night life rivals that of much larger cities. Petra allows brown-bagging but serves no alcohol.

Does it hurt business? “It does,” Alqasas admits, “but eventually it is going to be known. Customers can bring their own. It is worth the wait. It is all about the food.”

Alqasas is Muslim. His religious faith is one reason he wants to avoid serving alcohol. Another is the bar he once had in an earlier version of Petra a few blocks away. “It made my life miserable as far as inventory, keeping kids working, no stealing. … I don’t want to be a part of it.”

At least some of his customers don’t mind. “It didn’t stop us,” said Ole Miss student Shelby Herring, a 21-year-old hospitality management major from Houston, Texas, during a recent meal there with her friend and fellow Ole Miss student Molly Thrush. “I like Mediterranean food. I’m a vegetarian, so I like the falafel (fried ground vegetables), the salads, the hummus. Back home, I’d go once a week to a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean restaurant.”

Restaurants typically take a couple years to turn a decent profit. Petra just suffered through the summer doldrums that tend to hurt the bottom lines of most college town businesses. Many tables remained empty during the summer evenings.

“I am a patient person,” Alqasas says. However, he admits, he was more than ready for the fall invasion of Ole Miss students.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Jamaican Oxtail Stew and a little Reggai in the background

A recent business trip to Jamaica inspired Suzanne to try cooking Jamaican Oxtail Stew Saturday night. This was a huge success, thanks to a couple recipes she found on the Internet, some great spices and sauces she brought back from Kingston, and wonderful advice from a friend she met in Jamaica, Symone Dillion, who helped her identify key ingredients needed in the preparation.

While in Jamaica, she ate oxtail at the Strawberry Hill Hotel & Spa in the Blue Mountains near Kingston. “It was pretty awesome,” she said.

A coffee plantation back in the 18th century, Strawberry Hill was later the home of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, whose company introduced Reggai legend Bob Marley to the world. It still is a gathering place for musicians and artists from around the world.

Unlike Suzanne’s meal at Strawberry Hill, our oxtail dish did not include fried plantains, but we did have rice and beans as well as vegetables to accompany our meat.

Ingredients in the meat included Jamaican Scotch Bonnet Pepper Sauce, Pickapepper Sauce, and the Island Spice oxtail seasoning, Sazonado de Cola de Buey. Add a dash or two of soy sauce, onion powder and other seasoning, plus onions, bell peppers, carrots, thyme, fresh rosemary, and, of course, garlic.

Here’s Suzanne’s account:
“I pressured the meat the first time with just seasoned, marinated meat and beef stock, adding the Scotch Bonnet and Pickapepper, for thirty minutes. Then I added water and a few spoonfuls of vegetables simmered with beef stock, and butterbeans, pressuring again. Then I folded the remaining vegetables with the meat to make the stew.”

I was pretty much a bystander during these proceedings, but I will say the result was “pretty awesome” and then some! The oxtail was absolutely delicious, and the rice and beans a nice complement. Missing was French bread, however. We were so busy making sure everything else was there that we forgot the bread!

(Your bystander to the right with a glass of wine, notebook and Wayne Curtis' book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails)
To whet our appetite we enjoyed rum cocktails. Mine included a mix of three rums: Bacardi, Ron Añejo Aniversario from Venezuela, and Wrap & Nephew White Overproof rum from Kingston. This latter is dangerous, so one has to be careful! The alcohol content is 63.7 percent, so I just added a dash of it. With the rum I added club soda, Angostura bitters, slices of lime and lemon, and just a (very) little orange juice and cranapple juice. It was a fine drink. Suzanne drank her usual mix of Bacardi, vodka, orange juice and cranapple juice with slices of lime and lemon.

(By the way, let me recommend a great book on rum: And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis. It’s a wonderful book about the role of rum in New World history, full of tales about rum in the colonies and in places like Port Royal, Jamaica, “the de facto capital of the British pirate world” where pirates like Captain Henry Morgan would “whore and drink and spend their money.”)

With our meal Saturday night we had a bottle of 14 Hands Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010, which I liked better than Suzanne.

Of course, we listened to Reggai music throughout the evening, interrupting our labors occasionally for a little dancing on the kitchen floor. Good food, good music, tales of Jamaica--a fine evening.

A German meal that brought back memories of Munich and the Hirschgarten

This is a very belated posting for a meal that Suzanne and I prepared nearly a year ago (February 2012!) but which we never got around to memorializing in our blog! I am half-German thanks to my Augsburg-born, Munich-reared mother, Maria Stoller Atkins, who is 91 years old and living here in Oxford, Miss. I studied and worked in Munich for four years when I was a young man, and I very much remember the wonderful meals I had there. Sauerbraten was always a special treat, so my half-Italian wife and I decided, “Let’s go for it!”

Our main reference was a little book published ages ago by Time-Life Books called Recipes: The Cooking of Germany. We had wanted to try this dish earlier, but things hadn't worked out. This time we made it work!

In preparing sauerbraten, we used the following:
-       3 to 4 pounds of round roast of beef
-       vinegar
-       onions
-       bay leaves
-       a teaspoon of whole spice
-       sour cream
-       2 to 3 strips of bacon

Our recipe book called for a half-cup of red wine vinegar, one medium-sized onion, and two small bay leaves.

With our sauerbraten we prepared old-fashioned German knödel (dumplings) and
red cabbage, which is de rigueur for so many German meals and always delicious. We also had rye bread.

With our meal we drank German beer. I tried all kinds when I lived in Munich, the beer capital of the world. My favorites were Augustiner and Hackerbrau, but they were all good. (If you ever go to Poland, by the way, try Zywiec, a wonderful beer. I digress!)

For our dessert we ate Apfelstrudel. Suzanne’s ingredients included the following: flour, two tablespoons of shortening, five cups of sliced apples, brown sugar, a half-cup of seedless raisins, chopped nuts (pecans), cinnamon, and butter.

The result was a German meal that was a bit heavy but tasted fine. It made me think about the good old days at the Weinhaus Neuner restaurant or at Hirschgarten, my favorite of all the Munich beer gardens.

Prosit! Guten Appetit!