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Everything We Ate 

Pleasant food in a pretty room at a new Turkish-accented "Mediterranean" spot in the Marina

Wednesday, Aug 10 2005
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You could have fearlessly bet money, a lot of it, that I'd love this new book, Everything I Ate: A Year in the Life of My Mouth, by Tucker Shaw (Chronicle Books, $14.95). It combines a lot of my favorite things: food, pictures of food, restaurants, home cooking, New York, Las Vegas, Italy, obsessiveness, lists, holiday celebrations, rituals, and so on. Mr. Shaw, a New York writer of young adult novels with snappy titles (Confessions of a Backup Dancer, Flavor of the Week), as well as a book of sex advice for teens with a snappy title (This Book Is About Sex), photographed everything he ate in 2004, from oatmeal in the morning to cold cereal late at night (he must have a cereal collection rivaling Jerry Seinfeld's), often traversing fancy restaurants and takeout shops during the day. Chronicle published the photographs, in, alas, a bizarrely small format: a paperback of about 5 by 7 inches, with a day's eating arranged across a page (or two if necessary), in images about the size of a commemorative stamp. I was so disappointed with the picture size after rifling through its pages in Cody's Books that when I idly picked up another intriguing book stacked near it, Plates + Dishes: The Food and Faces of the Roadside Diner (Stephan Schacher, Princeton Architectural Press, $16.95), and found a full-page 8-by-10-inch picture of sunny side up eggs, sausage, and potatoes, well, reader, I bought it. Too.

Shaw's eating diary (some may say, acutely, that this is less a book than a blog) isn't critical: His photographs are accompanied by the most minimal "who, what, when, where" data (in tiny type, of course). His judgments are withheld, save for a few cryptic comments in the handwritten introduction -- "There are meals I loved (May 10), meals I hated (July 11)" -- and the two-line blurb under the author photo, in which he states he "firmly believes that heaven is a steakhouse."

I think he's achieved heaven on Earth: creating a work of art with minimal pain on his part. "I wish I'd thought of that," says more than one friend of mine, including Joyce, a girl as fascinated with food as I am (if not more so), who cheerfully accompanies me to restaurants high and low. (One of the delights of Everything I Ate is the juxtaposition of high and low: After consuming a Hostess Cherry Pie, purchased at a gas station on the road in Montana -- at 1:43 p.m. on July 16 -- Shaw dines on rack of lamb roasted with cherries at 8:53 p.m. in a fancy restaurant in Bigfork. Conscious or unconscious echo?)

Recently Joyce joined me for a ladies' lunch with her well-behaved, stylishly dressed baby, Violet, and our friend Jane at Newroz, a self-styled "Mediterranean" restaurant in the Marina, a prettily decorated storefront that has made the most of its tight space, installing mirrors and a banquette topped with plush velvet pillows down one creamy yellow wall, with a few tables along the other. A brief glance at the menu reveals many Middle Eastern dishes, beginning with hummus and falafel and ending with iskender, a version of which I last shared with Joyce at A La Turca, and shish kebab. Indeed, the to-go menu mentions the chef's 15-year experience cooking in Turkey and Greece, resulting in the "mostly Kurdish-inspired" food he prepares here. (What was considered Kurdistan encompasses parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.)

It's not on the lunch menu, but we'd spied a sampler plate of appetizers on the dinner menu posted outside, and the kitchen agreed to put one together for us: a platter covered with hummus, two flattened discs of falafel, ezme (a salad of charcoal-grilled eggplant), vegetarian dolmas, and more of the tasty, tangy thickened yogurt dip called haydari that had earlier come to the table with Newroz's excellent grilled, hot, rustic Kurdish bread. The chunky ezme, bright with lemon and heady with garlic, had onions, tomatoes, and roasted bell peppers, as well as eggplant. I liked the crunchy falafel, too. But the grainy hummus was disappointing, a rare experience; I could barely detect any of its essential tahini or garlic. We did love the calamari salad we also tried, tender, smoky, grill-marked slices combined with Kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, red onion, roasted bell pepper, and cucumber in a sprightly lemon vinaigrette.

I had a light, appealing plate of grilled Atlantic salmon, its pink set off by a bed of orzo pasta mixed with grilled red onions, sautéed yellow squash, and roasted peppers, garnished with olives and capers, glistening with more of the lemon vinaigrette. Jane's simply grilled whole sea bass, with still-moist white flaky flesh under its silvery skin, was earthier; it could have been served to us at a seaside cafe in Greece. Joyce eagerly dug into her heap of iskender, slices of gyro (pressed lamb and beef) over cubes of the homemade pide bread, with tomato sauce and yogurt. She loved it, but I preferred the earlier version we'd shared.

We went on to dessert. We tried firni sutlac, a sturdy rice pudding in its own little casserole, creamy under its wrinkled skin, and not well served by the menu's probably literal translation: "oven-baked jasmine rice pudding with the resin of a small evergreen tree, garnished with hazelnuts," from which we expected a resinous smack like that of retsina, but I detected little if any resin flavor. The traditional baklava was properly nutty, properly drenched with honey.

I returned for dinner a couple of weeks later, to meet Ruby, Mary, and their friend Elle, an Israeli native down from her current home, Toronto, to show her latest movie in the Jewish Film Festival, on a Sunday night a little before our 8 p.m. reservation. The place was totally packed; there was just one empty table for four, opposite the open door, with a little "Reserved" sign on it. "That must be for us," I said, a little nervous about the drafty setting (I'd lured Mary out with the promise of a comfy banquette), but the host was way ahead of me: "I'll have a nice table for you very soon."

And, indeed, by the time the girls showed up, as surprised as I was to have easily found a parking space in the heart of the Marina restaurant district, he was whisking us into exactly the spot on the banquette I would have chosen myself, next to a table of eight or so ladies enjoying their own Sunday supper. We started with a rerun of the appetizer sampler: Again, loved the ezme, found the hummus dull. We shared a shivan salata: chopped radishes, olives, English cucumber, Anaheim peppers, tomatoes, in lemon vinaigrette. "This would be perfect," I said, "if the tomatoes were ripe." "I know," said Ruby, who braves the Ferry Building farmers' market every Saturday, and knows that right now you can find beautiful tomatoes almost everywhere. "Why aren't they?" (Adding insult to injury, the menu calls them "vine-ripened tomatoes." Of course.) We liked what the menu calls butternut squash pancakes, four little rounds of the mashed squash mixed with goat cheese, sheep feta, chopped green onions, and fresh dill, topped with cherry tomatoes and chives, but they didn't have the pancake texture or crisp edges that we expected: The texture was more like a dip.

By 9 p.m., when we were eating our main courses, the place had almost cleared out. Mary had ordered the snappiest dish, my favorite of everything I'd tasted over both meals: adana kebab, a fat, skewered ground-lamb "cutlet," big and lustily seasoned with red pepper, paprika, cayenne, and garlic; it had lots of flavor and was served with sliced pickles and red onion. My less successful chicken shish kebab, skewered chunks of chicken breast that hadn't picked up much flavor from their marinade and were predictably a bit dryish, perked up when dipped in the little cup of garlicky red-pepper-and-walnut muhammara paste that came with it. Ruby was less enthralled with her grilled scallops and prawns, served over orzo in a clam juice vinaigrette. "I shouldn't order seafood on a Sunday," she said, blaming herself, but the scallops and prawns didn't taste old, just a little boring. Elle was even more dismissive of her vegetarian moussaka, sliced zucchini, potato, squash, and eggplant, layered with Parmesan and goat mozzarella, all of which slid apart as you cut into it; this was not the puffy, béchameled comfort food we'd anticipated.

After we ordered dessert, but before it arrived, the waitress dropped off our bill, which seemed startlingly low as well as startlingly early. She took it away and brought us our firni, baklava, a lovely sticky plate of kunefe -- shredded phyllo dough with the texture of shredded wheat, hiding a heart of soft cheese, soaked with honey and perfumed with rose water -- and a wedge of good cheesecake drizzled with caramel sauce. And she also brought the check, now augmented by the $30 that we'd spent on a bottle of Les Charmes white burgundy and a glass of Riesling.

I was a little disappointed in our dinner, a little sorry to have dragged the girls across town for a nicely served but uneven supper. Newroz, a white-tablecloth establishment, has a charming setting, but there is better, spicier, tastier Turkish food to be had in unpretentious dives like the very basic Gyro King and the slightly more comfortable A La Turca, neither of which encourages you to linger over your meal with a bottle of good French wine. A difference only apparent in the tasting. In this case, a picture, even of everything we ate, would not equal a thousand words.

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Meredith Brody

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