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Why had I never heard of or tasted merguez? Was I just oblivious? Or had I not been eating in the "right" restaurants, those serving North African cuisine? Is merguez this year's passion fruit -- the new thing every chef is serving? Suddenly, in one weekend, it seemed to be on every menu.
The first place where I encountered it was 1905, a second-floor restaurant in the U Street section of Washington, D.C. (1905 9th Street, NW). 1905 felt as if it -- and its clientele -- could have come right out of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster. There is the slightly run-down feel to the furnishings that seem from another era. The ceiling is stamped tin, the curtains are heavy red fabric. Down the middle of the dining room is a long communal dining table with a huge vase of slightly older flowers in the middle. There are locals there for a neighborhood dinner, and a lively bar. The place does not shut until 2 a.m.
A reliable friend recommended this West Village icon as his favorite place in New York. Was I disappointed.The only way to describe the food is eclectic. The black-turtleneck-clad person who seated us -- not quite a maitre'd -- announced he was Italian (but was a dead ringer for the Puerto Rican actor Hector Elizando) and recommended the pan-roasted gnocchi or the saffron fettuccine. Unfortunately, both were no longer available. But that left the grilled merguez.
The first thing that struck me was the creamy polenta it was sitting on. Normally I dislike polenta -- too lumpy-bumpy, not distinct pieces like rice or quinoa and not smooth, either. But this version was rich and creamy, the consistency of finely mashed potatoes. Clearly, this was the classic -- and much harder to make -- slowly cooked, softer variety.
Then I ate the thick, hot dog-size rounds of the merguez. Ground beef and lamb, wonderfully spiced with garlic, paprika, cumin, and coriander. The cooked paprika gave it a slight zing -- pleasant and ticklish but not overpowering. At $9, this merguez and polenta was really worth the trek, especially if you like the slightly seedy neighborhood ambiance.
The other notable dish was seared sea scallops. The scallops, I was told (I don't eat them), were very fresh, soft, and not chewy. They were presented on a bed of pureed parsnips, which had a distinctly refreshing light taste.
The next day I had to be in New York City, and decided to try that West Village icon, The Spotted Pig (on West 11th Street, near Greenwich) with my daughter. A reliable friend recommended it as his favorite place in New York. Not unlike D.C.'s 1905, the Spotted Pig has a casual and slightly run-down feel. The tables have brown packing paper on them, and the seating is on low stools. The wait staff were wonderful -- warm, engaging, even talkative. How un-New York.
And right there before my eyes was "Grilled Lamb Chop with Merguez Sausages." Was I disappointed. The merguez was thin, more like a salami stick than a sausage. And it was bland. There was no grilled taste, and no perky cumin or coriander or paprika. And the chop was a chop -- nothing notable.
My daughter had the wild striped bass, which had a lovely fresh taste, if ever so slightly undercooked. And it was topped with crispy leeks -- thin leek strings that were flash-fried. They had that slight oniony taste, combined with a wonderfully addictive fried-oil flavor, which was equally addictive in a heaping bowl of shoestring fries mixed with fresh fried rosemary leaves.
It was so strange to go to a famous restaurant named after a meat and find the fish and fried vegetables so much more desirable.
But if you're interested in merguez: D.C. is your town, and 1905 is your place to try it.
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