Merguez: Who Does it Better, NYC or D.C.?

emanuel mar27 merguez.jpg

Photo by NicolasMcComber/iStockphoto

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.

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.

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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.