The Bronx: An Evening of Celebratory Bangladeshi Food at Neerob
In the year and three months since we first reviewed Neerob, diving deep into the fishy waters of its mustard oil alcoves, the Parkchester restaurant has quietly and unassumingly ascended to the status of "must eat" on the city's outer boroughs food circuit. Widely heralded as New York's preeminent destination for Bangladeshi food, it has only gotten better, and shows no signs of stopping.
To recap: Bangladeshi cuisine is powered by a two-pronged spear of fish and rice, which serves as its nutritional backbone, boosted by an array of greens and tubers. Mustard oil, a distinctively ubiquitous presence, provides fuel for the fire; green chilies and select spices, most notably turmeric, cast long shadows.
Neerob's food, which changes daily, is drawn from the rich wellsprings of owner Khokon Rahman's family recipes. In many ways, the restaurant is as much an extension of him as it is of his community. A native of the countryside surrounding Dhaka, the nation's capital and largest city, Rahman's food is best described as "country style." It's peasant fare, but without the restrictive structure that so often reduces like-minded restaurants' menus to facsimiles of their cuisine. Despite the relatively consistent cast of fish and vegetables, there is a sense of playfulness and vitality to the hotel pans not otherwise found at steam table restaurants. (Albeit, the changes in dishes are often not always significant.) Regional specialties are cooked regularly, and a wide selection of desserts—steps above what you'd find elsewhere both in quality and freshness—are available.
Such talent, though, sees avenues beyond the steam table. While the restaurant's food is daily fare for the casual meal, Neerob also does full service catering largely for weddings and other festive events. Distinguished by its more elaborate, traditional, and sometimes painstaking preparations and its ceremonial presentations, Bangladeshi "celebratory food" maintains the cuisine's fish-and-rice principles but elevates them to recognize special moments. It was some months back that, over fish and dhal in the dead of winter, Rahman first offered to cook me this food—that which is closest to his heart.
The rarity of this opportunity wasn't lost on me; few in the West know much of anything about the peasant food of Bangladesh, and even less about the cuisine's more sophisticated preparations. I asked Rahman to "cook what you would for your daughter's wedding," with a bent towards the very traditional. He obliged, and got to planning a menu right away.
While we did not get to participate in any of the famously complex rituals of Bangladeshi ceremonies—that, for sure, will be saved for another time—Rahman and his chef Mohammad prepared a compelling meal: six entrées with rice, a digestif of salty lassi, and a special pitha, the winter dessert so beloved in their home country.
One half of the small dining room and a series of adjoined tables, adorned with a "reserved" sign, was set aside for us. As guests shuffled in, appetizers of samosas and phakura (onion fritters) were provided and replenished; when the table filled, light salads of iceberg lettuce, onion, tomato, and green chilies replaced the snacks. They served as palate-cleansing precursors to the sauce- and spice-heavy food to come.
Then the food was brought out: artfully presented plates of mishti kumbra and banana bhorta first; then fish illish and fish kofte; finally, rhui mas and banana kofte. As always, the dishes were served with rice and dhal, buffered by flat breads and channa (chickpeas). The main meal was served in waves, not courses; when a plate of fish was finished, another of the same replaced it. Anything else would have been nontraditional: the common style of eating in Bangladesh involves the gathering of several small portions of various dishes, oriented about the rice like bulbous pedals.
Some dishes were richer, other saltier. Some flaunted chilies, most featured powerfully intoxicating sauces. Above all, though, the food exhibited deft design. No flavor was over-pronounced at the cost of others and all of the dishes played together as one. There was a definite thesis beyond the meal, something that Khokon was trying to communicate with his guests—the meal showed off Neerob's sense of care and integrity like nothing else. (A request for the borhani, the zesty and spicy yogurt drink, was consummately refused because, "it doesn't go with the food you are ordering.")
I've had some very special meals in my short life: a dinner at a Shanghainese banquet hall put together by my friend and Chinese army veteran Aaron Fu; a Hui restaurant known only to insiders in the back alley of a back alley in Xian; a buffet of foods from ceviche to samosas prepared by the immigrant parents of the Norwood, Bronx class I was tutoring. This night ranked solidy among the aforementioned, and others yet, as one of my best. To have a man so revered in his community as Khokon Rahman—someone even Bengalis from Jamaica, Queens recognize and respect—curate a meal of his most sacred food for you is, all things considered, an untold blessing.
About the author: Chris Crowley is a former Serious Eats intern and the author of the Bronx Eats column. You can follow him on twitter here, or pay a visit to his new food blog, Sound Bites, over on Wordpress.