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Bronx Eats: Chickpea Bharta, New Pitha, and Sweets At Neerob, Parkchester
During the summer of 2012, Khokon Rahman expanded his acclaimed restaurant Neerob, considered by many of its fans to be the undisputed king of Bangladeshi cuisine in our city, into an adjacent storefront. The expansion allowed him to triple the restaurant's size, adding dozens of seats and a fresh coat of paint. What had been a cramped storefront of five tables became a place where guests were encouraged to linger and stretch their legs.
For their loyalty, the community was rewarded with a proper dining room; Neerob, in turn, was able to more fully fulfill its function as a community center. Putting off a visit for fear of cramped tables? Scratch that off your list and make a trip.
Since the move, Rahman has made some other changes, too. A laminated menu has replaced a printed version that had become dusty over the years, pointing as it did towards the restaurant's takes on curry house standards. This new menu exhibits a bolder confidence, proudly advertising delicacies like shutki bharta, a mash of fish left to dry in the sun, and borhani, a yogurt based drink made spicy and zesty with cilantro and chilies. Above the steam table you will find several sweets that were not previously (or regularly) available. There are little Bengali donuts—bhapa pitha, steamed rice cakes with cores of shredded coconut cooked in brown sugar ($2), and chom chom, a sugar bomb of cooked milk dripping with syrup.
But time and time again, we find the kitchen's most delicious work to be their bhartas, chutney-like mashes laced with fiery, wasabi-like mustard oil. When eating, treat them like a condiment: separate a bit by hand, then mix it with rice and, viola, eat. Many bharta are made with vegetables, such as smoky eggplant, while others highlight fish, tubers, and chilies. Our favorite is the coarse and incendiary dried chili variety, more napalm than condiment. I can't remember the last meal I had there without it.
Caught up in the business of extolling the incredibly funky virtues of that shutki bharta, we failed to even once highlight Neerob's chickpea bharta. The fibrous chickpea base makes for a drier mash than the vegetable bhartas like tomato and eggplant, which are quite moist, and so it's best not eaten alone. Still, the mustard oil and vibrant red chili flakes add a gentle heat to the chickpea's robust flavor. The texture is soft but blocky, with the occasional pop of crunchy raw white onion.
This is Bangladeshi food that's kind to strangers and beginners, much more so than the dried fish variety; so if you're cautiously looking for an introduction to one of the cuisine's most delicious dishes, add this to your plate. Given that smaller $1 portions are available, there's no need to just order one: pair the chickpea with the tomato and dried chilies and shrimp bhartas for a diverse range of flavors. You won't ever look back. Us? We're still hoping that green banana bharta Rahman fed us once becomes a regular cast member.
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.