Two weeks ago Time Out New York asked me to nominate my favorite food neighborhood in New York City, and they told me I couldn't pick Midtown (for obvious reasons, I guess.) So I was forced to go with the only other neighborhood I could speak to with any real authority—the one I live in—Hell's Kitchen. Despite the pride I took in most of my recommendations (they added a few that didn't come from me) I somehow managed to miss a big one. It's I wish I could say I had forgotten about Kashkaval, the Mediterranean cheese and gourmet food shop on Ninth Avenue, but the truth is for some inexplicable reason I had never been there for dinner until this past Wednesday night.
Kahskaval is one of those New York City chameleons. I have shopped there during the day on many occasions, buying cheese and coffee from the front part of the shop. In the daylight, the back looks like a drab, casual eatery, maybe good for a snack— but certainly no destination. What I never realized (and many seem to already know) is that nightly this "shop" turns into a warm and cozy candle lit dinner destination with a really delicious menu of Mediterranean snacks and fondue.
To call Kashkaval a "secret" or "hidden gem" would be silly. The fact that I'm the only idiot in the neighborhood who hasn't "discovered" this place was immediately apparent. This past Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. we had to wait 20 minutes for a table in the bustling restaurant. On a Wednesday night?!? And we weren't the only ones.
The menu is made up of a few sections. There is a nice list of cheeses and meats, homemade soups, salads, and sandwiches, to go along with an inexpensive, wine and beer list. There is also a small list of reliable entrees, including their popular turkey meatballs which come with mushroom bulger. But hardly anybody eats at Kashkaval without sampling the cold Mediterranean "tapas" which line the glass case in the front of the shop. Available as a single serving ($7), or as a sampler plate of 5 ($12) or 6 ($18) choices, you can select from any number of spreads, salads, dips, and snacks.
Naturally we went with the largest platter. You can't really go wrong with any of the 24 options, but you should try to balance out your choices by choosing one or two spreads, one or two veggies, and one or two salads. Clockwise from the top left, here's what we ordered:
Lentil Salad: The dill added to this salad made for a nice herb element to the plate.
Spicy Walnut Pepper Spread: The slightly crunchy texture of this uniquely flavored walnut spread was a nice contrast to the other choices.
Baked Elephant Beans: Stewed in tomato, garlic and onions. How could that be bad?
Artichoke Dip: Much more like a babaganoush than your typical spinach and artichoke dip from a grocery store, unless they gave us babaganoush by accident... we couldn't really taste the artichoke. It was still damn good.
Roasted Cauliflower: I've never met a piece of roasted cauliflower I didn't like. (Boiled is a completely different story.)
Beet Skordalia (spread): Skordalia is normally made with potatoes but this version is made with beets. Don't let the color scare you off, it's sweet, creamy and garlicky, and is a must order if you like red beets.
The second most popular thing to order at Kashkaval is the fondue. Admittedly, I've stayed away from fondue for most of my adult life, always associating it with junior high school dating. But after having it the other night, I'm thinking of reintroducing it into my repertoire. We went with the namesake kashkaval (a mild sheep's milk cheese) and it was amazing. You can order meats or vegetables for dipping, but we were perfectly happy with the basket of bread squares that came with it.
Now that I look back on it, dipping stuff into other stuff was kind of the theme of the night. And yes, I did dip the turkey meatballs into the cheese fondue. (How could I not?)