Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Sunburnt Calf

When we arrived at Gus and Gabriel’s, it was closed. Permanently. Technically in transition to another location, but regardless it was not in the place it was supposed to be on, 79th and Broadway.

Disappointed, we walked back to the corner. But first we paused in front of a window display with a big plastic calf encased in a box of red light. Above it, perhaps ironically, beamed the red neon words “The Sunburnt Calf.” We peered into the tiny doorway. A set of four small stairs led down to a shiny, dark-wooded bar filled with orange light, and a line of chrome chairs. It looked pretty neat, but what was the menu like?

The Sunburnt Calf was an Australian restaurant, we learned, where we could actually get kangaroo if we wanted to (none of us did, but still). But we could also get chicken, lamb, pork, and burgers, which were perhaps more our style, for a very reasonable price. Okay, why not.

We went inside and were promptly greeted with a delicious shot at the bar, before we were shown to our table by the Aussie bartender (accent and all). Clear and peach-colored, it tasted like strawberries. I’m pretty sure vodka was involved in what turned out to be a refreshing and sweet little concoction. Off to a good start!

The dining room was also lit in this orange light, and the backdrop of the room was a giant panorama of the famous geographical Australian landmark Ayers Rock. We were by no means the only people there, but it also wasn’t too packed with people the way many little restaurants in New York can be.

We consulted the menu, which had some more gourmet takes on traditional foods (burgers with fried eggs, beets, and pineapples for one). I wound up ordering the 5-Spiced Lamb Salad. Truth be known I am notorious for ordering strange foods, but I usually only order them if they sound good to me, and this one certainly did. It was tossed with wax beans, daikon radish and cilantro, and served with a watermelon salad covered with a wasabi cream dressing. Yes, it definitely sounded strange, but it also sounded delicious. But I wasn’t the only one that night who was thinking a little outside of the box. For appetizers, we ordered the Balinese Spiced Chicken Sticks with Coconut Yogurt and the Calamari OZ Style, with kiwi and jalapeno salsa. TL ordered the aforementioned burger, NP ordered Steak Diane, and EL ordered Shark Pesto Rigatoni.

I was excited, and I hadn’t been properly excited about a meal in a long time. I think food should be an experience, not just something you shove down your throat. It’s so wonderful to go out to a restaurant and be delighted by good food and good company. The experience doesn’t happen as often as I think it should, but tonight it did.

The appetizers were gone as soon as they arrived. The calamari was absolutely unreal, probably the best I think I’ve ever had. It wasn’t covered in thick heaps of batter like it is in most restaurants, but rather thinly coated in an almost panko-like crust. It was light and smooth, complimented with the sweet but subtle kick of the kiwi-jalapeno salsa. The chicken skewers were also yummy, sweet and salty. Their taste was almost Indian and according to my Indian roommate NP, “they taste brown!” The best was yet to come, however.

Served in a deep, white, square dish (almost a bowl), the lamb salad looked strange when it arrived. One corner of the dish featured the shredded lamb, radish, and beans, and the other held the watermelon salad. I plunged my fork into the lamb and was surprised to find that it was soft. And upon tasting it I almost died. In a good way.

It was sweet, salty and, dare I say it, succulent. I am by no means a foodie so I cannot tell you what the flavors were, but my god was it delicious. It floated in my mouth, and the crunch of the radish and wax beans only made it that much better.

And then there was the watermelon salad. I have never almost cried in a restaurant because the food was so good, but upon popping a watermelon cube covered in wasabi cream dressing into my mouth, I swear I was near tears. It was so simple—cold, light, and sweet blended with creamy, tangy, spicy—and it was so beautiful.

I slowly, slowly made my way through my dinner, pausing to chew and think and really taste my food. I didn’t want it to end. I picked up a forkful of the lamb salad, then some watermelon, then some lamb again. At one point TL said to me, “I feel like you’re having a relationship with your food right now.” He was completely right. We were both there to make the other happy and enjoy the other’s company. We really appreciated each other. It was the best date in the history of dates.

Then, at the end when I thought I had finished everything, I was honestly a little bit sad. There were two pieces of bread left, and I lifted them up to find: another morsel of watermelon! Another morsel of lamb! I smiled and gasped enthusiastically, “Oh, look, there’s more!! I’m so happy!” Strange, but true. True, but delicious.

What was nice is that all of my friends enjoyed their meals that evening. For a while, all you could hear at the table was the sound of forks and knives on dishes, punctuated with an “Mmmm,” and “Oh man, that’s good.” You would’ve thought we were…doing something else.

I couldn’t believe it. This completely random restaurant had turned out to be a culinary goldmine and a fantastic evening out. The restaurant had only been open since April, and I hope it stays open for a long time, avoiding the fate of many small New York restaurants that close before they can get anywhere. But The Sunburnt Calf is one of three restaurants owned by the New York-based MooLife restaurant group (the other two being Bondi Road and The Sunburnt Cow) so hopefully it will last a while. I know I will certainly be back. If you’re in New York, I highly recommend it. No matter how adventurous your palate might be, your tastebuds will definitely thank you.

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