Monday, October 20, 2014

A Tale of Two Restaurants

Daniel, the owner chef of DABA, a high-end restaurant in Hudson, is rushing through the aisles of a Los Angeles supermarket, peeling off boxes and produce, for his third round in the horrifying chef challenge show, Guy Fieri's Grocery Games.  His opponent is another chef, an attractive young woman who lives in California.  Daniel has made it to the third and final elimination round; the current barrier is to choose only one item from each aisle.  Daniel is making a parfait and the young woman some kind of fabulous chocolate thing.  The prize is $20,000, which the winner of this round still has to earn through a final humiliating run around the supermarket. I'm a Food Network junkie (just binged on six "Beat Bobby Flay" episodes), but I've managed to avoid Grossery Games. We are watching it now just to see Daniel. 

DABA is our favorite restaurant in Hudson, our weekly hangout, and one more reason why leaving New York has been relatively pain free.   Daniel, a bear of a young man, with a smile that manages to be both cherubic and sly, is a serious chef and great host.  Often out front, he not only makes the round of his regular customers but during busy times also serves and tends bar.  Stumbling into DABA last winter off of the bulky snowdrifts buttressing the streets and out of the miserable temperatures was like coming into a welcoming alter-home.

DABA has all the attributes that Michael and I have sought out when I have wanted to escape my own kitchen both in New York and here in Hudson:
  • A bar substantial enough to be populated by Chaucerian regulars and staff who provide good stories and useful local gossip. 
  • Beautifully cooked meals, with a menu that ranges from high-end items when we are flush to a low-priced selection of bar-type food when we feel broke.  
  • A quiet subtle atmosphere with warm lighting and no blast of music or monster TV muscling the bar space. 
  • And an owner who occasionally hangs out with the customers.
The only other time we've had comparable hang-out experiences was in the nineties at Cal's, a bar-restaurant on 21st between 5th and 6th.  I still miss it.  The owner, Kahlil (Cal) Ayoubi, was the grandson of a Syrian President, whose family was exiled first to Beirut and then to Paris.  Cal took his part of the family money and moved to New York, where he first owned a restaurant in Soho and then in our neighborhood. It was a large space, with a very long dark shiny bar, subdued warm lighting, and candle-lit tables spaced reasonably apart throughout the room.  We were regulars there for about eight years and many of the customers and staff we met remain our friends today.  Like DABA, Cal's also had the price-range spread, with both good high-end food and an award-winning hamburger.

Cal was often out front, holding a glass of clear something, sitting at the bar and describing his alcohol-induced impotence and the degree to which his cirrhotic liver was killing him.  (He provided his doctor with free meals.)  He flirted hopelessly with pretty women and defended his staff over his customers, occasionally permanently ejecting those who were particularly rude to one of his waitresses or bartenders. Given all this, Cal still retained a profoundly heroic, non-American cynicism that could have rebuilt Casablanca's Rick's Place.  And at the deep end of his despair was a dark belief in his failure as an artist.  I loved Cal's work, which might be described as cheerful German expressionism (is that possible?).  His paintings enlivened the walls of the restaurant and to this day I regret not buying one of a small white cottage dancing in space among cheerful child-colored apple trees. (My desire for that painting appears now to be prescient, as we begin planning our house, which will also be dancing in space in the hollow of our apple orchard ghost.)  

Unfortunately, Andreas, Cal's young talented chef, who roller skated to work and dazzled young women, quit after a few years and moved to Long Island. Cal didn't replace him with anyone equally skilled but relied instead on the kitchen staff who had learned the menu.  Their food was ok but not fabulous enough to get the two stars Cal had earned earlier. And finally, as with everything in our neighborhood, the skyrocketing rents knocked him out of 21st Street.  Cal opened a small restaurant on the upper east side, but it lacked the bar and our neighbors.  We went there a couple of times but it was too far away and we need a Cheers.

DABA is Cal's spiritual heir, and the food is better.  When DABA first opened, the menu heavily reflected Daniel's Scandinavian background.  My first meal there included elk and a three-herring appetizer that transformed my whole view of oily fish.  Eventually, the elk went away, but the Swedish meatballs are still available, dense and flavorful, balanced on a swipe of pureed potatoes and set off by a slash of bright lingonberry and a dish of thinly sliced cucumber pickles.  The filet and scallops are meltingly cooked, with the latter accompanied by curried spring rolls that would make a great dish by itself.  On some nights if you're very, very lucky and you get there early, you might get the special fish tacos.  

Suddenly the bell goes off.  Daniel and his opponent are grasping and hugging various food objects as they rush to their cooking stations.  The female chef is in despair: she forgot to pick up chocolate, the key ingredient in her dessert.  As with all these chef competition shows, each contestant has a background story intended to appeal to the audience.  Her husband has lost his job and they are on Medicaid and food stamps.  She could really use the $20,000 prize.  Daniel's wife had just delivered their third child back in Hudson the day before the competition. She went into labor as Daniel was driving to the airport to fly to LA.   He could use the 20K, but his tale (he and his adorable wife have two other adorable children and live above the restaurant that he owns and they'd like to find a bigger place) lacks the woe of his opposition.  Now, Guy announces that Daniel had won an advantage when he responded correctly to some inane quiz question: he can choose any food product he wants from any aisle.  Dan pauses and, unlike any Food Network contestant I've ever seen under this pressure, he becomes calm and thoughtful.  He shrugs and turns to his opponent.  "I've got all the stuff I need.  Go ahead and get the chocolate."  An enormous virtual crowd roars silently across the TV universe.  The woman wins the contest but Daniel becomes the first Food Network hero ever! 

Like Cal's, DABA will not be our source of warmth, comradeship, and culinary happiness forever. But I know that, unlike Cal, Daniel is young and eager for a more expansive venue for himself and his family.  So someday I expect to see him impressing us in the Iron Chef Stadium or moderating some show where chefs compete by cooking with utensils made out of bark with ingredients they have to find in a field.

As for Cal, I just Googled Khalil Ayoubi and found a show of his paintings in Beirut from last November.  One of them was of a house lodged in green space within a grove of child-painted trees. I emailed the gallery owner and asked if it was still for sale.


  1. Fantastic, what a great read
    We had a great meal at Daba just last night

  2. Way to go, Daniel! Your 3 little ones can be proud of their dad.

  3. How sad to read this profile just now...