While You Wait

Caravan Serai Deli

2175 Ford Parkway, St. Paul

690-3167

A VISITING FRIEND from the East Coast--one of those people with the amazing ability to find at least one failing in any situation--griped to me that, with a couple exceptions, the delis of the Twin Cities suck. "Too white-bred as well as white bread" was his verdict. "Bland and sterile." As he's sort of a mild person himself, I had to give this particular assessment some consideration. And, at risk of sounding like an alarmist, there don't even seem to be any delis in these parts, give or take those aforementioned exceptions. To make matters even more depressing, in their lieu lurks a formidable enemy: chain sandwich stores that call themselves delis. But I know at least one deli notable enough to cheer the countenance of any East Coast snob.

The Caravan Serai opened their deli a couple years ago in response to the high demand placed on their restaurant, a luxurious place outfitted with all sorts of tents and silk pillows. Now if you aren't in the mood for such exotic formalities, you can shake your dripping boots off next door and be treated to some of the same divine goodies. It's worth it just to go in for a steaming glass mug of chai. Their version of this sweet tea and milk drink is thick with steamed, frothy milk blanketed over with a voluptuous layer of whipped cream and sweet shavings of cardamom ($1.75/$2.25). If you prefer a less decadent thawing, you'll find their Turkish coffee to be an authentic, sweet sludge that hits you like a running kick ($1.25).

It's hard to stand at the counter without gaping at the plastic-wrapped bounty: little bits of fried morsels, salads, and dips patiently waiting for a closer examination. The vegetarian platter is a cheap meal to share with a friend, a copious serving of pocket bread, plump calamata olives, a crumble of feta cheese, lemon- and garlic-riddled hummus, and baba ganouche.

The house salad is also surprisingly good ($2.50), due to the massive amount of dill in the vinaigrette, making the basic red onion, cucumber, tomato, and lettuce salad more exotic that usual. The soups ($1.95/$3.25) we tried were superb--a rich and creamy lentil fattened up with tomatoes, carrots, and spinach, and a stalwart three-bean affair dolloped with yogurt and dill, quite substantial with the slightly fried pita bread served on the side.

Various specials run daily, including the vegetarian kulchi ($2.75) that my friend sampled. His opinion was that the hot naan stuffed with jalapeño peppers, carrots, onions, potatoes, broccoli, and cilantro was a bit blander than he would have hoped but tasty nonetheless, especially after a dip into the yogurt-dill sauce. We had a mixed reaction to the curried chicken served with a perfectly cooked side of saffron rice ($7.50). I found it pleasant but not particularly distinctive; my friend thought the rich, red curry gravy was the cat's pajamas.

Take-out here is most accommodating. If you happen to be feeling a bit charitable (such is the season anyway), you should consider taking your dear ones home a pint of feta jalapeño ($5.50) and pocket bread, a thick spread made with blended feta cheese, cream cheese, and hot peppers, or perhaps a pint of dahl ($3.95), curry gravy ($3.95), chicken gyro meat ($5.50), channa masala ($4.95), or subzi panir (creamed spinach with panir cheese, $4.95).

Desserts aren't on the menu here, but if that's upsetting you can always order up a mango shake ($3.50), thick and tart enough to pucker your lips a bit. This deli might not be the most atmospheric place in the world; I admit that it seems a little sterile even with the few selected artifacts that embrace the walls. But the food is remarkably good, the counter help earnest and innocent, and the place is clean. You know what they say about beggars.

TABLEHOPPING

SWEAT NO MORE: If the stress of preparing an attractive, appetizing meal is too much for you to handle, perhaps you could do with this recent Fireside Books publication, Cheryl Muser's Relax, It's Only Dinner ($14). Muser has simplified every aspect of meal preparation by organizing her cookbook into 35 complete menus, explaining how they can be enhanced with various appetizers and desserts, and adding words of encouragement in between. It can be fun not to think! Here's a sample recipe to give you an inkling of Muser's style, from a menu that includes chicken piccata, baked sweet potatoes with honeyed yogurt and mint, and warmed spinach salad.

CHICKEN PICCATA:

1 big shallot, peeled and minced

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

2 tbsp. butter

4 plump chicken cutlets

1/4 cup flour

1/3 cup white wine

juice of 1 lemon

1 tbsp. heavy cream

Salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

3 tbsp. capers, drained and chopped

3 tbsp. finely chopped parsley

A second lemon, for garnish

Sautée the shallot in the butter and vegetable oil over medium heat until wilted. (The shallots may blacken as you cook the chicken, but that's okay.) Now dredge the cutlets on both sides in the flour, put them in the skillet, sautée till they're golden brown on one side, then turn them over. Once you've turned them over, pour in the wine and the juice of a lemon, which will result in a satisfying, momentary whoosh of a sizzle. The wine and lemon will soon boil down to a nice glaze as the chicken finishes cooking. When it's cooked, whisk in the heavy cream until it's incorporated into the sauce. Turn the cutlets once again to coat with sauce on both sides, remove to a platter, sprinkle with salt, grind on some pepper, sprinkle with capers and parsley, and spoon any remaining sauce from the pan over the top. Garnish with the extra lemon somehow.

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