By Nghi Vo
While Lumina’s on 43rd street does a cow eye pâté to die for and Tragers has a whole section on its dinner menu devoted to Batrachian cuisine, every foodie knows that you need to head to under the overpass and down Randolph Street for the real experience. Between King Street and Marshall Street, you’ll find the eight blocks that are technically part of Midtown, but which the residents themselves and the expat community at large, call “Little Innsmouth.”
Last Thursday, I took my dining companion to Majak’s Diner, a snug little place on the corner of Randolph and Noir, which the locals pronounce “noor.” To be perfectly honest, Majak’s is more than snug and we found ourselves wedged into one of four vinyl booths set against a cracked plaster wall. The pipes gurgled loudly enough to drown out the proprietor’s unfortunate taste in zydeco, but, from the smells that wafted into the dining room from the kitchen, I could tell we were in the right place.
As we sipped our excellent complimentary Shaggai tea, we could hear the proprietor shouting something in his native Batrakhos and I smiled.
“It sounds like the Mi-Go is very fresh tonight,” I explained to my companion.
The server was a young teenage girl “of repulsive aspect,” as the Batrachian saying goes. She offered us a single menu to share between us. There was the usual fare that you would find at any food court, including fried Tindalos balls and dholeburgers, but the specials menu did not disappoint.
“Do you think that’s real shantak?” my dining companion asked. “I thought that selling shantak was illegal in the United States.”
“It’s probably just chicken,” I told him reassuringly. “I’ve heard they do marvelous things with sauces here.”
When the teenager returned, we placed our orders and, as an afterthought, ordered a dozen Tindalos balls to share as we waited.
I could tell from the first bite that these Tindalos balls had been made in the old-fashioned way, with the liver in the center cut very recently from a yearling hound and then rolled in a mixture of cornmeal, goat’s milk and salt before being deep-fried in virgin olive oil. The result is a buttery, rich treat that practically melts in the mouth, with the slightly bitter, but wholly delicious flavor of the liver providing a lingering aftertaste. It was served with a creamy yogurt sauce, redolent with parsely and horseradish.
We were finishing off the Tindalos balls when our food arrived. The service at Majak’s is definitely no frills (the server looked like she had just gotten back from school), but you cannot beat it for speed.
Thanks to my little bit of innocent eavesdropping earlier, I knew that my Mi-Go ceviche would at least be fresh. Even better than that, it was still lightly chilled from the waters of the lake. The pink segments glistened under their coating of just-squeezed lime juice and I wished all over again that you could properly capture Mi-Go dishes on film. Of course you can’t, so, instead, I dug in with good will. If you have never had fresh Mi-Go ceviche, which is fusion cuisine only in the sense that there was an established Batrachian colony in Chile for most of the 1800s, you must take yourself to Majak’s. The texture of the Mi-Go itself was slightly rubbery and amazingly rich, with a flavor profile that can perhaps best be described as a cross between porcini mushrooms and slightly rank catfish.
My companion had indeed ordered the barbecued shantak feet and, though they were certainly not as large as the feet of elephants, they were still larger than that of the average chicken.
“Emu,” I said with confidence. “There are a number of emu farms just outside the city limits, you know.”
Shantak, of course, has been banned by the United Nations for some years. That doesn’t stop enterprising restauranteurs from tossing the name onto the menu, though what it means varies from establishment to establishment. At Majak’s, the shantak feet were sitting in a bath of a sweet-savory sauce made from shoggoth butter and simmered until it was nearly burnt. The caramelized scent of the long pair of shantak feet was undercut by the sharp tang of rosemary, singed just enough to give it that burnt-twig smell. Unlike the imitations in most places, the nails had not been clipped and my companion had to eat carefully to keep them from scraping his face.
I traded my companion bite for bite. I found the shantak feet to be almost overpowering, though not in the way that I expected. The sauce was as strong as I thought it would be, with the sharp bite of dried chili pepper flakes, but it was the meat underneath that was exceptional. The texture was coarse, but a long cook time caused it to fall apart in my mouth. The taste was as rich as duck, but darker, with the slight aftertaste of raw mushroom that accompanies so many of the meats traditionally used in Batrachian cuisine. I closed my eyes to savor the burst of flavor on my tongue, and also to enjoy the surge of strange color and eerie light that filled my sightless gaze. There were whispers in my ear, too, sibilant things too terrible to be true. Then I swallowed, smiled, and returned to my own meal. As I mentioned when I dined at Zerena’s Nest in Chicago, shantak does strange things to people who are unused to it and so, I cheerfully stuck to my ceviche.
“It’s good,” my companion said after he finished his first foot. He hesitated, eying the second, and I rolled my eyes.
“You’re going to eat it,” I teased. “If not today, then tomorrow.”
He laughed, wiping his forehead with his handkerchief, and I ordered a second Shaggai tea as he finished. No free refills, but when the ceviche is this fresh, I wasn’t going to complain.
We sat and chatted, and just when I was ready to head home, the proprietor came up to our table to ask if we had enjoyed the meal.
Majak himself is a short man, with eyes that bulge from his head and a wide mouth that opens and closes with a brisk, clicking sound. The florescent lights in the diner do him a disservice, giving him a cold and dead cast, but I suppose they do that to everyone.
My dining companion mentioned how much he liked the shantak, something that excited Majak a great deal. With one faintly greenish hand on my dining companion’s shoulder, Majak urged him up. Looking over the check, I half-heard something about free samples or a new sauce blend, and then my companion was stumbling past some chairs on his way to the back. I heard him say something and then there was a startled shout.
I had to wait for some time at the counter before our teenaged server appeared to take my card; it seemed that there was some kind of ruckus in the kitchen. Before I left, she informed me that I should come back on Thursday, when they were going to be rolling out a traditional Batrachian-Basque dish that is essentially a shoggoth marmitako – that is, a shoggoth’s eye stew served over potatoes, pimentos and onions.
I promised her I would. As the racket from the kitchen increased, I stepped into the crisp fall night and headed home to write my review.
Bio: Nghi Vo currently lives by an inland sea. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Expanded Horizons and Alien Skin. Her current interests include old gods, new gods, origami, alchemy, revenge tragedies, and the Ottoman Empire. She can be contacted at [email protected]