Flatiron Lunch: Kalustyan’s Upstairs Cafe as Good as Everything at Kalustyan’s
Every Friday we go south of the ML boundaries in search of a delicious lunch. Sometimes it’s Murray Hill south or the Flatiron District, sometimes Gramercy and everything in between- but we just like to call it Flatiron Lunch.
For those of you not familiar with Kalustyan’s, do yourself a favor and become acquainted! It is the best spice and import store I know of in the city. While Eataly and Buon Italia do a great job with Italian imports and Spice Corner, Foods of India and Little India are all within a block, Kalustyan’s has shelves upon shelves of spices, herbs, chutneys, honeys, jams, frozen foods, dried beans, rices, nuts, syrups, teas, breads, pickles, specialty pots and pans, etc, etc…need I go on? Serious Eats did a nice slide show to give you a visual idea. They sell largely Indian products, but they offer items from all over the world. So when you need a random ingredient you have never heard of for a recipe, try here on your lunch break.
But Kalustyan’s isn’t just good for some lunchtime grocery shopping. Upstairs, past the tagines, coffees, and teas, is a counter serving platters and sandwiches. I had kind of always known they served prepared foods, but normally I don’t get past the first floor. And it never really grabbed me visually as a good place to eat. I think Kalustyan’s is also associated with Curry Leaf sit-down restaurant on the corner of 27 and Lexington (or it least it was, they recently remodeled and now it is not so clear.) I digress.
The menu options seem mostly Middle Eastern/Mediterranean which surprised me given the store’s Indian focus. I also think the menu is a little bit off-putting until you become familiar with it. (For example, they have a feta cheese sandwich for $6.99, which is probably much better than it sounds. Additionally, the cheese items are listed under the non-veg part of the menu, which doesn’t sit well with me.) Additionally, the non-vegetarian platters are more than $10 (now that I know the portions, this seems perfectly reasonable.)
The first part of the display case has a variety of cheeses.
The second part are the vegetarian specials of the day (the day I went included lentils, spinach with slivered almonds, fava beans, okra, lima beans, and chickpeas.) A friend told me, the lentils are consistent and the remaining items rotate day-to-day.
Next, they have kibbeh, dolmas, pickles and other various tasty things, which merges into a huge section of olives.
The two guys behind the counter could not have been nicer. While I was waiting for my friend to arrive, they offered me tastes of the veggie specials by the spoonful, so I got to try the lentils and spinach. Both were great. Later, they gave my friend and I a free dolma each as a snack while ordering. Awesome! While the service was very friendly, they are not interested in being hurried and everything done with care, so allow a couple extra minutes even if you are ordering takeout. Also, they seemed to favor the ladies over men, which I certainly can’t complain about. As a logistical note, no cash is exchanged upstairs, they give you a ticket to bring downstairs to pay at the main registers. And if you let the guys behind the counter know you would like to stay to eat, they will help you snag one of the 8 tables.
My friend, having been here for lunch before, ordered the 3 veg combo platter ($9.99) with lentils, fava bean, okra, and small salad. The platter also came with 2 pita breads. All were tasty mild curries. I particularly enjoyed the okra with its smokey flavor and the lentils with a topping of crispy onions/shallots. My friend declared her lentils a “meat lentil”. Which she defines as a lentil you would choose over and is just as filling as a meat. On one previous visit, she split a 3 veg combo with another friend of ours, and they didn’t even finish it. If you are able to finish a three vegetable combo (much less a mixed veg and non-veg combo which will cost you $12.99) in one sitting, please call your doctor.
Wanting to try their meat options, I ordered the basterma (aka pastırma or bastirma or basturma) with lebney (lebneh) sandwich ($8.99). Basterma is an air dried beef and lebney is a thick strained yogurt, but in my opinion, it tasted more like cream cheese than yogurt. I was worried it would be too much like beef jerky, but it was much better. The beef was appropriately tender, and not too chewy.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure how this would taste, but since I was determined to explore their non-veg options, I persisted…and rewarded. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I fell in love with this sandwich. I included a photo of what it looked like halfway through the devouring in an attempt to convince you.
When I asked, the hot sauce they gave me was insanely good. My friend said it was one of the more interesting she has ever had, and she has traveled widely and eats a lot of hot sauce, so I consider her an authority of sorts. Try it!
While I am still not sure how a simple cheese sandwich or a basterma platter would taste, but I should probably stop doubting that Kalustyan’s will make sure it tastes amazing.
The + (What somebody who likes this place would say)
- The 3 Veg Combo will feed me for days!
- Not only does Kalustyan’s have access to the best ingredients, they prepare it all with care.
- And I can do some grocery shopping during my lunch break.
The – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)
- The meat options are too limited at Kalustyan’s.
- The menu is too healthy for my liking.
- Kalustyan’s upstairs could use a facelift to make it a little less dingy.
Kalustyan’s (upstairs), 123 Lexington Avenue btwn 28 and 29 Streets, (212) 685-3451