ROAD TO KARAKASH | Restaurant Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


If you were to travel to all the regions represented by the Road to Karakash's "Spice Odyssey," you might be on the road longer than Homer: from the Atlantic-moored Morocco across northern Africa to the Black Sea nation of Turkey, then south through the Middle East to India, China and Malaysia, before swinging back across the Indian Ocean to the southeast African country of Mozambique, and finally traveling north through Ethiopia and the Sudan. Karakash, in fact, is a river in the far western corner of China, where the oft-troubled and feuding neighboring nations of Tajikstan, Kyrgyrstan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran meet.

But the worst turf dispute that awaits a diner here is parking along Atwood's often-busy corridor. But once past the curtain that cloaks this little gem, Oakland with its grubby bricks and hooting frat boys recedes like a noisy port left long behind. Enter a wondrously transformed room, an intimate Middle Eastern-accented den with swags of drapery, beaded curtains and a slowly oscillating ceiling fan. The faux-tile floor is strewn with small mismatched carpets, pillows and embroidered ottomans. Flickering candles set in wall nooks and dangling in cut-away metal lanterns cast crazy chiaroscuros across the timbered ceiling and sponged walls, making the tiny space feel deep and mysterious.

Despite a free seat at one of the Western tables, I opted to go native, sinking to a pillow beside a very low table in a curtained-off nook by the front window. Jazz was playing softly and the air was fragrant with curious peppery smells. I could almost imagine I was dining in Casablanca -- or perhaps, Casablanca, which was also an approximation of the foreign. The illusion was shattered when, like Lot, I foolishly turned and through the window saw somebody I knew walking on Atwood. That would never happen in Morocco, but then Oakland is a much more convenient place to indulge in beef tangine.

Or West African-style crab cakes, with which we started the meal. Crisply breaded, the cakes were filled with moist crabmeat and accompanied by a creamy dipping sauce that left a tingle on the tongue. Thinking globally, our other appetizer came from the opposite hemisphere: jiao tzu, steamed dumplings from China. These soft, pliant pockets held shredded cabbage, onion and woodear mushrooms which we quickly dunked in warm, peppery soy sauce.

We ordered entrees with the same far-flung geographic casualness: doro wat ($8.95) from Ethiopia and Malaysian devil's pork curry ($8.95). Both entrees were served with pita bread, a side salad and rice. The rice is presented in an inverted cup shape, topped with fried shallots, and tickles one of my unproven dining-out fancies: Shaped rice always tastes better.

With some aesthetic regret, I tipped over my rice mound and introduced it to the pork curry. The menu had cautioned it was very hot -- "fiery" -- and while it was, thankfully, the spiciness didn't overwhelm the dish's more subtle flavors like the sweetness of the pork or the sweet citrus of the lemongrass. The slow-cooked pork obligingly fell apart in soft chunks with only the slightest nudge of the fork. The red pepper-based Ethiopian chicken stew, doro wat, was dense with flavor. First there's the sharp pepper, then something sweet -- perhaps nutmeg -- and succulent chicken. All sensations are shrouded in a dark smokiness.

The side salad looked so crisp that I saved it for a finishing palate-cleanser, and after the complex spicy meats, it was the perfect refreshment. Finely chopped, crunchy red bell peppers and cucumbers were mixed with leaf lettuce and a sweet, vinegary, peppery dressing; it was not unlike the sweet, fresh salsa that Caribbean-inspired menus offer.

A backdrop of mountains, dozens of languages and border disputes might add more drama to a dining experience "in country," but an exotic, relaxed eating adventure in comparatively quiet and prosaic Oakland is surely the right spice odyssey to pursue. ***


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