Monday, September 15, 2008

Kabab Cafe

Sam, Erum, Priya, Sirin, and I (and Sam & Erum's not-quite-six-month-old cutie Nooria) had planned to venture to Queens for Sripraphai tonight, but a phone call to make reservations revealed that it was closed for the next seven days for vacation! That's the second time in the immediate past that our plans for awesome Thai were scuttled at the last moment.

We decided to take advantage of the opportunity to go to a place we'd long wanted to try--Kabab Cafe in the Little Egypt section of Astoria. My Arabic instructor, Ustaz Ahmad, had exhorted us to try some restaurants in the area, so I was sort of doing homework as well.

When we entered the Kabab Cafe, I was immediately struck by how tiny it was. We knew it was going to be small, but three tables? To make things odder, there was nobody inside. In the dimly lit, oddly decorated space, squeezed behind a tiny counter, an old Egyptian man with a beret eyed us balefully. I guessed it was Ali El Sayed, and I was kind of trepidatious...chowhound and yelp and other food sites are full of stories about his moodiness, and since this was the kind of restaurant in which you basically throw your fate into the palm of the chef's hand, a bad-mood day might mean a crappy meal.

Thankfully, Ali greeted us warmly (I mean, we were the only people in his restaurant, so he kind of had to be nice to us), and immediately helped us find a place for Nooria and her stroller. Once we were settled, he came over to talk to us about what we might want to eat. Salads? Appetizers? Vegetarian? Meat? (he said he had everything--chicken, beef, lamb, goat, duck, rabbit) Fish? We decided to skip the fish--it seemed expensive from poking around online--and ordered an array of meat and vegetable dishes. A little nervous about not seeing any prices or even being clear on what the specific foods were, we needed a moment to talk things out and he graciously stepped aside. I got the impression that he was not the disorganized, explosive auteur he was often made out to be--he knew exactly what to ask to find out what we wanted, was genuinely offered us everything he had available, and wasn't offended when we needed to nerd out a little and strategize about our choices. He's seen it a million times from extraborough foodbloggers, I'm sure. Once we'd ordered, the food began to come out and (as the restaurant had begun to fill up) we found ourselves pressed for space. Ali advised that we eat everything on a dish quickly when he put it down so he could put down another. Okay.

We began with a double order of mezze featuring baba ghanoush, hummus, ful moudammas dip (pureed fava beans), and falafel. It really began the meal with a bang--the baba ghanoush had the most noticeable wood-smoked flavor I've ever tasted in the dish, and it wasn't over the top at all. The hummus was very fine, and the fava bean dip was the best of all--lemony, rich, and tangy. But the falafel...probably the best I've ever had. The balls were teardrop-shaped, not round, and neither greasy nor overfried, with a flavor more pronounced and less pasty than any I've had before. I've heard that Ali makes them with fava beans, and I think that I can no longer say that bright green Israeli falafel is the best way to do it. I also liked the crispy-fried greens--kale?--that added a great texture to the creamy dips.

We asked for both of the salads on the menu--beet salad and artichoke hearts salad. I wasn't expecting too much from these. I hadn't read much about them, and beet salad can be excellent, but it's usually pretty simple...throw some goat cheese, nuts, and beets together, hope you have good-quality ingredients, and charge 12 bucks for it. And artichoke hearts? 99% of the time, they're from a jar, pickled, boring, not artichokey at all. I should've had faith, though--both of these salads were fantastic. The beets were tiny--nickel- and quarter-sized--and mixed with apple slices, caramelized onion hearts and garlic, and sprigs of fresh dill, with a dusting of Egyptian spices and viniagrette. The artichoke hearts were clearly cut from real, house-roasted artichokes, big C-shaped spears of solid artichoke meat, sometimes with a tiny charred leaf still attached. Mixed with chopped tomatoes, orange peppers, basil leaves, grilled onions, and lemon dressing (and also dusted with a fine coating of za'atar), the salad was what I always wish "artichoke heart" salads would be (though they never are).

The next item up was the sweetbreads, sauteed in a lemon sauce. I'd really pushed for these, and everyone else seemed kind of iffy about them, but I'd never had sweetbreads before and had heard (from Wooh) that the offal at Kabab Cafe was not to be missed. I gotta say that Wooh was right. They were delicious--soft and chewy in a way that makes you think that maybe you're eating a piece of fat at first, but then the fattiness giving way to a real meat chew and flavor, finishing with a very rich, proteiny taste, kind of like foie gras melting in your mouth. Again this was mixed with peppers and onions and basil and a delicious thin dressing, which Sam continued to scoop up and eat long after everyone had abandoned the fried thymus glands to me.

Another must-have item was the kafta (the closest thing the menu had to "kababs"; when we asked about kebabs, he dismissed us with a wave of his hand, saying "That just means meat. Meat!"). We had been hoping for chicken, but no dice--only beef. That was fine with me. The kafta was kind of like heavily spiced meatballs, grilled over fire rather than baked in an oven, with beefy juices soaking the rice below to such a degree of deliciousness that Priya exclaimed about it. Much better than the Lebanese kafta I used to eat regularly at the Reef Cafe in Allston!

We decided we didn't want little lamb chops, but we did want lamb, so we got a date-stuffed breast of lamb with a ridge of dark mallow greens (I think) tucked around it and a smear of labneh cheese on top. Perfectly cooked to the point of extreme tenderness and highly flavored, we only wished it had more of the meaty part. I was pretty happy gnawing the fatty meat off the bones, though. And I didn't see any whole dates--I think they were more in the glaze/sauce than "stuffing".

Next Ali brought us two vegetable dishes: the moussaka (less liquidy and more flavorful than the Lebanese version I've eaten before, and much preferably to the Greek version with its ground meat and layers of cheese) and kushari. I'd been hoping Ali would offer us kushari, and when he did I pounced on it and ordered it. One of Egypt's big "national dishes", kushari is a gross-sounding mixture of rice, macaroni, lentils, tomato sauce, and charred onions that comes out absolutely delicious when made by the right person. I guess Ali was that person. It had a sweet, powerful flavor that was enhanced by the whole cinnamon sticks stewed in with the makings, and the dark color and delectable flavor of the macaroni made me wonder how on earth he did it without sauteeing them in beef grease.

Still feeling a little hungry, we put in a late order for a half chicken cooked with vegetables, and that provided a sort of dessert for us. The cafe's trademark char was evident all over the dish, and thinly-sliced potatoes on the side were steeped in the juices that were flowing from the dark-brown, well-marinated grilled chicken as it lay over rice. While enjoyable, the dish was, at heart, chicken with grilled peppers and zucchini and onions, so I wasn't overly impressed. But as marinated grilled chicken goes, it was near the top.

We all lowballed our guesses on the bill, which came out to $135 (including $5 for 5 bottles of water--Ali refused to give out tap water). With tip, it was still only a little over $30 each, which isn't a "cheap eat", but is nowhere near what a similar meal would cost in a more conventional sit-down restaurant. And we'd BYOBed, drinking Lillet mixed with water and pear cider, so we didn't have alcohol expenses.

All told, a great meal that lasted a few hours and didn't cost so very much.

1 comment:

rudylandsam said...

great review..and boy was that some tasty offal juice!