Sunday, November 29, 2009

Alexandria, Astoria!

Saturday afternoon, I am in New York, and I'm restless. I know that I should go somewhere walkable, so as to exercise those muscles that have atrophied in the Western wilderness I now inhabit. And yet, I can't think of any place in Manhattan where the interest provided by the shops will be worth the walk in the cold. I reflect on how I never really figured out how to enjoy New York when I lived here, I never found those spaces in the city where I could really enjoy being a flâneur, those streets so full of interest that it was worth the bother of a forty-minute subway ride to get there. Except for the unequivocal joys of Flushing and Curry Hill, that is. It is heresy to say it, but here it is: I never found New York all that.

As I sat thinking, my muscles atrophying even more, I thought about the fact that the M60 bus that takes me to LaGuardia airport passes right by Astoria, and that I always have the urge, but not the time, to stop and explore. I decided to go, figuring that even if nothing else there was interesting, I could indulge my melancholy with a shisha pipe and a cup of Turkish coffee. I met my boyfriend at the M60 stop, and off we went to Steinway Street.
Our first stop was a pastry shop offering about fifteen different types of baklava. What drew me to it was a very familiar aroma: its window was full of cookies that looked similar to, and smelled exactly the same as, the Romanian fursecuri I cherished so much in my childhood. A piece of baklava, a cookie, and a latte set me back three dollars, and the lady serving me added a couple of pieces of baklava to my plate for good measure. I love this kind of Arab baklava, delicately flavored, not painfully sweet, and tending to be moist rather than dry. 

We went on a long walk to build an appetite. In a thrift store, I found a CD version of Otello (with Domingo in the title role), complete with book, which I bargained down to five dollars. In another thrift store, we considered the purchase of a rusted typewriter. Along the way, we peeked inside a number of fish stores, and figured out exactly where we could buy lamb eyeballs, should the need strike us. In short, it was my Platonic ideal of Stadtbummeln

For dinner, we went back to Steinway and stepped into a restaurant I had seen mentioned online, Kabab Cafe. Imagine a medium-sized rectangular kitchen, with the main cooking counter dominating the room, and you have Kabab Cafe. The restaurant has about five tables in it, and all of the work is done by two people: Ali, the chef, maitre d', and waiter, and a Hispanic kitchen aide whom Ali addresses in a fluent and energetic combination of Italian and Spanish. The walls are covered in wooden carvings, old photographs, paintings, and Egyptian-themed drawings. Ali's counter is laden with baskets and boxes of fruit, fresh herbs, and vegetables in various states of preparation. 

We came in with the usual restlessness accompanying the beginning of a restaurant visit. What would we have to eat? How much of it? In what order? Ali started to explain that the restaurant serves vegetarian dishes, meat dishes, and fish. Lots of fish. And lots of meat, including lamb, rabbit, duck, chicken, and so on. Ah, yes, and it's worth mentioning that Ali is willing to prepare just about every part of the lamb for your delectation -- he did not mention eyeballs, but brains and all other organs were available. There was only one catch. We should not, by any means, operate under the delusion that we would get Turkish, Lebanese, or Syrian food here. Ali cooks strictly Egyptian, and more precisely, the food of his native Alexandria.

When he saw that we were a little overwhelmed with the choice, Ali suggested we get a drink, sit, and think about it. And here was one of the main differences between this and just about any other eating establishment I've been to in New York. Whereas most places seem more focused on their table turnover rate than on your pleasure, whereas many waiters can actually bring themselves to ask if "you're still working on that," at Kabab Cafe you're encouraged to slow down and take it easy.

Mind you, you also don't have the security blankets of normal restaurants. The place is cash only, there is no menu, and Ali seems to basically make up the prices at the end of your meal and hand you a bill. The dishes are not exactly cheap either, but they also aren't expensive considering the quality. Kabab Cafe is also not a good place to hide from other people. You will talk to Ali, if you bring a child into the place, Ali will come over and talk to your child, the children of various families will wind up making noises at each other, a nephew of Ali's will come in asking him for ice cream, and frankly, if you're sitting at the back of the restaurant, I will peek at your plate as Ali brings it by my table. Everybody is up in everybody's business, and the thing to do is to relax and enjoy it.

Ah, but the food. We were brought warm pita bread with a hot pepper dip to begin with, and then made a meal out of four appetizers. Part of the fun is that Ali brings the hot pan of whatever he's just made over to your table, and then serves it to you directly.

The first was a lamb liver sauteed with basil, mint, cumin, coriander, onion and green pepper, and then finished with a bit of vinegar. It was exquisite, the tartness of the vinegar balancing the richness of liver. Our second course was a plate with four squid stuffed with rice, served in a tomato sauce. This was tasty enough, but the squid were not equally tender, and I prefer squid stuffed with ground meat.

The third dish was a plate with four fried sardines, again with sauteed peppers and onions. This was also lovely, and the dry preparation was a nice contrast to the saucy dishes. Finally -- and this was my favourite -- we had rice dumplings in a duck ragout. For this dish, Ali brought us soup bowls with spices and fresh herbs in them. He placed the large, buttery rice dumplings on top of the herbs, and then ladled slow-cooked duck ragout over the whole thing. The combination of luscious dumpling, rich, meaty stew, and fresh herbs was the definition of food with soul.

As we ate (slowly, slowly), and drank a bottle of wine (almost as slowly), we chatted with Ali. The man is not only passionate about food, but believes that you have to know a country, its people, and their history to understand the dishes they eat. I was surprised at his detailed knowledge of Romanian cuisine, which went way beyond knowing that mamaliga is polenta.

When we left, we were in a bit of a trance. The few hours we had spent in Kabab Cafe had felt like time out of time, an escape from the city that was, at the same time, quintessentially New York.


~m said...

this was deliciously written, irina! i'm going to have to try to find that place when i go to ny in june.

i said...

If you take the M60 to Steinway St., it's just a block south from where you get off. Bring lots of cash, and tell Ali you're Romanian!

Ambling Man said...

Now I know where i am going next time I am in New York.... though of course I disagree with all your New York criticism... : )

~m said...

how much did it set you back, btw?

i said...

Well, pre-tip, for the four appetizers, a bottle of wine, and two coffees at the end... about $97.

~m said...

that's not off the charts, particularly if it's yummy and includes wine. :)

i said...

That's right. It's not off the charts, but also not cheap, if you expect appetizers to be more like $8 each. That said, they were larger portions than normal appetizers are -- four grilled sardines, four stuffed squid, a serving plate full of liver, etc, which made them so happily shareable.

The thing about this restaurant is that you have to put yourself in the proprietor's hands. You don't get to look at a menu "contract," and you just have to trust him that what you'll get is tasty. (Also worth noting is that he's not pushy with the food -- when he told us to relax, he also said to think about how hungry we are, so we don't order food we can't eat. We basically ordered the dishes one by one, as at a tapas place.)

However, if you look online, you will find unhappy reviews by some customers for precisely this reason...

tasteofbeirut said...

Irina, I have enjoyed your writing and discovering your blog! When you first said "Egyptian" cook I feared the worst but I am glad you had a good experience there. I will visit again!

i said...

Hi Taste of Beirut! Thanks for your comment. I've just been exploring your blog, which I saw twice in two days -- once in my Google AdSense box, and then again at You have a lot of fantastic recipes on there, and some (like the pomegranate salad and the mujaddara) seem simple enough for novices to make.