Ecstasy in Your Mouth, From Egypt

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook

 

This is from my review of Kabob Café in Astoria, published in New York’s Gay City News. Please pay no attention to the first paragraph about the rumored “vermin,” and go straight to the pomegranate molasses:

I was afraid of Astoria’s Kabob Café because of Yelp. I’m not proud of it, but I was. Several Yelpers had claimed there was “filth,” “cobwebs,” and even a roach spotted crawling on the unique Egyptian café’s art-laden walls. I try to be open-minded about restaurants, but I do draw the line at vermin.

Still, new friends Karen Taylor (the celebrated community organizer) and her wife, Laura Antoniou (the celebrated BDSM author), had recommended the place, and the food sounded thrilling: Lamb cheeks in pickled lemon sauce. Grilled goat cooked in honey. Oh vegetarians, I know I have neglected you in these reviews so far, so think on this: “Three kinds of mushrooms ground and spread… [with] spicy tomatoes and homemade yogurt,” according to Kabob Café’s menu, which only exists online and guides the physical distribution of food there only as a sort of spiritual template. Pumpkin dumplings, according to a Yelper. Humita (a Quechua Indian dish from South America, what was it doing on this otherwise Egyptian bill?): a “crêpe filled with stewed corn served in fresh tomato sauce and topped with homemade farmer’s cheese.”

When I met Karen and Laura there one wintry Saturday afternoon, I entered the tiny storefront on Steinway Street, in the far less yuppie and more Arab section of Astoria. I saw mismatched chairs with velvet cushions, and some variously beautiful and cheesy-looking paintings and souvenirs of Cairo, but no cobwebs or insects.

Many restaurants have been said to make you feel like you are guests in somebody’s home, but this is the only one that has ever really made me feel that way, for good or ill.

The chef and only staffer, Ali El Sayed, had just gotten back from vacation, and said his cupboards were barer than usual. As though he were our mom, he asked us to pick among the following things for lunch: cauliflower, beets with lemon, apples, garlic, and dill, green fava-bean falafel, lamb, duck, chicken, porgy, squid, and rabbit. Ali, tall, big-bellied, and gray-haired, in a black artist’s beret and chef’s whites, began to cook for us as my friends and I sat and talked. I knew from Yelp and from my friends that Ali’s meals take a long time, so we asked for hot tea, which he served us in glasses, with loads of mint leaves floating at the top.

The chef’s miniscule kitchen goes the length of the tiny room, and perhaps dominates it. I’ve eaten in restaurants with “open kitchens” before, but none has ever been as open as this. El Sayed is courtly and gracious, but he’s also occasionally overly talkative, on subjects ranging from politics (leftist, thankfully) to religion (he’s against it) and sex (he’s for it, in all of its varieties). Sometimes he even makes fun of his diners. Still, if you come with friends, he will not interrupt you much.

After Laura, Karen and I had discussed (solely among ourselves) A Song of Ice and Fire, Snape from Harry Potter, and a recent controversy in the International Ms. Leather contest, Ali brought out three naked plates for us, strewn decorously with the spice blend called zaatar and with sumac, plus a few drops of olive oil. Then he brought the first entrée for us to spoon onto those plates: roasted cauliflower in an extraordinary pomegranate sauce, with pinenuts, skinny slivers of red pepper, and sautéed chicory leaves.

I’ve had some amazing cauliflower dishes around town, but this one was different. This roasted cauliflower dish reminded me of a parable from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas where Jesus asks his disciples to tell him what he is like. One says, “You are like a righteous angel.” Another says, “You are like a wise philosopher.” But the disciple to whom Jesus gives the prize says, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying what you are like.” Jesus says (more or less), “That’s exactly what I wanted! You’ve become drunk from the intoxicating stream I have been tending.”

It was far better than (and amazing) similar dish at the Palestinian restaurant Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, hitherto my standard for the best Arab food in New York. I wanted to go on eating it until cauliflower came out of my nose.

Though in that gnostic text Thomas was rewarded for not trying to put into words what his own, spiritual version of that cauliflower dish was like, I will now put my foot in it and try anyway. With most attempts to make cauliflower taste good, the challenge is to temper its aggressiveness, but not so much that it loses its unique flavor. This cauliflower somehow blended with its tangy pomegranate friend (I believe lemon was also involved) in such a way that there was no tension between its pungency and the sweet, lappable sauce.

Next Ali brought duck, which, reader, is not my favorite animal to eat. But pieces of the roast thigh were succulent, with a wonderful, mysterious sweetness. They were served with dollops of a gelatinous-textured grain that Ali told us was a “polenta of cassava,” slim wedges of buttery roasted squash, and an appetizing wild green called horta. I like foods that quiver, and my fork went back again and again to that curious cassava jello-polenta. It bounced in my mouth.

For the rest of the review, click here.

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