You’ve got to love it when you set out to do one thing, it doesn’t go your way, and you end up doing something completely different. Something a lot more exciting. You see, when I had my mind set on finding dukkha for this salad that I made in New York I thought I’d have no trouble in finding it in a part of Astoria, Queens that’s known as Little Egypt.
There’s a stretch of Steinway Street, between Astoria Boulevard and 28th Street, that’s loaded with Arabic grocers, bakeries, eateries and hookah lounges. I thought I’d easily find dukkah along there somewhere, but sadly nobody stocked it. After surrendering my search and settling on za’atar, something that almost every shop sold, I thought a quick bite of some Egyptian food would go down nicely. When in Rome, right?
And here’s what we stumbled upon. The Kabab Cafe. From the street it’s nothing more than a narrow shop-front with a few wooden stools lined up by the entrance. A small printed menu is taped to the door; a menu that sounded decent enough for a (hopefully) decent Egyptian feed.
It was after 12pm and the door was open, so we step in and ask the guy in the kitchen if they were serving lunch. He nods, and carries on doing prep and tidying the kitchen, and allowing us to take any seat in the very tight and very busily-decorated dining room. Man, there’s stuff everywhere. Old photographs, newspaper clippings, trinkets and Egyptian memorabilia.
The guy, whom we discover doesn’t speak many words of English, brings out some steaming cups of mint tea and a dish of sugar for sweetening. We waited for menu’s, and waited. It was then that we realised the chef was yet to arrive at 1pm. After waiting almost an hour, we were starving. After doing a little Googling on the Kabab Cafe as we waited, I learned that we’d stumbled upon a bit of an institution. Hell, even Anthony Bourdain chowed down there at some point.
The chef and owner Ali El Sayed pretty much dominates the room with his presence. It’s here that he proudly and honourably brings home cooking from his native Alexandria, in Egypt. Forget the printed menu displayed on the front door.
When Ali arrives he’ll first ask if you’ve been there before. If not, he’ll ask if you have any allergies or aversions to any foods. He’ll then rattle off what he’s cooking that particular day. Some offal dishes (heart, sweetbread, testicles), a few proteins (rabbit, duck, goat, fish) and to start a mezze platter.
We start off with a meze platter (16) to get rid of the hunger pains. Several minutes before it arrives we each get a “seasoned” plate to use for the mezze. A light sprinkle of sumac and za’atar add some spicy warmth to the delicious baba ganoush, hummus, a purée of fava beans baked with tomato, and falafels made using fava beans as well. A few vegetables add colour to the platter and some crunchy fried frisee leaves. Off to the side is a spicy house-made sauce using seven kinds of peppers and some herbs.
… says Ali from the open kitchen.
The flavours were spot on. And there’s nothing insecure about this dude. He may tell it like it is but he’s an absolute gentleman.
A difficult decision had to be made with what to order next. The combination of meze, flatbread and beer took up a good chunk of stomach real estate, so there was room for just one more plate. I really wanted some sweetbread or lambs testicles but seeing we had to share, and the fact that the other half doesn’t eat offal, we settled on the rabbit (24). Big enough for two.
Tenderly marinated and oven baked with carrots and celery, the rabbit was divine. Loads of juices made up of pomegranate molasses and balsamic vinegar to soak into flatbread. Loved the garnish of fresh blueberries.
Both of us enjoyed the food so much that we decided to head all the way over to Queens for a second helping a week or so later. This time around I had my mind set on some offal; but of course I’d only find out what Ali was cooking when we arrived.
Lamb brain (12.5) with lemon and basil. What can I say, other that it was incredible. Caramelised on the outside, yet soft on the inside. A beautiful lemon and basil aroma went through the entire dish alongside some red peppers.
I also tried the lamb testicles (12.5), savouring every mouthful as I did with the brain. Seared and quickly baked with apple, zucchini and onion, then finished off with a pomegranate and balsamic reduction. Incredible.
Finally, and to share, we go for some baked duck (22) done in a similar fashion to the rabbit. With meat literally falling off the bones in sheets, there was a medley of eggplant, squash, peppers, garlic and spring onion. Some rice bulked it up and more of that pomegranate molasses and balsamic. Another fantastic lunch.