If the cuisine of Alexandria, Egypt is a symphony orchestra it’s rhythm section would be played by lemon and olive oil. You would definitely taste a symbol crash of garlic, brash trumpet notes of sumac and zatar, a sweet flute solo of pomegranate syrup, but the bass line? The foundation on which the harmonies are built? That role is played by lemon and olive oil, the smell of which consumes your senses and releases the tension in your soul as you enter the Kabab Cafe, owned and run by Ali, the despotic conductor of this conservatory of cuisine. Like many hole in the wall restaurants well known for their food, their diminutive nature, and the outsized personality of their proprietors, the Kabab Cafe looks like a museum exhibit of casbah chic (not sheik). Every inch of the walls are covered with gilded mirrors and old signs in Arabic, the low wooden benches that act as seats are festooned in plush cushions and fabrics, and the tiny railroad room is dominated by the kitchen; a kitchen that does wonders despite it’s minuscule size (something that should give hope to the majority of city dwellers who must use kitchens no bigger than most Americans’ closets).
The Kabab Cafe’s fame stems from two points of interconnected notoriety: Mr. Ali, the chef-owner, is a devotee to the authentic, and by authentic I am referring to offal–the sauteed, charred, and boiled innards of lamb and calf of which many outside of the painfully self aware taste-making zones of the two coasts are as of yet uninitiated. The other mark of acclaim is that this establishment received the mark of approval from none other than Mr. Anthony Bourdain and Mr. Andrew Zimmern (the one and only Mr. Offal himself) on a 2007 episode of Mr. Bourdain’s highly acclaimed show “No Reservations”.
This brings me to a little rant on places previously visited by Mr. Bourdain on his TV show, please bear with me: “Aaargh have you been everywhere? How comprehensive are your effing producers? Is it possible to go to any good, out of the way restaurant in this city without feeling like a ‘No Reservations’ biter? My dad has been getting drunk off steins of spaten at the Heidelberg since 1972, he’s taken me there since I was a child, it’s the first place I ever tasted beer (mmm beer), last month we went there for a mensday dinner and the waiter asked if we came because we saw the Bourdain show. It was an innocent question, but I was grossly insulted and had to drown my shame in a hessian boot sized glass of hofbrau.” Okay, rant over. The translation of the above: mega props to Mr. Bourdain and everybody who worked on that show–it’s hard to go anywhere in the world they haven’t hit up first–don’t feel like a johnny come lately, feel validated.
But back to the offal. My crew of friends love good food and strong booze but I wouldn’t exactly describe us as gourmands (maybe hedonists?). That is to say we draw the line at more than one type of offal at the table at one time. Our organ of choice this night? Lamb brains. Lamb brains that were so delicately prepared I would never know I was eating Shaun the Sheep’s medulla oblongata–little fritters, lightly breaded and seared, and drizzled with a sweet and sour vinegar sauce (its taste very similar to the Italian agrodolce preparation). There was none of that gamy, mineral flavor associated with innards, rather, it was like you were eating scrambled eggs formed into a patty and sauteed.
While the brains were good, they were not what I was left thinking about the next morning. That would fall to four of the too-many-to-count dishes Chef Ali surprised us with (in fact, the only thing we actually requested besides more pita was the lamb brains). Plates like lamb shank braised with tomatoes, lemons and mirepoix; beet salad, served steaming straight out of skillet adorned with olive oil, lemon juice, and dill; rabbit, browned then finished with onions, olives, and preserved lemon; and–my favorite because I’m boring–perfectly cooked roast lamb chops with sweet pomegranate syrup and spicy harissa-like sauce redolent with the smell of mint and basil. There was one other dish of note: an eggplant “dip” that disproves the maxim your eyes eat before your stomach, an amorphous grey-brown mash of eggplant and garlic with two eggs beat into it in the cast iron pan right before it’s dumped on to a plate and sprinkled with paprika, zatar, and sumac.
Oh, I forgot to mention the kicker, the restaurant is BYOB! Arak and red wine all night!
2512 Steinway St., Astoria, NY 11103 718- 728-9858
Calder Quinn is a fearless gastronome exploring New York City one restaurant at a time—he’s also the eldest son of Lucinda Scala Quinn, Living’s Executive Editorial Director of Food. Here’s what he has to say about the origins of Mensday Wednesday: “Being located in New York City gives us the opportunity to sample a wide array of food. After all, there are over 20,000 restaurants here and in a huge city, built on the contributions of immigrants, which continues to draw people from every corner of the world, it is statistically probable that there exists a commercial enterprise operating to meet everyone’s taste, as disparate as those tastes may be. There are no set requirements as to where we dine, but a sort of tacit set of rules have emerged: price is important–the final bill should never cause us to wince, ‘international’ cuisine is preferred, and in the event of a debate, byob is the trump card.”
Follow Mensday Wednesdays on Twitter @mensdae.