Thursday, March 27, 2008

"Tired of eating eyeballs"

My goal before leaving New York is to eat in as many outer borough stars as possible. I want to return to Spicy Mina and Sri at least once more. I want to finally get to Di Fara and Tangra Masala, and I had wanted to get to Kabab Café (sort of).

Kebab Café, a tiny Egyptian kitchen with only about 15 seats, is infamous for serving large amounts of offal (the parts of animals that we Americans usually throw away.) Equally infamous is the chef Ali. He is known for chatting up his customers with little regard for politesse or boundaries. It was a place I had to try, but at the same time, it's a love it or hate it kind of place. Some people find the food (especially the innards pretty gross); others find it overpriced; others find Ali overbearing. Anyway, I'd been putting it off for a while, but my youngest niece Lily is studying the Egyptian dialect of Arabic with plans to go to Egypt for her junior year abroad, so I promised her I'd take her, and so last Friday night, she, Daniel, and my middle niece, Anna, and I headed out to Astoria, and to Kabab Café…

People are not exaggerating when they describe the place as tiny. We arrived at about 7:40, and all of the seats were filled, so we had to wait in the miniscule area near the door, moving out of the way so that Ali and his one bus boy could grab silverware and napkins from behind where we were standing. The wait gave us time to run across the street for beer (and cash) and to observe Ali in action. He does all of the cooking himself, in a tiny oven and a few hot plates. On his counter are tubs of unindentifiable pieces of meat and tons of fresh veggies. In between sips of wine, he holds court with all of the customers as he cooks, turning his attention from one table to the next, thereby giving each table a chance to enjoy his "Egyptian magic," the same "love" he says he puts in each dish he cooks.

When we sat down at a table cozily placed in a little nook directly across from Ali's cooking station, we were showered with that magic. First he quickly took a fancy to the lovely Lily and Anna, and off we went on a culinary journey, the likes of which I've never experienced before. We weren't given a menu; rather Ali gave us a list of what was good that night – beet salad, red fish, shrimp (no shrimp, I shouted), lamb shank. Then when I told him that we were there to give my niece Lily a taste of Egyptian food to prepare her for trip, his eyes lit up, "Oh you have to come back during lunch," he said. "Then we'll really talk. Dinner is for amateurs." Amateurs or not, after he determined that we were adventurous eaters, we and he decided that he should just choose our meal for us, basically go Omakase, Egyptian style. So here's what he gave us:

Combo plate – hummus, baba, foul, and falafel, with pita and hot sauce, and a mysterious piece of lightly fried lettuce

The verdict: the whole process of waiting to be seated, waiting for Ali's attention, waiting for the combo plate took a while, so when it arrived we were ravenous and ripped right into the mass of yummy goodness Ali put in front of us. Although the pitas were clearly from a bag, they soaked up the delicious, slightly chunky hummus and the perfect (and thankfully not too rich baba) with ease. The falafels were cruncy and great, with none of the remnant grease that sometimes plagues such creatures. But the hot sauce. Oh man, was that hot sauce good. When I asked Ali what it was I got what I guess is his standard answer, "Egyptian magic." Oh and "love."

Sardines – whole, pretty sizeable sardines, heads and all
The verdict: Daniel, never one for fish on the bone was a little scared, but Anna told him that he could just swallow the littlest ones and I showed him how to fillet it a bit, and then we all enjoyed these oily, succulent creatures. I am my father's (and mother's) daughter. I like sardines. Even when they don't come canned in mustard sauce.
Beet salad - beets, olive oil, some other stuff
The verdict: Anna said she didn't know she liked beets, but she liked these; I agreed.

Lamb cheeks – served in a hot earthenware dish; ground lamb cheeks with a poached egg on top, which Ali mixed all together for us at the table, calling the egg "Egyptian hollandaise sauce"; eaten with whole wheat pita and hot sauce

The verdict: for me, the best of the night; rich, almost like a pate with the texture of almost the moist meat of a Bolognese sauce; really, really phenomenal

Lamb tongue – we were just warming up with cheeks; this was going to separate the men from the boys; big hunks of lamb's tongue sautéed and then lovingly placed in a thick tomato sauce

The verdict: I was so impressed with the lot of us; I'd had tongue on deli platters growing up (or rather, I'd avoided tongue on deli platters growing up); going into the meal Daniel was pretty sure he wouldn't even taste tongue, Lily giggled about it but made promises to indulge; Anna (in some foreshadowing of the rest of the evening) was unfazed. In the end we all dove in, and then after tasting the rich, crispy meat in the hearty acidic sauce, we dove in again and again, occasionally remembering what we were eating, but then pushing through because, really, it was just so good.

Veal sweetbreads – none of us could remember what is involved in sweetbreads; we knew it wasn't pretty, but when a plate of fried, fatty morsels and green peppers appeared in front of us, we really didn't know what we were getting into

The verdict: too fatty and grisly for me, but I'm glad I tried it; others seemed pleased, even after Daniel guessed that it was brain, and I agreed; turns out its thymus gland or pancreas; either way, still too fatty

Lamb shank – an enormous lamb shank with rice and some sauteed veggies covered in lamb juices

The verdict: this was incredibly difficult to eat; we tried using our fork and puny knives to cut into it, but only managed to get little morsels of the chewy, flavorful meat; but then Ali came by and insisted that Anna pick it up and really eat, and she did. It looked pretty good. I meanwhile kept piling the rice and veggies covered in lamb juices on my plate. Delish.

Red fish - this came in two dishes; first the whole fish minus the head with lots of veggies; then a fish head stew; the whole head in a tomato broth with more veggies

The verdict: the fish was moist and flaky and tender; very subtle flavor typical of a white fish; I also LOVED the well sauteed, crispy veggies that came with it; I couldn't stop picking at them, long after I should have stopped. Meanwhile, Anna had something she couldn't stop picking at either - the eyeballs of our little friend that were floating around in the fish head stew. She picked one up and ate it without absolutely no compunction. Then she picked up the other and slurped it down too. Not to leave a single piece, when she found a remnant (the iris perhaps), that went down the hatch too. She is a total stud.

Full of eyeballs, veggies, and the rest, we couldn't stomach dessert. BUT not wanting to disappoint Ali, we got one of everything and took it to go...

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