Seventh Wonder New York City Entry #28
Treasure the restauranteur who follows his own muse. While Zagat gives the River Café the nod for best decor, I vote for Moustafa Rahman's Mombar, a Southern Egyptian restaurant in the Arabic corner of Astoria.
As a fancier of Outsider Art, a friend and admirer of the late Howard Finster, the Georgia self-taught artist. My evening at Mombar reminded me of listening, open-mouthed, to the Reverend Finster preach in his redoubt at Paradise Garden. Moustafa Rahman, the chef and owner, has created an establishment like no other (its only competition might be Knoxville's King Tut's Grill, which has much of Mombar's glorious clutter and compelling charm, but without its cracked aesthetic vision). I regret not having a digital camera, discovering that some places can not be put into words. Even when viewed from the street Chef Rahman has created a landmark with his own sculptural vision, his fantastic bricolage. Inside he has painted and sculpted the tables with elaborate folk designs. The walls are brimming with objets d'art, photos, and once utilitarian objects as beer steins, alarm clocks, licenses, and lanterns. The kaleidoscopic mosaics on the floor and in the restroom are worth the price of admission alone. As in Finster's Paradise, one sits in the midst of a mental explosion filled with awe at human imagination. Mombar is a landmark destination for all New Yorkers.
The decor is matched by the chef and his host who strive mightily and successfully to make each diner feel at home. When Chef Rahman came by to apologize for the delay in our entrees, we had barely noticed, and felt a strong desire to assure him that, after all, it was quite all right. The restaurant, although not widely described (it is not rated in Zagat 2005), is not unknown, and the diners were a motley international crew, not the place to choose if one selects on the basis of the ethnic homogeneity of the diners. The authenticity is personal, not national.
Any restaurant with entrees in the $20 range is not a neighborhood dive. How many ethnic restaurants offer a tasting menu? This chef has vision. The food was very satisfactory, although without a comparative analysis I wouldn't suggest that Mombar serves better food than all of their competition. Chef Rahman has his own preparations, slightly off-center from most middle eastern cuisine (unless it was "Northern" Egyptian food I have been eating these years).
My son and I began with an amuse bouche (yes, although not called by that term) of Fried Egyptian bread with a sesame oil accompaniment. Modest though it was, I give the nod to this hot bread as the most indelible dish of the evening. One is used to dipping bread in olive oil, but sesame oil has a sweetness and exoticism that is unique.
We followed this by sharing the Mombar appetizer: a gently-spiced encased sausage of beef, lamb, and rice, served on a bed of chick peas and spiced green beans. I admired the trouble that the Chef went to of filling the sausage casing. The Levantine spices were carefully prepared.
I selected the lamb tagine with raisins, dats, and dried apricots. The stew included peas, carrots, (more) green beans, and (more) chick peas. I confess that I wish that the stew and more fire, more sweet fruit, and perhaps a more tender cut of lamb. I enjoyed the tagine, but it was the light golden pyramid of couscous that made the dish haunting. The grains of couscous were roughly microscopic, as light as air and as hard to spy. If couscous can be little BBs, Mombar's grains are atomized.
My son ordered the Egyptian steak, which he enjoyed, although the meat was not steakhouse quality. The spices did lead to imaginings of Luxor evenings. The fried onions and tomatoes, while not unique, added to the plate.
We chose not to order dessert (the restaurant offers special desserts), but I did enjoy my Hibiscus juice, tart, slightly bitter, and nicely floral.
If this food was offered in a spotless diner, stocked with white formica tables, it would be a pleasant enough evening. However, in a space that was so filled with the creativity of love and the love of creativity, Mombar could easily be labeled as one of the Seven Wonders of the New York culinary world.
25-22 Steinway Street (near Astoria Boulevard)
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