Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Stars Over Astoria New York City Entry #89 Kabab Café

My initial excursion to the bustling village of Astoria was to dine at Mombar Café, whose decor I described - and still describe - as one of the wonders of the New York dining world. Soon several friends gently took me to task. They didn't deny - how could they? - that the ambiance at Mombar's was thoroughly otherworldly, a love sonnet from restauranteur to diner. However, they noted that just down the street Mustafa's brother, Ali, was a genius behind the stove.

Let me not cause any quarrels between siblings - I understand that they cook together on occasion - but having returned from Kabab Café, I can attest that Ali is one of New York's star chefs. And he works his magic in a space that makes Momofuku or Prune - or Mombar - seem spacious by comparison. My Chicago home has a larger closet. The decor at Kabab nods in the direction of the odd and self-taught, but the cuisine is assured.

Since four of our party of six knew Ali El-Sayed (after eating at KC once every diner knows Ali), we were treated to Ali's revelations. Kabab Café has a menu, but in practice it doesn't count for much.

As appetizers we were presented with three plates: an Egyptian antipasto plate of light, fragrant and oddly shaped falafel, silky humus, and an array of crispy fried greens. It was splendid. A second plate contained slivers of woodsy mushroom tart in a crisp phyllo dough. The final appetizer was marinated sardines. Not the now trendy fresh sardines, but sardines in a marinate that never overpowered.

While Ali offered goat in a pomegranate glaze, we selected duck two ways and a plate of fried tilapia. The grandest dish of the evening - one of the most heavenly duck preparations I have ever had - was Ali's "Marsh Duck," a perfectly stewed wild duck with accompaniments appropriate for such untamed meat, including caramelized green almonds, lotus root, and bamboo. These flavors demanded a new way of conceiving duck, a novel taste register. The second, domestic duck, roasted with honey and served with squash was memorable as well, although lacked the complexity of the first plate. Our tilapia, fried whole, was a sight to be seen, even if mild tilapia does not - and did not - have the evocative flavors of the poultry pair.

Dessert was another combination plate: this time Ali's Egyptian sweets. Each was a honeyed success, particularly the bird's nest and his homemade yogurt.

If there is a chef's Believe-It-Or-Not, Chef Ali will surely receive the award for the most culinary miracles per square foot of kitchen. This is a tiny restaurant that no one who cares about the possibilities of cuisine can afford to pass. And Ali's Marsh Duck demands to be bronzed.

Kabab Café
35-12 Steinway Street (near Astoria Boulevard)
Queens (Astoria)
718-728-9858

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