Until last night, I was completely unaware that I live two blocks from one of the most famous restaurants in all of New York City. Read on to find out why Anthony Bourdain is jealous of me.
At about 7PM yesterday evening, I walked over to Astoria's glorious Steinway Street to meet a few friends from my book club for dinner. The section of Steinway near my apartment is predominantly lined with businesses owned by people from North Africa and the Middle East...bakeries, restaurants, groceries, and a dozen or so hookah lounges are open and bustling into the early hours on any given night. Large families sit crammed around tables eating Moroccan feasts, friends chat boisterously in impromptu gatherings on the sidewalk, and older men recline in little chairs outside the hookah lounges, exhaling fruity smoke and watching the lovely young women who walk by. It's a festive sight.
And while lots of these Steinway establishments are large, flashy, and club-like, the little Kabab Cafe epitomizes hole-in-the-wall. Literally. As I entered the restaurant, the first thing I noticed was its size...or lack thereof. It is teeny. One quick scan of the eyes and I could see the entire kitchen and all 5 or 6 tables in the place. My friends were running late, so I took a spot at a little booth near the front entrance and looked around, hoping to spot a waiter. It was then that His Highness Chef Ali spoke to me.
"Just one, Miss?"
"Oh, no, there will be a few more. I think they're running a few minutes late."
"Ah. Would you like a glass of wine, Coca-Cola, tea...?"
"I'll just have water, please, that should be fine for now."
"No glass of water. Bottled water only."
"Oh, ok. Sure. Um, one of those."
That was the first indication that this was going to be an interesting dining experience. Bottled water only? A ploy to charge the customer for what is normally a courtesy item? Not entirely uncommon, but still a little surprising, as this was a regular "sit-down" restaurant and all. But, eh, I shrugged it off and decided to look at the menu. It hadn't been brought to the table yet.
"Excuse me, do you mind if I just take a look at the menu?"
I actually chuckled. Ha ha, this guy. What a jokester. No, come on, for real this time.
"Oh, haha! That's funny. Is it posted somewhere? Should I get up to...?"
I retreated. Clearly, this was a man in charge of his operation.
"When your friends get here, we will talk. And then decide what you have."
He then brought a small plate of hummus and pita bread to the table, tossed a copy of Edible Queens in my general direction, and strode back to his kitchen. Well, well! Alrighty, Mr. Ali! I was instantly charmed.
After reading a fascinating article about the local rooftop farm Brooklyn Grange, my friends arrived. Now it was time. Time to have this "talk". After a few minutes, Ali peeked over his post at the stove and told us what we might eat that night.
I honestly can't remember everything he said. Something about a beet salad this, a grape leaves that...but it all sounded delicious. After he rattled off the entire list of what he was offering to patrons that evening, it all dawned on me: this guy just goes out and buys whatever he finds for the day, cooks up whatever he wants, and that's what you get. You eat according to his culinary whim. Ha, silly me, requesting a menu!
Needless to say, we were a little overwhelmed by his verbal presentation of options, so we asked him to suggest something for us. And boy, did he. About 20 minutes later, he began bringing dishes to the table...first, a basket of warm whole wheat pita bread. Then, little plates sprinkled with a mix of spices (I heard him mention "za'atar") which we would use throughout the meal. Finally, he brought out a mezze plate with baba ghanouj, hummus, thinly sliced apples, deep-fried frisee, and the most perfect falafel I've ever tasted in my life. He also laid out a dish with artichoke hearts and peppers, and another with hot ground lamb cheeks covered in a dollop of raw egg, which he personally stirred at the table. Then he asked if there were any vegetarians; I answered.
"Oh, I am actually. That looks delicious, but I will probably just stick to the falaf--"
"But this lamb is vegetarian fed. It is cheeks! Fed with only kisses. See, now you can eat. Only kisses."
The charm of this man! He's an attraction himself. Now, no one has ever talked me into eating a piece of meat in the years since I gave it up, but I feel that if anyone could, it would be Ali. His enthusiasm for his food is entirely infectious. Some may find his style a little jarring, as he did at times seem to live in his own little menu-less world, with his own rules and opinions. Is that pretentious? Eh, maybe. But the food is sublime...so who can argue with that?
I'm just glad that I am close enough to go back whenever I please and see Ali preparing his Egyptian dishes, keeping his watchful eye on humanity from behind the kitchen counter.
Yeah, I live two blocks away. Eat your heart out Bourdain.