Thursday, October 7, 2010

Kebab Café: Guaranteed Personality

Living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan, Queens seems like a strange and distant land to me. With the exception of the occasional foray into Flushing to satisfy my cravings for Chinese and Korean food, I regretfully admit I've unfairly neglected this borough. But with Ali El Sayed's Kebab Café, it was always a matter of when, and not if, I would go. Serving his take on northern Egyptian food, Alexandrian to be exact, Ali has been a fixture on Steinway Street since 1989. Leave it to my good friend ESC, who happens to live just down the street, to finally drag my sorry ass up to Astoria and finally visit this legendary restaurant.

Having read about the minuscule size of Ali's matchbox of a restaurant, ESC and I arrived early to an almost empty Kebab Café and had our pick of a table. Scanning the interior, one cannot help but notice the random collection of Egyptian-themed kitsch that litters the walls. To this degree and this degree only, Kebab Café reminded me of a TGIF, only genuine and lacking a Guy Fierri-inspired menu.

Speaking of menus, despite the one posted outside, there is no "official" menu to speak of, rather your dinner is left to the mercy of whatever Ali feels like cooking that evening. Depending on who you ask Ali's repoire with his fellow customers is characterized as either being charming or some manipulative act meant to push pricey specials and despite the fact that ESC and I witnessed several awkward interactions where Ali effectively scolded several customers unwilling to listen to his suggestions, we found the man pleasant quite pleasant.

After taking our order, we were immediately given a seasoned plates with Zatar, a basket of warmed Pita Bread and a Chili Sauce, made from seven different chili peppers.

Per Ali's advice, we started with a Mixed Meze Plate, containing Hummus, Baba Ganoush, Fool and Falafal, it came adorned with a slices of Apple and Fried Watercress. Eaten with the pita bread, apples and watercress, the real standouts were the smokey baba ganoush, fool and creamy falafal, which was made from fava beans instead of the usual chickpeas.

After a quick sidebar with Ali, we decided on two offal dishes, one of which was famously served to Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. First to arrive was the Lamb Cheeks, topped with an raw egg which was cooked after Ali mixed the dish together just before serving us. Literally smoking hot, the cheeks had a deep rich flavor and was slightly gelatinous, but in a good way. Best of all, were the crunchy bits that had caramelized in the oven that were interspersed throughout the dish.

We went from cheeks to Sweetbreads, sauteed with Lemon and Capers. Though usually fried, I loved Ali's version and albeit lacking a textural contrast, the acidity from the lemon and the brininess and floral notes from the capers married perfectly with the creamy sweetbreads.

Though usually one to negotiate, I made the preemptive decision to order our entree as soon as Ali uttered the two words "lamb shank." I've read that some are less than impressed with Ali's quality of meat for the price that he charges, but his Braised Lamb Shank with Roasted Vegetables and Rice Pilaf was a thing of beauty. Chewy as a rubberband when cooked improperly but succulent and tender when done right, the shank requires both skill and time. Fortunately, Ali has both, as chunks of lamb meat effortlessly fell from its gigantic bone, this was easily one of the best lamb dishes I've had all year.

By this point we were beginning to hit the wall but ordered two incredibly sweet tasting Iced Hibiscus Teas as we contemplated whether to order dessert or not. Of course we did, and Ali sent over a Mixed Dessert Plate with Basbousa, a Semolina Cake Soaked in Syrup, Baklava and Kunafa bi Jibin, Shredded Phyllo with Cheese. Mouth-numbingly sweet, these concluded an incredibly delicious and memorable meal.

Disliked by some, revered by many, but seemingly known by all, Ali El Sayed stubbornly refuses to deviate from who he is and the food that he serves, prompting his haters to call his food, uninspired and overpriced. But to lovers of all things offal and more importantly, to his legion of loyal fans, Ali's food exudes the very same passion and warmth he displays as he personally greets each and every diner, making you feel as though you are not some patron inside a cramped restaurant in Astoria, but rather, a guest inside his home.

Kebab Café
2512 Steinway Street
Astoria, NY 11103
(718) 728-9858

To see all our pics click the flickr link.

Kabab Café on Urbanspoon

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