A FLYING VISIT TO NYC & THE KABAB CAFE
I had planned to remain in London for at least another couple of weeks, until I received a call asking if I could attend some important meetings in NYC. So, I brought forward my flight to LA and rerouted it through The Big Apple. No great hardship to spend a couple days in one of my favourite cities, but a great shame to have to cancel catch ups with so many of my good chums back in Blighty. I trust they can find it in their hearts to forgive me.
It was an all too fleeting visit. Any visit to New York is too short, of course and I was there for work, not pleasure. However, amongst all the meetings, I did at least have a couple of nights to hang out with family and some of my close friends who live in the city.
I often get e-mails asking me which restaurants I recommend in New York and, while I can trot out the familiar names with the best of them, people seem most surprised when I tell them that my favourite place of all is a small Egyptian restaurant, The Kabab Cafe, in Astoria, Queens.
I have written about The Kabab Cafe and its owner, Ali El Sayed, before on the blog. I even dedicated a small part of the NYC chapter of Eat My Globe to a meal I enjoyed there in 2007. Tight schedules had meant I had not been able to fit in a trip to Queens since that visit. So when my good friends, Cathy, Alan and Sandy suggested that we make it our venue for supper, I had no hesitation in agreeing to meet them in the tiny fifteen seat restaurant on Steinway Street.
A meal with Ali is not like any meal you will have ever experienced. It is not just that the food is exceptional, which it is (more of that in a moment) Nor is it just that a meal there costs about $40 if you are showing off, which it does. A meal at The Kabab Cafe is pure performance art as Ali gives you the benefit of his encyclopaedic knowledge and forthright opinions while delivering plate after plate of astonishing food from a kitchen the size of a small dining table.
There is a menu at The Kabab Cafe, I am told. But, I have never seen one. Ali knows that I am a man who is inordinately fond of my offal and had made plans in advance. As we arrived, we found assorted pots and pans bubbling away on the stove and the man himself decanting braised sheep heads into a bowl to remove the meat from when they had cooled.
Once we had all settled and opened a few bottles of wine (from which Ali, of course, helps himself to a liberal chef's share) the meal began in earnest with hot breads and an even hotter dipping sauce. I could describe the meal in detail, but there is little point as, if you were to visit, he would prepare something entirely different for you. In fact every table on our visit received an entirely different array of dishes to ours from the extensive catalogue he keeps in his head.
We began with a plate of sweetbreads with deep fried kale and thick hummus, followed by roasted beets with apples and zatac, dumplings stuffed with pumpkin in a yoghurt and basil sauce, lambs tongues with olives, crisp fried calves brains, artichoke hearts in lemon juice, whole roasted sea bass and gurnard, fried whitebait and, best of all, a dish Ali called Gavede, a stew of minced lamb served with a raw egg which he mixed into the bowl at the table.
Finally, as we all waved away the suggestion that we should attack a plate of braised lamb shanks, he relented his assault and let us finish off with a plate of home made Egyptian desserts and a cup of hot hibiscus tea to aid our digestion. It was another stunning effort from Mr El Sayed and confirmed the status of The Kabab Cafe as one of my favourite places to eat anywhere on earth.
I'll be back soon.
Just in case any of you are wondering about the first picture, it is of the excellent lobster roll served at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. A little treat to myself in a small gap between meetings at lunchtime. A bit over the top given how much food I knew we were going to be presented with that evening, but, hey, this is NYC after all.