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Kabab Café


yvonne johnson
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A little group of seven went to Kabab Café, 25-12 Steinway St, Queens, 718/728-9858 on Tuesday. This turned out to be offal heaven. But to start at the beginning we started with cava (bring you own booze), and sublime appetizers. Deep-fried greens, hummus, smokey baba ghanoush, spicy beans, and beetroot salad with hints of lemon. Then….then the highlights for me: sautéed brains. The silky texture, resembling sweetbreads but fluffier in the way a good omelet is. Best thing I’ve tasted following my first sweetbreads in Brussels over 20 years ago. Then, lamb’s liver in onions. The onions were stewed till sweet and melting and the liver was succulently tender. Then, lamb’s liver with hot spices. Then kidneys two ways, one with a sauce resembling curry (less successful in my view) the other a plainer sauté, then fried spleen, another delicious dish. Then, rare goat! Then Baklava. By this time we’d consumed quite a lot of white and red wines and malt whisky. Ali, the charming chef/owner took great care of us, he even went as far as hailing us cabs and cuddling us good-bye.

What great food (all the above for $30 per head) is produced in this tiny restaurant.

Thanks to Nina for arranging this banquet and for inviting me. It was lovely to see Simon again, too. And yes, it’s true, he does have an extremely long tongue. (Outsiders and newcomers will just have to surmise.)

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I really like the Kabob Cafe -- I ate there once and have been wanting to go back since. Ali is the master! His brother has a neat folk-art decorated resto a few blocks away, I believe it's called Moombar.

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I think Kabab Cafe is my favorite place on earth at the moment.  I can't stop going, and it's been that way for months.  Ali is among the most charming people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  This is a real gem of a place.

(Yes, his brother, Mustafa, does own Mombar, a few doors down - some evenings they run back and forth, cooking together - a real treat)

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You know what I love at Kabab Cafe, they take leaves of Swiss Chard and they throw them into a fry pan bubbling with hot oil and they crisp up in about 20 seconds. Then they throw a pinch of salt and something else, possibly sumac on them and they dress various dishes with this garnish. It even inspired me to make them at home and they were fantastic. People gobbled them down. But I have had mixed experience eating at Kabab Cafe. Some great meals, and some really bland ones, though I've never delved into the offal. I find the meats to be too lean at times. And as a result, too dried out from cooking in that saute pan Ali likes so much. And Mombar is cool, but sometimes they are in it a bit over their head there.

Yvonne-Did you just look at Simon's tongue?

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  • 2 months later...

Ok, I shall attempt to list what we ate. Please consider this an initial list, with not much detail. We'll all fill in.

First, the booze:

to start: sherry - oloroso

3 whites - a south african chardonnay, a fat bastard chardonnay, and the Chassagne Montrachet.

reds: an australian grenache, a rioja, and a cotes de languedoc.

simon brought his usual contribution of terrific single malt scotch for the end.

Food:

we started with a salad - lettuce, tomato, onion, with a marvelous sprinkling of middle eastern "hocus pocus" as Ali likes to call it. Also, a cold sliced beet salad.

Then the meats started coming out:

sweetbreads

brains

cow's foot soup

tripe soup

kidneys

spleen

hearts

two different preparations of liver

aboo zalouf, the head meat of a sheep (or was it a veal head this time)?

that's the dish that contained the eyeballs, with some tongue and cheeks, too

jaybee's wife ellen had a sauteed shrimp dish, which was good - she allowed me to eat the shrimp heads. yum.

for dessert, apple slices with honey, some middle eastern pastries, turkish coffee, mint tea, and I shared a really good cigar with Ali, courtesy of jaybee. I also did a little tango with Ali at the end.

Ok, that's a start.

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The meal was a smash on all counts. What an amazing display of cooking and ranconteurism from Ali, in a place that no bigger than a key grinder's shop. I don't remember when I've had as good a time eating as many exotic dishes as this. The sweetbreads were super, the kidneys first rate, the liver, in two preparations delicious, tripes, yipes!, cows foot soup excellent, tongue, spleen, heart and lamb's penis were out of this world. A must return.

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Below are my thoughts on the Kebab Cafe meal, to the extent that I was in a position to document it :blush: --

Ali's restaurant buzzed with his enthusiasm and responsiveness to our dining party's interest in offal. Ali showed warmth and generosity as he cooked, chatted and brought dishes to us. We had Nina to thank for much of this, but I imagine that Ali would be helpful to diners with whom he was less familiar. :raz: Our meal included:

(1) The lettuce and tomato salad was a nice start, but it was the beet and onion salad that I liked better. This dish offered the moderated sweetness of the beet against the piquantness of raw rings of onions. Also, the color of the burgundy beet jus as it ran into and tainted the white flesh of the onions.

(2) Brain was presented with lime sauce. Certain brain dishes remind me of the texture of foie gras generally, and this was a bit like that, but with the aroma and slightly, slightly browned edges associated with smaller pieces being pan-fried (?). The lime pairing was appropriate, producing a dish I enjoyed.

(3) Cow's foot soup with garlic. I am unaware of the prevalence and uses of garlic in Turkish cuisine, but this pairing surprised me a bit when presented. The soup was of a thin consistency (in a neutral way). The cow's foot portions included portions of the bone sections, in the interior of which Wilfrid and I attempted to discern marrow-like substances (it was difficult to extract the material inside). This was the first time I sampled cow's foot, and I would be interested in further understanding this underutilized part of a cow.

(4) Veal sweetbread with onion, basil and garlic. This was very good. Wilfrid identified the interesting utilization of lamb flavors in this dish, through the stock. (On lamb, much of the offal served to us was from lamb)

(5) Two types of tripe, in soup. Honeycomb and another type of trip were offered, in an appropriately intensely-flavored soup. I like tripe generally, and this preparation was good.

(6) Lambs' spleen with onions and peppers. Hearts. Liver preparations. I had never before tasted any animal's spleen, and the slices of lambs' spleen were interesting (in a good way) because of the minerally and blood connotations (at least in my mind). For some reason, the heart I sampled (also the first time I had sampled an animal's heart) reminded me less of blood than the spleen. Both were interesting tastewise and texturally. The liver preparations were good as well.

(7) Aboo Zalouf -- I had had certain trepidations about the sheeps' eyeballs upon hearing Nina describe prior meals on the board. However, when this dish arrived, it took no particular effort for me to sample the item. I had contemplated that the eye might be more gelatinous than it was, given friends' description of the gelantinous nature of fish eyeballs (not sampled by me). The lambs' eyeball was, very roughly, 2 1/2 cm in diameter. To me, it tasted not gelatinous, but more a controlled mushiness like one might imagine for a cooked bowl of oats, but clearly a solid rather than a liquid/porridge like texture. Perhaps Nina or Simon could provide a better analogy with respect to texture. :wink:

The rest of the meal cannot be described by me, for reasons mentioned above :laugh:

Details on Certain Wine Taken In

Chassagne Montrachet, Ramonet 1998

Chateau La Roque, Laguedoc, Pic Saint Loup

Bodega Montecillo 1998, etc.

Other Information

The Kebab Cafe storefront is a narrow one, about 2 1/2 times the width of the entrance door. The cooking area, where Ali and his assistant were busying themselves, is on the left hand side when one enters the welcoming, small restaurant. The restaurant is relatively small -- accommodating perhaps at most 15-20 people, and one has a good view of the cooking area from most tables. There is a sense of having been invited into somebody's home, from the designs on the wall and the eclectic nature of the decorations (e.g., some Egyptian masks, pictures holding presumably personal memories). The tabletops included colorful pieces of glass-like items presented in a collage-type manner, and were made by somebody known to the chef.

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The cooking area, where Ali and his assistant were busying themselves, is on the left hand side when one enters the welcoming, small restaurant.

I believe it is on the right when one enters, unless you walk in backwards. :biggrin:

Bravo on the descriptions of the food. Though I recall we started with sweetbreads after the salads, but I may be wrong, and I didn't have nealry enough wine. But perhaps, in a sequence I didn't realize, we ate offal from head to toe and back to head again. That would have had a certain logic to it.

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I think the texture of the eyeball is similar to the texture of well cooked chicken gizzards.

Ali is indeed a most gracious host, but he and I do have a big lovefest goin' on, it's true. I'm sure you can imagine how much fun it is to hang out with this guy outside of his restaurant - he's wonderful in that context too.

The tables you spoke of are made by Mustafa, who is Ali's brother. Mustafa owns a restaurant a few doors down, called Mombar, which is also terrific. A bit more formal, more menu-based, a little more expensive, and around 3 times the size. I'll go there when Ali goes on vacation.

I've been eating a lot lately at a little Ecuadorian place in my neighborhood called El Conquistador - they make a really good cow's foot soup - could be a good thing to try as you continue your cow's foot dish exploration.

I also want to note that Ali makes all kinds of things, and not primarily offal. I pre-ordered this meal for us.

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I'm intrigued by the description of Cow's Foot Soup and would love to try this variety if someone can point me in the direction of a place that serves it. I recently tried it in Belize as it was mentioned as a genuine local tradition but it was quite dissimilar to what you describe. I was served a bowl of somethigh resembling beef stew but with big hunks of musculature or other conective tissue that could not be eaten, as well as the bony parts of the foot. Seasoning was almost non-existent and there were small chunks of carrot and potato (once again very much like beef stew). It did have a unique gelatinous quality - thick but silky - very different than the gelatinous nature of dihses such as hot and sour soup that use other thickeners. Only a liberal application of Marie Sharp's hot sauce made it really palatable (it's a carrot based sauce with habanero's - if you haven't tried it please do - it is now the hot sauce by which I judge all others). Being a big fan of oxtail, ham hocks and even havign eaten a few pickled pig's feet in my day (I was in a stupor but witnesses insist that I really ate them), I had high hopes for Belizian creole style Cow's Foot Soup but was sorely disappointed. Was it just a bad bowl?

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A splendid feast, but someone has to do the picky, fussy stuff.

So: I thought the sweetbreads, though flavorsome, were a little chewy. The calves' feet came in a lovely broth, but they are not too interesting in themselves - just jelly really. Pig's feet are more interesting, but pork is not part of Ali's culinary provenance.

I don't know how much tripe was in the soup when it arrived at the table, but I didn't manage to locate much when it got to me. But what I found was meltingly tender.

The revelatory dish, for me, was the brains. They had been infused with the fragrance and flavor of lime - not the sharponess - and fried in seasoned flour. Brains can be bland, but these were great - on a par with the memorable 'goujons' of brain Richard Neat used to serve as a garnish to his pig's head at Pied a Terre.

The veal or lamb head had the consistency of tender, pulled BBQ, and was rich and sweet. I finally worked out what the eyeball reminded me of: it had the distinctive texture of the small dumplings made with beef suet which used to figure in stews when I was growing up.

The spleen was the best I've ever had. And one of the liver dishes was outstanding - intense, aggressive flavor - but I'm not sure which one.

This guy can really cook. What particularly impressed me was that each dish came with its own, distinct set of flavors. No repetitiveness in the spicing and flavor accents. And that's not something I could say about a number of upscale tasting menus I've eaten recently (and I am thinking of Blue Hill, Union Pacific and Tabla, where certain themes recurred unnecessarily).

Finally, I would love to get more details of that Australian grenache, which I enjoyed immensely. Thank you to every one for the company.

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I was so taken with the idea of what I was eating that I overlooked the details. :biggrin:

But for the record, the cows foot soup was sort of bland. I am not a sweetbreads connoisseur, so I could not find relative fault with them. The liver dishes were both knock out, and the kidneys were very good. yes this guy can really cook! I was impressed with his spicing and seasonings of each dish and with his command of the repertoire. I look forward to trying his conventional fare.

On one level, the experience reminded me of eating at L'ami Louis when the old man was behind the stove. He didn't come out and sing the story of each dish as it was presented, but the food was as uniquely his own as was Ali's and the place is (was) as eccentric as Ali's (in a good way).

I think a group of six or eight is ideal, as you can order lots of different dishes.

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No, no, no, the head doesn't come like that. It's a pile of meat, looks sorta like ropa vieja.

Or sorta like the pot roast platter after the main bit has been hacked over. Little shreds here and there in gravy, puctuated by a milky round eyeball or four.

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Ahh, I see...heh heh get it!

Very interesting either way. Perhaps this would be another thread, but how did all of you start your ventures into the realm of "variety meats?"

I am still a bit of a novice, but am somewhat intriqued by the different textures offered. There is still a bit of a gross out factor involved in thinking about some of it.

Gimme what cha got for a pork chop!

-Freakmaster

I have two words for America... Meat Crust.

-Mario

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  • 5 weeks later...

On Nina's kind invitation, I joined her yesterday at kebab cafe. I tasted brains for the first time and immediately fell in love with the creamy texture and Ali's preparation of it. He sears it and serves with a lemon sauce that matches perfectly.

I think that was my favorite dish of the evening... although everything was great.

By the way, Cabrales, Ali asked how you were!

:smile:

And said, "tell her to come back, come back."

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And a reminder....Sunday is his last day for 5 weeks!!! (yes, I'll be there...)

Oh, and a note on last night's meal: I bought a pound of wild spinach/lamb's quarters at the greenmarket on my way into the subway, and asked Ali to prepare it. He sauteed it, with garlic, and used it as a bed for these tiny little crispy fried fish (what were they called, does anyone remember?) I thought it was a great dish.

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  • 5 months later...

Dinner at Kabab Cafe with 3 other eGers, which was even more of a revelation than usual.

The dishes:

Sweat breads--the second time I've had them served by Ali and I don't know what he did differently but they were incredible.

Veal cheeks with rice, beans and an onion/vinaigrette concoction that included lips?? Is this correct?--The first time I had beef cheeks just with rice. Ali has perfected this dish, it was perhaps one of the best things I've had by him.

Sauteed brains with lime

Veal Tongue

Veal pizzle served in a cream (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) sauce with sauteed escarole--It was not revealed to us what we had eaten til we finished. Perhaps Ali thought that we'd be squeamish about eating such an organ? Anyway before I knew what it was, I thought the consistency was a cross between squid and shrimp. Very chewy and muscle-like.

Cow foot over rice--others at the table loved this but I did not.

Tripe (dont know what animal). I'm not usually a fan of tripe but I could stomach this.

Dessert: home made yogurt cheese with halavah, apples, and honey cake.

Edited by Joy (log)
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Veal pizzle served in a cream (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) sauce with sauteed escarole--It was not revealed to us what we had eaten til we finished.  Perhaps Ali thought that we'd be squeamish about eating such an organ? Anyway before I knew what it was, I thought the consistency was a cross between squid and shrimp. Very chewy and muscle-like.

Is it only called a pizzle when it is cooked?

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