Kabab Café’s “Snout to Tail” Delicacies – The New Yorker

The menu posted outside Kabab Café, in Astoria’s Little Egypt, is out of date by roughly a quarter century. Ali El Sayed, the proprietor, chef, and sole employee, put it up shortly after opening the restaurant, in 1989, and then willfully forgot about it. He refuses to be confined to a menu and believes that all true cooking necessitates flamboyant improvisation. “You have a map of flavors,” he says. “And then you dance.”

El Sayed is heavyset and looks the part of a chef, except in that he dons a straw fedora in place of a toque blanche. Watching him work, banter with regulars in a mix of English and Arabic, and croon along to an Édith Piaf number playing over the speakers is part of the experience. “Cooking is performance,” he likes to say. “Every day I am onstage.” Should you arrive before the curtain, El Sayed can usually be found across the street, at Caffé Borbone, partaking of a pre-show espresso with Sambuca.

It is sometimes said of small, informal restaurants with affable hosts that they call to mind the experience of being a guest in someone’s home. At Kabab Café, this description takes on literal dimensions. If El Sayed sees you on your phone, he’ll tell you, in an almost grandmotherly tone, to “stop working and eat.” Every male customer is a “brother,” every woman “honey” or “my dear.” He might absent-mindedly leave a dishrag on your table, or help himself to some pita bread from your party’s communal plate. His speech is cheerfully peppered with expletives, and no subject of conversation is off limits: the sunny triad of politics, religion, and sex is ever present. When he senses that he may have gone too far, he’ll smile impishly and tell you to “chillax”—he loves you and he’s on your side.

Another enigmatic sign on the restaurant’s exterior reads “VEGETARIAN” in big green letters. El Sayed can supply no intelligible explanation for why he put it up; Kabab Café is decidedly not vegetarian. That said, many locals do drop in just for the standard appetizer, a meze platter of homemade falafel, baba ghanoush, fava beans, fried chicory, apple, cucumber, hummus—whatever’s on hand. His moussaka—baked eggplant with zucchini, potato, and fresh tomatoes—is also a draw.

With meat dishes, El Sayed cooks “from snout to tail,” leaving nothing to waste. What he’ll prepare on any given night cannot be foretold, but past delicacies have included cow-foot stew, whole rabbit, and the unmentionable parts of a goat. On a recent outing, the lamb brain—battered in egg and rice flour, fried in grapeseed oil, and served in a lemon sauce with grilled peaches—was unassailable. El Sayed also has a penchant for the exotic and will on occasion procure camel meat, crocodile, and ostrich. Spicy alpaca sausage is a recurring motif, which he might add to a dish on a whim, consulting only his gastronomic imagination for permission.

It should be said that the open kitchenette takes up a third of the restaurant’s space and can produce a little smoke. El Sayed will sometimes use a torch to singe the skin of a bird or the scales of a fish. One of his best dishes this summer has been the Spanish mackerel, which he gets from a Chinese market in Elmhurst and seasons with Egyptian spices. He’ll serve it either as is, sizzling in a cast-iron skillet, or filleted into thick chunks and swimming in a homemade gazpacho. Another highlight is the charred chicken, for both its density of flavors and its presentation. On a round plate, he’ll ladle out four rings, one inside another: gazpacho, smoked eggplant, mashed baked pears, and, nestled in the center, delectably scorched boneless chicken. The trick is not to mix it up but to shovel from the outside in, collecting a bit of each layer into a single bite.

The other day, a cautious man urged his date to order something normal. “To be normal is idiotic,” El Sayed retorted amiably from his post. “You should not be normal—you should be who you are.” (Prices are subject to El Sayed’s discretion, with entrées around $15-$27.) ♦