We loved Mombar, an Egyptian restaurant in Astoria, immediately. The DIY decor, kaleidoscopic and kinda crazy. The owner's banter with his son, who neglected his homework in favor of a device that went ping and beep. The chef who read a pulp paperback in Arabic during downtime. We found the atmosphere eclectic and inviting, the food similarly welcoming and impressive in its depths. Good place, this.
"We want offal," a four-top full of guys bellowed. "Bring us everything." The host-waiter-owner-DJ-artist-homework helper clapped his hands once, then rattled off the possibilities. "Liver? Sweetbreads? Kidneys? Breaded brains?" Once the gents finished one plate, another arrived, prepared in a kitchen no bigger than a closet, with just a few burners. "He's a smart man," the owner said proudly about his chef, gesturing at his ability to produce so much with so little. That night we ordered from the menu, but next time we'll opt for the $30 prix fixe, his choice. As those dudes would say, bring it!
Shortly upon sitting beneath children's drawings of pharaohs and Father's Day cards from years past, at a table decorated randomly with funky shards of colored glass, we were given Egyptian bread, "prepared with our compliments." It featured thousands of flaky layers, like baklava without the sweet, and soaked up the salty, toasty dipping sauce made from za'atar (dried thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds). To drink, cold hibiscus tea ($2), sweetened with slices of green apple.
The sem-man ($10), or quail, sat on a plate of lemony greens, whose pungence drifted upward, pleasantly drenching the bird. Nevertheless, the quail was underdone, its delicacy lost in chewiness. No matter, we agreed, and turned our attention to the more delightful Sahara mix ($7).
Here sat the desert, right on our plate in the middle of one of the most densely populated areas in New York City. Unlike the desert, though, oil made the dips luscious and fecund. The reddish baba ganoush tasted of spice, exotic and full of intrigue, while the green foul (pureed fava beans) was redolent of smoke and the beige hommus evoked the sensation of suppleness, hitting the high palate. Pure smooth sensuousness.
"Uhhh... this is terrific," one of us moaned upon sampling the mombar ($18). According to the old saw, you don't want to know how sausage is made, but here you can't help it: stuffed loosely into the casing were chunks of beef and lamb, rice, peppers, garlic, and chickpeas. And then there were the ingredients that we perceived but didn't espy, including a liberal shake of cinnamon.
All food is a gift, nourishment we give to ourselves or to others, but not all food looks like something you're happy to receive. Pardon the parable, but our second entree, a special of the night called, truthfully, salmon wrapped in phyllo ($20) inspired such musings. Its exterior echoed a bastilla, shaped like a hockey puck and undeniably stoic about what might be happening on the inside. Cracking the tan crust revealed the nicest of presents, fish made moist by onions and peppers, tomatoes and garlic.
The air conditioner blinked red, then yellow. Hotter still was Steinway Street, perfumed by hookahs and car exhaust. We might have been in a souq in Cairo, tucked off an alley with the day's last light coming through the stained glass windows, rainbowfiying our meal. Mombar is cash only, and best for: a date to elsewhere.
25-22 Steinway Street, Queens NY 11103 (map)
About the authors: Jessica Allen and Garrett Ziegler have been eating out together since 2002 and writing We Heart New York since 2006.