Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Za'atars in Our Eyes (Mombar; 25-22 Steinway Street)

The elaborate exterior of Mombar, a tiny Egyptian restaurant set amid the hookah smoke on Steinway Street, would probably seem annoying if it were a concept calculated to allure adventure diners. You're greeted by a giant eye, classically kohl-rimmed; a vaguely cannabis-shaped design over the entrance; a series of tiny geometric windows, a nod to Islamic architecture, and a snaking path of mosaic work. The homely, eclectic design, which is taken even further inside, is clearly not a marketing approach but an artistic commitment, with none of the pretense usually associated with such commitment. Instead, creativity seems casual, natural, inevitable. Why not decoupage all the tables and hang children's drawings on the walls alongside your own paintings? Why not embed teacups in the wall?

As much a folk artist as a restaurateur, Moustafa El Sayed, the proprietor and chef, has turned Mombar's space into an unconventional yet entirely comfortable place to take in a leisurely meal. Pleasingly ramshackle and seemingly ad hoc, the kitchen's set-up is as far from the common conception of a professional kitchen as can be imagined. Befitting the artist's-studio vibe, the kitchen is in open view, as is the refrigerator -- a fridge that looks more like the one you have at home than the industrial coolers in most restaurants -- which sits in the corner and naturally has drawings stuck on it with magnets. Ingredients and utensils seem to be scattered about in weathered and possibly homemade cabinets with dozens of card-catalog-style drawers, an organizational scheme as idiosyncratic and imbued with artistic vision as anything else in Mombar -- and one that probably makes it virtually impossible for anyone but El Sayed to cook there.

The close dining quarters -- a few freestanding tables, some of which are aligned in front of a banquette that runs the length of the wall -- and the controlled chaos of the d├ęcor make it feel genuinely cozy, as does the slightly garrulous maitre d'-waiter, who was entirely at ease in discussing the menu and making recommendations. Clearly confident in the uniqueness of the Mombar experience, he could be exuberantly attentive without being oppressive. He managed to maintain a conversation with a neighboring table of Armenians about the similarities between various Middle Eastern cuisines without ever seeming to disrupt them. His warmth made us all feel a little like we were guests at a quirky cosmopolitan dinner party.

None of which is to say that the food was not of professional quality. It is, and it's the sort of meal that makes you wonder when "tastes like homemade" became less of a compliment than "tastes just like what I bought the other day." The waiter started us off with pleasantly oily squares of Egyptian bread -- think what phyllo squares would be like if slightly leavened and more moist -- and a dish of za'atar, an oil-sesame-herb mix that he poured from a pitcher. It was so good that the first thing we did upon returning home was Google "how to make za'atar," despite our stretched, groaning bellies. Our fava bean appetizer was tasty enough to please even the anti-fava-bean half of our duo, thanks to the caramelized onions resting atop the putty-colored mixture.

When our waiter was helping us order, he asked if we liked lamb. "We have lamb tajine, lamb chops, lamb shank, and lamb stuffed with more lamb." (As if there were a choice for the lamb lover.) We chose the lamb and beef mixed together inside lamb chops and topped with a spinach-chickpea mix, and a rabbit tajine. The lamb special was satisfying -- it's hard to mess up lamb chops, especially when you put them inside more lamb -- but didn't live up to the glorious, gluttonous description.

It would have, if it had the complexity of the rabbit dish, which was served still-bubbling in the clay tajine pot it was cooked in.

Plump sultanas and vegetables soaked up the juices from the rabbit, and every bite offered the delicate balance of sweet and savory that such a dish promises. The pyramid of fruit-studded couscous served alongside each entree was nifty, if unnecessary in such a casual setting. We finished with Egyptian-style dessert: date-walnut baklava and a thick sludge of cardamom-spiced coffee.

It's impossible not to treat this as a destination restaurant since it's so one-of-a-kind. But an evening spent there feels so comfortable, so natural, that you want it to be a regular hangout. It's not, though, which makes us wonder what sort of spot we would fashion into "our place," if not a place with Mombar's qualities. We might be too on-the-go, too fascinated with the restaurant's exotic qualities to leisurely spend every Friday night at Mombar. That's our loss.

Price: Entrees average around $19. It's not a bargain, but it's worth the money.
Will we go again? Yes, if not as frequently as we should.


Jen Rock said...

Yay! I'm so glad you guys went here and better yet, enjoyed! Definitely one of my favorites in all of NYC, and a bonus that its fifteen feet from my apartment!

AR said...

This place was recommended to me by a Moroccan who said it tasted like home style cooking. Not having grown up on that kind of food, I can't verify its homeyness, but I certainly enjoyed the food. The vibe is a cross between homey and cheesy, but I will always support a good one off.

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