Monday, May 3, 2010

Mombar: The Ultimate Taste Test(e)

Mombar (25-22 Steinway)
5-11:00 p.m. daily except Mondays (718) 726-2356

As the vast majority of my blog posts are about some of the finest Italian food in the city, exquisite French meals, and gourmet twists on American favorites, I should be careful not to abuse the power when trusting friends agree to partake in a "blog excursion."  But when six comrades agree to join you for dinner, what's a guy supposed to do with such a gift?  Sample seven different pizza topping combinations?  Take a pasta tour to survey which sauce best befits which noodle?  Nawww... that's too easy.  This was a golden opportunity to sample a far more diverse variety of cuisine, and I knew just the place.

"It's Egyptian... It's just a few blocks from my apartment... Yes, I'm sure they offer small plates of hummus and whatnot..."

I didn't exactly lie.  I just didn't share the whole truth.  The actual reality is that even I, myself, didn't fully know the whole truth until we were told the off-the-menu chef's specials.

(Most dishes are served with a choice of rice or couscous)

The place is Mombar, a unique Egyptian restaurant in the heart of Astoria's Little Egypt stretch of Steinway, run by chef/owner Mustafa El Sayed, (his brother, Ali, runs the Kabab Cafe a few doors down).  The whimsical storefront and dining room took 7 years to decorate, and feature a kaleidoscope of mosaics, mugs, children's-crayon-drawings, pillows, and tapestries, creating the playful ambiance of a technicolor cantina.

The array of menu offerings is equally whimsical, though each individual dish is fairly straightforward.  This is not the place to come for fusion, or an Americanized rendition of Egyptian cuisine hidden beneath sauces or cheese.  This is the stuff of serious Egyptian culinary excellence, and won't taste like anything comparable to the unfamiliar palate.

On a visit to try the El Sayed's cuisine, Anthony Bourdain expressed his envy of those fortunate enough to live nearby.  There's nothing quite like this anywhere else, that's for certain.  But for the adventurous diner, it's well worth a trip to Astoria for the experience.

And it is an experience.  Moustafa himself prepares each and every plate to order, so expect to make an evening of it.  Dishes won't coming flying out of the kitchen, but if you're willing to fill the space between courses with conversation and ponderings on the food and the atmosphere, you're in for something unique.  Appetizers range from $7 to $8, and entrees are $12 to $25.  A tasting menu is available for $30 per person.  Because the levels of bravery varied greatly within our group, we opted to build our own tasting, with the extremely friendly and playful guidance of our server.

I'll cut right to the talk of the evening (and several days following, as well).  Sometimes referred to as mountain oysters, cowboy caviar, or swinging beef, our server simply referred to them as lamb testicles.  We all shared a good laugh when asked how many we'd like to order.  The table agreed that a solitary ball was cruel, so we went for the full set.  Boiled, then peeled and sauteed in a lemon-garlic cream sauce, these li'l nuggets tasted something like an extremely tender herbed chicken sausage meatball.  Most of us agreed that had we not know the true identity until afterwards (like Chevy Chase in the hilarious scene from Funny Farm where he attempts to break the record for consuming lamb fries), we probably would have eaten more.

Though my roommate stuck to nibbling pita and holding his groin the entire time we sampled this delicacy, the fact of the matter is that testicles are considered a real treat, even an aphrodisiac in various corners of the world.  I would be remiss not to share this revealing video clip found on the website for the annual World Testicle Cooking Championship (I highly recommend viewing the entire's brief).

Besides lamb testicles, my more adventurous dining companions tried several other unique dishes.  The unfortunately named offals were anything but awful, and priced at only $10 a plate.  Again, be sure to inquire if you are interested in these off-menu delicacies.

Our server stirring a quail egg into the clay pot of lamb cheek, which tasted extremely similar to a hearty bolognese sauce, served with toasted pita points.

Far more tender than the fried cow brain sandwich offered at The New Bethel Ordinary in my hometown in Indiana, this lamb's brain was especially delicate, and not entirely unlike a lemony fried pork tenderloin.

Though a bit unnerving to actually see the opening to the aorta, or a protruding ventricle, one of my favorite dishes of the evening was the extremely buttery and tender calf heart.

On the less adventurous end of the spectrum, we enjoyed a mix sampler designed for the tastes of our entire table.  It consisted of hommous, babaganouj, and a smokey fava bean puree with coriander and onions.

The da-jaj bel-zitoon was a clay pot of savory chicken tajeen with stewed olives and vegetables.

The roast rack of lamb, braised in butter and spices and blanketed in wilted greens, literally fell off the bone.

One of the only somewhat disappointing dishes was the duck glazed in Egyptian molasses.  Beyond the caramelized skin, the duck lacked much flavor, and teetered on the rather dry end of the spectrum.

One of the most unanimously loved dishes at the table was a salmon filet topped with mediterranean vegetables, baked in a delicate phyllo envelope that trapped in the flavors and fragrant spices.

Of course we had to try the dish after which the restaurant was named, the Mombar.  Hand-stuffed sausage with rice, beef, lamb, herbs and spices, all sauteed with garlic, chickpeas, and tomatoes.

Much better than the duck, the Sem-Man was a set of two roasted quail, topped with fried quail eggs.

For dessert, we enjoyed the cinnamon-dusted, honey-soaked shredded wheat with dates and nuts.

This says a lot, coming from a neighborhood saturated with Greek cafes, but the baklava was one of the best slices I've ever tasted.  The perfect balance of pastry and just the right amount  of honey, enough to make it a delicious ending without too much sweetness.

Mombar on Urbanspoon

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