Mundo Café & Restaurant (31-18 Broadway Store #E, on 32nd just off of Broadway in Astoria)
The very second you sink into a parlor chair and begin to fully take in the surroundings, you are likely to rub your eyes with your fists before glancing two or three times beyond the window to the street just to make certain you are really in Astoria, and not whizzed through some whimsical porthole that collects characters, decor, aromas, and flavors from every culture in its path. Two dozen serenely glowing lucellino light bulbs soar over the center of the room in a goose-winged Ingo Maurer chandelier.
Gourds are transformed into a Turkish variation on stained glass Tiffany lampshades, and the walls are adorned with rotating installations by local artists. Like a colorful storybook narrator magically brought to life, Guillermo Lucerofabbi immediately approaches our table in a chocolate sport coat with a cartoon heart pin on the lapel, welcoming us into the culinary fantasy land he has created along with his Turkish partner, Canalp Caner, who is the brains behind the inventive menu. A charismatic and handsome Argentine, Guillermo is the epitome of a host, and we immediately feel as though we have been sincerely welcomed into a friend's home for dinner.
When we ask to peruse the wine list, his face saddens apologetically, as he explains that the liquor license is being renewed, temporarily rendering them BYOB... but with the business card he presents us, we can purchase a discounted bottle of wine from the store a few blocks up the street. He holds our table, and within a few minutes we are seated again as he corks our $10 bottle of wine. (Note: I received notice that their liquor license was just renewed, so their cool beverage selection is back in business!)
Although we now have a bottle of wine, I always like something lighter to accompany my meal, as well. Refreshingly, Mundo serves no soft drinks, just one of many healthy, yet delicious facets of this incredibly unique little gem. Instead of a cola, I try a deliciously tart, Turkish sour cherry juice that I dilute just a little with my water. Even the water here is healthy, featuring high alkaline, ionized, PH-balanced Kangen water, based on Japanese technology.
With an owner team of an Argentine host and a Turkish chef, a German chandelier, french parlor chairs, Astoria artwork, and Japanese cooking water, we had no idea what to expect from the menu. So when the menu singles out one dish as a "must-try signature" we could only assume it was a reasonable place to start.
Herbivores will find a simple coding system on the menu extremely helpful, identifying close to twenty dishes and sides that are vegetarian, half of which are also vegan. The signature "Red Sonja" are one selection that qualify as vegan, though had I been blindfolded, the kaleidoscope of flavors rival even the heartiest appetizers I have tried. Four red lentil quenelles of bulgur (cracked wheat), scallion, parsley, and a blend of oriental spices are served on wraps of lusciously green bibb lettuce with lemon wedges for a citrusy zing. These outrageously flavorsome patties taste almost like little unwrapped herbed dumplings, or dollops of a robust bolognese sauce. And for $7.50 for four, it's one of tastiest and most affordable deals I have enjoyed in Astoria.
Perhaps my favorite dish of the evening was a gorgeous and unique appetizer, the Peruvian Causa ($8). Yellow potatoes are mashed into a creamy puree and blended with aji amarillo yellow chile paste and fresh dill, then layered in a terrine with earthy mushrooms, pickled beets, and topped with creamy avocado, red onion, and fresh red and green peppers. Like a heavenly spin on leftovers, this dish is presented chilled, which only serves to magnify the colorful flavors even more.
The much-heated discussion of the Astoria burger battle seems to have erroneously left out what I now consider to be one of the top contenders. The burger a-la-mundo is one of the most delicious, moist, and unique burgers I have enjoyed recently.
This Turkish style patty blows most of the competition out of the water. Guillermo explained that they choose their own meat cuts from a neighborhood butcher, and then have it ground, ensuring only the highest quality beef makes it into each of their burgers. The burger is then topped with caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms, and served on fresh, warm, rosemary focaccia. If you claim to love burgers, this is one you simply have to try.
Don't be turned off by the $16 price tag. Besides the fact it's one of the largest, most savory burgers around, it also comes with a heaping pile of freshly cut oregano-seasoned fries and a substantial house salad.
A generous bowl of Ottoman manti are some of the best dumplings around ($15). Tender, miniature pasta pillows are stuffed with exquisitely tender, seasoned ground beef, then topped with a blanket of garlic, butter, mint, and creamy yogurt. The flavors are simple and fresh, and served with a ramekin of ground sumac to add by the pinch for a little extra, earthy spice.
Put a clay pot crowned with golden melted cheese and crispy brown bits around the edges, and I really could care less what's inside. How can you possibly go wrong? This warm entree was a simply wonderful casserole of large, sweet, tender prawns in a spiced tomato and mushroom sauce, almost like a cajun seafood stew straight from the bayou. Once it cooled enough to devour by the spoonful, the succulent shrimp and gooey ribbons of melted cheese disappeared embarrassingly quickly. We even tore off some of the rosemary focaccia bun from the burger to dab up the last bits of sauce, tender mushrooms, and browned cheese.
Though it came as a side dish with the shrimp casserole, I would highly recommend a $5 side order of the herbed couscous. Tiny little al dente orbs of pasta with a sprig of fresh rosemary make for the perfect side accompaniment.
Regardless of what you choose to order, it would be a sin not to save room for the flourless chocolate souffle. Turn in the order ahead of time as this dessert requires a little extra preparation. But the molten mug of baked Belgian chocolate is beyond worth the wait. We found ourselves scraping the gooey overflowed bits from the side once we had emptied the actual mug. It doesn't get better than rich spoonfuls of decadent warm fudge with all natural vanilla bean ice cream.
For a slightly less rich, but equally delicious option, I highly recommend the cinnamon-dusted semolina helva, studded with pine nuts, walnuts, and pistachios. A traditional Turkish dessert, this warm and moist, wintery, dome of buttery nuts houses a cool dollop of vanilla bean ice cream, almost like Christmas on a plate. Although all of the desserts contain dairy, vegans should call ahead to inquire... sometimes, Mundo also serves up a vegan version of their chocolate souffle.
By the time we finished our sweet endings, dinner service had drawn to a close. Out front on the closed in porch, Chef Canalp decompressed on a couch with one of his cooks, while inside Guillermo circulated among the few remaining tables, sharing stories and jokes as if we were all in his own living room. When we left, we gave him hugs, because he's that kind of guy you simply want to squeeze. And as we exited, Canalp paused from conversation to smile, and thank us for coming in to visit. With extremely satisfied appetites and souls, we were actually a little sad to leave.
To keep it fresh for a dining room of many loyal regulars, the menu rotates almost as frequently as the art exhibitions. As the dining room only accommodates a little over twenty diners, reservations are recommended. Mundo Cafe & Restaurant is open daily from 5 to 10:30PM, and 4 to 10PM on Sundays. They are closed on Wednesdays.