Hail To King

King

Three girls three. That’s how this tale of a boîte-to-be begins. Chefs Clare de Boer and Jess Shadbolt were working at the infamous River Cafe in London and they shared a dream. An introduction to Annie Shi, a general manager at the cutting edge Clove Club brought forth a further meeting of the minds, plus some hopes, fantasies and luckily for those of us on this side of the pond, a plan. New York City. As luck would have it, they scored the about-to-be-vacant-after-10-years space belonging to Mekong, and the rest in these short weeks gone…is history. This charming, kicky, cozy, irrefutably sublime bistro is every bit as good as the word on the street has been.

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It’s a concise, continually changing menu leaning keenly on southern Italy and northern France, a modern European take on comfort dishes, classic dishes, dishes with refinement…sparked by creativity.

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There are several tables in the small bar for dining as well as stools for a pre-dinner cocktail. Great cocktails. On the lighter side but that bartender will do a strong classic for you in a second.

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The menu includes the date because at the very least it partially changes daily.

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Carta di Musica, a favorite of mine is thin, crisp, crackling and treated to a pool of buttery oil.

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Highly enjoyable bottle from a well rounded and well priced list. Definitely one to have with food. Big and fruity, good tannins, long finish.

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Salt cod on grilled polenta was a fusion of cool, creamy, whipped, warm, crunchy. Layers of satisfaction with a nod to northern Italy’s favorite carbohydrate and an homage to the preferred dish of the Vikings, baccala, imported from them to the Veneto in the 15th century. The sweetness of the polenta counterbalances the saltiness of the cod. It’s a great bite with a glass of red wine but I think I’d love it for breakfast as well. Breakfast wine up to you.

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Fresh ricotta with lentils and marinated anchovy was lovely. The anchovies provide a umami quality offering depth and complexity to those earthy stalwarts, the lentils. Perfecting the plate is the familiar pair of lush ricotta and bitter greens. All together, comfort at its level best.

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Hand cut tagliarini with chanterelles and parmesan was both hearty and delicate. It gives you that sense of place, maybe a cozy trattoria on a snowy Italian afternoon? Though its hook translates seductively as a contemporary dish of an evening in west Soho.

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To paraphrase a favorite Preston Sturges line from The Lady Eve , the halibut roasted over lemon leaves with braised spinach and baby artichokes was a poem. Each bite was a delight, traversing from spinach to fish to artichoke and back again. I couldn’t stop eating it. And the lemon leaves…ahhh. Our lovely waiter suggested we sniff them and then lick them. In all earnestness!  He was right, the fragrant lemony aromatic fills your senses and somehow lends a deeper understanding to the French-ness of the dish.

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Slow cooked Florentine fennel was soft, deep and carmelized. A pleasing side dish.

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Prune and cognac are classic companions and though this prune and cognac tart wasn’t grand, it was definitely good. A thin riser of pastry laid with a cozy cover of custard that suspended juicy prunes and was lightly baked.

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The atmosphere is bright and spirited with the intermingling of a busy kitchen and chatty clientele, almost like a big family dinner with every recognizable character at the table. Except it has an understated elegance, is nothing short of charming and neighboring diners don’t eat off your plate.

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The always evolving menu provides an ideal canvas for the chef’s mastery and style. Their appetite for timeless dishes enhanced with an edgy imagination appears effortless, and offers the warmest of invitations. Flavors are straightforward, satisfying, beguiling. Service is on point, everyone working seems to be having a good time and interested in sharing that with the room.

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Alchemy is in play here, this trio of women, the food they create, the ambience they’ve fostered…the magnetism is inescapable. It’s the kind of place you wish was in your own neighborhood but wouldn’t think twice about hopping an uber to pretend that it is.

King

18 King Street with entrance at Sixth Avenue

917.825.1618

Closed Sunday. Monday-Wednesday 5:30pm-Midnight Thursday-Saturday till 1am

See The Pyramids Along The Nile…

Ali’s Kebab Cafe

Once upon a time there was a King of Alexandria. Well, from Alexandria. Okay, maybe more of an Egyptian tour de force. Half man – half culinary guru. And he wasn’t actually in Egypt, he’d become a local hero dispensing politics, philosophy, humor, passion and pretty wonderful food right here in NYC’s Astoria. He’s randomly known as the Mayor of Little Egypt, a far off land bordered by Steinway Street and your every desire in Queens. So yeah, set your sail, have your ankh in hand, man that barge and sail on to the tiny storefront/kingdom that belongs to the charming Ali El Sayed.

Much has been written about Kebab Cafe over the years. It’s special. Seating for maybe twenty people. Atmospheric barely captures it. The decor is whimsical, offbeat, personal. The ancient world through more quirky modern times are represented – down to the wall mounted innards of a true Steinway piano, an homage to the address. Moustafa, Ali’s brother who just happens to own the larger Egyptian clay pot restaurant down the block called Mombar created the furniture and some of the art. Their mother’s portrait hangs prominently on the wall, quietly keeping an eye on her sons.

He’s a treasure.

Just put yourself in the charming Ali’s hands and let his fingers do the cooking. And serving. And espousing. And maybe they’ll be sharing a glass of wine with you too.

A few basic tenets to dining here. A. Never ask for a menu, you tell him what you’ll eat (as in vegetarian or offal lover) and he’ll tell you what you’ll have. Trust him. He knows the goods. B. Bring your own wine. There is wine for sale but honestly, you don’t really want to drink it. It’s mostly Algerian and Egyptian and bringing your own is a far better plan – plus the only corkage fee is a possible glass or two for your host, Ali. C. Prices can vary, it’s generally quite a good deal given the quality and preparation but pricing can be subjective. Don’t worry, it’ll work out.

We started with the mezze platter. Most people do. It’s not your average bear. Lemony hummus, fava spread, a babba ganoush lovingly infused with cumin, one friend’s comment – it’s babbalicious. The falafel is feather light and char crusted, fried escarole sits atop a circle of refreshing apple slices and it’s beautiful. Savory, crunchy, hauntingly seasoned. Plus it kind of melts in your mouth.

Pillowy warm pita arrives followed by his signature bowl of pickled chili peppers (please bring me a vat) and his imprint is on every plate to come, a dusting of sumac and za’tar.

Along with the help of an assistant, for many years it was just him – miracles are created in this slip of a kitchen. It’s crazy. Having this view of the inner workings is akin to being at Lourdes. All hail the Per Se of Queens!

There’s a strong Mediterranean influence in the food, as reflected by the history of Alexandria, Ali’s home town. France comes by to say hey as well as Greece and Italy.

Pumpkin dumplings delicately flavored with yogurt and mint make for a perfect second appetizer.

Then we threw back for the real deal. I was there with organ loving friends and they fell in with the lamb brains in lemon and basil. Sensational…

and the stewed lamb cheek with a poached egg mixed right in at the table, like an Egyptian Caesar salad…

and then my friend the porgie came out.

A poem. True joy on a plate.

Ali’s attention is like a beam of sunlight. His fervor for history, philosophy, conversation and even romance is endearing and that ardor is reflected in every nuance of his food. It’s truly part of him and as luck would have it, a part of us now too.

Kebab Cafe
25-12 Steinway Street / Astoria
718.728.9858
Cash only / Closed Mondays

* Header photo by Angela Carbonetti / http://www.angelacarbonetti.com

A Dish To Build A Dream On…

Estiatorio Milos (a particular dish)

In the best of all possible dream dining worlds, I would love to jet around town (though since it is a dream, let’s say around the world) and stop in as I may for a favorite dish. Could be so unique that nobody else anywhere can make it happen that way or it could just be a terrific rendition of something well known. I’d be happy to include any dish I’ve heard about and have on my master list to try sometime soon as well.

The other day a friend called on the later side of the evening to see if I’d be up for a glass of wine and a favorite vegetable dish at the venerable, always excellent, if not rather pricey Greek palace on West 55th Street. Sure thing.

Milos is so civilized. Very Aegean. Perfect canvas for a delicate slice of sunlit, white-washed cuisine.

So we plunged in. A lovely Rose and several glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and the Tower of Love. A thirty three dollar tower of lightly fried zucchini (sometimes eggplant) and saganaki cheese. But I mean lightly fried. Each chip tastes as if the zucchini had just been pulled from your garden at twilight, playfully scorched by golden sunlight. Well okay, let’s say that it wasn’t greasy, heavy or breaded. It was really what you want something fried to be – itself but better!

Ready and set…

Takedown…

In the center you find a yogurt dill dip which wonderfully enhances the vegetables and adds a little bit to the virtuous take I have with these fried beauties. It’s healthy!

The cheese bits taste of the open fire, softly burnt edges with oozing tangy cheese running amok in your mouth.

Truth be told we also had a few additional nibbles, a beautiful tomato salad that was very July-at-your-beachside-taverna, a mini appetizer with fava bean spread, one grilled shrimp and a small but fabulous crab cake, followed by a loup de mer that was Skiathos on a plate. Sunshine and sea with a bit of deep green loam as a base. Lovely.

But this didn’t stop us from playing a second hand. Hit me. One mo’ tower please.

Indulgence is just that. Probably too much. Sigh. But too good to not go for it. Then, in for a penny in for a pound, we shared some intensely moist walnut cake accompanied by lavender ice cream. Mostly to prevent us from round three I fear. Plus a spoonful of delightful sugar helps the medicine go down.

Spare and pure in its Mediterranean way, their light hand with oil, sweet and especially with fried anything is to be lauded. The extras we had were absolutely great but it’s the Tower I still think about. Definitely a return on my one dish stop by tour.

Estiatorio Milos
125 West 55th Street between Sixth/Seventh Avenue
212.245.7400

* Header photo by Angela Carbonetti / http://www.angelacarbonetti.com