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Baghdad in Your Belly at La Kabbr in Hell's Kitchen

When friend and fellow Organ Meat Society member Bobby Ghosh returned to New York after a stint as Baghdad Bureau Chief for Time magazine, he didn't miss the improvised explosive devices one bit, but he did miss Iraqi food. "Isn't it just like regular Middle Eastern food?" I asked. "No, it's a bit different," he replied, "and you can get it here at La Kabbr."

Bivouacked in Hell's Kitchen, La Kabbr means "Famous People," and it's the sort of popular cosmopolitan hang always getting bombed outside the Green Zone. The walls are plastered with ethnographic gewgaws, including tambours (flat drums), shishas (hookahs), intaglioed bronze platters, dirks, prayer beads, and ceramic eyes of Fatima, which seem to be sizing you up as you sit down. These decorations are of no particular significance: If you look closer, you'll see that many are souvenirs from Yemen.

The first surprise is the availability of liquor—La Kabbr is no strict Muslim establishment, though the pork proscription is observed. Wine is the way to go with most of the food, and whites are the best choice, with a decent bottle of Italian pinot grigio available at $26. The menu doesn't restrict itself to Iraqi food; instead, there's a pleasant Mediterranean mix that includes pan–Middle Eastern and—your second surprise—Greek. The spanakopita, a spinach-stuffed phyllo pie, is particularly fine and flaky, and it comes with a soup or salad and a heap of rice cooked with vermicelli. ("It's Rice-a-Roni!" exclaimed a delighted friend one evening.) The meal is a remarkable deal at $12.95. There's also a credible saganaki, a sheep's-milk cheese that has been set aflame—but maybe you didn't come to the city's only Iraqi restaurant to eat Greek.

One of the best ways to get to know the menu is the collection of hot and cold appetizers called La Kabbr Maza ($19.95), a jaw-droppingly large assortment that includes saucers of hummus, baba ganoush, tabouleh, fatoush (green salad with toasted pita croutons), falafel, tzatziki (homemade yogurt with cukes, supercharged with raw garlic), rice-stuffed grape leaves, pickles of eggplant and radish, and—the odd man out—the restaurant's comical take on buffalo chicken wings. This tasty tableful could satisfy four as an app, and even then might impede the forward progress of their meal.

The menu features the usual collection of grilled meats, including lamb chops, steak, quail, shish kebabs, schwarma, and chicken kufta, all priced a few dollars less than you might expect in these latitudes, where restaurants cater to the pre-theater crowd. Each comes with a soup or salad, but you should pick the soup—a creamy lentil potage decorated with caramelized onions—instead of the dull and generic salad. A similar selection of meats may also be configured as pita sandwiches, priced from $4.95 to $5.95. But still, you won't find the true spirit of Iraqi cuisine among the grilled items.

Instead, direct your attention to the Traditional Favorites section of the menu, where you'll find quzi ($16.95). It would make a bang-up Scrabble word, wouldn't it? Quzi turns out to be a massive boiled lamb shank, reclining atop a mattress of rice, concealed behind wads of juice-soaked vermicelli like a wild animal behind the bushes. Festively, the top is strewn with slivered almonds, raisins, shredded carrots, and fresh peas. As if this weren't enough, a bowl of spicy red potato soup comes on the side. "What's that for?" we asked. "It's a dipping sauce," replied the waitress.

Another entrée worth ordering, especially if you like Teutonic food, is the so-called "cream chop" ($13.95), which apparently has no connection to any dairy product. It's a schnitzel made with a pounded chicken cutlet, and arrives with the same red dipping sauce that you didn't know what to do with when the shank appeared. Dipping your crisp chicken cutlet in it would be a mistake. Other interesting entrées include tashreeb—lamb soaked in that red dipping sauce and deposited on toasted pitas—and rwaida, fried shrimp in a cream-laced white-wine sauce, which the French might be ultimately responsible for.

It may come as an additional surprise that the menu features freshwater fish, including a couple of species you might find in, say, northern Minnesota. Masgouf is foremost, poached in tomato sauce the way they do it at riverside cafés along the Tigris. At La Kabbr, masgouf is made with farmed northern pike from Canada, rather than the usual catfish. Perch is available, too, pan-fried and smirched with lemon butter. It's the sort of Middle East–Midwestern fusion you'd find only in New York.

La Kabbr is currently being repainted, and should re-open in about a week.

rsietsema@villagevoice.com

 
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