Middle East Feast at El Omda
Halfway through our meal, the avuncular proprietor leaned over to explain a '60s Egyptian TV show that flickered in black and white on the wall-mounted flat-screen. "It's like Seinfeld," he said, chuckling, "a show about a poor husband and his wealthy wife, who can't tell a turnip from a banana." Three friends and I were dining one evening in Astoria's El Omda restaurant, found in a bucolic neighborhood of squat brick apartment buildings and tidy frame houses that feels remote from the bustling business district of 30th Avenue to the south. Apart from the squawking TV, the dining room is similarly serene, decorated with historic travel posters advising you to Visit the Pyramids and hanging metal lanterns that shoot beams through irregular swatches of colored glass onto tablecloths featuring such Pharaonic motifs as Nefertiti, Ra, and the ankh.
El Omda ("The Mayor") features the cosmopolitan food of Egyptian cities like Cairo, Alexandria, Giza, and Port Said. This cuisine features a fascinating mixture of familiar Middle Eastern stewed beans, bread dips, lemony composed salads, and charcoal-grilled kebabs, plus recipes borrowed from Sicily, Greece, North Africa, and even France. Added to these is a cooking style typical of Egypt's seaside cities, in which whole fish are sautéed or deep-fried, and such crustaceans as clams, mussels, shrimp, and squid are also prepared with elegant simplicity.
If you want real working-class Egyptian fare, head for the Special Dishes section of the menu. On it find foul (pronounced "fool") madamas—a stew of fava beans loaded with chopped garlic and cilantro ($5), cooked long enough that you can spread it on bread, and one of the most delectable items on the menu. Often called the national dish of Egypt, it's sold by street vendors from giant bubbling cauldrons in urban areas. El Omda's baba ghanouj possesses a nice smoky flavor, but is strangely devoid of the usual tahini. Instead, like the foul, it conceals a megaton of garlic. Another favorite of mine in the same your-Egyptian-mama-might-have-made-this-at-home vein is stuffed grape leaves ($8). Swaddled in deep green, a dozen cylinders that have never seen the inside of a can bulge with red rice faintly flavored with dill. These three dishes would make a spectacular vegan feast.
The grilled meats are abundant and nicely cooked over charcoal. They arrive preceded by a salad doused with a classic French vinaigrette, and accompanied by a rice-vermicelli mixture that will remind you of Rice-A-Roni. Nevertheless, good as the meats are, these are the most prosaic things on the menu. Unless you're a fervid carnivore, you're better off skipping the shish (lamb), kufta (ground beef with onions), and chicken kebabs in favor of the more interesting seafood preparations. The one exception is the quartet of long-boned lamb chops, which are flavorsome and cheap ($18). They're so tender, you almost don't need to chew.
El Omda's seafood recipes have several origins. The most Egyptian is the blackened whole fish ($15, about one pound), which might be a sea bass, pink snapper, or porgy, depending on what's available that day. Heads and tails intact, these creatures are thickly coated with spices, grilled to midnight blackness, then doused with brine, as if a disgruntled cook had thrown them back into the sea. The skin should be carefully removed before eating, to reveal the most vibrant-tasting fish flesh imaginable. Another specialty is Sicilian seafood pastas. The best ($15, enough for two) features clams, mussels, squid, and shrimp tossed with linguine in an oily red sauce—reminding us that the original meaning of "marinara" was a sauce to go with seafood. Another class of dishes braises aquatic creatures in a clay tajine, Moroccan-style. Shrimp and squid ($20 and $10, respectively) are done this way to spectacular effect, both riding a wave of oniony sauce.
As we were sopping up the last of our shrimp tajine that evening, an Egyptian cooking show came on the TV, starring a white-clad chef who just happened to be making a tajine. "That's a standard Egyptian dish that originally came from Morocco," interjected our host. We watched with some surprise when the chef tossed in the main ingredient: hot dogs! As the chef simmered the franks with tomatoes and green olives, we heard a faint sigh from the rear of the restaurant. Looking back, we saw our chef —a petite women in a flowered headscarf—staring at the screen, a look of horror spreading across her face. "Don't worry about her," the proprietor said, laughing. "She's from Morocco." That explained it: Not just how Egypt came by its North African tajines, but why the food at El Omda is so damn good.
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