Okra—love it or hate it. While some recipes strive to obscure its mucilaginous properties, others hose you with slime. Khartoum delights in the latter. This Sudanese café recently appeared on Fulton Street’s thriving Muslim strip, where robed and skullcapped vendors hawk religious wares, even soul food spots offer halal meats, and a grand new mosque is planned at the corner of Bedford Street. The immaculate interior of the restaurant features scarlet curtains, white plastic tablecloths that mimic lace, and a spate of mirrors that dizzyingly multiply all objects to infinity. As you sit down to dinner, the sound of the muezzin calling the evening prayer drifts in the door.
Khartoum’s okra sauce features fresh pods cooked into oblivion with meat stock and tomatoes, showcasing okra at its most mucoid. The sauce comes with saffron-tinged basmati pilaf, unless you know to request gurassa, the café’s most miraculous dish. Not on the menu, this spongy wheat flatbread is cooked in the shape of a bowl, and comes with your choice of sauce pooled inside. In spite of the silverware he’s just set out, the waiter encourages you to eat gurassa Arab-style with the fingers of your right hand.
But slimewise, okra can’t hold a candle to muloukhia, a Nile River grass as much admired in Egypt as in the Sudan. When chopped and simmered, it turns a fearsome shade of green and develops the world’s snottiest texture. Transferring it to your mouth can be a challenge—however you grab it, the cohesive properties cause it to return to the reservoir. The sauce comes profusely studded with garlic, and has an astringent quality. Once again, gurassa is the way to go. But one lucky day the proprietor appeared with a plate of kisera, a thin and fragile flatbread that looks like filo but tastes like Ethiopian injera. Note that kisera is only occasionally available, and that both the okra and muloukhia sauces can be ordered plain or dotted with bits of boiled lamb. There’s also a deslimed okra casserole made from miniature dried pods. Ask for bamiya.
The rest of the menu is larded with decent versions of Middle Eastern standards, and, to prove this is America, buffalo wings are also listed. The falafel are way better than average, crisp and heaped on an appetizer plate that also includes smoky baba ghanoush, hummus, feta cheese, tabouleh made with millet, and a homemade tahini remarkable for its pleasantly bitter flavor (selection varies). Tahini also comes drizzled over a lamb shish kebab that, in standard Middle Eastern fashion, has been cooked almost to a cinder. Much better is the platter of five irregular-looking lamb chops—dissected by the local halal butcher, their magnificent meadowy taste places them way above supermarket lamb. Ask for hot sauce, and you’ll get two bowls—one a gritty harissa, the other a homemade concoction rife with fresh jalapeños. Another pleasure is fasoulya, a cassoulet of meat and navy beans that glues your lips together. And the national dish of Egypt, the fava bean stew called fool, comes lavishly appointed with chopped tomatoes, tahini, and crumbled feta, one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Several visits revealed little correlation between the price of the dishes on the menu and the final tab. Though we ate like pigs, the bill never climbed above $9 per person, including a welcoming bowl of pureed lentil soup, a lettuce salad, a slew of shared entrées, a beverage, and a farewell cup of cardamom tea. Don’t try to skip the tea—the proprietor will put it in a paper cup and make you take it with you even if you don’t want it. Humor him—he’s just being hospitable.