Even for the Egyptian men lounging around in their shirtsleeves, knocking back glasses of anise tea and taking an occasional pull on the sheesha—a statuesque water pipe—the back room of Eastern Nights must seem like a romantic affectation. It’s really not a back room, but a backyard, tented with colorful textiles appliquéd in pharaonic patterns, swagged with tiny lights, and lavishly decorated with vases of artificial roses. You almost expect a camel to stick his schnoz through the tent flaps. Sometimes a guy comes out of the front room to move the flower arrangements around, or carry hot coals from the ornamental brazier to the water pipes, igniting the perfumed plugs of tobacco that fill the air with a sweetish haze. Sorry, no hash—but the burbling of the pipes provides the perfect auditory backdrop for one of the city’s most brilliant and diverse Egyptian menus.
The bill of fare is rife with sweets and snacks, including the short dishes called mezze that go well with demitasses of muddy Turkish coffee or herbal tea and fruit juice served in glasses. Beverages are a big deal at Eastern Nights. After you’ve profusely sugared it, the jujube tea, made with miniature Asian dates, is a real treat. If your hippie parents tortured you with carob when you really craved chocolate, forcing you to hide behind the garage to eat Hershey’s Kisses, you won’t believe how good the chilled carob juice ($3) tastes: complex, slightly bitter, sweet but not cloying. The wackiest-drink award goes to the delectable saloop ($3), a milk shake thickened with orchid root and sprinkled with nuts—crunch crunch, squish squish.
Main courses come with a green salad, saucer of oil-crazed tahini, dish of peas or baby okra swimming in tomato sauce, and plate of rice or fries. As you pass the yawning oven in the front room, take careful note of what’s cooking. One night it might be a braised shank or roasted leg from one of the skinned lambs that are carried, like some sacrifice honoring an ancient deity, in a snaking line from the halal meat truck parked on Steinway late in the afternoon. There is always a fish or two, as well, but best of all is the stuffed pigeon ($15), which is not always available. Arriving with the miniature wings and drumsticks tethered to the body, the bird is delicate, crisp, and greasy beyond your wildest dreams. The torso bulges with a filling of freek—toasted green wheat berries—inserted into every cavity and introduced between skin and meat to plump up the skinny bird. Another excellent entrée is fatta ($13), a steaming bowl of braised lamb in a thick gravy that’s layered, lasagna-style, with fragments of toasted pita. You’ll win points with the gracious hosts if you find room for a bowl of milookhiyya soup, made with a Nile River herb that boasts mucilaginous properties, or an oblong plate of foul ($6, pronounced “fool”), refried fava beans that you should dribble with tahini.
I’d have to say my only disappointment was the unavailability of a dish that I asked for, without success, on three visits. I’m not sure the joke works in Arabic, but it sure sounds tasty in its English translation—tongue with testicles ($12).