You've had one baba ghanoush, you've had 'em all, right? Not so fast. While it may seem like all the meze in the greater metropolitan area comes from one central Middle Eastern kitchen hidden in the western reaches of Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, there are characteristics that distinguish the best. Freshness, for one. Aptitude with complementary flavors like lemon and garlic, for another. And a balance between hot and cold, cooked and fresh, tantalizingly spicy and soothingly refreshing -- all elements of the meze table, an ancient spread the Persians first served to counteract the bitterness of their wine. Meze is nothing without good bread, and a stale crust can sabotage the creamiest hummus. So places that bake their own, like Tarabya and Turkish Kitchen, have an automatic edge. But when we want inspired, heartfelt cooking -- when we want to be surprised -- we head to Astoria's Kabab Cafe, where chef Ali El Sayed composes a meze plate like a jazz musician might, improvising on the ingredients he's got in-house for exotica like eggah (an Egyptian omelette), a salad of beets and apples, and fava-bean falafel. Putting your tahini-fatigued self in El Sayed's able hands is a sure cure for Middle Eastern malaise.
Click here for Best of New York 2001 Index!