In pursuit of fuel, furniture, or fun, there are few parts of Manhattan I avoid, but rarely do I explore First Avenue in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge. Sorry, but even in summer it feels a bit chilly there, like a threadbare university club that only charter members find cozy. Consequently, when a particular PR woman started praising a local restaurant with the fervor of Tevye praising his eldest daughter, Tzeitel, I shuddered, then made faces. But she persisted, passionately cooing, “It’s Egyptian! Women from northern Egypt do all the prep. It’s so ethnic, you’re gonna love it!” I don’t know what intrigued me more: that she thought that New Yorkers still hadn’t sampled enough couscous, or that she’d label a new restaurant in New York “ethnic,” now that everything that isn’t frozen pizza is touted as “global” or “fusion.”
So, putting aside memories of working at Serendipity 3, where I used to serve an unctuous quartet of cheesy triangles called Ftatateeta’s Toast, I went in search of Casa La Femme North. But before I crossed the threshold, I was once again visited by the ghosts of restaurants past. In the mid-seventies, this was the site of Privé, a supper club with the distinction of having received former New York Times critic Mimi Sheraton’s first gut-punching restaurant review. It wasn’t just the food. The atmosphere was more Elmore Leonard than El Morocco, too much chrome and tufted suede housing men in shiny sharkskin suits feeding shrimp cocktail to big-boobed blondes with cigarette-girl accents. And, of course, I worked there.
Thankfully, Casa doesn’t stock the bar with “ladies,” the way Privé did. But Casa’s yards of beaded White Sheik chiffon tents, dim lighting seen through palm fronds, clusters of men sitting with arms and legs spread far too wide, and the circumnavigating belly dancer create a feeling that’s a lot more alien than exotic in a Zip Code where locals are traditionally garbed in Talbot’s and tasseled loafers. I feared history, like Privé’s food, would repeat itself.
But while navigating the bric-a-brac, I must have rubbed a brass lantern, because a genie apparently sent Serena to my tent. Catching my rolling eyes with each clink of the belly dancer’s finger cymbals, Casa’s manager rushed an array of mazzas to the table. Like her, their powers were immediate and magical—a dense, chunky hummus had such a deliciously spicy harissa that we demanded more at every meal; smoky baba ghannouj was spiked perfectly with lemon; zabadi (Egyptian yogurt) didn’t go too easy on the garlic; and gibnah domiaty, an herbed cheese with the creaminess of fresh mozzarella, was spread across warm wheels of peppery, toasted pita. Serena plied us with luscious crabmeat-and-shrimp koftas with spunky shards of leek and scallion; a rustic salad of grape tomatoes, coarse Persian cucumber, and carrots in a spicy citrus vinaigrette; roasted peppers stuffed with spiced jasmine rice; and smile-inducing dumplings of chickpeas, fava beans, cilantro, and harissa. I respect a belly dancer’s abdominal skills, but this is what I call being on a roll.
Casa’s specialty is a whole snapper baked simply in herbs, lemon, and garlic. “This makes me homesick for Alexandria,” said the waiter. If there are more dishes like this there, you should book a tour. Grilled free-range chicken boasts a neat hit of sumac. The aroma of grilled prawns will linger on your fingers all night (and you’ll miss it when it’s gone). Grilled whole bass recalls the simple preparation of fresh-caught fish at a seaside taverna, brushed with oil, oregano, and lemon. If the lamb chops were more tender, they’d be the bass’s equal. Casa’s lemon-pepper batatas mahamara (Egyptian French fries) have no equal. They alone are worth the trip. I’ve never been a big baklava fan. Now I am, but only at Casa. Other desserts are of the less-thrilling Mediterranean honeyed-cake-and-yogurt variety, but they do balance the thick coffee. Even without the shot of caffeine, Casa La Femme got me jazzed. Eventually, I started liking the tents, getting off on the music, and warming to the dislocated sense of place. You might even wind up liking the belly dancer. I’ll stick to ogling the fries.
Casa La Femme North, 1076 First Avenue, at 59th Street (212-505-0005). Dinner, Sunday through Tuesday 5 p.m. to midnight, Wednesday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. Appetizers: $6 to $11. Entrées: $17 to $33. Five-course tasting menu: $55. All major credit cards.