Until very recently, moustafa El Sayed has remained in the background of Kabab Cafe, the cramped, convivial Egyptian restaurant he owns with his brother Ali in Astoria. (When Ali's away on one of his frequent eating tours in Argentina or Cuba, Moustafa pinch-hits.) Chalk it up to a career conflict: By day, Moustafa runs a computer-and-copy-machine-repair business. That is, in the spare time when he hasn't been working on his secret project, the seven-year transformation of his storefront office down the street into his very own restaurant, which finally opened in April. An artist at heart, Moustafa single-handedly designed and lovingly built Mombar (25-22 Steinway Street), a sort of Alice-in-Arabian-Wonderland social club dedicated to Egyptian clay-pot cookery but named, oddly, for an Egyptian sausage dish. The place is a kaleidoscope of mosaic tiles, each one cut and installed by Moustafa. He raided auctions and demolition sites and even Macy's to find decorative touches like carved wood headboards, U.S. mail chutes, hanging lanterns, an abacus -- whatever captured his fever-pitched imagination. Teacups and frying pans protrude from walls; the eight tabletops double as canvases for Moustafa's surrealistic visions of flowers, of eyes peering out from open palms, and of undulating waves of buttons.
It's not only in appearance that Mombar deviates from the pita-pocket fast-food norm. There is no phone number yet (call Kabab Cafe at 718-728-9858 for reservations) or printed menu, and a temporary but forbidding sign taped to the window reads members only contact kabab cafe. But when we cross the threshold, lured by the scent of cinnamon and some elusive spices, we're greeted warmly: "You're members now," Moustafa says.
Membership requires a willingness to put oneself in the hands of a chef who's as creative with food as he is with paint and plaster. Like his brother, Moustafa is an improvisational cook whose menu changes daily, depending on the season and the market. But where Ali fries and sautées, Moustafa bakes and stews. In place of a menu, Moustafa himself advises you about what he's got in the oven, as if you'd stumbled into a friend's house at dinnertime. No mention is made of price -- at least, until the bill arrives. (Expect a choice of about four appetizers and four main courses, in the vicinity of $6 and $17, respectively -- a bargain considering the quality of ingredients and Moustafa's sleepless dedication.)
First-timers should sample the meze plate, a good indication of the chef's artistic temperament: No gloppy hodgepodge of spreads and salads, his includes tahini-free hummus and baba ghannouj served daintily smeared on house-baked crackers, ringing neat arrangements of gibneh -- a fresh Egyptian cheese blended with oil, spices, and tomatoes -- and earthy, oniony ful, a baked-fava-bean concoction native to Egypt.
Egga, a sort of Egyptian frittata veined with spinach and infused with garlic, comes buried beneath a delectable hillock of endive and Swiss chard sautéed in garlic and balsamic vinegar. The platter also holds crackers slathered with a white-eggplant mash, lumpy and seasoned with basil, parsley, and herbs, as well as slices of Bartlett pear layered with pita triangles. With the oven-baked vegetable kibbeh, apple slices provide crisp counterpoint to the grainy bulghur wheat. (Both the El Sayed brothers subscribe to the philosophy of incorporating fresh fruit where you least expect it and dusting plates with sumac or cinnamon.)
The whole fish one night is striped bass, which Moustafa serves with fresh artichoke hearts and red peppers. The flesh is tender and moist, and the garlic-laden sauce enlivens the accompanying red and dill rices, one nutty and firm, the other soft and slippery. Lovely as that bass was, Mombar's raison d'être is the all-encompassing clay pot, which might on any given night be filled with stewed rabbit, with lamb tagine, or with chicken and olives. You get the sense that he is only beginning to explore the possibilities of one-pot cooking, practically guaranteeing something new to taste next time.
He also has a deft touch with desserts: The baklava and kadayif are subtle, less sweet and honey-drenched than most. He serves his date cake with thick yogurt, roasted pineapple and pears, raisins, strawberries, and mango purée -- a happy instance of finding fruit where you most expect and crave it.
Inspiration comes in many forms. Sometimes, as at Mombar, it appears as a brilliant display of color and texture, an artist's distinctive vision come to life. At Alfanoose (150 Fulton Street; 212-349-3622), a nondescript four-month-old falafel joint near Wall Street flanked by $10 discount emporiums, it comes wrapped in foil with a squirt of hot sauce.
This might sound excessive, but the fact is, falafel isn't the no-brainer nosh you (and the operators of all those mediocre street carts) might imagine. Most vendors hastily stuff a flimsy commercial pita pocket till it bursts at the seams before you even dig down deep enough through the assorted roughage to excavate a deep-fried chickpea ball. At Alfanoose, Lebanese co-owner Mouhamad Shami and Syrian chef Jalal Moutraji have their superior system down pat (and the repeat clientele to prove it, including Sullivan Street Bakery's Jim Lahey, who tipped us off): Each crispy falafel, seasoned with but not overpowered by fresh coriander, parsley, onion, garlic, cumin, and pepper, is expertly fried to order, then lined up in a neat row inside an especially thin and pliant pita, which comes from a bakery in Queens -- and makes all the difference. Shami gently smushes each ball and then adds sumac-dusted onion salad and pickled cucumbers, beets, and turnips as well as the standard lettuce, tomato, tahini, and optional but essential hot sauce. Then -- and this clinches it -- the entire production is meticulously rolled up like a burrito, so that all the harmonious components merge in every bite.
Alfanoose is also an excellent source for homemade hummus, ful medames, tabbouleh, baba ghannouj, and mujadara, that wonderful lentil pilaf that comes with either rice or bulghur wheat, both under a blitz of crispy fried onions. We're especially enamored of the vegetarian kibbeh, a bulghur-wheat-and-flour shell encasing a delicate center of chopped Swiss chard, spinach, sesame seeds, and mint, varnished with a lemony, garlicky hot-pepper paste (ask for extra). It's part of what makes Alfanoose, which means "magic lantern" in Arabic, a bright beacon in the barren culinary desert of the financial district.