Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Restaurant 44: Mamlouk

Row 1: Yogurt Dip; Avocado Dip; Salad. Row 2: Falafel and fried cheese; Chickpeas in tomato sauce; Sea-Bass. Row 3: Lamb meatballs; Fried onions over rice and pasta; Baklava.

LOCATION: 211 E. 4th St.
DATE: June 25, 2005
FOOD: Six course shared tasting, including: Plate of carrot sticks, olives, and pickled turnips; Pita Bread and Herbed Flatbread with Mid-Eastern Guacamole, Baba Ganoush, Hummus, Yogurt Dip, Red Pepper Dip, and Stuffed Grape Leaves; Salad with Vinaigrette; Falafel and Fried Cheese; Chickpeas in Tomato Sauce, Chilean Sea Bass with Tomatoes, Saffron Rice; Lamb Sausage, Pasta and Rice with Fried Onions, Stewed Eggplant and Tomatoes; Baklava.
BEVERAGE: Shared bottle of House Merlot; Almaza (Lebanese Beer); Mint Tea (complimentary with dessert)
PRICE: $65.00

A great meal usually involves more than just eating. Food is transformed from a mere consumable to a facilitator for conversation, a reason to gather amongst friends, and a pleasure lasting long after the final plate has been cleared and the bill paid. Mamlouk, situated in the East Village, induces such an experience twice nightly, at 7 and 9 pm. Mamlouk is an experience, a feasting for mind and stomach, but also an occasion that it’s essential to share with friends, especially those ready to exchange ideas in an environment that seemingly seduces the thoughts right out of you.

Mamlouk’s serves a six course smorgasbord, with dishes that change nightly. At most restaurants, having absolutely no say over what one dines on would be a scenario as frightening as witnessing your parents at a nudist colony. But at Mamlouk, you’re in good hands and contrary to FDR’s maxim, the only thing you have to fear is not having enough space to devour all of chef/owner’s Salam al-Rawi (also the owner of Moustache) out-of-this-world creations. Mamlouk isn’t just an introductory handshake to Mid-Eastern flavors, it’s a great big, bone crunching, Meatloaf from Fight Club, bear hug of an initiation. If frat hazings were this enjoyable, everyone would have pledged.

The $35 prix-fixe (with such a low price, how Mamlouk stays in business is a mystery) begins with a delicious crudite platter. While Thomas and I waited for his girlfriend Berthsy to arrive, we exhausted the raw carrots, olives and particularly intriguing pickled turnip slices almost unconsciously. But the festivities were only beginning. The meze course which followed was not only marvelously tasty, but an all-encompassing display of Mid-Eastern dips and spreads. The hummus was light and fluffy while the red pepper dip sang with a piquant sweetness. The less well-known dips were even more astounding, most notably an avocado and tomato spread reminiscent of guacamole, but seasoned with a spicing Turkish and Iraqi in origin, a mixture of Ataturk and Poncho Villa in one. The yogurt dip hinted at traditional Greek tzatiki, but expanded in another direction, reducing the cucumber sweetness of the Greek version in favor of a robust tomato. What made the dips all the more combustive were the pillow soft warmed mini-pitas and pizza like herbed Mid-Eastern flatbread. The flatbread came covered in an olive oil and parsley mixture that worked perfectly on the crusty base.

Such an opening could have been a meal in and of itself, but there was more, much more in fact, to come. A crisp, summer salad, doused in a fragrant and simple vinaigrette, readied us for a subsequent pairing of fried favorites. Mamlouk’s falafel packed an unforgettable crunch and beautifully blended chickpea and parsley filling, sparked by a trace of mint. However, the fried cheese and phyllo-dough triangles dominated my attention. The gooey cheese, which Berthsy, a chef herself, said reminded her of the Greek cheese Haloumi, melted without becoming stringy, brilliantly offset by the oiled exterior of the phyllo encasing. Again, like so much that night at Mamlouk, each taste built off another, complimenting and enhancing, in the same way a great writer like Philip Roth, adds layer after layer of meaning to the narrative in his American Pastoral.

Chilean sea bass is to today’s restaurants, what scallops were a few years back. It’s an “it” food, seemingly appearing on every menu from Kittichai to BLT Fish. Hopefully this saturation won’t lead to overexposure, because as Mamlouk’s tomato, shallot, and garlic topped version exemplified, this fish is popular for good reason. The sea bass was firm but moist, and the acidity of the saucing drew out the fish’s natural oils succulently. The boldness of the saucing worked because the fish had been altered so minimally, basically pan fried and then served. This course also included a beautiful yellow saffron rice and chickpeas in a tangy tomato puree. The chickpeas harkened to Afghani cuisine and highlighted the way Mamlouk, though its owners are Iraqi, summon the flavors of the entire Mid-Eastern world and all its diverse flavorings, in their cooking.

Our final main course centered around sensational lamb meatballs, spicy and brash. Continuing the tomato based theme of the meal, the meatballs came drizzled with marinara like sauce and the entire dish could have been an example of Italian-Iraqi fusion. Though I’m not sure this exists officially as of yet, give Jean-Georges a few years and I’m sure he’ll coin the phrase. An excellent medley of stewed eggplant and tomatoes joined with a tart and acerbic mixture of fried onions, macaroni pasta and rice. That the pasta and rice functioned as superbly as it did was due to the similarity of the grains and the sinfully delicious greasiness of the same fried onions Americans usually reserve for Thanksgiving French bean casseroles. The prix-fixe concluded on a flaky and slightly dry baklava that was the least exciting item of the evening, but after so many successes, Mamlouk could have forced us to watch Tariq Aziz debate George Bush and we’d still have left happy.

Perhaps it was the cushiony benches or the candlelit glow of Mamlouk, but our dialogue flowed like the Euphrates throughout the meal’s duration. From Karl Rove’s exploitative politics to how Pynchon took a class with Nabakov but the two only remembered each other with mild bitterness, our conversation roamed everywhere. Mamlouk felt and appeared as I imagine an Iraqi hookah and tea bar actually is, with stimulating conversation brought about by intelligent companions and an inviting atmosphere. Our only interruption came when a belly dancer performed her art in-between the tables. It was yet another considerate touch of authenticity, another way to make dinner something more than the sum of food and wine. Despite being nestled inauspiciously on 4th St., I felt dreamily far away. All I can hope for is that this is only my first of one thousand and one nights (Scheherazade I am not) at Mamlouk.

RATING: 9.0/10

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