East Village Middle-Eastern
[Some of this was posted in the 'Call to Eat' thread that has now been archived. My apologies if you already read.]
The clock on the back wall is set for Cairo time. It doesnt exactly have the allure of the Eye of Fatima, but it is a clue: Dig the unpretentious, quirkily cosmopolitan charm of Village Restaurant and Pizza (on 1st Ave. between 2nd and 3rd Streets). It only takes a little exploring to discover that this is not your average pizzaria. In fact, if you come early enough you will see the ladyher head covered by a scarfwho relays casseroles from the kitchen in the back to complete the stewing process in the pizza oven. They're not hiding it, but they're not exactly advertising the fact that this joint is a haven for well-priced Egyptian food. Fish. Stewed Meats (including tripe if you are into that). And more. The specials (6 to 10 dollars) are served with a yummy, toasted vermicelli-interspersed rice combo. (Im assuming the noodles are toasted due to their nice brown color. Could be whole wheat as well.) I wandered in late one night and tried the vegetable soup. It was a tasty meat-free stock, with vegetables, beans and a full flavor that apparently came from butter. Surprisingly flavorful, balanced vegetarian food in what seemed to be a divy hangout (I had, however, noticed a few cabs parked outside, usually a good sign). They told me they closed at 7 am and opened at 10 am. (Now they are OPEN 24 HOURS) Thought it had been a mirage and went back the next day just to see if it was still there. If you go in the evening, it seems like there are usually more specials available. I am a big fan of the stuffed vegetables (Although, they havent made an appearance since the recent renovations). They are inexpensive and generously-filled with a fresh dill-flavored rice that has a great texture and a mellow flavor.
The falafel is tasty, fresh and garlicy. A weird thing is that they serve hot-sauce that is vinegar-based and NOT very hot. A little strange (more like what youd get at Popeyes or KFC)...Byo? The salad garnish is disappointing sometimes: could be crisp romaine one day, but oldish iceberg the next...There went the full falafel endorsement (despite the general availability of nice turnip pickles). At Moustaphas now-closed, eponymous restaurant a few blocks up First Avenue, the salad/garnish was fresh and always contained a great variety of vegetables and textures. (Does anyone know where he is, by the way? He was looking for space in the West Village...or Hoboken maybe. I know he was filling in at Jerusalem Falafel uptown for a while...)
A weekend special I recommend is the cold casserole. Three layers: pasta, lentils and rice, topped with crispy, fried brown onions, and doused with a garlicy marinara-type sauce and salad dressing. Unusual and filling. The small is probably enough (or more-than-enough) for one. Also, the garlic knots are actually pretty amazing and a great cheap eat. They are free of saw-dust parmesan, not soaked in oil like most are, and the crust is crisp and dense. Three for a dollar. I once had an amazing dessert here. I think its called kalufa. It was a slice of an angels hair pasta-type crusted pastry, filled with rice custard. The next time I ordered it, the filling was a syrup or something else too sweet so I never ordered it again. I wish I knew what the rice custard version was called. They have lots of prepared baked goods in plastic containers and little packages. Date cookies? Excuse me, thats a personal question. Well, actually, I like them quite a bit because they are a magical combo of crumbly buttery-richness and sweet, heavy date-richness. A transcendental cookie in my opinion.
Ordering a la carte can be a free-for-all. The guys sometimes overcharge for substitutions--then give me extras on other occasions. Overall the prices are decent however, with a few bargains (like the ½ roast chicken with rice and salad for 5.99). The employees now all sport matching red shirts, giving the place a much more clean-cut feel. It's harder to pretend you are not in New York. Still the benefits of a cleaner, roomier restaurant since the recent renovations (a Bereket-style makeover) are enjoyable. It seems like they are offering fewer specials now, possibly due to current events. Most of the time the TV in the back used to show Egyptian dramas, movies and news. Then CNN. Now the screen is black. Its Hallal of course (and the new take-out menu actually (proudly?) claims that its kosher-style). They are hard-working people serving heart-felt food. Support them.
As I said in that Call to Eat thread, I've long had high hopes for Village Restaurant and Pizza.
But I went tonight, didn't like the looks of a lot of their stuff, and ordered a simple baba gounoush sandwich. The baba gounoush was so spoiled and old that it actually effervesced on my tongue. Also, the counter guy was not at all friendly. Not particularly unfriendly, but I remembered the staff here being a lot nicer on my last visit, before their renovation.
I'm not trying to squash your wonderful, evocative posting; this is just one hound's experience on one night with one dish. I'm hoping others chime in with their impressions.