The Middle East in New York City
Hookah bars, hummus meccas, and great Middle Eastern art make New York City an exotic, affordable place to live out all of your Arabian Nights fantasies
Perhaps you've always wanted to sail down the Nile, or drink tea with a carpet trader in Fez. Or maybe you dream of camel rides through the Sahara, laced with lazy evenings at lush oases. Whatever fantasies you harbor about that spectacular trip to the Middle East, chances are they've been on hold for the past couple of years.
But that doesn't mean you should miss out on everything the region has to offer. More than 150,000 immigrants of Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Moroccan and other origins live in New York, making up one of the country's most vibrant Arab communities. In just one short weekend here, you can fill up on Syrian sweets, dance to live Algerian rai, smoke an Egyptian hookah and have enough money left to buy a Turkish trinket or two for the folks back home.
Heavenly hummus, plate loads of pita
The best way to start a Middle Eastern weekend in New York is with a delicious breakfast at Mogador Cafe, a Moroccan fixture popular with a hip, bohemian crowd. Mogador's big draw is a superb $9.95 prix fixe brunch, but I prefer a plate of perfection modestly labeled Middle Eastern eggs ($6.50): two eggs cooked any style served with creamy hummus; tangy tabouleh made with bulgur, parsley and tomatoes; chopped salad; and pita sprinkled with olive oil and thyme. (Mogador Cafe, 101 Saint Marks Place. 212-677-2226).
For dinner, try Moustache, a casual Arabic eatery considered by many to be the best of its kind in Manhattan. Moustache's hot, fluffy pita works as a delightful scoop for their mezzeh appetizers such as smoky babaganoush ($4.50) or lentil salad ($4.50). Their entrees are mouthwatering too; try the baby lamb ribs, served juicy and tender with salad on the side ($13). Prepare for a long line at the West Village branch. (Moustache: 265 East 10th Street. 212-228-2022 / 90 Bedford Street. 212-229-2220)
Just a few blocks away, the same owners have introduced a slightly more upscale Middle Eastern experience to the neighborhood. Named after a dynasty of former Turkish slaves who ruled Egypt from the 13th to 16th centuries, Mamlouk lavishes diners with a $30 six course meal. Let yourself be transported by the Arabic fusion tunes and a tasteful decor of lanterns, cushions and tiles, and be sure to book a table in advance because there are only two seatings per night. (Mamlouk 211 East 4th Street. 212-529-3477)
An abundance of art
The biggest thrill of any trip to the Middle East comes from its legacy as the so-called "cradle of civilization." Settled for more than five millennia by nations whose scientific and architectural achievements continue to baffle today, the region boasts a spectacular wealth of tradition and culture not to be missed.
The best spot in New York to catch a glimpse of this old splendor is the Metropolitan Museum of Art (suggested donation $12), which houses one of the world's largest Ancient Egyptian collections. While there's no Pyramid to pose in front of here, the dazzling display of jewelry, mummies and paintings takes you to the same magical world inhabited by gods and Pharaohs thousands of years ago. You can even stroll through the Temple of Dendur, a 2,000-year old ruin which has been perfectly perserved in an especially built extension overlooking Central Park.
For a more recent example of Middle Eastern art, check out the Met's intricately decorated Nur al-Din Room. Plucked from a wealthy Syrian home in the 1700's, it boasts ornate wooden panels decorated with gilded Koranic inscriptions, and a beautiful colored marble floor. (Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1000 Fifth Avenue. 212-535-7710)
If it's contemporary art you're after, make a call to Alwan. One the most active Arab cultural venues in town, Alwan puts on several shows a week at its modest facilities in the financial district, featuring anything from traditional music concerts to poetry readings and photography exhibits .Admission usually costs $20 or less and you're almost guaranteed to catch some pretty good artists. (Alwan, 16 Beaver Street. 646-473-0991)
Middle Eastern nightlife in New York revolves around three key elements: live music-much of it fusion jazz or modern rai (an infectious kind of rock developed by North African immigrants in France), hookahs (water pipes used for smoking fruit-flavored tobacco), and belly dancing.
Tagine, a Moroccan restaurant with a lousy kitchen and a great bar, books some excellent bands and belly dancers. Friday and Saturday nights are packed, so call ahead.(Tagine Dining Gallery: 537 9th Avenue, 212-564-7292, $15 cover most nights.)