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

By Dalia Fahmy, Sunday, May 9, 2004, 12:00 AM

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)

Arabian nights

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.)

For a more atmospheric, albeit slightly pretentious spot to watch a belly dancer, head to Casa La Femme, a lavish Egyptian restaurant on the Upper East Side. Brace yourself for bankrupting cocktails ($12 and up), but the ambience is hard to beat: cushions lie scattered about, tents line the walls, and cool Arab drum beats weave their way through the crowd. (Casa La Femme. 1076 First Avenue, 212-505-0005)

If you're in the mood for some mellower entertainment, try Cafe Cairo, where you can play chess, backgammon or dominoes for hours, sipping tea or coffee and listening to Egyptian street pop from a rickety stereo. Definitely sample the hookah ($10), a water pipe used for smoking tobacco soaked in fruit syrups. Traditional flavors include strawberry, apple and honey, although novelties like cola and cappuccino are making the rounds now too. (Cafe Cairo. 189 East Houston Street, 212-529-2923)

Shopping, shopping and more shopping

What's an exotic vacation to the ends of the earth without some souvenirs to prove you were there? From elegant kilim rugs to coffee beans scooped from large burlap sacks, New York's Middle Eastern stores stock gifts for every budget.

If you just have a few dollars to spare, check out Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue. Dotted with Arab video stores, travel agencies and delis whose windows are stacked with imported treats, Atlantic Avenue serves as a popular shopping drag for Brooklyn's large Arab contingent. Sahadi, famous for its eclectic selection of dried nuts, grains and spices, is a New York landmark where you can also buy old fashioned candy and a variety of olives by weight. (Sahadi Importing Company, 187 Atlantic Avenue. 718-624-4550)

A few doors up, Damascus Bakery churns out hundreds of pitas every day for sale to many of the city's restaurants and supermarkets. Eastern pastries make great gifts because they stay fresh for a long time, so load up on baklava or konafa ($2), a dessert of crispy angel-hair filled with nuts and soaked in fragrant syrup. (Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop. 195 Atlantic Avenue. 718-625-7070)

For a shopping experience that's easier on the hips, visit Tribal Concepts, a crammed, winding store that feels like a real oriental bazaar. From hand-painted Turkish bowls and evil eye ornaments made of blue and white glass, to Afghan runners and upholstered chests, this established Upper West Sider offers good value for the money and some really beautiful goods. (Tribal Concepts. 231 West 58th Street. 212-957-6504.)