Cafe Mogador, El Quijote

CaB Magazine
June 1994

You Are Where You Eat
Restaurant Reviews

Repeat after me; I’m not going to pay a lot for this Moroccan food. And at Cafe Mogador, you’re not. This is one of those quiet little finds that you discover yourself going back to over and over again. Or at least, I do. I first found this place shortly after moving into the neighborhood. There I was, wandering along enjoying the ever-changing pageant that is St. Marks Place. Up ahead, a small sidewalk cafe beckoned, and soon I found myself somewhere between Casablanca and Marrakech.

The place itself is about what you’d expect from a small, East Village-y cafe. Yes, there are touches of Morocco all around – the artwork, the rugs, Bogie and Bacall… Well, perhaps not. Regardless, those touches that are present serve merely to suggest a far-off land, though the cafe itself remains firmly planted…somewhere. We turn to the menu with its reassuring words, “Everything on our menu is made fresh in our kitchen daily.” Words for a restaurateur to live by.

The selection is short, but representative. Couscous, tagines, bastilla, kebabs, and those standards of New York-Middle Eastern fare, humus/falafel style combination plates. Start with a plate of mixed appetizers – marinated mushrooms or beets, babaganoush, tabouli, humus, herbed potato salad, cucumber yogurt, spicy carrots – on my part, I’m virtually always happy with a good-sized helping of spicy chickpeas and Moroccan cured black olives. Occasionally, a Greek salad with tahini dressing is in order, at other times the house salad with endive, beets, cucumbers and red onions.

Let’s face it, we can get falafel and humus at any of a couple dozen places in Manhattan. Cafe Mogador may serve some of the better of the genre around, but that’s not what they specialize in. The couscous is the real hit here. Light, fluffy grains of semolina pasta perfectly steamed over broth. Your choice of vegetarian, chicken, lamb or merguez sausage, or even a combination of these are added in. And on the side, a melange of turnips, carrots, cabbage, zucchini, pumpkin, chickpeas, and onions and raisins that have been simmered in honey. Add a touch of the spicy harissa sauce – a fiery blend of red peppers, olive oil and garlic – and your tastebuds will think they’ve died and gone to heaven.

But perhaps one night, we’re not in a mood for coucous. A delicious chicken or lamb tagine – long-stewed with spices, vegetables, and a touch of lemon seems more fitting. My personal favorite is the bastilla – a layered chicken pie of crisp phyllo pastry, lemon-flavored eggs, almonds and cinnamon – that generally leaves me wishing I was just a little bigger so I could fit another piece in. The only disappointing note for me personally, and not all my friends agree, is the merguez sausage. This is a spicy beef sausage that unfortunately just isn’t spicy here – though I admit it’s still pretty tasty.

Desserts change on and off, but we can generally count on some interesting fruit pies and I recently had a delicious raspberry and almond tart. But the real winner here is the melt-in-your-mouth, super-sweet, super-rich, out-of-this-world baklava. I honestly don’t think I’ve had better here in New York. Topped off with a thick, steaming cup of sweetened Turkish coffee (why not Moroccan coffee?), this place is a delight.

Cafe Mogador, 101 St. Marks Place (at 1st Avenue), (212) 677-2226. Open 7 days a week for dinner, Monday through Friday for lunch. Cash only, delivery available. $15 – $25 for dinner.

Somewhere in the back of my mind a haunting voice starts singing “little bird, little bird…” Perhaps it’s because my eyes have lighted on the entrance to this establishment’s back room, labelled “The Dulcinea Room”. We are in tre, or should I say mucho, Man of La Mancha territory. No windmills in sight, no charging knights on donkey-back, we venture forward into El Quijote.

This is one of those places that someone took me to early on in my New York residency, and I fell in love with it right off the bat. How can you pass up a place where the menu assures you that Manny (the owner)’s family has been passing down their secret recipe for not only Spanish Coffee, but Sangria, for generations! How can you pass up a place where you can get a platter of luscious, whole broiled lobsters at a price that even Uncle Scrooge would pry open his wallet for?

A pitcher of Sangria on the table, perhaps some “regular” wine from the cellar too (a couple of my favorite Riojas grace the short list) and we’re ready to wade into the menu. The garlic soup is a must – rich chicken and egg broth, seasoned with sweet-roasted garlic and saffron. For the sausage folk amongst us, a platter of sizzling grilled chorizos. I like the Serrano ham with cured Spanish olives (you can have it with melon if you prefer). Then, we look at the list of main courses.

Some of us will, of course, order a broiled lobster or two. Maybe a small little one-pounder, or if hungrier, perhaps a two- or three-pounder. The full selection of proper Spanish seafood dishes is present. Shrimps, scallops, clams, mussels and lobster are graced with green, white, garlic and egg sauces available. You want a little chicken thrown in? No problem. Some sausages? Ditto. Maybe a little extra lobster? Okay. The classic paella twins – Valencia and Marinera – are available with, respectively, chicken and sausage or a mix of seafood.

Some nights we’re just not in the mood for seafood and garlic. So, okay, in truth, we’ probably would just go somewhere else, because those things are why we come here. But the menu does include some truly tasty veal and chicken dishes. I have to admit, with the exception of one time when we managed to split a flan four ways at a table, we’ve never had enough room left for dessert. So I can’t even tell you if it’s good, though I’d bet it is. Top the night off with that secret Spanish coffee, and head off into the night ready to tilt at your closest windmill.

El Quijote, 226 W. 23rd Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues at the Chelsea Hotel), (212) 929-1855. Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner. Cash and major credit cards. $25 – $35 for dinner.

CaB magazine was one of the first publications I ever wrote for. Published by my dear friend Andrew Martin, it covered the Cabaret, Theater, Music and Dining scene in New York City, long before slick publications like Time Out NY and Where NY became popular. We had great fun writing it, and some wonderful writers contributed to its pages. When the magazine folded in the mid-90s, Andrew disappeared from the scene, and rumors had it that he departed from this existence not long after. I was thrilled to find out in mid-October 2005, a decade later, that the rumors were just that. Andrew contacted me after finding my site via that omnipresent force, Google. He’s alive and well and a member of a comedy troupe called Meet the Mistake. Somehow quite fitting!

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