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Cleopatra’s Needle: Jazz on the (Upper West) Side

May 21, 2008 - by Ellis Whitman
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Out-of-towners who want to break away from the Midtown mold of tourist attractions and go where the New Yorkers go for their food and entertainment would be well advised to head uptown to Broadway and 92nd Street. That’s where they will find Cleopatra’s Needle (named after the legendary monument in Central Park) a hot spot specializing in cool jazz and casual Mediterranean food.  They’ll also find a crowd of locals with nary a tourist in sight.

On a recent Monday night this popular neighborhood hangout was packed.  Every table was taken, as was every bar seat.  The place was, as usual, humming with animated conversation while a jazz trio filled the air with mellow music.  Contented diners from nearby apartments and offices were busy devouring no nonsense Mediterranean mainstays like babaghannoughe, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, couscous, kebabs and curries.

Painless prices are another reason for Cleopatra’s pull.  No entry reaches the $20 mark with most in the $14-$15-$16 range and two-for-one drinks are available until 7:30 p.m.  You get the idea, this is a homey, warm, welcoming spot with affordable food and relaxing music.  It’s a place to kick back, meet friends and not worry about the bill.

Although most diners will rarely find a dish here that they haven’t tried elsewhere the predictable food is solid, satisfying fare from the initial basket of pita bread triangles to the apricot and rice puddings at meal’s end.  Along the way try starters like the crisp fried calamari, the rich babaghannoughe spread, the tasty stuffed grape leaves and the respectable spinach pie.  The Cleopatra’s salad would have been better had it not have been so cold, (the carrot cake suffered a similar fate.)

Main events included a nice, moist marinated chicken kebab, a vibrantly seasoned kibbehsinaya, or torpedo of baked, ground beef, as well as a relatively light, vegetarian moussakah, and lasagna layered with tasty meat laced sauce.
Among the desserts sampled were a traditional baklava, a rich chocolate mousse cake and a smooth, silken, though rarely encountered, apricot pudding.

Physically, Cleopatra’s Needle is a pleasantly funky spot with a multi-paned front window, a center-of-the-room horseshoe shaped bar with a jumbo screen TV, big mirrors, an oversized antique-like wall clock, and a single flower floating in water on each table.

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