We’d passed Noisette many times in the (not quite) year that it had been open. But whenever we’d walked down those sometimes clamorous blocks of 30th Avenue in Astoria, Queens – not far from a bagel shop, a pizzeria, a comfort-food hotspot and a New Orleans-themed bar-restaurant, whose windows open wide toward the street during happy hour – we’d given little notice to the quiet bakery-café with the French name.
That changed during one recent stroll, not long before dark, when a hand-drawn signboard beside the door wished us “Ramadan Kareem” and beckoned us to come inside.
During Ramadan, the holy month of the Islamic calendar, observant Muslims abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset. When night falls, they “break fast,” literally, with a meal known as iftar. And, indeed, toward the back of the cafe, past a glassed-in display case replete with fruit-topped tarts and flaky croissants, we saw that a space had been cleared on the counter for small plates provisioned with dates; briwat and chebakia, two varieties of honeyed fried pastries; and hardboiled eggs. Flanking them were a row of cups bright with orange juice and a tureen filled with harira, a restorative soup. Noisette’s roots, we understood, were not in France but in Morocco.
In many public settings, iftar is available to all, both Muslim and non-Muslim. At a mosque it might, on certain days, be offered free of charge; at a café such as Noisette it is a meal served, eaten and paid for like any other in the normal course of business, except for the timing of the first bite. We settled in with our evening meal, and resolved to return.
A few afternoons later we sat down with Mohamed Koulami – “Simo,” friends call him – a partner in Noisette. Now in his late 30s, Simo has lived in Astoria for half his life. Although his mom was a caterer in Casablanca, where he was born, today his primary line of work is the limousine business. Noisette “is just something we do,” Simo told us, “to feel like home again.”
And, he added, to introduce fine French-style pastries to the neighborhood. Thinking of the high standards set by so many bakeries in Casablanca, Simo bemoaned the state of affairs in New York. “If you don’t go to a high-end French bakery,” he maintained, “you don’t find good quality.” (He did quickly mention Canelle, a superb patisserie in East Elmhurst with an outpost in Long Island City; we haven’t paid a call in far too long, we noted to ourselves.)
Several times Simo paused our conversation to exchange greetings with customers in Arabic (Simo, naturally, also speaks French as well as English). Some of them inquired (he told us) about off-menu items. We wouldn’t have known to ask: By day, apart from the Ramadan signage by the door, Noisette offers little hint of its heritage other than a mention of “Moroccan tea” on the menu board and a few modest artworks in the washroom. Of course, once our eyes had been opened by that first sighting of the iftar plates, we also noted a heaping display of chebakia on the counter – not far from a pyramid of peanut butter mini-whoopie pies.
Noisette “is just something we do,” Simo told us, “to feel like home again.”
Simo reminded us that his Noisette, on 30th Avenue, is a relative newcomer. An older Noisette, under separate ownership, is a half-mile away in Little Egypt – a stretch of Steinway Street crowded with restaurants, grilled-meat counters, bakeries, hookah bars, coffee shops, meat markets and grocers that variously proclaim allegiance not only to Egypt, but also to Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco and surely other countries as well. Most patrons of these businesses observe Ramadan. When we walk down those busy blocks, we never forget that the lingua franca is Arabic (albeit of various dialects).
By contrast, the Noisette on 30th Avenue is in the heart of one of the most vibrant and diverse commercial strips in western Queens; fluency in Arabic and observance of Ramadan are exceptions. Nearby businesses serve food from Mexico and Peru, Italy and Montenegro, China and Japan, BBQ country and Cajun country. The customer base includes many younger people who have been priced out of Manhattan apartments and have moved to Astoria in search of cheaper rents. In such a cosmopolitan atmosphere, throughout the day Noisette sees customers not observing the Ramadan fast. Before we sat down with Simo, we noticed that one pair of fellows had apparently just come from the gym; others stopped in for a late afternoon caffeinated pick-me-up. (The Noisette on Steinway, like many of its neighbors, also keeps its doors open during these hours. Daytime customers generally buy food to eat at home after sunset, though some also simply sit and chat.)
Our conversation with Simo took place early in Ramadan, when he was entertaining out-of-town relatives, and so he couldn’t stay to join us at iftar (a meal that he offered us on the house). We did, however, strike up a conversation with two Moroccan-American fellows sitting by the window. A quarter-century ago, they recalled, even in Astoria it was much more difficult to find food from back home, especially during Ramadan. “Those were rough times, man,” said one. “I at a lot of Burger King then,” said the other.
They certainly would have been hard-pressed, in those bygone years, to find a Ramadan platter filled out with a rich and thick wedge of “tortilla,” a Moroccan-style omelet filled on this night with chicken; a serving of pale green avocado milk; and a ground-beef-stuffed msemen, a flatbread folded in two to make room for the egg, the dates and the chebakia. That evening they were gladdened to share such a meal in a local cafe. So were we, now that we knew where to look.