AFTER-SCHOOL SPECIALS

Cafe Istanbul is another ethnic gem that should make student cafeterias obsolete. Despite the misleading Turkish name, this place features Lebanese fare. But I can understand the reluctance to do business as "Cafe Beirut"; that doesn't have a very festive connotation these days. The restaurant is housed in a small, spare room, tucked inside a shopping strip mall. Jars of pickled vegetables line a window that opens to the kitchen in the back. Miniatures in ornately decorated frames and baskets with dried flowers adorn the walls. Diners at the dozen small tables can tap their feet to nonstop Middle Eastern music. The food is superb, authentic and affordable. And there's plenty to choose from. At many ethnic restaurants, appetizers are a deep-fried, overpriced yawn. Not here. Sanbusek could be called Lebanese blintzes, three thin, crispy cylinders of dough enfolding mint-freshened, soft white cheese. They're exquisite, with a right-out-of-the-kitchen taste. Don't miss the kibbe, either, a highly seasoned (but not spicy hot) meat and bulgur wheat blend, dotted with pine nuts. But make sure you point to the right kibbe starter. There's also a raw version, made from ground lamb loin, that requires a hardy sense of adventure. If your jaded palate no longer finds the traditional dips of hummus and baba ghanouj sufficiently exotic, Cafe Istanbul has several unusual Middle Eastern alternatives. Mjadara is a thick paste made from lentils, rice and onions. Pour on some olive oil, and scoop it up into warm pita. A little of this heavy starter goes a long way. Loubieh bi zeit is a lighter option, a refreshing mix of green beans, onions and tomatoes. Do you know how Charlie Brown must feel whenever he sees Lucy holding a football for him to kick? Maybe, he tells himself, this time she can be trusted. That's what goes through my mind whenever I see shawarma on a menu. When I lived in the Middle East, I used to gorge on this Lebanese delight, with its alternating layers of lamb and beef, gloriously cooked to a moist, crisp turn on a slow-spinning rotisserie. Nothing I've had on this side of the Atlantic has remotely approached the shawarma of days past. So when I saw it offered at Cafe Istanbul, I thought, "Here we go again." I warily asked the waiter if their shawarma was reliable. In response, he marched me back into the kitchen to check for myself. It sure looked like the real thing, I said, inspecting the juicy evidence, while the bewildered kitchen staff nodded in agreement. A few bites removed any lingering doubt. You can get shawarma at lunch as a pita sandwich, or heaped on a plate at dinner. Other standard Middle Eastern fare also exhibits high quality. The Istambuli kebab combo, featuring profit-busting amounts of lamb, chicken and kafta (ground lamb and beef), comes expertly scented and grilled. Grilled chicken, about a quarter of a bird marinated in a bucket of lemon, has a pleasing zing, especially if you mistake the mound of garlic paste for a scoop of mashed potatoes. And ma'anek, a vividly flavored Lebanese lamb sausage, makes a wonderful midday sandwich. A few minor cavils. Falafel is fresh and crisp, without the shriveled, dried-out taste that occasionally strikes this chickpea-based staple. But it's fried in strong-scented corn oil, not exactly a typical Levantine touch. The rice accompanying the platters is pretty dull stuff. And there should be more of the excellent Turkish coffee for the $1.25 tag. How about setting down one of those long-handled, brass, Middle Eastern coffee pourers, filled with steaming, sludgy additional brew? Cafe Istanbul provides a taste of Lebanon, without the car bombs, religious strife or political intrigue. Students of Middle Eastern gastronomy should find themselves right at home.

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