With its wall-sized bazaar mural and cobbled-together feel, Lebanon’s
is the kind of comfortable joint you’d expect to find in the university area. The tables are usually packed with budget-minded students grabbing a quick sandwich and neighborhood regulars out for the evening.
Local vegetarians can finally breathe easy. Lebanon’s features standard Middle Eastern fare with an emphasis on both grilled meat items (kabobs, gyros) and vegetarian salads and finger foods (humus, baba ganuj, grape leaves). No real surprises here, just garlic-heavy specialties perfect for scooping up with hand-torn pita bread. Try the two-serving chef’s special for a broad and filling sampling of various appetizer offerings or the outstanding chicken kabob entree.
Dips and sauces based on tahini, or sesame seed paste, can be masterful if prepared by someone who enjoys combining sensual, harmonious flavors. Rich, creamy and versatile, such dips are becoming increasingly popular beyond the realm of Middle Eastern restaurants. Tahini has an uncanny ability to enrich the flavor of almost any food. I usually enjoy grazing on spreads made with tahini as an appetizer, or on pita as a light lunch.
The most famous tahini dip of all is hummus, a dish that has begun to lose its charm since it turned into a mediocre deli item. You can now get hummus made with everything from calamata olives to roasted red peppers in the cooler of your neighborhood supermarket. But these overly salted, mass-produced versions pale in comparison to the kind of fresh hummus that is made by a capable chef from the Middle East.
As a devoted fan, I have been hot on the hummus trail for years, and have found another really good one made on South Carrollton Avenue at the newly opened Lebanon Cafe, housed near Cavallino’s in the space formerly occupied by Mango Tree restaurant.
The creamy, delicious hummus is delicately laced with a housemade sauce heightened by crushed jalapenos, garlic, lemon and lime, then sprinkled with ground sumac. The baba ganuj also is spiffed up with the wonderful housemade pepper sauce and sumac. The sumac berries grow wild throughout the Middle East, and they have a pleasantly sour and astringent flavor, but without the sharpness of either vinegar or lemon juice. The Lebanese sprinkle sumac on fish, the Iraqis and Turks generally add it to salads, and the Iranians and Georgians season kebabs with it.
Hussain Sheereef, chef-owner of Lebanon Cafe, sprinkles sumac on his glorious hummus, and just about anything else that needs a little kick and color coming out of his small, busy kitchen.
A native of Iraq, Sheereef says that he first learned the art of cooking from his mother. He only recently opened his doors for business and already, Sheereef is packing in plenty of neighborhood folks — and their friends — with his wonderful, authentic Middle Eastern food served at very reasonable prices. The last three times I dined there, I ran into people that I knew, from professors to authors to musicians. For a new restaurant with a 65-person seating capacity, that’s rather amazing.
There are a few tables outside for those who prefer al fresco dining (which I would only recommend in the evening during this heat wave). Inside, diners are instantly transported to the busy streets of Baghdad with the colorful mural of a market scene painted by a Spanish artist with a passion for warm colors. In the evenings when the cafe gets crowded, the sound level gets almost as loud as Emeril’s used to be. The tables are tightly spaced, which adds to the camaraderie. The wait staff is young, and some are rather inexperienced, but the food arrives fast and hot.
Just about everything I have sampled so far has been superb, particularly the hummus and the rather chunky musabaha made with mixed whole chick peas and hummus with hot peppers. I also was impressed by the powerful, hearty flavors of the faul. The thick, fiery spread is made with smashed fava beans mixed with garlic, lemon, peppers and olive oil, and goes well with the warm, bountiful pita bread provided for each meal.
I like Lebanon Cafe’s version of spinach pie, which is a delicate, delicious triangle of pastry enhanced by sumac and onions, served piping hot. The chef is especially proud of his fried kibby, a rich rice loaf stuffed with meat, pinenuts and onion, although I far prefer the eggplant sandwich, which tops just about everything I have sampled to date, including the kabobs.
The sandwiches are very reasonably priced, just $3.75 for the eggplant. Discs of sauteed eggplant, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, delicate lettuces, slivers of red onions and crumbly feta are layered atop garlic butter bread. The delicious sandwich is priced at about half of what you’d normally pay for similar versions around town. Another good sandwich choice is the chicken kebob. Tiny chunks of marinated chicken are stuffed with lettuce tomatoes into pita, and served hot for just $3.50.
The only two things I haven’t cared for on the menu are the salad with feta cheese and olives, because of the overabundance of feta and the overly sour dressing, and the zaater bread, which is very chewy, baked with oregano, sesame seeds and sumac with olive oil.
The best way to order a meal is to ask for several appetizers. Most of the dinner entrees are simply appetizer items offered in larger portions with the added bonus of side dishes like hummus or salad and pita bread. French fries or basmati rice may be substituted in place of the hummus, but don’t do it.
I look forward to returning again for the chef’s wonderful hummus and other appetizers. It is always refreshing to encounter an ethnic restaurant offering savory, authentic dishes that reflect the chef’s unbridled passion for his culinary roots.
Lebanon’s dining room is larger than it first seems, a fact you note when you feel the space between the tables. The menu is also lager than at most Middle Eastern places with a fewer dishes even lovers of Lebanese cooing might not be familiar with.
For example, during my most recent visit the chef sent out a sample of a new cold appetizer dish made from cubed eggplant and peppers. It was not only delicious but unlike anything I’ve ever had in a Lebanese restaurant. It was sort of like a very spicy caponata.
While I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve had here, I can’t say they serve the best version of every dish. But I didn’t expect that because the prices are lower than I’ve found anywhere else. Appetizers start at $1.75, entrees at $6. Not only that, but portions are very ample. For that reason (and also because Lebanese food is by its nature filling), you might think twice about ordering a first course and an entrée.
One particularly appealing bargain is a plate of some six lamb chops for all of $13.95, with the plate fully fleshed out with hummus, salad, pita bread and all the rest of it.
As is the case at Byblos, an all-appetizer meal here is an appealing option, especially for a table full of people going after every single appetizer in the place. All are nicely prepared, well-done, served hot and fresh if cooked at all, and the variety is huge.
The service staff here is extraordinarily friendly. And so are the customers, many of whom are regular patrons.
FIVE BEST DISHES AT LEBANON’S CAFÉ
1. Lamb with Hummus
2. Rack of Lamb
3. Chicken teca. Spicy roasted half-chicken.
4. Kebab combo.
5. Stuffed grape leaves.
Lebanon’s Café rated Excellent
“Develop a newfound appreciation for tangy grape leaves, ambrosial hummus and other dishes abounding in spices.”
“Tulane student hangout”
“You bring your own wine and get tons of food for very little money.”
Lamb lovers look to this Lebanese restaurant in Carrollton for the “best chops west of the Mediterranean” plus “flawless” falafel and “tasty vegetable plates,” all at “bargain” prices; a recent expansion has finally made more room inside this “exotic culinary oasis,” but if you can’t get in, “pleasant” sidewalk tables let you “watch the streetcars” going by.
New Orleans Magazine
Located on South Carrollton Avenue, Lebanon’s Café is named after the Middle Eastern country, which is renowned for its flavorful cooking.
Opened in 1999 by Hussain Alsherees, Lebanon’s Café features an authentic menu, a casual atmosphere and inexpensive prices. Standouts include the combination appetizer, which consists of hummus, baba ghanouj, stuffed grape leaves, tabbouleh and labna, a yogurt dressing cooled with mint, lemon and olive oil and served with a basket of pita (whole wheat available upon request).
Dessert options such as the bite-size, flaky baklava and burma, a crumbly crust wrapped around honey-glazed pistachios, offer a bit of sweetness to end your meal.
Lebanon’s Café is named after that area of the Middle East renowned for its gourmet cooking, but its wall-length mural, modeled upon photographs, portrays the bustling outdoor market in Baghdad. The actual scene inside is very Uptown: students, neighborhood families, workers from the universities and hospitals nearby. Waitresses are students, too, young and a tad forgetful, but always earnest and charming.
There’s no Najah bread here; instead, the basket of pita, whole wheat available upon request, is replenished as needed and comes with a lemony tahini sauce. Prices are a bit higher, usually by a quarter or so, and there aren’t as many sandwich options, but the menu is practically identical to its big brother’s at Babylon.
Standouts include the special appetizer, which rounds up humus, baba ganuj, stuffed grape leaves, tabouli and labna, a yogurt dressing cooled with mint, lemon and olive oil. My favorite entrée is the exceptional fried kibby – imagine an exotic, football-shaped meatball enhanced by 10 spices. Inside the delicately browned crust of bulgur, onion and beef is a nutmeg-scented stuffing of lamb, onion and roasted pinenuts. Each kibby roll takes a minute to shape by hand. The finished product is then deep fried and rolled in sumac, brick-red ground flakes that dust everything here like confetti.
Good. Fine hummus, airy falafel and a whole slew of dinner combinations make this an affordable feeding and meeting ground.
Good. A changing lineup of youthful waitresses results in service that’s as absent-minded as it is good-natured. Beware that during peak dinner hours, the pacing slows down considerably.
Very good. The youthful vibe of this brightly decorated dining room dulls the pain of waiting for your food during hectic times. No smoking. Fully wheelchair accessible. High chairs available.
Chef special appetizer ($9.99); falafel sandwich ($2.75); vegetarian plate ($6.99); fried kibby plate ($6.99); lula kabob ($7.99); chichen teca ($6.99); combination kabob ($9.99)