Snowbirds! Come Back!
About ten years ago, I lived in a bustling pan-Muslim neighborhood branching off a couple of blocks of Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens. In a three-block walk, you would pass a café where old men would smoke hookahs and sip coffee, a café where young men would smoke hookahs and eat pastries, an Egyptian grill popular with cabdrivers, a religious bookstore, a religious school, a mosque, an Egyptian seafood restaurant and fish market, a halal butcher shop, an old pizzeria that made awful pizza and pasta that nobody bought (but did brisk business in a secret, unprinted menu of Bosnian bureks and cevapi), a Moroccan restaurant, an Afghan restaurant with crystal chandeliers that closed after a year and became another Moroccan restaurant, and, near the corner of 28th Avenue, a big, bright state-of-the-art Lebanese grocery shop and bakery.
The open kitchen to the left of the door was filled with trays of fresh pita and lavash and par-baked triangular spinach pies and an array of open-faced pies, essentially pitas with one or another topping like buttery cheese, cinnamon-and-cumin-infused ground meat called kibbe, or brushed with olive oil and dusted with za'atar, a tangy spice blend. You could buy a small bag of them to take home or get a larger bag from the freezers along the wall, but if you wanted one right then, a baker would pluck one from a tray, place it on the floor of a brick-lined oven, and in a minute or two, you'd have a deliciously fresh, chewy treat with a hint of crust. Across the street, a Syrian restaurant turned out endless platters of kebabs astride aromatic rice pilaf sprinkled with vermicelli and sandwiches of spice-infused shawarma carved from a spit.
With some terrific Middle Eastern food of our own here in South Florida Israeli pitas and shawarma, Turkish kebabs, and Persian pilafs among them checking out a fairly new, well-regarded Lebanese place sounded like a good time.
The New Lebanon Restaurant opened last August, physically replacing a Chinese restaurant and spiritually replacing another, forgettable Lebanese restaurant that used to be down the street. When two of us arrived for dinner on a Tuesday around 6, only a couple of tables were occupied. At the far end was a small stage with traditional instruments hung on the wall. The dining room was simply and inexpensively decorated like most mom-and-pops, but warm colors and a few mirrors made it inviting. A large ribbon decal on the front counter commemorated last year's Cedar Revolution, when a new Lebanon free of Syrian occupation took shape. As my companion put down her purse and went to wash her hands, she asked me to order some mint tea.
"What?" asked the waitress, with a smile.
I asked if they served mint tea, which is more a North African thing but common enough in the Middle East that a Lebanese restaurant might offer it.
"We just have Lipton, regular and decaf."
All right, no problem.
When the tea arrived along with my Turkish beer ($4.25), the server asked if my companion wanted some sugar or Sweet'N Low.
"Sweet 'N Low? Yes, please."
We opened the menus, took a look through, and decided to sample a variety of mainstays to get a feel for the offerings. The waitress reappeared with her pad. We first ordered the veggie combo platter for one ($9.99), to be followed by a mixed grill platter ($13.99) of three assorted kebabs, rice, and a salad. And then I asked if they had za'atar pie even though it wasn't on the menu.
She asked me to pronounce it so she could ask the cook. "I'm sorry. It's my first day."
To keep things easy, we asked for a spinach pie and meat pie instead, figuring that since they need just a minute of reheating, we could have something to nibble on while the rest of the meal was being prepared. We were hungry.
At least 20 minutes passed. We caught up on each other's day, sipped beer and unsweetened tea, and wondered where those spinach and meat pies were.
There was some activity behind the kitchen doors. Our waitress emerged with all of the food at once.
The meat pie (89 cents) was fine, a light, snappy roll filled with a dry, fragrant crumble of ground beef tasting perhaps of cinnamon and nutmeg. The spinach pie had some great qualities: an abundance of tender spinach and a just-right dose of lemon juice that lent a bright, sweet tang. The folded triangle of dough surrounding it, though, was... doughy, probably from too much time in a microwave and maybe a day or two too many since being baked.
We reached for some of the warm pita bread in a basket and dug into the vegetarian platter. The babaghanoush, the ubiquitous roast-eggplant dip, was excellent, smoky but not at all bitter, with a lovely texture. The falafels were greaseless, with a crunchy crust giving way to a tender, steamy interior. We eagerly used them to mop up the fine if unremarkable fresh hummus.
The tabbouleh, though, a finely minced salad primarily of parsley, cracked wheat, and lemon juice, struck us as off-balance, here comprised overwhelmingly of the parsley and doused in lemon juice. We were sure the small grape leaves stuffed with rice and bits of something we could neither taste nor identify came from a can. It turned out they were freshly made on-site, as were the pink wedges of mild pickled turnip that also serve as a garnish on Lebanese and Syrian-style sandwiches.
The kebabs were a case of good news and bad news: the shish tawook, or chicken-breast kebab, was tender and juicy, grilled beautifully and dusted with sumac, exceeding expectations. Unfortunately, the skewers of kofta (seasoned ground beef) and beef shish kebab were both overcooked, tough, and dry. The side tossed salad of romaine, lettuce, tomato, and onion was fresh and crisp, and the sumac-infused dressing was excellent; the rice, fragrant with cinnamon, would have been delicious if it hadn't been warming, probably on a steam table, for hours. There was so much almost likable about the meal that we thought it was worth another try, on a busier night, when more food would be passing through the kitchen. We resolved to come back later in the evening on a weekend night, when, according to fliers and photos by the door, there would be music and bellydancers.
Seven of us arrived at 8 o'clock on a Friday night, and we were nearly alone.
We were greeted warmly and told that unfortunately, there would be no entertainment because it was a holiday weekend. Besides one couple finishing up their meal by the window, we had the place to ourselves. I was told later by the amiable Akram Fayad, patriarch of the family-owned restaurant, that their dinner business fell off sharply with the arrival of summer and the departure of the snowbirds at Wynmoor and the other retirement communities in the area. And when a restaurant becomes half-empty, the bellydancing and live music performances are less fun, so fewer people come, so you start canceling the entertainment, and...
While they awaited the snowbirds' return, we sat down for dinner.
With more people at the table, we dug deeper into the menu. A bowl of foul muddamas ($5.49) a hot dip of crushed chickpeas simmered with lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil was a little on the wet and unintegrated side, but there was no knocking the bright flavors. It was scooped up enthusiastically by all, and a second bowl was ordered. The babaghanoush went over well too. The falafels, though, were fried too long, dark brown and dry, and the tabbouleh was as wet and lemony as before.
I've long been fond of fattoush. Loosely defined as a green salad tossed with bits of toasted pita, four cooks will have five opinions on what it is. The vegetable component can range from diced cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes to a tossed lettuce salad, and there's more than one way to get toasted bits of pita. My favorite versions have always involved lightly dry-toasting the bread and tossing it in small bits into the dressed salad so they soak up some dressing and are simultaneously soft and a bit crunchy and easy to get in a forkful. New Lebanon's version ($5.75), on the other hand, was their standard tossed salad topped with fistfuls of large pita chips, brushed with olive oil and seasonings and baked to a golden crisp. As finger food on their own, they were unimpeachable. Laid atop an off-putting, puckeringly lemony salad, though, they shattered upon any attempt to get them onto the same fork as some lettuce or tomato.
The meatatarians among us ordered a plate of lamb kibbe ($10.99), a well-chilled, firm mound of raw ground lamb blended with spices; as a spread, it was mild to a fault, tasting of cinnamon and maybe allspice. It was easily overwhelmed by the accompanying garnishes of pungent white onion and sprigs of mint, which the earlier night's despairing tea-drinker stirred into her cup to make the unavailable mint tea herself.
When the kebab platters arrived, we were pleased to find the fragrant rice moist and fresh this time around and dotted with mushy peas and carrots. Ara shish ($14.99), a beef kebab, was marinated in arak, the anise liquor popular along the eastern Mediterranean. The soak gave the kebab a welcome flavor note to charred, medium-well cubes of meat. If only it had been on the grill for a minute or two less.
I found the sautéed, not spit-roasted, chicken shawarma ($12.99) enjoyable enough, if overcoated with cinnamon, but dissenters at the table found the tender morsels too salty.
Anticipating a slow weekend, wife and chef Amira Fayad, who took over the helm in the kitchen a few months ago from the previous cook, had made only two desserts from her repertoire, pistachio and walnut baklavas ($2.25). We ordered just-right-sized squares of both, fresh, flaky, and filled with a layer of coarsely ground nuts. The judiciously deployed orange-blossom and rose-scented syrup on the pistachio version was a fine match for excellent cups of cardamom-infused Turkish coffee ($1.50). It was brewed with sugar, so Sweet'N Low wasn't an issue. The jolt of caffeine heightened our awareness that we were in an empty restaurant on Friday night, and there would be no bellydancing, not here, not at home. Not tonight.
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