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Restaurant Reviews

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.

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Steve Koppelman

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