ST. PETERSBURG — First thing first: At Beirut Cafe, it is baklawa. • Sure, you've had baklava a million times, and this looks similar. But owner Hana Lakkis, who has been making the Lebanese version of the sweet treat of nuts and phylo for 30 years, assures that in Lebanon, it is spelled — and pronounced — with a W. • And that sort of makes sense, because her version is different, if only a little. It is less sweet, because she makes her own syrup, instead of using honey. And it has a perfume to it, from rosewater.
All right, in writing about dessert, that was technically putting the last thing first. But there are plenty of good things to write about at Beirut Cafe, which has been open since early July. This early in the game, they are buying pita bread, but hope to be making their own soon. Lakkis and her husband, chef Fisal Houssein, used to own a bakery in Pennsylvania, where homemade pita was a staple.
Lebanese cuisine comes across as a merging of Greek and Middle Eastern foods, which makes perfect geographic sense. There's the hummus and the grape leaves, plus the falafel and the shawarma. Throw in some unique spices, like sumac and zaatar, and Lebanese food is its own thing.
Beirut Cafe's menu is made up of small dishes and sandwiches, plus a section of plated entrees, which combine some of those into dinners. It's easy enough to do it yourself, though.
Start off with a maza (an appetizer). We tried the hummus ($5) and the labneh ($3.50). The hummus was everything a chickpea dip should be, then drizzled with olive oil and topped with pickled turnips as a garnish that could easily break off to be a maza of its own.
The labneh is a super-thick yogurt, almost the thickness of cream cheese, flavored with garlic and mint. I'm taking the menu at its word on the mint. I didn't taste it over the tangy yogurt and the garlic. Soft, thin, warm pita were there for the dipping.
From the side dishes, the cabbage rolls ($8 for six) caught my attention, because that is a comfort food for me. Growing up, I got the Eastern European kind, braised in tomato sauce. These are more subtle, albeit with a similar filling of ground beef and rice. At first taste, I thought they were bland. Then I tasted the garlic sauce that came with them and thought it was a little strong. Cue the magic: Together, they solved each other's problem. Didn't make me forget my grandmother's stuffed cabbage, but it was a worthwhile side.
Next came the kibbee, a combination of ground meat and wheat that comes three ways here. The only one we tried was the kibbee balls ($5 for three), which have the meat and wheat stuffed with pine nuts and onions, then fried. Be forewarned, frying does crisp up the outside, but a lot of the meat inside was still jewel-like in appearance, so if you aren't a fan of rare meat — very rare — make that clear. Other kibbee options on the menu are a baked version (b'sayneyeh), and raw (neye). For the raw version, you have to call ahead.
Among the sandwiches, the falafel ($5) was surprisingly good, with soft patties of chickpea and fava beans. The gyro ($7) was nice for its conservative amount of meat. Too many times I've eaten gyros that seemed to try to impress with the amount of meat. This one had just enough so that you could still enjoy the other players, which is a smart move in my book. The chicken kabob sandwich ($7) and the spinach pies ($4) were overpowered — the chicken by the garlic sauce, and the spinach by a lot of lemon. Together, they made for a puckery lunch.
In addition to the baklawa, there are several other house-made mini desserts, each about $2. The maamoul is a little dome of shortbread cookie filled with dates; the nammoura a small slice of cornbread sweetened with syrup and topped with an almond; and lady fingers are crepes filled with ricotta and on a small pool of syrup flavored with rosewater. It is heady stuff, like eating a bouquet.
The menu and the wall declare "Ya ahla!" That means, "The best." I'd say that it is very good, but I can appreciate the confidence.
Jim Webster can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.