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Middle Eastern flavors fill St. Petersburg's Cedar Market

The Chehabs — Nabil, left, Hala, 11, center, and Wajiha — whip up Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes such as baba ghanouj, hummus, bulgur tabbouleh and fresh pita at their Cedar Market. The St. Petersburg shop also offers ingredients for making your own dishes at home.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

The Chehabs — Nabil, left, Hala, 11, center, and Wajiha — whip up Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes such as baba ghanouj, hummus, bulgur tabbouleh and fresh pita at their Cedar Market. The St. Petersburg shop also offers ingredients for making your own dishes at home.

By Laura Reiley

Times Food Critic

ST. PETERSBURG — Nabil Chehab and his family have run a Middle Eastern market at this spot for six years, with a previous location before that. The market smells complicated, of licoricey fennel seeds, musty burlap sacks of dried fava beans and fruity Chiclets with swirly Arabic writing on the back.

So Cedar Market is not new. It's not fancy. But vegetarians should hustle over. More than half of the items on the short Middle Eastern menu are veg, many of them making good use of excellent Sami's pita (the Tampa bakery is owned by Chehab's family members), which usually arrives hot around noon, Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. You get a basket piled with warm rounds. Rip off a hunk and dab your way through hummus ($1.99), baba ghanouj ($1.99) or tangy white labneh ($2.50, strained yogurt, available to go by the tub in the refrigerator case). Or scoop up refreshing bulgur tabbouleh ($1.75 small, $3.50 large) or crunchy ground garbanzo falafel balls ($1.49 side order, $4.99 platter) moistened with tahini. Or have it cradle a sandwich of piquant grape leaves ($3.50), accompanied by a slather of hummus and a drippy pile of chopped tomato.

More accustomed to takeout, the staff can be flummoxed by dine-in customers: Orders still come in Styrofoam containers and the details of ordering drinks or dessert are a little ad hoc. No matter, the handful of tables in the market are a pleasant place to unwrap a Greek salad ($3.99) or a gyro and feta pita ($4.25). This last is an extremely tasty version, matched in quality by a cinnamon-spiked kebab of ground beef mixed with parsley and onion ($3.69) or an interesting take on kibbe ($3.69): crunchy little football shapes made of cracked wheat and ground chuck with a softer, meaty center dotted with pine nuts.

Strangely, the perfect beverage to go with all this? A sweaty, ice-cold 8-ounce old-time glass bottle of Coke (75 cents). But that may be too sweet an accompaniment if you aim to sample one of the half dozen or so pastries (all 99 cents) in the dessert case. There's a classic, tooth-achingly sweet baklava, a shredded phyllo round studded with pistachios, or buttery, finger-length, walnut-stuffed phyllo tubes.

Then after your lunch debris has been cleared away, wander around Cedar Market and pick up treats for later: a small package of dried figs, a jar of exotic pickles, a handful of pastel-colored candy-coated almonds or just more warm pita for the drive.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.

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Cedar Market

6531 54th Ave. N, St. Petersburg

(727) 546-9687

Cuisine: Lebanese

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

Details: V, MC; no reservations; no alcohol

Prices: Wraps and pitas $3.69 to $4.50; salads $3.99 to $4.99; platters $4.99 to $5.50

Rating out of four stars:

Food: ★★ Service: ★★

Atmosphere: ★

Overall: ★★

Middle Eastern flavors fill St. Petersburg's Cedar Market 02/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 3:30am]

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