The city of Beirut conjures for many of us headlines about Hezbollah paramilitary forces clashing with Israeli military. Perhaps this partly explains why four years ago, Hana Lakkis and Fisal Houssein were encouraged to think more creatively about the name of their new restaurant. But the couple stuck with Beirut Café and have together built a loyal following for their traditional Lebanese fare.
I'm going to say up front that I'm a sucker for this food (my first kitchen job was making falafel and baba ghanouj under the stern eye of two taciturn Lebanese brothers). It's lively with sumac and zaatar, lush with whole-milk yogurt and tahini, and ends on a sinful note of filigreed phyllo leaves glistening with honey and rosewater.
Lakkis and Houssein met while in school in Beirut. Lakkis' parents ran the Middle East Bakery near Allentown, Pa., for years, so she comes by her pastry prowess honestly. She is responsible for Beirut Café's spinach pies, for the maamoul shortbread of semolina with dates or pistachio, the namourra with the texture of corn bread drizzled with rosewater, and (the showstopper) cheesecake baklava.
This spring has seen some joy and some hardship for the owners. In May, one of the couple's sons got married and, on the same day, another went into the hospital. The result was that the restaurant spent a few weeks shuttered, but the tiny, 34-seat cafe is back in full swing.
Take a gander at the dessert case before finding your table. Lakkis will whisk by to take drink orders or open your beer or wine for you (it's BYO) and bring glassware. By her own admission, service can be sluggish, but she's confident the food is worth a wait.
I agree. The maza (appetizer) sampler is a fine way to start ($14 for 2 people, $26 for 4), with five items arrayed attractively. The falafel are some of the best in Pinellas County, crisp and greaseless with the earthy flavor of chickpea and fava bean, best dunked in piquant tahini sauce. Join these with tightly rolled, minty grape leaves (sometimes with rice, sometimes with wheat berries), maybe with a scoop of thick, garlicky labneh (yogurt sauce), hummus dotted with sauteed ground meat and toasted pine nuts and refreshing yogurty cuke salad.
A maza isn't strictly necessary if you opt for one of the plated entrees ($8.99 to $12), which come with a scoop of tabbouleh and either hummus or baba ghanouj (I was more wowed by the eggplant/tahini puree than the chickpea, but that could just reflect my deep eggplant infatuation). Waggle a hunk of pita through the baba, then scoop up a cube of grilled beef kabob, then follow up the bite with a forkful of parsley-intensive bulgur tabbouleh and you have the essence of Lebanese cuisine. It's fresh and dynamic, juxtaposing fresh herbs and lemon with the savory, musky undertones of grilled beef or lamb.
The dining room itself isn't much to look at. Very home-spun and comfy, its fanciest accoutrements may be the pastries in the dessert case. Peek in at the shredded-wheat-and-pistachio burma or the long, cigar-like znoud el sit dusted with pistachio crumbles and powdered sugar. For $2 or $3, they are sweet reminders of all the things that come out of Lebanon beyond the headlines.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.