The downtown medical community got a new neighbor at Fifth and Wall recently, offering a convenient spot for culinary exploration of the Mediterranean diet, touted as a heart-healthy cuisine particular to Italy, Greece and Middle Eastern countries on the Mediterranean Sea. Anchoring the ground floor space of the Cooper George apartments, Lebanon Restaurant & Café opened in June, much to the online delight of local foodies.
The restaurant's most popular dishes, explains general manager Saif Alazrai, are shawarma, gyros, kofta kebabs and a sampler platter ($16).
Although the dishes on its menu might be found in culinary traditions throughout the Middle East, the focus here is the Lebanese version, Alazrai says.
Shawarma, for example, references the way meat turns as it cooks — rotisserie-style — in a dish ubiquitous across the Middle East. Lebanon Café offers chicken, beef or lamb shawarma wrapped in a pita ($13-$15) or on a platter ($14-$17), drizzled with a creamy, nutty dressing called tahini. But the basmati rice that accompanies all entrees is uniquely Lebanese.
Tinted gold with turmeric and saffron, Lebanon Café's basmati is made enigmatically fragrant — is that fenugreek? a touch of cumin? — by something Alazrai describes as Lebanese seven spices. Available at spice merchants as baharat, a Lebanese spice blend might vary widely, much like Indian curry, Japanese togarashi, or North African ras el hanout.
For newcomers to Lebanese cuisine, ask your server any questions, or keep your phone handy to Google dishes. The feast platter ($44), for example, includes two each of vegetarian and beef kofta kebabs and one each of the chicken and beef shish kebab, so although both are roasted on a skewer (kebab), kofta is more of a meatball.
In the sampler platter ($16), find hummus, that thick, creamy spread of pureed chickpeas, pungent with garlic. It's typically spread on pita bread, but also a tasty bite when paired with a forkful of tabbouleh salad, a wheat grain smaller than rice and also nuttier, tossed with finely chopped parsley and tomatoes. You'll also get dolmades, grape leaves preserved so that they're sturdy but mouth-tender and stuffed with seasoned rice and veggies. And fried falafel patties and spinach pie both pair well with tangy tzatziki sauce of yogurt, cucumber and spices.
You can see how the restaurant prepares Lebanese coffee ($5) on its Facebook page. First, they grind beans from a Lebanese coffee brand called Maatouk, and use a long-handled metal coffee pot warmed over heated sand to produce a cup that's likely stronger than any espresso.
Coffee's perfect accompaniment is dessert, and Lebanon Café has three choices. Baklava ($5), familiar to fans of Spokane's annual Greek food festival, is a pastry made with layers of thin, flaky filo dough, plus walnuts, cinnamon and honey. Knafeh ($7) uses the same filo dough, but includes Arabic cheese, pistachio nuts and honey. And qatayef ($6), which many of Lebanon Café's online fans have expressed cravings for, are dumplings stuffed with walnuts and cinnamon and covered in syrup.
Lebanon Café has a robust to-go business, including breakfast pitas ($5), smoothies and shakes. Its owners plan to add more dishes in the near future, including baba ghanoush and shakshuka, with live music and belly dance performances scheduled through the end of December. ♦
Lebanon Restaurant & Cafe • 707 W. Fifth Ave. • Open daily 11 am-8 pm • lebanonrestaurantandcafe.com • 509-279-2124