One of my favorite things to do when I would visit my twin brother in Dearborn, near Detroit, was to pop into the many Lebanese eateries that heavily dot and pretty much revitalized the westside of Motown, abandoned after the race riots of the 60′s. I would savour for the first time the interesting dishes that revealed a new world of spices and unique flavor profiles. Back in Washington DC, I would be invited by a good friend who is Lebanese-Armenian, and his mother would treat me to her wonderful home-cooking – an array of dishes consisting of cheese rolls, Fatoush (vegetable salad with crispy pita), Hummus, Kebbeh (cracked wheat and beef meatballs), stewed meat-stuffed zucchini, and many more wonderful flavorful dishes. The evening was usually capped off with a tray of imported assorted pastries (smaller portions and less sweet than the Arab-American versions) after having just spent long hours in his suitcase on the way back from a recent visit to his beloved homeland.
I must admit that I have not ventured into many Lebanese restaurants in the area since I have been spoiled by my friend’s mother’s cooking and the lack of their presence in the city. But when the opportunity to try out a new restaurant just south of Dupont Circle came up, and while I am currently on my Middle Eastern food kick (see blogs on Mediterranean Kabob and Marrakesh P Street), I hauled along my fore mentioned friend as the connoisseur, and another companion to the eatery on a Friday night. Upon entering Kababji Grill, you sense its modern feel from the slick-looking kabob bar near the entrance to the swanky dining area hightlighted by a uplit minimalistic mural as the focal point. My friend immediately recognized the decor and the brand name - he quipped that he had visited their other branches in Lebanon, Kuwait, and Cairo. Perusing the menu, we were excited to try out some familiar dishes and some I had not heard of.
While deciding on the dishes, we received the complementary spiced baked pita bread and cured olives. The crispy bread was brittle and greaseless from the baking, while it was spiced by Zataar (a fragrant powder with dark smokey notes) and nutty toasted sesame seeds. The pieces were irresistible and we managed to polish them off quite quickly, partly due to the tasty seasoning. The cured olives were quite meaty and fruity with a touch of salinity but really nothing extraordinary.
We decided to order a variety of Mezzas, or small dishes, to start the meal off. The first was the obiquitous Hummus. However, this order came with minced beef that has been mildly seasoned with exotic spices. The different elements had contrasting textures and flavors that were brought together by a healthy drizzle of fruity olive oil. I enjoyed this flavor combination while a side of soft pita bread made the perfect vehicle to scoop up the chickpea puree. However, I would have appreciated a bit more lemon juice in the hummus in order to provide more acidity to the rather mild concoction.
The next appetizer was something that I had never tasted before – Kebbeh Latkin. It is a baked pumpkin and cracked wheat crust sandwiching a stuffing consisting of cooked Swiss chard, chickpea, sumac and onion. The crispy crust was slightly sweet from the bits of pumpkin, and the stuffing was very savoury with the different vegetable elements and slightly sour sumac spice. All three diners enjoyed the different textures and flavors in this unique scrumptious bite. The side of cucumber yogurt provided the rich cooling element to the warm pie.
The third small-bite was an order of Arayes. It is pocket pita that has been stuffed with ground beef, parsley, fresh tomato sauce, hot pepper paste, pine nuts, and the house seasoning. A short stay on a charcoal grill was evident by the charred marks on the bread. The filling was flavor-packed from the different elements, and the grill flavor on the pita added another note to the tasty profile. We were getting quite full from the different Mezzas that made a good opener to the meal.
For our entrées, we decided to try a couple of dishes. The first was the day’s special. The restaurant offers a daily special everyday, and that day’s was Milokeyeh. When my Lebanese friend noticed it on the menu, he was thrilled by its presence and recommended that we ordered it. It is a stew made with Milokeyeh leaves (akin to spinach), chicken, rice, garlic, and cilantro with a fairly robust citrus lemon hit. I must say that this dish had a unique and exotic flavor yet I found it savory and quite irresistible, and which my friend was lapping up with gusto. The side of buttery Rice Pilaf made with toasted vermicelli and topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon powder was the perfect accompaniment to the stew.
For the last main course, we decided to go with the familiar – Kafta Kabob. It is basically grilled seasoned ground beef kebab. It was served with some grilled onions, green pepper, and eggplant, along with that aromatic cinnamon-laced Rice Pilaf. It was well-made and decent, but not as tasty and seasoned as those we have tried in other Middle-Eastern eateries – my friend commented that Lebanese kabobs are less seasoned than other renditions. Slices of pita bread slathered with a spicy paste made a good tasty wrap around the grilled beef.
Kababji Grill offers good and tasty authentic Lebanese cuisine, from the familiar dishes like Kabob and Hummus to the more unknown dishes like the day’s special of Milokeyeh stew and the pumpkin-cracked wheat-Swiss chard pie. Such a wide offering is not common in most Lebanese restaurants, especially in a downtown location. It is a pity that we had no room left for the pastry desserts that are customarily enjoyed at the end of a meal, and I could not review on their sweet offerings. But the dishes that we tasted there were very flavorful and satisfying, good enough for me to want to pay it another visit in the future – I am sure my Lebanese friend would love to tag along the next time.