"Venture out. Try new things," says Cedar Café owner Islam Bakeer.
Bakeer opened the Lebanese café in December 2000, inspired by the desire to share authentic recipes from his home in the Middle East with the people of Northern Virginia.
Six days a week, he prepares all menu items from scratch for hungry patrons. This week I had the good fortune of being one of those patrons.
I began my meal with the Make Your Own Platter ($9.50), selecting sambosak, tahini salad, mousaka, hendbeh, baba ghanouge, and stuffed grape leaves from a deli case.
Many of the dishes I selected were foods I had never tried before. The sambosak was a triangle-shaped dough filled with beef and lamb. The dough was soft, warm, and a little chewy. The meat filling was seasoned with almonds, garlic, and traditional, sweet, Lebanese spices. To compare them to something familiar, most Lebanese spice mixtures taste like Christmas in your mouth. One bite was all it took for me to learn that sambosak is delicious.
Upon devouring my sambosak I tried some of the tahini salad. Unlike typical American salads, Middle Eastern salad often refers to diced tomatoes and cucumbers. In this case, those fresh vegetables were doused in a sesame dressing called tahini. This tahini had a bitter intensity, creating contrast with the refreshing vegetables. Fresh parsley and scallions brightened the salad even further. The bold but balanced array of flavors was invigorating. I loved it.
Next to the tahini salad was a helping of mousaka. It was a cold, vegetarian dish made up of large pieces of soft eggplant, tomato sauce and spices. It was very sweet with a faint bitter undertone from the eggplant. Strangely, the seasonings reminded me of pumpkin pie.
After the mousaka I tried another new food—hendbeh. It was a cool salad of sautéed chicory greens, onion, and garlic. It had a medium sourness that helped the natural flavor of the chicory take center stage. The onion and garlic served as background flavors, further accenting the chicory. The combination of pungency and simplicity made the mousaka shine as one of the best parts of the appetizer.
Of all the items in front of me I was most surprised by the baba ghanouge. This common eggplant dip was unusually white and smooth. It had an almost creamy texture with a faint barbeque flavor followed by a tart aftertaste. A very thin flatbread accompanied the dip, and though the dip was good the bread was lacking both texture and flavor.
A stuffed grape leaf served as the last item on the platter. It was served cold with a mild rice filling. The leaves were usually easy to bite through, but not always. Though I enjoyed the strong flavor of the leaves and the texture of the rice, I was disappointed that the filling added no flavor to the dish.
Before moving to my next course I stopped to take a drink of my Recharge ($3.99) smoothie, made from bananas, honey, and milk. It had a screaming banana flavor with mild tartness and earthiness. It had a surprisingly light and creamy feel with small chunks of banana. Though the flavor was pretty average the consistency was a stroke of textural genius.
At last it was time for my entrée. The gyro-like wrap was served with a side of vibrant, magenta pickled turnips and homemade pita chips.
The turnips were very visually appealing, but didn't deliver on flavor. They had a pleasant acidity but the natural flavor of the turnip didn't pair well with the flavor of the pickling agents.
Conversely, the pita chips were incredible. They were made of extraordinarily thin, triangle shaped pieces of homemade pita bread, and cooked until perfectly crispy. They had an intense buttery flavor and were coated with za'atar, my favorite Middle Eastern seasoning. Za'atar tastes similar to the dried Italian herb mixes available at supermarkets, only significantly better. Each herbal, rich, crunchy bite was more satisfying than the one before. My only disappointment came when I ran out.
Finally it was time to taste my sujok ($5.90) -- a warm, fluffy flatbread wrapped around chopped lettuce, sliced tomato, and thin lamb and beef sausage with tomato sauce. I took my first bite and my taste buds lit up. The herbs in the sausage brought the juicy beef and lamb flavors to center stage. Just enough sweetly spiced tomato sauce coated the sausage, enhancing it without overpowering it. Over time I noticed a sneaking spiciness in the background, adding to the variety of flavor profiles. Fresh vegetables created lightness, bringing balance to the dish. I was amazed at how much a simple sandwich could do to my taste buds.
My gastronomic trip to Lebanon was a success. I left Cedar Café fully satisfied, and with every intention of coming back.
6409 Shiplett Boulevard
Burke, Virginia 22015