Cafe Munir presents Lebanese cuisine at moderate prices.
Sunday nights at Cafe Munir are a little different from other nights. On Sunday, chef/owner Rajah Gargour offers a $15 chef’s choice menu that is an excellent introduction not just to Middle Eastern cuisine but to this congenial Loyal Heights Lebanese restaurant.
Born in America, the son of Palestinian and Swedish parents, Gargour spent his early childhood in Lebanon. Civil war drove the family to Jordan, then to England. Back in America, he followed his heart to Seattle. Stints at Szmania’s, Serafina and Marco’s Supperclub preceded the January launch of Cafe Munir, where he cooks, he says, “with one foot in the East and one foot in the Western world.”
Abundance is a hallmark of the Arab table, and Sunday night’s feast is certainly plentiful. Servers asked about allergies or dietary restrictions. Soon the table was crowded with a profusion of hot and cold mezze: seven small plates in all, with pita (thin, supple, warm triangles) replenished as needed.
Family-style platters followed. Rice stuffed a whole baked zucchini. Kosheri (rice mixed with lentils and vermicelli) supported skewers of grilled vegetables and meats. The flavors embedded in the moist marinated chicken and beef, and in the savory kafta (ground lamb and bulgur), got a boost from side sauces: powerful garlic, soothing yogurt, suave tahini-lemon.
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The meal’s sweet finish might be a cool, slippery milk pudding, fragile semolina cookies made with dates or walnuts, or pistachio-packed baklava. Each bears a trace or more of fragrant orange-flower water.
On other nights of the week you get to devise your own feast. Start with a classic hommus or smoky baba ghanoush dotted with pomegranate seeds. Both are extraordinarily smooth. A pickled baby beet nestles in lebneh, a thick, tangy yogurt cheese. For a little more kick, try muham’mara, a gritty purée of sweet and hot peppers thickened with walnuts and sharpened with pomegranate.
Olive oil and lemon lubricate vibrant salads. Fattoush, a crisp jumble of romaine, cucumber, radish, tomato, parsley and mint, plus shards of toasted flatbread, is boldly sour with ground sumac. Minced parsley dominates the milder tab’bouleh, flecked with bulgur grains and chopped tomato, and served with romaine leaves for scooping.
Coriander permeates golden brown fava-bean falafel. Allspice perfumes arayess, ground beef and lamb pressed between flatbread rounds. Sambousek are crescent pies oozing mint-spiked goat cheese. Rikikat bi’ lahm, fingers of rolled phyllo filled with ground lamb and pine nuts, shatter in a burst of pastry and powdered sugar.
It is said the excellence of Arab cooks is measured by their kibbe (a thick paste of seasoned lamb and bulgur), but there may be as many versions of kibbe as there are Arab cooks.
Gargour’s kibbe bil saniyeh is baked in a tray. Layers of kibbe on top and bottom sandwich coarsely ground lamb sautéed with pine nuts. Redolent of cinnamon and allspice, served on a cushion of minted yogurt, it is warm, rich and satisfying.
Cafe Munir’s steady flow of customers one evening included the guy from Saleh’s Delicatessen in the gas station across the street. He placed an order and sauntered back to work. Ten minutes later a waiter headed across the street balancing two plates.
Those dining in will encounter a convivial mood mixed with a subtle whiff of smoke and spice. Gargour’s wife, Kelly, designed the clean-lined interior. Ceramic tiles frame the open kitchen. Graceful arches connect the dining areas. Amber votives glow on tables set with white paper over white cloths. Light seeps from pretty perforated ceiling lamps, illuminating ivory walls judiciously adorned with paintings, textiles and wood carvings.
There is no bar per se, but there is a short list of beer, wine, arak — and a lot of whiskeys, Gargour’s particular obsession. A 2-ounce pour is served neat, in small teardrop-shaped glasses, with ice and a small carafe of water on the side.
Cafe Munir is still evolving. Some servers are very green, but when you aren’t dropping a wad it’s easier to forgive the waitress for dropping the silverware and forgetting your order. I left, on each occasion, with a wallet not much lightened, my appetite sated, my spirits lifted. Long live the evolution.
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