WHEN CAFÉ MUNIR debuted in January 2012, chef/owner Rajah Gargour was keen to fill seats, as well as coax diners to explore beyond those familiar Middle Eastern requisites: hummus and baba ghanoush. So he introduced a Chef’s Choice menu, available only on Sundays, and he set the price at a mere $15 per person. “We just wanted people to sit down,” he says.
It was a bargain then, and a decade later, it’s still a deal, and still a draw on Sunday nights, though the per-person price has more than doubled to $40. There are fewer seats to fill now, due to COVID-19 distancing, but that only makes Café Munir’s softly lit dining room, adorned with art and antiques, even more relaxed and inviting.
The Chef’s Choice menu gives Gargour a chance to flex his creative muscles. He keeps it a surprise, he says, “So I can change my mind and follow my feelings or interests.” Sometimes the surprise is on him. When an entire shipment of phyllo arrived rancid, baklava was out of the question. Instead, he improvised a lovely dessert of candied butternut squash, glazing the tender, roasted slices with mandarin orange syrup and topping them with crushed walnuts.
On Sundays, he gets “what looks good” at Lenny’s Produce, Top Banana and the Ballard Farmers Market. Other ingredients find their way to him. When he lucked into fresh, wild black trumpet mushrooms this winter from his local supplier, Forage and Farm, he roasted them with leeks and stirred them into a barley salad, and paired others with shredded, pan-crisped, lamb shoulder.
When he finds nice cauliflower, he will make arnabeet, grilling and roasting chunks of it, seasoning it with caraway, and serving it with tahini and crispy onions. If he scores some Olsen Farms heirloom potatoes, he makes mukhadarra, a piquant potato salad dressed with poblano oil and rich, whole-milk, cream-on-the-top yogurt from Grace Harbor Farms. Strained and thickened, that yogurt becomes creamy labneh that’s used a number of ways, most lavishly to cushion za’atar-seasoned pickled beets, an east-west fusion inspired by his Swedish-born mother.
Gargour’s parents met in Massachusetts, where his Palestinian father (born in Jaffa) was in school. Gargour, 53, was born in New York City but spent his early youth in Lebanon, then Jordan, where his family hoped to wait out the civil war. Eventually they moved to London, where Gargour attended American schools, and then Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. No matter where in the world they lived, family dinner meant Arabic food.
After visiting friends in Seattle, Gargour lost his heart to the Pacific Northwest. Passionate about music, he used to play in a band, but cooking paid the bills. He honed his craft in the kitchens of Marco’s Supperclub, Szmania’s and Serafina before opening Café Munir. Both his restaurant and his son are named after his musical idol, Munir Bashir, a renowned 20th-century Iraqi Assyrian musician.
Restaurants that survive for a decade or more are rare. When they do, it’s worth paying attention. Café Munir has improved with age, much like the hundreds of whiskeys Gargour collects and offers to patrons in 2-ounce pours. The Lebanese-leaning wine and beer list is much briefer.
With the Chef’s Choice menu, expect three or four mezzes per person, along with a stack of pita. Among the small plates on my visit were hummus bil lahm ou snobar, cinnamon-spiced minced lamb and pine nuts sizzling on a cushion of hummus; tahini bil jazar, roasted carrots whipped with tahini, lemon and spices; kisir, a lively bulgur salad; muhammara, a red pepper spread dense with walnuts and tangy with pomegranate; and salatat batinjan, sweet, slow-cooked eggplant with tomatoes. Family-style platters included skewered lemon chicken, lamb kofta, and stewed lamb with eggplant and tomato over rice. The variety of grains, pulses, vegetables and meats; the range of textures; the vibrant colors; the vivid flavors — along with the sheer bounty of it all — were supremely satisfying.
Gargour says his understanding of food is changing all the time, which bodes well for Café Munir’s next decade. “These are simple dishes. They come from a specific place. This is my version of the ideal.”
Café Munir’s Za’atar
“Za’atar is part of Arabic food DNA,” says chef Rajah Gargour. Za’atar can refer to an individual herb, or a blend of dried herbs and spices. Wild za’atar is a species of wild thyme. In Lebanon, you’ll find it used fresh in salads. In Lebanese homes, a bowl of the dried spice blend is always at the ready, to be stirred with olive oil into a thick slurry used to dunk bread or to spread over pita to make man’ousheh. At Café Munir, they make their own za’atar. Three pounds of fresh herbs go into one quart of za’atar. They make two-quart batches, four times a year. “It will keep much longer than it will be around,” he says.
Sesame seeds, toasted
Ground cumin, toasted
1. Mix 2 parts thyme by weight to 1 part oregano. Dry them, strip the leaves from their stalks and grind them in a clean coffee grinder.
2. Match whatever that amount weighs with equal weights of sumac, sesame seeds and cumin. (For example: If you have 6 ounces of herbs, you will add 6 ounces each of sumac, sesame seeds and cumin.) Salt to taste. Keep a little of each ingredient on the side in case you need to correct the balance.
3. Once the salt is correct to your taste, you can adjust the ingredients until you can taste each one of them to your liking. For example, sumac adds a lemony tang, while cumin adds warm earthiness.