Our Gourmet: Great Middle Eastern in a modest setting


April 18. 2017 10:54PM

Habibi's Mezza plate provides a sampling of appetizer favorites, a great introduction for diners new to Mediterranean foods. 








 
The aroma of Middle Eastern spices and herbs immerse diners as soon as they enter the door, the perfect table-setter for a simple but exotic culinary adventure at Habibi Mediterranean Cafe in Portsmouth.

Enjoying lunch or dinner at the modest Lafayette Road establishment is a treat for all food lovers, with slow-cooked lamb and beef plates to vegetable staples from the Mediterranean region.

We had heard of Habibi’s pizza and paninis, but we wanted to try more than that. We came away with a fresh appreciation for all food Mediterranean.

Being particularly fond of lamb dinners and sandwiches, we have tried gyro sandwiches from dozens of Greek restaurants and pizza shops, and from street fairs and kiosks, and we’ve found some we really liked. But the list of truly delicious gyro pita wraps or sandwiches could easily start at Habibi’s.

It is a simple thing, these gyros, once a chef figures out how to shape and serve the lamb meat in only a thin and tender serving — emphasis on tender, of course. It is maddening to dive into a lamb gyro and find large chunks of overcooked lamb dominating the scene.

Habibi’s Gyro Lamb Wrap ($7.99) is a well-balanced and good sized serving of sliced lamb in a thick pita wrap, with plenty of sliced tomatoes and onions, well-dressed in taziki sauce. The sauce has a tang to it — it acts almost like a spicy mayonnaise. And the lamb inside the wrap is as tasty and tender as we have ever found in a gyro.

We shared that sandwich at a great lunch outing recently, and enjoyed a variety of appetizers on a sample plate before our gyro and a very good cous-cous entree.

The Habibi Mezza Plate ($9.99) is a great starter, especially if a patron is a newcomer to Eastern tastes (Arabic, Indian, Israeli, Greek, Egyptian, etc.). It includes several items from the appetizer menu, including hummus, tabouli, falafel balls, stuffed grape leaves and baba ghannouj — and it’s a good all-around sampler at a good price.

The falafel balls are deep-fried rollings of ground chick peas and a bevy of spices, served with tahini sauce. Hummus is a mixture of pureed chick peas and spices; and the baba ghannouj mixes similar spices with pureed eggplant.

The grape leaves are wrapped around a meatless filling of rice, tomato, onions, parsley and spices. Happily ensconced inside the two small rolled and stuffed grape leaves is a mixture of rice.

The appetizers are accompanied by a giant loaf of fresh-baked pita, warm and puffy, just waiting to be spread with the hummus and ghannouj.

Immediately after the appetizers we were greeted by our superb lamb gyro and a hot cous-cous entree ($9.99), found in the Daily Specials section of the menu. The dish was a slow-cooked blend of seasoned, tender chicken, and large, thick slices of zucchini, carrots and red potatoes, and smaller slices of onion, atop an ample serving of the tiny, steamed semolina. With an Indian-type sauce mixed lightly throughout the dish, all ingredients here were tender, moist and flavorful.

The cous-cous was served with a house salad, with an oil-and-vinegar house dressing.

Dessert at Habibi was limited to two choices, and we debated between the $3.99 Baklava and the $3.99 Kunafi, opting for the latter.

Kunafi (a Lebanese favorite alternately known as kanafeh) has a long history and can be prepared perhaps a thousand different ways, but Habibi keeps it simple and stuffs the shredded wheat shell with a mixture of ground cashews and just a hint of cream and syrup. Crunchy on the outside and sweet and filling inside, this specialty known as a “shoelace pastry dessert” was indeed a treat for these first-timers.

Indeed, all of Habibi was a treat. The restaurant is unassuming and simple, but super-clean and comfortable with banquette-type seating on the perimeter of the dining area, spaced with colorful pillows, and chairs on the other side of the tables. In all, there are only about a dozen tables, but the dining room is well separated from the kitchen, where cooking and catering preparation and the business side of the ovens are located.

Good deals are available in the Family Mixed Grill Platters ($24.99 for two, $49.99 for four), featuring lamb kabob, beef kabob, chicken kabob and kifta kabob. Daily specials include musakkah, stuffed peppers, and mujaddara, And of course there are cold subs, hot subs, pizza, paninis and calzones, with all of the usual toppngs, along with Mediterranean versions and Habibi specials.

The website briefly outlines catering and party servings, and boasts that Habibi’s off-site catering operation can feed catered events of up to 1,000 people. That’s a big party, but the variety of tastes and offerings throughout Habibi’s menu could stretch to satisfy.
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