Pita Accord

Sinbad Café and Market
2528 Nicollet Ave. S., Mpls.; (612) 871-5605
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Sunday 10:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m.

 

I have a friend who travels fairly exotically: Java, Iceland, Memphis, Tennessee. But one place he refuses to travel to is to the corner of 26th Street and Nicollet Avenue, for Middle Eastern food. "See these teeth?" he asks. "I'm saving torture by Middle Eastern food for my declining years of dentures and puddings."

Teddy Maki

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Sinbad's Cafe and Market

2528 Nicollet Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55404-4248

Category: Restaurant > Buffet

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

Of course, he's dead wrong. But I understand.

Who among us hasn't been confronted by a smiling lady with a blender urging some homemade hummus upon us, hummus that smells like feet and tastes like cardboard? (Tahini can so go bad.) Who among us hasn't forced down tabouli that tastes like sour papier-mâché? (Tabouli should be eaten the day it's made, served at room temperature: Not iced and aged--it ain't whiskey.) Simultaneously, gray stacks of ground, re-formed gyros or shwarma meat have become a fast-food staple: Surely by now gyros/shwarma has outpaced BLTs as a typical greasy-spoon lunch or after-bar snack? Only Mexican food has been more of a victim of good intentions and bad outcomes.

Unfortunately, I never could convince my friend to come with me to experience one of the most overlooked restaurants in town: Sinbad Café and Market. Now I know many of you are slapping your foreheads and saying, "Someone put her out to pasture. Sinbad is nothing more than a market with a handful of tables in a dusty window." Not anymore. Sinbad is undergoing something of a rebirth: That stage in the front of the room has come down, so diners are seated more comfortably at floor level. The window-tableau of garlic braids and olive oil cans has been removed to allow more natural light in the restaurant, and the table section has expanded so that the front third of the large and formerly crowded space is now all restaurant.

And the transformation is only half done: Owner Sami Rasouli says coming months will see an open kitchen in the front of the restaurant, complete with a grill so that customers can watch their food grilling, a clay oven to allow breads to be baked to order, live music, and, most exciting to me, more sophisticated Persian and Iraqi dishes, including something called "fas n jan" made with walnuts, chicken, and pomegranate syrup. "Every Middle Eastern restaurant here usually just makes gyros, but there's no art in it," says Rasouli. "The ancient dishes, though, those require art. I have recipes from Babylonian times. I don't even know if all the ingredients are available, but my goal is to educate and provide enjoyment for everyone, for the Americans who come here, but also the whole world of people who come here. In a month at Sinbad you may see people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, North Africa, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Greece, Italy, India, Poland, Russia--everywhere that people know Middle Eastern food, they find us."

I'm glad I found them--or at least, refound them, in that way you do with unflashy, easily taken-for-granted restaurants like Sinbad, which has been operating since 1993 on Nicollet, and for three years before that in northeast on Central Avenue. One of the biggest reasons I'm glad to have found them is their baba ghannouj, the eggplant spread that's so easily done poorly. At Sinbad the baba ghannouj is made the way it's supposed to be, from well-charred eggplants that take the flavor of smoke into their hearts, and when that smoke marries with the eggplant's creamy flesh, and is crushed, but not puréed, to create a dip with a slightly resilient texture and silky appearance, the result is truly irresistible. Here the baba ghannouj is available as an appetizer portion ($2.99), a cereal bowl full of eggplant dressed with a pool of good olive oil, scattered with olives, and served with bread; as an entrée ($4.99) with a large mint-dressed tomato-and-lettuce Sinbad salad; as part of a three-item plate or as an accompaniment to crunchy falafel ($4.99 with baba ghannouj and salad, $2.99 à la carte); or with the fantastically fresh tabouli ($4.99 with salad and baba ghannouj, $2.99 à la carte). The only bad thing to be said about the baba ghannouj is that my delight with it prevented me from ordering the eggplant salad ($2.99) until my last visit, but this chopped salad of fried eggplant squares, parsley, tomato, onion, lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil is not to be missed. It's like a Mediterranean pico de gallo, with more texture.

The other must-have is the spinach pie ($2.59), a yeast-bread turnover filled with a potent, bright-green mixture of spinach, sumac, lemon, onions, and olive oil: Served hot, this combination of sweet bread dough and fresh, mouth-puckering filling had fork-wars breaking out at our table. If the inclusion of sumac seems odd to you, rest assured that it's a traditional ingredient in Persian cooking--and yes, it's that sumac, the weedy bush that crowds the sides of the highway and turns scarlet in fall. If you'd like to taste sumac more distinctly, go for Sinbad's zatar bread, a soft, dewy loaf covered with zatar, a blend of sesame seeds, olive oil, thyme, and sumac. It's available in enormous rounds that serve six ($2.99), or in individual loaves (99 cents). It's an unusual bread, somewhere between an extra-tender white bread and a focaccia. I like it very much. (Sinbad also sells two kinds of zatar in the market; combine it with olive oil at home to make a dip for bread.)

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