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."
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.)
The other other can't-miss (I know, I'm raving) are the grape leaves, handmade plump bundles of lemony rice as tender as custard. They're served hot here, and everyone who tried them was amazed with how silky they are. Grape leaves are available as an appetizer for $2.99, or as a lunch plate for $4.99. Sharp eyes will have noticed how much of the menu is vegetarian and even vegan: I'd definitely put Sinbad on my list of Top 10 restaurants for vegetarians: Put a quartet of appetizers on the table along with cup of hot tea full of fresh mint leaves (75 cents) or a thick Turkish coffee ($1.99) and you've got one of the best--and cheapest--vegetarian restaurant meals that I know of in town.
The more elaborate entrées were also very good: My favorite was the silky "Sheik El-Mashi" ($6.99), a cinnamon-scented stew of eggplant, ground lamb, ground beef, and onions in a tomato base, it was intense and terrifically flavorful, like the best part of the Greek dish pastitsio, without the unnecessary interference of cheese. I also liked the couscous topped with another tomato-based, but completely different, stew: Big chunks of potatoes, pieces of carrot, onions, stewed tomatoes, and lots of chickpeas either on its own or with lamb or chicken. It's slightly sweet and nicely balanced, and one night our ever-friendly server even made the dome of couscous it comes with into a smiley face, with cucumber and tomato slices, for a young companion. (The couscous is $5.99 vegetarian, or $6.99 with meat.)
The only thing I had at Sinbad that I didn't love was the roast lamb specials: The lamb shank--which has got to be the cheapest on earth, at $4.99 with rice, pita, and salad--struck me as gamy, fatty, and underseasoned. And the special roast lamb plate ($9.99) was dry, again underseasoned, and generally unlovely.
Shwarma or gyros meat isn't a personal favorite of mine in any situation, but even I could see that it was served nicely crisped, and that the shwarma plate ($6.99) was an incredible bargain boasting vast quantities of meat tumbling over rice with plenty of onions, salad, and pita. The sandwich portion, ($3.99) seems to be more popular, but a gyros-loving friend of mine says that's because people don't know any better. He says the insider move is to order the gyros plate with a side order of the cucumber-yogurt-mint salad ($1.99) and share it with another luncher.
As an added benefit, this allows you to save your pennies for desserts, since the baklava, bird's nests, phyllo-fingers, and all sorts of other nut-, phyllo-, and honey-based sweets are made on the premises (prices range from 59 cents to $1.25). I was raised on Greek-style baklava, in which the height of the pastry far outpaces the depth of the nuts, and it's interesting to have Sinbad's version for comparison. Here both the pistachio and walnut versions are so crunchy they're more like nut-brittles adorned with pastry. From now on I'll think of this nut-generous style of baklava as Lebanese, after Anton Jermanous, Sinbad's Lebanese baker and husband to Hayat Jermanous, Sinbad's head chef.
It seems that the talented Jermanouses have won something of an international following. Sinbad owner Rasouli says that his restaurant has become famous in the far-flung Middle Eastern community for being one of the few places left that makes all its pita bread by hand: "Anton was the only person making pita by hand in Lebanon when he came over, and now this is one of the very, very few places where you can find pita made by hand, not machine," says Rasouli. "This is the ultimate pita ever. When you make it by hand, you watch the proof carefully, you know when it is the perfect time to put it in the oven. The most important thing is to control the process by human being, otherwise the pita won't come out the right way. People get off the plane from the Middle East, they come right here before they go to their relatives' house, they say even in the Middle East now you can't find handmade pita. I think it's a Bill Gates thing. Technology is speeding everything up, even pita. I don't know, maybe the breakup of Microsoft will give people the opportunity to enjoy the slowness of life, instead of running, running, running all the time, and then the only time you stop is when you have cancer or some other disease. People everywhere these days, they would rather work day and night and spill food on themselves in a drive-through, instead of having real pita."
It seems that spoiled Americans aren't the only ones taking Middle Eastern food for granted these days.
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