“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
– James Beard, Beard on Food, 1974
Buenos Aires – No, I’m not switching to political commentary. At least not really. Anyone with access to world media knows there’s a conflict, a fight, a war, going on in the Middle East, and specifically at the moment, the hotspot is Lebanon. I have to admit there was a niggling bit of trepidation in the recesses of my mind as a trio of us planned to meet up for lunch the other day at a Lebanese restaurant – it’s not that I’m anti-Lebanon or Lebanese, nor even particularly pro the current and many recent actions of the Israeli government – but I grew up inculcated with the views of many folk around me, so there’s always at least a background note of… something. However, as James Beard noted, food is a place, in my mind, to set political differences aside. Other forms of diplomacy have failed dismally in that, and many other parts of the world, perhaps a good dinner… Besides, I knew nothing about the people involved in the restaurant we were headed to.
I don’t remember where I first heard about the restaurant Cheff Iusef, Malabia 1378, in Palermo Viejo. I remember something vaguely about someone asserting that it was easily the most authentic Middle Eastern restaurant around outside of the Armenian clan (which are the vast majority here). I also remember some connection to one of the embassies, but that’s even more vague, and I really have no idea. What I do know is that I’ve walked by the place and seen it regularly fairly filled with patrons who look, generally, middle eastern, happy, and enjoying the food. When we arrived, it was empty, and pretty much stayed that way throughout lunch (one young couple came in towards the end of our lunch); and a friend who went, on my recommendation, the following day, reported the same. One of the two waiters, charming, chubby, and cheerful, despite being somewhat glued to an Arab language news broadcast of the fighting, quickly offered us a couple of dilapidated menus, one of which had no pages. In fact, there’s a general air of the place having once been on the elegant side, but now being a bit “down at heel.”
Over conversation with our waiter, we learned that he and the other waiter are from Syria, and have been here for about ten years. The owner came to Buenos Aires from Lebanon over 25 years ago, and a woman who I gather is, or was (I got a hint that he might have passed on) his wife, shares cooking responsibilities in the kitchen. Interestingly, our waiter pointed to a photograph of a portly but very elegant Arab man on the wall and noted that that was the owner’s father, who had been “the gran rabino in Beirut”, or the head rabbi. I don’t believe that Islam uses the term “rabbi” or even “rabino” in Spanish to refer to their religious leaders, so it’s quite possible that the family are Lebanese and Jewish. On to the food, which is quite different from the Armenian versions of the dishes I’ve tried here…
We started off with ordering a plate of the hummus with ground meat and some pita bread, though received, as you can see, the hummus with mushrooms. Iusef offers several different versions of hummus with different accompaniments. This was good, though not quite what we were looking for. The mushrooms have a nice flavor, the hummus itself is excellent, and we sopped most of it up quickly and then continued to nibble throughout the rest of the meal. One of the nice things about the menu is that virtually everything is available in full and half portions, so we ordered half a dozen half portions in order to try different things.
I’ve never had a tabouleh salad quite like this one. There was virtually no grain in it – I’m used to tabouleh being a good part cous-cous. This was almost completely herbs, mostly parsley, with a bit of green onion, and maybe a touch of mint, a scattering of cous-cous, and a small amount of tomato. But in essence, it was a plate of seasoned, chopped parsley dressed with olive oil. This was a tabouleh that I could see accenting something else, but on its own fell a bit flat. We still ate all of it…
Likewise, these falafel were quite different from others I’ve had. The texture was perfect – crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, the flavor of the chickpeas and herbs quite clear. There was an elusive note in the background of cinnamon or nutmeg that I’ve not tasted in a falafel before, but quite liked. The tahini dressing the falafel was a little bland, but we also got a small dish of hot sauce on the side and that perked it up quite well. I think the sauce really just needed a dash of salt and pepper.
One of my favorite dishes in middle eastern restaurants is kofta de cordero, or lamb kofta. It’s sort of a pressed, ground lamb dish, almost like a mini-meatloaf. It’s generally served grilled and slightly smoky on the outside with the inside remaining fairly rare. This was good, though a little more dense than some of the versions I’ve had. I think I also prefer it when it’s served with some sort of sauce to balance the meat – a traditional yogurt and mint sauce perhaps. It’s a good sized portion for a half-order. Still, I’d order this again.
We left our last dish up to our waiter. When this arrived, I have to admit, none of us were quite sure what to make of it. It looks like greyish mini-footballs in soup. It’s been years since I’ve had kebbe, and this is completely different from any versions I’ve had before. This, specifically, was the “kebbe de levanie”, or Lebanese kebbe, the ground meat mixed with crushed wheat grains, then coated in more wheat and baked. It’s served in a bowl of a yogurt and mint sauce with some onion, and what I think was a cucumber oil. I loved it. It just looks strange.
I can’t not try bakhlava when it’s on the menu. Cheff Iusef (what is the deal with the double “f” in chef? I see it all around town, and there’s no grammatical reason for it that I can find) offers two versions – pistachio and walnut. Our waiter asserted that the pistachio was the far better choice. It was, simply, spectacular. Easily topping the amazing walnut bakhlava at Sarkis, our regular middle eastern haunt. I’d come here just to have a plate of this and some of the equally good coffee. In the end, mixed marks – good service, some dishes better and some not as good as other places (though, two out of six being excellent is a pretty good rating), inexpensive (with tip we spent 28 pesos, or $9, apiece) but not so high on the ambiance – the place needs a good sprucing up and some people in it.
[March 2012 update: Been back many a time, and watched the prices gradually creep up. First off, the place has been spruced up as I’d hoped, sometime in recent months, with a complete renovation, new tables, chairs, and look. But, a similar dinner this month with three half-order appetizers, two main courses, two half-desserts, coffee, water, and splitting a bottle of beer came in at 380 pesos with tip – 190 apiece, or roughly $44, six times the price in pesos and nearly five times the price in dollars of five and a half years ago. It is still really good though.]