Baba ganoush, I think we all can agree, is Satan's food. A lumpy mash of slimy eggplant flavored with smoke and embellished by indigestible bits of skin and seeds, baba is a staple of the Middle Eastern diet that should be avoided at all costs. But then I tried Ehab Enaia's version, which he sells at his tidy little Kamm's Corners restaurant Cafe Falafel. Tasting nothing like other versions I've endured, his spread is creamy, dreamy and delicious. It has just the right level of smoke, balanced by a fruity, good-quality olive oil, and the texture splits the difference between silky smooth and chunky rustic. In fact, the more I ate at Cafe Falafel, the more I discovered that Enaia's food is on a different plane than what's found at many local pita shops.
Despite being mostly a carryout shop in the shadows of Fairview Hospital, Cafe Falafel has caught the attention of a large and growing pool of diners since it opened two years ago. Enaia says he chose that specific pocket of the neighborhood precisely because of its proximity to the hospital.
"The way we do foods here is very healthy," he says. "Middle Eastern food is not new, but what you do with it and how you do it makes a big difference."
By design, the entire operation is food focused. A concise chalkboard menu ensures that everything can be made to order and little goes to waste. Much of the cooking is done in plain sight in the open kitchen. And all of the items — from the hummus and falafel to the tabbouleh and shish kafta — are made from scratch on a daily basis.
"I made a promise to myself that I will never cook again for somebody else because of the shortcuts they make you take," Enaia explains. "For years I kept my own recipe book and said one of these days I'll open a little spot of my own and do it my way. If I do it with the right ingredients, and do it with passion and love, I think it will work."
Paradoxically, Enaia's fresh-first philosophy caused him to yank one of his most popular items, beef shawarma. This familiar spit of beef twirls away all day in front of a heat source, which is wonderful during busy times but troublesome during slow spells, when it overcooks and dries out. Turning the heat source on and off causes its own set of problems.
So we missed out on the beef shawarma, but we can still dig into some juicy shish kebab. The same high-quality beef gets marinated, threaded onto large skewers and char-grilled to order. In the shish tawook, tender pieces of marinated chicken get the same treatment. If you prefer highly seasoned ground lamb — and once you try it, you likely will — go with the shish kafta. The finely chopped meat is mixed with heaps of garlic and fresh herbs and molded around a skewer before hitting the grill.
Of course, there's a fourth and better option, which is to order the mixed platter ($14.99). This festival of grilled meats includes one of each, arranged on a bed of fluffy rice pilaf studded with toasted vermicelli. The cook throws in sides of nutty tahini sauce and fragrant garlic sauce. Ask for it and you'll also receive his high-test hot sauce, made with jalapeno peppers. Every entree also includes a side of super-smooth hummus with pleasant lemon notes, and a finely diced veggie salad that serves as a refreshing contrast to the charred, smoky meats.
If there's more than two or three of you doing the eating, add the "veggie sampler" ($8.99), a beautiful array of hummus, baba ganoush, chopped veggie salad and some of the city's best falafel. Light, airy and shockingly green inside, Café Falafel's falafel will ruin you for other versions — and I've pretty much tasted them all. Enaia says that copious amounts of parsley and cilantro keep them moist, while small-batch frying in peanut oil produces the perfect golden brown shell.
Even the pita, which accompanies damn near everything on the menu, is different. More flatbread than puffy pocket, the thin bread allows more of the flavor of whatever you're eating, be it dip, spread or grilled meat, to shine through.
You can certainly dine in at Cafe Falafel, either at the four-seat counter, the two small tables, or outside on the picnic tables, but most people elect to hit the road. Everything is packaged to go in sectioned Styrofoam containers and served with plastic cutlery. If you've ever tried slicing into a lovely grilled lamb steak ($10.99) with a flimsy plastic knife, you understand the meaning of frustration. Next time I'll skip the steak — or smuggle in my own blade. It's worth the trouble.