Just like at half a dozen other local Middle Eastern restaurants, a meal at Lebanon's Café begins with a basket of pita bread and, most likely, iced tea flavored with rose water and sprinkled with pine nuts. Just like at its many local peers, the meal here ends with pastel-colored Jordan almonds arriving with a mercifully inexpensive bill.
In between comes a roster of familiar dips, kebabs and vegetarian dishes, plus many less common choices. It's those other options refreshingly different, comfortably accessible that help put Lebanon's Café ahead of the pack of local Middle Eastern restaurants.
My favorite hummus comes from any Mona's location, my favorite lentil soup is found at Nile Café on Magazine Street and there's nothing to compare with the loaves of bread served as an alterative to pita at Babylon in the Riverbend. The two Byblos restaurants with full bars, contemporary design and mid-range prices belong to a higher order of ambition. But for the best of bargain level, BYOB, come-as-you-are Middle Eastern food experiences, I bypass them all for Lebanon's. Lebanon's seems to try harder and care more about presentation, so that the whole meal goes beyond expectations at this price range.
Stuffed cabbage leaves, bulging with a moist mixture of rice, beef and stewed tomatoes, are delivered on a stylish square plate with a side of creamy labna dip and a small pile of tabbouleh salad with crisp strips of romaine lettuce. It's getting hard to find an appetizer even at bargain restaurants for less than $5. Here, several are under $3, including a large, single kibbeh, a bulb of fried cracked wheat that breaks open to spill a steaming filling of ground beef, onions and pine nuts. This is an easy place to feel like you're splurging without actually spending much money.
The combination appetizer platter is the best way for a few people to sample the mainstays, like hummus, baba ghanoush and grape leaves. Go beyond the most popular items, though, and you'll find the unusual entry of bathenjan, a spread made from roasted eggplant, garlic and jalapenos. It is spicier, more pungent and smokier than any of the other smooth, normally mellow dips and first courses on the typical Middle Eastern menu. Another exotic find is the musaha, a spread made from soft, sautéed eggplant and sun-dried tomatoes that is crunchy from seeds and celery ribs and has a sweet-and-sour play between vinegar, olive oil and red and yellow peppers.
The sandwiches and the entrée platters offer the usual Middle Eastern choices. And as usual, it seems natural to turn the meat, hummus and salad of most of the platters into sandwiches by stuffing them all together in pita bread. An exception is the rack of lamb, the prince of Lebanon's menu and at $19, the most costly. Best on its own or with just a dab of hummus, the lamb is cut thin into six individual chops with flavors of rosemary, olive oil and charcoal smokiness. Ask for it medium and the meat is pleasingly pink and running with juice.
The seafood is also best enjoyed on its own, especially the shrimp kebab with a full dozen good-sized shrimp stuck on skewers, charred on their edges and sweetened with grilled onion and tomato. There's nothing wrong with the tuna steak, which was served properly rare at the center, but its better qualities seemed lost amid all the strong-flavored hummus dips and sumac-dusted salads.
There are specials here each day, which is another way Lebanon's rises above its peers. One to look for is called beef musakka, an Arabic relative of the better-known Greek mousakka. It arrives at the table in a ceramic crock with layers of potato and eggplant, a bed of basmati rice, ground beef and a thin, sweet tomato sauce all mounded with a salty, sour cap of melted mozzarella studded with feta. It is very hard for one person to finish the serving, and in fact, the portion looks like something a family would share around the table.
A similar vegetarian rendition is always available on the menu, where it is hidden under the deceptively dull-sounding name "sautéed vegetable plate." The beef and potatoes are replaced by prodigious amounts of mushrooms, squash, carrots, celery, three colors of peppers, broccoli and cauliflower, all of which becomes very filling when mixed with the rice and cheese.
It's no coincidence that Lebanon's colorful, window-lined dining room fills with so many college students. It's close to Tulane's and Loyola's campuses, prices are cheap and a meal here is more fun than ordering another take-out pizza. Plus, BYOB is in full effect, with couples slinging wine bottles and patrons occasionally bringing the makings and hardware for their own martinis.
With so much else growing more expensive, it's not just young people budgeting for tuition and textbooks who are looking for a bargain. When the going gets tough, the tough do pretty well to start eating like college students.