Shahrazad Cafe, which opened in January, can feel like a one-man show. Often on slower nights, owner Jamal Ismail is the sole person greeting and serving diners, which feels welcoming and puts guests at ease.
Ismail is Palestinian and hails from Jerusalem, and the menu at his restaurant advertises itself as both American and Mediterranean. Though I hoped to find a few new or unfamiliar dishes from the Mediterranean or Middle East, the kitchen takes a safe approach and the menu features many familiar dishes.
As is the case with many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants, a selection of shared appetizers served with warm pita bread provides a nice start to a meal. Silky hummus drizzled with olive oil is good, but a cauliflower version is better — topped with bronzed and caramelized fried florets. I also was taken with the baba ghanoush, a creamy eggplant dip that was less smoky than other local iterations, but delicious nonetheless, tinged with citrus and fresh parsley.
In a refreshing take on tabbouleh, the bulgur wheat base is topped with fresh parsley, tomatoes, mint, onions and plenty of citrus. Most entrees include a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers in a light, citrusy dressing with crumbled feta cheese on top.
Spice is applied with caution, and most dishes have warming notes characteristic of Middle Eastern dishes, such as cumin, cardamom and fenugreek. The subtle nuances and interplay of the spices are especially winning in a bowl of thick lentil soup, where traces of cumin provide plenty of warmth and depth of flavor.
Though many Palestinian falafel recipes call for chickpeas, the one here uses fava beans. The falafel mimic those made in Egypt and have a pale green color, creamy texture and a light crumb. Fried to a crispy dark brown on the outside, the crunchy croquettes pair well with the cooling complement of tangy labneh, a thick and creamy strained yogurt.
Larger dishes include pita sandwiches with a variety fillings, such as fat falafel patties, gyro meat and beef or chicken shawarma.
Char-grilled lamb chops have a caramelized, crispy exterior that is equal parts fatty, smoky, juicy and delicious. Also good is a medley of charred vegetables that acts as a bed for the chops. Zucchini, red and yellow bell peppers and onions arrive slick with olive oil, heavy with smoke from the grill and flavored by juices dripping from the lamb.
Some items seem out of place. Pickled cauliflower, carrots and bell peppers don't do much to complement other dishes. The menu also includes a burger, a Philly cheese steak and french fries, which seem like unnecessary attempts to broaden the restaurant's appeal.
The dining room has pictures on its crimson walls, and flowers decorate wooden tables, creating a homey and warm atmosphere. No alcohol is served, but at the end of a meal, a cup of thick and potent Turkish coffee provides all you need to cap an evening at this humble Mediterranean restaurant.