Mid-East Excess

Café Casbah’s (see review, page 39) chef-owner Mohsen Movahed calls his cuisine “Mediterranean with, perhaps, some French influence.” The Iranian-born chef does serve a few dishes that are familiar to local Middle Eastern restaurants, like falafel and baba ghanouj. But his luscious soups and buttery-rich cream sauces would not have been unknown to American diners supping at Continental bistros at the turn of the last century. Diners used to regularly indulge on dishes like Veal Oscar — veal topped with crabmeat, asparagus and bearnaise sauce that was named for Sweden’s King Oscar II or the Walforf-Astoria’s legendary maitre d’hotel Oscar Tschirky or a Russian-born chef named Oscar Waldstein. No one seems to agree on which Oscar deserves the naming rights. Other specialties include steak Diane (first served in New York in the ’20s) and bananas Foster, born at the New Orleans restaurant Brennan’s in 1951.

For strictly Middle Eastern fare, diners should venture over to Café Rumi (3903 Wyoming), which turns three years old at the end of this month. The cozy joint has the falafel, hummus, and stuffed grape leaves that one finds in almost every local Middle Eastern venue. But owners Bassam Helwani and Marwan Chebaro have added several traditional Middle Eastern offerings to the menu, including M’Jeddara (a combination of toasted bulgar and lentils with grilled vegetables) and the Damascus Bowl, which layers toasted pita bread with chickpeas in a sauce of yogurt, tahini and garlic.

Café Rumi remains alcohol-free, because of Helwani and Chebaro’s religious beliefs, but they’re toying with getting a wine and beer license. “We’re thinking about it,” says Helwani, who doesn’t think the lack of hootch has hurt his business one bit.

What the repeat crowd does care about, apparently, is the return of warmer weather, so that the Café Rumi staff can once again haul several tables and chairs to the “outdoor dining area,” which is also the asphalt-paved parking lot in front of the restaurant. It’s not the most visually romantic dining spot, since the view is limited to the busy corner of 39th Street and Wyoming, but Helwani says that this year he plans to “beautify” the space with potted plants and maybe an arbor. My friends don’t care so much about the visuals; they like the al-fresco dining because it’s the only place at Café Rumi where smoking is permitted. Cigarettes and hookah smoking, that is.

“We don’t encourage cigar smoking,” Helwani says. “No one seems to like that.”

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