Thursday, June 11, 2009
According to Shakespeare, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. In the case of Paprika Café, it smells even sweeter.
Paprika Café is the reincarnation of the beloved Mediterranean eatery Tabouli Café. Previous owner Chris Hamade is now manager, having relinquished ownership to his nephew Isaa Rammal six months ago.
“The name is more European and fun and catchy,” says Hamade, but not much else has changed at this little deli.
The makeover, though minimal, was also a shrewd business decision. With the economy plummeting and fewer people eating out, Hamade decided to slash prices by 35 percent. All his wraps are now $5, whether filled with the vegetarian feta and grilled eggplant or a meat item such as kafta kabob. If you crave the popular lamb kebab plate (previously $14.95), you can breathe easy knowing that combination plates across the board are down to $10. Aah… that explains the numbers “5” and “10” emblazoned on the window.
Even with the reduced prices, Hamade admits he isn’t making more money. “In fact, I work more hours for the same amount,” he says. “The profit is small but at least I’m not out of business.”
Lower prices don’t mean lower quality, as my dining companion and I discovered recently.
For starters, we ordered dolmas ($1.25 each), vine leaves stuffed with rice, tomato, and onion. Sprightly and tender to the bite, they were all the more delicious dipped into tzaziki – Hamade’s version is a creamy concoction of yogurt, cucumber, garlic, sour cream and mint. Next came the falafel (60 cents each). While the spiced chickpea patties suffered from being microwaved, they were tasty, especially when coated with the accompanying tahini (sesame seed paste).
Our main course combination plates came piled high with sides: Golden shards of saffron-tinged basmati rice sat next to a thick pool of hummus, chickpea purée humming with the flavors of sesame, lemon juice and garlic. Bulgur (cracked wheat), the underpinning element in tabouli, was buoyed by chopped parsley and mint, and a lemony olive oil dressing.
My companion’s centerpiece – the lamb ouzi – was so fall-off-the-bone tender the shreds practically disintegrated in my mouth within seconds. (The lamb shanks came, much to his relief, off the bone too.) No wonder, since they were left to braise on the stove for at least four hours.
I ordered the garlic chicken served with Hamade’s legendary garlic sauce, his rendition of toum, the traditional Lebanese condiment for grilled meats. The creamy mayonnaise-like sauce is made with bulbs – not cloves, mind you – of garlic. Hamade says his peach-colored sauce is special, not in the least because it’s spiked with the café’s namesake, paprika. I believe him. The bite-sized white chicken pieces were ho-hum on their own, but when enrobed with the garlic sauce, they were elevated to culinary artistry. But be forewarned, you will have garlic breath.
After the meal, we lingered, sipping on some very potent Turkish coffee ($3.95) served in a silver pot with a long handle and poured into quaint doll-sized cups. The thick, sweetish liquid was the perfect chaser for Hamade’s complimentary baklava. Instead of the more ubiquitous pistachios or walnuts, Hamade rolls crushed cashews into papery layers of filo pastry “just like a taffy.” Then he sweetens it with sugar syrup imbued with the fragrance of orange blossom water.
The sweet ending guarantees a return visit, especially to sample the wraps. Hamade will make you a sandwich with just about any meat or vegetarian option. I vote for the shawerma sandwich (a Lebanese gyro if you will). Thin slices of beef seasoned with a host of spices, onion and lemon juice were wrapped into soft, fluffy pita bread with lettuce, tomato and cucumber slices, plus a drizzling of tahini. No matter your sandwich selection, a Paprika sandwich makes for a satisfying and very economical lunch.
If the food doesn’t transport you, your environs might. Just like the vibrant souks of the Middle East that the colorful décor is meant to emulate, Paprika’s interior is a feast for the senses. The sunny blue “sky” on the ceiling is supported by ochre walls adorned by Persian carpets, copper plates and framed Mediterranean landscapes. Melodic Arabic music soothes the tensions of the day away.
Whatever it is, don’t be put off by the sometimes leisurely service; Hamade acts as chef, server, bus boy and cashier rolled into one. And being the gracious host he is, he takes his time to ensure that everything is just right, chatting with each customer and offering suggestions to the undecided.
Ultimately, Paprika Café is one of the best values to be had anywhere on the Peninsula.