Khoury’s Mediterranean Restaurant may be our foremost Lebanese restaurant, though it insists it be called Mediterranean. That’s fair enough. Lebanon has, after all, the geography to make that claim, with a Mediterranean coastline, a warm climate and an abundance of olives, citrus and fresh vegetables.
But the cuisine here is distinctly Lebanese, based around mezze—those irresistible Lebanese hot and cold appetizers—meaty kabobs, clove-scented sausages, rice pilaf and sticky-sweet, honey-drenched desserts.
Indeed, the dining room here has a gentle Middle Eastern cast. Isn’t that an oud, the Arabic version of a guitar, hanging on one wall? Aren’t those hookahs near the front register? Yes, but they’re only decorative in this case.
This is a charming little place, but I actually prefer to sit on Khoury’s outdoor patio, on casual furniture, with the spring breezes blowing. If you aren’t familiar with mezze, two options—house mezza, or a second, mini house mezza—will help you catch up quickly.
The mini is enough for two to share, with what are billed as small (but in fact are actually ample) portions of tabbouleh, hummus, labni (Lebanese yogurt), loubieh (green beans in a piquant tomato sauce), the seductively smoky eggplant dip baba ghannouj, a few grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice, and lots of hot house pita bread.
On the side, there is a dish of za’atar, a thyme, sesame seed and olive oil paste and a world-class bread dip. Za’atar, Arabic for thyme, looks a bit like an Argentine chimichurri, but is not for meat. I could happily make an entire dinner out of bread and a little of this stuff.
Get the house mezza, then, and the kitchen throws in spicy falafel balls, olives, pickles, carrots, jalapeño peppers and a cheese plate. True, it’s slightly pricier ($26.95 as opposed to $17.95), but it is well worth it. Two could make a feast of this plate, and four is a good number for a table that plans to have entrées.
As you can guess, Lebanese cuisine is wonderful for a vegetarian. Too bad I dined there with a pair of committed carnivores.
First we tried the house beef-rice soup. This looks like chili but has an entirely different flavor profile; not at all beefy, rich with aromatics like clove, cinnamon and coriander.
Then we opted for what they call their meat combination, a large platter stocked with sujuk (lemon-y sausage made from beef), ma’anik (made with pork; nearly half the Lebanese population is Christian, and hence has no restrictions against eating the abominable pig), beef kabob, the minced beef and onion cylinder called kafta, and finally, kibbi, the one disappointment of the evening.
Great kibbi is a barometer for great Lebanese cooking. To make it, a crust is shaped from ground lamb and bulgur wheat, and then stuffed with ground meat, pine nuts and spice. Khoury’s takes a shortcut. The one I tried was just a glorified hamburger patty with pine nuts.
But the rice pilaf under the meats was delicious, shot through with vermicelli, like Rice-a-Roni (only much tastier). A second entrée, farooj, which the menu calls “Baked Chicken,” is actually so rich with lemon and olive oil, it outdoes the lemon chicken at Rao’s.
Dessert runs to baklava, rice pudding and, when they have it, a warm pudding topped with Day-Glo orange shredded wheat called kunefe. I’ll pass on dessert next time I come here, which will be soon. Sitting here on the patio at Khoury’s, I can almost smell cedar and salt sea air.