Moujadara is a Lebanese specialty of lentils with rice. It’s a dish made so many different ways in its country of origin that you can imagine old women in villages discussing how they cook theirs. At Cafe Beirut in Jamaica Plain, the grains simmer with onions, and when it comes to the table, the dish is topped with more caramelized onions and served with a cucumber-yogurt “salad” (really a sauce). This complex moujadara ($5.99 and $7.99) probably has half a dozen ingredients and it manages to taste complex and interesting. It’s just one side dish on an extensive Lebanese menu here.
The 20-seat Cafe Beirut, formerly Sami’s Falafel, is under new management. It’s still owned by Sami Saba, son of Ghazi Saba, who started the Sami’s truck in the Longwood Medical Area in 1979. Now Sami Saba has a new business partner and chef, Ali Hachem. Hachem, who worked at many upscale spots in Lebanon, is turning out authentic dishes that have a cooked-all-day quality but come out of the kitchen swiftly.
The falafel here (one for $1.25; three for $3.49; six for $6.99), made with fava beans and chickpeas, are exceptionally crisp and flavorful. You can get them in a roll-up (almost everything comes this way), but then you would miss the halloumi roll-up ($5.49). Halloumi holds its shape when heated — roll-ups are pressed until hot and crisp on the outside. It has substance in the pita and becomes a little saucy as the cheese mingles with mint, olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
All meats are halal. Tender pieces of lamb on a platter with rice pilaf — the traditional one mixed with crushed, sauteed vermicelli — and homemade pickles ($13.99) are cut from the leg. Succulent kafta, which is ground meat made from beef or lamb (order lamb), comes on a platter ($11.99), in a roll-up ($5.99), or in patties simmered with potatoes ($10.99), a homely dish with wonderful flavors.
This food deserves better tableware. You order at a counter (Saba is a savvy restaurateur with a long memory; he can tell you on the second visit what you ordered on the first). When your food is ready, it is plated on Styrofoam; some things come on those flimsy white paper plates with the scalloped edges that soak through with a drop of oil. Napkins from a dispenser are too thin. Plastic tableware makes it hard to cut food to share.
So your table will look like an indoor picnic. Keep dispensing those napkins.
Spicy yellow lentil soup ($4.49) comes with pita chips you can scatter on top. Lamejun ($3.49) , a flatbread with a very thin garnish of ground beef and lamb, made in-house, is a puffy round that’s not crisp like some lamejun, but very pleasing.
Fool moudammas ($3.49 and $6.99) is a delicious thick puree of chickpeas and favas, with lots of onions and olive oil. Saba tells me that in many homes, fool moudammas is part of breakfast with olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, labneh, the Lebanese yogurt, and bread. Sign me up.
The chef is also making finger-shaped baklava (99 cents), regular baklava ($2.49), both filled with cashews and walnuts, other flaky phyllo pastries, a milky rice pudding ($3.99) flavored with rose water, and more.
Something about this food seems like it was made by village women. That such thoughtful slow cooking can come so well prepared and so fast makes me forgive the paper plates and napkin dispenser.