By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
Open Sesame finds a niche
Lebanese restaurants have never really taken off in Middle America but many Lebanese dishes hit the mainstream during the last two decades, mainly in health food stores and delis. Hummus, baba ganoush, tabouleh and falafel all benefited from the popularization of both the “Mediterranean Diet” and vegetarianism. Those dishes are more apt now to be found in university cafeteria salad bars than in the old-fashioned kebab houses that brought them to America. Adonis, greater Des Moines’ first full service Lebanese café, came to West Glen last year. Named for the Semitic — Greco god who dies and is reborn each year — it closed as winter approached.
Now like magic, it’s reborn as Open Sesame in East Village, a neighborhood much better suited to its adventurous menu. The new place seems to be thriving. I found it completely packed as early as 5:15 p.m. for dinner and as late as 2 p.m. for lunch. The smallest crowd I found at Open Sesame was bigger than the largest I ever saw at Adonis. The new place is not big; I counted 30 table seats plus a bar. Burgundy and purple paint, minaret stencils and Arabic music transformed a former diner into an intimate ethnic café. A flimsy curtain subbed as a vestibule, which allowed arctic air to wind its way to every corner when the door opened on a cold night. Oddly in so small a place, I never smell meat searing, a trademark of Lebanese restaurants in my mind.
That could be because vegetarianism has co-opted the menu. Baba ganoush is a famous roasted eggplant dish in which the eggplant is scooped into a mixture of tahini and lemon juice, often with a little sumac and olive oil drizzle. Mid Eastern chefs argue over the ratios of lemon juice to tahini and of tahini-lemon to eggplant like English bartenders argue about the ratio of vermouth to gin in a classic martini. Open Sesame’s version tipped to the tahini side. Hummus is a paste of garbanzo beans, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and tahini. Open Sesame’s, like that made in most health food stores, was light on the olive oil and very light on the garlic. Similarly tabouleh mixed fresh parsleys with bulghar, green onions, tomatoes, fresh mint and lemon juice but little olive oil and no garlic. Fattoush produced a wonderfully zippy house dressing on romaine, cucumbers, mint, tomatoes, onions and croutons. Lentil soup varied from one visit to the next. One time the stock was so rich I wrongly suspected chicken broth. Another time there was precious little broth at all in the lentils, onions and rice.
Chicken shwarma was served with tomatoes, onions, garlic mayonnaise and pickle spears as expected. It also included fried potatoes; a method often called “Israeli style,” though cookbooks say it’s also popular in the Balkans, Jordan and the UAE. Even cold, my chicken strips tasted juicy and had a seared flavor. The garlic mayo was excessive. Gyros were crusty on both sides, likely not freshly sliced. Kibbeh, a sort of grilled meat loaf, was the best meat I had, served hot with a good laban (yogurt). Brunch mixed Lebanese and American dishes — e.g. gyros with potatoes and eggs. Thick crepes included one nicely stuffed with apples and walnuts.
Drinks included Turkish coffee (cardamom and espresso), mint tea and jalab (incense infused rosewater and grape syrup).
Bottom line — Open Sesame seems to have found its niche while upgrading the vegetarian options downtown.
Michael Pollan, best selling author and supreme guru of the locovore movement, will speak at Luther College on Feb. 23, first come, first seated… Cochon555 invited Hal Jasa (Phat Chefs), Jason Simon (Alba), George Formaro (Centrro), and Tony Lemmo (Café di Scala) to challenge “Prince of Pork” Matt Steigerwald (Lincoln Café) in this year’s competition. CV
Caption: Kibbeh and fattoush with laban at Open Sesame, 313 E. Locust St. 288-3151. Hours are Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. and Sunday, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m.