Perhaps the most misunderstood cuisines in Charlotte are those from the Middle East. Last winter, in the Introduction to Food Writing course I teach at Johnson & Wales University, I brought in hummus made by my in-laws, who were visiting from Lebanon. I did this after lengthy discussions about the permutations of hummus in Charlotte restaurants. For many of the culinary students, the flavors in this Lebanese hummus were revelatory. And while I cannot offer the same experience to you, I can suggest a new spot where you can have a similar revelatory gastronomic experience.
Last July, restaurateur Yasser Sadek opened the 42-seat Kabab-Je Rotisserie & Grill with his brother Ali Sadek. Some may remember Sadek from Primo Tuscan Grille in Myers Park. Others may go further back in time and remember him from Papa Gallo's or Hemingway's. Sadek has been part of the Charlotte restaurant scene since 1978.
To open Kabab-Je, though, is a gutsy move. Charlotte's Middle East restaurants have a tendency to morph rather quickly into Charlotteans' expectations of Middle East cuisines, departing from authentic flavors and resulting in a menu typically featuring falafels made with stale pita bread and commercially jarred pickles. (Reducing all Middle East cuisines to a falafel sandwich, thought to be Palestinian in origin, is like reducing all of American cuisine to fried pickles.)
But this is a challenge Sadek is willing to take on. Freshness is key to the menu items at Kabab-Je. Sadek explains his concept as a Lebanese Dean & DeLuca, with large glass cases displaying many of his dishes, fruits, drinks and desserts. To the rear of the bright dining space is a small butcher area, shelving for groceries and a pizza/bread oven. Originally, Sadek had planned on counter service, but decided to offer table service (although it must be noted that the servers are not ready for prime time).
Unlike the Dean & DeLuca format, though, there is no wine. Sadek is considering offering wine since past patrons from Primo are expecting a wine list. As with many cuisines, the wines best suited are often those from that country. The Lebanese Château Musar, a winery founded in the 1930s, produces superlative wines from a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and Cinsault, and Château Kefraya has the beautifully structured Comte de M, a powerful blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah.
Lebanese cuisine is the resulting legacy of more than a dozen civilizations and maintains its reputation throughout the Middle East for producing extraordinary and exceptional food. The majority of dishes in this small mountainous country are composed of vegetables and fruits grown locally in the verdant Bekaa Valley, fish from the Mediterranean, honey, yogurt, cheese, and, to a lesser degree, chicken, lamb and beef.
The Lebanese dishes at Kabab-Je arrive on simple white plates devoid of artful presentation, which is practically a requirement in Lebanese restaurants and sandwich shops. However, one bite of the crispy kibbeh, a miniature football-shaped lamb coquette with a tender interior, instantly transported me back to the restaurants in Beirut. Also on the menu is entrée-sized, home-style kibbeh bil saniyah, a baked, pressed, minced meat, here beef not lamb.
At dinner, the Lebanese eat in a communal style: long tables dotted with masses of plates in a system known as mezze. Not surprisingly, the menu at Kabab-Je offers dozens of these small plates, including an ever-so-smooth hummus, smoky eggplant moutabel, ful moudamas (here not strictly fava beans, but mixed with chickpeas), house-made spicy soujok sausages, salads and stuffed grape leaves in olive oil. The bakery is still getting lift to its items: The spinach fatayer and the sambousek (small, fried pies) were both doughy.
Among Kabab-Je's best are the gorgeous, succulent offerings from the charcoal grill: lamb kebabs, kafta skewers and boneless chicken with garlic sauce. The shawarma, both chicken and lamb, is cooked on a rotating vertical spit. But when not sold in volume, the meat becomes overcooked and dry — which it has been here. Nevertheless, you can have quite a meal at Kabab-Je. Nothing costs a fortune. It's all passable and sharable — the best way to dine.
Kabab-Je Rotisserie & Grille, 2233 Matthews Township Parkway, Matthews, 704-845-0707. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. Patio.