Certainly, there are far braver things to do than open a restaurant in a gorgeous Victorian home, but that fact is scant comfort for the three previous restaurants (Calendula, Chef Tucker’s Pâtisserie and Belly Timber) that cooked for brief stints in the space on the corner of Southeast 32nd Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard before calling it quits. TarBoush Bistro and Bar hopes to snap the location’s losing streak with an expansive Lebanese menu, recession-friendly prices, lunch and late-night hours. Success is doubly daunting, however, because there is no shortage of good, affordable Lebanese food in Portland. If TarBoush can expand on the dishes it does well and find its footing on some of its more mediocre offerings, it may exorcise the home’s dining demons.
Want to get a measure of a Lebanese restaurant? Order its veggie mezza ($12). The traditional assortment of hummus, baba ghanouj, falafel, grape leaves and tabbouleh is as good a metric as any in determining a kitchen’s acumen. TarBoush’s accompanying pita bread, which comes out of the kitchen hot and appropriately puffed, ably serves as a vessel for the spreads, but lacks the slight yeasty tang of the best examples of this staple. Be sure to stir up the pool of oil and aromatics in the center of the hummus to even out its very chickpea-forward flavor. The baba is a winner, the puréed eggplant assertive and smoky without the overly charred flavor that is a common pitfall with the dish. TarBoush’s tabbouleh is great with everything, an unusually high parsley-to-bulgur ratio gives the salad a bright, astringent quality with a subtle nuttiness. It’s not unheard of for a restaurant to cut corners and serve canned stuffed grape leaves, but TarBoush definitely rolls its own, the little briny bundles steamed until tender, and the rice is creamy. A little under-seasoned but still solid. Nice and crispy, the falafel is at its best when you assemble an ad-hoc sandwich with the other mezza accompaniments.
Over on the hot side of the menu, TarBoush’s skewers are a mixed bag. The grilled chicken ($14) is tender and succulent, with a lovely garlicky finish, and the kafta kebab ($14) is easily one of the best versions in town, substantial and filling while still moist, with no hint of the tough, leaden quality that denotes overworked ground beef. On the other hand, both the beef ($14) and lamb ($16) skewers were over-seasoned and mealy, to the point that sometimes it was difficult to pick out which one was which, no mean feat when one of the proteins is lamb.
The makali ($7.50) exhibits a more deft touch—the assortment of deep-fried vegetables is perfectly done. They could easily make a dish of the fried zucchini alone, the slightly caramelized exterior and soft interior dressed perfectly by the garlic and lemon juice. TarBoush’s version of okra stew, bamyeh, is a different beast from others around town, with a far greater tomato presence and firmer, more distinct okra pieces floating about. It’s a unique take on the dish and a nice contrast.
“Different” seems to be the takeaway of TarBoush as a whole. It may not be the best Lebanese in town, but it is a solid entry in a neighborhood that can maintain its own establishment if it gains a following. If the kitchen can up its game a touch, it can put any lingering thoughts of a cursed space safely to rest.
- Order this: The kafta kebab.
- Best deal: The veggie mezza ($12).
- I’ll pass: The lamb (beef?) skewers.
EAT: TarBoush Lebanese Bistro & Bar, 3257 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 235-3277, tarboushbistro.com. Noon-midnight Monday-Saturday, noon-10 pm Sunday. $$ Moderate.