January 28th, 2004 12:00 am Audrey Van Buskirk | Food Reviews & Stories

Lebanese Magic

Karam makes Middle Eastern poetry with its food.

LEBANESE JAZZ: Owner Tony Karam, right, charms diners with the music of authentic native dishes.
On a recent Sex and the City episode, Carrie and her latest swain, played by Mikhail Baryshnikov, sexily spar over poetry. He's reading about love by Joseph Brodsky. She's reading about Oscar de la Renta in Vogue. But after eating at downtown's Karam Lebanese Cusine, where the food tastes as wonderful as it sounds, you may want to make a verse out of the names of dishes:


batenjan mekle


baba ghanouj.

Karam is housed in a nondescript, businesslike location--around the corner from the similarly odd yet beloved Huber's--and the restaurant serves Lebanese food that's out of this world, as my grandmother would say. The interior seems designed to look otherworldly, too, with dim lighting, walls painted to resemble crumbling stone walls and a tinkling metal fountain, while the heavy tables are decorated with detailed maps--though some represent places only as exotic as San Diego.

To say that the service is friendly here is like saying Mr. Rogers was nice. Owner Tony Karam and his wife, chef Emelin, make visitors feel like beloved nieces and nephews. On my second and third visits, I was greeted so warmly that I wondered if they remembered me from the vast amounts of food I had ordered. But eavesdropping led me to discover that nearly every diner seems to be greeted with joy.

Since the food is so addictive, it's hard to imagine any customer who won't return. If you already like Lebanese food, plenty of the dishes will seem familiar but taste a bit better. There's the smooth, creamy hummus ($4) that's redolent of lemon, garlic and a wonderful tahini. Falafels ($9.50) are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, while the stuffed grape leaves ($5) present a medley of flavors and textures.

Eggplant lovers should order the batenjan mekle ($5.50), in which thin slices of the nightshade vegetable lie perfectly grilled in a pool of olive oil that's so bright with garlic and lemon you'll nearly need sunglasses. The feta cheese plate ($4.50) doesn't sound poetic, but some alchemy turns the simple ingredients of crumbled salty white cheese, chopped tomato, onions and olives into the memory of a summer's day. And you can scrape up every morsel with the accompanying just-baked pita bread, puffed into the shape of a Mylar balloon.

The remarkably long menu offers two good homemade soups, a light spinach ($4) and a simple but hearty lentil ($4), plus a variety of vegetable stews--artichoke ($9.95-$11.95), eggplant ($9.50-$11.50), okra ($9.50-$11.50)--that can also be served with meat. The okra stew may help the cause of this often-overlooked vegetable, as Karam's version is impossibly tender, luscious in a tomato sauce that's topped with tender slices of lamb. There's a delicious meat plate ($12.50), which features skewers of chicken, lamb and ground beef over yellow rice. And the meat in the goat stews is falling-apart tender--bil tfeen ($18.95) is served with potatoes, and goat bil riz ($17.95) with rice.

Not so tender, however, is the kibbee saneeyah ($12.95), layers of bulgur filled with beef, onions and pine nuts. The menu notes this is the national dish of Lebanon, and it offers an interesting, earthy flavor, but the texture is dry enough that you'll welcome the side dish of yogurt.

Since Karam is open for three meals a day, it seems like some kind of magical trick that the restaurant's tiny kitchen turns out that lovely pita bread, as well as dozens of dishes on the menu with accompanying sauces, dressings and syrups. Some beverages are also homemade, such as the delicious strawberry lemonade or one of the fruit smoothies blended with Karam's own yogurt and special simple syrup.

If you're feeling adventurous, order a special Lebanese drink from the restaurant's full bar, especially a cocktail made with arak, a liquor distilled from the fermented sap of toddy palms or fermented molasses. Similar to ouzo, the drink is prepared tableside, and the clear liquid turns cloudy with the addition of water and ice.

For dessert, the traditional choice is the sweet and crispy baklava ($2), but don't miss the katayef bilashta ($2), freshly made sand-dollar-sized pancakes folded taco-style over thick homemade cream and syrup, then topped with a sprinkling of pistachios. This is what a cannoli wants to be. And with a tiny pitcher of the strong thick Turkish coffee, Karam offers a dish--and a meal--that's enough to make a poet out of you.

Karam Lebanese Cusine
316 SW Stark St., 223-0830.
9 am-9 pm Monday-Friday, noon-9 pm Saturday. Closed Sunday. Credit cards accepted. $$ Moderate.

In 1988, the Karam family launched their first Portland restaurant, Long Island Pizzeria on Southwest Morrison Street. Eventually, they changed the name to Long Island Cafe and added some Lebanese dishes to the menu.

"Karam" means generous.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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