I'm always impressed by a restaurant that has worked its way up from humble roots. Oggi Cafe and Deli, for instance, which started as a handmade pasta distributor, selling to upscale Coral Gables and South Beach trattorias. Then owner Eloi Roy used his noodle and got busy, adding a few storefront tables to his shop and opening as a full-scale eatery in addition to purveying ready-to-cook pasta. For the longest time I've wished the Daily Bread bakery and market would do something similar. A long-time supplier to many of Dade's Middle Eastern and Greek restaurants, Daily Bread makes do with take-out counters at its two locations (2486 SW Seventeenth Ave. and 12131 S. Dixie Hwy.).
Never having been the type to count on wishes, I was surprised and gratified to find that this particular one has, in a way, been granted. In December Daily Bread employees Nouhad Feanny and Iyad (Eddie) Muslih, left the market to open the Lebanese restaurant Palace Cuisine in the Dadeland Plaza on South Dixie Highway in Kendall.
Larger than it appears from the outside, the restaurant seats 40 at its green cloth-covered tables and is accented by hanging plants and a refreshing cleanliness. A few prints dot the walls, but it's the refrigerated display case A filled with everything from baklava to spinach pies to kibbeh (all of it prepared fresh each morning) A that demands attention.
And receives it. Like the decor, Palace Cuisine's fare is simplicity itself, a full range of honest, appealing Lebanese dishes.
We started with a selection of meze (appetizers), which can be ordered a la carte or as an appetizer combination ($5.75 for three, $7.75 for four). Hummus was pleasingly smooth, the chickpeas blended with just the right amount of tahini, lemon, and garlic, but just a tad too much salt. Moutabel (also known as baba ghannouj) boasted the ideal balance, the charred eggplant retaining its distinctive smokiness against the same aforementioned ingredients. Garnished with kalamata olives, pink pickled turnips, and biting pepperoncini, the cold salads were served with a basket of pita supplied by Daily Bread.
The bakery also delivers the spiced, crunchy pita chips, heavy on the oregano, that accented a delightful fattoush, a Lebanese bread salad. The croutons were tossed with Homestead-fresh chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, parsley, and green onions, and a tart homemade lemon dressing. The citrus zing of lemon was too apparent in a spinach pie, dominating the filling of sauteed spinach, minced white onions, and pine nuts, and overshadowing a spectacular dough. That same flaky but supple dough, however, provided a fine foil for a meat pie filled with ground beef, onions, and pine nuts.
Pine nuts, or sonoba, are a Lebanese culinary obsession. Mixed with cracked wheat, seasoned ground beef, and onions, they form the popular finger food kibbeh, sold at $1.50 apiece). Deep-fried early in the morning, the sausage-shaped dumpling was reheated upon ordering, which resulted in a loss of both the crisp outer layer and moist "stuffing." Fortunately, the flavor was quite satisfying; purists who don't believe in the double-fire method can consume kibbeh the traditional way -- raw.
Grape leaves, four to a serving, are stuffed with rice and chickpeas, or ground beef. We chose the former, and found the tender wraps warm and fragrant, rolled with a deft touch around the lightly seasoned filling. Falafel were yet another example of experienced Middle Eastern cookery, managing to retain the discernible yet subtle flavor of chickpeas even when dipped in the nutty tahini served alongside.
Ful medames was one of the few Palace dishes that steamed; prepared with whole dried fava beans, garlic, lemon, and olive oil (the Palace also adds chopped tomatoes), the beans can be consumed either hot or cold. Having tried it both ways, I prefer it warm, if only for the fact that the olive oil, poured generously over the rich brown legumes, blends in better with the brothy sauce when heated. Cold, the oil separates, sitting on top in a thick layer, which, while authentic, may be off-putting to the American palate. The Palace's ful medames didn't suffer from differing cultural viewpoints; rather, it had too much garlic.
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Another section of the menu offers salads such as a parsley-heavy tabbouleh (bulgur, tomatoes, green onions, mint, and lemon dressing), and pita-wrapped sandwiches. Marinated meat and chicken kebabs (at $9.50, the most expensive menu items) are listed as specials and accompanied by fattoush and a rice-vermicelli mixture sprinkled with allspice. (Gabriel Feanny, Nouhad's son, reports that Middle Eastern nightly specials are in the planning stage.) We sampled a lamb kebab that was too tough to finish; a skinless and boneless chicken version fared much better, comprising five thick, juicy pieces ideally seasoned and grilled.
Given the basic fare, the dessert choices came as little surprise A baklava or baklava. One was made with pistachio nuts, the other with walnuts, an interesting twist considering that the Lebanese usually prefer cashews to walnuts. Regardless, both were fantastic, thanks to a feathery phyllo dough and a restrained hand with the honey. Indeed, light touches all around -- refilling the pita bread basket when it was empty, supplying an extra dollop of hummus on a combo plate at no charge, and serving pita chips and ice water to those waiting for take-out -- should ensure return visits, and provide Feanny and Muslih with the means to maintain their own daily bread.
At a recent family gathering, my Aunt Cilla, an Israeli, nearly fainted when she overheard me pronounce hummus the American way, without the customary throat-clearing charge on the h. Horrified, she immediately rushed out to the only falafel joint in my hometown and returned with a slew of Middle Eastern products, laying them out on the table one at a time, and naming them. "Chhhhhhhhummmmus," she declared. "Baba ghanooooooojjj." She was still rhapsodizing over purple pickled eggplant when I left for the airport.
Coincidentally, the first store I entered upon my return -- Lion's Marketplace & Deli, on 23rd Street just west of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach -- is Israeli-owned. Ostensibly a health food store (complete with the requisite rack of stinky vitamins and herbal cures), this spacious and attractive market-eatery carries a host of Middle Eastern products, including wild cucumber pickles and rose water from Lebanon and pickled eggplant and Elite chocolates from Israel. The store also features table service and a center display-case island filled with bakery and deli goods. Having sampled the prepared foods, I recommend sticking with the packaged stuff.