Tucked away in the corner of a Pinecrest strip mall is the urban culinary oasis Shaddai Fine Lebanese Cuisine. You'll find three floor lamps of varying heights and colors, three wooden camel statues, and a wall adorned with three swords. Nearby are three booths. Are these trios symbolic of the Holy Trinity? Perhaps.
The Bethlehem-born owner, Anton Sammour, known as Chef Tony, has been cooking Lebanese food since he was 8 years old. His wife, Elizabeth, who works the front of the house, is from Guatemala. You might remember the couple from Arabian Nights in Doral, which closed a few years ago. After that, Tony spent two years and a lot of money trying to open a new Arabian Nights on Miracle Mile. It didn't work out. Last June, he suffered a stroke and lost feeling in his hand. Elizabeth had a dream in which the Lord spoke to her and said, "Tony will be OK. Good luck is coming, and you have to name the new restaurant Shaddai," which translates to "God almighty."
Prophetic Elizabeth will most likely greet you with a smile and instantly remember if you have been there before. As you peruse the menu, a basket of freshly toasted pita chips and a tomato and eggplant "salsa" will likely arrive. It is an edible example of your host family's cultures. It is full of fresh flavors and sets the tone for the meal. Though most of the menu features traditional dishes, it breaks the mold when it comes to this baba ghannouj meets chips 'n' salsa.
The appetizers, or mezzes, are not to be missed and are arguably the highlight of the meal. Try the appetizer combo, a choice of five apps or salads for $30. It roughly translates to five small plates for the price of four.
The most angelic of the starters is the jawaneh, Lebanese-style chicken wings marinated in fresh garlic, olive oil, and lemon, cooked to a golden hue, and crowned with a thick pale-yellow sauce. The result is a delectable wing that's crisp on the outside and moist on the inside.
For something different to dip your pita into, the ful medames is a good choice. This warm Egyptian staple comprises mashed fava beans mixed with garlic, lemon juice, tomatoes, and parsley and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. It's reminiscent of the warm hummus served in Jaffa, but with fava instead of garbanzos. The result is a velvety-smooth spread, although the natural aroma of the fava is a bit off-putting. Tony says he uses fresh, not dried, beans, but if you have a sensitive nose, stick to the hummus.
The vegetarian version of dolmas, pillow-soft rice bundled in brined grape leaves, is always inviting. At Shaddai, the occasional chickpea, garlic chunk, parsley sprig, and fresh mint leaf make cameos in this starter. They're not the prettiest grape leaves -- rolls of varying sizes burst at the seams, and few have a perfect swaddle -- but they are a contender for the tastiest.
For a vibrant salad, order the tabbouleh. Fresh parsley leaves are tossed with bulgur, tomatoes, scallions, and mint and then doused with freshly squeezed lemon and olive oil. The arayes -- Lebanese sandwiches -- made with seasoned grilled lamb between thin pitas, are mildly gamey but have a smoky quality that balances out the lightness of the other starters.
Kibbeh, another bold starter, consists of two miniature, football-shaped fried meat croquettes. The crisp cracked-wheat shell hides its soft interior. The tender center is spiced ground sirloin and lamb combined with pine nuts, herbs, and onion. It's almost sweet, with hints of cinnamon shining through the tough exterior.
If you make it through the plethora of appetizers, you will be greeted by kebabs, lemon chicken, rack of lamb, and spicy fish. You might also be greeted by a server saying "Con permiso" as she reaches to fill your water, reminding you that you are still in Miami and not at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East.
Service may be slow, but for now there's only one person in the kitchen, and he says, "I would rather have people wait a bit longer than have a bad meal."
For a slurpable surprise, try the ayran, a cold beverage containing Tony's homemade yogurt, water, ice, fresh mint, and either honey or salt. It's refreshing and reminiscent of a watery shamrock shake, a milky mojito, or a lassi. It's the Land of Milk and Honey through a straw.
The lamb kebab features two skewers of hand-trimmed, ice-cube-size hunks of marinated and spiced lamb. The tender, mild meat is layered with grilled onions and bell pepper and served with the skewer removed. Toasted bits of angel hair decorate the basmati rice on the side of the plate. The lamb was cooked as requested, a bit pink in the center. Tony, who has been cooking professionally for more than 30 years, says his head is like a computer -- he knows exactly when to flip the meat.
Samakeh harrah translates to "spicy fish" in Arabic. Tony takes the catch of the day (in my case snapper) and broils it in tahini sauce with herbs and spices. Served on a large plate, the fish didn't look too appetizing swimming alone in a creamy white sauce dotted with a red spice mixture. More angel-hair-accessorized rice graced a separate bowl, and a less vibrant salad came out ahead of time. The snapper was mild and pure, with a kick of flavor from the sauce. Tahini's crushed sesame seeds and toasted sesame oil give the sauce a creamy and nutty quality. Hints of heat, garlic, sumac, and saffron come through, but Tony doesn't disclose his special blend of spices.
When Tony stopped by, as he does with each table during service, a tablemate mentioned the dish was a bit salty. His response: "No, I use salt only on the salads. I know you don't believe me, but I am a spice guy." His dimples appeared, and we surrendered, though none of us believed him. Surely, salt is incorporated into his spice blends. We took extra sips of water to counter the perceived saltiness.
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On a sweeter note, a dessert standout is the namora with baked farina butter dough bathed in sweet lemon syrup and topped with a Marcona almond. It's decadent, easily sharable, and a departure from the other desserts, all slight variations of treats made with phyllo, nuts, and honey.
Chef Tony is clearly in his element at this 3-month-old restaurant. "I am not an ordinary guy. My food is cooked with love and tenderness. I am one of the best cooks in the country when it comes to Middle Eastern food," the not-so-modest chef says. But he feels blessed to have regained feeling in his hand and to have given life to an unnoticed corner of a strip mall where so many other restaurants have failed. He sees Shaddai as a beacon of light and good food. He is right.
Follow Carina on Twitter @CarinaOst