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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

MetroWest Mideast feast

Plenty of mm-mmm moments await at Habibi

Posted on Wed, Jul 7, 2010 at 4:00 AM

No lamb?, I incredulously asked myself. Poring over the streamlined menu at the counter of Habibi Fine Lebanese Cuisine, I noticed beef and chicken were well-represented, but the staple meat defining Middle Eastern cooking was nowhere to be seen. Feeling somewhat nonplussed, I posed the question to owner Frank Ashriki, a seasoned restaurateur who traded the refined rues of Montreal for the boilerplate boulevards of MetroWest. A downward glance, a deliberate pause and an uncomfortable wriggle later, the response: 'We plan on having lamb on the menu soon.� Not that Habibi's culinary legitimacy rests solely on rotisseried ruminants, but a Lebanese restaurant without lamb is, well, like Certs without the Retsyn�. 

So for the time being we settled and, ultimately, really settled into Habibi's two-meat offerings, but not before getting our fill of their vegetarian platter ($8). A cluster of standards ' fresh-fried falafel, smoky babaganoush, hummus, tabouli and incomparably lemony grape leaves ' it's a flesh-spurner's delight. Just keep in mind that allowing falafel to cool zaps it of its moisture, so eat the tahini-drizzled orbs first. 

At the hub of the platter sat a sliver of eggplant coiled around fluffy toum, the garlicky white sauce often dolloped alongside chicken kebabs. Speaking of those, the flame-licked pieces of poultry were a highlight of the combo kebab ($13.99), with or without a toum dip. Biting into fattened morsels of beef and peppery kefta provoked the most vocal mm-mmm moments ' moments which, given our choice of outdoor seating, seemed to rouse the interests of passers-by. Granted, most of them were heading to Habibi's anyway, primarily for takeout. The two booths and counter seating inside the atmo-less space don't exactly lend themselves to prolonged stays, yet it's not unusual to find a contingent of Arab and African patrons outside talking food and football with Frank. Being swept into the conversation is probable, and that speaks to the undeniable conviviality of the joint. 

Caught up in all the World Cup chatter, I nearly missed the fact that the fattoush salad ($3.99) lacked its characteristic toasted pita. A fattoush salad without the pita is, well, like the World Cup without its vuvuzelas. A surprising omission, to say the least, but if there's one item Habibi can toot its own horn about, it's their fried kibbeh ($1.75) and beef shawarma ($4.50). The seasoned top sirloin of the latter is shaved from a spit and, along with supremely tart pickles, radishes and tomatoes stuffed in a pita, makes for a consummate lunchtime sandwich. Take-home test: After a 10-minute sweat in a 250-degree oven, the shawarma held up just fine the following night.

The 'Fine� in 'Habibi Fine Lebanese Cuisine� is somewhat misleading. Plastic utensils and paper napkins in no way resemble the fine dining scene of Cedar's Restaurant in Dr. Phillips, but what Habibi does, it does relatively well. Most dishes are made to order, so don't expect immediate delivery of comestibles, as is customary with many counter-service eateries. And credit Ashriki for fostering Habibi's hospitable and neighborly vibe. In a single visit, it was easy to discern that Montreal's loss was MetroWest's gain. 

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