You might know Yasser Sadek from his decades-long Charlotte restaurant career – none of it in Middle Eastern places. He was at now-gone Papa Gallo’s and Hemingway’s-turned-Bellissimo, and co-owned Primo Tuscan Grille in Myers Park, before getting out of the business altogether in 2001.
So you might be surprised by Kabab-Je, which he owns with his brother Ali, and which serves up the affordable, beautiful fare of his native Lebanon, along with a host of other dishes the menu calls Mediterranean but which I’ll call Middle Eastern, since that’s the more specific region represented.
Sadek says he dubs it Mediterranean to allow him to offer specials such as pasta, or Caesar salad and, yes, because it’s more accessible to American diners, who’ve finally recognized the healthfulness of the cuisines.
And the name in Arabic (pronounced ka-bob-zhee), he says, means “the guy who makes the kabab.” (He spells it with two a’s.)
It’s a pleasant surprise, from its housemade breads and pastries to marvelous versions of the most-recognized dishes (hummus and lush skewered meats) to the exquisite lesser-knowns (real Lebanese kibbeh, in two forms. Moujaddarah! Manakish!).
The Sadek brothers opened this small Sycamore Commons spot in July, and with a price range of about $5 to $15, and a generous hand dishing up, diners get quite a bang for their buck. You can sit inside or out, across from the central fountain (particularly nice now that the heat’s abated), and servers are engagingly conversant about the fare, if not very formal.
Start with a round of mezze (sharing plates, hot and cold). Among the best are the smoky rich bathinjan (grilled eggplant, nearly pureed, topped with parsley, onion, tomato, mint and lemon-garlic dressing), the filling lentil-rice-onion dish called moujaddarah and the signature Lebanese fritter-like kibbeh: crunchy, deep-fried nuggets of lamb and cracked wheat, with a pinenut center.
Add a pizza-like manakish with zaatar (a blend here of wild oregano, sesame seeds and mint); these can also be topped with cheeses, but try this version first. If cauliflower is among the daily specials, go for it: topped with tahini and lots of lemon, this was terrific.
Follow with either a wrap or, if you’re really hungry, an entree plate, which comes with sides: We had tender saffron basmati rice handsomely presented molded and topped with pinenuts, olives and slivers of roasted red pepper, alongside grilled vegetables.
Skewered lamb is earthy and perfectly cooked, offered both as sandwich and entree. Lamb kafta (like sausage) is underseasoned to me, but good in a wrap, where pickles and hummus can amp it up. Chicken shawarma (the meat layered, gyro-like, and cooked on a vertical spit, then sliced off) proved dry, but shish taouk (chicken kababs) were moist and delicious, as was the grilled chicken with an assertive (meaning I can sort of still taste it) garlic cream that was marvelous.
Kibbeh as an entree is made with minced beef and baked, not fried, while the classic fried chickpea-mix called falafel is lovely on a plate or in a wrap (or even out of the fridge the next day, as it happens).
The Sadeks plan to add seating inside as the weather gets cold, and to begin to offer samples from the large glass cases that rule much of the interior. “People can look and ask ‘What’s this?’ and ‘What’s that?’ They like that,” says Yasser Sadek. “We think Charlotte, Mint Hill and Matthews are ready for this.”
The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.
Have a news tip? You can send it to a local news editor; email email@example.com to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Charlotte Observer.Read moreRead less