by LINDEN GROSS, A&E Feature Writer
“We’re going to Kebaba for dinner,” my friend Diane announced over the phone. “You want to join?”
Kebaba? For dinner? The small Middle Eastern restaurant has been a lunch favorite of mine for years, but somehow I’d never considered it as a dinner spot. Still, I knew that two of my favorite local chefs—Jake Lewis and Mike Ormsby—who used to work at Brasada’s Blue Olive as well as Scanlon’s were now at the helm.
“Count me in,” I announced.
The company and Chef Mike’s Thai shrimp special made me glad that I had agreed to go. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, remaining tender and juicy in a broth that hit perfect notes on both the spice and coconut milk fronts. Of course, last I looked Thailand isn’t exactly in the Middle East, but who cares. The dish was divine.
I returned six weeks later with three other friends to do a restaurant review. We started out with cocktails and the Trio Sampler: Bend’s creamiest hummus (a spread made from Northwest-grown chickpeas blended with tahini and lemon) which our table agreed was “perfection,” a Harissa red pepper version of the hummus and delicious babaganouj (eggplant mixed with tahini and lemon), all served with fresh raw veggies and homemade pita fresh out of the oven that was so tasty one of my friends called it “ridiculous.”
By the time we had moved on to the second round of appetizers, the little bungalow on Newport was jamming. Nearly every table was filled with customers ranging from families with young children to people closer to my dad’s age. Energetic, happy hubbub. That also worked for me.
My chef friends had asked if they could bring out dishes for us to sample instead of having us order off the menu. We agreed enthusiastically with a single caveat. We needed an order of Karnabeet, a dish of seared cauliflower in lemony tahini that will win over even a confirmed cauliflower hater. It was as good as always.
The sweet and salty Carrot and Feta Jam—spiced with cinnamon, cloves and allspice served over a mix of Greek feta and imported labneh cheeses—was a discovery. The dish not only tasted like Christmas, it looked like it too. We also enjoyed the Fattoush Salad, a basic green salad accented with parsley, mint and sumac (a Middle Eastern berry that’s ground and used as a spice) and tossed in a lemon, yogurt vinaigrette laced with a touch of pomegranate.
I realized the boys in the kitchen were getting more serious when they sent out our next course—exceptional scallop stuffed shrimp served with a tzatziki sauce spiked with Serrano that, along with the carrot jam appetizer, was the table’s favorite of the night. The heat of the chili permeated our palates as well as the beautifully translucent seafood without overwhelming either. “That is just pure happiness,” exclaimed my friend Leah. “I want to eat that all day.” Gay seconded the motion. “That’s not just a good Lebanese dish. That’s a fantastic seafood dish.” Executive Chef Jake accepted our raves with his typical humility, giving the nod for the stuffed shrimp to John Nelson—top chef and owner of the now defunct and lamented Blue Olive.
Thick, almost fruity lamb stew on a bed of hummus also stood out with its layered flavors including sweet caramelized onions and pickled onions (“for that opposing sweet and sour goodness,” says Chef Jake), pomegranate, cinnamon, cumin, allspice and zatar (a Middle Eastern spice mix). By comparison, the grilled kebabs (saffron shrimp, wild salmon and chicken) seemed almost too tame despite being tasty and tender. Of the three, the salmon won hands down and garnered one rave. “I love this,” announced Leah. “So simple. So moist. So delicious.”
Before dessert, we managed to sample lightly curried latkes (potato pancakes), as well as the Spinach Pie, a crescent-shaped pita stuffed with a lemony mixture of spinach, onion, garlic, pine nuts, Greek saganaki and feta cheeses. I loved the nod to Eastern Europe and Greece (in that order) and would order both again in a heartbeat.
Clearly, Kebaba’s new chefs are stretching the borders of the modern Middle Eastern cuisine that Kebaba is known for. It sure worked for me and my friends.
1004 NW Newport Avenue; Bend
Owners: John Picarazzi and Steve Koch
Open Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner from 11am – close; Sunday noon-close [plan to be in by 8pm to be safe]