Cedars of Lebanon
152 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City ; 801-364-4096
Eat on couches in the beautiful Casbah room and enjoy the belly dancers. But be prepared to wait for a subpar meal; service is slow.
Cuisine: Middle Eastern
Hours: M-F, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; M-Th, 5-10 p.m.; F-S, 5-11 p.m.
Liquor: Full Service
Recommended Dishes: Baba ghanouj, laban yogurt, stuffed grape leaves, kebabs.
April 25, 2007
Subpar dishes and slow service mar Middle Eastern experience
By Mary Brown Malouf
Lucky for me, I love belly dancing.
Even luckier, so did friends dining with me at Cedars of Lebanon. So the hourlong wait for our dinners wasn't entirely thumb-twiddling time -- with the dancers' encouragement, we all took a turn at attempted tummy-twiddling instead.
Cedars of Lebanon only books dancers for Friday and Saturday nights, though. The ridiculously long time between ordering and eating is not as easy to ignore when you're sitting upright at a table in the main restaurant instead of lounging on kilim-covered pillows in the cushioned and draped Casbah Room listening to finger cymbals and a singer crooning in Arabic.
Wherever you sit, the rumblings inside your belly can seem to match the undulations of the dancers' bellies by the time your hummus finally arrives.
Too bad, because the service is friendly, if not timely, and you want to love a restaurant where someone's sitti (Arabic for grandmother) is sitting at a table in the back rolling grape leaves.
Cedars' menu features dishes from Lebanon, Armenia, Israel, Morocco -- even Greece, if you count the bland casserole of moussaka ($12.75.) Of course, all Middle Eastern cuisines overlap like a Venn diagram made with a Spirograph and they all start with a version of mezes, an array of dips, salads and pickles served with pita that should be fresh and warm but wasn't at Cedars.
We ordered the full spread ($17.95 for two people, $26.95 for four) of dishes, including garlicky baba ghanouj, eggplant that's been charred and puréed; laban, or Lebanese yogurt, a thick, house-made version that is a tart mix between sour cream and crème fraîche, offset by cucumber and scallion slices; and tabbouleh, the bulgur-parsley salad.
At Cedars, tabbouleh is made in the Lebanese style I prefer, with parsley overwhelming the softened wheat. Unfortunately, either there had been too heavy a hand on the Cuisinart "pulse" button or the salad had been waiting to be served as long as we had waited for it to be served: The minced parsley leaves had that bruised, battered quality that can result from either mistake.
The falafel -- fragrant little fried balls of ground chickpeas and fava beans seasoned with cumin and coriander -- was dry; tomatoes, served with feta and olives, were predictably pink and also dry. You expect it from a tomato in early spring, but there's no seasonal excuse for the falafel.
There are innumerable versions of sarma, stuffed grape leaves; not only every country and province, but every family from Turkey to Iran has their own favorite recipe. The rice-stuffed rolled ones at Cedars of Lebanon are good, although a bit salty. Perhaps the leaves were not rinsed thoroughly enough.
All the mezes can be ordered separately ($2.55 to $4.55) but the delight is the contrasting flavors and textures, from mellow and creamy to tart and juicy. So even if you don't want the full platter, order several different dishes. This will also fortify you for the long interval between appetizer and main course.
Overall, the kitchen is more successful with Lebanese/Armenian/Israeli style cooking than with Moroccan. Kebabs (lamb, chicken or beef $14.95) were fine, the meat juices flavoring the accompanying rice. Kofta ($12.95), ground meat seasoned with parsley and skewered, was slightly rubbery from overgrilling, but the flavor was good.
But the complicated interplay between sweet and meat -- the hallmark of great Moroccan dishes -- had been reduced to a monotone mush in the lamb tagine ($15.95), a dish that can require 15 or 20 different seasonings, each contributing its own scent if combined carefully. Instead of the heady sauce that comes from juices released by simmering, this tagine's sauce seemed heavy and flour-thickened.
Moroccan pastilla ($14.95) is another North African dish that is gloriously exotic to most American palates. Originally made with squab, pastilla is usually made with chicken in this country, usually with breast of chicken (as it is here), robbing the dish of a good bit of flavor. The cinnamon-seasoned, shredded meat is combined with sauce and topped with phyllo dough to make a kind of pie, then sprinkled with powdered sugar -- a combination that seems bizarre right up to the moment it hits your mouth, when it suddenly seems the most natural thing in the world.
I have had much better pastilla; still, this was my favorite dish at Cedars of Lebanon.
The delivery problems seem to be persistent at Cedars; I have eaten there more times than usual for a review because the restaurant is convenient and because I love Middle Eastern food. But so far, I have not found the magic time when the Cedars' kitchen and its servers are working in sync.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.