Our table is spread with exotic foods, mouth-watering aromas emanate from the open kitchen, Arabian music fills the air and a lithe belly dancer shimmies and gyrates around the room, dancing shyly behind the veil or flirtatiously encouraging others to dance with her. For a little while, it's easy to pretend we've travelled farther than across the bridge to experience this taste of the Mediterranean because the owner has tried to make it as authentic as possible.
It's not a large restaurant. In the back, one corner is taken up by an open cooking area and the other corner by an extensive bar. Upstairs is a private dining room with a couple of small balconies overlooking the main dining area.
The menu is full of Lebanese platters (and some local specialties, such as fish and chips) but it's the family meal that catches my eye: Mezza is a "traditional Lebanese three-hour feast enjoyed with family and friends" ($25 per person). Although the menu indicates this must be ordered in advance, our server hastens to assure us that we most certainly can have it, and so we do.
I love eating communally like this: It's comforting and brings us back to our roots in so many ways. Unfortunately, it's a tradition that's falling by the wayside, but that's another story. For tonight, there are friends, family and food. And oh, what food!
Out come bowls of pickled vegetables and salty, meaty green olives, plates of assorted nuts and seeds and baskets of warm pita bread. Another delivery brings us hummus, baba ghannouj (roasted eggplant puree) and labneh, a Lebanese-style creamed cheese. The hummus is garlicky and lemony, the baba smoky and thick. The labneh, which I haven't had before, reminds me of the Greek tzatziki, with a thicker texture: It's delicious.
Yet more bowls arrive, this time filled with foul and tabbouli. The tabbouli (bulgur and parsley with lemon and spices) is a tartly acidic counterpoint to the smooth, garlic-filled hummus and baba ghannouj. The foul (a salad much like tabbouli, but with chickpeas and fava beans) is full of ripe, diced tomato and is fabulous.
Plates arrive bearing an assortment of stuffed grape leaves, kebbeh and sambousik, all served warm. The grape leaves are vegetarian, stuffed with rice and subtly scented with spices. The kebbeh and sambousik are fried, like little dumplings, and stuffed with ground meat and onions, with pine nuts in the sambousik and bulgur in the kebbeh. The last of the bowls holds moist strips of grilled chicken breast.
There's much dipping, spreading and rolling up of the various spreads, salads and chicken in the pitas when yet more food appears. This is the "main" course: Kafta and shisk taouk, both on skewers atop beds of steaming rice. The kafta is spiced ground meat with parsley, the shisk taouk, spears of charbroiled chicken breast with garlic.
Embarrassingly, it doesn't take us anywhere near three hours to eat this mezza. I like to think it's because we're so excited by the intoxicating tastes and aromas that we feel compelled to experience everything as quickly as possible.
Along with the belly dancing (occasional weekends, call ahead), there's also Lebanese karaoke. But it really is the food that makes Kababji authentic. Take some friends and family, have the mezza and be prepared for a truly amazing culinary experience.
Kababji202 Brownlow AvenueBurnside Industrial Park468-5555Mon - Tue 11am to 4pmWed - Sun 11am to 9pm
Find a whole mezza Liz Feltham reviews online at: www.foodcritic.ca