Whether there for eating or puffing, Café Rumi is definitely smokin'!

By Hookah, By Cook 

Whether there for eating or puffing, Café Rumi is definitely smokin'!

In my sordid past, I was a huge fan of water pipes and collected quite a few, back in that post-hippie era when you could still find perfectly elegant glass hookahs and snazzy acrylic bongs at garage sales. Oh, yes, I'd sing along to Jefferson Airplane's "Go Ask Alice" (Tell 'em a hookah smoking caterpillar/Has given you the call) and invite my wayward friends to join me for a water-chilled puff or two in my little groove den. Afterward, we'd all devour boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes and pots of Kraft macaroni and cheese. Funny, I don't remember any sex, but I'll never forget the Swiss Rolls.

Anyway, one day I came out of my fog, sold off all my disco albums, my beanbag chair and all the smoking paraphernalia, and never looked back. That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when I sat perched on a stool at the outdoor counter near the kitchen of Café Rumi and blissfully inhaled from a bubbling glass sheesha loaded up with perfectly legal apple-licorice-flavored tobacco. The restaurant's co-owner, Bassam Helwani, had filled the pipe with a tobacco blend so vibrantly red that at first I thought he was using chopped beets. Then he pulled out a silver salver filled with hot coals and, with tongs, placed a few white-hot shards on top of the foil-covered tobacco and handed me the hose (with a hygienic, disposable plastic tip). I once again became a "hookah-smoking caterpillar," right there in front of all the other customers in the joint, including the pretty, college-age girl who was also going to rent a sheesha and have a kind of puff-a-thon with her girlfriends. "Hookah bars are all the rage in California," she told me. Hookah, not hooker.

Unwilling to smoke alone, I even persuaded my friend Marion, a reformed cigarette smoker, to take a puff. She did, although the idea of apple-licorice tobacco didn't have much appeal to her. "It smells like a shop I used to go to in Berkeley," she said. "Like incense."

Marion was far more impressed by the food at Café Rumi than by the sheesha ceremony (which costs $7.50 a bowl). She had been expecting a traditional Middle Eastern restaurant, not the very hip little 39th Street bistro -- carved out of the former Joe Engle vintage-car garage -- that serves dishes from Syria, Armenia, Lebanon, Turkey, Spain, and Greece.

"The cuisine here is not Middle Eastern," says chef Marwan Chebaro, who owns the place with Helwani and whirls like a dervish in the tiny but highly organized kitchen. "It's Eastern Mediterranean."

Chebaro, who used to co-own the Tribal Grill (a few blocks west of this new restaurant), has a loyal fan following and still comes out of the kitchen to greet and chat with his customers in the pint-sized dining room and on the outdoor "patio."

"It's not a patio, it's a parking lot," Marion said, swirling a wedge of toasted pita bread into a dish of pale-pink red-pepper hummus.

True, it is half of the parking lot; and, yes, there's not much of a view, but I've enjoyed a couple of al fresco dinners out there in the past few weeks, waving to people I knew who either lived in the neighborhood or were strolling to other venues on Kansas City's bustling Restaurant Row. Alas, it was a damp May night when Marion and I met for dinner, so we grabbed a table inside and ordered sticky-sweet Mediterranean lemonade. Café Rumi doesn't serve liquor, and Chebaro has no plans to do so. He's not even that keen on patrons bringing in their own bottles, though he might look the other way if they do.

Made with lemon juice, sugar, saffron and orange-blossom water, the potent sweetness of the lemonade is a nice counterpoint to some of the more intensely seasoned appetizers, like shankalish, a thick dipping sauce made from fermented yogurt cheese, olive oil, oregano and tomatoes. It's not fiery, but the spices generate a tongue-twisting heat.

I've shared the generously laden appetizer sampler plate, the Swirling & Whirling Platter (a tribute to the restaurant's namesake, thirteenth-century Persian scholar, poet, and Sufi practitioner Jelaluddin Rumi), on two occasions, including an earlier outing with three other friends who barely made a dent in the hefty mounds of roasted-red-pepper hummus, rice-filled dolmades, smoky baba ghanoush and lemony tabbouleh. I wanted Marion to sample some of the wonderful things on the plate on the night we dined together, and we could easily have made a full meal on this dish alone. I was stuffed by the time our sloe-eyed server whisked the platter away.

But Marion was eager to sample Chebaro's shish kebab and was delighted with the thick, tender chunks of lamb, lightly seasoned with ginger, garlic and cumin, perfectly grilled and served with an amazingly light garlic sauce.

"This sauce," Chebaro says proudly, "is one of the examples of what makes Café Rumi different from the dishes I used to make at Tribal Grill. I used to improvise a lot of things there, but after I returned to Lebanon in 1997, I learned how to make the authentic dishes."

The garlic sauce -- a feathery-light emulsion of oil, lemon juice, fresh garlic and salt -- is a snazzy accompaniment to Chebaro's grilled meats, even the more pungent Sumac Chicken (a holdover from the old Tribal Grill menu), already seasoned with garlic and the tarty bitterness of sumac powder.

A few nights later, I returned to the restaurant with my friend Patsy, who immediately noted that Chebaro and Helwani were "so charming and so handsome!" She didn't even need a puff of apple-licorice tobacco to become so effusive (although, to be perfectly honest, everyone seems better-looking after a few puffs from one of the sheeshas). The general joie de vivre of the place immediately put Patsy in a good mood, which improved even more after her supper arrived, a plate piled high with round "sausages" -- Armenian soujouk -- made from ground beef and lamb flavored with cumin, paprika, and aromatic, slightly bitter fenugreek seeds.

"Fenugreek," I told Patsy after nabbing a chunk of one of her sausages for myself, "is an ancient herb. I read somewhere that it was used in the process of mummifying Egyptian pharaohs. And in making curry powders, too."

I had ordered a much less spicy dish of Spanish origin: shrimp with garlic or, more romantically, Gambos con Ajo, sautéed with olive oil, cilantro, garlic and chopped tomato and heaped on a mound of saffron-colored rice. Very lovely, although the menu was a little too imaginative calling the crustaceans "jumbo" -- I found them to be of average size, to put it mildly.

Still, they were delicious, even washed down with another frosty glass of the teeth-jarring lemonade (which needs a lot more lemon juice).

I polished off my meal, of course, but Patsy had most of her supper packed up to take home. We were happily, contentedly full, but we still pounced on a pair of freshly baked triangles of flaky baklava, powdered with sugar and floating on a puddle of warm, translucent syrup.

It says volumes that these days I prefer eating dessert -- particularly warm-from-the-oven baklava -- to smoking flavored tobacco from a beautiful glass hookah. Yes, desserts are more fattening, but at this stage in my life, I don't give a sheesha.


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