Maybe it's because I was raised in the Midwest, but I'm more comfortable with odd food combinations that include fried chicken. The classic soul-food combination of fried chicken and waffles is one of my favorites, and I grew up eating in Italian restaurants that served fried chicken next to a mound of spaghetti.
But fried chicken and baba ghanouj? It's not only multicultural but also fabulous! Who knew?
I'm pretty sure that Jehad Saleh didn't make a conscious decision to become the metro's first Midwest-meets-Middle East restaurant. It was more about money.
Saleh had operated a fried-chicken restaurant (the Skillet) and an upscale Middle Eastern bistro (Café Cedar), both in Parkville, on different sides of the train tracks running through the center of town. When he decided to end his lease at the English Landing Shopping Center, he moved the Café Cedar inventory — lock, stock and kebab skewers — over to the cavernous building on Second Street that housed the Skillet. And after a little menu tweaking, he merged the restaurants into a single venue.
The 17-month-old restaurant is now called Café Cedar at the Skillet and offers deep-fried chicken dinners, fried catfish, steaks, Greek gyro sandwiches, cheeseburgers, and a wide array of Middle Eastern appetizers and grilled meat dishes.
My friend Mohammed was amused to see such strange bedfellows, as it were, on a single menu. "It's the culinary equivalent of a mutt," he whispered. "And maybe the food works, but the décor doesn't."
The dining room, which looks almost as big as a Costco warehouse, is a fascinating combination of cozy Americana, Jerusalem gift shop and 1960s airline terminal. And that's not exactly a bad thing — without the visual clutter, this would be a really ugly place.
Lace curtains cover the windows, and Indian rugs decorate the walls, sharing space with souvenir plates from Jordan, hammered metal plates, a tapestry of a chicken and a bower of artificial plants. Then there's the little red sports car retrofitted as a salad bar for the Sunday brunch buffet. And massive light fixtures are stunning relics of the 1970s: severe black-iron chandeliers with smoky glass globes. If those don't bring back the Carter years for you, the piped-in music surely will — bouncy instrumental Muzak that sounds just like the soundtrack to a vintage porno film. I thought I was the only one to make that dirty little musical connection, but both of my dining companions, Mohammed and Richard, chimed in that whatever tune was playing when we received our vegetarian combo appetizer had accompanied many X-rated interludes.
I must say that the background music took on new meaning when we began fondling the firm, plump stuffed grape leaves on the combo platter, biting into balls of fried falafel or sliding warm wedges of soft pita through a silken slurry of fine hummus.
Mohammed gave thumbs up to that hummus, the baba ghanouj, the lemony tabbouleh and the homemade grape leaves, but dismissed the falafel as undercooked inside the crunchy exterior. And, he said, the spinach pie was too dry. He and Richard were also underwhelmed by the standard-issue iceberg lettuce salad splashed with a simple vinaigrette. But I loved the rich, creamy lentil soup.
"Have you noticed that the clientele seems to be over 55?" Richard asked. I had watched a few senior citizens trickle in, and I was curious to see whether they ordered Middle Eastern dishes or the fried chicken. The more exotic fare was clearly more popular. "I don't sell a lot of chicken," Saleh told me later. "But people who do order it love it."
Our trio passed on the fried chicken, but Mohammed did order mahshi, the Café Cedar version of Cornish hens stuffed with bulgur, raisins and spices. "The filling is too dry," he sniffed, "but the hen is very tasty." Richard ordered a visually impressive rack of lamb that was a little less done than he'd requested, but I thought the kitchen was correct in overruling his strange desire to eat well-done meat. The small, meaty chops had been perfectly prepared — they were much more tender than the tasty but fatty grilled lamb chunks on my plate of sizzling kebabs. I don't mind lamb having a little extra flavorful fat, but it ought to be a tad less chewy. Nonetheless, it was a truly satisfying meal. It's hard to go wrong with hot meat and cool dips, baby.
When I returned with Bob and his friend LeToia, they didn't mind sharing a few Middle Eastern starters, but they were there strictly for fried fare and all-American sides: green beans; mashed potatoes and gravy; and gigantic, yeasty homemade cinnamon rolls.
Bob was impressed by the heft of the chicken breasts he ordered but thought the crispy fried coating had a funny flavor: "I think they fry the catfish and chicken in the same hot oil," he said.
That can happen, but only when the deep fryer does double duty; Saleh insists that he only serves pan-fried catfish. What the hell, Bob devoured the juicy, luscious breasts anyway. LeToia raved over her tender, gravy-drenched chicken-fried steak and sliced off a hunk of the excellent beef for me.
And as much as I love fried chicken, I opted for a different kind of culinary combination, one of the five platters that Saleh calls his Baba Be plates — strips of grilled meats served on a puddle of hummus or baba ghanouj with lots of pita bread. The sliced lamb was deliciously tender, and I cleaned my plate with pita bread while Bob and LeToia were boxing up their leftovers. "It's too much food to eat in one sitting," Bob complained.
That's a problem I rarely have. In fact, I was just getting started — and I thought of a couple of more culinary combinations I'd like to test at Café Cedar. Like maybe feta and olives, an order of fried calamari and a cinnamon roll. Will it be good? You never know unless you try.