Venue Review: The Levant
The Charlotte Observer
Hummus so smooth, it's nearly buttery.
Chunky baba ghanoush, with a pronounced smokiness to the eggplant.
Crunchy falafel, the fried patties of chickpea and fava bean served with tahini (sesame) sauce or wrapped in pita or atop a salad.
Kabobs of lamb, beef, chicken or kafta (ground, seasoned beef).
Those are the best-known elements of Middle Eastern food, and Levant Mediterranean Cuisine does nearly all of them well.
Then it adds a generous handful of the lesser-known: labaneh, a strained yogurt so fine it tastes like a rich sour cream, served with an abundance of olive oil and dried herbs, with pita wedges for dipping. The red pepper dip with walnuts called mihammara, and the chewy grain and lentil combo called mijaddara. Kibbeh: Big, hush-puppy-like, fried ovoids of cracked wheat, encasing ground beef and walnuts.
And there are a few wild cards thrown in - lusty lamb chops, a meaty lamb burger on a good bun, veal Madeira.
Levant can introduce newcomers to what most would call Middle Eastern food in an atmosphere appropriately elegant for its digs: the Levine Cultural Campus uptown, amid the Mint Museum and Bechtler and near Emeril Lagasse's new spot.
It's filled with grace notes like elegant antique teapots, maroon fezes, mother-of-pearl-inlaid boxes and intricate chandeliers. Tall-backed, mother-of-pearl-inlaid chairs share space with red-bulbed metalwork sconces and towering mirrors in detailed, inlaid wood frames.
The handsome granite bar adjoins low, engraved-metal tea tables, and carved wood screens backed with red glass are spaced along one wall. The music is alternately vocal and instrumental, but uniformly a pleasing background, and service is warm, mostly knowledgeable and quite attentive.
Owner Omar Kweider came to Charlotte from Kuwait in 1988 to study restaurant management at Central Piedmont Community College. He's had Kabob Grill in Dilworth for 11 years, and the one in Stonecrest for five.
His father is Palestinian and his mother Syrian, and he put dishes on this menu that he liked from all over the Levant - that's a name for the area along the Mediterranean from Turkey to Egypt, spanning Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and parts of Iraq. Says Kweider: "It's all the same: Everyone wants to claim (the food)."
He chose the subtitle "Mediterranean Cuisine" because it's a little more familiar to American diners, and also to underscore the healthy aspects of the fare.
(Yes, he is something of a salesman. In fact, he sells furniture like that of the restaurant. He designed the chairs and had them made in Syria, he says, and picked up scores of antiques there to fill out the space. "It's been my dream to do that kind of atmosphere, like an old-style Turkish home." The mirror near the door is roughly 300 years old, by his reckoning, and has "something like seven kinds of seashells. It's the best piece in the whole place.")
Vegetarians should note how much is suitable for them, from juicy stuffed grape leaves to nearly all the appetizers. And beer lovers should try the Turkish pilsener Efes, among a slew of imports: Delicious.