It's rare that a local restaurant surpasses my expectations. But on two recent visits, Kebaba has done just that.
Since opening in early 2007, the casual Middle Eastern cafe on Bend's west side has continued to refine its cooking and improve its service. I now think it may have Central Oregon's most extensive menu for vegetarian and vegan diners. And it's a good place to bring a family or have a tender, tasty bite of lamb, as well.
The building — painted an unmistakable purple with burgundy and butterscotch trim — is small. The Craftsman-style house seats only about 32 patrons indoors at 10 tables. Additional seating is available beneath heat lamps on a covered deck, or seasonally on an outdoor patio.
Service is fast and attentive. On previous visits to Kebaba, none of them recent, I had ordered at the counter and waited at a table with a number for my food to be delivered. Now, patrons need not visit the service counter except to pick up take-out orders.
Although the service staff had entirely different personnel at both of my recent Kebaba meals, I had no complaints on either visit. The woman who served me on the covered deck was extremely efficient and friendly. The waiter who attended me and my companion on a later indoor visit was highly professional, despite serving a full house assisted only by a bus person.
A vegetarian meal
Middle Eastern cuisine is typically high protein, featuring not only lamb and other meats, but also grains and legumes that make it a big hit with vegetarians.
So I had no hesitation about ordering a meat-free meal on my first recent visit.
I started with spicy tomato-eggplant soup, one of two regular soup offerings on the current menu. (The other is a curried lentil.) The two main ingredients, tomatoes and roasted eggplant, were coarsely blended with flakes of parsley and other herbs. It was spiced with harissa, a North African chili paste, giving it a nice bite but not overpowering the hearty vegetable flavors of the soup.
I followed with a curried tempeh salad. Tempeh is fermented soy cake made from whole beans, which gives it a firm texture and earthy flavor. In this dish, it was blended in a sweet-and-savory apricot curry, not unlike a chutney, along with boiled cashews, raisins, celery and green onions.
The curry was scooped onto a bed of iceberg and leaf lettuces, which had been topped with sliced cucumbers, shredded carrots and yellow squash, and tossed with a light vinaigrette.
The dinner was filling. I didn't crave a sweet dessert to finish, and I certainly didn't feel that I had missed out on meat.
Mezze for two
On a second visit, my dining companion joined me for a mezze, or combination meal. A half dozen shared small plates — of generous portion — cost $25.95, which I considered a bargain.
The mezze offers a choice of six dishes from a list of 16, including three starters, two hot dishes and an oven-baked option. Here's what we had:
• Harissa red-pepper hummus. Traditional hummus is made from mashed chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, seasoned with lemon juice, garlic and tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds. Kebaba's hummus is thick and creamy. The addition of roasted red peppers and spicy harissa gave this popular appetizer a new dimension.
• Baba ghanoush (here spelled babaganouj). When I wrote about Kebaba 4½ years ago, I didn't care for the coarse texture or smoky flavor of this traditional Lebanese eggplant dip. Now, I love it. It's smooth and silky, a blend of tahini and garlic, lemon juice and a sprinkle of fresh parsley.
Both dips were served with big rounds of warm pita bread, house-made from whole-wheat flour. It was ideal for dipping in the thick sauces.
• Tabbouleh. The secret to Kebaba's version of this Lebanese salad is an equal balance of finely chopped parsley and bulgur wheat — a nutritious, rice-like grain that is steamed, dried and crushed to a tender, chewy texture. These main ingredients are mixed with chopped tomato, cucumber, onion and mint leaves.
Our mezze tabbouleh wasn't chilled as much as I like, but my friend and I were grateful that its dressing, a light blend of lemon juice and olive oil, was subtle. It was served with a lemon wedge.
• Karnabeet. I had not previously tasted this dish of pan-seared cauliflower, served in a creamy lemon-tahini sauce with a heavy sprinkle of red sumac powder. It was excellent. Sumac is a North African spice whose deep-red fruits are ground to add a citrus-like flavor to dishes.
• Lamb kebab. Skewered meat gave this restaurant its name, despite its vegetarian leanings. Four large chunks of lamb on a stick were cooked medium-rare, and a savory marinade made them tender and tasty. Chicken, fish and mixed-vegetable kebabs are also offered.
But the bed of saffron rice upon which the kebab was served with much too dry, as if it had sat out too long. And a so-called salad — strips of romaine lettuce with pickled red onions — was far from impressive.
• Spinach pie. I still don't love Kebaba's spinach pie, whether in 2007 or today. It's not a Greek-style spanakopita, cooked in sheets of phyllo dough. Kebaba's version is a baked sesame pita pocket heavily filled with spinach along with minced onion, garlic, pine nuts, feta cheese and a squeeze of lemon. The crust was excellent, but I thought the spinach was overcooked.
The Bend d'Vine wine bar in downtown Bend is serving a menu of small plates, all priced less than $10, to accompany a selection of three dozen wines by the glass and 120 by the bottle. Open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 916 N.W. Wall St., Bend; www.bend dvine.com or 541-323-3277.
On the south side of Bend, Brookswood Meadow Plaza is on the brink of becoming a culinary destination. David Touvell, owner and executive chef of Chow, has just announced plans to open a pizza restaurant, Local Slice, “within 60 days.” An upscale Mexican eatery also is negotiating for space. Already, River Rim Coffeehouse serves a menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and all-day breakfasts, while offering live music three nights a week. It's open 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday to Wednesday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. 19570 Amber Meadow Drive, Bend; www.riverrimcoffeehouse.com or 541-728-0095.