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Under the Cedar Tree

by B.A. Nilsson on May 19, 2011

Beirut Restaurant

My family’s civilian (non-reviewing) dining strategy is to seek, as I indelicately put it, “some hole in the wall.” Which is understood to mean a place where the food is interesting and the people friendly. Beirut fulfills this like a dream. But like any dream, it’s not one over which you should expect to have complete control.

The former Al-Baraki, it’s a tiny eatery on Troy’s River Street, about the only Lebanese restaurant that remains in the region. It’s small enough to boast only a half-dozen tables, with some outdoor seats available this time of year. Once you’re settled in, however, be prepared to spend some time there.

It’s pretty much a one-man show, that man being George Hajnasr, who bought the place from its previous owner at the beginning of 2009. Hajnasr, trained as an artist and architect, had a hard time finding work in his chosen fields when he emigrated, so he pursued what was more of an everyday activity: preparing and serving food. “These are all family recipes,” he explained when we looked at the menu. “We are doing what was done here before, but I have made a few changes.”

More items on the menu; more sizes of the items. Four bucks gets you a small falafel wrap. The most expensive item is mezza, an appetizer sampler plate for $16 that claims to be for two but easily serves three.

I have a friend named Jim, whom I’ve known for three decades and with whom I’ve shared the pursuit of offbeat dining—not to mention the glories of found art and a celebration of the aesthetics of dockside and mill. So he easily appreciated what Troy’s River Street offers in its bashful blend of antique shops, clothing stores and eateries. The simplicity of Beirut’s presentation also was appealing.

Its sign, which hangs over the sidewalk, is based on the Lebanese flag, a green cedar on a background of white, framed top and bottom by stripes of red. It’s a warm day; a chair props open the door. Inside is organized clutter, with artwork (much of it Hajnasr’s own), posters and photos on the walls, plastic-protected tables with menus and other reading material visible under the plastic, and a counter with a cash register near the back. Ovens and the rest of the kitchen are beyond.

We sat and studied the menu as Hajnasr offered enthusiastic commentary and suggestions. I led him to believe we were unfamiliar with the food, and he steered us to the mezza platter, suggesting the largest size as suitable for my threesome (it’s also available in $8 and $14 versions).

Jim ordered a Lebanese coffee, which is served in a demi-tasse, has the strength of espresso and the bonus of very fine grounds, also characteristic of Turkish coffee. He wanted to try baba ganouj and was promised it would be part of the mezza platter. So he also chose a stand-alone item purely on the basis of it being something he’d never heard of. (How remarkable our local cuisine scene would be if others were so inspired!)

Za’atar pie ($4) is a small, simple dish that tops a flat round of homemade bread with a seasoning assembled from members of the thyme family (savory and oregano are cousins) alongside sesame seeds and sumac. It has a zesty aroma and an intense flavor that’s not at all overpowering. The seasoning also figured into the wrap my daughter ordered, mixing za’atar and spinach in a wrap with feta, onion, tomato and olives. There was plenty for her in the $4 size, but there’s a larger version for $6.50. Add hummus, baba ganouj, rice and a salad and it’s $7.50. How the hell can you go wrong?

Most of the entrées are similarly available as wraps or dinners. Chicken shawarma, for example, is built upon marinated chicken served as a wrap (5 or $7) or a dinner ($12); the beef version costs a tiny bit more. Other similarly presented items are shish kebab (beef patties, $5/$7.50/$13), shish taouk (garlicky chicken breast, $5/$7/$12) and kibbe (beef and wheat, $5/$7.50/$13).

Under “home cooking” are a lentil-and-rice dish called moujadara, a mousakaa that, unlike the Greek version, puts eggplant and chickpeas in a tomato sauce, and loubyeh, which puts green beans with garlic and onion in a tomato sauce, each available in $6 and $7.50 sizes.

We didn’t have the garlic fries ($4/$7) because I was holding out for—and was delighted to see—an even better dish, not on the menu: deep-fried pita chips with the same garlic sauce that goes on the fries and the stuffed grape leaves. This is an insanely rich and potent puree of garlic and oil, so addictive that it easily could become my entire meal.

On to the mezze. I’d like to say the falafel was the star of the show. It certainly was a splendid example of the magic of fried chickpea patties, served with tahini. But the accompanying hummus, also chickpea-based, and baba ganouj, made from grilled eggplant, were excellently textured and a mild contrast to the garlic sauce that topped our pair of rice-filled grape leaves. Rounding out the platter are oil-marinated baby eggplant called makdous and a Lebanese version of tabbouli that omits the bulgur wheat in favor of a lot of chopped parsley with tomato, onion and mint—lemony and refreshing.

Don’t expect your food in a hurry. If you’re on a time budget, call ahead. But if you’re at your table, waiting, chances are you’ll strike up a conversation with anyone sitting nearby. I’d raise my usual grumpy objections to this kind of thing if I were any place else, but here it’s so relentlessly friendly that you can’t help but be charmed. And well-fed, eventually, for a fantastically low price.

Beirut Restaurant, 184 River St., Troy, 270-9404, beirutrestauranttroyny.com. Serving 11-8 Mon-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Mediterranean

Entreé price range: $4 (small falafel wrap) to $16 (large appetizer platter)

Ambiance: hole in the wall