Tabouli with a following
On the restaurant sign, the “a’’ in garlic is a whole head of cloves, the “o’’ in lemon a slice of bright yellow fruit. An announcement near the entrance reads, “Silent opening.’’ This is a mom-and-son shop with style and a sense of humor. Traditional, old-fashioned Middle Eastern street food and other specialties are offered in a sparkling clean 6-table spot, which is full of surprises. One is the price. We look at the tally for our order and tell the cashier it’s too little for what we got. This is how things are priced here.
Garlic ’n Lemons was opened in mid-April by Mardig Helvadjian and his mother, Rosie (also known as Mama Rosie); both worked at Aceituna Cafe in Kendall Square for four years. “My mother has a following,’’ says Mardig. They are Lebanese-Armenians; she was born in Beirut and brings to the new place unmistakable culinary trademarks. One is a fresh lemony tabouli ($3.99), flecked with tomatoes and only enough cracked wheat to hold the parsley together; it’s really a parsley salad. Another is an Armenian rice pilaf simmered with short pieces of browned spaghetti.
Mardig Helvadjian says the secret to his mother’s cooking is that almost everything is hand chopped and homemade. It’s hard to imagine how much work it is just to do the parsley for tabouli. “She chops first, then washes it three times,’’ he says.
Everything here is spot on. Beef kebab ($8.99) is moist, tender, exceptionally delicious meat. The shawarma is stunning, best I’ve ever had, the chicken ($5.50-$6.50) bursting with good flavor. Hummus is especially creamy ($3.50), grape leaves ($3.99) are plump, tender jewels filled with rice. Large vertical rotisseries hold shawarma (including beef), which Mardig builds himself, spearing meats on a rod and letting them turn and cook slowly. Order it on saj, which is thinner than pita, and turns crisper. Mardig, who grew up here, learned this variation in South Lebanon.
Some dishes have new names. Losh kebab is burger kebab ($5.99-$6.99), a delicious mixture of aleppo pepper, parsley, onion, and cumin. Mlukhieh ($8.99), offered only on Thursdays, tastes like a dish that might have been made in ancient Lebanon. It’s a stewy bowl of jute leaves, cilantro, and chicken, which turn into flavors similar to spinach and Swiss chard. You sprinkle the top with onions marinated in vinegar.
Mama Rosie isn’t (yet) making her own thin ground beef pizzas called lamejuns, but she makes a fine osmalia ($2.99), a barely sweetened custard baked inside phyllo, which is covered with shredded pastry and pistachios, and served with rosewater syrup.
Of course Mama Rosie has a following. Count me among them.