Syrian-born Vivian Abkarian has had a hair salon in Belmont's Cushing Square for almost seven years. Her Salon de Paris took up too much real estate, she decided one day, so she divided the place in half. One part still houses her salon, and the other has become Cafe D'Or, or "golden cafe."
Abkarian gave the place a French name because she pictured people eating at sidewalk tables in mild weather the way Parisians do at their neighborhood cafes. Since the cafe opened, she says, "when I see people sitting outside on a sunny day, I feel like I'm sitting in Europe."
But unlike most Parisian cafes, where the coffee is more important than the cuisine, the five-month-old Cafe D'Or serves pretty terrific food. It's all Middle Eastern, mostly made on the premises, and presented with pride.
Nano Jabnanian, Abkarian's husband, is at the stove. Both husband and wife are from Armenia; Jabnanian worked in his father's restaurant in the Syrian city of Aleppo for many years. At Cafe D'Or he makes the dishes he might have cooked in his native country, versions of Middle Eastern classics that have their own Armenian slant.
Baba ghanouj ($4.25 in a sandwich, $5.25 as an appetizer), a spread that has become so common you can find it in an ordinary supermarket, is ethereal here. It has the creaminess and texture of homemade mayonnaise, and contains tahini, the sesame paste, but otherwise it's pretty much roasted and charred eggplant, mashed by hand.
Red-lentil soup ($3.25), piquant with lemon juice, is another nice way to begin the meal. Grape leaves filled with rice ($4 for a sandwich, $8 for a plate) are wrapped with very tender leaves, around a mild rice mixture. Fattouch salad ($5.25), romaine lettuce tossed with tomatoes, cucumbers, and toasted pita bread, is very fresh, but rather ordinary.
Chicken shawarma, by contrast, is not ordinary. Roasted slowly until the meat is succulent, shawarma is one of the best exports from the Middle East. The chicken ($6 for a sandwich, $8 for a plate) is deliciously juicy, served with rice pilaf, slender pickles, and a smooth tahini sauce.
Large chunks come with the beef kebob ($6 for a sandwich, $9 for a plate), and the lightly charred morsels are surprisingly tender. One night the exuberant waitress offered tabouli with the plate, since we'd eaten a salad already, and the parsley and vegetable-flecked bulgur was a fine accompaniment to the beef.
Kafta kabob ($6 for a sandwich, $8 for a plate), made with ground beef mixed with parsley and onion and formed into popsicle shapes, is as tender as the beef. Like many dishes here, the menu boasts "special spices" in the kabob, which Abkarian won't reveal.
One night we carried out roast chicken ($6 for a sandwich, $8 for a plate), which was much too dry; and falafel ($5 for a sandwich, $6 for an appetizer), beautifully flavored but too tough to eat. Both had probably been made much earlier and hadn't survived until dinner.
D'Or is young, though, and the couple will figure out how to fix those problems. Diners will be basking in the sun of the sidewalk cafe, and Abkarian will peer out the window of her salon and be tickled at the sight. Everyone will be pleased.