Yes, Reef Cafe is tiny; the tables are cramped; and the plates are styrofoam. And, yes, the kitchen behind the walk-up counter at this new Allston storefront seems too quiet. But one floor below Reef's falafel-joint facade lies a kitchen that's a little piece of Lebanon. There the sounds of Arab satellite TV mix with the scent of fresh-squeezed lemon, just-chopped mint, and ground cinnamon as Mariam Monzer cooks the wonderful garlic-infused meals of her homeland from scratch. "Everything you see in this restaurant is homemade," says Belal Monzer, who with his brothers Salam and Abdallah and parents, Mariam and Sami, opened Reef Cafe in November. He means it. With a little help from the guys, Mariam juices fresh tomatoes for her sauces, slow simmers meats for her broths, and even makes her own creamy yogurt. No shortcuts and few substitutions are the rule here.
Take the soups ($2.75 a bowl). The vegetarian lentil is among the best I've had. The huddle of warm flavors -- lentil, pearls of potato, and super-aromatic Lebanese cumin -- gets an expansive lift not just from fresh lemon and parsley, but also from kishk, a tart flour made by fermenting, drying, and grinding a mix of cracked wheat (bulgur) and yogurt. Far from the usual glop called lentil soup, this stew sings.
Chicken soup is lusciously fatty and cooked on the bone like you might make it at home. Tender shreds of chicken swim in a delicious tomato broth with vermicelli, parsley, and warming allspice -- a good choice for feeding a cold.
You'll find what looks like "Middle Eastern" fare on the menu. But Belal wants people to know "this is really Lebanese food." Many countries make kebabs, but here our chewy, fatty, tasty lamb kebabs ($5.25 sandwich/$8.95 plate) were layered with fresh onion, gobs of parsley, and a traditional dusting of tart sumac powder. And if you ask, Belal will smear a little tasty mouhamara homemade hot pepper pesto (made with walnuts, cumin, and olive oil) on your pita to go with it.
Pay attention and you'll notice other Lebanese touches. Tabbouleh salad ($3.95/$5.25) has more parsley than bulgur and more lemon, making it pleasingly lighter. Hummus ($3.95/$5.25) has more tahini (too much for my taste). The excellent lemon-soaked stuffed grape leaves ($3.95/$7.95) are thinner, pinky-finger-sized rolls, which brings out the soft-sour of the leaves more. (They come either vegetarian or with lamb-beef stuffing.) But the specials are where Mariam's cooking really heads home.
Each day a new $6.99 Lebanese special tops the menu. The descriptions don't do them justice. One day we were told the special was "spinach." On another day it was "peas." But this translated to delicious dishes of spinach stewed with ground lamb, lots of lemon, and pine nuts; and slow-cooked string beans (not peas) with tender cubes of lamb. Both dishes too were loaded fat chunks of soft garlic.
More specials reconnaissance turned up elegant cigar-sized stuffed cabbage rolls heady with allspice and seasoned, not smothered, with a light tomato sauce. Whole, hollowed-out zucchini was similarly sauced and stuffed with the same aromatic rice and ground beef and lamb filling. Both were lovely.
Specials are served over "rice pilaf" (white rice with vermicelli noodles tossed with a uniquely fragrant pat of goat's milk butter), and rounded off with a superb diced-veggie salad, hummus, usually warm (but sometimes cold) pita, and hot-pink homemade Lebanese turnip pickles. If you don't mind plastic cutlery, what's not to love?
Well, perhaps a few items on the regular menu. Falafel ($3.75/$5.95) was average, the baba ghanoush eggplant spread ($3.95/$5.25) too smoky, and the makanek sausage ($4.75/$7.95) dry. But one find was the kibbi ($1.50 each), a sort of stuffed meatball that most cooks seem to think should be able to stand in for a Racquet ball. Mariam however stuffs a perfectly chewy but moist ball of beef, lamb, and bulgur with a delicious saute of ground meat, caramelized onion, pine nut, and what Belal calls "secret Lebanese seasoning" (seven pepper mixture perhaps, a Lebanese spice mix of peppers, allspice, cinnamon, clove, and coriander).
Mariam's skill extends into the desserts. Rice pudding ($2.50) with rose water was a creamy treat. Baklava fingers (.95) were OK, but the baklava diamonds ($1.25) were absolutely outstanding with a buttery, not too sweet, pistachio filling that trounces the walnut version.
Finally, adventurous eaters should try the mehgli ($2.50), a cold gelatinous ground-rice pudding intense with the flavor of cassia cinnamon. Oh and if you get it, savor it. To make it, Mariam and sons spend a full hour stirring it.