You have to get up pretty early in the morning to get ahead of the trend on East Carson Street. Us? We cant keep up. It seems every time we go there and we go there pretty often some new business has hung out its shingle, if not more than one. And these days, those new businesses seem mostly to be bars. But the South Side remains an important dining as well as drinking destination. With a wide selection of international fare at mostly modest prices, its restaurants cater to the armchair traveler on a budget.
The western end of the East Carson Street dining scene has long been anchored by Kassabs, one of Pittsburghs few Middle Eastern restaurants, where the food was far more impressive than the modest space in which it was served. Two years ago, the owners upgraded their location by moving a couple blocks east into the heart of the blocks near Bedford Square, where funky shops and bohemians still hold their own against the ever-rising tide of beer. Behind a tall, elegant 19th-century storefront, Kassabs new dining room is dominated by a massive mural-in-progress that illustrates a pair of men sipping coffee and playing chess on a seawall before a broad Lebanese harbor.
Despite the physical changes, Kassabs menu relocated intact. It still offers classic Middle Eastern fare such as kabobs, shawarma and hummus, while daily specials such as lamb shank demonstrate that the kitchen is capable of producing more refined offerings in keeping with its handsome new digs.
Much of whats best in Middle Eastern food is not cooking as such, but salads and dips in which the freshness of the raw ingredients is key. Knowing its customers, Kassabs offers a combination of the most popular appetizers in the Mezza Platter. Creamy-smooth hummus and baba ghanoouj are mildly seasoned, allowing the chick peas earthiness and the eggplants smokiness respectively to come to the fore. The tabbouli was perfectly fresh, despite the early-season tomatoes. In it, minced parsley, which can sometimes overwhelm with grassy flavor, was balanced by mellow cracked wheat. The platter was rounded out by chunky cubes of feta, black olives, hot-pink pickled turnips, pickled peppers and warmed pita wedges.
Well-rounded as the Mezza Platter was, Angelique couldnt resist an order of her favorite, sleek spinach cooked with onions, cracked wheat and black-eyed peas. Spinach leaves, large ones and lots of them, were tenderly sautéed with the beans and wheat, which added dimension to the dishs texture. Unfortunately, the texture also included a distracting grittiness, and Angelique found the seasoning to be heavy on the salt, though squeezing a lemon over the dish helped to counterbalance this.
After Jason called dibs on the lamb shank special, Angelique had to look past her own lamby longings. Baked kibbee was, perplexingly, described on the menu as beef mixture stuffed with beef, but it all made sense when it arrived. Ground beef mixed with cracked wheat and herbs is baked into a loaf, which is then split like a layer cake and sandwiched around a filling of more beef, loosely sautéed with onions and pine nuts. The contrast between the textures one dense and dry, the other loose and juicy highlights the subtle differences in flavor between the two beef preparations. We highly recommend the optional yogurt salad. With diced cucumber and herbs stirred in, this tops the hearty kibbee off with cool, creamy fresh flavor.
While the yogurt salad was critical to the kibbee, the tomato sauce served with the lamb was nearly superfluous. Two shanks were braised in herbed liquid until the meat was literally falling from the bone, as if the chefs mission was to drive us to cliché. The rich meat, colored by the braising, was without a hint of gaminess, and the bed of rice pilaf, studded with chopped vermicelli, was a flavorful accompaniment to every bite.
Kassabs has succeeded in creating a dining experience worthy of its classic, quality Middle Eastern menu while remaining both casual and affordable. The only thing better would be sitting on that seawall overlooking the Mediterranean.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars