Some people open restaurants because they have a passion for food. Others do so because they want to be their own boss. While those factors certainly came into play for Ayman Morra, who last October opened Tarboosh Eatery in Parma, they were not chief among his motivations.
"The most important reason was because I wanted to start a family business," he explains. "Yes, owning a restaurant is too much work and too much stress, but this way I get to spend more time with my family and they get to spend more time with me."
It truly is a family affair at this pleasant, contemporary Middle Eastern café. Morra's wife, daughter and son all play regular and important roles in the operation. And unlike most kids strong-armed into the family business, they actually seem to be enjoying themselves while doing it.
Morra says that growing up in a large Lebanese family – he has six siblings – he regularly took his turn at the stove preparing the family meal. His experience shows in traditional Middle Eastern dishes like mjadra, which boasts as many different varieties as there are cooks. His version ($6.95) is a hearty, healthy and heartwarming mixture of rice pilaf, lentils, chickpeas and deeply caramelized onions. It's one of those dishes that soars well above its humble ingredients – and stays with you long after you're done enjoying it.
We found it striking – and to be frank, implausible – that Morra offered kibbeh nayeh on his suburban restaurant's menu. What's more, it's sold in sizes small, large and family-size for $30! The festive dish is the Lebanese equivalent to beef tartar, using minced raw lamb as its main ingredient. We wondered aloud if conservative Parma diners would be bold enough to give it a shot. Well, what do we know?
"That dish is my number-one seller," Morra says. "I never imagined it would have been so popular. People come in and order it for breakfast! And no, we don't normally eat it at breakfast time."
In fact, Morra says that he was pleasantly surprised to learn how sophisticated his clientele turned out to be. In addition to those who grew up with the foods like him, others simply are lifelong fans of the cuisine. Had he known that going in, he might have excluded American items like corned beef and burgers, which skeptical friends implored him to add to his menu. Morra comes by Indian dishes like chicken tikka and curry stir-fry honestly, however, as he picked them up while living in that country.
We passed over the mozzarella sticks in favor of the stuffed grape leaves ($4.75), hummus ($3.75) and baba ghanoush ($3.75). Tarboosh's creamy hummus holds back on the garlic and lemon, letting the nutty tahini play the starring role. The only crime was the pita, which was warmed in a way that quickly left it stiff and dry. Morra says that he would like to add housemade pita to the mix down the road.
If raw lamb is too radical for you, go for the fried kibbeh ($6.55), which takes that flavorful seasoned lamb, wheat and herb mixture and deep fries it. The crisp, golden brown and deeply fragrant orbs are served with a tangy yogurt sauce, but ask your server (likely Morra's daughter) to bring you a side of the homemade hot sauce. It makes the fried kibbeh – and everything else it touches – ten times better. It is made by slowly cooking down oil, vinegar, celery, onion, garlic, cilantro, five types pepper and other seasonings until it reaches a ruddy shade of crimson. It is smoky, spicy and complex. It's so popular, in fact, that the restaurant has begun selling it to go in pint and gallon sizes, says Morra.
That sauce improved an already delicious shish kafta ($10.95), a highly seasoned beef mixture formed around a skewer and grilled. The kabobs are served with caramelized onion-topped rice pilaf. Tarboosh's falafel – made by the son – is really special. It's available as a starter ($3), rolled into a pita sandwich ($5.55), or treated like a hamburger on a bun with lettuce and tomato ($6.25). All meals come with a cup of lentil soup and dinner salad.
Tarboosh is Morra's first restaurant, and he's still figuring a few things out as he goes. But he reports that the restaurant is busy, that customers are leaving happy, and they are telling they're friends. That, to me, sounds like the formula for success.
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