Back in the Washington, D.C. area, barely a week would go by that we didn't have lunch or dinner at Lebanese Taverna. I love Middle Eastern food, and other than a little something here and there at the beach, the real stuff is sadly lacking. But Cedars Mediterranean Restaurant at 616 S. 2nd St. in Philadelphia just a half-block off South St. does a pretty good job of filling the bill.
One of my go-to tastes for Middle Eastern is baba ghannouj. It is basically hummus, but with roasted eggplant replacing the pureed chickpeas. It's topped with paprika, a drizzle of olive oil, and maybe a tiny pinch of cumin. I rate all versions against Lebanese Taverna's, and Cedars' passes with flying colors. It is slightly smoky, yet bright with lemon, and simply delicious. I do miss the tart and snappy pomegranate seeds that Lebanese Taverna used to sprinkle on top, but everything must change, I guess.
Another go-to dish (that is served in all sorts of regional versions) is kibbee. Not only does Cedars have the round kibbees (an egg-shaped combination of ground lamb, onions, mint, salt & pepper stuffed with buttery, roasted pine nuts, mint, a little ground lamb, butter and mint. Regional variations include using beef rather than lamb (get the lamb if you can!). They also serve Kibbee Nayeh, the raw meat kibbee in a flat casserole. I prefer the round, deep-fried kibbees, and Cedars' are quite good, though slightly redolent of a cinnamony/allspicy sweetness that is a common regional variation.
Corner Grill and Semra's here in Rehoboth both serve Dolmades, a Greek variation on the Mehshi Warak Ineb (grape leaves rolled around lamb, rice and mint and cooked in lemon, though often the meat is omitted).
I also love Mehshi Malfuf (same thing, but rolled in cabbage leaves, and unavailable here). Cedars does a great job on these. They are rich and tasty, but do not contain meat like some other versions.
Greek restaurants often serve Middle Eastern dishes, and vice-versa. Cedars actually does a very good job on the Greek version of lasagne called Moussaka. It's topped with a creamy béchamel and served with typically Greek/Middle Eastern vegetables in a thin but delicious tomato-based broth.
I had the Dajaj Mihshi, which I expected to be like Lebanese Taverna's Fatti bel Djej (which sadly LT has Americanized and ruined forever). Cedars' is different, but the combination of shredded chicken, cool yogurt (often called labneh or tzatziki, depending on what else is in it) and brown rice was quite tasty. It is missing the crunchy fried-in-butter pita squares, but does sport a nice handful of roasted pignolis on the top.
We had picked up a survival package of Middle Eastern desserts from Kamal's in the Reading Terminal Market (say hello to Adam!), so dessert was out of the question.
You can call Cedars for reservations or to check their hours at (215) 925-4950. Check out Cedars' website and menu here. Their prices are quite affordable, and they've been there for years. We will go back.