Arabesque, which opened in November, is a labor of love of chef Sandra Bahhur and her husband Luis Bernhard, who also hold jobs as a nurse and medical technician, respectively. Originally from Ohio, Bahhur lived in the Middle East with her family for many years and learned to cook many of the regional dishes. In 1995, she moved to New Orleans where, while working at Tulane Hospital, she and Bernhard opened Café Arabesque, a breakfast and lunch place near the hospital. Today's Arabesque in Mid-City represents the much more ambitious vision they have long held for their restaurant.
The menu's strength is right up front with its list of mezze (Middle Eastern-style appetizers) and a further selection of highly varied tapas-style dishes. In fact, these tapas and mezze generally outshine the entrees, and the next time I return I will most likely assemble my meal from them exclusively.
That next meal will definitely include the kibbeh. Less ambitious local kibbeh is often dry and sometimes redeemable only by a thorough dunk in tahini. The kibbeh at Arabesque comes with tahini as well, but you'll want to use it sparingly to appreciate the fine texture and seasoning of these large, dense, moist cakes of ground beef, lamb and bulgur wheat, encased in a crisp shell and flavored throughout with sumac and parsley. Another excellent dish from the mezze list is the baba ghanoush, the puree of eggplant and tahini found at nearly every local Middle Eastern café. It is different here though, and better, made in a thick, chunky style with strong lemon and garlic flavor and a hint of smokiness.
There was not much to recommend the antipasti plate I tried, with its meager assortment of supermarket cheeses and a few slices of cold cuts. Much better was the barbecue shrimp, a robust rendition of the local classic with the familiar slurry of butter and black pepper. I also liked the plump, marinated mushrooms, sautéed and served dripping with an earthy, sop-it-up-good broth of herbs, wine and garlic. Primed for a diverse menu, I wasn't surprised to find escargot de Bourgogne on the tapas list, but I was not expecting such a traditional French preparation, finely done with a vividly zesty green sauce of parsley, garlic and butter.
My favorite entree here is the redfish fillet wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled with pico de gallo liberally ladled over the top. This sharp, vinegary topping enlivened the fish while preserving the essential lightness of the whole dish. One night, an entrée of lamb chops actually turned out to be lamb T-bones, which yield very little meat and were less tender than I had hoped. The tagine chicken had bold flavors with lemon, garlic and olives, and the filet mignon was properly cooked to order and done one better with a dash of chimichurri, the Argentine puree of parsley, vinegar and garlic.
Desserts change frequently and were always pretty interesting concoctions, demonstrating the lengths to which a restaurant in this neighborhood must go to interest diners in a dessert course when Angelo Brocato's ice cream parlor is so enticingly close. The silver dollar-sized Arabic pancakes served one night had a drizzle of honey syrup, chopped pecans and orange zest. On another visit, we had a smooth custard covered with a shot of rose water and a scattering of currants and pistachio. Thin and cool, it was an unusually refreshing dessert.
Arabesque's wide-ranging menu has a few disappointments, some satisfying if not extraordinary standbys and a few specialties worth crossing town to try. What the place has down pat, though, are the atmosphere and attitude of the casual, neighborhood dinner spot, and sometimes that makes all the difference for a really enjoyable visit.