High noon at Cafe Arabesque is organized chaos bordering on, but never quite transitioning into, mayhem. The ordering line, which often creeps out the door, might consist of medical students stockpiling sandwiches for a road trip to the beach; sleepy technicians wearing scrubs like pajamas and ordering thick chocolate milkshakes; and physicians revealing their favorite selections ("Jerico Wrap," "Island Salad") to the newcomers behind them. To the right of this line, in a warm, tomato-colored space no bigger than a spare bedroom, are the few opportune customers who managed to score an indoor seat.
Fittingly, the person commanding this operation does double-time as an O.R. and transplant nurse at the hospital next door. If Sandra Bahhur's nursing background taught her anything about running a tight restaurant, it was the import of giving and taking orders with equal dexterity, often simultaneously. She and her quick employees tell each other what to do and do what they're told, always three steps ahead of the procedure at hand. If one woman walks away from milk steaming for a latte, someone else will hear its high-pitched hiss, finish preparing the drink and hunt out its rightful owner. Operating-room nurses, like restaurant workers, should never let brusqueness or criticism slow them down. When a customer phoned in complaining about a burnt sandwich, Bahhur apologized and in the same breath called out a second sandwich to be delivered to the customer's office stat.
Born in Ohio, Bahhur lived for many years in Ramallah, Palestine, her father's hometown. The best and most expedient dishes at Cafe Arabesque reflect this heritage. The Arabesque Mazze Platter is a greatest-hits Middle Eastern sampler containing warm, tangy grape leaves wound tightly around seasoned rice and pine nuts; hummus, a nutty chick pea dip that's heavy on the lemon; baba ghanoush, a foamy eggplant dip that's similar to hummus only fruitier; tabbouleh salad, composed mostly of parsley and mint; and crisp falafel, deep-fried orbs of garlicky chick-pea batter colored green with herbs. These falafel also make a dandy sandwich, blanketed in soft pita bread with a hummus-like spread, lettuce and tomato.
Also a formally trained chef, Bahhur's culinary inspirations span the Caribbean and Latin America as well as the Middle East. Whatever the geographic origin of your selection, drink the bracing, unsweetened Alhambra iced tea flavored with rosewater and garnished with pine nuts.
Prior to May 2001, this space housed Apple A Day, and before that the Milk Bar. As befits such quick-lunch spots, Cafe Arabesque's soups and salads are dependable, sometimes even excellent. Like the peppery red lentil soup with its citrus high notes, or the full-bodied, southwestern-style three bean and tortilla soup that's available on most days. The avocado salad may be nothing more than a halved sod-green avocado served on lettuce leaves with an effervescent vinaigrette. And yet who among us can resist a perfectly ripe avocado? I once watched a freshly discharged patient in one motion rip off his hospital bracelet and dig into a chunky Greek salad.
Unlike in the operating room, success in the restaurant business can be a mixed blessing. When the throng crowding Cafe Arabesque occasionally overwhelms the kitchen, sandwiches take the hit. A four-cheese anything is almost always disastrous; here the Cuatro Quesos pressed sandwich was both over-cheesed and cold. Heat didn't help the salt-loaded Cuban sandwich, whose "pork loin" looked and tasted like bland, sliced deli meat. The sandwich bread -- some seeded and herbed, some white -- was always good. And I would happily order the pressed, vegetarian Athena's Choice sandwich again, the highlights of which include sauteed spinach, feta cheese and pesto.
Breakfasts aren't worth extra effort, though a fresh scrambled-egg pita sandwich can be a godsend to professionals, students and hospital visitors on the run. In the context of this high-stress downtown neighborhood, Cafe Arabesque's relatively healthful food and hospitable vibe are themselves invaluable.
Diners with special needs may put Bahhur's dietary education to use. Diners with sweet desires need look no further than the ledge abutting the register. Here are chocolate-covered bars of Macedonian halvah, perfumed Turkish delight, hardened puddles of crema de leche, and heavenly Lebanese butter cookies made in New Orleans. Once when I bought all four, Bahhur looked at me crosswise, not as money-mongering restaurateur but as an alarmed nurse.