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Arabesque: Mezze Meets Tapas 

An eclectic menu tastes like home cooking at this new Mid-City café

Dinner at Arabesque doesn't start with crusty local French bread but rather with a plate of pao de queijo, the stretchy, starchy Brazilian cheese bread. A first course is likely to be an order of kibbeh, the football-shaped Middle Eastern meat loaves, rather than a crawfish pie. And instead of fried chicken, the kitchen's mainstay poultry dish is rolled in herbs and cooked and served in a Moroccan tagine, a terra cotta pot with a lid like a chimney. Yet for all this, Arabesque still feels, looks and sounds like the quintessential New Orleans restaurant, and it seems especially at home in its Mid-City neighborhood. There are a few bedrock local dishes on the utterly eclectic menu like worthy renderings of barbecue shrimp and shrimp remoulade. The hometown vibe at Arabesque, however, comes from somewhere else " some intersection of the former shotgun house it calls home, the people filling its tiny dining room and the friendly spirit suffusing the whole place, from the tight but cheerful little bar to the colorful patio dining area. When my group took our seats one busy Friday evening, and the woman at the adjacent table struck up a conversation with us that produced, within seconds, the question, 'So where'd'ya go to school?" we instinctively knew she was not inquiring about college degrees. By the second course, we were passing each other samples of our food across the slim space dividing our tables. No matter what the menu lists, this is a New Orleans restaurant.

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.

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