Persian kebabs and Southern barbecue – it’s hard to imagine two more widely divergent approaches to cooking with fire.
In one, bite-sized nuggets of meat are quickly seared over open flames. In the other, hefty hunks – sometimes whole carcasses – area slow-cooked to tender submission over glowing coals.
One is a staple in an ancient and refined cuisine that gave the French the word “gourmet.” The other is the very essence of rustic.
In one, pork is traditionally forbidden. In the other, it’s celebrated.
One has its roots halfway around the world. The other evolved right under our smoke-charmed noses.
But you don’t have to travel far to sample either, thanks to a couple of newcomers to the local diner scene.
Michael Nader does the cooking while his fiancee, Betti Villa, runs the front of the house. Chances are, though, you’ll meet the affable Nader when he makes one of his frequent rounds of the dining room. No doubt he’ll recommend the lamb kebabs.
It’s good advice. Grilled to order over an open flame, the marinated cubes of lamb shoulder are toothsome and juicy under a light dusting of the delicately tangy spice, sumac.
But my personal favorite is the filet mignon kebab, featuring strips of beef so exquisitely tender as to leave no doubt that the cut is indeed filet. And I wouldn’t say no to another skewer of koobideh: ground beef seasoned with onion, herbs and spices.
Or to the free-range chicken thighs, marinated overnight before grilling. Or even a vegetarian kebab, which serves up tofu, mushrooms, and a colorful assortment of grill-charred veggies under a translucent glaze of sweet and sour pomegranate sauce.
All kebabs (the menu offers eight variations on the theme) are served with your choice of pita, saffron-fragrant basmati rice or salad (choose two). You also get your pick of a third side from a list whose highlights include a refreshing chopped salad and two equally tempting variations on the yogurt dip theme (cucumber or shallots).
A native of Iran who came to the States as a 13-year-old, Nader recently retired from a 30-year career as a CPA to open his first restaurant. His passion for the food of his childhood is evident in everything from the tone of his voice to the food on his plates.
But it’s equally clear that Nader doesn’t take himself too seriously, as evidenced by the dozens of framed photographs and cartoons of famous mustache-wearers, from Mark Twain to Snidely Whiplash, on the dining room walls.
Nor is the menu at Moustache Café bound by strict allegiance to culinary authenticity. Betti Villa, a native of Mexico, contributes a few touches of her own to the offerings, among them a spiced-up take on hummus and tres leches cake.
In a restaurant so exuberantly all-embracing, it doesn’t even come as a surprise to find pork loin kebabs on the menu.
The Fire Pit
A confession: When I heard a rumor that the owner of The Fire Pit was a neighbor of legendary Allen & Son Bar-B-Que owner Keith Allen, I was tempted to bend my rule about giving a new restaurant at least 30 days before paying my first review visit. And when I heard that Ted Patterson’s new restaurant was cooking exclusively over hardwood, I gave in to temptation.
That first visit, not long after The Fire Pit opened last March, reminded me why I made the 30-day rule. The barbecue – an eclectic offering ranging from pulled pork to beef brisket to smoked rotisserie chicken – showed promise. I was particularly impressed by the dry-rubbed ribs.
But the pulled pork was a bit dry, and the brisket not as smoky as the “Texas style” description led me to expect. A slice of pecan pie tasted unmistakably of the refrigerator. Sure enough, I figured, the place is still ironing out the new-restaurant wrinkles. Better wait a few months before coming back.
Which is precisely what I did, and was rewarded with a much better experience on a recent visit.
Brisket was noticeably smokier this time, but not overpoweringly so. Pulled pork? Moist and flavorful, even before adding sauce (your choice: House, a tangy, molasses-sweetened Midwestern-style sauce; and Piedmont, a vinegar-based brew with a touch of tomato).
A smoked pork sausage – which I hadn’t recalled being on the menu the first time – was first-rate. So was a distinctive gumbo, chock-a-block with chunks of that sausage and shrimp, along with a protein bonanza of smoked pork, brisket and chicken.
Barbecue plates are served with your choice two sides, which are clearly more than just an afterthought. Hushpuppies are classic, of course, but coarse-cut greens, fried okra, and pinto beans seasoned with smoked pork are all worthy options.
And if fried squash is one of the daily specials, by all means don’t miss it.
Much of the credit for ironing out the wrinkles goes to Andrew Forster, who took over the kitchen (and the exclusively wood-fired smoker) around the end of the summer. Forster, who has cooked all over the place from the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island to NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon’s private yacht, is a native of Long Island.
After sampling his barbecue, though, I’d like to nominate him as an honorary Southerner.
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