Restaurant News & Reviews

Dining review: A gluten-free Mediterranean menu at Fresh Levant

When Anita Khalek came to the States from Cyprus in 1990, she brought with her fond memories of the foods of her childhood – especially Lebanon, where she was born and lived until she was 5, and where she remembers returning every summer and helping her grandmother with the family garden and olive trees. No doubt she was at times homesick for a taste of the Mediterranean as she earned a master’s degree in marketing and hospitality at Virginia Tech, followed by a career in hotel management that took her to resorts in Washington, D.C.; Vail, Colo.; and Beverly Hills, Calif.

But it took a visit to the doctor in Raleigh (where she had moved in 2005 to raise a family with her North Carolina-native husband) to plant the seed of an idea that would eventually germinate as Khalek’s first restaurant. The doctor’s recommendation – a diet that eliminated gluten, among other things – proved so successful that she converted her family to a gluten-free diet, and in 2009 started a blog to share her recipes. Last October, she took the next logical step with the opening of Fresh Levant Bistro in north Raleigh’s Lafayette Village.

The menu – Mediterranean-inspired, entirely gluten-free, and with many items marked as vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free or nut-free – is a godsend for people with celiac disease, food allergies and health-focused lifestyles. Anyone simply looking for a good meal will find plenty of rewarding options, too, and with a little careful navigation of the menu, it’s even possible to enjoy an entire meal without ever missing gluten.

If they’re on the weekly changing menu, then by all means, start with Lebanese beets – roasted, diced and tossed with herbs, lemon and EVOO, then scattered across the plate with dollops of barrel-aged feta like so many garnets and pearls.

Skip the kibbeh “croquettes,” which aren’t crisp at all (they’re baked, not fried as the misleading name implies), and are rather dry and crumbly.

But you won’t go wrong with one of the seasonal salads that Khalek recently added to the menu. Perhaps the spring mix, a kaleidoscope of ripe strawberries, candied walnuts, red onion and crumbled feta over a bed of young mixed greens in a poppyseed dressing. Or black rice plus summer veggies, a vegan cornucopia of heirloom cherry tomatoes, julienne bell peppers, red cabbage, feta, slivered almonds and a mix of kale, baby spinach and beet greens tossed in a vibrant Dijon peach vinaigrette. Both are ample for sharing, and can be transformed into a light entree with the addition of an optional protein (grilled spiced chicken, shawarma, salmon or shrimp).

Man’oush, house-baked flatbreads with a variety of toppings ranging from blackened shrimp to goat cheese and fig with a pomegranate glaze, are another winning shareable starter. Soft with a delicately crisp surface, the flatbread crust has improved noticeably since the restaurant opened – evidence of Khalek’s ongoing efforts to refine her dishes while keeping within the challenging parameters of gluten-free cooking.

She also worked for several weeks to develop a house-baked bun to replace the dry and crumbly commercial product that she initially served with her grass-fed beef kafta burger. By the time she succeeded in turning out a bun that she was happy with, the perfectionist in her compelled her to pull the burger off the menu until she can find a better source for grass-fed beef. In the meantime, you can taste the bun – which almost makes you forget that it contains no wheat – in her seared salmon cake burger.

That perfectionism shows up as frequently in Khalek’s sourcing of ingredients as in her cooking. She’ll tell you that her salmon is wild-caught from the Bay of Fundy in Canada, then she’ll expertly sear a thick spice-crusted fillet, serve it over tender sautéed green beans and wilted spinach, and garnish it with lemon and microgreens in a presentation she calls Levantine salmon. It’s one of a half dozen or so entrees on a list that recently included seared garlic shrimp pasta with a fire-roasted tomato sauce and coconut Gouda, grilled grass-fed beef tenderloin, and a soul-satisfying dish of herb-roasted whole chicken legs with a pistachio herb sauce that will have you dipping your fingers in it to get every last drop when nobody’s looking.

Before the end of the meal, you’ll want to check out the pastry display case, where temptations might include a moist coconut cake clad in buttercream and toasted coconut and a deservedly popular vegan chocolate cake. When your server asks if you’d like your apple anise cake warmed and served à la mode (the ice cream is dairy-free, coconut milk-based and flecked with vanilla beans), the answer is yes, please.

Anita Khalek’s dedication to her philosophy is reflected in the fact that the restaurant serves three meals a day (two on Sundays, closed Monday). I haven’t yet sampled the breakfast/brunch offering, but when I do, shakshuka – a northern African dish of eggs braised in a spicy tomato sauce – is at the top of my list.

Service is enthusiastic and knowledgeable, by and large, the majority of the wait staff clearly have caught the owner’s zeal for her restaurant’s mission.

The dining room is a compact, casual space (11 tables, plus another seven on the patio), attractively furnished with an eclectic mix of old and new, rustic and contemporary. Khalek bought the Indonesian shell chandeliers before she had even found the restaurant space to hang them in, and she found the molded tin ceiling panels that hang on one wall in a warehouse in Durham. The fresh cut roses in sconce vases come from her father-in-law’s garden – colorful reminders that when you dine at Fresh Levant Bistro, you’re experiencing more than one person’s food and philosophy. You’re also sharing in her life story.

8450-106 Honeycutt Road, Raleigh; 984-200-3999

freshlevant.com

Cuisine: Lebanese-inspired, gluten-free

Rating:

Prices: $$$

Atmosphere: casual, eclectic mix of old and new

Noise level: moderate

Service: enthusiastic

Recommended: Lebanese beets, salads, man’oush, Levantine salmon, herb-roasted chicken, desserts

Open: 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday

Reservations: accepted

Other: beer, wine and cider (organic and gluten-free); accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

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