Food & Drink

Review: Habibi Grill & Bakery sets itself apart with owners’ native Palestinian specials

The mandy lamb is made up of large, mostly lean chunks of meat slow-cooked until fork-tender in a fragrant blend of spices over rice at Habibi Grill & Bakery in Raleigh.
The mandy lamb is made up of large, mostly lean chunks of meat slow-cooked until fork-tender in a fragrant blend of spices over rice at Habibi Grill & Bakery in Raleigh. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Tucked in next to a Middle Eastern market just off Western Boulevard, Habibi Grill & Bakery has been open since March in a low-slung building whose exterior is a quaint patchwork of brick and faux stone archways surrounding painted-on doors with wrought iron hinges. Entry is up a wheelchair ramp and across a porch with terra cotta tile floors and a handful of tables, under a roof that’s held up with wooden posts trimmed with ornate scrollwork.

Step inside, and the hodgepodge motif continues. On one brick-wainscoted wall, a flat screen TV hangs above a (non-functioning) fireplace. Large, colorful backlit menu boards span the opposite wall. Faux marble covers tabletops, pillars (capped with more stone arches), and a counter at the back of room bearing a tempting variety of pastries in aluminum trays.

Quirky as it is, the dining room exudes a warmly welcoming vibe — thanks in large measure to brothers Ahmed and Hamid Seyam, at least one of whom will be there to offer you a hearty greeting and take your order. The restaurant is owned by their brother, Khaled, who does the cooking alongside the family matriarch, Hana Seyam. The family are Palestinian immigrants, and Habibi Grill serves their native cuisine.

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What really sets Habibi Grill apart from the crowd are the handful of specialties scattered throughout the menu that you won’t find in most Middle Eastern restaurants. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

The Palestinian diaspora has spread the roots of that cuisine from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea and beyond. As a result, the menu may appear to have been compiled in the same “anything goes” spirit as the decor. You’ll find an assortment of kebabs (“grilled on the natural charcoal grill,” according to the menu) among the dozens of options, as well as a half-pound cheeseburger — with fries if you like.

The kebabs (shish tawook can be dry; ground lamb kebabs are the way to go here) are available as a sandwich or a platter, where they’re served on a generous mound of rice and lavishly sprinkled with za’atar. Platters also come with soup (if you’re lucky, it’ll be lamb and oat) and choice of one side.

Standard options include hummus, baba ghanoush, grape leaves and crunchy-crusted falafel served with a tahini dipping sauce. Sambosas — think Indian samosas, but with a delicate pastry crust — are well worth the splurge of a buck apiece. At that price, I say get one of each: beef, cheese and veggie.

What really sets Habibi Grill apart from the crowd, in fact, are the handful of specialties scattered throughout the menu that you won’t find in most Middle Eastern restaurants. Kebda, for one: grilled chicken livers, a dish with origins in northern Africa, here served on a sandwich. And lamb moza (aka mouzat), slow-cooked lamb shank marinated in spices — including cumin, which presumably accounts for the menu description of “smoky taste.”

The Seyam brothers will proudly tell you that mandy (aka mandi) lamb is the No. 1 seller at Habibi Grill. No wonder. Mandy lamb, a dish with roots in Yemen (where it’s traditionally cooked in a clay-covered pit; a tandoor usually serves the purpose in restaurants), serves up large, mostly lean chunks of meat slow-cooked until fork-tender in a fragrant blend of spices, including I’m guessing, paprika, cinnamon and ginger. It’s served over rice that has been cooked with the lamb and has absorbed its flavors. Think tandoori meets biryani, with a twist. And by all means get it.

Habibi Grill & Bakery lives up to the “Bakery” part of its name with an assortment of savory house-baked flatbread pies and sweet pastries. Savory pie filling options, most of which will be familiar to fans of Lebanese cuisine, include spinach, cheese, meat and za’atar.

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The sambosas are similar to Indian samosas, but with a delicate pastry crust at Habibi Grill & Bakery in Raleigh. They come in beef, cheese, and veggie. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Don’t miss the curveball: the msakhan pie, filled with shreds of the same char-grilled chicken that you can get as a half-chicken platter — and is deservedly the restaurant’s second best seller.

Sweet tooth temptations include the ever-popular baklava and several flaky pastry variations, as well as less familiar options, such as basbousa (semolina cake soaked with sugar syrup) and kunafa, which serves up sugar syrup-soaked layers of thin wheat noodles and cheese, topped with chopped pistachios, in ample portion for at least two.

Then again, no one will blame you if you give in to temptation and treat yourself to a selection from those aluminum pans on the counter at the back of the room. You can always take home what you don’t eat, and it would certainly be in keeping with the cultural potpourri that is Habibi’s essence.

Habibi Grill & Bakery

1007 Method Road, Raleigh

919-615-4824

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Cuisine: Palestinian

Rating: 3 stars

Prices: $$

Atmosphere: stylistic hodgepodge, very casual

Noise level: low

Service: welcoming and eager to please

Recommended: sambosas, mandy lamb, half grilled chicken, lamb kebabs, pastries

Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

Reservations: not accepted

Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; patio; wheelchair accessible; parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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