Video screens inside Jaber Lebanese Cuisine in College Park were flashing photos of menu items, a helpful aid to people unfamiliar with labnehs, kibbehs and kaftas. But then the screens showed the restaurant’s name and logo, and underneath that “Since 1952.”
Hmmm, I thought. If Jaber’s been around since 1952 it hasn’t been in this space. Most recently this was the home of Peppy Bistro and before that, Paxia.
So it turns out that the College Park Jaber is the first U.S. location of a Brazilian chain of nine restaurants whose owner is both Brazilian and Lebanese. Actually, the College Park Jaber is itself a second location – it had previously been on International Drive as Jaber Especialidades Árabes.
Jaber’s menu is extensive and those video photos do come in handy. But even handier was the help and advice of the lone server working the dining room when my companion and I stopped in recently.
We started with a couple of esfihas (also known as sfiha; esfiha is the term used in Brazil). There are two categories, open and folded, and they are, depending on how you order it, comparable to a miniature pizza or a turnover.
From the list of open esfihas, we chose the zaatar, a small flatbread with dried herbs (the oregano and thyme were most prominent) and sesame seeds. It was best with a drizzle of olive oil.
From the list of unopen esfiha, we ordered the folded cheese, which had creamy ricotta and grilled onions inside the folded pastry. The filling was hot and oozy.
For my entree I chose the combo number two (probably should name that something else), which had a kofta kabob, stuffed grape leaves, a salad and Syrian rice. The kofta kabob was a skewered mold of ground beef, onions and parsley. The spicing was good but the flavor even better with a few splashes of Jaber’s house-made hot sauce, a peppery blend with an olive-y overnote. The grape leaves, stuffed with a rice and beef mixture, were loosely rolled and had a prominent lemony flavor. The Syrian rice was a blend of long grain rice and short vermicelli – two of my favorite things, pasta and rice, all in one. The salad was a lightly dressed mix of lettuce, tomatoes, diced cucumbers and a bit of corn. Very refreshing.
My companion chose the rice with lentils, a nice vegetarian option, which had the little legumes blended with white rice and topped with caramelized onions.
There were many other tempting options, from lamb shawarma to falafels to baba ghanouj. I’ll have to return to try them another time.
I noticed that the restaurant seemed to be doing more takeout business than dine-in. That may be because the website shows only delivery options. It may be, too, because the space isn’t very inviting. The tables are bare and decor is minimal. One side of the space is blocked off in an abandoned-look sort of way.
But I don’t think I would have enjoyed the food as much if I’d gotten it to go. The kind and welcoming greeting from the server added a lot to it.