Nabeel’s Café & Market—Traditional Greek-Italian

It’s easy write reviews of restaurants such as Nabeel’s.   For more than 20 years, the Krontiras family has delivered outstandingly authentic examples of the food of their respective homelands, Greece and Italy.  Today at lunch I was reminded once again why I keep coming back to this fixture on Oxmoor Road in Homewood, Alabama, just south of Birmingham.

When I visit Nabeel’s, I must confess I tend to focus on their classic Greek dishes.  In the nearly 14 years I have dined there, the quality and taste of the dishes has never varied.  My favorite appetizer is a Greek feta wrapped in foil and baked with EVOO, garlic and oregano called Feta Theologos.  It is served with the foil twisted in the shape of a swan but the flavor on the inside is even prettier!

For an entrée, I love the Moussaka served with a Greek salad and slice of yeasty white bread made from scratch.  The meat of this dish is spiced with mint, cinnamon, and allspice—an admittedly freaky combination for a savory meat dish if you have never eaten Mediterranean food before.  But the spices in this example are balanced and so subtle I don’t even think a newbie would be offended.  The bechamel top layer is perfectly proportioned and fluffy giving the overall dish a creamy flavor and delicate texture. 

The only component of the dish that always surprises me is the cold tomato sauce on the plate surrounding the cassarole.  I’m not talking room temperature, here.  I’m talking right out of the refrigerator and onto the place.  But the sauce is delicious and, if used strategically, can take each bite of Moussaka from molten to palatable by the time your fork reaches your mouth.

Nor is the ubiquitous tag-along salad a throw-away.  Today, the last day of March, I was surprised by the garden-ripe flavor and smooth, slightly firm texture of the included tomatoes.  Where did they get such tomatoes in Northern Alabama at this time of year?!  And frankly, who cares?  Tomato snob that I am, I gobbled ’em up along with the rich feta, Kalamata olive, cucumber, and dried mint and red wine vinegar dressed lettuce.

I even adore the fact that iced tea here is not some tropical-fruity-flavored nonsense (gag me!), but is laced with mint.  Mint.  I love that in tea or even as tea.  And their wine selection is pretty darn good too.

This meal is just one representative of the fabulousness of everything I’ve ever eaten here.  The décor isn’t fancy, but it is warm and charming.  And after dinner, make a point of strolling through the market next door to find everything from dried meats to Jordan almonds.   You won’t regret it!






Dornenberg, Andrew and Karen Page, “The Flavor Bible”

The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs is not really a cookbook in the traditional sense of recipes-divided-into-chapters-by-type-of-food-and-indexed-by-ingredients.  What it is is an amazing resource!  You’ve got watermelon?  Wanna know what other ingredients love watermelon?  Then this is the book for you. Once when I … Read more Dornenberg, Andrew and Karen Page, “The Flavor Bible”

Ditch Your Microwave (and Rediscover Flavor)

Microwaves are useful for many things, such as, eradicating mold from kitchen sponges, and according to Wikipedia, communication, radar, radio astronomy, navigation, power, and spectroscopy. Maybe we should rethink, however, application of this technology to the heating or (God forbid) the cooking of food.

When my husband first suggested we ditch the microwave for health reasons, I’m sure I looked at him like he’d grown a second head. Why the very idea was preposterous! How would we melt butter, boil water, reheat leftovers, melt chocolate, or any of the millions of other things we’d come to rely on this device to do?

He pointed out that humans did just fine without microwave ovens until around 40 years ago. I pointed out that I didn’t have all day to get the above listed tasks done and microwaving was so very quick.

But he got me thinking—how DID we get along before microwaves? And when Emeril Lagasse suggested to my slack-jawed amazement he’d never used one, was it only because his army of kitchen minions picked up the slack?
So I agreed to embark on an quest to see whether we could rid ourselves of this appliance so ubiquitous in kitchens, dorm rooms, and Quickie Marts across this great nation. But like any good experiment, we needed some specialized equipment. In this case, we decided we needed a really quick boiling kettle and a countertop convection/toaster oven. A trip to our local Bed, Bath, and Beyond clearly was in order.

There we found a Medelco Cordless Glass Electric Kettle on the clearance rack but in new condition for around $35. Lucky us! They are usually priced in the mid-$50 range. We also spotted the Breville BOV800XL Smart Oven 1800-Watt Convection Toaster Oven for $250.

I won’t go on about how great both of these appliances are. You can read the reviews yourself. I was unprepared, however, for how taking a perceived technological step backward exposed me to how technologically-advanced conventional cooking has become.

This kettle, for example, boils water at just about the same speed as the 1000-watt GE microwave oven we use. And, I was amazed by how much better my tea and coffee tasted using non-nuked water!

The convection oven also was a revelation. It heated very quickly and cooked evenly, making reheated food, including everything from french fries to fried chicken to pizza to rare strip steaks, as delicious (if not better) than it was when served the first time. Try that in your radiation box, Skeptic!

For melting butter, we use a small sauce pan; for chocolate, a water-filled saucepan with a bowl on top (melt the chocolate in the bowl). Last-night’s creamed spinach, beans with chorizo, or cold coffee? Simply repeat the heating method and equipment used to make it in the first place.

In fact, everything we made conventionally was exponentially more flavorful as we could have made in the microwave oven and very nearly as quick. The only remaining concern you might have is how easy it is to go from refrigerator to table in a single plastic dish. But did you know nuking plastic can release harmful chemicals into your food? According to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, cited by Yahoo! Green:
“plastics labeled microwave-safe and advertised for infants, even those were found to release ‘toxic doses’ of Bisphenol A when heated in a microwave. ‘The amounts detected were at levels that scientists have found cause neurological and developmental damage in laboratory animals,’ the paper reports. In fact, the term ‘microwave safe’ is not regulated by the government, so it has no verifiable meaning. According to the Journal Sentinel’s testing, BPA ‘is present in frozen food trays, microwaveable soup containers, and plastic baby food packaging.’ It is often found in plastics marked No. 7, but may also be present in some plastics labeled with Nos. 1, 2, and 5 as well, according to the report.” The article recommended using glass or ceramic cookware for microwaving, instead.

With that in mind, maybe fridge-to-table convenience isn’t really all that convenient. Especially, when you consider the health risks.

So, what did I learn from our no-nukes experiment? I really don’t miss my microwave at all. The things I used to rely on it to do were easily replaced conventionally and cooking and heating take very little or no extra time. And the improvement in the food makes a little extra clean-up well worth it and eating leftovers—something I was heretofore reluctant to do—a close second to the meal the first time around.

Chez Lulu Rocks!

Every so often, I’ve got to get my French bistro on.  In Birmingham, that means Chez Lulu. That it is one of my two top favorite brunches in the city is just an added bonus on a Sunday like today.

Food fans from Birmingham can just skip the rest of this review. You already know the wonder of this restaurant with its funky décor perhaps gleaned from estate sales and vintage shops; perhaps from a really expensive decorator.  Who cares?  The food rocks.

The magic began as it often does with service of the complementary rustic sourdough plate made at the Continental Bakery next door  and of the same ownership.  The bread  is normally accompanied by a saucer of olive oil, which I find slightly odd, as my favorite flavor of the classic trio is the mildly sweet raisin-nut sourdough.  But I just ask the waiter for butter, which they are happy to provide.

A little café au lait gets the party started for real, and today, I had the tarte combo with a tarragon chicken salad on the side.  I was not disappointed by the plentiful wild mushrooms in a perfectly flaky, delicious, non-soggy crust.  And if you’ve never had it, the tarragon chicken salad is a revelation of flavor featuring large white chunks and perfect amount of fresh herbs.  It also comes in a large size if you want salad as a meal.

I finished with one of the crepes du jour–a fresh strawberry number filled with creamy goat cheese and topped with local honey.  Altogether, the crepe was the perfect size for a final course but you can add more of them and make it your main if you are into that kind of thing.  The strawberries looked and tasted like they should; red throughout, juicy, and not too acidic. And, happily, there were just enough of them on top to have a bit of it with each bite.  I’m kind of obsessive like that. 

If you decide to get your bistro on and you’ve never been to Chez Lulu before just be forewarned:  when I say bistro, I ain’t kiddin’ around.  The tables are uncomfortably small and even though the portions are not overlarge, you will likely end up with the salt and pepper shakers on the floor if you share a two top with someone else.  But if you like getting to know your neighbor, this may be the spot for you.  You may just want to consider the real estate you are given when choosing what to order.

Additionally,  you may end up waiting a bit for a table during peak times, but it won’t usually take long.  Whatever you do, however, don’t give into the temptation to ask to eat at the bar instead of waiting.  I did that once and found the four-inch counter overhang insufficient coverage for drips and stuff.  Moreover, people had a hard time walking behind me as they passed from the front door to all but two of the tables.  That bar is pretty much just for drinkin’.