After moving to Seattle, Rajah Gargour missed the large, lively family meals of Lebanon, where he spent the first ten years of his life. So the Serafina and Szmania’s veteran brought them here, to his new Loyal Heights restaurant called Cafe Munir —which he’s confident is the only authentic Lebanese restaurant in Seattle. The airy white-walled space opened briefly in December, but Gargour held the official grand opening a few weeks ago, welcoming the neighborhood in for a colorful feast in the fresh space.
Currently he serves dinner only, but Gargour has plans for lunch, especially on Sundays, when he’s imagining a leisurely, end-of week family feast. With most items on the menu of hot and cold mezzes coming in around $5 and sharing plates the norm, Cafe Munir is a solid spot for dining cheap. But the refined space is nice enough for a quiet date, and the food sampled on a recent visit is certainly interesting enough to merit a drive from more distant neighborhoods.
“In Lebanon there’s a real tradition of…having big family lunches and dinners and drinking,” Gargour explained of the culture he wants to replicate in his new spot. He’s kept the interior simple with only a few thoughtful decorations, hoping to fill the space with something other than baubles. A real Lebanese feast, he says, is a “multisensory experience…shisha smoke in one nose and whiskey breath in the other…the people getting louder and louder.” Cafe Munir isn’t quite this raucous, but Gargour, a self-proclaimed whiskey nerd, does have an extensive collection of whiskeys and traditional Lebanese spirits stashed behind the bar.
The food is multi-sensory too—Lebanese tradition eschews individual plates in favor of dozens of colorful little bites called mezze; this culture was doing small plates before small plates were hip. The chef-owner wants his food to reflect the same purity as his space: “We’re trying to do things very simple…we don’t care about garnishing for looks, we’re garnishing just for taste.” Nothing is frippery here; a good example is the muhallabieh, a light milk pudding breezily flavored with orange flower water and topped with finely crushed pistachios. Or the traditional semolina cake made new with house-made arak syrup, the tiny pasty buzzing with anise.
The restaurant’s color, says Gargour, should come from the dishes and the people gathered to eat them. And soon a table was filled with color: first tiny fried pastries stuffed with bright pink beetstalks, lamb, and pinenuts, one of Gargour’s twists on a Lebanese basic. Seconds later, red muham’marra, which Gargour likened to romesco—a rich puree of roasted red peppers brightened with chilies and walnuts. This was served alongside the less traditional bright spring green mukhaddara, a Cafe Munir blend of poblano peppers, mint, almonds, and pistachios. Then batinjan Josephine, a bowl of incredibly rich labne—yogurt strained for a day to peak creaminess—topped with a mound of roasted onion, eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes. Soon after that: the most delightfully smoky baba ganoush I’ve ever tasted and delicate arayess, minty haloumi cheese wrapped in delicate phyllo and fried.
In keeping Cafe Munir simple, Gargour keeps the focus on the food and the act of sharing it, recreating those Lebanese family meals he remembers. The slideshow above shares more details on the space and the food.