Head to Wafa's in Forest Hills for Surprisingly Delicious Lebanese Vegetables
Does anyone else get really excited for a great plate of eggplant? It's rare to find a version of the finnicky vegetable that's deeply flavored and cookedwell. Though we've found no shortage of eggplant dishes we love, there's plenty of cause to look for more.
I wasn't looking for great eggplant at Wafa's in Forest Hills, but it found me, along with several other vegetable-forward wonders. And I'm glad they did.
Wafa—the cook and owner of the restaurant, which in a previous incarnation was a tiny cafe—has been making great home-style Lebanese food for years. But beyond the comments of a few chowhounds, not much has been said about her vegetables. When we think of Middle Eastern food, our thoughts immediately turn to falafel, hummus, and kebabs. That's not untrue of Lebanese cuisine, but there's plenty more to it.
Vegetable dishes are listed as appetizers, but can be combined for a substantial Vegetarian Platter ($9.95), large enough for two to share as a light meal. The Mousakaha ($8 on its own) sounds deceptively simple: eggplant, chickpeas, and garlic stewed with pomegranate molasses and olive oil. But it's remarkable: silky, beyond-tender eggplant is miraculously not mushy. It bears powerful sweet, vegetable flavors bolstered by candy-sweet garlic and sour pomegranate. The jolt of dried mint isn't listed on the menu, but it does wonders for the dish, infusing the eggplant with a more complex, deep herbal flavor than fresh mint leaves could provide.
Just as impressive was the Okra ($6 on its own). The description of okra sautéed with cilantro, garlic, and tomato didn't sound like anything to get excited about, but little did I know I'd receive what was essentially the veal of okra. Baby specimens, less than an inch long, were bright with funky okra flavor and totally lacking in slime. Like the eggplant, they were ridiculously tender but in no way mushy.
Dishes like these speak to the incredible power of home cooked-style Middle Eastern fare. Flavors run deep into the heart of the simplest ingredients, coming in layers of vegetables, spices, and herbs, with highlights of sweet sauces like pomegranate molasses and powerful olive oils. The kind of careful, controlled braising found here—a hallmark of the Middle Eastern home kitchen—preserves the vegetables' delicate textures while penetrating them to the core with new flavors.
Fried Cauliflower ($5 on its own) changed the textural pace of the meal. Though it lacked the incredible depth of flavor and texture of the other dishes, and certainly needed a sprinkle of salt and olive oil, it made for a refreshing aside. The florets aren't so much fried as lightly browned. As more and more chefs are super-caramelizing and frying the hell out of their brassicas, this lighter rendition was a refreshing pleasure.
Round out your meal with a couple Spinach Pies ($2 each), featuring bright, tender-yet-sturdy spinach wrapped in homemade pastry. Far too often, spinach pies are heavy, greasy, flavorless green pastes wrapped in uninspired phyllo. Not here: this is spinach that tastes like spinach, but more so; and though this isn't the flakiest pastry you'll encounter, it's among the more flavorful.
I love New York's high-powered restaurants: the supercharged sandboxes of talented chefs wielding mighty flavors in dynamic combinations. But honestly, it's places like Wafa's that win my heart. Restaurants in this vein show just how good simple, home-style cooking can be. They feature a kind of superbly-flavored, incidentally healthy comfort food that's steeped in tradition, and—as clichéd as it is to say so—a definite taste of care and appreciation that shine right through.