Sitting at a window table at Al Safa offers a framed view of the ever-evolving population of Bay Ridge. Once an enclave for Irish and Italian immigrant families, it's now home to Brooklyn's largest middle eastern community. Looking into the restaurant, you'll find Zein Safa, the amiable chef/owner of Al Safa preparing an abundance of middle eastern dishes, heavily influenced by his Lebanese roots.
"What's good?" I ask, "What do I have to try?"
Zein responds with a laugh, "[That's] like asking which is my favorite child. I love all of them." His sons, who were wiping down tables and working the register, did not bother to accept the acknowledgement.
In the end, I went with what was at several other tables, beef-stuffed kibbeh ($11) draped in a generous amount of yogurt-garlic sauce. Piercing through one of the shells of cracked wheat allows a waft of steam to escape from the filling before it's overwhelmed by the sauce. A bite of the kibbeh and yogurt is hearty, rich, smooth, and tangy, but could reach greater heights if it were only cooked to order. Al Safa is counter service only, and thus pre-prepares most of their dishes, which is a shame as the aliyyeh (cilantro and garlic pesto) that is swirled through the yogurt sauce loses its freshness and bite.
Fear not though, any craving for the sharp bite of raw garlic can be found on any of the pita sandwiches. The allium is pressed with lemon juice and garnishes most of the sandwiches along with some welcome starchy french fries, vinegar-pickled persian cucumbers, and less welcome lettuce and tomatoes. The sujok ($6), an oily lamb and beef sausage seasoned with paprika, cumin, and allspice is a particularly apt companion for the garlic sauce.
The most tragic victim of the re-heat may be any of their manoush ($6, a sort of personal pizza). Interesting toppings like ground lamb and thyme and za'atar can't make up for a tragically limp crust.
The traditional malfouf ($11) features tender leaves of cabbage stuffed with lamb and rice. The braising liquid, flavored with lemon and garlic, permeates each bite. The serving at Al Safa is certainly more than enough for two to share.
Some of the more familiar dishes fare just as well. Al Safa's moujadara ($4), heavily laden with caramelized onions and tender lentils stand out from the pack as well as an exceptionally fresh tabouleh. I'd also be remiss not to mention that Al Safa's rice ($3.50), basmati cooked with shreds of toasted vermicelli, is a joy to simply eat by the spoonful. Even though it's heavily buttered, the rice remains improbably light and airy.
At first glance, there is not much to distinguish Al Safa from the multitude of counter service middle eastern joints through out Brooklyn; but spend a few minutes scouring the display cases and you'll find those dishes that are unique to Zein Safa's Lebanese heritage, family recipes that don't ever make it to the menu board.