Sukhumvit Soi 49/9 (near
Daily from 18.00 to midnight,
And open for lunch on Sundays
For those looking to branch beyond the mere half dozen or so ethnic cuisines prominent in Bangkok the Cedar restaurant offers welcome relief. Named after the tree that is Lebanon's national symbol, this restaurant resembling the interior of a Bedouin's tent serves up enchanting evenings in a Middle Eastern oasis.
|A quarter century after it first flung back its tent flaps and a month after successfully relocating to another venue on Sukhumvit Soi 49/9, Bangkok's first Lebanese restaurant continues to offer some of the best Arabic and eastern Mediterranean food in town, amidst elegant decor.|
Most compelling of the artistic flourishes that grace Cedar's two small rooms are silken brocade tapestries billowing from the ceiling. Evocative Middle Eastern music, Oriental carpets covering the floor, and brass artistry in the form of plates, daggers and hanging lamps further establish a scene reminiscent of the classic "1001 Arabian Nights."
On each of the dozen or so tables is a small Lebanese flag, bearing a green cedar tree. The oasis theme is completed by the view of a spectacularly lit swimming pool, which anywhere else would probably look out of place.
Cedar's owner, Rafic Salhany, says his passion for food and hospitality inspires him to attend to such details. Resultantly, dinning here is truly a pleasure, where the food, service and decor are all superb, and duly reflect the legendary hospitality of the Middle East. "That's the way I do everything in my life," he says. "You have to do it with passion."
The quest for quality shows in the excellent varieties of mezze, hors d'oeuvres-portioned dishes served simultaneously, and a staple of Lebanese cuisine. The familiar mezze dishes hummus (pureed chickpeas) and baba gannouch (eggplant which is grilled, pureed and mixed with seasonings) are rich and creamy, and go especially well with the fresh pita bread, which Rafic says is baked on the premises each day at 6am. They are both topped with a layer of healthful olive oil, a common ingredient in the Middle Eastern dishes, good at keeping down levels of unwanted cholesterol.
Both also go well with the most well-known mezze of all, falafel, which at Cedar is crunchy on the outside, and inside is the tasty and mildly spicy chickpea-mix one expe3cts. Another tasty mezze here is tabbuleh, a Lebanese salad of parsley and bulgar wheat flavored with garlic, lemon, spices and diced tomatoes that provides a welcome zing after a few bites of the other milder mezze.
The spinach puff, which closely resembles the Greek spanakopita (spinach pie), with a flaky pastry shell that seals in flavors, is also good, and reveals the range of mutual influence throughout Mediterranean cuisines.
An impressive two dozen mezze are listed on the menu, including yogurt, cheese puffs, and wonderful dolma - olive oil coated grape leaves wrapped around delicately spiced rice.
One welcome surprise are the bite-size strips of eggplant marinated in vinegar and topped with fresh garlic - a special mezze invented by Rafic's mother. About 90% of Cedar's mezze are vegetarian, which with their small size and lightness in taste make for a good start to a Lebanese meal - though you many you many find it hard to stop. And as only they're around Bt100 each, it's tempting to keep trying more. "You can call them appetizers, but they can also be a full meal," says Rafic, who assumed ownership of Cedar from his father three years ago. Many mezze dishes are staples throughout the Middle East.
Rafic differentiates Arabic and Lebanese food by describing the latter as prepared with "more delicatesse", which he says makes it highly regarded throughout the region. "Whenever you travel in Middle East countries, the food you always find in the hotels is Lebanese," he says.
All mezze go well with a strong glass of Cedar beer, brewed especially for the restaurant. Also good here is Lebanese arak, a potent gin-like brew extracted from grapes and flavored with aniseed, which makes it go down with a unique herbal finish.
Those who resist the temptation to fill up on mezze will have a host of entrees to choose from, with many more carnivorous options, including a tender, juicy lamb, a staple meat in the Middle East, which here is served with rice.
The simple vegetable and grains base of mezze, as well as lamb, reveal he practical origins of Middle Eastern food, based on ingredients easily transported by nomads, or toted along as livestock.
Imported from New Zealand, the lamb is one of a just a few items on the menu not derived from Thai sources. A few specialty items such as tahini (sesame paste, used in many mezze), herbs, Lebanese coffee and arak are imported from Lebanon.
Cedar is frequented by a mixed crowd, which Rafic says is popular with "families, couples and ambassadors." Last week, those in line showed such diversity, as did the crowds inside who were enjoying themselves at the restaurant where two people can eat mezze and an entree each for under Bt 1000.
"We have many nationalities coming here - Indians who come here for the vegetarian, Thais who love the lamb, and Japanese who love the Cedar beer," says Rafic, who in addition to owning one of a very few Lebanese restaurants in Bangkok also owns Baan Thai, one of a very few restaurants in Beirut.
Thick and strong Lebanese coffee, similar to Turkish coffee, and poured from a traditional brass pot with an elongated side-handle into tiny cups, makes for an excellent end to the meal - preferably complemented with the sweetly satisfying baklava.
"The food business is the most beautiful in the world," Rafic says before going to personally greet a group of customers who have just been seated. "It's an adventure meeting new people each day. I want every person who comes here to say they enjoyed themselves."
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