Fava Favorites at Mint Café
Fava beans, which have been cultivated in the Middle East since 6000 B.C., have become trendy lately. At a James Beard House dinner last year, Boston celebrity chef Todd English combined fresh fava beans with morel mushrooms. "If I were to be reincarnated as a vegetable, I would like to be a fava bean," English cryptically told an interviewer.
Like pinto beans and black-eyed peas, fava beans are occasionally enjoyed fresh — but it's the dried beans that are the ancient staples. In Egypt, dried fava beans are ground into falafel patties and simmered in a breakfast porridge called ful medames.
At Mint Café, a little family-run Lebanese restaurant in the Galleria area, you can sample modern versions of both of these traditional dried fava bean dishes. On the appetizer menu, the cooked fava bean dish is spelled "foul." The big, brown, creamy-tasting beans are seasoned with garlic, olive oil and an amazing amount of lemon juice. I found the flavor intriguing for a couple of bites, but I "fouled out" on the sour flavor long before the bottom of the bowl. My lemon-loving dining companion gladly finished them off. We also sampled Mint Café's fabulous falafel sandwich.
Houstonians have become accustomed to one particular style of falafel. Thank the late George Zabak for that. At his now-defunct Hillcroft restaurant, Mama's Po'boys, the Palestinian immigrant perfected a spicy green falafel made with ground chickpeas colored with parsley and spiked with jalapeños. His recipe was much imitated. In fact, Fadi's, Alladin's and quite a few other Houston Middle Eastern restaurants now buy their falafels from a company in the Heights called Olive Valley Falafel that makes a green chickpea falafel patty seasoned with jalapeños.
By comparison, Mint Café's falafel patties, which are made with a blend of ground chickpeas and the traditional fava beans, came as a surprise. This falafel had a smooth, chocolate-colored exterior and a denser, chewier texture than most Houston falafels. Mint's fabulous falafel sandwich was artfully wrapped in thin, split pita bread slathered with tahini sauce and accessorized with pickles, pickled turnips, tomato and chopped parsley. It's not as spicy as the average Houston falafel sandwich, but it's still one of the best in the city.
With its stone floors, chic leather upholstery and modern, uncluttered lines, Mint Café's interior design is remarkably sophisticated. On a Saturday afternoon visit, I found the cafe crowded with well-dressed Galleria denizens. A few weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon, the place was populated primarily by families with small children.
The prices are a little higher here than at the average Middle Eastern eatery. There are lots of clever touches at Mint Café, like fresh mint garnishes, a lime and mint-flavored beverage, and a mint and chocolate ice cream dessert. But mainly what you get for the extra money, besides a chic decor, is a wider than usual variety of dishes.
At lunchtime, customers order at a walkup counter where the choices of sides are on display. We tried the wonderfully chewy giant couscous along with a fresh fatoosh salad with dried pita croutons recently. Eggplant slices, fried cauliflower, lentils and rice topped with caramelized onions, quill pasta, ratatouille and baba ghanoush were among the other intriguing choices.
The appetizers at Mint are also way beyond the usual mezza plate offerings. On our Sunday brunch visit, we started with an appetizer of the yogurt cheese called labneh. The bright white cream cheese was gorgeously spread out on a plate with a circular garnish of olive oil and chopped herbs, with sprigs of mint sticking in the bull's eye. Eaten with pita bread, the tart cheese spread was delightful.
At brunch and dinner, there is a waitstaff to take your order. In a witty nod to our city's beloved chips and salsa tradition, a bowl of fried pita chips and ground olive dip are delivered to your table when you sit down.
My favorite appetizer was a huge dish of hummus topped with olive oil, grilled beef filet chunks and roasted pine nuts. The hummus at Mint Café is a fluffy version of the chickpea and garlic dip that looks like whipped cream. The creamy bean and well-done grilled beef wrapped up in hot pita bread slices was a little reminiscent of fajitas and refried bean burritos.
My brunch mate fell in love with ardishawki, a cooked, trimmed artichoke with lemon juice, minced garlic and chopped cilantro piled over the top. I complained when the outer leaves proved to be tough and leathery, but once we removed the first row, the rest proved tender. The seasonings and the strong lemon flavor reminded me of Da Marco's famous upside-down fried artichoke with whole lemon sections.
The appetizer called "grilled halloum" starts with the white cheese made on the island of Cyprus. The cheese was cut into slices and broiled, then topped with a tomato slice and fresh herbs. It looked and tasted a lot like Caprese salad, the famous stack of tomato, fresh mozzarella and herbs named after the island of Capri.
Disappointing starters included the stuffed grape leaves, which were stiff and dry — they tasted like they had been sitting around for a while. We weren't crazy about the tabouli either. It seemed like a bowl of loose chopped parsley and mint without much of the olive oil and lemon juice dressing that is supposed to hold it together.
From the entrée list, we tried a combo plate of beef filet and shrimp kebabs. While the shrimp was perfectly cooked and quite juicy, the beef was past well-done and very dry. Next time, I'll skip the "surf and turf kebabs" and get the shrimp by itself.
I had the same problem with most of the other meats at Mint Café. The chicken kebab sandwich was hopelessly dry no matter how much tahini sauce I dipped it in. The gyro meat was overcooked after it was sliced until the edges curled. And the makanek sausage, which is made of lamb marinated in red wine, was tasty but way too dry. ("If you don't like it (the makanek), maybe you can get it to fix your car," punned Robert Sietsema at the Village Voice the last time he ate the sausage.)
If you like your meat extremely well done, you're in luck at Mint. But you're better off sticking with the shrimp kebabs, the fava falafels, the excellent cheese dishes and the fascinating vegetarian preparations, if you ask me. With vegetables this good, you won't even miss the meat.
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