Shisha and Chardonnay

The baked chicken and hummus make a lovely, low-cost lunch during the week.
Troy Fields

Check out the kitchen and dining room at Skewers in our slideshow.

I spent a leisurely evening last week at Skewers sitting on the breezy patio with some crisp Lebanese wine and my friend Jessica, who is shortly moving to Turkey. In retrospect, for our last meal together, perhaps I shouldn't have taken her to a place with food so similar to the food she'll soon be eating in Istanbul. But we were there with a purpose: re-teaching her to smoke shisha.

Toward the end of the meal, I ordered our hookah. The food had been rather dull and sluggish — a rare event at Skewers, to be sure — and I was hoping the hookah would perk us up as well as be a valuable learning experience.

"Can we get a hookah with apple?" I asked our young waiter, who had the clumsy charm of a puppy trying to please its owners.

"Oh, apple will be too strong," he said. After all the shy smiles and deference, I was surprised to see him taking a stand on something. "You need to cut it with mint."

"Fair enough!" I replied. "Bring us some apple-mint!" He did, and it was splendid, both subtly fruity and refreshing at once. Perhaps I should have taken his other quiet recommendation earlier in the evening and chosen the caramel-sauced bread pudding he encouraged us to get over the chocolate baklava.

That baklava was a low point in the meal. Normally, the baklava at Skewers is quite good, heavier on the phyllo dough and pistachios than on honey or cinnamon, a nice change of pace from baklava that's soaked through and sugary.

In this incarnation, Hershey's chocolate syrup was awkwardly and inadvisedly added to a regular triangle of the flaky pastry, but I'd been eager to try one of the many twists that Skewers tries out on its standard Lebanese fare. Ditto the Skewers salad, which had a strikingly bland honey-mustard sauce coating salty flecks of halloum, downtrodden avocado slices and what my mother has always called "crab with a 'k.'" Jessica's garlic-laced lamb chops were far better, but cooked to a disappointing medium-well and served with a cucumber salad that couldn't have been marinated for more than two minutes.

Oddly, it was our appetizer tray that saved the meal, with perky spinach pies and blissfully sour stuffed grape leaves that reminded me strongly of the warak enab my best friend always brings home from her Lebanese mother's home in Dearborn, Michigan. Those, and the silky-smooth bowl of hummus I'd ordered on the side, brightened with sweet paprika and a glossy slick of olive oil on top.

It turns out that the rule here, settled on after many wonderful meals, is to stick to the classic, un-Americanized Lebanese food. That's what Skewers does best.

Curiously, for as much as I prefer the unadulterated Lebanese cuisine at Skewers, the other thing that keeps me coming back to the restaurant anchoring a stone-sided strip center at Richmond and Weslayan is how broadly appealing the rest of the place is. Unlike at other favorites like Cafe Mawal or Abdallah's, I can actually get a glass of wine at Skewers, Lebanese wine like you'd be able to order at a cafe in Beirut. Or Turkish beer. Or a baklava-flavored cappuccino (not that I'd want that last one, but it's nice to know the option is there).

In the dining room, modern black walls contrast with sculptural red lights that jut from the ceiling and floors like massive pillars of carnelian-colored quartz. It's all a part of the brand-new aesthetic that new owners Hadi and Sophie Elhage introduced when Skewers reopened earlier this year after an electrical fire took them out last October. (If you're keeping count, Houston, that's three restaurants that have reopened after devastating fires this year.)

When it first opened ten years ago, Skewers had a generous BYOB policy, but that's now been replaced by a smartly curated wine list featuring a small selection of "standards" like Chateau Ste. Michelle and La Crema mixed in with more exotic offerings, like the Chateau Ksara Rose I enjoyed on the patio that evening, or a kosher Barkan Merlot from Israel. And for coming summer days, a $28 bottle of Chateau Ksara Blancs de Blancs — made with a blend of Sauvignon, Sémillon and Chardonnay grapes — would be a sweet selection, although the markup is a bit on the high side.

Much like Fadi's or Arpi's Phoenicia Deli, Skewers used to be entirely self-serve — you and your little tray trundled past a steam table and then sat down with your food. These days, Skewers has a semi-self-serve routine at lunch and full table service in the evenings. It's much more fitting with the sleek look, the wine list and the $18 filet mignon that's served at night. It was a smart move.

At lunch, however, the semi-self-serve situation tends to rear its less attractive head. The steam table and self-serve drinks are still there, but now you place your entire order with the cashier at the end of the line; the steam table is only there for you to preview your sides before you order them. I'm not the only one who's been confused by this new set-up, as nearly every person in line with me each time I've eaten lunch at Skewers is initially baffled about where to order and from whom.

On the other hand, if I can escape from a nice restaurant at lunch with a belly full of delicious food for under $10, I'm willing to deal with a little initial confusion up front. And this is exactly why Skewers does such steady business at lunch in its ideal location straddling the Galleria and Greenway Plaza: The lunch specials will fill you up with quality food for cheap.

Early last week, I was planning on ducking out of the office for a quick lunch trip to Skewers; the booths provide an excellent opportunity for quality "alone time" and you can watch either CNN or Al Jazeera on the flat-screen TVs that are mounted to the walls. But a friend caught me as I was leaving and tagged along upon learning I was reviewing a place down the street from his house.

"I've always wondered about Skewers," he said. "But I've never eaten there."

"Why not?" I asked. "It's great, espe­cially at lunch."

"I dunno," he ­replied. "Maybe it's the name."

Admittedly, the name does tend to impart a certain Chotchkie's-esque chain-restaurant aesthetic to a place that's anything but. On the other hand, it's been called Skewers for ten years now. I don't think it would be wise for them to change it now.

Over a meal of gyro, baked chicken and expertly cooked okra and green beans, it was clear that a chain restaurant was the furthest thing from his mind.

"This is the best hummus I've ever had," he enthused. It wasn't hyperbole; Skewers truly does have fabulous hummus, as well as a baba ghanoush that retains its earthy sweetness under the dusky taste of smoke. Houston is spoiled for great Middle Eastern food, so the dishes like this that stand out so starkly at Skewers are even more impressive as a result.

The same can be said of the "skewers" themselves — the popular chicken, beef and kafta kebabs. Although the chicken and beef are quite good, it's the kafta that I find myself turning to over and over again, the seasoned ground beef consistently juicy and well seasoned with plenty of bright parsley, garlic and onions. With a side of the lemon-laced tabbouleh and an Arabic iced tea, it's a lovely summer meal that won't weigh on you all day long. And you can even add a piece of that baklava onto your lunch special for $1 more.

Other dishes can be hit or miss, like the mujaddara or the kibbeh. I wished that the sweet caramelized onions had been cooked along with the lentils and rice in the mujaddara instead of just heaped on top; much of the dish's signature flavor was missing as a result. And the kibbeh are actually much better than what you'll find in most Lebanese restaurants, never hard or over-fried, but they're underseasoned and the batter doesn't hold up well in specials like the kibbeh labaniyye. Thankfully, the garlic-spiced yogurt sauce in the kibbeh labaniyye is so good that the crumbly kibbeh itself can be overlooked.

On the other hand, simple dishes like the saffron-infused baked chicken or the lightly salted green beans sauteed with onions are the reason I will always return to Skewers: I've found my favorites and will happily stick to them. Nicely updated touches like daily happy hours and reverse happy hours on Wednesdays and Thursday don't hurt, either.

Oh, and did I mention there's belly dancing on the weekends?

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Skewers Cafe & Grill

3991 Richmond
Houston, TX 77027


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