Not Just (Lebanese) Pizza

Herbal teas, exotic cookies and community spirit percolate at Manakeesh.

Published: Mar 2, 2011

Neal Santos

ALL IN THE NAME: The specialty at Manakeesh Café & Bakery is the
manakeesh, a Lebanese flatbread sandwich that can be filled with meat,
cheese, fruit or vegetables.

[ review ]

The rotund teapot arrived on a shiny tray set with gold-rimmed glasses, which chattered as a smiling woman in a patterned head scarf placed it on the carved-wood table. I regarded the vessel: old and potbellied and bronze, not unlike someone you'd see on the beach in Margate.

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The pot belongs to Manakeesh, the gregarious Lebanese café/bakery housed in a historical bank building at 45th and Walnut. During brunch hours, the joint is slammed � the cafeteria queue affects an asp winding from entrance to register � so if you must rub the teapot's body, maybe wait until a sleepier weekday, when an erupting genie wouldn't cause nearly the commotion.

Three wishes didn't come with my order, but the fragrant black tea steeped with mint, a traditional potage the Arab world over, wasn't a half-bad consolation. Had a benevolent djinn emerged from the swan-necked spout, though, I'd certainly wish for a duplicate Manakeesh closer to my 'hood.

Owned by Temple doc Wissam Chatila and named for the Lebanese flatbread "pizza" in which Montreal-bred chef Wissam Zayat specializes, Manakeesh has everything you want in a neighborhood café. It's cheap and friendly; the La Colombe is hot and fresh (not to mention layered with whipped cream and orange syrup, in the case of the Lebanese Sunset); and it serves a higher purpose for the community.

Since opening in January, the place has attracted local families, ethnic-food fiends and savvy undergrads, but also the young and hungry members of West Philly's entrenched Muslim community. (The building is owned by the same company that owns the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects mosque across the street.) More than half the women here at any given time sport silky scarves. Brand-conscious princes tap their iPhones while waiting in line, as East African dudes hold court over coffee. Even the owners' kids are here, helping out and being cute behind the counter where their parents can keep an eye on them. One night, my food was ferried to the table by a polite, beaming tyke of no more than 6.

The sense of community is tangible. That those manakeesh, rolled out to order and fired in an oven lined with purple-tipped gas flames, are so perfectly snackable is only the icing on this enterprise.

"In Lebanon, manakeesh are eaten for breakfast," explains Abd Ghazzawi, the cafe's exuberant manager, born and raised around the corner. Along with the lahm bajeen (spiced ground lamb) flatbread, "the cheese and the za'atar are the most traditional types. ... All the other ones we added. Manakeesh is essentially a sandwich, so we can try whatever we want."

Whatever Ghazzawi and Zayat want might include goofs like a gloopy "Shawarma" � the marinated pre-cut sirloin was halal but hellacious, buried under silly quantities of tomato, raw onion, parsley and tahini � but also smart riffs like the "Kafta." Inspired by the skewered, grilled Mid-East meatballs, Zayat weaves clove, cinnamon and other top-secret spices through ground beef and lamb, then spreads the blend in a thin layer on the manakeesh dough. "Spicy or not spicy?!" you might hear Zayat shout to Ghazzawi or one of the affable clerks from his perch at the mouth of the yawning oven. The former is always the correct answer.

The manakeesh options roll 21 deep here, and after three trips, the vegetarian varieties get my vote. The 700-degree dome lures out a woodsy aroma of thyme in a za'atar-covered manakeesh, and lifting that still-warm flatbread to your mug is like catching a whiff of a forest fire. (Sesame and sumac join the herb in the spice blend, the latter accounting for the lemony wallop resounding across the palate.) Topped with feta and akawi, a Middle Eastern fromage that calls to mind queso fresco, the cheese manakeesh is good and salty on its own, but better as a "Combo" (half za'atar). I also dug the "Kishk," a crushed tomato/cracked wheat/fresh yogurt tang factory as refreshing as citron sorbet.

Served in plastic baskets lined with wax paper, the manakeesh are unfussy eats at their finest. I started out fork-and-knifing them, but quickly abandoned the plastic cutlery when it became evident I was the only prissy loser in the place not eating with my hands. I'd still suggest silverware for the sticky banana-honey manakeesh. "When I was growing up, my dad would eat that all the time," says Ghazzawi. Aw! But the version here is more like, Ugh! Unlike the other manakeesh, which are folded in half, this one is rolled into a girthy burrito, creating a double layer of dough that swallows the fruit in a floured death grip and makes for excessively bready bites. I had to reach for the tea as a chaser.

Though the pizzas are the main attraction, Manakeesh is no one-trick Arabian pony, with worthy starters and sides like luxuriously creamy hummus freckled with sweet paprika and served with a balloon of blistered, baked-to-order pita; minty fool, a warm fava dip available on weekends; and balilah, chilled chickpeas in citrus- and cumin-scented water � like garbanzo lemonade, in a good way.

Pastry cases flank the registers, basketfuls of mini meat and vegetable pies to the left � I dug the sweet, onion-laced spinach � and a wonderland of exotic confections, glittering like gemstones, to the right. Mshabbak, funnel cakes that look like sugar-glazed snowflakes, rose into crystal ziggurats. Trays of innumerable ma'moul, dainty date cookies with buttery shortbread shells, created a chessboard of nut-brown and pistachio-green. Lebanese macaroons winked at me.

And the baklava! Amazing, brittle, honeyed baklava ... pistachio, walnut, cashew! Square, round, diamond-cut! The mind reels while you wait in line, the crushed pistachios sprinkled on everything glowing supernaturally greener with each step as a fresh batch of kanafe emerges hot from the oven in a copper paella pan. Ghazzawi carved my bug-eyed self out a slice of the Lebanese breakfast bread, revealing layers of fresh cheese (firm and springy) and semolina cake (soft and spongy) soaked in intoxicating rose water syrup.

It's worth noting that Manakeesh also stocks a smaller dessert case with photogenic fruit tarts, French mille-feuille and cream-bloated eclairs. I'm sure they're perfectly delicious, but passing on the traditional Lebanese treats seems almost criminal. One of each? If you insist.

(adam.erace@citypaper.net)

Manakeesh Café and Bakery | 4420 Walnut St., 215-921-2135, manakeeshcafe.com. Open Mon.-Thu., 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Fri., 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Starters, $1.25-$5.75; manakeesh, $2.75-$6.75; sweets, $1.50-$5.95.

Comments

Killer review! Anything chickpea related makes me happy and I have to try the cashew baklava!
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