Review: Habibi



Until fairly recently, the Long Island Pizzaria (sic) on SW Morrison was a popular if dingy dive for young or otherwise thrifty people hungry for New York style pie heavy on the tomato, cheese and oil. The surprise inside was that the Lebanese couple running the place also offered a short but essential list of Middle Eastern staples, served with fresh baked pita straight out of the oven, puffed up like a balloon bursting with steam.

The airy pita has since taken flight and landed at Karam on SW Stark, where the owners of the now defunct Pizzaria have established one of the best Lebanese restaurants in town. Happily, their move does not mean that Lebanese food has left SW Morrison. The old restaurant has now been renamed Habibi. Mazen, the energetic and hospitable new owner, has ditched the American pizza to build up a five page menu that goes beyond mezza to include sharma, kebabs, stews, salads and more. Additional items are planned.

Habibi (“Beloved” in Arabic), which opened about one year ago, spent the better part of the first year taking its time with a much needed renovation. It is just about complete now, with the latest step being the installation of a new floor a few months ago, to replace the ratty old carpet. A fresh paint job, new lighting and decorative touches have transformed the former joint into a bright, if humble eatery. There’s still the odd ladder tucked alongside the wall in the upstairs dining room so maybe there are even more upgrades in store.

Habibi is where I always gravitate when I’m in the heart of downtown Portland and hungry. I’m not the only one. It deserves its popularity, not just for the tasty and satisfying meals, but for its cheery, attentive service.

Before getting started on the menu choices, note that Habibi’s portions are very large. Most dishes can very easily be shared by one or more people.

Now, it must be said that Habibi does take the occasional short cut. It does not always use fresh ingredients when canned are available, and you’ll find that some dishes have more complex flavor and texture in other Lebanese establishments, but here you can choose carefully for a delicious and nourishing meal at a decent price in an area where other good choices are few. However, if you are looking for falafel made entirely from scratch, for the best cuts of meat and for stews made with fresh tomatoes, this is not the place.

The mezza is one of the most generous in town, offering up to eight different items in four varieties: Meat, Vegetarian, Vegan and Falafel.

The meat option consists of ground beef Kafta, chicken shawarma, falafel, humus, baba ganouj, tabouli and meat grape leaves for $11.50. Vegetarian includes falafel, humus, tabouli, tatziki,spinach pie, zattar pizza, baba ganouj and rice-filled grape leaves for $9.75. Vegan is falafel, humus, tabouli, tahini, garbanzo beans and majadra (rice, lentils and fried onions) for $9.75. Falafel mezza includes five plump falafels, tahini, humus and green salad for $9.75.

These appetizers, along with the rich, mint-speckled yogurt Lebne, a feta and olives plate, and beef-filled cabbage rolls, are available separately at prices that range from $4.50 to $8.50.

They are all good choices. The dips are creamy and balanced, the grape leaves and tabouli pungent with lemon, and the meat spicy and moist. The falafel, however, tends to be dry and needs every bit of the tahini it is doused with.

Habibi offers a selection of Lebanese vegetarian and meat pizzas that run between $4.50 and $7.50. They are made on the floury pita that is baked on the premises, and toppings include pesto with artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes and mozzarella; mozzarella and sesame seeds; a blend of hot red peppers, onion, sesame seeds and olive oil called Shatta; ground beef, tomatoes, onions and spices for the Phoenician; and Zattar, a dusting of a blend of dried thyme, oregano, sumac and sesame seeds on olive oil. A couple of these hardly sound authentic to Lebanon, but what matters is how well they turn out. They are good but not exceptional. Elsewhere, these pizzas are often made on a crispier flat bread than the softer pita at Habibi, which makes a difference in how the olive oil and zesty spices are absorbed.
You’ll need that paper napkin to wipe off your fingers for sure.

I’ve had mixed luck with the lentil soup. On some days, it has a rich flavor of lemon and spice and chunky consistency from the potato and onion. On another day, it tasted as though thickeners had been added.

Main courses will be familiar to devotees of Lebanese restaurants. Kebabs, on rice with pungent garlic sauce and salad, range from $11 for the lamb skewers and $9.50 for the chicken, ground beef (Kafta) and veggie (zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, onions, mushrooms). A meat combo of lamb, chicken (thigh meat) and Kafta is also available for $12.50. Among all the other dishes which are too numerous to list here are the stews or casseroles of eggplant, artichoke hearts, lamb and eggplant, Kafta or okra in tomato sauce. I work nearby, and on cold, wet days I am happy to warm up over one of these stews and a glass of full-bodied Lebanese red wine.

The menu lists three dessert options, but frequently there are only two available, the baklava, which is prosaic, and one of two puddings. The Almond Panna Cotta, otherwise known as a blancmange (which originated in the Middle East and who can forget the role it played in a famous Monty Python episode) is just shy of sweetness and very subtly flavored with almond milk and rose water. Habibi serves it with whipped cream, a sprinkling of slivered almonds and a drizzle of honey. The rice pudding is similarly mild and a good way to balance out the salt, spices and herbs of what has come before. I am a fan of milky puddings, and have developed a hankering for Habibi’s Almond, but on my last try it was too dense, like it had hardened in the fridge and lost its soft and mellow freshness.

A few spaghetti and calzone dishes broaden the range of the menu, but I did not try any of these in my repeated visits since I was there to sample the Lebanese fare.

An additional good Lebanese restaurant in the area is something to celebrate, and if Habibi can just get the little inconsistencies taken care of, it will shine even brighter.

Along with an array of Mediterranean juices, Habibi serves Lebanese and American wine and beer.

Grade: C

Phone: (503) 274-0628
Address: 1012 SW Morrison, Portland, OR. 97205 Google Map
Hours: Open Mon – Sat 10:30am to 9pm, Sun 12:00noon to 9pm