Review: Karam Lebanese Restaurant

Karam Interior

[minor updates 1/11 – prices and a few dishes, grammar]

Lebanon is a small country on the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean. The name is from Lubnan, the word for white, to describe the snow-covered peaks of the Mount Lebanon Range. Working from Egyptian hieroglyphs, early settlers in the area made a contribution to history by developing the basis of the alphabet used today throughout the Western world.

As settlers emigrated from many regions, the food is a mélange of influences gleaned from other cultures such as the Ottoman Empire, Ancient Greeks, Persians, and Egyptians. This means the cuisine tends to be more varied and refined than its Middle Eastern neighbors, and quite distinctive from that of Jordan and Palestine. Because of a shortage of meat in the area, the cuisine includes many vegetarian dishes – I never have trouble getting my vegetarian friends to come to Karam.

Because of the varied influences, one can see a marked difference among even simple things like hummus, depending on the region. This makes it a bit difficult to compare individual restaurants as many lean towards different traditional preparations. Another thing to understand is that the cuisine is very traditional. You don’t tend to see menus with organic or seasonal ingredients, at least not in Oregon. I often wonder what could be done with the food under the hand of an accomplished chef, looking to work a little fusion magic.

Falafel and Hot Pita Bread

Portland is lucky to have a variety of Lebanese establishments. I have tried many, some are decent, some downright terrible. For my money, Karam in downtown is the best of the lot.

Karam means “generous”. Judging from the amount of plates that pour from the kitchen with each order, the name is taken seriously. The only drawback is that they seem to take it a bit personally if you don’t take all the leftovers home. For the amount of food you get, the prices are reasonable, with entrees running between $10 and $20. Yes, this is much more expensive than other Lebanese restaurants in town, but I don’t mind paying more if the food is better, and in my opinion, this is.

 

Located downtown on Stark Street near Huber’s, Karam is rather kitschy, with its walls painted to look like ancient pillars, but is a warm, pleasant environment, with the right companion, romantic. On most nights the service is stellar, with only an occasional misstep. The wait staff is more than happy to help you through the long menu and give suggestions.

There are a few common terms that will help you get through the menu at just about any Lebanese restaurant. I’ll list them so you’ll know what I am talking about when I describe the food:

• Baba Ghanauj [ba-ba-gah-noosh]. I have been told the name literally translates to “spoiled old daddy”. It’s another dip, made from roasted eggplant, garlic, sesame paste, olive oil, and seasonings. It’s better than it sounds, and is made to be eaten with pita.

• Bulgar (wheat). A parboiled cracked wheat. Pleasant chewy texture

• Falafel [fuh-lah-ful]- When made correctly, these are crispy meatball-sized balls of ground chickpeas, fava beans and spices, deep-fried. A street food. Great with a beer.

• Hummus – a dip made from pureed chickpeas, sesame, garlic, lemon, olive oil and salt. Scoop it up with the pita bread. Native to Lebanon.

• Kibbee – sometimes considered the national dish of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. It consists of ground meat with onion, spices and cracked wheat (bulgar), formed into various shapes.

• Mezza – [mehz-uh] a large grouping of small appetizers.

• Pita – a middle-Eastern flatbread. Light and fluffy; a simple bread. It arrives hot and puffy from the oven.

• Shawarma – a marinated meat dish.

• Tabbouleh [tu-boo-lee] – a salad made with bulgur or parboiled wheat, chopped tomato, garlic, onions, parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil.

• Tahini – sesame paste with an almost peanut butter texture.

Main courses start with excellent homemade pita bread, hot and puffed from the oven, which is replaced when you get close to finishing it. This is accompanied by a small side salad of tomatoes, lettuce and parsley with a slightly vinegary dressing.

I like to begin with the veggie mezza appetizer ($10.95), little plates of tabbouleh, a grain pilaf made with bulgar, perfectly balanced hummus with just enough lemon and garlic, moist delicate grape leaves – probably the best in town, smoky baba ghanouj, and the best falafel I have had anywhere – chick-pea croquettes, freshly made for each order with a nice crunchy crust, and a terrific spiced filling that is moist enough to hold its shape. These are the best falafel I know of in Portland. I inhale these and dream of more.

For something with a bit more Mediterranean influence, try batenjan mekle. The thin, grilled slices of eggplant in olive oil and lemon juice is topped with garlic, parsley, and feta cheese, served with tahini ($7). I didn’t particularly care for the Kibbee Nayee, an interesting mix of bulgur wheat, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, but I think it was just me, as another of my party finished it off ($5.50).

Mezza

Vegetarians will be at home in any Lebanese restaurant. Try the veggie kabab with a variety of vegetables – most recently onions, tomato, eggplant, zucchini, served with pesto sauce on a bed of basmati rice and tomato sauce ($14.00). There are plenty of meat options available. For the uninitiated, the Meat Mezza is a bit of everything. Plates fly from the kitchen with slightly smaller dishes of tabbouleh, hummus, grape leaves, baba ghanouj, falafel, kafta kabab, and chicken shawarma ($14.00). For those feeling a bit gluttonous, get the Masawat instead of the Mezza. You’ll get all the above, plus veggie kibbee nayee, labne, baleela, and lamb shawarma. Good luck walking out the door ($21.95).

 

Another excellent choice is any of the various Kibbee plates. I had this dish for the first time in Turkey, sitting on a sunny patio overlooking the coast. I’d had a few too many drinks at the time, which is probably why it holds a place in my heart, but since then I’ve had a weak spot for it. My favorite versions are either stuffed with lamb or beef. Karam’s kibbee saneeyeh  is filled with beef, onions and pine nuts, served with a side of yogurt ($14.95), or kibee labnieh, with grilled ground beef, onions, spices, homemade yogurt, mint, and garlic, served with basmati rice ($16.95). For those looking for a meatless version, try the pumpkin kibbee, layers of fresh pumpkin, bulgur wheat, onions, and walnuts. It’s kind of a strange dish, but I like it, especially during the fall when it just seems to fit ($12.00).

The meat in the goat dishes is slowly simmered and literally falls apart under your fork. I love the Goat Bil Tfeen – tender goat simmered in red wine, topped with garlic, vinegar, and pine nuts, served with bulgur wheat, garbanzo beans, and potatoes. Don’t worry if you can’t say the name, just point and the server will help you through it. It is the best goat dish I’ve had in Portland, with a texture like nothing you have had before. If you’ve never tried goat, this is a great introduction ($19.95).

A dish that is on just about every Lebanese menu is shawarma. They have it over hummus with onions, garlic, vinegar and spices (you can substitute baba ghanouj for the hummus) or with tahini with onions and parsley on a bed of basmati rice. Both the chicken and the lamb version are excellent; unlike many restaurants, the meat is moist and tender. (All versions are $13.95)

Karam has a full bar with some interesting choices. I enjoyed a cocktail made with arak, liquor from Asia and the Middle East, distilled from sundry-palm sap and dates. Like ouzo, the clear liquid turns cloudy when the water and ice are added. You’ll want to sip this one slowly. Rose syrup is more common in desserts and drinks then you might expect. Here an interesting option is the rose martini with strawberry lemonade and rose syrup. The sodas are also fun – soda water flavored with rose water, jallab, tamarind, or mulberry ($3.50).

Light, Airy Baklava

I was surprised how good the desserts are. The baklava is good, sweet (but not sticky sweet like many places) and crispy ($3.50). However, I like to try some of the more exotic offerings like knafe-b-kaak – cheese mixed with farina (a cereal), baked and served with a golden envelope of kaak, and topped with honey-like attur. It is almost ambrosial ($5). Another winner is Kateyef Bil-Ashta, a pancake filled with cream, light syrup and pistachios. What’s not to like? ($4) I love muddy, thick Turkish coffee, and almost always get it too ($2.50).

I think the reason I like Karam so much, is because I can close my eyes and pretend I’ve been transported to another world and back to the Middle East. It’s an oasis off of Stark Street; walking though the door brings you to an unexpected, incongruous space. It is a must on any tour of Portland Lebanese cuisine.

Grade: B+

  • Phone: 503-223-0830
  • Address: 316 SW Stark St., Portland OR. 97204 Google Map.
  • Hours: 11am-9pm Mon-Sat. Closed Sunday
  • Website: KaramRestaurant.com

Karam Lebanese Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. says

    Thanks for the review. Me and my wife went there and had a good time. I am middle eastern so I have tasted the food many times. The grape leaves are the best I tasted in Portland. The meze platter was fine, nothing earth shattering but still enjoyable. The lentil soup was very good. I tried, on your suggestion, Goat Bil Tfeen. It was fine, the meat was very good but I thought it was not really that exciting an entree. Somebody else was having a dish called Mansaf Ghanam and it looked very good, so I think I will try that again. Another minor complaint is that I wish they serve Arak in a little more generous proportion – they are used to serving with water (oh what a sin!) and I drink it straight up so the amount was very little. It is a very similar drink to Turkish raki and we sometimes drink half a bottle on a good night if the conversation is good.

    again, thanks for the review and inspiring me to go here!

    evrim
    http://www.evrimgallery.com

  2. Kai Jones says

    Because you listed this as one of your favorites, I went there with my boss for lunch yesterday. We both really enjoyed our meals and will be going back often.

  3. daawgon says

    All I can say is that I’m a lamb lover, and that the lamb served at Karam is so old that it really cannot still be called lamb. Otherwise, I thought that this place was acceptable.

    Would I go back – NO!

    Would I recommend – NO!

  4. Sonia says

    We were referred by 5th Ave Suites when we asked for a Middle East restaurant (being Lebanese) that was authentic. I must agree with the review of being one of the best all around. The service awesome, the price very well priced, the food, always good and accommodating if any slight comment, but realizing that every kitchen in Lebanon is different and I’ve come to learn that just a change in spice of what Grandma or auntie cook changes the whole meal……therefore, we give this a high rating having dined from coast to coast. Been back many times and looked forward to our move (just three weeks ago) just to have a restaurant as fabulous as this. To add, the coffee is one of the best ever. Every cup is brewed to your liking and as said, the staff is incredibly helpful in recommendations. No need for mom to cook :0)

  5. Jill-O says

    Karam has always been my favorite Lebanese in town. The food is so good, it is a great value, and the owners are incredibly nice and welcoming.

    I like most of the dishes mentioned above, but one not mentioned that I like a lot is the fatte. Grilled chicken or lamb (or neither) on top of toasted pita pieces, roasted eggplant, chick peas, with yogurt and pine nuts. It’s a nice salad-y main course.

    FYI, you can order whole wheat pita in addition to the regular stuff. Just ask for it.

  6. says

    Haven’t been in a long time. Thanks for the re-review and reasons to go back. I enjoyed the style of review also with the history lesson prior to the food.

  7. Jeff says

    Interesting – when I was in Jordan in ’03, a “Schwarma” was a sandwich very similar to the Turkish Donar Kebab or Greek Gyro.

    Tasty too.

  8. averilpdx says

    I haven’t been to Karam in a while, mostly because on the somewhat rare occasions that I get downtown I can’t seem to stay away from Tandoor. However, I do love Karam, a lot, especially the grilled eggplant. I also love that they have whole wheat pita. Food Dude- I was a little surprised that you only gave them 2.5 stars- your review seemed more positive and enthusiastic than that. Just curious what kept it from being at least a 3.

  9. Evan says

    Having moved from the Detroit area I’ve been a bit spoiled by great Lebanese / Middle Eastern restaurants. The metro Detroit area sports the largest middle eastern population in the U.S. I’m eager to head down and give this place a try, I simply can’t get enough of that food. Thanks for the review.

  10. reduxredux says

    Eating Lebanese in Portland can be daunting because there is no superior place that does everything well. In mezze terms (and allowing for the fact that I may or may not have eaten at these places in a year or two), Ya Hala has the best baba, Aladdin’s Cafe has the best bread, Habibi serves their grape leaves hot w/ tahini, and Nicholas is consistently average, without any real standout. I’ve had good falafel, hummus, and taboule from all of these places, but Ya Hala and Aladdin’s are the places I would choose over the others.

    I had heard that Karam was in a league above the other places in town. It definitely is the nicest setting, has the most options, and has dishes that can’t be ordered elsewhere. I went here a couple of weeks ago. I can’t remember the names of the dishes we ordered.

    We started with the vegetarian mezze, which was the worst thing that we got. It wasn’t bad, just mediocre. The baba in particular was bland, without the smoky roasted taste or lemon, which would have brightened it some. The falafel was okay. Good grape leaves, though, served hot in tahini like at Habibi. Besides the grape leaves, nothing was better than could be hard at a less expensive place.

    One person had the meat platter, with kofta, kibbe, shawarma? (I’m just guessing) After some boring meat mezzes, I usually don’t feel inspired to order meat at Lebanese restaurants but this was great. Definitely the best Lebanese meat I’ve had here.

    Another person had a salmon entree. The salmon was well cooked. Seemed like something that someone who didn’t like Lebanese food would order when they came here.

    I ordered an entree that came out looking like a dessert at Pix. It was roasted eggplant, pita, and vegetables covered in tahini and formed into a mound (yogurt was standard – tahini was extra). This was definitely an order above the other Lebanese places in town. Very rich, could probably have been split between two or three people with a mezze.

    I have to say that my first impression is that Karam is not necessarily better than other places in town, just different. They are a little more expensive than the others, but it is downtown and the decor is so much nicer (is there a competition to make ugly interiors in Lebanese restaurants? The trompe l’oeil mural in Ya Hala makes me want to gouge my eyes, and that’s the nicest interior of the four I mentioned). The menu has more entrees, and the entrees are more interesting. Definitely worth further exploration.

  11. joyce says

    i m middle eastern and i know how all the food tastes like and i feel that is fresh and home made and i love how they celebrate the birthdays
    this is my favorite restrant EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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