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Levant bends genres, delights diners

Bread & Brew


by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - This game hen dish is a popular menu item at Levant restaurant, which goes beyond the stereotypical Middle Eastern eatery with a wide variety of dishes.If you go to Levant, get the lamb. It’s excellent, and it’s also the crux of the matter. It’s the reason for the wood stacked by the door, and the bright fire flickering by the bar. It’s the difference between a meal and a feast in the Middle Eastern tradition — a tradition that chef Scott Snyder harnesses and refines here, making dishes that are polished and accessible, but with all the wide-awake flavors of harissa, lemon, anchovy and mint.

The bread plate is a good introduction to his style. Pliant, floury pita is joined by a dinner roll with a heart of spicy harissa, and slices of a Moroccan bread textured with semolina and aniseed. The bread is all made on site, and super fresh. It’s served with a brilliant orange carrot tahini spread, and an amazing spicy-sweet condiment called Aleppo chili honey butter.

Cocktails also hover just this side of exotic, with Eastern ingredients including arak, rose jam, and pineapple drinking vinegar. The Eastern Standard Time is a whiskey sour spiked with tamarind and garnished with a big chunk of candied ginger. The Dardanelles, a swirl of cognac, Cynar, rhubarb syrup and lemon, comes across as fruity, but dominated by the opulent taste of cognac. A dainty cocktail called the Only Way Up combines tarragon vodka with peach and ruby grapefruit liqueurs, rosemary, lemon and seltzer. It sounds over-the-top but is actually quite restrained and pleasantly floral.

Pleasures of fat, bone and meat

The menu encourages you to put together a meal from shared small plates. One night, asparagus was fried in light spicy breading, with creamy labneh (strained yogurt) enriched with olive oil for a sauce. Another night, a similar dish was a tempura-like mixture of fried chard, young snap peas, and long savory ribbons of spring onion, with a labneh dip tingling with mint and cumin.

Baby artichokes were a little too chewy, but had a nice flavor, complemented by a sherry vinaigrette — in general, sauces are a highlight here — and a big sunny egg on top. When the yolk was broken, it mingled with cubes of lamb bacon and tangy bits of black garlic that rounded out the dish, making it vivid and savory.

Even more intense, a large piece of sardine made a virtue of fishiness. It was so pungent and salty that squirts of juice from a grilled lemon actually tamed it down a little. It rested on a bed of charmoula, a North African condiment reminiscent of pesto, and composed at Levant of parsley, cilantro, garlic, paprika, saffron, cumin and more.

The toffee lushness of dates contrasted with the prim bitter edge of cress in a large and refreshing salad dressed with goat cheese and dukka, an Egyptian spice blend that includes nuts and black pepper.

The salad was served alongside the entrée, which worked well, although it wasn’t what we were expecting. The pacing of the meal was a little off, with drinks arriving slowly aLamb entrees cooked in a wood-burning oven - they stack fire wood near the door - is the way to go at Levant, our reviewer says.nd dishes in a flurry, crowding the table. That said, fresh greens were a good match for a rich platter of lamb, prepared three different ways.

The pleasures of fat, bone and meat were compressed into one rich little chop. Alongside, there was a rich, hefty meatball, or rather, a casing-less sausage of ground lamb meat with spices inspired by the warm seasonings of shawarma. And there was a thick pink slice from a hearth-roasted leg of lamb, tender and silvery and steak-like.

The mix of spring vegetables alongside was also seasoned with lamb jus and bits of lamb meat, as well as preserved lemon and mint. Altogether, a very fulfilling plate of food, including the farmers market fresh peas, onions, asparagus and potatoes, which could have appeared in any high-end restaurant in the Pacific Northwest on a warm spring night.

And speaking of warm nights, bring your sunglasses. Levant’s boxy dining room, with huge windows facing north and west, catches a glare as the sun goes down. Other than that, it’s a pleasant, minimalistic space, formerly Alder Pastry and Dessert. Like the cooking, the interior space doesn’t lean too heavily on its regional influences.

I don’t really like calling Levant a Middle Eastern restaurant, because its inspirations are wide ranging, and also because Middle Eastern food in Portland typically means a predictable, budget meal. The higher prices here might surprise you — but so will the food, and it’s totally worth it.

5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2448 E. Burnside St., 503-954-2322, www.levantpdx.com, entrees $20-$29

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