By Bob Sacks
It must be love! Love of introducing diners to authentic Egyptian cuisine; love of preparing creative food with skill and care; and love of sharing the story of his journey, that drives Mohamed Elbery to be at Café 28 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Much of that time is spent in the kitchen, where this chef/owner handles all the cooking and baking, mostly by himself.
One bite of his Falafel or Foul, and you’ll feel that love, too! His first restaurant in Red Bank was there for six years, before being relocated to its present site in Cobblestone Village in Ocean Township about two years ago. The large dinner and lunch menus, based on fresh ingredients cooked to order, has something for everyone. Since we were not familiar with all of the dishes, we asked for, and received, expert guidance in ordering from the chef’s son, Karim, our gracious and engaging server.
We led off with Classic Hummus ($6), the chickpeas rendered smooth and creamy, mixed with tahini (sesame paste), seasoned with fresh lime juice, garlic and olive oil. Served with soft, fresh pita triangles, this was heads above any hummus I have had before.
Likewise, the Baba Ganoush ($7), Char-grilled eggplant, mashed to a fine texture with tahini, fresh lime juice and garlic. Yum!
Another cold appetizer, Mohamara ($6), roasted red peppers blended with onion, breadcrumbs, mixed nuts, and enough chili pepper to give it a kick without being overly hot, was very enjoyable.
Labneh ($6) was impressive. Homemade yogurt simply seasoned with fresh mint, garlic, and olive oil, was cool and creamy. This, and the other appetizers above, are all meant to be eaten with that excellent pita bread.
From the Hot Appetizer section of the menu, Baby Sausage (Suguk) ($8), made from ground lamb, and served in a savory tomato garlic sauce, somewhat reminiscent of a rich marinara sauce, was notable.
I thought the Goulash with Cheese, Spinach and Leek ($6), wrapped in incredibly flaky phyllo was truly special. Not to be missed.
Falafel ($12); instead of the usual chickpea, or mixed chickpea/fava version, Mohamed uses all fava beans. Deep fried, greaseless spheres, were crunchy on the outside, and lush, soft, and creamy inside. My dish of the night!
Just when I was sure the meal had peaked, out came Foul ($12), stewed fava beans, in a tomato-based sauce, with onion and parsley, and topped with hard-boiled egg halves. The subtle seasonings and great mouthfeel made this memorable. This dish, as well as almost all the others, displayed a level of finesse and complexity generally seen in fine French cooking. Who knew that Egyptian food could be this nuanced, sophisticated, and multidimensional?
Don’t be concerned about ordering multiple dishes based on the humble eggplant. Here it is elevated to gourmet status, and every preparation we ate displayed a unique flavor profile, so each one always tasted fresh and new. For example, Moussaka ($16) featured thin slices of smoky roasted eggplant, with a tangy tomato sauce and pine nuts, which made for a pleasing crunch; while the Eggplant Fattah ($22), a delicious mix of grilled eggplant, in a bechamel sauce, and topped with toasted almonds was totally different… a whole other taste sensation. Highly recommended.
A special of Lamb Shank ($31) was falling-off-the-bone tender, in a richly flavored sauce with carrots, celery and Middle-Eastern spices.
We also enjoyed Koshari ($16), a classic dish of rice, ditalini pasta, lentils, chickpeas and tomato sauce, garnished with a tangle of fried onions.
What wines to take to this BYOB restaurant? As a rule, dry whites with some acidity (Italians or Sauvignon Blancs), or off-dry styles (German or Alsatian Rieslings) also pair well. We enjoyed a fruity and spicy Sicilian white: 2016 Planeta Etna Blanco paired with those complex flavors of the vegetable-based dishes. Want red? Avoid high alcohol, tannic, fruit bombs, like Zinfandel and Cali Cabs, and look to Barberas or Sangiovese-based wines from Italy, or Spanish reds. Our choice? 2015 Passopisciaro Contrada P., a Sicilian, made from Nerello Mascalese grapes, which displayed red fruits and refreshing acidity; a bit like a Nebbiolo or Burgundy in style.
Dessert anyone? The Baklava ($10) was a splendid rendition… crispy, buttery, and flaky. Kanafeh ($9), crunchy, shredded phyllo dough, layered with a creamy sweet cheese filling and drizzled with rose water syrup, was light and airy, and had great texture. Roz Bel Haleeb (rice pudding baked with bechamel sauce, and topped with pistachios) ($9) was a satisfying riff on the traditional version.
Café 28 is in a class by itself. The passion and love that Chef Mohamed puts into his food is readily apparent in every dish. Be adventurous, go for a meal, experience the food, and feel the vibe…you might just fall in love, too!
835 W. Park Ave.
Ocean Township, NJ 07712
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Read more reviews here. Follow him on Instagram @dinnerwithbob
This article was first published in the Feb. 21-Feb. 27, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.
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