"You want free soda? I get you free soda."
"You want to pay now or pay later? Pay later, maybe after some dessert, eh?"
"It's $10.86 total for you, $10.85."
Belal al-Ramahi could sell espresso to an insomniac. His head barely eclipses the height of the handsome, imposing coffee bar that stretches the length of four-month-old St. Louis Coffee Oasis & Mediterranean Café, his one-room establishment in the Central West End. As he bobs from the register and the coffee urns to the tiny kitchen and back again, his diminutive frame seems propped up by invisible springed coils. The boisterous, persuasive way he interacts with his customers is just as bouncy.
Or maybe that's just the caffeine talking. There's so much java in this joint, a coffee addict could get his fix via osmosis. Glass jars of coffee beans crowd the far end of the counter. A placard, positioned to one side of the bar, is just as crammed, listing nearly 100 coffee creations, many with elusive but tempting names, like the Velvet Hammer Latte, the Cadillac, the Depth Charge and Rocket Fuel. I once requested the Power House and when I asked what was in it, al-Ramahi wouldn't tell me. He just smiled a Cheshire grin, then threw together what looked like a shot of espresso, a pour of regular coffee and some chocolate syrup, topped off with a ladleful of froth. When he handed it to me, he quipped, "You've got ID, right?"
The Power House was too much for a cup-a-day coffee drinker like me: powerful and pungent, sludgy and gritty, like a serving of unfiltered Chilean cabernet. The long draw of half-and-half I added did nothing to tame the drink didn't even turn it a creamy hue, let alone take the edge off its flavor. The next time I visited, I requested a plain ol' cup of joe. Even then, al-Ramahi asked if I wanted it mild or strong. And even then, the mild gave me the jitters. (As did the prices of some of the beverages. A few specialty drinks reach $3.75; a buck more would buy you pretty much any food item on the menu.)
Al-Ramahi and his wife, Qamar, who does most of the cooking and pastry-making, are Jordanian. They emigrated five years ago to Columbia, where Qamar's brother owns a coffeehouse. The Coffee Oasis is their stab at taking what they learned from the Coffee Zone in Mizzou-town and adding to it what they know from home.
The "café" aspect of the Oasis proved much more my speed. The al-Ramahis offer Mediterranean cuisine with particular emphasis on Middle Eastern dishes. For statesiders, that translates to both the familiar and the daring. The cuisine of Jordan (which lies partly in the Fertile Crescent, the geographic region of the Middle East between the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates rivers renowned for its lush farmland) relies heavily on olives and olive oil, dairy from goats and sheep, bulgur (cracked wheat) and pulse (legume seeds).
On one visit, the specials board listed kibbeh, a Middle Eastern dish of ground lamb, bulgur and chopped onions. Kibbeh at its most authentic involves pounding the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle so that no one of them can be singled out on the palate. The kibbeh at Coffee Oasis lives up to the high standard, boasting a comforting consistency akin to meat loaf; it came sided with lebni, a yogurt dip like tzatziki but thicker still, very tart in flavor and almost pasty in texture. The lebni, which can be ordered on its own à la carte, is topped with a tiny pool of olive oil. It's also served as part of the Arabic Breakfast Plate, alongside falafel, feta, kalamata olives, paper-thin slices of cucumbers and tomatoes and spears of grilled pita. It's an audacious array for an American, but then again, what better morning elixir than a healthy measure of olive oil? Well, coffee may be better. (A three-egg Mediterranean omelet, made with chopped parsley and onion and served with or without cukes, tomatoes, olives and feta, is the menu's other morning meal.)
When I couldn't decide whether to order hummus, lebni or ful mudammes, Belal put together a plate of all three of the menu's "Mediterranean side dishes." Ful mudammes are fava beans, typically puréed with garlic, lemon, olive oil and tahini; here their sharp tang provided a nice counterpoint to the milder hummus. The dishes were accompanied by pita that had been grilled and seasoned with olive oil and za'atar, an aromatic blend of herbs that often includes ground sumac. (Qamar says her heavy-on-the-oregano formula doubles as a deterrent against the common cold.)
The gyro, one of a handful of more familiar Mediterranean options, is a fine specimen, with lots of grilled lamb and lettuce and a hefty dose of fresh parsley. As a change of pace from the typical gyro presentation, you can get yours topped with tzatziki or hummus (house-made, simultaneously cooling and tart). Qamar twice-grills the pita that holds the gyros together, which renders a tantalizingly crisp exterior. The chicken kebab is served in the same style as the gyro, again densely packed in (or on top of, if you prefer) the pita. It's upstanding, if not quite ravishing, as is the spinach pie, heavy on the phyllo and light on the spinach. A Greek salad comes, somewhat incongruously, with a pepperoncini or two, but stands out thanks to chopped parsley (why must we Americans relegate this stupendous herb to mere garnish?) and a tempting yet simple (and near-invisible) dressing of diluted lemon juice.
Middle Eastern pastries make great modest desserts, hitting the sweet tooth's sweet spot with honey, nuts and cinnamon no trace of confectionery (not to mention chocolate) overload. Qamar prepares rugelach and baklava in cashew, walnut and pistachio varieties. The rugelach possesses a trace of sweetness; the honey-saturated baklava hits the gut with a glorious, if gluttonous, thud. Basma is a pastry made with a wheat-based dough and filled with ground pistachios. It's as dense as the al-Ramahis' nod to American sweets, the Really Big Brownie, but with the flavor of baklava.
If Belal would allow it, these desserts should be enjoyed with a glass of milk. But fat chance getting that out of him.
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