Not your average Mediterranean place

Welcome to the cuisine of the Levant
Tomas Flint 585 Levantines Cafe 4014
Photos by Tomas Flint

Levantine’s Cafe & Bakery

750 Elmgrove Rd., Rochester


Have you ever walked into a restaurant that bills itself as Mediterranean, but you realize it is not quite the “Greek salad and hummus” joint one associates with that description? It is a label used by many Middle Eastern restaurants to seem more approachable to the American diner in the past. Recently, more restaurants are shedding that cover and embracing their heritage. While the Mediterranean region and the Middle East overlap, they are home to several distinctive cuisines that should be celebrated individually (and not lumped under the Eurocentric “Mediterranean cuisine” designation).

The owners of Levantine’s Café takes great pride in their Syrian heritage and it shows in the menu. While they serve some familiar dishes such as hummus, they put their own touch on it. Yes, you can walk into Levantine’s and get your usual “Mediterranean restaurant” order. You will be content with your food— everything I tried there was tasty. However, they this is the only Syrian restaurant in Rochester, so you would be remiss to not take the chance to try something new.

Let’s start off with a uniquely Damascus/Levantine dish: fetteh. The combination of soft chickpeas, garlic sauce, creamy yogurt, crisp pieces of toasted pita, nutty tahini, and roasted almonds sound strange, but it is oddly comforting. This dish is a study in contrast of textures and flavor, yet they all come together in one harmonious note. I have a hard time describing the taste. Each bite conjures up terms like soft, crunchy, mild, and garlicky. Those terms may not seem complementary, but fetteh is one of the most well-balanced dishes I have had in a while. The original fetteh is vegetarian and hearty. If you would like to add more protein, you can also get it topped with some delicious chicken shawarma or eggplant and beef braised in tomato sauce.

Tomas Flint 585 Levantines Cafe 5001

Owners Mohammad and Beth AlFayad behind the counter of the cafe

Abu basti, a traditional Syrian dish, sounds like an autumnal American  concoction on the surface: a tomato-based stew made with squash, beef, and chickpeas. This version features pumpkin and chickpeas, slowly simmered in a gently spiced tomato sauce. It is served with a buttery rice that has bits of toasted vermicelli and topped with a light dusting of sumac. While it is vegetarian as is, you can add koftas (beef meatballs), and I highly suggest you do. The koftas are tender and mildly spiced. Altogether, this is a stew that will nourish your soul in winter. If you enjoy vegetable or beef stew, you will be an abu basti fan. It is a dish offered only on select weekends, so it may not always be available. If you see it on the menu, try it! It is a great dish to start your discovery of Syrian food.

The mixed grill platter is every meat lover’s dream. Two grilled kebabs, one tender chicken kebab and a lightly spiced ground beef kebab, are nestled on top of smoky rice. It comes with a salad and a dip of your choice to complete the meal. This is a delicious dish that will also please any picky eaters you have in your life. Levantine’s Cafe is one of the few restaurants in town that serves halal food (halal is used to describe food that has been prepared in accordance to Islamic dietary regulations, similar to the Jewish concept of kosher). So, this is also one of the places in Rochester that you can bring your Muslim friends.

Tomas Flint 585 Levantines Cafe 4009

The Barley Salad

The barley salad may not have the most exciting name, but it looks and tastes beautiful. Rows of bright green scallion, vividly red pomegranate seeds (when in season) or craisins, snow white crumbled feta, and toasted pistachios lay on top of perfectly cooked barley tossed in a light and tangy dressing. It is almost too stunning to eat, but please do eat it. This is an incredibly balanced salad that’s greater than the sum of its parts. In the summer, I would be content with just this a hot day. In cooler weather (otherwise known as most of the year in upstate New York), I recommend pairing it with one of their heartier dishes to enjoy the contrast between the lightness of the salad and the warmth of the stews and kebabs.

Levantine’s Cafe also has a sizable variety of Middle Eastern desserts in the dessert case. There is the well-known baklava. There are also the lesser-known and equally delicious cookies like the gharaybeh (petite butter cookies that melts in your mouth) and ma’moul (cookies stuffed with nuts or dates). These are cookies that would make great companions to your coffee or tea. The mehliyaeh (creamy pudding with whipped cream, topped with pistachios and scented with rose water) sounds amazing. Unfortunately, they were out of it on my last visit and, while I can’t personally attest to it being delectable, it wouldn’t be a stretch given the quality of the other food served at Levantine’s Cafe.

Given the current state of the world, it seems unlikely that we will get to take a trip to another country any time soon. Instead, why not travel to Gates to explore the cuisine of the Levant at Levantine’s Cafe?