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Dining review: Lebanese cafe goes big and bold with flavor

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  • Dining review: Lebanese cafe goes big and bold with flavor


    Tampa Tribune

    Hummus and beef filet kebabs from Soho Oasis Cafe in Hyde Park.

    TAMPA - Recent decades haven't been kind to Beirut, a city once known
    as the Paris of the Middle East, an oasis of cosmopolitan culture.

    It's on the rise again, but through its ups and downs one core value
    was never lost: its food, a richly diverse mix of gourmet influences
    from Greek to Eastern European to French, Spanish and Arabian. Lebanese
    menus are so diverse with such powerful personalities they'd rival
    a speakers lineup at a G-20 conference.

    Tampa has an outpost of that mix, tucked in a small spot in Hyde Park
    called Soho Oasis Café. Prepare yourself for bold, unexpected flavors.

    Now that the weather is turning slightly cooler than thermonuclear,
    we highly recommend the outdoor patio with its luxurious curtains,
    fans and dim lighting with soft Middle Eastern music.

    And bring on the meza, little appetizer dishes akin to tapas from
    Spain. There's baba ghanoush (spiced, pureed, roasted eggplant),
    stuffed grape leaves and luscious halloumi cheese (a rare cheese that
    can grill without melting).

    We chose the sujuk, spicy Armenian-style sausage, sliced thin
    and roasted, almost like salami, served with pita, tomatoes and
    pickles. Yes, pickles, but these aren't Vlasic -- they're seasoned
    much more powerfully, and provide a simultaneously cool and sharp
    contrast to the salty heat of the sausage. Note the theme -- strong
    flavors contrasting and complementing each other.

    Also as a starter, we picked the surprisingly huge spinach pizza
    appetizer, and almost felt transported to Italy, with rich and velvety
    feta, olive oil and smoky spinach.

    For one entree we selected a Lebanese standard, the lamb shish kebab,
    which came with tender grilled meat, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers,
    mushrooms and mango pickles, a plate easily large enough to share. The
    accompanying bas was the shawarma chicken, which came with spiced,
    shredded chicken, pickles and garlic mayo sauce.

    For the indecisive, there's a combination kebab plate ($19.95) to
    share among a few people. For the braver, we'd point out the baby
    quail marinated with olive oil, spices and served on basmati rice.

    For wine, there are several blends, including Chateau Kefraya Les
    Breteches from Lebanon, with a deep fruitiness (almost like a Port)
    and a cedar/tea tone to balance the spicy entrees.

    Several desserts can cool off the flavor party.

    The mellowest is the banana crepe. There's no over-the-top drizzle
    of caramel or pile of berries. Rather this dish is all about warm and
    creamy banana and light crepe dough -- an ambassador from the nation
    of Mellowpotamia.

    On the more exotic side, we picked the ismalieh, which is something
    like a Middle Eastern version of tiramisu. The kitchen finely shreds
    phyllo dough, crisps it up into a kind of fuzz, then adds a layer of
    ricotta and ashta cream, then tops it with pistachio and syrup. Take
    a deep breath, because this dessert exudes richness.

    Besides the listed menu items, we suggest asking about specials,
    because owner Richard Azar often creates a special dish and lets
    regular diners know it's coming. More than half of his customers
    appear to be regulars who come in weekly, if not daily.

    Hookah smokers have options, too, with more than a dozen of the
    traditional water pipes available for smoking on the patio and tobacco
    mixes for $15.

    After taking such a culinary tour of the Mediterranean, we decided
    Soho Oasis isn't so much a fusion restaurant as it is an embassy row --
    each dish fiercely authentic to its own place of origin.

    Pickles, meet pizza, meet kebabs, and say hello to crepes. Everyone
    getting along?