Telephone: (503) 235-3277
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Rostra rating: 3.5
Consistently named Portland’s best Lebanese restaurant, TarBoush (Arabic for fez) is a fixture on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.
The setting, a mid-nineteenth century Victorian mansionette, is certainly not your standard Mediterranean/Middle Eastern dining space. An ambience of faded elegance permeates the restaurant with the grey and brown color scheme offset by more colorful textured wall treatments. The nine or so wooden tables and their chairs are well-worn and inviting. One of the space’s nicest features is an eight seat antique bar sporting five curated taps (the sixth dispenses Stella Artois, sadly) as well as specialty cocktails that put a Lebanese twist on standards like mojitos and margaritas. TarBoush’s rather pedestrian house wines are eclipsed by a small, but high quality, selection of Lebanese reds and whites (the vines of Lebanon never seem to get the respect they deserve, but they pair wonderfully with any food that is even vaguely Mediterranean).
In the summer, hooka smoking is allowed at half of the restaurant’s covered outside seating area, and there is even a supply of fezzes, each festooned with a golden cedar tree, for serious old school vapers. The convivial staff, and owner Pierre Boutros in particular, stoke the dining conviviality without going over the top.
Despite all these pleasant diversions, your attention should and will be dominated by the food. Drawing on millennia of Lebanese hospitality, Mr. Boutros clearly understands the importance of first impressions with his bespoke pita, which arrives warm, golden brown, and puffy at one’s table scant minutes after ass meets seat. TarBoush’s pita is not so much bread as edible silverware that double dog dares ya’ to over order from the extensive list of cold and hot appies.
Speaking of which, the labne (bespoke Kefir yogurt cheese garnished with dry mint and olive oil) and Mharmmara (crushed walnuts mixed with roasted red pepper, cumin, pomegranate molasses, and olive oil) are Leventine treasures.
Team Mago’s current fave, however, are the eggplant rolls (pan fried and stuffed with ricotta, feta, parsley, and onions) — the salty/savory interior contrasts nicely with sweet eggplant boosted by balsamic vinegar.
Cave prandium: portion sizes are large-to-huge.
Hot ‘tizers are also mostly excellent. Soujouk (lamb and beef sausage with housemade Soujouk seasoning, garnished with oil, tomato, and lemon juice) comes napped in a cumin-out-the-ass sauce, while the toothy Levantine flavor bombs work great as a dog-in-the-pita spiked with labne and whatever other sauces and garnishes will litter your table by this point in a meal.
Kibbeh (deep-fried teardrops — no one does culinary metaphors like MagoGuide — of ground beef mixed with bulgur wheat, onion, and pine nuts) displayed a very generous meat-to-breading ratio in addition to more cumin.
Only the falafel was surprisingly mediocre, to include its dipping sauce.
MagoGuide’s competitors claim that TarBoush produces the of the best shawarma plates (lamb, beef, or chicken) and the best mezza platter in town. This is almost certainly true for the lamb shawarma made with top sirloin and served with an onion parsley mix, tahini, and very good basmati rice. The beef is inferior– the lower price should be a warning–the terres major filet used is actually a shoulder cut taken from a muscle near the flatiron and often touted as a poor man’s filet mignon. But it just does not work with this preparation, coming to the table tough and lacking in flavor. Both of these dishes do not stint on portion size, with one platter being plenty for two or three, especially if you indulge in appies prior. The mezza platters being composed of hot and/or cold appies (already raved about above) are also probably the best in town. We’ll let you know as we check out TarBoush’s competitors.
Mago tip: TarBoush is often open during times when other restaurants aren’t, like Thanksgiving, the day after Christmas, New Year’s Day etc.