By Gretchen Williams, Cuisine Writer
Colorful tajine chimneys speak of Morocco, while classic Nicoise salad makes delicious work of rare Ahi tuna with a French accent. All the flavors, scents and spices surrounding the Mediterranean Sea come together at Boubouffe.
Spare, modern and European feeling, the café is bathed with light and sea breezes from the ocean, just one block away. Comfortable banquettes line the back wall, where hand blown art glass objects lend interest and intense color. Adequate heating and sheltering curtains make the outdoor tables pleasant even in cool weather. Boubouffe Grille’s most wonderful surprise is the off-street parking available next to the restaurant, unusual in busy Belmont Shore.
Southern California shares the splendid Mediterranean climate, and its abundant yield from sea and field. The peninsula that is home to the city of Beirut bears resemblance to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, with a similar orientation to the ocean. Boubouffe is the affectionate name for a favorite local neighborhood café, known for great food and drink as well as for greeting friends. Boubouffe Grill has recreated the ambiance of the beloved original, while serving a diverse and interesting menu.
Boubouffe shines in a crowded field of Mediterranean offerings on 2nd Street. Serving the best coffee since Nosh Café in San Pedro closed, Boubouffe Grille uses only Brazilian coffee processed and packed in Italy for quality control and consistency. Attention to detail is meticulous; espresso sports lovely “crema”, latte swirls gracefully and tastes like coffee velvet.
Breakfast around the Mediterranean varies from region to region, and Boubouffe’s morning repast reflects the differences while choosing the most attractive options. Apple wood smoked bacon is served with eggs as you like them, grilled Portobello mushrooms and roasted tomatoes, along with hash browned potatoes, for a terrific plate with za’atar seasoned pita bread. Though conventional by English or American standards, the quality and execution of these simple dishes make them a standout choice. Boubouffe breakfast platter is probably more typical of the area, with fried eggs, cracked olives, sliced fresh fruit, grilled za’atar spiced pita, feta cheese and Mediterranean salsa, a mild blend of chopped onion, tomato, garlic, peppers, herbs and lemon juice. Poached salmon with harissa aioli (a tangy sauce with dried chilies, garlic, herbs and olive oil) and grilled vegetables may seem alien on a breakfast board, but this dish is a delightful way to greet the day. Lemon crepes are huge European pancakes, thin and delicate with slightly sweet lemon sauce and fresh blueberries, crowned with thick, rich, hand-whipped cream. Even steel cut oatmeal gets special treatment, cooked with apricots, cranberries and lemon zest and served with honey.
Mezze are small plates of every description, meant to be eaten as tapas or appetizers, or combined to make a tasty meal of lots of different things. Calamari fried crispy are irresistible, though calamari sautéed with white wine, lemon and capers give squid new identity. Deep fried frog legs are rarely seen today, though the tender gams are gorgeous garnished with garlic, cilantro and lemon juice. Fried cauliflower could be a new vegetable entirely, accented with garlicky green parsley and cilantro sauce. Stuffed North African peppers put poppers to shame, subtly hot but full of flavor, stuffed with feta cheese and sauced with balsamic reduction, a whole new take on bar snacks. Falafels are standard mezzo, but these crunchy balls are anything but standard, with moist centers, served with yogurt sauce. Cheese roll is a first cousin to Greek tiropita, dense white cheese wrapped in filo dough and baked until warm, just starting to melt. Fried kibbeh are also popular appetizers or snacks, made from shells of cracked wheat filled with seasoned ground meat and pine nuts.
Salads are termed salad entrees, as each is large enough for a whole meal, and with the possible addition of grilled meat or fish, satisfying and nourishing. Halloumi cheese and watermelon served with arugula greens is fascinating, refreshing, interesting and fun to eat all at the same time. Cool watermelon wedges temper slightly salty grilled halloumi cheese, dressed with honey and fig dressing, atop arugula greens for spectacular contrast of flavor and texture. Red potato is the basis for a flavorful salad of roasted red peppers and arugula, dressed with whole grain mustard dressing. Couscous mosaic salad features artichokes, tomatoes, corn, cucumber, cranberries, radishes, red onions, feta cheese and couscous tossed with tart kumquat dressing. Roasted beets star in a salad with creamy goat cheese, radishes, arugula, currants and tangerines with fig vinaigrette.
Samieh the sous chef was born in Syria, and takes great pride in seasoning and spicing each dish. Lamb burger is made with ground lamb seasoned with a secret recipe including sumac, allspice, black pepper, garlic and a touch of honey, with other spices. Pita bread grilled with za’atar seasoning incorporates sesame seeds and olive oil in its mix. Lamb tajine is cooked in the traditional chimney shaped pot with couscous, turnips and black figs. Algerian chicken tajine uses green olives, preserved lemon, Moroccan peppers and steamed couscous. Steak “au poivre” is a French bistro classic, filet mignon coated with cracked peppercorns and served with sautéed vegetables and mashed potatoes. Vegetarians will be thrilled with a grilled vegetable platter served with couscous and Mediterranean pesto. Samieh’s knowledge and care go into every dish, with delectable results.
Desserts are luscious, perfect executions of pistachio tiramisu or flaky baklava, or perhaps beautiful pomegranate sorbet would hit the spot.
Restaurant manager Yuri from the Ukraine has a gift for matching wine with cuisine. Boubouffe Grille is a taste of the Mediterranean in Belmont Shore, a small European respite from the relentless. Let Yuri recommend wine by the glass or the bottle and enjoy a brilliant meal at Boubouffe.
Details: (562) 433-7000, http://www.boubouffegrille.com/
Venue: Boubouffe Grille
Location: 5313 E. 2nd St., Long Beach