If you paint a sign on your restaurant window that reads, "The best there ever was. The best there is. The best there will ever be," you'd better be prepared to back up that claim.
And Sami Kraydie, owner of the four-month-old Sinbad that bears that sign, is ready to put his money where your mouth is. "To be very honest, I came here to Denver to visit a few times, and I saw the quality of the Middle Eastern food here, and I know I can do a lot better," he says. "No offense meant and I respect the other restaurants, but none of them do the items the way I do them, which is the true Lebanese way."
Kraydie comes by his knowledge of Lebanese food honestly: He's originally from Beirut, the country's culinary headquarters -- although between that capital city and Lebanon's more rural regions there are as many variations on, say, tabbouleh as there are versions of Buffalo wings in the States. (According to urban Lebanese, the salad should have a high proportion of burghul to parsley; the outlying areas tend toward more parsley.) But no matter what part of Lebanon you're from, Kraydie says, anyone serving Middle Eastern food in this country should act as an ambassador. "You are representing your homeland," he explains. "This is why I cannot understand what some of these restaurants are thinking, offering such low-quality ingredients. It makes Middle Eastern food look cheap, and I do not think that is acceptable."
2236 South Colorado Boulevard
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
After spreading Middle Eastern goodwill in London during college, and then in hotels throughout Europe and North Africa, Kraydie started his unofficial American ambassadorial duties in 1974 at Miami's Diplomat Hotel. "This is the true country of opportunity," Kraydie says, and he's proved it by opening 28 restaurants across the country over the last 25 years. This Sinbad is the eighth with the same name and basic menu; the last one was in Phoenix, and his cooking at that spot caught the attention of food critics judging a 1998 show, netting Kraydie a nice story in Nation's Restaurant News. "I'm proud of what I've accomplished with my restaurants," he adds. "I lease the space, I set up the restaurant, and then I sell. But this might be my last stop, though, because I like the weather in Colorado a lot."
He also likes the space he found here, in a busy Colorado Boulevard strip mall that's also home to Damascus, one of the area's most popular Middle Eastern eateries. But the competition doesn't concern Kraydie. "We are different," he explains. "My focus is Lebanon, which is very different cooking from Syria. And they are always full, so there is room for one more." In fact, he thinks there's so much room that he's already looking into expanding. "This Sinbad is the smallest one to date," Kraydie says. "But I am hoping to take over the VCR shop and the salon next door, and then I can add the belly dancing and other amenities that I've had in the other restaurants." For now, though, Denver's Sinbad has only eight tables and no liquor license, which Kraydie says he's in the process of obtaining. "A month, I think," he adds. "I hope no longer."
But while the tiny eatery can't serve spirits, it dishes up plenty of authentic Lebanese cooking in a cheerful, casual atmosphere. The staffers are friendly -- sometimes too friendly, since they tend to get caught up in conversations with customers -- and vary in their knowledge of Lebanese cooking (or, in the case of one server who said it was her second day, any cooking at all). Fortunately, the food, which is all cooked by Kraydie, speaks for itself. "I am the man, and I do it all here," he explains. And for the most part, he does it very, very well.
The best way to sample a wide range of his fare is a combination plate, such as the ideal-for-vegetarians Sinbad & the Seven Seas Sampler ($9.95). The eleven items -- not counting a few olive and pickle garnishes -- essentially comprise the entire roster of Sinbad starters, and each one is a fine example of a Middle Eastern classic. We dug into the creamy, smooth-textured, garlic-primed hummus; unusually oniony stuffed grape leaves; and tabbouleh that offered even proportions of parsley and burghul (that's bulgar, which is hulled wheat, and is closely associated with Lebanese and Syrian cooking), as well as just the right amount of tomato (some Middle Eastern tabbouleh recipes use it only as a garnish) and a hint of mint. Other offerings were more vividly flavored. The potent baba ghanouj contained charbroiled eggplant (some Middle Eastern eateries simply roast it), which gave the mixture a sharper taste that went well with the tahini (an oily, nutty, sesame-seed paste that's also used in hummus). And while a little warning might have been helpful with the garlic dip, one bite was enough to make any aficionados of the love bulb writhe on the floor in ecstasy: This was raw garlic, freshly minced, mixed with just enough mashed potatoes to give it some body and enriched with olive oil. (Warning: This item is not recommended for office workers who share cubicles.)
Working our way around the sampler, we also enjoyed the lebni (I've also seen it spelled labneh), Sinbad's excellent take on the ubiquitous, mint-kissed yogurt condiment that can be drained into a cheese or left thin (here it was thinner); lubieh bizzeyt, or green beans stewed with tomatoes; and the moujaddara, a mash of lentils and rice enlivened with fresh parsley. And while the falafel was an unusual combination of garbanzo and fava beans mixed with parsley, cilantro and sesame seeds that tasted more, well, vegetal than most versions, it wasn't the dry puck you get from a boxed mix. The spinach pie was so tiny it was hard to get a good inventory of its contents, but it tasted just right: spinach and feta melded together inside puff pastry.
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Another combination, the kabob version ($12.95), was all about delectable meats: plush, impeccably grilled chunks of marinated chicken, beef filet and ground lamb, all removed from their skewers and placed atop rice that had been mixed with bits of rice vermicelli (I always thought that was an Armenian thing, but Kraydie assures me it is not). Although our other meat dishes were less stunning than the kabob combo, they were certainly respectable. The gyros ($7.95) had been grilled a little too long and the edges of the pressed lamb were on the dry side, but the meat itself was high-quality. The beef shawarma ($7.95), a rotisserie-cooked deal that featured beef sliced off the skewer in small, thin sheets, was tender and redolent of garlic. Although some of the meats are available as sandwiches, the sides of hummus and tabbouleh that come with the entrees make them real bargain meals: Only the hungriest of the hungry will leave Sinbad without a carryout container.
Entrees also offer a choice of soup or salad, and I'd be hard-pressed to pick between them. The salad was a simple mix of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers coated with a heavily black-pepper-speckled dressing that was surprisingly mild, very creamy and slightly tangy; the soup was a lentil brew that elevated the lowly legume to new culinary heights. Here it had been cooked until velvety and paired with cumin in a vegetable-based broth that would have been wonderful to sop up with the pitas -- if only those hadn't turned into hard-edged Frisbee halves.
Those pitas were one of Sinbad's few sins. They tasted like they came from King Soopers; Kraydie should have knocked on Damascus's doors and asked to borrow a few of their homemade pitas. The bland baklava ($1.50) was also very, very dry. And I was somewhat disappointed by what wasn't on Kraydie's limited menu: I'd love to find a credible kibbeh, which is almost the national dish of Lebanon; or khoubiz, an excellent flat bread; or the baked fish in hot chile sauce that I once sampled in a wonderful Lebanese eatery in New York. But Kraydie promises to expand his offerings when he expands his restaurant.
In the meantime, he's serving up some of the most authentic versions of Lebanese classics you'll find in this town -- and in more than a few cases, the only versions. Sinbad may not be "the best that there will ever be," but it will certainly do for now.