Restaurant Review: Manakeesh

The magic is in the bakery case

Eleven years ago, at a wedding in Dhaka, I witnessed a custom that must haunt the dreams of anyone who has ever fallen in love in Bangladesh. The groom sat cross-legged on a dais mounded profusely with sweets. A line formed in front of him. One by one, each person approached and put a dessert in the groom’s mouth: globes of dough soaked in rosewater, ghee-slick cubes of sweet cheese, sugary balls of fried milk solids. There were many hundreds of guests. The groom’s eyelids drooped. A greasy sweat spread over his skin. I noticed a strategically placed bucket awaiting emetic emergency. It was a disagreeable spectacle. I have never since had an appetite for Eastern sweets.

[sidebar]But West Philly’s Manakeesh Café Bakery has spun me 180 degrees. The treats stacked high in this vibrant Lebanese spot come from the other end of Asia, but they’re a sight that can change your whole way of thinking about dessert. Deep-fried dough takes the shape of licorice-scented pinecones. Warm spheres of pistachio-studded shortbread crumble around sticky cores of date. Scallops of walnut meal are embedded in semolina cookies whose crusted edges are feathered with powdered sugar. And then your eye falls to the baklava: diamond-cut pieces filled with ground walnuts, rectangles packed with cashews, phyllo rings with butter-brushed whole pistachios glossy as Kryptonite.

Like the French pastries in the next case over, they are the irresistible (and not oversweet) creations of chef Wissam Zayat, who knows his way around Lebanese flatbreads, too. The latter, filled with anything from ground spiced lamb to a simple sprinkle of za’atar (fragrant with thyme, tart with sumac), are blistered in a brick oven whose warmth permeates this soulful former bank building. The flatbreads’ only drawback is that the meat-filled versions tend to bleed oil, so your best bet is to balance that richness with a bowl of lemony chickpea balilah.

Manakeesh’s congenial atmosphere is a marvel of West Philly’s ethnic depth and diversity. Manager Abd Ghazzawi, who grew up attending the Islamic Education School across the street, has brought in enough neighborhood friends to give owner Wissam Chatila’s six-month-old freshman effort the air of a family that’s been hosting guests with copper ewers of cardamom-spiked Turkish coffee since time out of mind.

Now, if I can only persuade them to erect a dais and ply me with those incomparable sweets.

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