A RESTAURANT that serves kebabs and bagels sounds a bit suspect, because the two don't have much in common. However, reassured somewhat that the worst fate we faced was a dinner of bagels with cream cheese, my intrepid dining companion, Cathy the vegetarian, and I set out on a westward trek along Liberty Road to Habib's Kabob & Bagel Cafe.
It looked odd at first. The left half of the restaurant is the Bagel Cafe, which owner Habib Rahimi opened six years ago; the right half is Habib's Kabob, which he opened last year and where he makes food from the Middle East and Iran.
It was on the Kabob side of the small divider that I tasted some of the best food I've had since any company has paid me to eat. We were so taken with the Kabob side, in fact, that we barely looked at the Bagel side.
As with so many chefs, Rahimi grew up in a cooking household; his father prepared many meals in Tabriz, a city in northern Iran. Most of the dishes Rahimi now makes are based on his father's recipes, with some fine-tuning to please American palates. For example, he uses beef, though lamb and goat are more typical in Iran.
He has found that both lamb and goat - especially goat - are a tough sell in this country.
He's learned to do beef very well, however; evidenced by a kebab entree called soltani. It features a skewer of tender, large-bite-sized beef chunks, and a skewer wrapped in light, finely ground beef seasoned with a little salt, pepper and onion.
The entree comes with a nice, nutty basmati rice, two grilled tomatoes, wedges of tandoori bread (which Rahimi bakes in an oven right behind the counter where you place your order) and salad Shirazi, a combination of diced cucumbers, tomatoes and onions tossed in olive oil and lemon juice. A generous sprinkle of mint makes the chilled salad more refreshing.
Rahimi has given much of his menu over to vegetarian dishes, ones hearty enough to surprise the most die-hard meat lovers. The appetizer kashk-o bademjan (whey with eggplant) is a creamy, rich brown mixture of sauteed eggplant and sour cream (more appealing to American palates than whey), seasoned with a trace of garlic and topped with slivers of salted, grilled onions.
This is a complex dish that tastes different as it unfolds on the tongue - one moment tasting strongly of eggplant, then giving way to the onion flavor. It's marvelous slathered on tandoori bread or plain crackers, which is how I enjoyed it the next day as I scraped every last bit out of the takeout container.
Grape leaves make another terrific appetizer. Back in Tabriz, Rahimi says, chefs fill the small, dark-green leaves with meat and serve them with a yogurt sauce called mast-khiar. His stuffing is vegetarian - a nicely textured mix of rice and onions. He uses his father's mast-khiar recipe, which includes dill, tarragon, salt, pepper and a few other spices that he prefers not to name.
The proper use of seasoning is important in Rahimi's kitchen. His version of falafel - the Middle Eastern dish of small fried patties typically made of white beans or chickpeas - is much more moist and spicy than any I've had elsewhere. He serves his on slightly sweet, crisp tandoori bread, which holds up better than pita bread.
The tandoori bread also worked well with Cathy's veggie bal-leh (Turkish for wrap), a sandwich of grilled vegetables that had been soaked in a marinade of pomegranate and olive oils and a little vinegar.
Our only criticism of Habib's is that the simple surroundings do not do justice to the food of countries so rich in history and culture. The few Middle Eastern decorations that Rahimi has are nice, but the bagel sandwich board across the room mars their exotic appeal.
That said, don't be afraid to go to Habib's, because Rahimi is making food you don't want to miss.
1720 Liberty Road, Eldersburg
Open: For lunch and dinner Tuesdays to Saturdays
Prices: Appetizers $2.95 to $4.95; entrees $4.50 to $13.95
Credit cards: All major cards
Food: *** 1/2