Cedar's Cafe- Melbourne, FL- 5 Stars
"Food is an experience of a person's life journey." --Chef Toni
If someone told me when I was growing up in Brevard County that a dinky strip mall off Wickham Road was going to house two amazing restaurants run by celebrity chefs, I would have been stupefied and requested to see what they had been smoking. Flash forward to 2018 and I would be wrong, for the Post Commons strip mall is home to Bacco Wine and Grill and Cedar's Cafe. If you have not already read my review of Baco Wine and Grill, please do so.
Cedar's Cafe has been there, like Bacco, for an eternity in the restaurant business, in this case, well over 30 years. It was started by the current Head Chef's mother who is still back in the kitchen, however, it was when her daughter, current Head Chef Toni Elkhouri, returned to the family business and set up her culinary laboratory in said kitchen that things really began to change. Growing up in the business, surrounded by chefs of all culinary styles and fueled by her own creativity, Chef Toni takes the mundane to heights heretofore untasted. She is a multiple James Beard Award-winning chef as is evidenced in every meal that leaves her kitchen.
Cedar's Cafe, if one has to label it, would fall into the Lebanese or Middle Eastern group of eateries. However, the creative twist Chef Toni stamps the standard dishes with, truly make these some of the best fares I have ever had, let alone food from the Middle East. Our server for the meal was an extremely prompt and efficient waitron by the name of Brittany. She was welcoming, professional and exhibited a profound knowledge of the day's menu. Brittany informed us of the fact the Chef knew I was at the table and as such we were only allowed to order two things off the menu--the rest would be provided as seen fit by the Chef. The two menu items I requested were an order of the Mixed Grill with Lamb and Hummus and some Tabouli.
Waiting with uncontrolled glee to see what lay in store for us, I took this time, per usual, to turn a discerning eye to my environment. Much to my surprise, I glanced around and saw a competing food critic sitting at a nearby table. I guess when it rains, it pours, even in the restaurant industry. As my thoughts were musing on this seemingly funny turn of events, Brittany returned with our dining delectables.
For starters, Chef Toni made us some of her famous grilled Halloumi cheese with a fresh tomato confit that was not only grilled to perfection but the blend of the grilled cheese, seared in butter King mushrooms, grilled fresh citrus along with the confit, that was obviously slow cooked for hours beforehand, was out of this world.
Turning my attention to the next dish, I took a moment to savor the smell spiraling up from the Pita with Wagyu Beef Tartare awaiting my palate. For those unfamiliar with Wagyu beef, it is from Japan with the most famous being Kobe. While these days you can get American Wagyu, Chef Toni insists on ordering hers directly from Japan. This was Toni's take on the common Lebanese dish of Kibbeh nayeh, however with the fried pita being dusted with fresh roasted California garlic and a hint of sour from Middle Eastern spices, this was not your Grandma's Kibbeh nayeh! Au contraire my fellow foodie, this was something fit for Suliman the Great. Accompanying this delightful dish was a side salad that put all other side salads to shame. Consisting of local, sustainably farmed edible flowers and topped with an applewood smoked maple syrup dressing this was extraordinary.
Next to dance on my persnickety palate was Chef Toni's Mixed Grill with Lamb, hummus and foole. Like the edible flowers, the grape leaves are locally farmed and bought that morning fresh. The Lamb was tender, juicy and contained exquisite flavoring. While I found the hummus to present a weaker consistency than what I was accustomed too, the flavor was divine. As to the consistency, I can only assume my previous experience was not from a James Beard Award-winning chef and therefore, not done up to par. Chef Toni's foole was so fresh with such a complex flavor balance that I am sure it would have Dr. Lecter looking for a nice Chianti.
I shed a tear as I noticed the end of this incredible culinary cruise was fast approaching and only three items remained to be tasted the Tabouli, Kibbe and the Baklava. Tabouli is as common as pita bread in the Levant and world wide, really. However, once again, Chef Toni reminds everyone that her awards were not a fluke and takes this to creative levels not commonly found. I am sure it was the mixture of fresh Califonia garlic and citrus that set this apart from all others I have tasted, but then it could just be the complex flavors ending in a minty note. Kibbe is an extremely popular dish in the Middle East and is traditionally made with a mixture of bulgur wheat, minced onions and beef, lamb, goat or camel meat with a conglomeration of local spices. Chef Toni's take on the standard was again lifted to new heights as this was the most extraordinary Kibbe I have ever ingested. The Lamb was tender and seasoned just enough to lend it flavor without being overpowering. It was paired with crisp, fresh seasonal veggies that went together as well as Brooks & Dunn. Baklava is a dime a dozen, one can even find it in counter displays in a lot of greasy spoons these days. However, good baklava is truly an art form and I would place Chef Toni's baklava up against any baklava in the world, it was that good. The fresh filo dough is the key, well that and the seasoning and the unsalted butter.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the one item that has really gone off the charts and started as a lark by the Chef and a few friends. At this point, I think it is safe to say that Cedar's is famous for two things one the unique mixture of seasonings and ingredients and two, their cheese rolls. The cheese rolls started out as a joke a while ago as Chef Toni and her friends were commenting on how the Greeks like to emulate all things American and as such made their own version of "cheese sticks" (cheese wrapped in filo dough/wonton and then fried). This was laughable to our group and so the gauntlet was dropped and Toni stepped into her lab and voila! we get bread stuffed with cheese and homemade garlic sauce consisting of several different kinds of California garlic all fried to a light golden brown. The joke became Toni's finger food piéce de résistance!
The Big Boy says, "A true gem. You can't go wrong with any menu item."