Tabbuli a restaurant in search of identity
By | Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Cuisine: Mediterranean and American
Category: Neighborhood Favorite; Special Events
Location: 6 N. Market St.
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-1 a.m. Saturday; 9 a.m.-1 a.m. Sunday
Food: 2 1/2
Costs: Tapas $6-$12; seafood $3.50-$12; sandwiches $8; pitas $8-$8; pizza $8; salads $6-$8, desserts $5-$6. Kids menu: $5.
Vegetarian Options: Yes
Bar: Full-service bar; specialty cocktail menu
Decibel Level: Varies
Wheelchair Access: Yes
Parking: Metered street and garages
Other: Delivery service 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 2-8 p.m. Sunday; catering; Facebook, Twitter, newsletter, blog; hookah, Wi-Fi, live music on the patio; special events, White Haute Nights; tabbuligrill.com.
Tabbuli, also known as Tabbuli Grill, is a property of the Charleston Hospitality Group. Owned by Sam Mustafa, this Mediterranean-inspired restaurant joins Toast!, Market Street Saloon (downtown and North Charleston), Eli’s Table and Whisk as the latest entry into CHG’s portfolio of growth in the food and beverage industry during the past 10 years.
Tabbuli is a restaurant in search of an identity. It is in the tight space that was once Your Place, then Quick Bites and finally High Tide Cafe.
At the foot of Market Street, it is a natural funnel for the foot traffic of tourists and the surge of cruise ship passengers.
It has wisely expanded outside into a protected bar area and attractive stone patio complete with telescoping fountains, palm trees, umbrellas and potted plants.
It has launched a successful White Haute Nights program, complete with specialty cocktails, a small-plates menu, contemporary fashion designers and progressive stylists to rock the night away with glam.
On those nights, Tabbuli transforms the patio with gauzy curtains, enhanced seating, geometric floral displays, bands of white lights and a brave attempt to foray into fashion club land.
No Skinny Girl Cocktails were spotted on the menu, and there does not appear to be a requirement to book “bottle service,” so mark your calendars for Aug. 24 when White Haute Nights will reappear with cocktails, fashion and fun on the Market Street runway.
Tabbuli serves the same menu at lunch and dinner. It is driven by the Mediterranean taste memories of Mustafa, as interpreted by chef Scot Vosburgh, whose training and early culinary experiences followed an Asian latitude, then Lowcountry classics at Oscar’s of Summerville and is now executive chef at Tabbuli.
That is why you will see “char-su” lamb meatballs ($10), mango slaw, ahi tuna with soy mustard and wontons ($12) and a touch of the sushi cannon in seafood preparations.
The chef’s classic training is revealed in the use of beurre blanc, frisee, Boursin and flavored aioli sauces.
But the flavors and ingredients of the Mediterranean hold center stage, beginning with the namesake bulgur wheat and parsley salad ($6) to classic pitas ($8-$9) filled with falafel, kofta and gyro.
Hummus ($7-$8) is prepared awarma style with beef, and also masabacha style topped with warm chickpeas (popular in Israel and Lebanon).
The kitchen nailed the flavors of smoky eggplant in babaghanoush ($7) seasoned with tahini, garlic and lemon. This dip was served with pita wedges bearing the scars of char, but rather than warm and crusty, this portion of flatbread was cold and the large quantity contrasted with the small amount of the babaghanoush.
Toasted paratha (an Indian bread) was topped with shaved lamb, wilted spinach, pepperonata and tzatziki, the ubiquitous cucumber sauce of the Middle East. The lamb ($9) was rich and flavorful, but dried out. The paratha, described as a “soft taco,” was a fried and crunchy flatbread.
That was the conundrum of much of what we sampled: fattoush salad ($7), one of the best uses for stale pita, was balanced in its flavors of sumac, lemon and mint and is the perfect refreshment for “hot” nights. Platters of kebobs ($12) were generous with rice and grilled vegetables, but even there the uneven timing on the grill prevailed where peppers were charred and onions were not.
A grilled chicken pita ($9) was topped with a mild Jerusalem salad and the “caramelized” onions were steamed at best. The flavored fries, so common at chain restaurants everywhere, were a disconnect to the other seasonings on the plate and the heritage of the restaurant. A simple toss in olive oil and rosemary or garlic with a spritz of lemon would make them better aligned with the flavors of the Med.
The small kitchen is brought to a halt when the patio is crowded, and that may be why so much appears to be pre-cooked and served without proper attention to temperature.
That is unfortunate because the flavors are good.
There also is a big pet peeve about the prices not posted for the cocktails. It is not only a disservice to the guests but also an extra burden on the service staff, running back to the bar to verify the prices.
Tabbuli is a sticky place and an aggressive bussing of the tables is needed. Too often a party leaves and the hostess seats another party with no intervening cleanup.
Desserts are quite nice because Whisk, a bakery in the CHG portfolio, is under the direction of executive chef Vinzenz Aschbacher, formerly of Charleston Grill. His take on baklava ($5) is fresh and nutty, not the cloyingly sweet version.
Many of the young guests pass on dessert and enjoy the sweet smoke of a hookah, the water-cooled pipe where shisha (the tobacco) is cooled and “purified” through water. With flavors that rival Kool-Aid, sweet heat seems to be on the menu for the college crowd.
Tabbuli’s Facebook page promises “something exciting is coming to Tabbuli,” whose name means “sweet spicy.” Hopefully, that will include a better sense of what it wants to be and who it wants to feed and how.