Vintage black-and-white photos of Beirut are framed on the walls of the colorful Blue Fig Cafe in Moorestown: palm trees on the waterfront promenade and Nejmeh Square’s stately clock tower and palatial buildings. The captions, which date from the 1950s, spell the name the French way, Beyrouth, evoking an era when the city ranked as an exotic Mediterranean tourist destination. Blue Fig exists to honor the foods of the Northern and Eastern Mediterranean. In affluent, suburban Moorestown, the BYO’s menu—ranging from Lebanese and Egyptian west to Turkish and Greek—offers a needed alternative to the predictable parade of veal parms and spicy tuna rolls.
“This food is missing in this area,” says chef/co-owner Sam Jadalla, 42, who moved his family from Jordan to Mount Laurel a year ago at the invitation of his brother-in-law, Jim Osman, 52, to open a restaurant together. “It feels great to teach other people what this cuisine is and show them something different.”
Jadalla was born in Kuwait and spent his formative years there and in Jordan. After earning an engineering degree at the University of Charleston in South Carolina in 1995, he returned to Jordan, where he suddenly switched gears. (“I like food and business, and I like being my own boss.”) He opened a still-thriving restaurant and catering company in which he remains a partner. To expand his opportunities, however, he came here.
After scouting locations for nearly a year, the partners found a prime spot across from a busy Virtua Health & Wellness Center. Up front, a glass pastry case by the cash register tempts with desserts baked mainly by Jadalla’s wife, Ebtesema. “She is a great cook at home,” Jadalla says. “I asked her to start making desserts for the restaurant, and she’s expanded her options to make all the different kinds” from the Arab world.
The temptation is to immediately order such treats as the caramelized-almond coffee crumb cake with fig paste, or the honey-soaked knafeh, sweet cheese nestled in shredded phyllo. But take your time. There is much to savor.
Jadalla’s unusually creamy hummus, for example. It crops up by itself as an appetizer with pita wedges and as a dip with slices of beef schwarma, dusted with allspice, coriander and sprinkled with buttery toasted pine nuts. Jadalla also makes a terrific, and rarely encountered, mutabel—a cousin of baba ghanoush, made of puréed grilled eggplant that tastes as smoky as a backyard barbecue and winningly tangy and creamy, thanks to infusions of tahini, garlic and lemon. (Blue Fig makes a fine baba, too, embellished with parsley, mint, walnuts, sweet red, green and yellow peppers and tomatoes.)
With such delicious spreads on the table, it’s hard to understand why Blue Fig presents them with dense, cold triangles of outsourced pita. Tomatoes that (in spring) were shamefully hard and bland marred an otherwise sumptuous appetizer of grilled or lightly breaded and fried halloumi, a firm, brined, goat-and-sheep-milk cheese.
Entrées focus on grilled halal kebabs. Shish tawook stars cubes of tangy chicken marinated in yogurt, lemon and red-wine vinegar. Kufta kebabs are made from ground beef and lamb amped up with parsley, onion and paprika. Shish kebab delivers umami-rich cubes of filet mignon cloaked in tomato paste enlivened with red wine vinegar and lemon juice. You can try them all in the Blue Fig Signature Dish, which includes a grilled lamb chop (gamy and overcooked the time I ordered it). All kebabs come with spiced basmati rice or fluffy couscous and a skewer of nicely seasoned and appealingly charred veggies such as eggplant, pearl onions, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers and squash.
In my opinion, they bestowed the title Signature Dish on the wrong candidate. It rightly belongs to Jadalla’s complex and comforting moussaka. Amid layers of traditional spiced ground beef, tomato sauce and béchamel, Jadalla draws on another Mediterranean influence, adding mozzarella. It works. Equally important, the thick-cut slices of smoky grilled eggplant retain their toothsome texture. Topped with pine nuts and fresh parsley, Blue Fig’s moussaka is the finest I’ve eaten.
I also loved the baked red, yellow and green bell peppers stuffed with basmati rice and ground beef fragrant with mint. Robust, soulful shrimp tajen, a Moroccan export, was presented in a small ceramic pot overflowing with perfectly cooked crustaceans, potatoes, carrots and bubbling tomato-based broth.
All right, you’ve earned it. Time for one of Ebtesema’s ravishing desserts.