Home-Style Lebanese: Simplicity Satisfies

Shish kabob at Headquarters Sannine Lebanese restaurant in North Brunswick, New Jersey
Shish kabob at Headquarters Sannine Lebanese
photo: Andrea Clurfeld
Baba ghanouj at Headquarters Sannine Lebanese restaurant in North Brunswick, New Jersey

Baba ghanouj

They do it with smoke and lemon at Headquarters Sannine Lebanese Cuisine in North Brunswick—the baba ghanouj, that is. And that’s as it should be. The mashed eggplant in baba ghanouj should be full of smokiness from roasting. Quick hits of sesame and garlic deepen the flavor, and then a squirt of refreshing lemon juice sets the whole thing off.

It’s a decidedly home-style rendition of the Middle Eastern classic they do at this 14-year-old restaurant. If you’ve only had mass-produced supermarket versions, you’re in for a happy surprise.

You will be in for the same sense of discovery with Sannine’s tabouli, the classic parsley salad that’s all about the verdant herb that grows wild in Lebanon. You get parsley, and more parsley. Cracked wheat, tomatoes and onions play bit parts. But given how out-of-season tomatoes are right now, Sannine would do well to downgrade them from bit player to barely a cameo.

Tabouleh at Headquarters Sannine Lebanese restaurant in North Brunswick, New Jersey

Tabouli

Overall, Marie Zahalan, chef/owner of this super-casual storefront, racks up more hits than misses. For example: her stuffed grape leaves were plump with ground beef and rice, a riff of cinnamon warming each bite. And hummus was soulful, sesame bringing depth to the chickpeas, fresh lemon more ascendant than garlic, resulting in a spread with a light, bright finish.

As for misses, the chickpea salad called balila was marred by too many of those chopped, out-of-season tomatoes. A flatbread flecked with za’atar—a mixture of dried oregano, thyme, sesame and slightly sour sumac—again suffered from tomatoes far from their peak. Tradition that isn’t treated with respect isn’t being honored.

I did like the very traditional eggplant casserole, because it was humble: a grandmotherly stew of cubed vegetables (eggplant, carrots, onions) with a handful of whole chickpeas and, in the background, a suspicion of pomegranate.

Shawarma was similarly simple—beef marinated and roasted, then sliced and served over rice.

The best of the entrees?

In my visit, the shish kabob, which looked like a meaty Caesar salad. Cubes of peppery, rosemary-infused lamb were set atop lettuces lightly dressed in oil and vinegar. Again, simplicity proved satisfying.

Stuffed grape leaves at Headquarters Sannine Lebanese restaurant in North Brunswick, New Jersey

Stuffed grape leaves

For dessert in a Middle Eastern restaurant, if you’re ready for a change from baklava, try the asmaliyeh here. Shredded phyllo that looks like fried vermicelli is fashioned like a bird’s nest around clotted cream scented with rose water and topped with a flourish of pulverized pistachios. Crunch-‘n’-cream.

There’s little décor to speak of at Sannine, which sits in a strip mall on Route 130. But If you dine here outside of peak lunch or dinner time, chef/owner Zahalan, a veritable Jill-of-all-trades, may darn well be your full-time culinary guide. That’s another plus.

Headquarters Sannine Lebanese Cuisine, 1892 Route 130 (at Adams Lane), North Brunswick. BYO. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner; closed Sundays. 732-658-6555. hqlebaneserestaurant.com

Photos by Andrea Clurfeld

Click here to leave a comment

Get dining articles like this delivered straight to your inbox

Read more Eat & Drink, Table Hopping articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.