By STACIE FANELLI and DANIELLE TEPPER
If you’ve never tried baba ghanoush, Mohamed Elbery will hook you up. If you don’t like it, don’t worry there won’t be any hard feelings. He’ll just be pleased to have been able to offer you a bite of his culture.
Mediterranean food is an acquired taste, Elbery admits, but Café28, on White Street in Red Bank, has enough loyal regulars to keep him in business and able to afford to give out the occasional free sample. He said it’s the unequalled, exotic dishes that keep people coming back and keep him fearless in the face of Red Bank’s reputation for quick turnarounds in business.
“You are now in my house. You are most welcome to try it,” he said.
Café28 specializes in traditional Mediterranean cuisine like grape leaves stuffed with rice and spices. They’re served with a cured meat called bastirma, which is made from filet mignon. (Click to enlarge)
The bakery, deli and cafe-in-one has been open for more than a year now, serving a menu with origins in the Middle East. It joins Mechanic Street’s Zaitooni Deli, another purveyor of Middle Eastern dishes.
Café28’s food is not only authentic, but also homemade cooked from scratch using ingredients imported from their respective countries and using hand-me-down family recipes.
Elbery began his culinary career eagerly watching his mom cook when he was a boy in Egypt. That’s where his interest in food all began. In fact, the “28” in the restaurant’s name is not a lucky number or an age, but his street address back in Egypt.
As he grew up, he traveled and he took that interest with him, Elbery said.
“I worked as a dishwasher in a kitchen in London. Then I was a salad maker,” he said. “Then I started to have more responsibilities in the kitchen before I started cooking. In Dubai and Saudi Arabia, I worked my way up.
On his own in France by age 16, Elbery worked in the kitchen of the ritzy La Cloche d’Or, where he met celebrities and high-ranking government officials. Even though he said Europe is another world altogether, he wants Café28 to be Red Bank’s own little La Cloche d’Or, but more accessible to everyone.
Though Café28 is Elbery’s first Mediterranean restaurant, he’s been cooking in the tradition of his family for most of his life. He arrived in the United States more than 20 years ago, and when he worked at an Italian deli in Freehold, he frequently appeased customers who’d found out about his falafel-making abilities. Cooking Middle Eastern dishes for deli customers under the table became his way to experiment with ingredients, which is why he says today that it’s impossible to find cuisine with the same flavors as his anywhere else.
Coffee, for instance, is offered with cream, sugar and Mediterranean spices. Salad is not complete without Tahini sauce, nor sugar cookies without sesame seeds. The restaurant is a half-and-half experience. It replaced Carmine’s Sub Shop last year, but retains the window sign, “Subs catering,” and accurately, as it provides both subs and catering. On the right side of the menu board are grape leaves and tabouli. On the left, meatball subs and pizza.
Then there are selections like hummus and baklava, which have worked their way into mainstream American diets. The blend of cultures is rich. Hershey bars are displayed on the counter in front of a bowl of fresh limes, the same ones Elbery squeezes fresh for every batch of homemade lime juice.
“Every dish has its own customer,” he said, noting that he often keeps an item on the menu if even one person has enjoyed it.
Right by Elbery’s side is his 16-year-old son Karim, one of two employees. Karim is in the same position his father was in at his age cleaning and cashiering, but also observing and even doing some cooking. He makes a mean pasta salad, said his father, who is in the process of passing down recipes from Egypt so that Karim can inherit the culture, despite growing up in America.
Elbery still travels to Egypt to share his roots with his family. There he finds the inspiration to keep Café28 a place that brings Red Bankers vicariously to his homeland.
“I give my heart to the place all day long,” he said. “I give my life. That’s how you plan for your dream: think how you want to see your life. That’s my philosophy.”