Café 28 regular Patrick Means says he was never a fan of eggplant until Mohamed Ebery gave him a taste of Ismat Eggplant, named for Ebery’s mom. Below, Ebery dishes up a plate of Mediterranean love. (Photos by Jim Willis. Click to enlarge)
By JIM WILLIS
Ever since Mohamed Elbery took over the short-lived Carmine’s Sub Shop on White Street in Red Bank and added Mediterranean foods like gyros and baba ganoush to the menu, it’s been our go-to spot when we get the itch for falafel, always ordered with extra hot sauce.
The thing is though, the sub-shop-meets-Mediterranean menu always seemed a bit Janus-faced. But with a couple years of running Cafe 28 under his belt, Elbery has turned the menu into a coherent vehicle for his creativity, despite the superficial contradictions of a menu that offers turkey subs alongside falafel and stuffed grape leaves.
“Why not?” says Elbery. “We eat turkey in Egypt, too. But here for you, I can put tabouleh on it. It’s all Mediterranean food. To me there is no distinction.”
No doubt, part of Elbery’s ability to find unifying themes in different foods comes from the breadth of his cooking experiences. Before coming to America 22 years ago, he worked in kitchens in England, France and Switzerland. Combine that experience with being the only one of five siblings to help his mother out in the kitchen growing up in Egypt, and you can see how Elbery has developed a deep well of cultural food knowledge to draw from.
“It’s all the same food to me,” he says.
So we press Elbery for the secret of his falafel. He insists, sincerely, that it’s love.
“I could give the recipe to you and 100 other people, and it would come out different every time,” he says. “You need to make it with love, and then you get it to taste correct.”
“That’s true with everything on the menu,” he adds, as he brings us a plate of Ismat Eggplant – a marinated eggplant dish with tahini named after his mother that’s become a customer favorite.
Maybe Elbery’s right, and love is the secret ingredient. But his pita bread – which is soft and thin and tastes nothing like the cardboard stuff you get in bags at the grocery store – and the Za’tar dressing that he makes from scratch to mix with the greens in the falafel play a pretty important role, too.
Elbery alluded to some changes coming to the menu, but wouldn’t tip his cards.
“I have so many ideas in my head,” he says, “but I wait and go slow and see what the customers like.”
He’s already found loyal customers who come in just for his special spiced coffee.
“You won’t find this anywhere else around here,” he says, “I blend the spices myself.”
Elbery offered us a cup and it is an interesting mix of savory spices with cinnamon, and tastes nothing like the chemistry experiments that chain shops offer as spiced coffee. It’s definitely worth a try if you’re looking to change up your coffee routine.