Waiting customers stand outside. Some step inside the small restaurant behind others waiting ahead of them. Their eyes do a quick study of the 40 or so seats to see who’s on dessert. I’m glad I made reservations and marvel at the phenomenon of demand exceeding supply on an offseason Wednesday night in February.
The peachy walls of Dametra Café are painted with Greek columns, flourishes of drapery and grapevines. Some of the décor would be kitschy in a restaurant with less exuberance, but it seems to harmonize here.
Co-owner Bashar Sneeh, a native of Jordan, greets customers, works both sides of the center aisle and cuts a striking figure with his long black hair. He heats up the already warm glow when he sings and strums an exotic tune on his six-stringed oud, then breaks into “Happy Birthday” for a guest.
The Mediterranean region is broadly represented on the menu, from Spain to Israel, with the country of origin noted with each dish. The emphasis on Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine is exciting. Falafels in Carmel, at last. It will take many meals to exhaust all the delicious-sounding recipes such as chicken schwarma sandwich (with Lebanese spices), Jerusalem Kafta kebab wrap, bouillabaisse and cioppino.
On another visit I met Sneeh’s partner and the chef, Faisal Nimri, who also seems to be drunk on life. He periodically plays an Egyptian doumbek and to a lesser extent, the oud. Every customer gets a contact high from these two and I suspect that’s why they come. The good food, friendly service and affordable prices help, too.
Service is a team sport. The helpful Solomon took our order, the gracious Claudia and others moved our plates in and out. I asked about the quality of the popular Greek table wine Retsina and Solomon didn’t know the answer, but promptly delivered a taste. I recommend pre-tasting for the uninitiated. The distinctive note of pine resin is usually an acquired taste. Historically added to prevent oxidation and spoilage, it now maintains the tradition ($8.50/glass, $23/bottle).
The wine list, consistent with the restaurant, is built for the casual bon vivant, not the finicky connoisseur. Most bottles are local wines priced $20 to $40 and Nimri just announced a special on one of the better wines, the 2003 Bernardus Marinus. For one year, it will be discounted from $66 to $45.
Wines by the glass are geared for value and drinkability (all but Retsina are $7.50/glass, $23/bottle). Most are from Salmon Creek. I ordered the Salmon Creek Chardonnay and appreciated this inexpensive Chard that isn’t all butter and oak. It’s built to go with a wide variety of food and is a creation of Freddy Franzia, the founder of “Two Buck Chuck,” who believes that decent wine doesn’t have to be expensive. After marketing experts warned that consumers would shun wine priced so low, he proved them wrong. With the newer, slightly higher priced Salmon Creek, the reason is in the glass. I’m not equating it with fine, complex wine, but there’s a glut of far inferior, costlier wine foisted upon the public. This Chardonnay reminds me of the quality table wines one finds in Europe for everyday drinking.
The Gabbiano Chianti is equally enjoyable. It’s similar in that it’s inexpensive, mass-produced, yet eminently drinkable. Notes of earthy mushroom, blackberry and spice add up to a smooth, reliable Chianti.
The food menu, served for lunch and dinner, features many appealing ways to eat affordably from salads to pizza to sandwiches that include gyros, a falafel and a salmon burger. Most sandwiches cost $9.95. Pizza costs $11.95 or $12.95. Most pasta dishes, $13.95 and $14.95. Most entrees, $14.95 to $18.95. Keep in mind this ison Ocean Avenue, and portions tend to be large.
The Greek salad and the roasted vegetable salad were recommended and both are large enough for two ($10.95 or $11.95). We tried the latter, and the staff split it for us. It ranks among the best spinach salads I’ve had – do try it if you might like fire-roasted eggplant, red bell peppers and zucchini (classic antipasti) over raw spinach with roasted pine nuts and feta in a pomegranate vinaigrette.
The spanokopita is also recommended. This is an especially delicate version of flaky filo pastry filled with warm feta cheese and spinach ($7.50). The hummus is well-presented, served with soft Greek pita and fresh and smooth, roughly a hundred times better than store-bought, but would benefit from a hint more garlic, lemon and tahini.
I had a sense of accomplishment with the Greek combination platter ($17.95). It includes gyros, chicken kebab, rice pilaf, hummus, dolmas, pita bread, Greek salad and tzatziki, a Greek sauce of yogurt, garlic and mint. The gyros melted in my mouth and the many flavors were a delightful introduction. Add a glass of wine for a complete meal.
My guest’s Istanbul kebab ($14.95) featured charbroiled beef with Turkish spices and grilled tomatoes, rice pilaf, lavash bread and the refreshing tzatziki. The kebab was tender and flavorful with a deft touch ofallspice, nutmeg and cinnamon. A strong recommendation.
We passed on dessert ($4.50 to $7.50) but were treated to baklava with whipped cream and raspberry sauce. Apparently locals receive special treatment. No wonder Dametra Café has already made lots of friends in town. It feels like it’s been part of Carmel forever.
Dametra Café Ocean Street at Lincoln, SE corner, Carmel • 11am-close daily • 622-7766.