Sassool and the Mediterranean Adventure
Three generations have worked their culinary and hospitality charm to create Sassool, the beloved Lebanese restaurant with locations in Raleigh and Cary. The journey began with Cecilia Saleh, the culinary mastermind born and raised in Mazraat al Tufah, a small Mediterranean village in Lebanon. The young girl, nicknamed “Sassool” by her father, loved cooking traditional Lebanese cuisine. She learned how to prepare the dishes from her mother and grandmother and subsequently worked her magic to combine ingredients to transform the customary dishes into exquisite bites of delight and earn the reputation as one of the best chefs in the village. Her son, Mounir, followed in her gastronomic footsteps and opened Sassool in her honor after immigrating to the United States. Today, Mounir works in the restaurant alongside his wife, Lisa, and their two daughers, Simone and Noelle.
I was lucky enough to attend the Mediterranean Dinner Adventure at Sassool and sample six courses of the Saleh family’s “founder’s favorites.” The first course was a dip sampler of Mtabel, roasted pulled eggplant with garlic and olive oil, and Muhammara, a roasted red pepper and walnut dip. The dips were paired with pita, fresh herbs and radish. The dips complemented each other perfectly—the creamy mtabel had a robust smoky flavor while the uniquely textured muhammara was reminiscent of a barbeque. Mounir’s eldest daughter, Simone, detailed her unconventional school lunches—while everyone around her snacked on oozing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, she happily opened her container of garlic mtabel every day. After trying it, I’m jealous my mom didn’t pack it for me every day too.
The second course consisted of Arnabeet bi Tahini, fried cauliflower drizzled with a lemon tahini. Simone calls the dish a healthy indulgence and swears by it. Your palate will jump to attention at the surprising delicate lightness of the browned cauliflower heads and the perfect citrusy zing of the tahini.
Eager to delve deeper into the adventure, we were greeted with Shish Tawouk for our third course. The grilled chicken, roasted potatoes and garlic whip were wrapped tightly inside a thin Lebanese pita and sat atop a fresh bed of lettuce and chopped beets. Each bite sent us spiraling into taste bud heaven—the beautiful marriage of spices yielded a completely unprecedented flavor profile.
Following the Shish Tawouk was Mjadarah with Labneh. Rice and lentils topped with a tangled, crunchy crown of caramelized onions were paired with a tart Lebanese yogurt, mint and cucumber slices. This savory dish was overflowing with flavor. The tangy, bright yogurt brought the warm rice and lentil blend to life.
Struggling to imagine consuming even more delectable dishes, our stomachs were in for a refreshing treat. The fifth course consisted of a plate containing a division of chicken salad and quinoa tabouli. The traditional tabouli offered the much-needed fresh, green pick-me-up. The tabouli certainly did not skimp on the parsley—it was mixed with tomato, onion and cucumber and dressed simply with olive oil and lemon juice. Chopped chicken breast, celery, golden raisins, walnuts, parsley and spices constituted the other half of the plate. Instead of fighting for attention, the two dishes were best consumed together in unison—you’ll get one big bite of freshness.
Then it came time for the most anticipated and arguably the most refined course, dessert. The final plate shown bright with Kunafa, a light, whipped slab of sweet cheese capped with toasted semolina and garnished with strawberry, pistachio and an orange water simple syrup drizzle. The orange-tinted wonder was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. The soft, mild cheese base and twisted, nutty semolina worked together in harmony and served as the perfect vehicle for the bright strawberry, crisp pistachio and dripping syrup evocative of blossoming honeysuckle. That’s a dessert I’ll never forget.
Sassool is defined by its boundless traditional Mediterranean cooking and warm hospitality. The Saleh family is exceptionally talented, making sure each and every guest is attended to and is served nothing short of excellence. They’ve mastered the art of traditional Lebanese cuisine and I’m sure they’ve made Cecilia very proud.
Special thanks to Tabletop Media for the delicious complimentary experience. These reviews are entirely honest and my own.
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