FOREST HILLS, N.Y. — A signature dish at Wafa’s Mediterranean & Lebanese Cuisine in Queens is lamb stuffed with lamb. This may strike a diner as gimmicky, like bacon ice cream, or as hopelessly decadent as a tasting menu that winds into the night’s late hours. But it isn’t.
The dish is a version of kibbe, one of the most beloved foods in Lebanon. Owner Wafa Chami prepares kibbe using her mother’s recipe. Chami was born in Tripoli and raised in Beirut. Her kibbe takes up to 12 hours to make. For the outer shell, she blends lamb and beef until creamy and then adds bulgur, walnuts, and herbs. The stuffing contains chopped lamb and beef, onion, pine nuts, and “Wafa spices,” a secret mixture with vibrant seasonings like sumac and nutmeg.
Baked, the chocolate-colored meat dumplings anchor a platter with sides of smoky baba ghanouj or tomato-stewed okra. Sliced, kibbe plays a hearty foil to lighter lettuce, tahini, and pickled radishes in a pita sandwich.
Chami has an affinity for brighter flavors of Lebanese fare — rosewater, mint, pomegranate, lemon juice, cilantro, sumac — as hinted in her restaurant’s electric lime-green walls and ample lighting.
Chami moved to the US in 1976 but only recently broke into the restaurant world. She started with a storefront. “We used to have 250 square feet on a side street,” Chami says. “I wanted to start small to see how the neighborhood liked the food. Everybody loved it.” In 2010, she opened Wafa’s, a 40-seat eatery in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens.
Chami works beside her three sons, which is fitting, given that she cooks homey Lebanese food using mostly family recipes. “Everything I cook comes from my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes,” says Chami. “It’s Lebanese family food. Whatever I cook for my kids, I cook for my customers.” She uses many ingredients imported from her home country, such as chickpeas and olives. She carries four wines from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, and even a pale ale and lager from the Lebanese microbrewery 961 Beer.
Starters range from standard Middle Eastern fare (stuffed grape leaves, a spicy hummus cool with garlic, tabbouleh soaked in lemon juice and laced with parsley and mint) to dishes less common (a tiny pie filled with house-made cheese and green onions, chilled yogurt soup with chickpeas).
On the more exotic side, Chami prepares labneh. It’s her creamy, homemade yogurt drizzled with olive oil, peppered with paprika, dusted with mint, and served with cucumber slices and olives. In Lebanon, this would be typical at breakfast. More familiar is falafel, though her falafel — vegetal, nutty, chestnut-brown chickpea fritters that are crisp on the outside, soft within — may be something new.
For meaty entrees, there is her kibbe, and also shawarma and kebabs, such as the kefta kebab, made from seasoned chopped meat, musky and tube-shaped.
Desserts, including a melting rice pudding fragrant with cinnamon, crushed pistachios, and rose water, are best with Lebanese coffee. “It’s like a Turkish coffee,” explains Chami’s son, Youssef, “but the Lebanese put cardamom in it.”
He adds, “The Mediterranean is funny because it used to be one block of civilization but everybody started fighting and putting their own spin on things.” Certainly, Wafa Chami, who pinballs between tables in the dining room and pots in the kitchen, has put her spin on this fare. Not only that, she has been able to thrive in a New York City borough that offers scratch-made corn tortillas, Himalayan dumplings, and everything in between.
How, you wonder? “It’s a secret,” Chami says.
Well, not a very big one.
Wafa’s Mediterranean & Lebanese Cuisine, 100-05 Metropolitan Ave., Forest Hills, Queens, 718-880-2055, wafasfood.com.Chris Malloy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.