Her photograph — which sits on the counter — is small, but Tooba remains a large presence in the café named for her just off Main Street in Melrose.
Owner and operator Saied Chaharom, an experienced restaurateur who grew up in Melrose, named his café after his grandmother to honor the memory of her delicious cooking. Tooba, an Iranian who immigrated to Canada, is gone, but her grandson, who tears up a wee bit at her memory, seems to have inherited a sense of food as
comfort and nourishment — even for sandwiches hurriedly ordered and gobbled on a lunch break.
Tooba’s Café, which opened in June, features Mediterranean food with a twist or two, or three. The hours extend from early breakfast into dinner time, and while the décor of the converted lawyer’s office is pure diner chic — with shiny tables and bright walls — you might be tempted to linger by the large windows and watch the passing scene. OK, most of that scene consists of customers heading to the nearby grocery store, but you can rest assured that the ingredients of your meal at Tooba’s are as fresh — if not fresher — than anything you can buy in its aisles.
Freshness is the marker of Tooba’s Café: chopped tomatoes, fresh basil, crisp lettuce, and unusual additions like radishes. There are soups, salads and breakfast items like bagels and muffins. The meats are well seasoned, and Chaharom insists he tries to make everything on a daily basis, which means that if he runs out of an item, well, you just can’t order it. Come back tomorrow.
But there is a lot to choose from. Let’s start with the lunch standards: The falafel (in a wrap or on panini or sandwich bread) features a tasty helping of hummus, vegetables, and tahini sauce ($8.25).
You can also order skewers or kabobs, including the kabob barg or beef ($9.25), chicken barg ($8.25), and salmon kabob ($9.50.) Highly recommended is the baked eggplant sandwich ($8.25), which showcases tender eggplant, mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil as fresh and aromatic as possible.
We also sampled the Cajun chicken ($8.25) upon a recommendation. We were not expecting New Orleans in Melrose, but the sandwich was outstanding, with well-spiced chicken matched with fresh lettuce and tomatoes. Likewise the Montreal chicken ($8.25) came packed with veggies, cheese, and that great basil.
You can also get sandwiches like sausage ($7.75), tuna ($7.50), and pork tenderloin ($8.75), with a choice of wrap, panini and sandwich bread. We would recommend the panini, which is baked on the premises and fresher than the usual doughy wraps (if harder to eat on the run).
What is also nice about Tooba’s is that there is a good selection of vegetarian options. The apple, brie, and sun-dried tomato sandwich ($6.25) was pleasant, with the tomatoes sparking up the brie. More delicious was the roasted pepper and zucchini sandwich ($6.25), dressed up with vegetables including shreds of radishes that made every bite stand out.
Some side orders are worth a taste: The must-o-khlar, yogurt over chopped cucumber with a hint of mint ($2.95) would be a nice addition to a group table. Another favorite is the noon panir sabzi, ($4.25); the wrap comes out chopped into what look like pinwheels of feta cheese, with fresh herbs and nuts. Fresh and satisfying, it could be a meal in itself.
Be warned: Tooba’s Café does a brisk lunch business so it can get hectic on a short break. Evenings, you might get a sense of a family operation, with Chaharom’s wife at the register or his daughter doing her homework at a corner table. And then there’s the spirit of Tooba looking over everything from afar.