When my friend Rich insisted that I had to go try his friend Leo’s restaurant, Shish, on Grand Ave. in Saint Paul, I said sure, why not, but I should have known what would happen next. When we arrived for lunch, Leo was expecting us, and soon a procession of plates arrived, first an appetizer sampler ($8.95) laden with hummus and falafel and tabouli, then a plate of savory yellow rice topped with juicy lamb chops ($15.95) and kabobs of beef ($12.95) and lamb, a delicious seafood stew, and then Turkish (or Arabic) coffee and baklava for dessert.
Shish,1668 Grand Avenue,Saint Paul,651 690 2212. Open 7 am to 11 pm daily. www.shishcafe.net.
Leo told us some great stories, and then insisted that he didn’t want me to write anything about him – only about his restaurant. He tries to buy local and organic, Leo told me – his lamb comes from a local farmer, and though his soups aren’t made from scratch, they are made from organic soup stock. (I saw the cases in the basement.) The crew in the kitchen are immigrants from Ethiopia and Central America, hired through a program that finds jobs for women who are victims of domestic violence. Arabic coffee is an everyday beverage, but it also has its traditions, Leo told me: it’s served at weddings, at funerals, to seal an agreement, and when guests have overstayed their welcome. It was a delightful lunch, followed by the ritual battle over the bill. Leo insisted that I couldn’t pay, I insisted that I had to pay, he refused to bring a bill, I insisted that I would get fired if I didn’t pay, and back and forth until I announced that I was going to leave the money, and that if Leo didn’t want it, he could give it to the kitchen crew. Leo wasn’t happy with this, but he accepted defeat gracefully.