Monday, November 12, 2007

Lunch at Dimassi's

Dimassi's Mediterranean Buffet is an all-you-can-eat buffet with primarily Lebanese food. Although there are a number of Dimassi's locations around town, and although it serves dinner, my only recent experience is with the original location on Richmond and South Post Oak at lunch.

Some history

Dimassi's opened with a fresh wave of Lebanese restaurants in Houston in 1994. I had been introduced to Lebanese food about ten years earlier with the classic Sammi's Restaurant on Richmond. But Dimassi's was something different. It served food cafeteria style and charged by the item. Diners could see what they ordered, which was helpful since so many of these dishes were new to Houston. Dimassi's emphasized fresh ingredients and introduced me to the joy of Middle Eastern salads.

By the late 90s, Dimassi's had gone downhill. Newer, better Lebanese (now called "Mediterranean") restaurants opened in Houston, and Dimassi's crowd dwindled. Much of the food sat on the steam table for too long. It looked to me like the sort of dying restaurant featured on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares -- a restaurant that needed a resurrection or a good bankruptcy lawyer.

Change to a buffet

I had not been to Dimassi's in over seven years when I popped in last week for lunch. Much had changed. The only option was an $11 for the all-you-can-eat buffet. The number of dishes had grown to well over 40 or 50 items. And the cavernous restaurant was surprisingly crowded.

I don't like buffets. Most buffet food tends to suffer from sitting out too long. The emphasis is usually on quantity instead of quality. Since buffets need a large number of diners to survive, they usually pander to mainstream American tastes. Ethnic buffets typically lose their authenticity in transition to a buffet as they try to provide the low-cost foods that many Americans love -- especially fried and heavily sugared dishes.

Dimassi's is completely different. Almost every dish was an authentic version of an Eastern Mediterranean recipe. Plus, most of these dishes are not harmed by sitting in the buffet. Many Lebanese dishes are not served warm and tend to actually improve as they rest and the flavors combine. For the hot dishes, Dimassi's has a large enough lunch crowd to bring out fresh servings frequently.

Some highlights

I have always appreciated the freshness and vibrancy of Dimassi's salads. Its tabouli is chopped more coarsely than most and nicely accented with lemon juice and mint. An interesting Lebanese Salad was made from cucumber, tomatoes, onions, vinegar and lemon juice. Also good are the fatoosh and Greek salad.

Dimassi's dips are well made. Although the hummus is, like much hummus, a bit bland, it is processed into a fine, cream-like consistency and sprinkled with colorful spices. Baba Ghanouge is even better -- capturing the smoky essence of the best versions of this eggplant/tahini dip. If you look hard, you also will find a wonderfully strong garlic dip that works very well with the many chicken dishes on the buffet.

For a buffet, the hot dishes were surprisingly good. A yellow-colored chicken in light yogurt sauce was as tasty as it was pretty. A few other chicken dishes were also quite good. I usually find that Kaftah Kabob -- ground beef mixed with parsley, onion, and garlic -- to be bland, but this version was spicy and flavorful.

A big surprise was the inclusion of lamb shank on the buffet. At most restaurants, this pricey dish costs $15 - 25 for a single shank. Dimassi's version cannot compete with the best in town, but it tastes good and is a great deal on an $11 buffet.

Only a few dishes were below average. Baked fish, probably tilapia, had the muddy, dog-food flavor of much farmed tilapia. Falafel balls were made in the dense, heavy style that drops in your stomach like a rock. Unlike the best falafel, they were not delicately fried.

Why go to Dimassi's?

I was surprised at the quality of Dimassi's buffet because I thought the restaurant had declined and because buffets are usually so bad. I was wrong. That does not mean that Dimassi's has the best Lebanese food in Houston. For most of these dishes, better versions are served at Mint Cafe, Droubi's (Hillcroft location only), and Mary'z. But Dimassi's may be the best restaurant in town to get introduced to a wide array of Lebanese food. Plus, it is a real value for a big lunch.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gotta love Dimassi's! Take all my guests from out of town there and it is a hit! Lots of locations too.