When Manal Jarrar talks about her food, her hands shape calligraphy in the air at Arabesque, the cafe she owns with her husband, Saib. Their quiet corner of downtown Boulder becomes a gathering spot at lunch. With a line out the door, Manal swoops through the open kitchen at a brisk pace while maintaining several conversations. She greets newcomers and points them to the chalkboard menu telling them to decide.
Dishing chicken shawarma, smoky baba ghanoush, fresh hummus, parsley tabbouleh, dolmas and pita loaves in Boulder was the last thing Manal expected to be doing after becoming one of the first Palestinian-Arab ballerinas in Israel.
Dining at the seven-year-old Arabesque is like dinner at her house and eating what Manal likes to eat. It is authentic food made from scratch, not the cheaper, faster Middle Eastern fare. Servers help her with the lunch rush but Manal is the prima — the only one allowed to cook and plate the food.
Breakfast items include quiche, a veggie-packed Mediterranean omelet with freshly baked warm pita and fresh fruit, pastries and French press or Arabic coffee. Soups, a Caesar salad with smoked salmon, and beef shawarma sandwiches are available for lunch. The spicy, milky chai pairs well with creamy tiramisu and Manal’s baklava packed with ground walnuts, but not swimming in honey.
We talked at cardamom-scented Arabesque recently after it had closed for the day. However, that didn’t stop folks from poking their heads in, hoping to get a bite of something.
Q: Where did you learn how to cook?
A: My husband and I are Palestinian Israelis from the city of Acre. I grew up with three brothers and I learned about food from my mother and my aunt. These women were amazing! How could they put such food on the table with not much to work with except spices? I watched them cook as a child and saw how much the food meant to everyone.
Q: What were some of your favorite dishes when you were growing up?
A: I remember most the wonderful meat stews and the stuffed grape leaves. We lived near the Mediterranean. We would fry fresh whole fish and serve them with lemon juice and salt and homemade french fries. Sometimes I would go in their kitchen and I would just start crying because they were chopping so many onions. I didn’t want to smell like onions!
Q: How did you become a ballerina and a dance teacher?
A: When I was a little girl my aunt told my mother, “Your daughter is a dancer. She’s always walking on her toes.” I would go and watch through the window of a ballet studio and finally the teacher came out. She looked at me and said, “I’m going to teach you.” She told my mother she wouldn’t charge her. It was not traditional for an Arab woman to do ballet, but I wanted to dance. I started teaching in villages and created dance troupes for them.
Q: When did you immigrate to the United States?
A: My husband and I came in 1988 to the Washington, D.C. area. This country gave us a great sense of safety and security. My first job was at McDonald’s. My English was so poor I couldn’t teach dance. We moved to Texas and I started teaching. We moved to Boulder in 2006.
Q: How did you end up with a restaurant?
A: I had never thought about opening a restaurant. When my kids were in school their friends really liked the lunches I sent. They started taking extra to share. I started being a personal chef for the parents and they loved my food. I started to feel like I could do something. We opened in 2009 and I named it after the arabesque, the most important move in ballet.
Q: Arabic coffee is very popular at Arabesque.
A: When I was growing up, the women would roast the coffee beans for just the right amount of time and then throw in cardamom at the last minute. The coffee is ground very fine but it settles in the cup and is served black. People here ask me for milk. I say, “Try it first and tell me whether you need milk in it.”
Q: Was it hard going from a home kitchen to a restaurant?
A: Everything I do, everything I cook I care deeply about it. Everything’s supposed to take time, including eating. When it gets so busy and people are waiting, I worry. I had to think, “What can I do?” I talk to the people. I make a joke and give them personal attention when it’s their turn.
Q: How did you decide on the menu at Arabesque?
A: The food is traditional, but I have to put my own signature on it. I knew I had to have the best hummus. I started making it myself the way I saw it at home, soaking dry beans and grinding them and adding just the right spices. On Thursday only I make a special — roast chicken with potatoes. It always sells out.
Q: Who eats at Arabesque?
A: We have many regulars and visitors to Boulder. We get international students at CU, many from the Gulf States. It’s like a taste of home.
Q: Sometimes you tell customers what to order.
A: Some order the same thing every time. I tell them, ‘You’re going to try something new. I’m going to give you this and you have to eat it. It’s good to try new things.’
Q: You seem to love your own food.
A: I sit here at the end of the day after everything is clean and put away. I make myself a plate of food and sit. I reward myself for the work.
Local Food News
Forty Boulder County eateries, including Farmer Girl, Cafe Aion and River & Woods, are offering three-course, $29 dinners Nov. 11-19 during First Bite: Boulder County Restaurant Week. firstbiteboulder.com. … Seeds Library Café at the Boulder Public Library hosts a cool farmers market dinner on Nov. 4 on the bridge over Boulder Creek. seedsboulder.com.
Terrifying Food Update
Look for a new item at the breakfast bar: Canned Baked Bean Yogurt Parfait. Just swirl Bush’s Best Bean Pot Maple Baked Beans with plain Greek yogurt and top it with granola. Surprise your family with it on Sunday morning: bushbeansfoodservice.com/bean-recipes/maple-bean-parfait.
Words to Chew On
“Fake food — I mean those patented substances chemically flavored and mechanically bulked out to kill the appetite and deceive the gut — is unnatural, almost immoral, a bane to good eating and good cooking.” — Julia Child
John Lehndorff likes candy corn and Sugar Babies. He hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU. Do you have a Thanksgiving dinner disaster story? Share yours at email@example.com