Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, January 26, 2005
Celaborelle Phoenician Buffet
Lunch buffet
Sweet Home Ablama

Celaborelle opens its turn-of-the-century doors to Middle Eastern foodies — why haven’t you dropped in?

By Jimmy Fowler

Let us count the reasons why people should be lined up around the block to dine at Celaborelle Phoenician Buffet. First, the proprietors are the celebrated Hedary family of restaurateurs, responsible for the Middle Eastern stalwart Hedary’s as well as Byblos, both beloved by Fort Worth diners. Next, Celaborelle is located in a trés cool two-story house originally built in the early 1900s that’s a short detour south of Sundance Square’s maddening crowds. Last but not least, the place offers the chance to sample a surprisingly large variety of Middle Eastern delights that, purchased by themselves as appetizers or entrées, would cost considerably more than the single buffet price. And did we mention that Celaborelle has a bring-your-own-beer policy?
And yet Celaborelle has experienced shifting identities and fickle clienteles since the Hedarys planted an “open for business” sign back in 1998. The location has gone from a standard menu restaurant to buffet-only to its current incarnation — a buffet with a separate menu for both lunch and dinner. The place was inexplicably barren when a guest and I arrived recently, save for the gregarious young Antoine. Nephew of the Hedary brother who owns Celaborelle and grandson of the woman who runs Hedary’s, Antoine served as waiter, cash register operator, and cuisine advisor to diners who had questions about the mostly Lebanese influence in the more than 20 items on the buffet. When he didn’t know an answer, he paused to consult a mysterious, unseen Hedary source via the cell phone clipped to his hip.
Antoine brought the ice water and, after a little prodding, a basket of warm, chewy Syrian flat bread. He then directed us to the long, narrow side-room of the house where a steel, sneeze-guarded, cafeteria-style line had been set up with large serving spoons. The “salad” section itself was a nibbler’s paradise, serving as a reminder that there are many varieties within the flavor categories of sour, bitter, and salty. Cool pickled tomatillos, green peppers, cucumbers, and olives rested near tabouleh (the lemony minced salad of parsley, cracked wheat, onions, and olive oil), baba ganoush (a vaguely sweet eggplant dip), hummus (the famous chickpea dip, here nicely smooth but a little bland), and a large cold bowl of cucumber raita, a yogurt-based salad that had a peppery edge to it. Best of all were dice-sized cubes of firm, tangy feta.
The most interesting factoid offered by Antoine: Because members of the Fort Worth Vegetarian Society dine here (and sometimes schedule whole Society dinner meetings), several of the entrée dishes on the buffet were available in two versions, one for meatlovers and one for vegans. If you prefer one over the other, you’ll have to lift the dew-dripping plastic covers and look very closely. Nowhere is confusion more likely than with the ablama, a marvelous dish of halved yellow baby squash stuffed with a concoction of finely ground sirloin, tomatoes, onions, and pine nuts. The meatless version proved to be the more flavorful, with an echo of nutmeg in each bite.
Fabulous warm spinach pastries came in the form of both fatayer — made with flour dough and white Turkish cheese and folded into pocket shapes — and boreki, which is like a non-sweet vegetable baklava: squares of flaky phyllo dough baked with firm chopped spinach inside.
Celaborelle features no shortage of flesh for those inclined. Unfortunately, the biggest disappointment was the animal not offered here, the one central to the imagination of Middle Eastern food lovers — lamb. We felt like the wool, so to speak, had been pulled over our eyes. There was pork in barbecue sauce and chopped beef and a gargantuan stand-alone slab of slightly dry, smoked beef brisket. But no lamb. (Maybe “Celaborelle” is Lebanese for “Riscky’s.”) The tasty frarej, or Lebanese baked chicken, came close to compensating — large, plump thighs and breasts basted in a sauce of lemon, olive oil, and garlic and placed in the oven until the skin became a light, crinkly paper over the juicy but practically greaseless chicken meat.
Putting the word “Phoenician” after Celaborelle’s name sort of establishes cultural bragging rights — back in the B.C. day, Phoenicians were master maritime traders who lived on the eastern end of the Mediterranean and who created the alphabet system used by the earliest biblical writers and translators. Their culinary descendants, however, have yet to figure out the words needed to draw the masses of Fort Worth diners to sample Celaborelle’s mostly high- quality preparations.
Perhaps the Hedarys have already bested themselves: Middle Eastern food aficionados in the area may have long ago pledged their allegiance to Hedary’s and Byblos, and a buffet isn’t sufficient enticement to change patronage. But there’s a large percentage of curious eaters in this town who don’t know tabouleh from hummus, let alone ablama from frarej. For them, visiting Celaborelle should be a no-brainer.
Celaborelle Phoenician Buffet
2257 Hemphill St, FW. 817-922-8118. 11am-2pm, 5pm-8pm daily. All major credit cards accepted.

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