Nuba – Atmosphere fabulous and so is the food

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Owners of restaurant located in the basement of the Dominion Building takes on the feel of Beirut in the 1940s and ’50s

Linda Bates

Victor Bouzide, founder of Nuba, a Lebanese-style restaurant in the basement of a heritage building in downtown Vancouver, presents a specialty dish. Photograph by: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Sun

Sitting in the bustling Nuba, looking out over the cosy space filled with, among others, goateed film students, middle-aged men in suits, groups of young women direct from the office and a large multi-generation family — all attended to by genuinely friendly servers — I said to myself, “I like this place so much I almost don’t care what the food is like.”

The food, I’m happy to report, is equally appealing.

Nuba, which specializes in Lebanese cuisine, occupies the basement of the Dominion Building on the corner of Hastings and Cambie, which, according to Ernesto Gomez, a partner in the business, has been a restaurant of one kind or another since 1910.

Gomez and Victor Bouzide, who founded Nuba, spent six months creating a space that echoes Beirut of the 1940s and ’50s, when it was known as the Paris of the Middle East.

They decided to “embrace the underground feel,” stripping the paint off the original wood and tiles and leaving the pipes exposed. The result is a warm, exotic-looking space with a heritage feel.

Nuba started out in another location as a take-out lunch place, but this incarnation, with a full dinner menu, has allowed Bouzide, 74, to stretch out and develop a Lebanese menu with both very traditional and more adventurous dishes.

The mjadra, organic green lentils and rice with onions and jalapeno, is a take on typical peasant food, but has been a huge hit, says Gomez.

My favourite was a newer dish — the eggplant with Lebanese ratatouille, made up of layers of sauteed eggplant with ratatouille and a pomegranate-red wine reduction. This was a wonderful combination of flavours and textures.

Other dishes we tried and would recommend are the labneh — fresh-pressed yogurt garnished with extra-virgin olive oil and spices, served with pita bread — and the classic Lebanese dishes, tabouleh and falafels.

For dessert, a creme brulee with cardamom knocked our socks off.

Full dinners are available also, with meat dishes like grilled lamb, cornish hen, beef tenderloin and more, but I had better luck with the many delicious vegetarian and vegan dishes. In fact, after over-grilled lamb on one visit and chicken on another, I was starting to suspect subterfuge: Was there a vegan running the grill, out to teach us carnivores a lesson?

(In both cases the server removed the charges and showed genuine concern when I expressed dissatisfaction.)

The service is so outstanding I asked Gomez if they have some kind of special training program. He said they look for people who genuinely like the food and the restaurant — it’s more important than previous experience.

The emphasis here is on food that is fresh and, where possible, organic.

“We try to be not too fancy and to keep it healthy,” Gomez says. Bouzide goes out each morning to buy whatever is freshest.

There’s a good selection of wine and cocktails, all, like the food, at very reasonable prices.

There’s also live music some nights.

If you go, make a reservation or prepare to wait: “Nowadays,” Gomez says, “we don’t have a slow night.”

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