Some restaurants open in Westport with all the hype of a Hollywood blockbuster. The Little Barn, Post 154, Bartaco, Spotted Horse — you’d have to be living without a stomach to not know they’ve arrived.
For a couple of months though, another restaurant has quietly served some of the best — and freshest, and healthiest — food in town.
Kibberia opened in the former John’s Best Post Road West location, on the Norwalk line. The name is a takeoff on kibbeh, a delicious Lebanese dish of ground lamb with bulgar wheat, onions and seasonings — think “kibberia,” like “pizzeria.”
But that’s where the comparisons with John’s Best end.
Owner Nick Iskandar took out walls, added colorful chairs and nice lights, and created a warm, comfortable space. Workers flock there at lunch from nearby offices; families love it for dinner.
Finally, Westport has a Middle Eastern restaurant to complement all our pizzerias and hip gathering spots.
Nick’s sister-in-law Carole Iskandar is the chef. She came to the US 30 years from Lebanon to study, landing in — of all places — Louisiana. Her cousin lived there; besides, French-educated Carole thought the Cajun influence would remind her of home.
Of course, Louisiana is nothing like Lebanon — or the Northeast US, where she moved when her husband got a job with Nynex.
Carole always wanted to open a restaurant, and after her 3 children were grown, she got the chance. Her 1st Kibberia was in Danbury. It quickly developed a reputation for fresh, healthy food, served casually and lovingly (and very inexpensively).
Nick had also gone to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, earning a degree in electrical engineering. He returned to Lebanon in the 1990s, but hoped to come back to the States. When Carole got a chance to open the Westport Kibberia, he came.
The other day, the pair served up fantastic food. The very popular lentil soup is different from the American variety. This one has no cream or milk — but savory red lentils.
The falafel featured fresh herbs and seasoning. Shish kebab came with a garlic sauce that customers tell the Iskandars to bottle and sell. A lentil dish with sauteed onions, rice and cabbage salad offered wonderful flavor.
Pita bead is thin and moist. There are flatbreads with healthy toppings — a Mediterranean-style pizza. Soups are all homemade; salads are fully customizable. The Iskandars use no preservatives or MSG.
Wines come from Turkey and Lebanon. Kibberia also stocks very good Lebanese beer. But Nick and Carole are fine if customers bring their own favorite bottles. It’s that kind of homey, happy place.
Westporters are sophisticated, Nick says. They know Middle Eastern food — and love its benefits. “Mothers feed hummus to their 2-year-olds,” he notes with pride.
About that kibbeh: Carole cooks up pumpkin, lentil, potato and vegetarian varieties.
“Vegans love this restaurant,” she says. There’s even a vegan baklava.
Also loving Kibberia: trainers from nearby gyms, like Intensity and the Edge. They eat there — and send clients over. “Trainers know no matter how hard people work, if they don’t eat right, they won’t see results,” Nick says.
He and Carole say some women “force” their husbands to come. “The men, they hear ‘healthy food’ and think they won’t like it,” Nick says. “But once they try it, they completely change. They come back, and now they bring their wives.”
Nick and Carole have loved meeting Westporters, turning them into passionate customers — and friends.
Has anything surprised them about this town?
“People are so friendly,” Carole says. “They even thank us for opening here.”
(Click here for the menu, which includes takeout. Kibberia is closed Sundays, but will open 7 days a week after New Year’s.)