This article was originally published in the November 2017 Princeton Echo.
The road to success is rarely straight. Twists and turns fill the journey with surprises. Ask Karim Elsharabasi, owner of the iconic Marhaba restaurant in Lambertville, who has just opened his second location on Nassau Street.
Elsharabasi had been going about his life at home in Egypt studying to become a pharmacist when in 1997 he took a trip to the States. Captivated by his travels, he spent two years here, working and seeking to transfer to a school in the U.S. Transferring ultimately would have been too costly, so he returned to Egypt to finish his degree. But he never gave up wanting to live in the States and returned in 2000 to New York to work on getting his U.S. qualifications and begin his career.
After three months in New York, friends invited him to move from New York to Flemington. “I got a job in Lambertville and fell in love with the people there,” says Elsharabasi. “They were kind and welcoming, which means so much to me as a Muslim. I never felt any attention to my ethnicity whatsoever, and I’m finding Princeton very similar.”
Elsharabasi took jobs at various restaurants to pay the rent and found he liked the fast pace and learning new recipes. As a child, he had relished his mother’s cooking, first watching and then helping her cook. She was a stay at home mom and his father was an agricultural engineer in Mansoura, Egypt, a large city a few hours from Cairo.
“I loved the restaurant business but I didn’t love taking orders,” Elsharabasi says. “I knew I could do it myself.” Gradually, his interest in the culinary arts began to take his full attention. In 2009, while Elsharabasi was working at a Lambertville restaurant, his road took a sharp turn. The owner of the restaurant fell into financial difficulty and the would-be pharmacist had the opportunity to become a restaurateur.
‘Egyptian cuisine was not common, and I wanted a menu that included the home cooking I was familiar with.’
“I put everything I had into the place,” Elsharabasi says. “At the time, there were restaurants serving ‘Middle Eastern’ food but they were centered around Greek or Turkish dishes. Egyptian cuisine was not common, and I wanted a menu that included the home cooking I was familiar with. I called my sister in Egypt and asked her if she remembered any of our mother’s recipes. In fact, she and our mom had written many down already. She sent me a whole book of them.”
Marhaba was born.
This writer became enamored of the scents and aromas of the Levant after several trips to Syria and Jordan in 2009 and 2010. My travels off the beaten path introduced me to dishes and ingredients that tourists never see. But beyond that, having the privilege to be invited into homes to dine with friends showed me methods of preparation and spices I never knew existed. Who knew that carrots were red and grew so large that they could be hollowed out like zucchini and stuffed with meat or veggie mixtures redolent with ingredients I had never heard of.
A chance to travel through Turkey with central New Jersey-based writer Joy Stocke, author of “Anatolian Days and Nights” and its companion cookbook, “Tree of Life,”x reinforced my love of the cuisine generally called Middle Eastern. Whenever Stocke and I met to plan our travels or just to catch up, we would make a beeline for Marhaba in Lambertville.
For both of us, the first thing we ordered was the rich labne with piping hot pita. This tangy, thick-as-frosting yogurt is practically addictive and is light years different from what most people think of as yogurt. Good labne is hard to achieve; the consistency has to be just right, not too thick and definitely not too thin.
One of the revelations that travel gives is the realization that while the discrete ingredients of national dishes can be the same, the preparation and the combinations of those ingredients create distinct regional differences. An eggplant is not just an eggplant in the hands of a cook steeped in traditional recipes of her or his home. The humble lentil is revealed in totally different ways depending on where it is eaten.
The Princeton area is fortunate to offer a wide variety of international cuisines. The entire eastern Mediterranean is well represented in that choice as evidenced by Mediterra, EFES, Labebe, Olives, Mamoun’s, and several others. We have Greece, Italy, Lebanon, and Turkey represented and now Egypt.
Fine cooking depends on fine ingredients. As with everything, quality varies. Chefs are well aware that using the finest grade naturally results in the finest dish. Devotees of any cuisine know which establishments serve the freshest and the best. This is certainly true of the fans of Elsharabasi’s flagship location in Lambertville, and that expertise is evident in Princeton.
In choosing to highlight Egyptian dishes in the menu for both Marhaba locations, Elsharabasi does not have to look far for the finest, most authentic spices. “Paterson, New Jersey, is the center of Middle Eastern culture for our area,” he says. “I can get anything I need and I’m confident it is going to be exactly what I would get back home.”
I asked him whether there were dishes that he grew up with that he hesitates to make for American palates. “I thought hard about adding Koshari. It is considered by many to be the national dish of Egypt and is found at almost every street corner.” Koshari is a melange of black lentils, chickpeas, macaroni, and rice topped with fried onions, hardboiled egg, and tomato sauce. “Because it is a very humble dish, real street food that is a combination of flavors that some might find odd, I wasn’t sure if I should include it, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Diners love it. It’s Egyptian comfort food.”
Marhaba in Lambertville has been a favorite of Princeton diners since its opening. “Almost from the beginning, I had patrons from Princeton asking me when I was going to open up a location there. I have lived in Lambertville for a while but when I began to think maybe I should expand, I was not that familiar with Princeton. I began exploring for a likely spot. It took me two years to find something. The demand for restaurant space is high here, and so is the cost.”
Marhaba Princeton is on Nassau Street, in the space most recently vacated by Cheeburger Cheeburger and before that the Carousel Diner. A generic storefront location, it had to be completely renovated. Elsharabasi has an eye for style and insisted that the furnishings be authentic. “I couldn’t find tables, chairs, or other fixtures that didn’t look like imitations, so I contacted my brother in Egypt, and he acted as my agent with local artisans who built everything I wanted from my specifications. Even the tiles are from home, and I built the copper topped tables myself with help from craftsmen friends.”
The pierced-work brass lanterns are custom made and give the space a soft, romantic light. Marhaba has the golden glow found in local restaurants in towns all along the eastern Mediterranean. Add some jasmine twining down from a balcony and you could be in Cairo or Damascus.
As soon as construction began in Princeton, diners were eager for the opening but the road for Elsharabasi took yet another detour. “We ordered a special oven from Italy, one that has a rotating disk in the center and can reach 1,300 degrees. I wanted this highly specialized piece of equipment because many of our breads, especially the feeter (a fluffy round of bread similar to pizza) needs a high-ceilinged oven to get even heat. With this oven, I can get the exact type of breads that Egyptian housewives bring home. There, they prepare the dough in their own kitchens and according to their own recipes and take it to bakeries that are hyper-local to the neighborhoods.”
This one piece of equipment proved difficult to install logistically and slowed things down. It is bulky and extremely heavy. But the layout of the entire building itself caused additional delay. “We are in a three-story building. The ventilation for the oven must go out the basement. That type of structure is common in buildings in New York, but we found out it is uncommon in Princeton.” This caused a bit of consternation, to say the least, with the inspectors in town and the “Closed” sign stayed up longer than hoped for.
‘It’s been both word of mouth and people walking in that has taken us out of the gate so fast. That, and our loyal patrons from Princeton who have known about us in Lambertville for years.’
But the construction and other issues are now behind Elsharabasi, and he can concentrate on getting the new location up and running. “We have been so busy ever since we opened our doors on September 25. I even have a couple of people who have come in every single day.”
This hungry writer too haunted the front doors, waiting for the “Open” sign to appear. When at last it did, I have gravitated to Marhaba for both lunch and dinner. The favorite dishes from the Lambertville location are available and, judging from the bustle each time I have dined, the word is out.
“We still have to work at getting up to speed,” says Elsharabasi. “I know we are slightly short-staffed right now. I did not anticipate the volume of business quite so soon, and we are improving every day. The website for the new location is being designed, and we are printing up our take-out menu. It’s been both word of mouth and people walking in that has taken us out of the gate so fast. That, and our loyal patrons from Princeton who have known about us in Lambertville for years.”
Elsharabasi is quick to credit the major part his wife, Tracey, plays in the success of the restaurants. “Food brought us together. We met when she was a customer at a Newtown restaurant I worked in. Right now she is focused on the Lambertville location while I concentrate on Princeton. She is my partner and has been with me every step of the way. She is there to correct my mistakes, helping me learn how things are done here. And she is the best mother for our 9-year-old daughter, Nabila. That was my mother’s name and means ‘noble.’”
The next stop on Elsharabasi’s road is a grand opening in Princeton soon.
It has been quite the journey from Egypt to Princeton and from the science of drugs to the science of food. But far from being an accidental tourist along the way, Elsharabasi has followed the path that his passion has carved.
Marhaba is an ancient greeting to good friends, expressing pleasure at seeing them. Elsharabsi and his entire staff have certainly received a warm welcome upon their arrival into Princeton. Diners at both his restaurants receive the same, with encouragement to come again soon.
Marhaba Middle Eastern Restaurant, 182 Nassau Street, Princeton. 609-423-2850. marhabaprinceton.com. Open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.