Diners of this Eustis-based restaurant have become smitten by its delicious and authentic Mediterranean food.
STORY: James Combs PHOTOS: Fred Lopez+Matthew Gaulin
I confess. When it comes to food, I am a walking stereotype of a Kentuckian. I love my fried chicken, fried catfish, green beans, mashed potatoes, and Grandma’s delicious homemade biscuits and gravy. With the exception of Mexican and Chinese food (the Americanized versions, admittedly), I’ve rarely been brave enough to try worldly and exotic foods.
In April, I surprised myself by having lunch at Elijah’s Café, which serves authentic Mediterranean food. For someone like me, I was not stepping out of my comfort zone; I was running out of my comfort zone.
My nerves eased somewhat as I drove on Bay Street and turned into Eustis Square Shopping Center. Seeing a Tractor Supply store let this country boy know he was not completely out of his element. Resisting the urge to go in there and purchase hunting accessories, I parked and walked to Elijah’s.
At first glance, I could not help but to notice the simplicity of the ambiance. However, if you cannot judge a book by its cover, then it is certainly unfair to judge a restaurant by its interior. These kinds of restaurants are the hidden treasures we all desire to find. Moreover, most tables were filled with a mix of business associates, retirees, and young couples. A crowded restaurant is typically a good sign.
I was warmly greeted by owner Elijah Abraham, who, come to find out, takes orders, cooks food, serves food, and rings up customers. With his warm smile and likeable personality, I quickly realized whatever this restaurant lacked in atmosphere, it made up for in customer service.
Elijah, who is half Italian and half Lebanese, discovered a passion for cooking at a young age. While growing up in Beirut, he would spend countless hours in the kitchen helping his parents cook popular Mediterranean dishes. After moving to the United States at age 34, he opened four restaurants throughout Michigan, Ohio, and Florida. He did all the cooking, even without formal training.
“I made each one of them successful, and then I sold them,” he says. “When you cook with love and serve with love, you will always be successful.”
He opened his fifth restaurant — Elijah’s Café — eight years ago and runs it with his two daughters, Nasrine Abraham and Rosine Abraham. The now 64-year-old restaurateur explained why his latest venture has also been a success.
“I make homemade Mediterranean food, and no other restaurant in the area has a menu like mine. Customers continually come back with family, friends, and neighbors because they enjoy our delicious, unique food.”
Hearing that, I was ready to put his Mediterranean fare to the test. For an appetizer, I ordered falafel, a deep-fried vegetarian patty mixed with chickpeas, garlic, onion, cilantro, and various spices. The exterior is crispy, while the inside is soft with a spicy kick. This was certainly a good way to become acquainted with Mediterranean food.
Even though I could not accurately pronounce the word, I ordered a gyros platter for lunch. It came with hummus, pita bread, tzatziki dressing, and a garden salad.
I was intrigued by the hummus, which looks somewhat like a light-colored bean dip but actually has a smooth, creamy texture. Elijah makes his hummus using chickpeas and tahini, a sesame seed paste. In the middle is a “pool” of lemon juice, as well as extra virgin olive oil imported from Italy and Lebanon. The hummus is fresh because Elijah soaks the chickpeas in water overnight and boils them each morning. As I took two bites, the lemon and garlic flavors became apparent. But the real treat was dipping into the hummus with soft, perfectly browned, and piping hot pita bread special ordered from Chicago.
The pita bread was equally tasty with the generous serving of meat, which Elijah explained is 85 percent beef and 15 percent lamb. It was my first time eating lamb and I was quite impressed with the warmth, freshness, and tenderness of the meat.
The garden salad was your typical tomato and lettuce combo, but what made this salad distinctive was the homemade tzatziki dressing, which is made of cucumbers and sour cream. The dressing was tangy and creamy and certainly a nice alternative to traditional salad dressings such as blue cheese and ranch.
All in all, I found the food to be delicious, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Elijah. It is clear a great deal of skill and pride go into each dish he serves. Perhaps Eric Meeker, a Mount Dora resident who visits Elijah’s Café twice a week, sums it up best. “The combination of great service and excellent food makes it hard for me to stay away.”
And what did I learn about myself? I did not step out of my comfort zone; I simply expanded my dining options. Considering my great all-around experience at Elijah’s Café, I will now have to familiarize myself with other local ethnic restaurants.
Chicken Gyros Platter: $12.99
Falafel Sandwich: $7.49
Baba Ghannooge Platter: $10.49
Shish Kabob Platter: $14.99
Address: 248 W. Ardice Ave., Eustis, FL 32726
Hours of Operation: 10:30a.m. to 6p.m., Monday through Saturday