Restaurant review: Joolz

Bend chef Ramsey Hamdan brings Lebanese flavors to Central Oregon

By John Gottberg Anderson / For The Bulletin

Published May 9, 2014 at 12:11AM

Joolz Restaurant

Location: 916 N.W. Wall St., Bend

Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Monday to Saturday

Price range: Small plates $4 to $12, large plates $16 to $29

Credit cards: American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa

Kids’ menu: On request

Vegetarian menu: Wide range of options, from tabbouleh salad to stuffed grape leaves

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Outdoor seating: Limited sidewalk seating

Reservations: Recommended

Contact: www.joolzbend.com or 541-388-5094

Scorecard

OVERALL: A

Food: A. Eastern Mediterranean cuisine creatively prepared with a Pacific Northwest twist.

Service: A. Outstanding staff is prompt, personable and knowledgeable about the cuisine.

Atmosphere: A. Exotic fabrics and Middle Eastern decor transport patrons to a foreign land.

Value: A. Wide selection of budget-priced small plates balance more elaborate entree choices.

Preparing unique, Middle Eastern-influenced cuisine is something that has come easily to Ramsey Hamdan.

Lebanese-American by birth, raised and educated in Beirut, the 49-year-old chef-owner of Joolz Restaurant in downtown Bend prepares the same food for his patrons as he does for his family. And it’s a labor of love.

“I lived this food for 21 years in Lebanon,” he said. “It has a huge variety of ingredients that you can do so many things with … and it’s healthy.”

Hamdan describes the cuisine at Joolz — a fixture on Wall Street for more than five years — as “Mediterranean with a Northwest twist.”

The menu is split evenly between small plates and full entrees. “If someone doesn’t want to spend $30 on a dinner, they don’t have to,” Hamdan said.

In fact, not a single item on the Joolz menu is priced as much as $30, but the owner’s point was well taken. A couple can easily share three smaller size dishes — say, Cyprus prawns, hummus on the range (with elk medallions) and a rose harissa Caesar salad — and leave Joolz having spent less than $50, including individual glasses of wine and a gratuity.

Exotic decor

There’s an awful lot to like about Joolz. For one, the atmosphere is sufficiently exotic that diners may feel transported to a foreign land.

Ramsey Hamdan’s wife and co-owner, Juli Stonelake Hamdan, an art historian by education, draped colorful silk fabrics from the restaurant’s rafters and accented the decor with Arabic brassware and hookahs. On the walls hang the antlers of antelope native to the Middle East, including the oryx and the gazelle, and Arabic music lends its hypnotic melodies and rhythms to the background.

Service ranks among the best in Central Oregon. Waiters are prompt, personable and knowledgeable about the cuisine.

That’s something I would expect from longtime Joolz employees, but here it even applied to a professional server who was only in his second day on the job at this restaurant.

Happy hour

And then there’s the food itself. My dining companion and I agree that two of our favorite dishes are among the simplest — “forbidden” black rice and fried cauliflower. Both are offered on the restaurant’s happy- hour menu, served at the bar until 6 p.m. and after 9 p.m. nightly (except Sunday), as well as on the regular dinner menu.

The rice bowl is an adaptation of a Lebanese family-style dish. Featuring unhusked black rice mixed with barbecued chicken and toasted nuts, Hamdan originally made it as a casserole-style dish for his staff, who raved about it and insisted that it be added to the regular menu. Today it is served with tabbouleh (a parsley and cracked-wheat salad) and tzatziki (a yogurt sauce).

I never loved cauliflower until I tried it at Joolz. Now I can’t get enough. Hamdan’s recipe calls for flash-frying the white vegetable with lemon and parsley, then serving it with a tahini dipping sauce.

Dinner time

Cauliflower is only one element of an entree-sized vegetarian platter. My companion and I shared this spread on one recent visit, complementing it with a few small dishes.

The plate came with five delicious dolmas, grape leaves stuffed with tomato and citrus-spiced rice; three crispy falafel dumplings, made with moist, mashed chick peas and served with pita wedges; and a peppery arugula salad with a tangy vinaigrette.

We enjoyed a serving of delicate white Cyprus prawns, simmered in arak (a licorice-flavored Arabic alcohol), lemon juice and olive oil, with the addition of feta cheese, parsley and zataar, a Middle Eastern herb blend featuring sumac and sesame seeds.

More filling was Lebanese hash, an off-menu special that we ordered on Hamdan’s recommendation. A pan-fried blend of beef cheek with potatoes, parsnips, kale, carrots and Brussels sprouts were tossed with spicy harissa (red pepper) dressing and topped with an egg. It was the kind of dish that would have been good any time of day.

The same would be true of one of our favorite desserts anywhere. The caramel date cake, served with whipped cream, has no counterpart in Oregon. We both love it.

Second visit

We began a subsequent visit with a starter of smoky baba ghannouj dip, a mash of flame-roasted eggplant, blended with tahini, lemon and garlic and generously sprinkled with cayenne pepper. It is served with wedges of pita bread.

A beautiful salad of red leaf lettuce and other fresh mixed greens, along with ribboned basil, sliced radishes, red onion, yellow plum tomatoes, pine nuts and feta cheese, was dressed with a light and creamy vinaigrette of preserved Meyer lemons. The dressing was a perfect accent to the subtle flavors.

My companion had a menu classic, a rib-eye steak. Cooked medium-rare as she prefers, seasoned with zataar and other imported herbs, it was laid upon a bed of French-fried Yukon gold and sweet potatoes. A with a baked tomato and a medley of julienned vegetables, including carrots, squash and green beans.

My entree choice was a nightly special — pan-fried Oregon coast ling cod in a Syrian muhummara sauce of pureed red peppers. It was served with a coarsely chopped medley of baby zucchini and yellow squash with potatoes, a perfect complement to the fish.

For dessert, we shared a rich slice of chocolate torte with chocolate-covered cherries and whipped cream.

Sharing credit

Hamdan is quick to credit his new chef de cuisine, Greg Bouchard, previously of San Diego, with adding fresh creativity to the Joolz kitchen. “The cuisine is new to Greg, but he has been actively researching and studying it,” Hamdan said. “He comes in early to experiment with new dishes, tying everything into the Middle Eastern theme.”

Everything prepared at Joolz is made from scratch, Hamdan said, featuring as much Oregon product as possible. “We work hard, and we’re constantly reinventing the wheel,” he said.

Fans of Joolz can expect to see lamb tartare on the menu soon, Hamdan said, along with a Tunisian dish called shakshouka, a spicy ragout of roasted peppers and poached eggs served on a Sparrow Bakery brioche.

And seasonal specials, the owner said, will soon feature such ingredients as fava beans, morel mushrooms, dandelion greens and pistachio nuts.

— Reporter: janderson@bendbulletin.com

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