Dining » Fat Mouth

Rumi Nations

Now that he's back from Beirut, Marwan Chebaro finds yet another home on 39th Street.


"Rumi?" That's what my friend Herman asked as we passed the former garage at 3903 Wyoming that once housed the grungy Otto's Malt Shop. "Isn't rumi that appetizer made of chicken livers and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon?"

No, that's rumaki, I explained. Rumi was Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), the Persian scholar and poet whose ecstatic, magical writings have never fallen out of popularity -- especially not with the perpetually cheery Marwan Chebaro, who has taken Rumi's name for the tiny new restaurant he opened last week. Chebaro and his business partner, Bassam Helwani, have given the old Otto's (most recently occupied as a Joe Joe's Italian Eatery franchise) a complete face-lift. They replaced the dreary green and institutional yellow paint with more exotic shades, letting artist Tammy Grady use a palette of silver, pumpkin-orange and celery-green to liven up the joint. Chebaro, a native of Lebanon, now serves the kind of Mediterranean fare he once prepared at the other local restaurants he owned before returning to Beirut in 1997.

Chebaro (the brother of Mahar Chebaro, a former partner in the old Boulevard Café) was a partner in the original Iliki Restaurant at 1808 West 39th Street, site of the current Tribal Grill, which he also formerly owned. "I tried to get the Tribal Grill space back," Chebaro says, "but it wasn't available, so a friend suggested taking over the Otto's location. I like it, but for some reason, I thought it was a lot bigger."

Indeed, Rumi isn't very big -- it seats only forty, not including outdoor tables in the summer. But Chebaro hopes he can tear out a bricked-in doorway in the dining room, which leads to a good-sized subterranean space in an old house connected to his space.

"We're going to need it," he says. "We've been swamped since the day we opened our door."

Chebaro wasn't sure if he should start out serving lunch or dinner; he decided on both. He's offering all of his old favorites, including tabbouleh, hummus, spanikopita, calamari, shish kebabs, Sumac Chicken and Gambas con Ajo, Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5:30 to 9 p.m.

His 39th Street neighbor, Chipotle, might be intrigued to hear that Chebaro's best-selling items are his four Lavosh wrap sandwiches -- a Middle Eastern twist on the classic burrito. One is made with spiced chicken and couscous, another with Shawarma-style grilled chicken.

"I'm still tinkering with the recipes," Chebaro says, "but people are loving them."

Or, as Rumi once said, "Better than the broth of cabbages."

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