Pine nut and rose-scented iced tea draws inspiration from Lebanon. Grilled halloumi evokes summer evenings on the Mediterranean Sea in Greece. A fried eggplant and falafel breakfast platter seems straight out of Egypt.
At Cleo’s Mediterranean Cuisine, the kitchen dives deep into the cuisines of the Mediterranean and Middle East.
In 2013, Cleo’s opened as a casual eatery and convenience and grocery store in the Central Business District. Last year, owner Tarek Madkour closed that location and opened a new grocery store and restaurant at 940 Canal St. and a more stylish restaurant on upper Decatur Street.
The Decatur Street location has a bright dining room decorated with gold arabesque designs that extend from the walls and light fixtures to the tabletops. The menu is more ambitious than that of the original restaurant.
Middle Eastern specialties are the focus of the extensive menu, which begins with an assortment of mezze served with steaming pita bread. There are bright green, hockey puck-shaped falafel, generous hummus bowls topped with everything from fried cauliflower to lamb and salads brimming with fresh cucumbers and tomatoes.
Last month, he opened a Mexican restaurant, Otra Vez, in the Warehouse District.
Lebanese-style kibbe are excellent. Similar to ground beef and lamb boulettes, the fried orbs are scented with warm spices and cinnamon and studded with cracked wheat and pine nuts.
Many of the dishes are familiar. Hummus is garlicky and smooth. Thick baba ghanoush features smoky roasted eggplant. Creamy labneh marries the characteristic lactic tang with basil and mint. But there also are dishes that seem delightfully different, such as a warm roasted shrimp hummus topped with nutty and warming za’atar. Perhaps in a nod to the south Louisiana location, the tagines — traditionally served in namesake fluted clay pots — arrive in cast-iron black pots. A version bobbing with okra and hunks of lamb is warm with harissa spice and full of soupy tomatoes flavored with garlic. The Egyptian fried beef “schnitzel kofta” features four short cylinders of breaded and fried ground rib-eye. An ample serving of salad and saffron-tinged rice flecked with juicy pomegranate seeds rounds out the plate to make an entrée-sized meal.
In general, the menu is designed for sharing dishes, which is difficult at the small tables for two at the Decatur Street location.
As at the Canal Street location, Cleo’s is open 24 hours a day, and the restaurant attracts a wide array of people: early-bird cab drivers popping in for breakfast, tourists from nearby hotels in search of vegetarian lunch and dinner to Bourbon Street revelers looking to wind down at the end of a long night. The late-night menu highlights more traditional dishes.
All of these diners are on to what many others now are figuring out as well — that Cleo’s is always a good idea, no matter the time of day.
Wings anchor this operation, but baskets of thick golden-fried chicken tenders and cornmeal flour-battered catfish and shrimp make for substantial and tasty meals.
Costera isn’t a tapas bar, but the extensive menu of shareable plates and the communal table near the entrance to the sprawling dining room suggest the owners’ affinity for the Spanish way of dining.