A star is (re)born

Former local Mediterranean fave upgrades to fancy new space

Waitress Kahlil Johnson serves up a couple of leg of lamb platters.

Waitress Kahlil Johnson serves up a couple of leg of lamb platters.

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Café Petra
163 E. Second St.
Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

When I was in college, my favorite Sunday dinner was at Giovanni’s, a classic pizza dive. One day it closed and reopened as Caffe Giovanni, with the old prices tripled. From this I developed Tuck’s Café Placement Principle (TCPP): “cafe” at the end of a restaurant’s name means cheap; “café” at the front doubles the prices; “caffe” at the front triples the prices.

And so I approached Café Petra, the very new Mediterranean restaurant in the old House of Bamboo space downtown, with trepidation. It’s a reincarnation of Petra Mediterranean Cuisine, the low-brow, beloved eatery that stood where my present go-to restaurant Ali Baba now stands on Broadway. I was delighted to have Mohammed Shabbar, Petra’s chef, cooking in Chico again, but that “café” placement boded ill.

Not to worry. Café Petra is without a doubt an attempt to take Petra uptown. The menu is greatly expanded, the dishes are more sophisticated, and the prices are generally higher than the old Petra, or the present Ali Baba. At Ali Baba, the kabob plate is $8.50; at Café Petra, it’s $15-$18. At Ali Baba, baklava is $1; at Café Petra, it’s $4. Is the food worth the hit? Absolutely. Despite the inevitable start-up rough spots, Café Petra is already one of the four or five best restaurants in Chico.

Café Petra is so new the waitstaff doesn’t know the names of the desserts yet, but it’s all part of the fun. Shabbar, his partner, David Halimi, and their staff exude a joyous excitement about their new project that reminded me of the cast members at Disneyland in the ’50s. When I mentioned to the maître d’ that I loved the rice, she replied with conspiratorial glee, “Isn’t it fantastic?!”

The ambiance is a nice balance between formal and friendly. The space is almost stark, but there are touches of casualness (the glass dessert case, the visible soda machine), intimacy (the large window onto the kitchen, the paintings of Hamsa hands, done by a friend of Halimi’s) and even whimsy (the map of Puerto Vallarta, drawn by a friend of Shabbar).

The menu is extensive: Besides the entrees and sandwiches, there are 10 appetizers, eight salads, and as many as 10 desserts. It’s billed as “Mediterranean,” and it’s intentionally eclectic—Italian minestrone and tiramisu, Greek spanakopita, Iranian koobideh. But the heart is familiar Middle Eastern: shawarma, kabob, falafel. Everything I’ve had on the menu was simply marvelous. The falafel is the best I’ve ever had. The rice, that wonderful grain that is often merely bland filler, here becomes a headliner—my favorite thing in the place. The portions are gigantic—assume any plate will suffice for two meals.

Café Petra takes its desserts seriously. They’re many, often unusual, delicious, and expensive ($7 for cheesecake), and are often made in-house by Shabbar’s wife, Huda. My favorite is the qatayef, a small folded crepe filled with soft cheese and nuts.

As with all new restaurants, there are ways to make a good thing better. Many of the desserts are not on the menu and are unlabeled in the dessert case, so ordering is often an act of blind faith. Fries are the only side option with the wraps—I’d like to see a simple salad as an alternative. The entrees are typically meat, rice, onion and spices. Order this on your own and you’re in for a ton of one thing. Petra would do well to offer salad, hummus and pita with entrees. A way around this is to order Petra’s sampler plate, also perhaps the best bang for your dinner buck at $10, with generous amounts of hummus and baba ghanoush, plus two dolmas, two falafel balls and spanakopita. Or visit as a foursome, order different dishes, and share.