Middle-earth delights

Crest Cafe

1017 K St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 444-2722

There’s something contagious about Rosemary Batarseh. Customers can’t find the cream for their morning coffee? Whoosh! She’s there helping them find it in the cold case. Delivery men walk in with her order? Zip! She gives them her full attention right away. Between stirs of lentil soup, Batarseh smiles at the people who walk in her door, making them feel welcome in Crest Cafe, the place she and her husband, Ramez, have built next door to the legendary Crest Theatre throughout the last few years.

This January, they will have been there three years. But the cafe, specializing in eclectic Mediterranean cuisine, has been longer in the making. Perhaps it was fate, but the location the Batarsehs picked was home to a Greek diner some years back. The tale is told by word of mouth: The diner did poorly, and the owner turned arsonist and burned the diner down. An office building was erected in the ashes. The ghost of Mediterranean dining must have remained, for the Batarsehs searched for two years until they landed where the former diner had been.

It’s not hard to see why they chose it. One draw, of course, was the Crest Theatre. A fan of foreign films, and a fluent French speaker, Rosemary Batarseh said the pedestrian traffic reminds her of Bethlehem, from which she and Ramez both hail. The two met in that city but took different paths to the United States. She was a human-resources manager for years; he was an AT&T design engineer. It wasn’t until she took time off to bring up their children that she busied herself with gardening and cooking, the latter of which led them to the restaurant business. “I wanted to take a risk in my life,” she said, though she credits her husband with making the dream a reality.

By 6:30 a.m., Rosemary is busy rolling dolmathes, the most labor-intensive dish she prepares. The rice she soaks is a fat, short grain from Japan; Egyptian rice is unavailable. She chops onions, garlic and parsley as part of the filling. The grape leaves come in jars from a company in San Francisco. If she were at home, she’d be using grape leaves from the vine, cured herself, which would retain more of a celery flavor. But, because she must prepare each roll herself, she uses grape leaves from the jar, which are pretty good, she explained.

Mornings are busy for the Batarsehs. That’s when they cut their vegetables and marinate the fresh cuts of meat, using recipes that have been handed down from their families. Apart from the dressings and marinades from their parents, the recipes are all Rosemary’s—from the 14 spices she uses in the shawarma to the fat Argentine shrimp dish, the spinach pasta salad, and the sumac (a spice made from crushed berries) falafel wrap. In the nearly three years the restaurant has been open, Rosemary has continued to create new dishes that adhere to her requirements of freshness and simplicity. The lamb gyro wrap—delicious shavings of lamb coupled with fresh lettuce, tomato, cucumber and a tangy dressing—is relatively new, as is the lamb salad, her personal favorite. She’s working on an orzo salad to replace the more starchy potato salad. A lot of people at the Capitol are on the Atkins diet, she said, and the food at Crest fits right in.

Lunchtime is when Crest Cafe bustles with hungry fans of Mediterranean cuisine. Rosemary knows this well. She caters to budget-conscious, value-driven diners who are short on time but want the freshness her restaurant offers. From the crisp Greek salads to the abundant portions of chicken, lamb, rice and hummus, Crest Cafe delivers on large quantities of good, fast, fresh food. What these lunch-timers miss, however, is the entertainment that comes with dining on a weekend night: belly dancing.

Belly dancers are part of the culture of entertainment in the Middle East and beyond. On a Friday evening, one can watch young (rather skinny) belly dancers enticing diners to dance with them. The playfulness with the audience, and the tipping on the belly line are all part of the fun, said Rosemary.

The success of Crest Cafe has prompted the Batarsehs to contemplate opening a second restaurant, though they do not know where yet. Though it’s hard work, not to mention a capital-intensive endeavor, the past three years have given back real satisfaction—the people she meets and the compliments she receives on her food. Maybe it’s her boundless enthusiasm, open demeanor or genuine disposition, but the challenges, said Rosemary, are well worth it.