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Family tradition

I'm an appetizer fanatic. Gimme a big assortment of little dishes and I am happy. That's why Korean, Indian and Chinese food pleases me so much. Now, with the opening of Cedar's Restaurant, I can add Lebanese to that list.

In a break from the Corporate Fooding of the Sand Lake Road corridor through the Dr. Phillips area, Cedar's is privately owned, and it's hard to beat the hands-on care. With a background in restaurants in New York, the owners say they wanted to "present healthy, well-made food" to Central Florida, and they've succeeded.

My other obsession is food that is authentically traditional, and Cedar's, in a pistachio nutshell, does it right. Their spin on traditional Lebanese seems to be a lightness of texture and flavor that is both refreshing and inviting. If you're familiar, with Middle Eastern food you won't be disappointed. But if your only experience has been leaden falafel and overwhelming spices, you are in for a treat.

There are far too many appetizers to describe. Even the small pitas are splendid, puffy and hot from the clay oven. Use them to scoop up baba ghannouj, a smooth roasted eggplant and garlic puree with a wonderfully smokey taste ($3.75), as well as shanklish, crumbled cheese blended with thyme, onions and tomato that's so creamy it literally does melt in your mouth ($4.75). Falafel (fried chick peas and bean patties; $3.75) is far lighter than I've ever come across, and a tasty pleasure. The very traditional kebbeh ($4.25) is a flavorful cracked wheat ball stuffed with ground meat and onions.

If you want to start with something familiar, here's a restaurant that knows its shish kabobs ($14.75) – cubes of marinated lamb, slow roasted and tender. When you feel adventurous, move on to mouloukhieh ($10.75), chicken with malow leaves, cilantro and garlic.

"Sultan Ibrahim" ($16) is a plateful of small red mullet (I had five), an ancient coastal fish that has a deep, freshwater flavor and is seldom served in the U.S. The fish are served whole and it takes work to get around the bones. But it's delicious, accompanied by tender fried-eggplant rounds and sesame tahini sauce, and worth the effort.

The place itself is light and window-filled, with Ottoman arches, columns and a pleasant dining terrace. Be sure to eat just the right amount so you're sleepy enough to offset the jolt of pure caffeine disguised as Turkish coffee. It's a delicate balance that may take two or three visits to get right. Fortunately, you'll enjoy every attempt.

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