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We're still busy scooping when the combination appetizer plate arrives. Frankly, if it didn't look so appealing, I might not stop. Warm stuffed grape leaves are lemony and wonderful. Kebbe akras, a deep-fried meat-and-bulgar ball, is surprisingly satisfying. Fried falafel patties, substituted for spinach pie, are subtly spiced, crunchy-brown outside, warm and moist inside. Eggplant dip and hummus are also included on the plate. Both have creamy textures, but are too heavily doused with paprika--a little less of the red stuff would do.
Our entrees arrive, and I'm glad I slowed down a little on the appetizers. The grilled chicken plate features four pieces of charred, yet moist, chicken, a mound of nutmeg-flavored long-grain rice and green, parsley-laden tabouleh.
A combination kebab plate is not quite as successful. Three morsels each of chicken kebob, lamb kebob and keufta kebob are presented on a bed of rice. While the lemon-marinated chicken kebob morsels are tasty, the lamb is tough and mutton-flavored, and the keufta--grilled ground beef and spices--is dried out and overherbed.
3231 S. Mill Ave.
Tempe, AZ 85282
By the time lunch is finished, we are too sated for dessert, so of course I have some wrapped to go. Mediterranean Restaurant offers several fresh-baked phyllo dough pastries along the lines of baklava. The two I try use a sweet cheese filling. The simplest of them is a triangular phyllo dough pastry filled with the cheese and soaked in honey. I like it because it's not sickeningly sweet.
The second dessert is more eye-catching. The same white cheese is rolled in orange, shredded phyllo dough, giving it a "hairy" look. Topped with ground pistachios, the result is light, not too sweet, and wonderful.
From the pleasant way we're served, you would never know that Nabil Awwad, manager of Mediterranean Restaurant, is frustrated and worried. If you ask how business is, he'll tell you it's good. Dig a little deeper and you learn the real story. "It's killing us," he says, referring not to a lack of customers but to something much worse. "We know nothing, only that he is stuck there."
"He" is Nabil's brother Basem. "There" is Kuwait.
Basem was in the tiny ill-fated country to attend a wedding--his own. He and his bride, mother and sister were supposed to leave Kuwait the day the Iraqis invaded. They never boarded their plane.
Like his brother Nabil, Basem Awwad is an American citizen. The Palestinian brothers are originally from Jerusalem. Basem's new wife is Palestinian, too. Like many citizens of other Middle Eastern countries, her family resided in oil-rich Kuwait.
"The State Department called and told us he was on the list," says Nabil, with a heavy sigh. "I don't know why they didn't leave. They had their tickets." He pauses, as though searching for answers. "I guess they all wanted to stay together."
You won't see any yellow ribbons tied outside Mediterranean Restaurant. Nabil Awwad has not asked for any publicity concerning his family's detention in Kuwait. The restaurant is still open. There are customers to serve. But Nabil's mind is never far from his brother's situation.
"If only we knew someone in Jordan," he says.
It all makes analyzing falafel seem pretty damn insignificant, doesn't it?
Mediterranean Gourmet, 705 South Rural, Tempe, 894-8575. Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday; noon to 6 p.m., Sunday.
Mediterranean Restaurant, 616 South Forest, Tempe, 968-5582. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday.
Falafel was created by Christian Egyptians for consumption during Lent. Mediterranean Gourmet's is the best this side of the Euphrates.
"It's killing us," Nabil Awwad says, referring not to a lack of customers, but to something much worse.