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I don't go to Middle Eastern restaurants for the same reason I don't look up old flames. There's no way the present can compete with my memories of the past.
Recalling years of living and eating in the Middle East-the scented rice, the fragrant lamb, the perfumed spices-stirs feelings in me as powerful as any Proust got from his madeleine. Why ruin it all, I thought, at some local restaurant that's bound to serve Americanized versions at rip-off prices?
But it turns out that making generalizations about the Middle East is a chancy proposition, even if you're only talking about food. After a visit to two Valley restaurants, I came away happily wrong and sadly right.
Yusef's is easy to pass by. Located in a struggling minimall, a fork's throw from a gun-and-ammo store and a mattress warehouse, it seems an unlikely spot for a meal that won't require an Alka-Seltzer chaser.
Yusef's is half grocery store, half funky cafe. Looking down from the walls are sketches of Jordan, carpets with mosque-oriented motifs, shelves of brassware and several portraits of Jesus Christ.
Six red-vinyl booths and four tables await eat-in patrons. I was surprised to see four booths filled on a cold Wednesday night. The young Jordanian waiter came over quickly and took our order. His sister was cooking in the back, while his brother-in-law bustled about the grocery section, chatting with Arab customers. (This is a family business all the way, but don't look for Yusef-he was the previous owner.)
In a few moments, the waiter brought my wife and me our two appetizers. Hummus b'tahini was ground chickpeas seasoned with lemon, garlic and toasted, mashed sesame seeds. We scooped it onto the accompanying warm pita bread. Tabouleh combined bulgur wheat and fresh, finely chopped parsley flecked with scallions and fresh mint. Both dishes were superb and authentic. My wife and I smiled at each other and began summoning up remembrances of things past.
Meals come with soup, salad or rice, and on this chilly evening, the soup was the right choice. I picked lentil soup, a thick broth enlivened with green split peas. Sprinkled on top was sumac, a purple Mideast spice that added a pleasant tartness. My wife ordered the vegetable lamb soup: ground lamb in a tomato broth swimming with carrots, potatoes and beans. It came flavored with nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon, spices Americans usually reserve for desserts, but which are used extensively with meat dishes in the Middle East.
(We once gave an Iranian neighbor some home-baked cinnamon cookies. He nearly gagged. To understand his reaction, imagine a gift of oregano brownies.)
We chose two different combination plates as our main dishes, which gave us a taste of almost everything on the menu. The meat combination had two pieces of marinated, grilled lamb, chicken kebab and kafta. The latter is the Mideast's answer to meat loaf, a dense mix of ground beef, parsley and onions.
The meat combo included rice, but Uncle Ben would never recognize this variety. This was Basmati rice, an unbelievably fragrant, long-grained rice favored in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking.
In the evening's only false note, I got just half the portion that would be standard in any rice-eating culture. But it was still twice the typical American serving.
My wife sampled a combination plate featuring three stuffed cabbage rolls, three stuffed grape leaves and kibbe, a square of ground beef layered with parsley and pine nuts. The slightly sweet stuffings of meat and rice made a fine foil for the tart cabbage and grape leaves.
Other dinners-at $7.95 and $7.25, ours were the two most expensive on the menu-are the kafta plate, the kibbe plate and the falafel dinner. We settled for water, but you can order exotic juices like mango and tamarind out of the grocery refrigerator. No alcohol is served.
While the waiter dealt with a large party speaking equal parts of Arabic and English, we checked out the grocery section. The eclectic mix runs from Greek cookies and Israeli jam to Moroccan couscous and Indian chutney. We spotted the homemade desserts in a cooler: three kinds of baklava (pistachio, cashew and walnut) and knafeh, an Egyptian goody of ricotta-type cheese surrounded by shredded phyllo dough and drenched in honey. We stopped our waiter on his way back to the kitchen and asked for a couple of the pastries, and some mint tea and Turkish coffee.
It was already close to 8:30 p.m., and Yusef's purportedly closes at 8. But the place really runs on Middle Eastern time, staying open if the customers keep coming.
In a few minutes, our waiter brought the desserts and the check. When we reminded him of tea and coffee, a mortified expression passed over his face, and he apologized for spending too much time serving the larger table and forgetting our order.
Gooey, chewy and fresh, the desserts met my demanding calorie-to-taste test-the more fattening something is, the better it has to taste.
When he brought the drinks-intensely flavored mint tea and properly sludgy Turkish coffee-the waiter took the check from the table. But instead of adding the price of the tea and coffee, he subtracted the cost of dessert.