THE PERSIAN GULP

Middle Eastern cuisine, broadly defined, runs on an east-west axis from Morocco to Afghanistan, and north-south from Greece to Egypt. It's a gigantic area.

Mediterranean House, though, never quite convinced me it wanted to be part of that world.

Like Haji-Baba, it's totally unpretentious. And it also has a room-length mural. This one features idyllic scenes studded with sheep, villages and ruins. Eager-to-please staff members bustle about the homey room. Steady "pings" from the kitchen microwave provide the only aural entertainment.

The combination appetizer gave us our first hint that the place doesn't unreservedly embrace the Mideast kitchen. Sure, the platter contained the right suspects--hummus, baba ghanouj and falafel. But the hummus and baba ghanouj had only the barest hint of the lemony, garlicky, sesame-seed tahini kick. The falafel came strangely textured, thick and bready, lacking that freshly fried-up taste. The soups, too, lacked zip. Mediterranean soup was a microwave victim, steaming hot at some depths, room temperature at others. Too bad, too, because it was chock-full of ground beef and lamb, orzo and tomato. Lentil soup, a rich broth of pur‚ed lentils, hit only one note on the flavor scale. With the right seasoning, it could have been a symphony.

Dinners are reasonably priced, nothing more than $8.95, with some main dishes that are substantial, hearty and flavorful. A couple are really scrumptious. Had this place been called "Joe's Diner," my enthusiasm might not have been tempered by twinges of disappointment.

The combo shish kebab plate is a Mideast perennial. The lamb skewer was overcooked, but the meat itself was tender, with a heady lamb scent. The beef and chicken also exhibited first-rate quality. But none of the three skewers gave off the exotic fragrances I associate with this dish. Chicken shushka reminded me of ropa vieja, the Cuban specialty. The platter comes with a ton of shredded chicken over rice, submerged in a sea of tomato sauce. It's quite good, but it's overseasoned with ladlefuls of rosemary and pepper, hardly the distinguishing flavors of Middle Eastern cooking. The two plain, good-sized lamb chops were great. They came grilled to juicy perfection, and at $7.95, this might be one of the best lamb values in town.

Just as good was Egyptian chicken. It's a huge plate of sliced chicken breast, battered and fried. Had it come with a sweet lemon sauce, it would have exactly duplicated the lemon chicken I get at my local Chinese restaurant.

However, the "Greek" salad that precedes dinner, a bit of crumbled feta perched on underdressed lettuce, could definitely use tuning up. And the rice accompanying all these dishes is not aromatic basmati, just a plain, long-grain variety. Instead of sumac, it's sprinkled with paprika, a colorful, if odd, choice.

Desserts seem more closely attuned to a Phoenix diner than an establishment named "Mediterranean House." There's chocolate cake, ice cream and three varieties of cheesecake. But it's unlikely anyone finishing a main dish will have room for any of them.

Baklava is the only dessert here with ethnic roots, but this dry, timeworn version didn't do much for the cause of multiculturalism. We found the thick Turkish coffee a much better way to end the meal.

Mediterranean House is a cozy, low-key place that would improve any neighborhood. In particular, the main dishes are affordable and substantial and pretty darn tasty. And in the end, I decided there's really no need to tinker with the menu, just because of some stubborn "authenticity" fetish. The next time you're in the mood for well-prepared, ill-defined ethnic fare, this is a place to go.

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