Sprig Deal

We've had to wait a bit for our food; the menu warns that serving good food takes time. But we're entertained by live classical electric piano music (a weekend bonus) and by reading an impressive list of fresh juices on the wall -- carrot, apple, beet celery, mango, cranberry, apple and pomegranate. If tea's your bag, Green Leaf has that, too, fresh, with flavors like Persian chai (blended with cloves and cardamom), black, cinnamon, berry, mint, peach and chamomile.

My dining companion tells me he's been craving merza faranghee, and Green Leaf's version serves him well. The dinner plate brings three packets of grilled tomato, feta and onion wrapped with eggplant plus the requisite cugurt, pita and rice. It sounds boring, but there's synergy with garlic and Jaafari's magic sprinkling of herbs.

There's nothing dull about my special salmon, though, two slender slices prancing with dill and lemony Persian spice (oregano, basil, mint, dill). A side of grilled eggplant-wrapped asparagus topped with dill cream is quiet beauty.

Mahmmud Jaafari serves a spinach burger over brown rice with merza faranghee.
Leah Fasten
Mahmmud Jaafari serves a spinach burger over brown rice with merza faranghee.

Details

Appetizers:

Dolmeh platter$6.99

Angel-hair feta salad$6.99

Entrees:

Veggie stir fry with tofu$12.99

Salmon special$16.95

Merza faranghee$10.99

Dessert:

Pumpkin pie$4.00

By the time we finish a piece of vegan pumpkin pie, I'm hooked. One benefit of dining at closing time is that this is when Jaafari prepares desserts for the next day. Our pie is served silky hot from the oven, none the worse for its lack of dairy and eggs. I'd never have guessed a side of smooth tofu topping includes soy sauce along with its honey and cardamom (pungent ginger), but it's terrific.

Dinners end with a complimentary cup of breath fresheners: candied fennel that tastes just like tiny Good 'n' Plenty, and cumin seeds.

Returning for lunch a few days later, my stomach growls as soon as I get out of the car; it's like a dog straining on its leash, frantic to be let loose to run in the park. If tummies had tails, mine would be wagging over the provopita, a pizzalike concoction of chunk turkey breast, tomato, fresh sliced mushrooms, gooey and chewy provolone, slightly crisp bell peppers and onion on a grilled pita. It's so moist, so flavorful, and a filling meal.

And how can Jaafari make such an innocent mix of stir-fry vegetables so secretly delightful? Perhaps it's the sauce -- a vigorous Asian roundup of seasoned soy sauce and sesame seeds. Maybe it's the vegetables themselves -- virtually every plant ever gardened, and all excitingly fresh. I get my meal topped with a landslide of soft, grilled tofu cubes for just 50 cents more.

The spud burger is another top pick, essentially a crispy edged mashed potato cake blended with mushrooms, egg, carrots and celery. It's topped with cugurt and sautéed vegetables over brown rice.

A spinach burger is second tier, however, because of its heavy composition. The menu says it contains parsley, wheat flour, fenugreek and walnuts, but all I taste is spinach, spinach, spinach. A Greek-style gyro plate, too, falters with mushy lamb, salvaged only by a lemony spark and cugurt. Mexichix gyros substitute chicken and add the Spanish flair of jalapeños, and they are the better for it.

And hummus, while excellent as an appetizer spread dipped with crisp vegetables and grilled pita, is ponderous as a sandwich. The creamy chickpea, black pepper and soy sauce paste collapses an overstuffed pita pocket, and I yearn for more sliced cucumber, celery and carrot sticks inside. As with all sandwiches, the hummus comes with a side of tabbouleh, Kalamata olives, radish, cucumber, tomato, feta and sliced pickle.

Those with light appetites will do well to order Green Leaf's house salad. It's a huge but healthful helping of iceberg, romaine, purple cabbage, radish coins, carrot sticks, sprouts, feta, tomato, dill, cucumber, Kalamata olives, celery and fabulously aggressive whole mint leaves. I only wish the olive oil and apple cider vinegar dressing had more oomph -- like the boisterous mint iced tea. Still, it's a good pairing with homemade lentil soup, a savory, chunky broth including tiny dicings of vegetables and herbs.

With all of Jaafari's attention to detail, it's a surprise that his baklava is almost inedible. The flavor is good, and very, very sweet, but this feisty fritter defies the fork. It's so refrigerated and thick, it simply cannot be cut or chewed.

It would take weeks to wade through Green Leaf Cafe's remaining menu, but what a wonderful trip it would be. You don't have to ask me twice to complete the international culinary tour of Italy (shrimp scampi comes broiled with lemon, capers and olive oil instead of butter); and America (basic tuna salad is gussied with lemon, yogurt, bok choy and capers).

At least with those more familiar items I'd have an easier time decoding the musical, magical recipes. In the meantime, if I don't know the words, perhaps Jaafari can just hummus a few bars and I'll fake it.

Green Leaf Cafe, 4426 North 19th Avenue, Phoenix, 602-265-5992. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4 to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m.

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