My dining companion is messing with my head, or, should I say, my palate. He swears there's lemon in the complimentary pre-dinner plate of iced watermelon we're enjoying at the Green Leaf Cafe.I pluck another chunk of fruit, but there's no lemon flavor here. I even dip my fingers in the melting ice water and lick them carefully -- nothing. It is there, he insists, tasting his thumb, and so citrusy-strong I must be crazy not to detect it. Just then, our waiter brings me my mint iced tea, the glass ridged with a thick slice of lemon. My companion, having arrived minutes before me, has already received his tea, and his freshly squeezed lemon chunk floats lazily in the glass. Mystery solved.
Deciphering the subtle ingredients in many other dishes at Green Leaf Cafe, however, is not so simple. With a menu of many moods, Green Leaf feeds us a base cuisine of Persian, accented by Mediterranean, Italian, American, Mexican, Cajun, vegetarian and a smattering of Oriental influences. Amazingly enough, the food not only succeeds, it soars.
Formerly called the Main Street Cafe, the restaurant has been thriving for more than a decade now under the talent of chef-owner Mahmmud Jaafari. The eatery's name change makes sense; we're not on Main Street, after all, and Jaafari is so wickedly skilled with the green, leafy stuff.
Herbs and spices are everywhere. They come in fresh and dried form; as centerpieces, accents and garnishes; in the personality of oregano, basil, mint, dill, fennel, cumin, garlic, capers, parsley, ginger, fenugreek (a pleasantly bitter, slightly sweet herb), cilantro and more. They shine in soups, salads, sandwiches, pita pockets, veggie burgers and vegetarian entrees, and on pastas, fresh fish, lamb, turkey and tofu.
How Jaafari keeps so many perishable ingredients in stock is his secret. He runs a truly compact kitchen, and Green Leaf only holds about a dozen tables. It's a cute place, warmly decorated with faux streetlights draped in white sparkle bulbs, posters of vegetables, fruits and herbs plus a few pieces of Middle Eastern art. Green leaves abound, with lots of well-cared-for trailing plants mounted on the walls.
Still, the food doesn't sit around long -- the cafe does brisk business at lunch and early dinner, including armies of patrons marching in and out with to-go orders. Clientele is a mixed bag: At one lunch, my companion and I recognize executives from downtown's League of Arizona's Cities and Towns -- they're sitting between tables of young women celebrating their graduation from ASU, and an extraordinarily cheerful bunch of folks chattering a language I can't even begin to guess.
Tonight, though, my dining companion and I have arrived "late" on a Friday evening -- 7 p.m., and only a few other tables are occupied. By the time we're ready to wrap up, it's about 8:30 p.m., we're alone, and the door lock clicks behind us as we leave. Although the eatery posts closing hours of 9 p.m. on weekends, my prediction is that if you're not seated by 8 p.m., you're not going to eat.
Once we smell the aromas wafting from the semi-exhibition kitchen, though, it's going to take more than a steel door with industrial-strength deadbolts to keep my companion and me from dinner. Surely you've seen those classic Bugs Bunny cartoons where thin clouds of cooking scents beckon our hero with smoky fingers, lift him off his feet and draw him by his nose to a bubbling stew pot -- that's us.
The perfume emitted by angel-hair feta salad is so seductive, in fact, that my empty tummy actually aches for its arrival. Even served cold, it prances with so much garlic scent it takes two days to air out my car after transporting leftovers. It's a big plateful of slippery perfection -- skinny noodles and romaine tossed with feta, Parmesan, scallions, tomatoes and an unexpected but effective avocado paste. With the first bite, my head spins; by the last, I'm absolutely overpowered, pressing triangles of grilled garlic pita to the plate like a junkie searching for any remaining herbs and cheeses.
Spicy Cajun chicken leaves me equally helpless, thanks to an ethereal blend of garlic, Persian spices, vermouth and soy sauce. This is what I wish local Chinese food tasted like, with simple meats and vegetables showcased without heavy saucing. Chicken breast is tossed with al dente carrot, broccoli, sprouts, cauliflower, mushrooms, green pepper, bok choy, celery, tomato and onion, resting on brown rice. I tuck the artful mess into pita bundles, wishing only for more of the cucumber sauce served alongside.
As the weather warms, in fact, I'd consider making entire meals of Jaafari's "cugurt," a velvety blend of homemade yogurt, chopped cucumber, mint, dill, onion and sea salt. It's at once tangy and mild, bitter and sweet, and is available in appetizer portions.
But I digress. Back to dinner with my lemon-head companion, where an appetizer dolmeh platter has just been placed on our Persian-cloth-and-glass-topped table. Dolmeh are four little rolls of steamed grape leaves stuffed with tabbouleh -- an intricately diced salad of bulgur wheat, cucumber, tomato, pine nuts and parsley, moistened with lemon juice and olive oil. It's oddly bland, but an appropriate foil for the bitter, peppery grape leaves. As with most Green Leaf dishes, it comes with lukewarm brown rice dotted with lentils and raisins, plus whole wheat pita triangles and cugurt (pita here is not homemade, but no worries, Jaafari has a good supplier).
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.
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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