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.
He hadn't given us the type of service we should have received, he explained, and he didn't want first-time visitors to get a bad impression.
We left in a happy daze, stunned that Middle Eastern cooking and hospitality have managed to sink roots in the unpromising soil of the urban Southwest. Authentic, homey, affordable. We'll be back.
One visit was enough, though, to Apadana, an Iranian restaurant tucked away in a shopping strip just over the Tempe line on Scottsdale Road. Forget most Americans' distorted picture of Iranians as hostage-takers, airplane-bombers and potential assassins of Salman Rushdie. They are a cultured and gifted people who built empires and monuments of art when most of our ancestors were still running around in loincloths.
But Apadana doesn't do much to buff up the Iranian image.
On a recent Friday night, my constant companion and I were the only diners. A pleasant dining room, dotted with artificial plants and framed by beautiful Persian miniatures, greeted us as we entered. So did a blaring TV set tuned to a beach-blanket-bimbo movie, entertaining one of the proprietors.
Unlike Yusef's, the grocery is at the back, out of view of the eating area. But there was just a tenth of the variety of products. Dozens of bottles of pickled vegetables-torshi, in Persian-lined the shelves. The effect was like seeing three aisles at Safeway devoted to three-bean salad.
The problems began at once. The menu listed six kebab dishes and five specialties. But only three dishes were available, our waiter said. We shrugged, disappointed, and ordered a couple of appetizers.
First came borany, chopped spinach and garlic blended with yogurt. The Shirazi salad was an undressed mixture of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and green peppers garnished with dried parsley. We seasoned it ourselves from flasks of oil and lemon juice. Pita bread, butter and slices of raw onion also made an appearance. Everything was okay, but nothing made us swoon with delight or transported us back to our exotic Persian journeys.
My wife ordered doogh, a yogurt soda that no other American has been known to enjoy. It tastes to me like carbonated Mr. Clean. In Iran, doogh is often prepared from fresh yogurt with a few crushed mint leaves. At Apadana, it comes in a bottle from a plant outside Los Angeles.
Our main dishes were also lackluster. Chelo kebab barg, grilled marinated beef on a bed of Basmati rice, came accompanied by a whole, grilled tomato. The meat was appropriately fork-tender, the rice garnished with a few saffron-colored grains. But by Persian standards, the portion was small. And kebabs are hardly sophisticated examples of Persian cuisine. In Iran, chelo kebab joints are as ubiquitous as pizza parlors and burger stops in the U.S.
We skipped the chicken kebab dish in favor of khoresht ghormeh sabzi. This stew features tender chunks of beef, chopped greens, dried lime and kidney beans. Spooning it onto a plate of rice, we finally felt a tickle on our dormant Persian taste buds.
We asked when the other specialties-koko sabzi (fried potatoes and greens), baghalo polo (beans and lamb shank in dill-infused Basmati rice), khoresht ghaymeh bademjan (fried eggplant, yellow split peas and beef)-might make an appearance in the kitchen as well as on the menu. Maybe next week, our waiter responded.
Although almost filled, we decided to sample two of the three desserts. We needn't have wasted time choosing-Apadana was all out of everything.
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By now it was 7:50 p.m., ten minutes before closing. Our waiter tried to hasten our departure, but you can't finish a Persian meal without tea. We drank it without enthusiasm and finished on the stroke of 8, just as Bimbos in Beach Land came to its thrilling conclusion.
There was an epiphany here, we agreed, but we were too disappointed to search for it.
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