THE FALAFEL TRUTH
Wise visitors to Sedona know about La Mediterranee. Located on the second floor of a Route 179 motel, this funky coffee-shop-cum-ski-chalet turns out Middle Eastern cuisine that pleases New Agers, vegetarians and carnivores alike. After all, what better activity after a vortex visit than a dip into some soothing hummus? Happily, Valley residents are no longer forced to feign an interest in crystals and red rocks to justify a trip to La Mediterranee. Owner Moussa Abi Hanne has made it easy for us. He's opened a branch of his restaurant in Scottsdale.
La Mediterranee II, the sequel, offers the same 96-item menu, plus nightly belly dancers, and a deli where imported grocery and takeout items can be purchased. This is not the first Middle Eastern restaurant to occupy this particular space in Wilshire Plaza. Others have tried and failed to make a go of it with kebabs and tabouleh in this very same spot. Accessible from east Phoenix, Tempe and the northern parts of Scottsdale, it's not a doomed location, merely obscure.
The room itself seems old-fashioned. Brown-vinyl booths line two of the wood-paneled, mirrored walls. The rest of the undivided, red-carpeted space is fitted with tables that can be pulled together to accommodate large parties. When the belly dancer performs, she wiggles through the whole restaurant, lacing her way between tables, pausing to jiggle for each booth.
On the far side of the room, and visible from the dining area, is a bar. There is no specific nonsmoking section and no host, hostess or maitre d'. Both times I visit, my dining accomplice and I stand at the door for several awkward minutes before one of the restaurant's two waiters acknowledges and seats us.
La Mediterranee II suffers from other niggling problems. The menu is extensive and impressive, but I am disappointed to learn that the kitchen is routinely out of desired items. My visits are weeks apart, but there isn't a spinach pie in the house either time. Ditto for the pumpkin kibbe and artichoke appetizers.
The worst episode of this kind occurs when I order a vegetarian combination plate called the Zahla Platter. What I'm served doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to the sampling of tabouleh, zucchini stuffed with feta, spinach and pine nuts, charbroiled motabal eggplant and bulgur with tomatoes I'd anticipated. When I question our waitress about the mix-up, she disappears with my plate into the kitchen. When she returns, her tone is terse. The cook is out of the motabal eggplant and stuffed zucchini, she reports, so he substituted potato kibbe (a fried, football-shaped croquette), baba ghanouj (eggplant dip) and falafel. When I explain that I've already tried these items and that I wanted to try something new, she tells me she won't charge me for my entree. Just eat what you want," she says. Having once been a waitress myself, I realize that my server is simply the person in the middle. She wrote down my order and delivered it to the kitchen. It is not her fault that the chef decided to give me whatever he felt like dishing out that night. It was his responsibility to tell her he was out of certain items so she could give me the opportunity to change my order.
As for the food itself, some items are good, some only average. I like the piquant calamari sauteed with garlic, lemon, cilantro and whiskey, even though the squid rings and tentacles are slightly chewy. Safyha meat pies stuffed with ground beef, tomato and onion surprise me with their sweet flavor and egg-roll shape. Shanklish, a Lebanese salad of brittle pink feta, onion and tomato, is interesting for its unusual color and tart citrus taste. Chicken on a skewer (shish tawouk) is flavorfully marinated in spices and grilled to a char. Old mainstays like falafel and tabouleh are likable here. La Mediterranee's ground-chickpea balls are fried to a crisp outside, yet moist inside. Its tabouleh is heavy on the parsley, light on the bulgur, and receives additional zest from chopped tomatoes, scallions and lemon juice.
Happily, the tossed green dinner salad that comes with regular entrees and the spicy lentil soup that comes with vegetarian specialties are both excellent.
A potato-pecan kibbe, on the other hand, falls on the less-satisfying side of the ledger. It has a pleasant, mint-tinged stuffing of creamy potato mixed with chickpea, onion and pine nuts, but where are the pecans? The exterior of the deep-fried kibbe has been overcooked and tastes burned.
I'm also not so enamored of La Mediterranee's hummus. Some hummus, like Byblos', for instance, transcends mashed chickpeas. This doesn't. Even when topped with ground lamb, pine nuts and olive oil, it needs more joie de vivre-something easily achieved by upping the lemon juice and garlic in the recipe.
Lebni, described on the menu as a yogurt paste dip," is another item I would not order again. Blessed (or cursed) with the consistency of cream cheese, the allure of this dip baffles me. Beyond smearing some on pita bread, I'm just not really sure what to do with it.
And speaking of pita bread, that very staple of Middle Eastern cuisine, La Mediterranee's tortilla-chip-size pocket bread is disappointing. It tastes stale, dry and, frankly, store-bought. I expect better in a restaurant. I at least expect the bread to be served hot, which it isn't.
On one visit, we do stick around long enough to sample dessert. An oil-less fruit cake" turns out to be a white cake layered with fruit cocktail and bananas. I am touched by the cake's chocolate sprinkles, but not too moved by the cake itself. Baklava here is honey-soaked and satisfying.
As at other Middle Eastern restaurants, it is more than possible to make a meal solely of appetizers. This is a fun way to dine if you're more of a taster than an eater. Be forewarned, however, the check adds up fast. Avram Barzilai, the original owner of Mediterranean House at Bethany Home and 16th Street, is back in the restaurant business after a hiatus of several years. Mediterranean Village, his latest venture, is a small, casual restaurant serving Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine.
Located in what was once a corner pizza parlor, Mediterranean Village still retains the cheerful atmosphere of that type of eatery. The motif here is late-Fifties and early-Sixties nostalgia, as epitomized by big American cars, rambunctious rock 'n' rollers and live-fast/die-young movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. Booths and table surfaces are forest green. The wall behind the counter is painted bright pink. The restaurant is clean and attractive, and I don't mind at all that the decor doesn't match the product. The food here is generously portioned and reasonably priced. For the most part, I'm happy with its quality, too. I like all three of the salads I try (Jerusalem, Greek and Horiatike), which often use fresh, crisp romaine lettuce. The beef-and-lamb shawarma is fabulous, delicately spiced and grilled to a crisp. Mediterranean Village's hummus is perfectly seasoned (taste that garlic!) and served with tomato chunks and Kalamata olives. Falafel balls are crisp, but not overcooked. Finally, the exceptional baklava here tastes of butter, cinnamon and walnuts. I like the fact that it's not honey-drenched.
On the downside, I'm not a big fan of the Middle Eastern meat loaf morsels known as kifta-with all its varied spellings. The cigar-shaped kifta here taste dry. I'm sad to discover that my Grecian-style chicken is also a bit dry, a result of overgrilling. The skin is so charred I cannot taste the seasonings.
Happily, the pita bread at Mediterranean Village is served hot, sliced into halves and is tender and thick. I like it.
The only problem I have-and it's a small one-is with product consistency, which seems to waver. On one visit, Mediterranean Village's delicious lamb-and-beef shawarma is sliced into thin strips. I like it so much that I order it in a pita sandwich the next time I visit, only this time the shawarma is cut into thicker chunks, which I don't like so much. On one visit, the Horiatike salad contains no lettuce, but includes chopped iceberg the next. A hummus appetizer is just plain hummus with olive oil the first time we order it, yet the next time it comes topped with a scoop of baba ghanouj and drizzled with tahini. I'm not asking that this little restaurant emulate the big fast-food franchises, but I will say this: People like to order the same thing and have it be the same. 'Nuff said. Service is attentive. On one particularly mistake-prone night in the kitchen, our waitress apologizes profusely and gives us each a free baklava for our troubles. Small gestures like this go a long way toward building good will and a loyal customer base while a restaurant gets on its feet. Besides, as I said earlier, the baklava here is darn good.
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