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The Pita Principle

Ali Awada left his native Lebanon and came to Colorado eleven years ago, when his brother married a woman from Denver. "My family has restaurants in Lebanon, but when I moved here I went to work as a financier for American Express," Awada explains. "But I love cooking so much, I thought I would take a shot at it. And I love people, too."

There's a lot for people to love at Awada's restaurant, the Phoenicia Grill. He took over the small storefront space on Colorado Boulevard almost two years ago, giving it the name of the ancient region that later became Lebanon and Syria, decorating it with splashes of color and carrying that brightness over into the kitchen.

Unlike cuisines native to other areas of the world, which are represented in this country by only a fraction of the possible dishes (think China and Mexico), Middle Eastern fare--both here and back home--consists of a fairly limited lineup made from a limited lineup of ingredients. For centuries, cooks in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Lebanon have worked with what's easily cultivated and readily available--olives, lemons, eggplant, spinach, rice, chickpeas and lentils, nuts, wheat, yogurt, chicken and lamb; for just as long, cooks have been combining those ingredients to create the maximum amount of flavor.

And so when a new Middle Eastern spot opens up, its value depends not on what it offers--the menu will inevitably feature hummus and baba ghanouj, tabouleh, shawarma and kebabs--but how well it makes those offerings. Are the meats top-quality? Are the vegetables fresh? Does the cook know the proper techniques for bringing out the best in those ingredients? Can he perform the critical balancing act of juggling spices and herbs?

Your first bite at Phoenicia provides an affirmative answer to all of the above.

But in the beginning, the restaurant had to work out a few kinks outside the kitchen. The space is small, so small that Awada can easily get around to chat with all his customers, which he obviously enjoys--and so do they. But he initially offered sit-down meals at dinner only, and the result was a midday take-out mess. People would crowd into the tiny space in front of the pastry display, trying to grab a fast meal--but the ensuing chaos always left a bad taste. Now Awada has sit-down service at lunch, too, which makes for a much more conducive setting for enjoying Phoenicia's food.

And that food, which was always good, has recently gotten better: Awada imported a chef from Lebanon, Nazin Alforeed, who studied at a Middle Eastern culinary school and then cooked his way around the world for twenty years. Alforeed is clearly a well-seasoned chef, and so is the fare he creates: He's pretty bold with the seasonings on some traditionally mild dishes. For example, Phoenicia's hummus ($3.25) had much more lemon than you typically find--but the tang was addictive, and I kept dipping pita in the super-smooth puree of chickpeas and tahini (sesame-seed paste) that had been further bolstered with a touch of garlic and drizzled with just enough olive oil to keep the mix moist. The baba ghanouj ($3.50) was also very smoothly pureed, sporting only a few teeny bits of eggplant to give away its origins. Lemon juice was again a major factor, but not overwhelmingly so, and the garlic was more noticeable this time around.

Both of those dips came with pita; Phoenicia also stuffs pita for sandwiches. The fine falafel version ($4.25) contained the usual chickpea-and-fava-bean balls, along with radishes and tomatoes, all drizzled with a strong tahini sauce. But the restaurant also uses non-Middle Eastern breads for some sandwiches, which provide a welcome variation in the standard lineup. For instance, the toasted tortilla was a good choice for the Galician fish ($5.75), grilled cod enhanced with tahini and parsley, then tossed with lettuce, tomatoes and sour pickles. The Greque fromage ($4.25), a simple but tasty combination of tomatoes, Halloumi cheese--which is made from sheep or cow's milk and is semi-soft and salty, with a creamy texture--and oregano, arrived on French bread. So did the Marseilles chicken ($4.74), grilled breast meat topped with a Mediterranean potato puree, pickles, lettuce and tomato.

Although those sandwiches were more inventive than the entrees, Phoenicia did a fine job with those traditional dishes, too. The shish kebab ($11.95) used the fattier ribeye steak to good effect; every centimeter of flesh had soaked up the tangy marinade, and the fat edges had turned sugary-sweet on the grill. (A regular portion brought two hefty skewers of the meat, sided by grilled eggplant, peppers and onions; for another two bucks, you can get a third skewer for a meal that would satisfy even the hungriest of diners.) Also generously-sized was the lamb shank ($13.95), a large hunk of meat that had been baked in a sweet, tart, allspice-scented orange sauce with onions, potatoes and peppers that soaked up the liquid. By far the most intensely flavored dish, however, was the Lebanese beef shawarma ($12.99): grilled strips of lean beef marinated in ten spices, all of which had been combined into one exotic example of Middle Eastern cooking. Tahini, parsley, pickled turnips and sumac--a Turkish shrub whose petals and berries are edible and taste like peppered citrus--completed the taste sensation.

The care that Phoenicia lavishes on the main courses also extends to its desserts, which stretch far beyond the baklava in that display case. Everything we tried--chocolate eclairs, mousse-filled pastry cylinders, pistachio-laden cakes, fresh-fruit tarts and that sticky-sweet baklava, all ranging in price from $3 to $5--was amazing. So were Awada's smoothies, which went so well with the kitchen's spicier dishes that we didn't lament the lack of alcoholic beverages.

Although no true Middle Eastern spot serves alcohol, its absence has obviously never hurt Jerusalem, even though the restaurant has been located smack-dab in college-kid central, close to the University of Denver, for over twenty years. In fact, Jerusalem is so popular that owner Said Wahdan--who's from the city his restaurant is named after--plans an expansion into a house he owns behind the modest restaurant space on East Evans Avenue. But two years after his zoning was approved, Said's project has yet to get under way (for reasons he declines to share). "I know we've got to get in there," he says, "but I just don't know when it will be."

Until he does, give thanks for the two decks and tables on the sidewalk outside Jerusalem--a dining option to the folding chairs and old cafeteria tables inside. Otherwise, take-out is the way to go, because the service is catch-as-catch-can and there doesn't seem to be any system in place for moving things along; it's frustrating to spend more than an hour on a meal that takes just minutes to prepare. And while you wait, you're subjected to constant shuffling, scootching and excuse-meing from crowds of faithful customers who just keep coming. They come 24 hours a day on weekends and until 4 a.m. on weekdays--hours that are a true boon to late-night partyers and students in need of sustenance.

And what sustenance it is. Jerusalem's food is incredibly cheap--and incredibly delicious. Where else can you get a platter filled to the rim and mounded four inches high with food--for under eight bucks? That's the super dish ($7.95), which comes loaded with shish kebab, kifta kebab, chicken kebab and gyros, along with a good helping of hummus and baba ghanouj, two falafel, a smattering of tabouleh, fetoush and one dolma, with saffron-colored rice beneath it all and pitas on the side. My server tsk-tsked when I added an appetizer portion of hummus ($2.95) to my super dish order, but I just couldn't get enough of Jerusalem's take--the best in town, as far as I'm concerned. Sleek and lightly slicked with oil, this hummus was dry enough that its texture didn't seem unsettlingly smooshy; the contents were so perfectly mixed that no single ingredient stood out.

On another nocturnal visit, I went for other appetizers: fried kibbeh ($2.25), a mix of ground filet, cracked wheat (bulghur), fried onions and pine nuts; and the fouel ($4.75), a plate of fava beans coated with lemon juice and olive oil that have been punched up with garlic. The gyros sandwich ($3.50) was stuffed with well-seasoned, moist beef filet cooked just right on the rotisserie; onions, parsley and sumac rounded out the sandwich, which came on pita with a side of cucumber-onion-tomato salad.

I've never found any surprise menu items at Jerusalem--but I've never been disappointed by what I've ordered off that menu, either. Although Middle Eastern cuisine may not offer many options, who needs them when the standards are this satisfying?

Phoenicia Grill, 727 Colorado Boulevard, 303-534-3434. Hours: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 1-9 p.m. Sunday.

Jerusalem, 1890 East Evans Avenue, 303-777-8828. Hours: 9 a.m.-4 a.m. Sunday-Thursday; 24 hours Friday-Saturday.

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