Late last year, when Sam Kraydie opened Sinbad on South Colorado Boulevard, he knew he had something, and he let everyone else know it, too, by placing a sign in the front window that boasted, "The best there ever was. The best there is. The best there will ever be."
Not quite. The Beirut-born Kraydie, who'd first introduced Sinbad in Phoenix, partnered up when he brought the popular concept to Denver, going into business with local restaurateur Hassam Essmail, who also owns the nearby La Zeez. The two parted ways this past spring, though, leaving Essmail in charge of Sinbad and Kraydie free to take his concept -- without the name -- to a new spot. He chose the old home of Keefan Middle Eastern restaurant on South University Boulevard, which, very briefly, had also housed the gloomy, filthy Luxor.
But Kraydie's Pita Jungle is a lively, colorful spot that shows no sign of its former inhabitants. The dining room -- larger than Sinbad's -- has been transformed into a casual, welcoming space that drips with plants and hospitality, while the kitchen puts out the savvy, flavorful fare that Kraydie first introduced to Denver diners at Sinbad ("The Best Is Yet to Come," March 30). And, in some cases, the dishes are even better here than they were before.
Once again, Kraydie's recipes lean heavily toward Lebanese preparations. The hummus is the same creamy, dreamy mixture of mashed garbanzo beans heavily laced with garlic and lemon; the stuffed grape leaves contain plenty of scallions and parsley, but not too much lemon juice, which would turn the rice sour. Kraydie also takes extra care with his baba ghanouj, charbroiling the eggplant so that the spread has a toastier, less bitter flavor. And he's still offering his potent potato-based garlic dip, which is probably responsible for the lack of vampires lurking around the University of Denver area this past Halloween.
With his kabobs, Kraydie meets -- and exceeds -- earlier expectations. Pita Jungle's combo is the best way to sample the amazing tenderness of the chicken and lamb; the marinade Kraydie uses is just right for adding sharp, tangy flavors without overpowering flesh that's so soft it can be cut with a fork. The beef shawarma is a variation on what Kraydie served at Sinbad: Here the rotisserie-cooked ribeye is sliced in paper-thin sheets rather than chopped into bits, and it sports a new marinade that has a faint and very appealing sweetness. The one major problem I'd identified at Sinbad, the chewy and dry pitas, has been solved -- and a good thing, too, given the name of Kraydie's place. Thanks to a new pizza oven, the Pita Jungle pitas arrive at the table warm, fresh and light.
The only downside I've ever found at Phoenicia Grille can be attributed to the crowds that like this small, charming eatery as much as I do ("The Pita Principle," July 22, 1999). When Phoenicia gets busy, the staff gets harried, and I've seen tempers flare on the part of both employees and patrons. Unlike many other Middle Eastern places, Phoenicia offers alcohol -- but that's not all that draws people there. Non-imbibers can enjoy smoothies, with options such as mango and coconut or papaya and soy milk. And everyone can enjoy the food.
Phoenicia, which first opened in 1997, closed briefly at the start of this year; it reopened in March after local investor Jim Kher stepped in and bought it. Smart move. More smart moves: Kher retained the chef who'd come on board in 1999, Mustafa Awada, a culinary-school grad who has a particular talent with herbs, and encouraged him to expand the Lebanese-focused menu to highlight other Middle Eastern dishes that aren't readily available in this area.
Awada's talent shines through in the nakanek, nine little sausages made of beef ground with pine nuts and flavored with cilantro and red-wine vinegar. The deep-fried kibbe -- a rarity in this town -- mixes ground lamb with bulghur wheat and arrives all steamy, letting off a faint cinnamon scent beneath the smell of walnuts and onions. The vigorous chicken-vegetable soup, chock-full of carrots and large pieces of chicken and carrying a hint of throat-clearing cayenne, has the capacity to chase away the most insidious of cold symptoms.
The rest of Awada's fare is soothing to the soul: falling-off-the-bone lamb shank smothered in a sweet-and-sour orange sauce; fresh-parsley-packed falafel that somehow stays soft inside a deep-fried, crunchy crust; translucent hunks of moist cod awash in a rich, lemon-spiked garlic butter; and a well-melded moussaka, with a nutmeg-enhanced chunky tomato sauce lavished on the layers of eggplant and potato that dominate this Greek lasagne.
If you can exit Phoenicia without ordering one of the gorgeous pastries in the display case by the cash register, you have more willpower than I do. The selection varies daily, but there's always so much flaky pastry, freshly whipped cream and shiny chocolate glaze that it's impossible to go wrong; the kitchen also does a nice, gooey baklava and some exquisite fresh-fruit tarts.
Change is good.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.