THE FALAFEL TRUTH
My husband was born in the United States, but trust me--that doesn't make him qualified to open an American restaurant in another country. Yet many restaurateurs who move here would have you believe that the only credential they need to establish a credible kitchen is a birth certificate from a foreign land. They tack the word "authentic" onto their menus as though it inherently means "good"--and cook up supposedly exotic fare as ordinary as my husband's meatloaf.
Although both Fettoush and Mid-East Feast boast impeccable Lebanese antecedents and promise "authentic" cuisine, they serve food that tastes more like the amateur efforts of some bored suburban housewife with a Middle Eastern cookbook from the Seventies.
Even so, Fettoush--the name means "mystery"--is one of the more exotic additions to the LoDo dining scene. Everyone involved with the four-month-old restaurant is Lebanese, with the exception of the waitstaff and the painter who created the massive piece of art hanging in the back of the dining room. The painting--by Moroccan Majid Kahhak--looms as an enormous congratulations card for Californians smart enough to move here, since it depicts the large chunk of Beirut that separated from the land and drifted out to sea.
But it also serves as a warning to diners that Fettoush's owner has lavished more attention on decor than he has on food preparation. The dining room is like one of those assembled-by-salespeople outfits that hang in department-store windows: chic and perfectly matched, but smacking of professional intervention. The dishes coming out of the kitchen are just as beautifully arranged and artfully garnished, but they lack personality.
The cucumber soup ($2), for example, looked great but in reality was nothing more than a pint of low-fat yogurt thinned with the juice of diced cucumbers (not finely diced, either, as the menu claimed) and overloaded with mint. If garlic had been added, we couldn't find it in the yogurt quicksand. Our other soup, the quintessential Middle Eastern puree of lentils (also $2), offered a better blend of flavors (including a nice touch of garlic) but was so watery we could have slurped it through a straw.
Our entrees were much more substantial--largely because of an overload of rice. Fighting for space with the turmeric-tinged rice on the vegetarian combination ($7.95) was a selection of mezze, the Middle Eastern equivalent of hors d'oeuvre. More rice--this time of the fat, soggy, converted type--filled the grape leaves, apparently leaving no room for the promised tomatoes, mint and onion. The baba ghanouj also seemed to be missing several crucial elements, although grilling the eggplant before pureeing it had given the dip an extra boost. The hummus was another disappointment: The soupy blend of chickpeas carried no hint of the standard additions of lemon juice, garlic and oil (which the menu had purported to be an excellent Greek olive oil). Even the tabbouleh, a tough thing to screw up since it's basically parsley, tomatoes, onions and lemon juice mixed with bulghur wheat, was dull--the scratchy, curly parsley was all we could taste (and feel). And the two falafel, a usually foolproof combination of chickpeas and fava beans, were dry and bland; I've had better falafel cooked on a hibachi outside a Grateful Dead concert by guys with dreadlocks.
The meat combination ($8.95) was a much better bet, pungent with unusual marinades and seasonings and generous in portions. The kafta kebab--a sort of ground-beef sausage with onions and spices--was a savory delight. The beef and chicken kebabs were incredibly tender, and the juicy beef-and-lamb gyros had been broiled until the meat was ready to disintegrate.
But the meats were the only respite from otherwise drab fare. A triangle of baklava ($2.25) was chewy but dry, crumbling the second a fork touched it. We wanted to wash it down with Turkish coffee ($2), but the brew was the worst part of our meal. The drink is supposed to consist of coffee boiled three times with sugar and water, but this smelled more like Chanel No. 5. My companion pegged the odd, perfumy flavor as cardamom--but knowing what we were sipping didn't make it go down any easier.
Mid-East Feast, on the other hand, smells more like eau de grease. This five-year-old establishment moved from East Evans to its present location on Colorado Boulevard last May, but the change didn't improve its ambience. Small wonder, then, that when I called the owner, he was rather defensive about giving out any information about the place other than that he'd left Lebanon over a decade ago and that "Jews and Americans both like my food." He also listed the professions of people who eat in his restaurant--legislators, students and professors, but presumably no fastidious gourmands.
It's one thing to showcase the quaint trappings of a small mom-and-pop shop, quite another to use dry-storage goods as decorations, pile garbage around the counters and wipe food from the tables onto the floor between customers. And while exposition kitchens are all the rage, watching your food being reheated in a microwave is not.
With our vegetarian platter ($6.50) came whole rounds of pita bread, warm from the microwave and still in their plastic bag (a nuking no-no, since soft plastic leaches into the food). The combo also featured hummus and baba ghanouj that were barely distinguishable from each other, since each tasted of little but lemon, as well as tabbouleh and fettoush salad that were equally tough to separate. The tabbouleh had the parsley, the onions, the tomatoes and the bulghur kernels, and the salad had all those minus the wheat but with the addition of a few pieces of toasted pita bread. The last item on the plate was one tiny log of a stuffed grape leaf sour with age.
As at Fettoush, the marinated meats ($6.59 for a platter) were a cut above the rest of the meal. Too bad they were such small cuts. Three tiny pieces of chicken, one kafta sausage, four squares of flank steak, and bits of processed lamb all bore the marks of having been grilled in that painstaking Middle Eastern way, but only the chicken benefited from the treatment. More fettoush salad and a large helping of rice rounded out the meager meal. Although Mid-East Feast's prices were only slightly lower than those at Fettoush, the portions were much smaller.
We couldn't even depend on dessert to fill the gaps. Our waiter informed us that the cook had just pulled a pan of baklava from the oven--at the busiest time of the day--and it wouldn't be ready for at least half an hour. Right about the time no one would be left at the restaurant.
Including us. We were off to the travel agent for some help in finding authentic "authentic" Middle Eastern food.
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