The lunch bunch gives a thumbs-up to Phoenician Kabob
Foodies Eating Diverse and Unusual Platings (FEDUPs) is what we call ourselves. There are ten of us, plus the occasional "understudy" who is invited when not everyone can attend our once-monthly get-togethers at restaurants across the vast ethnic spectrum in and around Denver. (We have long joked that to withdraw from the group would make one a FEDEX.) The FEDUPs have made it a mission to sample every cuisine we can poke our forks into.
My prompt to form this group stems from my obsession with food, a passion that led me to diarize every morsel that passed my lips for a year, and causes my partner, Peter, and me to plan (often several days ahead), strategize (organize the shopping and the mise en place), and invent (often from whole cloth) our own personal cuisine at home.
Given my upbringing (Elmira, New York), it could have been that I would have spent my adult life eating the '50s-style grub that fed our family of seven: beef liver, potatoes, pot roast, chicken (generally done one way — roasted), iceberg lettuce with the kind of dressing you got dry in a pouch and shook up in a cruet with vegetable oil (never olive oil). Never did I experience anything exotic or challenging (unless you count the time when, at the annual family reunion, I witnessed the beheading of a chicken and its subsequent dash around the barnyard looking for all the world like a chicken with its...well, you get it). But as an adult, I did a lot of traveling and learned to seek out regional favorites around the United States and international cuisine in each of the many countries I visited over the years (a happy consequence of my 45-year career as a concert accompanist and opera and ballet conductor).
I "got my appetite wet" (thanks, Mom) and never let it dry out.
It was not known outside our foodie gang that one of its members was Jason Sheehan, whom we first followed in print, then met in person. Most of the time we picked places that Jason had already written about favorably right here. To my knowledge, he was never recognized while lunching with us; I gave him the nom alimentaire, or "eating name," of Sanjo (an anagram of Jason), which was what we called him in the restaurants. It was because of Sanjo that we were able to get authentic kitfo, Ethiopian raw spiced beef, at Arada; blood sausage at the now-defunct Buenos Aires Grill (the sausages weren't on the lunch menu); and, best of all, a feast in the molecular-gastronomy mode at O's (a most special treat in that Ian Kleinman himself cooked tableside for us).
Getting ten individuals to sample as many diverse dishes as possible is no mean feat. Before our visit to Phoenician Kabob last week — our first foray without Sanjo's input — I studied its menu and pored over online reviews.
To say that the approach to Phoenician Kabob is unprepossessing would be the understatement of the decade. From behind the Capitol to forever, East Colfax Avenue is littered with diners, carry-outs, liquor stores, less-than-savory-looking folks prowling the street, and no fewer than six Pete's locations (only one of which, the Bank Bar & Grill, doesn't bear the "Pete's" moniker). I was grateful that my old Buick wouldn't inspire any untoward temptations, with its dings and two paunchy front tires (the product of slow leaks — you know, like the kind you have when you're over 65 and you get up in the middle of the night to pee).
Fortunately, once you slide past the threshold of Phoenician Kabob, you enter a different universe, one in which there seems to be more hope than is evident in the exterior world from which you just escaped. The room is modestly spacious, the tables replete with white tablecloths and cloth napkins, and you're welcomed by a smiling greeter who just might be the owner, depending on the exact moment when you exit the wormhole from Colfax to Kabob.
Ibrahim Daleh and his wife, Victoria, opened Phoenician Kabob in July 2008, and both were on hand during our lunch. When I made the reservation for our ten-top, I asked the young lady who answered the phone to enumerate a few items that were a) favorites of their clientele or b) most highly thought of by the staff. The first thing she mentioned was the lentil soup, the only soup on the menu. Then she rattled off a few other specialties, including chicken shawarma and the Sultan Combo (gyros, chicken, falafel, hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouleh and stuffed grape leaves), which to me sounded like a refuge for the less-adventurous gourmand, given the generally recognizable names of all that stuff.
The advantage of a gang of ten meant I didn't have to order everything just for myself. I intended to spread the bounty and solicit comments, but warned my friends ahead of time that I would be a little manipulative about ordering (so what's new?). My plan was to have everyone order their own entree, but start out with a round of the less-familiar-but-intriguing-sounding apps: fouel mudammas (marinated fava beans), kibbeh (a Middle Eastern version of the fried-in-dough appetizer typical of nearly every world cuisine, this one stuffed with beef, lamb, pine nuts and onions), ara'yis (another meat mixture served inside two pitas, like a quesadilla). Although the FEDUPs don't generally do much by way of dessert, I knew it would be a disservice not to sample the baklava. Or the lentil soup, for that matter.
Sometimes lentil soup reminds me of my mother preparing dried pea soup mix from a box, which tasted like green chalk. One of my first exposures to a more exotic soup was at a Middle Eastern place in Manhattan in the early '70s, where I dared to try the lemon tripe soup. It was enchanting. A few years later, I had my first bowl of menudo...and couldn't handle it. But having had many bowls of menudo here in Denver, I now crave it. I had three bowls of Phoenician Kabob's lentil soup spaced down the table, so that everyone could use their boardinghouse reach. (We would have to overlook the inevitable double dipping that took place.) And, as advertised, the lentil soup was among the best of the many menu items we sampled. The lentils were partly puréed, giving a lovely smooth texture to the soup, and the cumin scenting it was divine.
Perhaps as a nod to the size of our party, the owners sent over a plate of grape leaves, succulent little bundles. The fouel mudammas was another home run. At first I thought the fava beans were garbanzos; they'd been lightly smashed, altering their usual, more lima-bean-like shape. The resulting texture was a mouthful of delight. The best hummus I ever ate was made by an Egyptian guest in my home who offered it up as party fare; no hummus before or since has held a garbanzo to it. And that includes Phoenician Kabob's hummus, which was rather dense and not distinctively flavored. The kibbeh, too, lacked the spiciness I expected (and desired), although it was luxuriously dark brown and served good and hot. The pita that came with the appetizers was delicate and soft when it arrived, but stiffened within minutes as it cooled. (There must be a way to keep it warm longer.)
The Chef's Lamb Kabob plate (my entree) was another mixed bag: The lamb was deeply flavorful, though cooked more than I had requested. The platter came with hummus, a pile of dry basmati rice (topped with sumac), tabouleh (which I'd thought was only okay, then revised to very nice when I had the leftovers for dinner) and mind-blowing thum — a dip of 99 percent garlic with a hint of lemon, olive oil and a touch of egg white. It looked for all the world like a little bowl of Greek yogurt, snow white and with a sour cream texture, but the thwack of garlic popped on your tongue. "If you slathered a baseball with that garlic paste, I would eat it," said one FEDUP.
Like the lamb, the chicken shawarma suffered from being served at room temperature. At home, I am very fussy about our food being hot when we sit down; we use heated bowls or plates for anything not supposed to be served at room temp. The rice should have been kept moister and warmer, then added to a hot plate at the last second and topped with lamb from the grill or the chicken shawarma and rushed to the table. It's a challenge for a kitchen manned by only two or three to crank out entrees for ten with any expeditiousness; however, it has to be done. And the kitchen proved it could do better with the apps, which had been exquisitely prepared and came out in a single wave, after a not-too-long wait, at the perfect temperature. Our primary server was a charming young man who could not have been more attentive and efficient, and I don't think he was to blame for the not-so-warm food; he had help getting it from the kitchen.
The baklava proved a superb honeyed ending. By and large, the FEDUPs were very pleased with their meals, near ecstatic in some cases, and several were talking about coming back to try Phoenician Kabob's Denver Restaurant Week deal.
When my tummy is happy, the whole world looks better to me. As I returned to the Buick, Colfax looked a little less funky and filthy. If I'd had the resources, I might have considered sending ten of the less-than-savory-looking individuals I'd seen on Colfax into Phoenician Kabob for a meal on me. But I'd have made them feast on only apps: It's the memory of them that keeps my midsection happy.
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