A week’s tour of the Peninsula’s Middle Eastern offerings yields a satisfying experience.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Middle East politics can be fascinating, but they can also be unnerving. Not so with the region’s food. To explore the local restaurants that prep authentic Middle Eastern cuisine as enthusiastically as some debate its embargoes and regimes, the Weekly visited four different countries’ area dining spots in five days, asking each restauranteur to spotlight the dish that best represents its country.
Today’s the big day. A multitude of Afghan men and women lift their hands in the air and clap for the bride and groom as they enter their extravagant wedding. Ladies draped in burgundy kaftans embellished with gold sequins begin their traditional dance. Then the much-awaited entrée – which only manifests in times of festivity – arrives. Mantu is a delicate, ravioli-like dumpling served as an appetizer at Monterey Bay’s only Afghan restaurant, Amir’s Kabob House. Eight wet raviolis made from thin dough filled with ground beef, onions and black pepper ($12.95) enjoy a garlic-infused sour cream sauce, pieces of parsley, morsels of mint and a topping of tomatoes and green peas. Like most everything at Amir’s, taste is traditional, but presentation is Americanized: He swaps the ghouri (a boat shaped family plate) for a modern white square plate. Amir says he moved to Monterey because his mom lived here: “This is our culture, we take care of our parents.” He takes good care of his customers, too.
794 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey; 11:30-2pm, 5pm-9pm Tues-Sat; closed Mon. 642-0231.
Dating back to the sixth century B.C., Iran, formerly known as Persia, has held major power in the Middle East. The Persian Empire, ruled by emperors like Darius, Cyrus and Xerxes, stretched from Greece to the edge of India, until Alexander the Great came along. Once Persian Grill owner Masoud Homami comes along, he’ll suggest the Sheeshleek ($28.95), a thick rack of lamb prepared kabob style, served with fresh basmati rice lifted by a punch of saffron with fire-roasted tomatoes, zucchinis, green peppers and lemons further decorating the elegant dish. This dish and others date back to the emperors’ times. People have tried to add shrimp or vegetables into the mix, but Homami resists, “It’s just the way it’s supposed to be. No one has changed Persian food,” he says. “You can’t Americanize these things.”
675 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey; 11:30-2pm, 5-9:30pm Mon-Sun; closed Tue. 372-3720.
“It’s all about the food here,” says Petra head chef Sam Namiri. Not that the service isn’t exceptional: With Namiri, it’s easy to feel Poppa’s Middle Eastern love. He recommends the combination platter ($14.75 lunch; $17.25 dinner, comes with Greek salad and pita bread), a generous offering of rice, yogurt, tabouli salad, three vegetarian or meat-stuffed grape leaves, hummus adorned with olive oil and tiny sliced tomatoes, chicken/lamb/kafta (ground beef)/beef kabob and three slices of gyros. For dessert, Namiri brings out quadrate slices of baklava accompanied by strong Turkish coffee. He’ll even read a customer’s fortune according to how coffee stains the cup, another Arab custom, though there’s no fortune needed to foretell a warm and welcoming experience.
477 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove; 11am -9pm Mon -Thu, 11am-9:30pm Fri-Sat, closed Sun. 649-2530.
Far and wide in the Middle East and South Central Asia, one notices marble circular blue eyes spread at the entrance of a home, in the car or on the wrist. With superstitious roots dating back to Egyptian Pharaohs, these “evil eyes” are placed in public to veer away any negative energy people give off when they eye one’s good fortune with jealousy. At Paprika Café, three eyes dangle at the entrance, and it’s working here: This cozy restaurant boasts positive energy big time, starting with owner Kristophe Hamadi. “I’m not better or worse than anyone,” he says. “I’m different.” That includes his one-of-a-kind garlic sauce infused with olive oil; he recommends the chicken wrap ($6.95), which is drenched in this super stuff. It’s topped with four large slices of ripe tomatoes, fresh leaves of spinach and sliced chicken breast wrapped in warm pita bread. If there’s room for dessert, Hamadi creates his own vegan Monterey baklava, which is light yet tasty.
309 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey; noon-9pm Mon, Wed-Sat, closed Tues, Sun. 375-7452.
Customers listen to Middle Eastern music sprinkled with instruments like the dumbek (goblet-shaped drum), riqq (small tambourine) and sagat (finger cymbals) as a young lady shakes and shimmies the night away. On Friday and Saturday night at Maha’s Lebanese Cuisine, spectators watch the belly dancer make her way across the restaurant while they take in owner Maha Aridi’s made-from-scratch Lebanese meals with an authenticity that reaches back to her mother’s roots. Aridi uses the seven legendary Lebanese spices – ginger, black pepper, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, fenugreek and nutmeg – to infuse her chicken, sirloin or kafta kabobs. She recommends the mixed grill kabob ($14.95) for these three plus rice with a hit of saffron and sautéed sliced cucumbers and carrots sprinkled with paprika. “All my life, I love food,” she says. “When I enter a kitchen, I forget all the stress.” Which might be a good recipe for anyone suffering from Middle Eastern political fatigue.
470 Alvarado St., Monterey; 11am-9pm Mon-Sat, closed Sun. 372-8999.