Out of Lebanon

Phoenician's Mediterranean cuisine hit the spot--and if you've never tried chankleesh, you really should

When someone new to the United States recommends a restaurant that serves food from his or her country, that's a wonderful sign. Therefore, when I visited Phoenician Mediterranean Cuisine recently, I did so with high expectations.

My friend Rachid is from Lebanon; he'd discovered Phoenician recently, and was impressed. Seeing as Phoenician "specializ(es) in the traditional Lebanese meza," as the menu says, I took his recommendation to heart. Well, I am happy to report that except for a few glitches, the meal I had there met my lofty expectations; this is a very good restaurant.

I asked Rachid and Hugh Dougherty to join me there on a recent Saturday evening; we found a bistro that was fairly busy, with several large parties featuring folks having a fine time. We were seated in a table near the back; the restaurant is predominantly made up of one big room, a portion of which is sunken a bit. The walls are white and uncluttered, with wood trim and simple chandeliers helping to create an uncomplicated, elegant mood.

Hungry and looking forward to the cuisine, we quickly ordered three of the dozen or so offered appetizers: The grape leaves ($4.95), the sambousek ($4.75) and, on Rachid's recommendation, a dish I'd never tried before, the chankleesh ($5.95). In addition to the appetizers, the usual Mediterranean-style dips are available, along with salads and soups (lentil and a soup of the day, $3.95).

As we waited for the starters, a man and a woman--the owners, I am assuming--both came over to make sure we were being treated OK. This was a nice touch, and it made up for the fact that all night, our young server seemed disinterested in being there. He was competent, but about as unenthusiastic as one can be.

When the appetizers came, we dug in, and were delighted by all three. The grape leaves, a vegetarian version featuring rice, parsley, onions and tomatoes, were quite good, if just a touch oily. The sambousek--a pastry filled with ground beef, onions and pine nuts--got a somewhat mixed reception: I thought they were great, while Rachid pronounced them good, and Hugh gave them a lukewarm OK. But we were all in agreement on the chankleesh: It was fantastic. Aged yogurt cheese, marinated with scallions, tomatoes and zaatar (an herb mix)--we loved it. Combined with the fresh pita bread, it was a true treat. Rachid noted that it was mild as far as chankleesh goes, but he also said it was "out of this world."

For the main course, Rachid chose the kafta kabob ($10.95), and Hugh ordered the chicken shawarma ($9.95); I chose of the "Phoenician specialties," the mixed grill ($16.95), featuring chicken, kafta and shish kabob.

As we waited for the entrées, the music playing overhead--Lebanese pop, Rachid said it was, and that description sounded about right--came to a stop and was replaced by a louder kind of music. Then, out came a dancer, who proceeded to wander around the restaurant, dancing for anybody who cared to watch. I must admit something here: I go out to eat to do two things--eat and be with friends. Thus, anything unexpected that intrudes on that is bothersome, and this woman, dancing around the restaurant, looking for tips and grazing me in the head with her shawl as she walked by, qualified as an intrusion. (It's worth noting that other parties in the restaurant thoroughly enjoyed her presence, so take my criticism with a significantly sized grain of salt.)

Anyway, when our entrées arrived, we were again enthused with what we saw before us. Rachid's kafta kabob--grilled sirloin seasoned with onion, parsley and other spices, served on a bed of rice and alongside something the Phoenician folks called Lebanese pizza bread--was delicious. Rachid was impressed with the fact that the kafta was so moist. Hugh was also impressed by his chicken shawarma. The marinated slices of chicken had a subtle flavor that Hugh liked, as well as a garlic spread that Hugh said made the dish. The french fries served alongside were decent.

My mixed grill hit the spot. The chicken--it had a citrusy flavor, thanks to the marinade--was delicious, and my kafta--the same as Rachid's--was a winner. The marinated top sirloin in my kabob was also spot on; it was a success all around. The only thing the three of us didn't finish on our plates was the so-so Lebanese pizza bread--pita covered with tomato sauce, onions, tomatoes and parsley--that Rachid and I got.

Though we were reaching fullness, we decided we needed to try the desserts. Thus, we split all three of them: the baklava (3.75), the ashtalieh ($3.75) and the dessert of the day, namoora (4.25). Unfortunately, the desserts as a whole didn't meet the standards of the rest of the meal: There was a hit, a miss and something in between. The miss was the namoora, a wheat/yogurt pastry baked and topped with sugar. It was rock hard and dry--Rachid said it was probably overcooked and it tasted bland. The baklava--served in log-like little pieces--was so-so (also a bit dry), but the ashtalieh made up for the other two desserts' faults. A sweet-cream substance with a paste-like consistency, topped with honey and pistachios, it was a dream. This alone is enough for a return trip to Phoenician.

It was a fine meal, one the three of us enjoyed immensely. I hope the Phoenician succeeds--the spot it occupies at River and Craycroft roads has seen restaurants fail before--and it's not a good sign that the place recently eliminated its lunch hours. It's a worthy restaurant--check it out.