Treats From the Mideast

The service may be subpar, but the cuisine at Mediterranean Garden will win you over

Wonderful exotic aromas greeted Karyn Zoldan and me as we entered Mediterranean Garden restaurant in Oro Valley one Friday evening. We'd come for the food, of course, but advertisements said there was belly dancing on weekends, and we were curious.

We'd made reservations. The table they were holding for us was too close to the door, but the greeter happily obliged us by moving us to a table near the kitchen. We were still a bit cramped, but that was OK.

The owners of Mediterranean Garden are from Jordan, but they offer an assortment of foods from all over the Middle East: kabobs, shawarma, falafel, hummus and lots of dishes featuring lamb. There are plenty of vegetarian offerings as well.

The room is awash in silk flowers; the flower theme carried onto the bright, painted glass tabletops. A bubbling fountain stands in the center of the room. The top halves of high walls in the dining room are the colors of a Mediterranean sunset; in the bar, they're a Mediterranean blue. Dark paneling on the bottom half detracts from the bright colors, though, which--along with the low-key lighting--makes the room seem dark.

Service was a bit sketchy, but friendly. The owner even brought our food to the table at one point, because the servers were busy elsewhere. More than once, we had to ask for plates or more water. While this may seem picayune, these are the things that can separate a decent evening from a truly enjoyable evening.

For appetizers, we ordered the red hummus ($4.25). We also ordered falafel ($4.75). Karyn ordered the makloubeh with lamb ($15.95), and I ordered the sabanekh ($15.95).

Karyn asked about the Greek beers on the menu, and the server was able to explain the nuances of each. She went with a Marathon; I settled for a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (both $3.50).

The hummus was presented well. Served in a small plate, the garbanzo paste encircled a deep-red chili sauce that looked extremely hot. A sprinkling of chili powder and parsley added an artistic touch. Pita triangles were served alongside (although we did have to ask for small plates to avoid a mess). Our fears of extreme heat were allayed once we dug in; in fact, the low heat of the chili sauce proved a nice complement to the cool, mild hummus. It was probably some of the best I've ever had.

The falafel was also a treat. Crunchy on the outside and light on the inside, these balls needed only a dip in the wonderful house-made tahini sauce.

For the most part, we were pleased with our entrées. Karyn's meal was traditional a Pakistani dish (it literally translates to "upside down," which refers to the way it is presented). Served on a bed of nutty rice, the veggies included cauliflower and eggplant. Rich and brimming with cinnamon, cumin and other spices the owner was reluctant to divulge, it was a plateful. A bowl of laban (yogurt) was served on the side. The small lamb shank was cooked until it was falling off the bone, but Karyn felt it was a tad fatty.

My lamb was also fatty, but we decided that had to do with the way it was cooked. The spinach swam in a savory broth, redolent with cinnamon and other exotic spices; my meal was quite intriguing. It was served with a huge mound of fragrant basmati, cooked so that each grain stood on its own.

At the advice of our server, we ordered qatayef ($3.50) for dessert, telling us it was a favorite and made fresh daily. We had our choice of white cheese, walnuts or coconut. We opted for the walnuts and cheese. Regrettably, they were out of the cheese, so coconut, it was.

This dessert can best be described as a pancake turnover: Imagine a thick, fluffy pancake on a griddle, filled with either coconut or walnuts, and then flipped over in half, so that the ends seal in the filling. It is then served with a syrup that is delicately flavored with, in most cases, rosewater or orange-flower water.

We had rich Arabic coffee with it, and though we again had to ask for serving plates, the dessert was delicious and different.

Oh, let's not forget the belly dancing. There were two short shows while we were there--one at 6:30, and the other at 7:30. We admired the young woman's talent and nerve, but it was a tad disconcerting to have someone standing next to your table smiling and swirling. Still, it was a nice touch.

We went to lunch the following Saturday. Again, service was hit and miss, but we found the food to be even better. We split a fatoosh salad ($7.50), a manakiiesh (an individual pita pizza, $6.50) and a beef kabob ($9.50), which came with a small Greek salad and some more of the basmati rice. We were happy our server informed us about the Greek salad side, because we were going to order it as an entrée. He also explained the dishes in detail.

The fatoosh salad was well dressed with an herb-packed vinaigrette and tossed with cukes, onions, tomatoes and Ritz crackers. America's favorite cracker had been cut up and fried in oil, which prevented it from being drenched with the dressing. This salad was probably the best dish we had over both visits.

The pizza crust was soft and thick and topped with mild, white cheese, and a medley of dried herbs. It proved a nice accompaniment to the salad.

The beef on the kabob had been marinated, resulting in tender and flavorful meat. The outside had been grilled just right. Another skewer of grilled onion, tomatoes and green pepper were also perfectly cooked. The small Greek salad held all the typical ingredients: feta, olives, tomatoes, lettuce and onions. Again, the salad was great.

For dessert, we split the baklava ($2.95)--and it was some of the best we've tried. All too often, the honey dominates this treat, and all the other wonderful ingredients, especially the phyllo dough, lose out. Mediterranean Garden's baklava is a wonderful balance of sweetened nuts intense with cinnamon, light dough and honey.

The folks at Mediterranean Garden truly love their food and enjoy sharing it with their guests. This passion and enthusiasm more than make up for the glitches in service.

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