Lebanon Or Bust

Add some spice to your life at hospitable Le Mediterranean.

By Rebecca Cook

AMONG THE VARIETY of international cuisines, the food of the Middle East stands out in my mind among the most exotic and unusual to the typical American palate. Ingredients frequently assigned side-dish status--such as beans or rice--take center stage in this other desert cuisine; and the use of aromatic spices such as cinnamon, clove and allspice (spices usually reserved in this country for certain dessert items) strike the tongue with a persistent twist of intrigue.

Aside from a shared predilection for grilled meats, there are few similarities between the average American table and those of Syria or Lebanon. No matter how many times I pull apart a piece of pita bread and scoop up a creamy portion of baba ghanoush, I always find the prospect of enjoying a meal that hails from the far corner of my daily universe a veritable cultural excursion.

Chow Tucson certainly doesn't lack for venues celebrating Middle Eastern cuisine, but for authenticity, taste and ambiance, you'll be hard pressed to find better Bedouin repast than that served at Le Mediterranean. Although the menu contains dishes from various parts of the Middle East, the primary influence is definitely Lebanese--not surprisingly, since that's the homeland of chef-owner Joseph Abi-Ad. Le Mediterranean's national preferences can be detected not only in the subtle variations in several dishes, but also in the overwhelmingly hospitable manner with which guests are treated the minute they walk through the door. Every detail is designed with the supreme satisfaction of the customer in mind, a feature distinctively Lebanese. No country in the world elevates hospitality to a grander height.

Although Abi-Ad hopes to attract families to his restaurant (note the New Generation menu for guests under age 12), Le Mediterranean is an establishment classy enough for any special occasion. Soft lighting, linen tablecloths, wine lists and live entertainment accompany a comprehensive menu which covers the spectrum, from simple to sublime.

Begin a meal at Le Mediterranean by ordering the smorgasbord of appetizers offered on the meza combination platter. With size options for the appetites of two, four, six or eight people, this platter is a monumental sight to behold as well as consume. We conservatively opted for the two-person combination ($22.50), and were shocked to find a serving adequate for a small army: a dizzying platter of stuffed grape leaves, hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel, bite-sized cheese turnovers, spinach pie, chicken wings, tiny meat pies and a cold relish tray with carrots, radishes and black and green olives. An order of kibbie nayeh, a raw, ground-meat mixture of beef, bulgar wheat, onions, cinnamon, cloves and allspice was also thrown into the mix.

Every item sampled was delicious. The grape leaves, slightly larger than the usual versions served around town, were simply some of the best I've ever tasted. Not a trace of briny nastiness clung to the leaves, which were themselves amazingly tender and stringless. The straightforward rice stuffing was slyly flavored with flecks of chopped tomato, onion, lemon juice, olive oil and a measured dash of cloves or allspice. The hummus and baba ghanoush, made respectively with puréed chickpeas and eggplant, were smooth, creamy and roundly flavored with garlic and sesame butter. The mouthfuls of pastry were delicate and savory, regardless of whether the filling was meat or vegetable-and-cheese based.

The only unpopular item was the raw meat kibbie, which even after overcoming our aversion to its uncooked aspect was something of a disappointment. Rather like a meatloaf before it's baked, kibbie may be an acquired taste not yet in our repertoire. The ground meat is blended with cracked wheat, onions and sweet spicing, and can presumably be troweled onto pita bread for easy consumption. While the flavors were not unpleasant, the texture was a bit of a challenge--too closely resembling paste, as opposed to a more familiar pâté. We'll stick to the stuffed grape leaves next time.

Entrees come with a choice of soup or salad; the daily soup specials featured on our visit effectively lured us away from a traditional plate of greens. A velvety smooth tomato-vermicelli was superb, its rich red broth beautifully blending the essence of vine-ripened tomatoes with allspice and pasta. The chicken couscous was heartier, peppered with several chunks of tender meat, vegetables and semolina grain.

Following the advice of those who'd come before us, we honed in on the dishes featuring grilled meat. I'd heard no one fired up a spit with more finesse than Abi-Ad, and this flattering rumor turned out to be the absolute truth.

In particular, Abi-Ad knows his way around lamb, the most highly vaunted meat in Middle Eastern cuisine. The lamb chops ($19.95) were exquisite, four tender ribs of meat cooked over an open flame to just the right medium-rare state, and hesitantly seasoned with a touch of salt, pepper and a fresh lemon. To redeem my lament of a few weeks ago about a regrettable breading masking the wonderful flavor of lamb at another restaurant, here this sweet meat was redeemed tenfold by its inherent succulence.

Also marvelous was the beef kabob ($14.95), chunks of tender sirloin permeated with a savory marinade of lemon, olive oil, garlic and aromatic spices accompanied by a large skewer of grilled vegetables, including tomato, onion and green bell pepper.

A child's portion of the beef shawarma ($6.95), marinated strips of grilled meat served with an order of rice pilaf, completed our evening's samplings. Pronounced "good" by the young charge on that side of the table, the meat was tender and flavorful, and predominantly lemon flavored. Served with a tahini (sesame) sauce, the shawarma is well suited to its warm pita shell.

Chicken, a few fish specialties (shrimp kabob, broiled halibut or Mediterranean trout served with garlic, cilantro, lemon and butter), and a short list of vegetarian selections (moussaka and stuffed cabbage) admirably round out the rest of Le Med's offerings.

On Friday and Saturday nights, a belly dancer snakes her way gracefully through the dining room, engaging in both traditional and contemporary interpretations of her art. I couldn't tell you what was more entertaining: the actual dance, or the pas de deux that frequently took place between the performer and either a member of the waitstaff or a customer trying to get discreetly to and from the bathroom.

A dessert tray, covered with a bevy of sweet mysteries, is presented following the main course. Although sorely tempted by the usual baklava, rice pudding (laced with rose water), and several pastries featuring ground nuts or dates, we were simply too stuffed to partake. Next time we'll skip the appetizers and hold out for one of these honeyed confections, along with a nice stiff brew of sweet Arabic or Turkish coffee.

Le Mediterranean has so much to recommend it, even the stop-and-go traffic you'll need to endure to get there on any given night is worth it. Once inside Le Med's doors, your equilibrium will quickly be restored by the great food, comfy surroundings and entertaining diversions. There are definitely no mirages here--Le Mediterranean is the real deal.

Le Mediterranean. 4955 N. Sabino Canyon Road. 529-1330. Open 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, checks. Menu items: $1.95-$19.95. TW

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