Lebanese food can be nuanced, enticing, and artfully presented. Can be.
Dining Out by Stephen Heuser
240 Cambridge Street (Beacon Hill), Boston; (617) 523-4606
Open Mon-Sat, 11 a.m.-11 p.m., and Sun, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Beer and wine
AE, MC, Visa
There are, by my studied estimate, six million felafel joints in and
around Boston, but only a handful of full-service Middle Eastern restaurants.
It's too bad, because Middle Eastern food, when cooked and presented with care,
is diverse, flavorful without being overpowering, and a real dining bargain.
Phoenicia, at least, is a bargain.
Phoenicia occupies two rooms on a Cambridge Street corner across from Mass
General. The place used to be called Ann's; the name changed a couple of years
ago, and a snappy blue sign appeared over the door, but the ownership didn't
change, and neither did the Lebanese menu. A handful of the dishes are
excellent, but it's hard not to feel that Phoenicia couldn't be doing better
across the board.
We can start with the good. The felafel here ($3.95 for an appetizer plate) is
a revelation for anyone who thinks of felafel as a crumbly ball of brown stuff:
the version here is firm and crisp on the outside, moist and gently herbed on
the inside. Two of the simpler appetizer spreads are similarly rewarding.
Labneh ($2.95) is yogurt drained of liquid until it forms a kind of soft white
cheese. Here it had almost a whipped texture; it was laid out in a cloud on a
small plate, with a drizzle of olive oil in the middle and a single briny
olive. If the texture of labneh isn't too different from that of whipped
butter, the flavor is much lighter and more interesting, with a tang that
places it somewhere between farmer's cheese and sour cream. Baba ghanoosh
($3.50 small, $4.95 large) had a satisfyingly rough texture and a nice depth of
flavor. When done well, as it is here, this eggplant spread has a noticeable
taste of smoke, since the eggplant is cooked over a fire.
Hummus, on the other hand, wasn't nearly what it could have been. If I'm
becoming spoiled by the high quality of grocery-store hummus these days, I'm
not the only one, because our table went straight through the baba ghanoosh,
straight through the labneh, and stalled halfway through what's usually the
favorite dip of all. Like much restaurant hummus, this version wasn't
particularly bad -- just bland, without noticeable garlic or tahini
flavor, or even the spark of lemon.
Then there's kibbeh. (Here it's spelled "kibby" -- even by the sliding
standards of Arabic-English transliteration, the menu spellings at Phoenicia
are unusual. Hummus, for instance, is spelled "hoomis." Phoenicia's great
historical contribution to our culture was the alphabet, so maybe this place is
just trying to remind us who got there first.) Kibbeh shells ($5.25) are a
really lovely version of this lamb-and-bulgur mixture, which can take any
number of forms. The shells are shaped like little rugby balls, crispy on the
outside and steamy-soft on the inside, stuffed with ground lamb. They were fun
eating, but beware the entrée version of kibbeh (of which more later).
A few other noteworthy starters: tabouleh ($3.50, $4.95) has a very vegetal
feel, dominated by loosely chopped parsley and diced tomato rather than cracked
wheat. Vegetarian stuffed grape leaves were better than the nonvegetarian
version; both were served warm, but the meat variety ($5.50) was quite plain,
with a filling of bits of ground lamb mixed with rice; the meatless ($5.50) is
far more piquant, with a nice lemony zip and a more interestingly textured
filling. And finally, a bowl of cucumber and yogurt ($2.95, $3.95) is much
tastier than it might sound. The cucumber, floating in half-moon slices, makes
a crunchy-cool counterpoint to the liquid zing of the yogurt, which is flavored
with mint and a little garlic.
Some entrées at Phoenicia are single-item plates, like shish kebab or
kibbeh; some are combinations. Order a combination. The good news is that it's
hard to spend more than $10 on any one dish without asking for a double
helping; the other news is that not everything is equally tasty. Kebabs were
serviceable but didn't shine; lamb and beef were well-done, as usual in Middle
Eastern restaurants, and a little on the tough side. A chicken kebab was also a
little dry, but more tender. One winning platter was composed of spinach pie,
chicken, and felafel (a/k/a Number Six, $8.95); the pie was a nice phyllo-dough
affair, the felafel as good as the appetizer version, and the chicken a grilled
breast, blackened and flavorsome. Like all the entrées, this one came on
a bed of rice.
A more mixed bag is Number Two: cabbage rolls, kafta, and kibbeh ($9.75). The
cookbook author and Mediterraneanist Paula Wolfert identifies kafta (or
köfte, in Turkish cuisine) and kibbeh as two words for the same
thing, but here the items are quite different. And dinner kibbeh is different
again from the appetizer kibbeh. The dinner version is a square of ground beef
mixed with bulgur wheat, layered with some other ingredients; the effect is
like a crumbly meat brownie, colored beige. The kafta is more of a meatball;
it's formed by kneading together ground beef, ground lamb, and onion, then
wrapping the mixture around a skewer. The result is like a thick finger of
meatloaf; one night ours was pleasantly moist inside, and one night it was dry,
but both nights it tasted like meatloaf. The cabbage rolls, on the other hand,
were pretty darn good, like a larger version of the grape leaves, with the
pungency of cabbage encasing a mélange of lamb and rice and spices.
A dish called fasoolia ($7.95) is the subject of a little encomium from the
Boston Globe in a frame on the wall; our waiter described it,
encouragingly, as a kind of Middle Eastern chili. But chili suggests to me a
certain textural variety and at least a couple alarms' worth of flavor;
fasoolia was really just a half-plate of soupy kidney-bean stew, with a bit of
browned onion stirred in, and rice on the side.
Phoenicia has an enticing list of desserts, but when we ate there nothing was
available but baklava and caramel custard. The baklava was a treat -- firm, not
too goopy, with a strong pistachio component -- and we didn't try the custard.
"Lebanese coffee" seemed an awful lot like Turkish coffee: thick, bitter,
grainy, delicious. Several wines are offered by the glass; we tried Lebanese
white, Lebanese red, and beer, and I'd rank them in the reverse of that
Phoenicia is pretty quiet most nights; it's a retreat for students at Suffolk,
just up the hill, and also attracts groups of locals who know you can't find
labneh and kibbeh shells anywhere nearby. As with any Beacon Hill dining
experience, you'll be happier if you don't try to park in the neighborhood.
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