There are numerous Middle Eastern restaurants in town, most of them good. A small stretch of that bastion of ethnic eating along Summer Avenue has gained a third with the addition of Middle East Bakery and Grill.
And while there are many similarities among the places, just as there are among, say, Mexican restaurants, they are all somewhat different and the new one perhaps more so than the others.
The food is Iraqi, which pulls from various Middle Eastern cuisines to create its own. The most notable difference at the restaurant is the generous use of lemon, lime and other sour fruit elements that add a tangy freshness to the food; fresh-squeezed lemon juice even takes the place of vinegar in the cruet next to the olive oil on each table.
Our first visit was a leisurely one due to a torrential downpour that kept us trapped in the simple room, tucked away in a far corner of a strip center on Summer between the stoplights at Berclair and Perkins (Aldi is in the same strip). Even stuck inside and nibbling at our food past the point of being full, we left with more than half of the
excellent kabobs and our dolmas. Portions are quite large, and the housemade attention to quality in all things shines through.
Oddly, the dolmas were the sole item that didn't bear the signature lemony element, and the one where it would be most expected. They were a bit flat and bland without the zest to counteract the bitter earthiness of the grape leaves, but they were the only disappointment.
The kabob is simply seasoned ground beef shaped into a log, skewered and grilled. It's often called kifta, kefta or kofta, but this is a bit different as the former typically contain a good deal of parsley and often vegetables. Here you get meat seasoned with salt, pepper, probably allspice, maybe a bit of garlic and cumin, and, I believe, a bit of finely grated onion added in. Simple, but the cooking over a grill elevates it. You can order it with bread or rice. Though the rice is good, rolling it up in the bread, dousing it with a dash of oil and lemon juice and piling on the chopped salad is the way to go.
Before we left, several people were served a chicken dish that smelled intoxicating, and the next day, I was back for it.
Chicken tekka is what it's called, and it's close to an Indian chicken tikka, which brings up an interesting question about the relationship between Indian and Iraqi food that I can't really answer. The two countries are separated by two others -- Iran and Pakistan. Perhaps there was a trade route that connected the two, or maybe, as I read online but can't swear to, British soldiers stationed there in the early 20th century introduced their favorite Indian dishes. (So you're thinking "whatever." I get that, but really, it's fascinating.)
The tekka is superb, big chunks of chicken breast skewered and grilled, then dusted with sumac, an herb that provides a lemony sourness. They're fork-tender, and this is the dish that will keep me returning again and again.
There are plenty of others worth trying, though. Don't be misled by one called "Iraqi bread topped with meat stock," as it's much more than that.
Lamb shanks are cooked in a stock rich with warm spices such as cinnamon and cumin. A large pita is crumpled in a bowl, stock is poured over to soften it, and a whole shank is placed on top. It was delicious and hearty, if a little heavy for the summer.
The shawarma is not to be missed, though. There's some confusion over whether the meat on the rotisserie is always just beef or is sometimes a mix of lamb and beef; it was beef when I ate it.
First, this is no pressed gyro meat. Pieces of beef are hand-placed on the vertical rotisserie and tightly pressed. When you order, bits are shaved off with a knife, and the perfect shawarma plate delivers both crisp, caramelized pieces from the outside and tender pieces from within.
But what makes this shawarma even better is the sauce. Condiments make such a difference in a meal, and a side of amba took a good dish and elevated it to great.
We simply could not guess the ingredients of the sour, savory and velvety sauce. Sure, we could pick out a spice here and there (chili, fenugreek, maybe mustard), but the predominant flavor was so familiar, yet elusive. I finally gave up and called.
While popular in Middle Eastern cuisine, the recipe comes from India. Interesting. Just sayin'.
You'll have plenty of dessert choices, from baklava (spelled here "baklawa" and pronounced bok-LAW-a) with various insides, to date pastries to carrot squares. Meat and spinach pies are available in the bakery case, and there is a small grocery area.
Everything is made in house, including the samoon, a leavened Iraqi bread, and the pita. The owners are friendly and accommodating. Normal opening hours are, eh, 9-ish, 10-ish, but if they're baking at 6 a.m. and you want bread, they'll let you in.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Middle East Bakery and Grill
Address: 4514 Summer Ave.
Telephone: (901) 552-5296
Hours: Open daily from about 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (later for hookah smokers, but there's no smoking in the restaurant when food is being served). If you want to buy bakery items earlier in the day, the owners will generally open and sell it to you.
Reviewer's choices: Tekka plate ($10.99); shawarma plate ($10.99); Iraqi bread topped with meat stock ($10.99); tekka sandwich ($4.59)
Alcohol: Not sold or allowed.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars