Ask a restaurateur the secrets to success, and location is sure to be on the list. The quality of the food is critical, of course, and service makes a big difference.
But sometimes, just being convenient is what gets folks in the door, and that's what got us to Petra Café in Midtown.
The fourth Petra opened in December on Union, just east of the post office, tucked next to Subway and Crazy Mike's Mattresses. I didn't plan to review it because I'd reviewed the Cordova location last year.
But it's about a mile from work, making it very convenient for a recent lunch, and it was such a pleasant experience that it earned a review and also gained a half-star on the Cordova location.
Petra is pretty much a sandwich shop, with 43 selections on the menu and just nine salads and nine side orders. But these are really good sandwiches, thoughtfully prepared, enormous but well constructed; they keep their integrity when you take a bite, and, come on, no one wants to eat a sloppy sandwich in public. (Who wants mustard or tomato on their shirt all afternoon?)
Creatively using combinations of meats and condiments is what makes the menu so large. The Genoa salami on the muffaletta panini (it says panini on the menu, and, anyway, I'm no longer fighting this murky plural vs. singular battle) is also on the Venice; prosciutto shows up several times, as does roast beef and the very good gyro meat (a pressed lamb and beef roll). The same applies with condiments such as basil pesto and the excellent and spicy olive salad.
Keep the spicy in mind, if you're sensitive to heat. A co-worker found the veggie pita a bit too assertive -- not so much that she couldn't eat it, but strong enough that she wouldn't order it again.
But to each her own, and I like the bold combination of olives and peppers that tasted much like a kicked-up olive salad from New Orleans, but much smoother.
Big, delicious sandwiches that stay together, and plenty of choices. So far, so good. Just order what sounds good to you, and chances are good that you'll like it.
Move along to the side orders section of the menu, and it stays solid.
To be certain you notice that the feisty feta dip lives up to its name, it's written this way on the menu:
"Feisty Feta Dip (feisty)".
The dip, which is a bit fiery but not hurtful, is tyrokafteri, as best I can tell. It's a delightful Greek dip or spread, a mixture of red peppers, feta cheese, olive oil, lemon juice and yogurt. Petra's version is cheesier than others I've tried, but it's got enough of a tang to it that it doesn't taste like pimiento cheese (and that can happen). It's served with a basket of soft pita wedges, and an order of this plus another side is plenty for a meal if you want to nibble.
The sampler is a trio of tabbouleh, eggplant dip and hummus, also served with warm pita. All are excellent.
Tabbouleh is a salad of bulgur (tiny kernels of dried wheat), parsley, mint, chopped tomato, lemon juice and olive oil. Too often it tastes good but is dry, or made with curly parsley that's a bit too springy.
Petra's is very good, without a doubt the best I recall ever eating in a restaurant. The grain and the parsley are soft, and the salad is tangy and fresh.
The hummus is silky smooth, and we made short work of it, too, but the eggplant is just as good as the tabbouleh.
I expected baba ghanoush, but what Petra serves is a slightly chunky yet lush and velvety dip of eggplant, garlic and chopped tomatoes. The plate is $8, and while we shared it, I feel sure it will be my lunch or a quick to-go dinner on many future occasions.
Petra makes to-go easy. There's plenty of parking to the side of the restaurant and behind it, and you can call in your order to have it ready.
A final word: You're going to want the baklava at Petra. For years, I've eaten the honey-and-nut sweet at room temperature and liked it, but never loved it. On a trip early this year, I had the pleasure of eating baklava ice cream and found it was superb.
At Petra, the large pieces of the housemade pastry come warm, and this is how all baklava should be served. Heating it tremendously heightens the flavor of the honey and the nuts, and I can only think of one way to improve it:
Vanilla ice cream on the side.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Address: 1560 Union.
Telephone: (901) 722-4040.
Hours: 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Reviewer's choices: Sampler ($8); feisty feta dip ($7); zesty Petra gyro and zesty gyros panini (both $8.99); corned beef reuben ($8.99); Sicilian panini ($8.99); baklava ($4) .
Alcohol: None sold, but there's no corkage fee.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars