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Thursday, May 12,2011

Like a trip to the Middle East

By Clay Fong

Visiting Boulder’s Arabesque, which features first-rate Middle Eastern food, I was fortunate enough to be joined by Ghada, who grew up in Lebanon eating Arabic food. She helped me better appreciate the subtle and authentic touches during lunch at this homey, family-owned operation. The owner does the cooking, while her husband assumes host duties; their adult children help out with waiting tables.

Arabesque’s sunny, upscale setting features an interior brightened by original artwork from local artists, including the owner. Arabesque is open from morning to late afternoon, serving breakfast and lunch. Diners order from a menu off the wall, and the popularity of this spot at lunch can slow down the pace of service. But this is really the only quibble here, and if you view the experience as akin to having a meal at a perfectionist friend’s house versus a fastfood joint, you’ll be fine.

Breakfast selections include an $11 omelet with spinach and onion and quiche. Ghada pointed out that the omelet is prepared in the Middle Eastern style, with a springier texture than usual. Lunch options start at $6 for soup or a hummus or baba ghanoush wrap, and the $9 beef or chicken shawarma plates are popular items.

A nice touch, the drinking water was scented with rosewater, which complemented our $3 spinach pie starter. This first course arrived encased in a thin, pita-like crust, with stuffing that was both fresh-tasting and appealingly earthy, a quality imparted to it by sumac (the edible herb, not the poisonous plant) and thyme. Ghada suggested that this pie and a bowl of soup make for an ideal light lunch.

Ghada ordered the chicken shawarma plate sided with baba ghanoush. The saffron-colored chicken was composed of tender white meat, carrying the discreetly tangy taste of fruited vinegar. The baba ghanoush was the finest I’ve had in Colorado, possessing a light, almost fluffy feel, set off by delicate eggplant aroma and quality, fruity olive oil. This dip was a terrific foil to the warm, rustically textured pita.

My $14 sampler included shawarma and baba ghanoush, as well as exemplary dolmas, tabbouleh and hummus. The brown rice stuffing in the moist grape-leaf wrapped treats had a nuttier flavor compared to white rice versions, without the off-putting sour taste commonly encountered. The tabbouleh, explained Ghada, was authentic in that wheat wasn’t the main element; instead it was dominated by onion, mint, parsley and tomato. Equally pleasing was the airy and addictively creamy hummus.

We ended with a $4 portion of baklava.

As I bit into it, Ghada declared, “I heard the crunch,” a surefire indicator of quality. Espresso-sized $2.75 cups of thick and strong cardamom-scented coffee were the ideal accompaniment to the not-too-sweet pastry, which contained the right measure of honey. It was a pleasant contrast to versions where it feels like one is chewing on a chunk of beehive.

The best restaurants are about more than just quality of food — the finest also evoke an emotional response. It was clear that Arabesque did just that for my friend. One need not have grown up enjoying  Middle Eastern fare to appreciate the unique and fresh flavors here, although for those that have, Arabesque provides a nostalgic link to another time and place. Said Ghada of this restaurant, “I like it because it’s authentic.”

Clay’s Obscurity Corner Baba, baby

Baba ghanoush takes on myriad forms throughout the Mediterranean, with differing interpretations spanning the Middle East to Southern Europe. The common denominator in each version is the base of mashed, roasted eggplant, and in Eastern Mediterranean or Levantine recipes, lemon, tahini and garlic are standard. Armenian preparations are likely to include onion and cumin, while one Israeli version involves the addition of mayonnaise. There’s also a Turkish preparation that’s served warm with milk and cheese as ingredients. Eggplant caviar is a common south of France starter, although it omits the tahini and is found spread on toasted baguette rather than pita.

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