Middle Eastern eats and sweets

photo by Sue France

There’s something inherently enigmatic about a restaurant calling itself Pickled Lemon, as this moniker raises more questions than answers. Is this a venue for citrus-based cocktails? Does the menu focus on fruit? Is this a cryptic reference to a Tina Fey character? Dessert Diva Danette Randall and I decided to investigate by checking out this newly opened fast-casual establishment on The Hill.

Happily, the ambiguity vanishes upon a quick glance at the menu, which touts “Middle Eastern Eats.” Since pickled lemon is a popular condiment throughout the Mediterranean, starring in dishes from North Africa to the Middle East, the picture becomes even clearer. Operated by the Bar-On family of Udi’s bread fame, this eatery features such items as hummus, falafel, chicken shawarma and beef kabobs, available either as a stuffed pita or platter.

While the number of entrée choices isn’t overwhelming, the number of toppings accompanying the plates and pitas is darn near daunting. These include sumac onions, pomegranate taboule and charred kale. Besides the toppings behind the counter, there’s also a condiment bar loaded with intriguing pickles. Incongruously, there was a peppery Korean kimchi garnish, compellingly spicy and crisp, as well as a pinkish pickled turnip that was simultaneously tangy and earthy. Most intriguing was the namesake pickled lemon, which wasn’t nearly as tart or pungent as one would have expected.

Given the restaurant’s bready pedigree, it’s unsurprising the pita was delightfully fluffy. It would have been better if served warm, rather than at room temperature.

Nevertheless, the structural integrity of this flatbread ably contained Danette’s bursting $6.25 chicken shawarma pita. Said Danette, “They need to put this pita on a plate.” Stuffed with hummus, poultry and mint-accented veggies, there were almost too many flavors at work here. The only real room for improvement would have been to dial back the bird’s saltiness. Nevertheless, Danette found her pita appealing. “It’s filling, but I keep eating it, so it must be good.”

The $7.55 beef kabob plate, which also contains lamb, consisted of a blend of ground meat and herbs. Again, less salt would have helped, but these kabobs did possess the indisputable virtues of hearty texture and smoky aroma. A shredded Moroccan carrot topping was sensational, as the initial bite brought out the inherent sweetness of this vegetable, which quickly gave way to spicy heat. Seventy-five cents is a small price to pay for a sensual experience, which best describes the velvety roast eggplant. Smooth with a hint of smoke, this veggie could be the foundation of an exemplary baba ganoush.

For dessert, we tried two selections, a $3.65 pistachio pudding, which may be too sweet for some, garnished with nuts and coconut, and a $1.25 tahini cookie. Danette loved the cookie’s crumbly texture, as well as its almond aroma. A flavor note resembling a less sweet version of those cellophane-wrapped sesame and honey candies came with each delectable bite.

The bottom line regarding Pickled Lemon is that it provides generous portions as well as a depth and complexity of flavor exceeding price-based expectations. Sure, there are a few minor, but easily fixable, points for improvement, but this eatery still handily surpasses chain competition. Lastly, the prudent first-time diner is wise to limit their toppings and sides intake, lest they be overwhelmed by the array of enticing flavors on tap.

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[ Pickled Lemon 1155 13th St. Boulder 720-353-4442 ]