I guess if I were going to open a Middle Eastern restaurant, it wouldn't occur to me to do it in the basement coffee shop of the Marylander Apartments. It's a place where residents count on being able to get an inexpensive meal when they don't feel like going out. And it had better be turkey and gravey with two vegetables, not baba ghannouj and beef shawirma.
So the Middle East Cafe discovered. When it first opened and served exclusively ethnic dishes, our waiter told us, it lost a lot of its regulars. That explains why now, a couple of months later, the Middle Eastern offerings are so sketchy despite the extensive menu. But the cook has just prepared a nice fresh ham and made up some mashed potatoes.
You get to the cafe by going down the ramp entrance off University Parkway. The new owner has improved the looks of the place by painting it bright white and introducing a blue, red and white color scheme. There's a wacky neon lamp in the corner, a map of the world and a poster from Denmark on the walls. (Not exactly a Mideast motif, I admit.)
We wanted to try the ethnic cuisine, but there were no grape leaves, no lamb, no beef that evening. "The chicken is very good," our waiter offered. So we had chicken.
This was the chicken kebabs ($7.99), and if you're expecting something grilled on a skewer you'd be sadly mistaken. The chunks of white meat came in a sharply flavored but intriguing sauce with tomatoes, onions and zucchini -- a sort of chicken stew. A salad of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers comes on the side; and we asked for some rice as well (which was brought gratis). We started with a shared appetizer platter ($7.50). This is Middle Eastern food unadulterated for American tastes, so a pool of olive oil filled the centers of both the hummus and baba ghannouj and sumac (a peppery spice) was sprinkled lavishly on everything. A yogurt-based sauce made a pleasing contrast to the oily and highly spiced offerings; it could be used as a salad dressing for the bit of salad that came on the platter as well. Usually it includes grape leaves, but since there were no grape leaves we were given extra falafel, which were flavorful and crunchy-coated.
There was no more Middle Eastern food for us to try, so I had the fresh ham platter ($7.99), which was the better of our two dinners. Portions are generous at the Middle East Cafe, and the American meals include two vegetables (this evening, freshly made mashed potatoes and canned corn).
Middle East Cafe
Where: 3501 St. Paul St.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sundays.
Credit cards accepted: No.
Features: Middle Eastern food.
Non-smoking section? No.
Call: (410) 235-0444.