wireless_kitchen (2007-03)

For Real

Gay Street’s new Middle Eastern eatery is no mirage

Mirage • 718 S. Gay Street • 521-5588

It’s called Mirage, but it’s no illusion.

The new Middle Eastern restaurant, Mirage, has finally opened slowly and prudently—with word-of-mouth advertising, serving dinner only and offering a less extensive menu than is planned for the future. Having heard several good reports, I’m pleased to say it’s as good as I’d heard. And based on our experience and on our conversation with owner Omar Adhami, it’s likely things are only going to get better.

The restaurant will soon offer full bar service, including highly praised Syrian wines. They also plan to serve lunch and offer entertainment, including belly dancing, within the next month or so. More vegetarian entrées are also in the works. Currently, there are lots of vegetarian appetizers, salads and soups, but all the entrées feature beef, chicken or lamb.

We had heard about the hookahs available at 9 p.m.—with 20 flavored tobaccos—and figured the restaurant would be smoky. It wasn’t. My husband Bill, who can’t stand smoke, was pleased that the only aromas were those of delicate spices along with a not unpleasant waft of incense. If avoidance of smoke is a concern, you should be fine before 9 p.m.

The ruddy walls and ornate décor were warm and welcoming. A variety of seating is available: tables, a few booths, traditional bar seating and comfy cushions surrounding low tables. Authentically costumed servers, especially the women’s jingly belts, add to the atmosphere.

The appetizers are Middle Eastern/Mediterranean vegetarian delights: hummus, baba ghanouj, tzatziki, tahini dip, feta dip, grape leaves and two spreads made with fava beans. The restaurant offers two- and three-item sampler platters, but since there were only two of us, selecting one appetizer seemed the prudent thing to do. After intense negotiation, we chose the baba ghanouj. The excellent blend of eggplant, garlic and olive oil was the perfect moist consistency for spreading on the accompanying thin pita triangles. I would love to see five- and seven-item samplers as future menu options—sure to be popular with groups.

Three soups are offered—lentil, freekah (wheat rice and chicken broth) and molokhiya (green herbs cooked with garlic, onion and special spices)—and all were tempting, but since a choice of salad comes with every entree, we decided to go with a couple of salads instead. We bypassed the house salad (chopped greens, tomato, onion, parsley and cucumber) and the sophie tomato (carved tomato stuffed with garlic, salt and spices) for the tabouli and the toomya.

The tabouli was some of the best I’ve had. It was extremely moist, mixed with a tangy blend of olive oil and lemon juice. The parsley, mint and lemon flavors combined to give this cracked wheat dish a really fresh citrus-herb taste. The toomya was described as a dish for “garlic lovers.” The garlicky taste was subtle at first, growing slightly more powerful, but never to the point where the garlic overpowered the olive oil, parsley, lemon juice and other spices surrounding tiny cubes of cold, firm cooked potatoes.

Entrées include two beef dishes: shish-kabab, with marinated chunks of beef and vegetables, and kafta-kabab, a combination of seasoned ground beef, parsley and onions. Also offered are two chicken dishes: shish-tawook, or marinated chunks of chicken and vegetables, and chicken pene, which consisted of sliced, breaded and fried chicken breasts. Marinated grilled lamb chops complete the list. An option called the sultan’s meal permits the combination of any two entrées.

The shish-kabab, ordered medium rare, was perfectly cooked and served with sides of steamed vegetables and rice. The garlicky shish-tawook came with the same vegetables and rice. Normally the rice accompanying such dishes is best thought of as an edible plate—a bed of rice, to be consumed or not. Not this rice. This was the best rice I have ever eaten: moist, flavorful, and shaped into a cake—definitely more than just an accompaniment to the other items.

We didn’t order dessert, and our server didn’t recommend it, which was somewhat surprising. We were certainly satisfied with the appetizer, salads and entrées, but I’m pretty sure that had she said something along the lines of “Our dessert platter’s great; you should try it.” I’d have said, “Bring it on.” I’m a sucker for a sampler platter. This one consists of um ali (made with puff pastry, milk and nuts), konafa (shredded dough filled with sweet cheese and honey), basboosa (semolina squares covered in honey and lemon syrup) and baklava.

Had we ordered dessert, we’d probably have taken most of it home. As it was, we left with enough leftovers from our entrées to serve as the centerpiece of a meal at home the next day.  I should admit that our appetizer and salad plates were completely clean when we finished with those—no leftovers there. Prices are reasonable. Appetizers, soups, salads and desserts are $3-5. Entrées are $13-18 and include salad.

Check out this new oasis. So far, it’s no mirage.