Lamb is the protein of choice, encountered (and usually skewered) from the eastern Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea. The vegetable kingdom is most often represented by eggplant (and those relatively recent arrivals, American peppers and tomatoes) in various roasted, stuffed, or sautéed configurations. The favored starch is wheat -- both bread and bulgur -- while yogurt's tang is enjoyed in Turkey, Iran, and points between. Olive oil is practically inevitable; so are lentils, pistachios, dates, and figs. Flavoring the whole are pungent spices like cardamom, cumin, saffron, and nutmeg. This multiplicity of shared influences is a challenge to the culinary anthropologist seeking "Middle Eastern" delicacies. Will you choose dolmeh from Iran or dolmasy from Armenia? The moussaka of Greece or the musakka'a of Saudi Arabia? Raki, arak, or some other locally produced, licorice-flavored rocket fuel?
Chef Manal Alshafi, a Palestinian born in Jordan, raised in Saudi Arabia, and currently ensconced in the North American Chefs Hall of Fame, exemplifies the nomadic nature of the Middle Easterner -- and as such she is an ideal guide to the region's overlapping yet distinctive cuisines. She heads up the kitchen at Fattoush, a cozy eatery tucked away on a quiet block in Noe Valley. Here she creates and serves dishes that sparkle with dried lime, sumac, and other unexpected flavors from her native soil, and although some of the platters are burdened with ponderous ingredient choices, they're often redeemed by a confluence of zesty flavors, satisfying textures, and dazzling presentations. Alshafi is aided and abetted by owner Abed Amas, who has created a seductively upholstered oasis in the midst of the concrete desert with enough attentive warmth and welcoming hospitality to make you feel like a visiting sheik.
This good feeling is palpable as soon as you walk in the door and settle yourself among the cushions at one of the restaurant's dozen tables, lovely mosaics of teal, rust, and gold arranged under glass. An ornate chandelier illuminates the tile floors, Persian rugs, and towering, colorful bouquets. Polished tree branches emerge dramatically from cobalt vases, and little white lights glitter among the potted plants and along the dark wood walls. Your server offers a gracious greeting, makes personal recommendations, and brings your drinks before you can even think about getting thirsty. Over the course of the evening he will also put together a personalized platter of cold appetizers, bring five fatayer (more about those later) instead of the usual four so the odd man at table won't feel left out, discuss the dishes and their origins with well-informed grace, and in general make you as happy and as comfortable as humanly possible without giving up his professional élan.
We began our meal with a healthy selection of mazza, the pre-meal noshes that are to the Arab world what mezes are to Greece and tapas are to Spain. The best-known mazza are the garbanzo-tahini purée known as hummos (here creamy and pleasantly subtle compared to the usual garlic-laden dip), babaghanouge (a nice, chunky balancing act of smoky eggplant, rich sesame seeds, and spiky lemon), and tabouli (bright mint, parsley, and scallion flavors jazzing up a lightly textured bulgur). Fattoush's fattoush (an elaborate tossed salad) is fresh and verdant with cucumbers, tomatoes, grilled eggplant, lots of mint, parsley, and cilantro, crunchy pita croutons for body, and the fruity, astringent flavor of sumac. Both the khyar b'laban (yogurt with cucumber, garlic, and dill) and the m'nazaleh (pepper, tomato, and eggplant ratatouille with walnuts) are serviceable, but the rihan is terrific: a dense, crunchy basil sauce reminiscent of an exotic, high-end pesto. Soft, warm flatbread ideal for scooping accompanies your mazza. (In addition to the cold starters there are seven hot items, including fatayer, phyllo stuffed with ground beef and then baked. It looks great -- golden packets of crisp pastry arranged atop deep-brown swirls of tahini-date syrup -- but the finished dish is bland, all crunch and no taste, and the syrup is merely sweet.)
The entrees exemplify the restaurant's tendencies (good and not so good). The Sultan Ibrahim is sublime: A meaty halibut steak is grilled and served with a sauce of roasted tomatoes, onions, and garlic that's so smoky and sweet and subtly spicy that it's like a fantastically textured Bolognese. The m'sakhan looks like a huge baked-apple dumpling, but instead of popover dough its wrapper is a crackly lavash, and instead of stewed apples it contains big, thick shards of rich, dark chicken meat (barely) seasoned with sumac and allspice. It's not as memorable as the halibut, but is satisfying nonetheless. The tabsi, meanwhile, is anything but taste-challenged. Lamb and beef come minced together into a kind of sausage, seasoned with plenty of pepper and spice and served with a rich eggplant-garlic-tomato sauce. At first nibble the dish seems simple, even inconsequential, but then the warm flavors of the bazaar sneak up on you and happiness results.
Middle Easterners tend to overcook their lamb, and just because Fattoush follows that authentic route doesn't mean I have to like it. The chunks in its mansaf are thick and dull, with most of the meat's rich flavors cooked out of them, but the other stuff on the platter is so good it almost makes up for it: a rich, pungent "aged yogurt" sauce (it tastes miles better than it reads) and a mound of sublime almond-studded rice to soak up the flavors. That same well-done lamb stars in shish kebab, the classic Middle Eastern dish. Not only is the meat predictably bland and tough, but the skewered vegetables seem limp and overcooked. You can also get your shish kebab on a combo platter with shish taouk, in which dry, chewy chicken joins the mix. (The barbecue sauce is nice and smoky, though.) Most of these entrees come with the aforementioned nutty, saffron-edged rice pilaf, which could happily make a meal all by itself.
Dessert is pistachio baklava, a dry, unsweetened version with little discernible trace of the pastry's glories -- rich butter and fragrant honey. Fortunately the restaurant also serves thimbles of powerful, sludgy Arabian coffee flavored with cardamom as well as tall glasses of mint tea -- the original, primeval mint tea in which the leaves and stalks are plunged into boiling water. To end up with something other than a glass of greenish hot water you have to let the leaves steep a good long time and add at least two cubes of sugar -- Middle Easterners are famous for their sweet-tooth tendencies. Despite the effort, the results are worth it. On a pleasant evening it's nice to enjoy your tea and coffee out on the veranda where the hookah sits, reflecting on the stars and the breeze and enjoying the pleasures of convivial warmth and oasislike hospitality. You'd expect nothing less from the cradle of civilization, yes?