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What's in a Name? 

At Pride of the Mediterranean, well-done is the order of the day

Wednesday, Aug 14 1996
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In a city whose restaurants bear allusive and sometimes elusive -- but generally elegant -- names, Pride of the Mediterranean is a moniker conspicuous by its clunkiness. It sounds like a domestic brand of feta cheese (an item that does not, in fact, appear on the menu). The word "Mediterranean" is, in California, usually shorthand for the western Mediterranean -- Greece, Italy, Provence -- but there's an eastern end, too, and it's from that region that Pride of the Mediterranean draws much of its inspiration.

Lamb, like olive oil, is one of the constants of the entire Mediterranean region, and the restaurant features it throughout the menu, in chunks (shish kebab), ground patties (kebab), slices (shawerma), chops, and shanks. A flaming, spitting musquet grill sits at the main entrance to the restaurant, which opens to a coolly hip, Italian-ish dining room with lots of red granite, glass, and chrome.

It is a sad fact that lamb is cooked differently at opposite ends of the middle sea. The French like it rare and juicy, cooked to an internal temperature of around 140 degrees Fahrenheit. But to move east and south is to find the meat increasingly well-done. Pink meat begins to turn gray; juices run less freely. On the whole, it seems to me to be a poor trade, since there is no health risk to eating rare lamb, while a good deal of flavor gets lost in cooking it well-done.

Although we agreed that all the lamb dishes were overcooked for our taste, we also agreed that the meat was still tender and flavorful (with appealing charcoal overtones from the grill). And the plates themselves were like little gardens of salad and sumptuous condiments in which the well-cooked meat seemed less damaged than it might have sitting there all alone.

First courses were mixed. The kauba ($2.99) consisted of three deep-fried balls of cracked wheat stuffed with a blend of spiced ground lamb (or beef), pine nuts, onions, and sumac. The clincher was the mint relish on the side, whose cool tang cut the oiliness of the wheat balls and added some needed dampness.

The falafel patties ($1.95), on the other hand, were clustered on an oblong plate like little logs. They'd been deep-fried until very crunchy, and the chickpea mix itself was well-spiced, but it was perverse to serve them without a yogurt dipping sauce or diced tomatoes or something. Falafel is one of the world's great peasant foods, but usually it's served in pita bread with an ensemble of dressed greens, tomatoes, and yogurt sauce. Here, it was naked and forlorn.

Better was the lentil-spinach soup ($2.25). It had a lively texture -- large swaths of spinach leaves and ample chunks of lentil -- and some cayenne-pepper heat to go with the tingle of curry.

The chunks of lamb in the shish kebab ($8.99) had had the last vestiges of pink cooked out of them. The meat was still good, but it was hard not to wonder what it might have been like if cooked a little more gently. The pile of lemon-yellow Mediterranean rice was dry, but the hummus was rich and creamy, and the slices of pita bread on the side were tender and still warm.

I had hopes for some rareness in the shawerma ($7.79), until my friend pointed out that because the slices are taken from the outside surface of the leg (as it rotates on a vertical spit), they're bound to be well-done. And they were, although not disastrously. A familiar array of side dishes accompanied the meat: hummus, tahini salad, baba ghanouj (the roasted-eggplant puree, dusky with smoke and a faint bitterness), tabbouleh (a salad of bulgur wheat), and pita bread.

The shrimp ($9.99), on the other hand, took well to a thorough grilling. The shelled prawns -- a pretty orange amid the greens and beiges elsewhere on the plate -- were firm but juicy and blistered just enough here and there to remind us that they'd been cooked over a real fire.

The lunch menu offers mostly the same choices for a few dollars less. My dinnertime attempt to order the Armenian pizza ($2.99) had been stymied by my friend's blanket dislike of pizza, but the Memoirist studied the little disks with avid interest. They were topped with spiced, stewed meat that reminded me of sloppy Joes, and were served with a helping of bright-green mint relish.

The lamb combo plate ($6.49) featured both shish kebab and kebab -- the sausagelike preparation of ground meat cooked on the grill. Decent taste, slightly mushy texture, as if the meat had been ground a little too enthusiastically. The chunks of shish kebab were fatty, which helped explain their juiciness despite their patchily charred surfaces. Eventually I started treating the entire plate as if it were a Middle Eastern version of fajitas and required some assembly. Eating each item on the plate separately was a mistake; it's all meant to be stuffed into the pita slices and eaten like a kind of sandwich.

Not so the Memoirist's half-chicken ($5.99). With its crisp skin and juicy meat, it stood on its own. In fact it seemed a lot like tandoori chicken, though soaked in some other marinade than the Indian version's spicy yogurt blend. As with tandoori chicken, the meat was meltingly tender -- a triumph commemorated by a pile of stripped bones.

The restaurant's service was always swift, cheerful, and knowledgeable: Water glasses were refilled, empty plates promptly cleared, questions answered. But there was no point in asking for lamb or beef cooked rare or medium-rare; they cook it the way they cook it -- emphatically. I wish it were otherwise, but what Pride of the Mediterranean lacks in delicately pink meat, it makes up in sleek liveliness and seductively savory smells -- tokens of simple, tasty food at very fair prices.

Pride of the Mediterranean, at 1761 Fillmore, serves lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Call 567-1150.

About The Author

Paul Reidinger

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