If ever there was a cuisine fit for today's palates, it's Middle Eastern. Though steeped in several millennia of tradition, the cuisine is as flexible as they come. The grains, greens, and grilled meats that make up the dietary staples are both timely and timeless. And what dining trend is hipper than small plates, a fashion this fare has practiced for generations in the form of meze?
This is precisely the tack that first-time restaurateur Henry Schoenberger took with Middle East Grille, an attractive eatery that opened in the former home of Matsu in Shaker Heights. Billed as "enlightened Lebanese cuisine," the restaurant offers a large selection of both traditional and contemporary Middle Eastern dishes.
Belying its drab strip-mall setting, the Grille is unexpectedly modern inside, with sleek granite tabletops, plush leather banquettes, dim lighting, and striking wave-themed wall treatments. But warm welcomes are in short supply here, thanks to woeful understaffing. On two occasions, we arrived to find an unattended host stand. The entire dining room is administered by just one or two servers, and only once did we spot a general manager. Gloomier still is the vacant, unmanned bar, which casts a disquieting pall over the entire room.
Fortunately, it's not that service is unfriendly: Every staffer — okay, both staffers — we encountered were eager, pleasant, and knowledgeable. Nor were they overtaxed, since the crowds were generally thin. That's a shame, because we found the food to be remarkably fresh, expertly prepared, and bursting with bright, wholesome flavor.
Admittedly, our meals began on a low note with a basket of cold, prepackaged pita. Unaccompanied by a single dip, drip, or spread, the pita sat idle until it could be put into service. Here, that calling arrived in the form of beautiful housemade soups, served in deep, angular vessels. A hearty and heartwarming lentil version ($5) featured chunky potato, tender grains, and bright citrus notes. As colorful as it was flavorful, the chicken rice option ($5) was loaded with meat, grains, veggies and cinnamon-scented broth.
Of course, pita's highest calling is as a delivery vehicle for creamy dips and spreads. Middle East offers first-rate versions of hummus, tabouli, and baba, available individually or as members of a tasting platter ($12). That well-stocked sampler also includes rice-stuffed grape leaves, fried kibbie, and falafel, plus tahini and yogurt dipping sauces.
Salads we normally can take or leave, but here we ended up ordering them at both visits — and that was with full knowledge that meals include a perfectly lovely side salad. Bright, bountiful, and bouncy, the fatoush salad ($10) is a veritable vegetable garden on a plate. Pristine romaine, cucumber, tomato, and red onion mingle with crunchy bits of toasted pita in a light, lemony olive-oil vinaigrette. More substantial but no less vibrant is the shawarma salad ($12), crowned with savory strips of spit-roasted beef.
Settling on an entrée is no easy task — and not just because many items sound tempting. Middle East's menu is excessively crowded, needlessly confusing, and badly in need of more informative item descriptions. Discounting starters, salads, and wraps, there are more than 20 dinner options, including many unfamiliar "fusion-style" creations. Servers do a fabulous job explaining dishes, but given the skeleton crew, there are better things they should be doing with their time.
In the traditional camp is the malfouf ($14), homey Lebanese-style stuffed cabbage. Five slender logs about the thickness of a good cigar are stuffed with a heavenly scented mixture of meat and rice. They are wonderful when dipped in the accompanying yogurt sauce. Also readily familiar is the kafta ($18), a handful of hand-formed beef and lamb patties that are robustly seasoned, grilled, and served atop almond-studded rice pilaf.
Our server's description of the kibbet batata ($16) as a sort of meat and potato casserole was close to the mark. We dubbed it the Lebanese version of shepherd's pie. Baked and served in thick wedges, the dish consists of ground meat sandwiched between two layers of souffléd potato. Had the meat-to-spuds ratio not been tilted so far in the potato's favor, the dish would have been a winner.
What we did not expect to stumble across at a Lebanese eatery in Shaker Heights was the city's best frites. Shaved into long slivers, fried crisp, and seasoned with herbs and salt, these highly addictive treats come with sandwiches and some entrées. We found ours next to a snugly bundled falafel wrap ($9), plump with fresh-fried falafel, veggies, and tahini.
Those frites also accompany a grilled hanger steak ($20) marinated in traditional Middle Eastern spices. If that isn't some fancy fusion, we don't know what is.
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