Cleveland is no desert when it comes to ethnic restaurants. But in The Pyramid, a small West Side eatery specializing in the traditional foods of Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and the other countries of the Middle East, local diners can discover some monumentally delightful meals.
The Arabic nations share a similar cuisine, based largely on grains, beans, vegetables, and some meat, says Abu Rami, The Pyramid's cook and a native of Palestine. Seasonings are rich and complex, and typically include lemon juice, garlic, parsley, cinnamon, sumac, and sesame seeds. Rami's recipes come from throughout the Middle East, although he admits he sometimes adds a personal, creative touch to the dishes when the spirit moves him.
Almost everything the restaurant serves, from the crunchy kibbeh to the rosewater-scented rice pudding, is made in Rami's tiny kitchen. Ingredients are notably fresh and, over the course of repeated visits, the food has proven consistently well-prepared.
The ambience factor is high, too, especially for such a small spot. The building's exterior is painted with an eye-popping panorama of the Egyptian desert, complete with an image of the Sphinx, making the restaurant impossible to miss from the street. Just inside, a somewhat smaller mural of a Bedouin family in the midst of dinner preparations sets a foreign, yet entirely familiar, mood. Although only about a dozen tables fit into the handkerchief-sized dining room, each is topped with a linen cloth and a candle. And while a behind-the-counter television set seems to be turned on constantly, its satellite dish is receiving an Arabic news channel similar to CNN; rather than a distraction, the constant chatter creates a sort of Middle Eastern soundtrack to the meals.
Beyond the decor, The Pyramid's strength is in its menu. While there are plenty of local eateries serving hummus and baba ghanoush, The Pyramid is one of the few places that offers more unusual dishes like fattah, sort of an Arabic bread pudding, and kunafa, a strange (to Western palates) but delicious dessert of sweetened phyllo and unsalted mozzarella cheese. These relatively exotic items make a visit to the restaurant even more of a tabletop adventure.
This is not to say that Rami's hummus is ho-hum. His version is smooth and thick, with a texture like whipped butter. Topped with fresh chopped parsley and a sprinkle of deep-red sumac (a mild Middle Eastern spice with a slightly sour flavor), the puree of chickpeas, sesame paste (tahini), and lemon juice is rich and tangy.
The closely related baba gha-noush--a puree of roasted eggplant, tahini, and lemon juice--is a little sharper-flavored, with a pungent, smoky taste from the grilled vegetable; it too is topped with parsley and sumac. Despite their creamy flavor, both dips are very low in fat, and, accompanied by slices of warm pita bread from next door's Assad Bakery, they make a healthful starter or side dish.
The ample Vegetarian Plate is a good way to explore a variety of common Middle Eastern "appetizers." It includes generous helpings of hummus and baba ghanoush; a large, slightly sour spinach pie; a bowl of light, parsley-laden tabbouleh salad; two rice-stuffed grape leaves; and two balls of crisp fried falafel, a flavorful blend of chickpeas, onions, cumin, and garlic. The platter is more than enough for two to share, or for one to enjoy as an entree.
Those willing to stray a bit from the beaten path can begin their meal with a bowl of foul mudammas, chickpeas and fava beans blended with lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil, and topped with chopped tomatoes. Chunky-textured, with a very fresh "green" flavor and lemony undertones, the dip is vaguely reminiscent of guacamole.
Another favorite starter is the fattah--toasted pita bread soaked in chickpea water, blended with tahini, and topped with a fistful of dark-roasted, aromatic pine nuts. The dish, which our server said is often eaten for breakfast, has a texture like custard and a mild, toasty flavor with citrus undertones.
While the Middle Eastern kitchen often relies on grains and vegetables alone, lamb is by far the most popular choice when meat is on the menu. Ground and mixed with spices and bulgur (coarse-cut wheat), the dish is known as kibbeh, and is a mainstay of Lebanese cooking.
While we haven't yet worked our way up to the raw kibbeh nayeh, The Pyramid's fried kibbeh platter--three large pieces on a week's worth of saffron-scented basmati rice--is delightful. Thanks to the coarse bulgur, the dark brown kibbeh has a wonderfully crunchy, almost nutty texture on the outside, but inside the blend of tender meat, wheat, and pine nuts is moist and delicate. Upon first bite, the meatballs explode with the scent of cinnamon. The dish is served with a big portion of tangy homemade yogurt for spooning over the rice and meat.
Charbroiled lamb chops, marinated in a mixture of lemon, oil, and spices, are also divine. The Pyramid's lamb chop dinner contains five small, thin-cut chops, blackened on the outside to a savory crispness, but still rare and reasonably tender inside. The chops, small enough to pick up and eat out-of-hand, also come with a mountain of basmati rice.
A dinner combination platter (The Pyramid Plate) offers a chance to sample a variety of other entrees. The platter includes three different charbroiled meats on skewers: shish kebab (cubed lamb), shish tawook (cubed chicken coated with garlic and spices), and shish kafta (ground beef mixed with ground lamb, garlic, parsley, spices, and onions). All three are tender and flavorful. This dish also comes with rice and is accompanied by a skewerful of juicy broiled tomatoes, onions, and green peppers.
Entrees come either with a bowl of homemade soup or a pedestrian salad of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and green peppers, topped with a zesty lemon-and-oil dressing. On the night of our most recent visit, we enjoyed a bowl of hearty chicken noodle soup, with plenty of carrots, celery, meat, and thick egg noodles, and a bowl of creamy green lentil soup.
The menu also includes nine inexpensive sandwiches, including ones made from cubed and grilled lamb or chicken (shish kebab and shish tawook, respectively); ground, formed, and sliced beef and lamb, or chicken (meat shawarma or chicken shawarma); and vegetarian versions with falafel, hummus, or baba ghanoush.
Rami makes all his desserts fresh daily, and most of them are simple but mouthwatering. His Cream Caramel is a large, flan-like custard generously topped with a dark caramelized-sugar syrup. Ice-cold and tremblingly tender, the eggy custard contrasts wonderfully with the thin, bittersweet syrup and leaves the mouth feeling refreshed and invigorated.
The rice pudding is also out of this world. Soft and not too sweet, with a texture almost as fluffy as tapioca, it is exotically flavored with the clean and slightly astringent bouquet of rosewater and orange-blossom water.
The most unusual sweet is the colorful kunafa, a traditional Palestinian cheese dessert. Rami places a thick layer of unsalted mozzarella and sweet, Middle Eastern white cheese in a jelly-roll-type pan, tops the cheese with shreds of phyllo dough, dyed orange with food coloring, and chopped green pistachios, and bakes it. After baking, he ladles on the sugar syrup. For serving, the kunafa is cut into generous portions and reheated until the cheese is slightly runny. A little strange and completely wonderful, the dessert is a blend of sweet and creamy flavors and crisp and chewy textures as exciting to the mouth as to the eye.
Our only quibble during our most recent visit was with the baklava--layers of phyllo interspersed with sweetened chopped walnuts and drenched in sugar syrup. The cinnamon-scented filling was moister than most other versions we've tried; as a result, instead of the crisp, almost sandy feel we expect when we bite into baklava, this pastry was soggy.
Hot mint tea, refreshing and clean scented, is the perfect beverage to accompany the flavors of Middle Eastern foods. The menu also offers canned mango juice, coffee, and soft drinks.
Whether the pleasant young waitresses are attending to laughing Middle Eastern families, solemn Arabic men, or diners completely unfamiliar with The Pyramid's type of food, the casual service is friendly and helpful. And while it may not be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, a trip to Cleveland's Pyramid still makes a splendid culinary adventure.
The Pyramid. 12657 Lorain Avenue, Cleveland. 216-671-9300. Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Baba Ghanoush $3.25
Foul Mudammas $3
Vegetarian Plate $6.95
Charbroiled Lamb Chops $8.95
Fried Kibbeh $6.50
Pyramid Plate $8.95
Cream Caramel $1.75
Rice Pudding $1.