Bravo. Bravissimo. Michael Tabrizi cooks beautifully, th rooms of the ex-Soup Kitchen glow gracefully, the waiters wait attentively and intelligently, and the casually dressed, chic clientele look like they love it all. We loved it, twice, two nights in a row.
The first night, of course, we didn't know what we were in for, until we passed the open kitchen in the entryway, smelled the glorious smells, and stared in at a refrigerated display case holding a multiplicity of pastes, meats and salads. The supernumerary touch was a flat dish on the top of the counter holding chickpeas in water, their pale beige seed coats capped by jaunty green sprouts. Something exceptional was going on.
I confess I ate at the Soup Kitchen only once, years back. Has the space been changed significantly? Dunno. The main room is rather small. Above it, there's a balcony that's useful during the restaurant's busiest times. Private parties can have it all to themselves. The rooms' pale rose and green paint shades are calming. Look up over the back door to the garden (first fine day, I'll go back to eat outside), and see a small pale rose and green Middle Eastern rug, one of the new regime's pleasing touches.
The Mediterranean menu is surprisingly large -- eight appetizers, three soups, 11 salads, 12 light-fare dishes, 14 entrees (available after 5 p.m.) and eight desserts, if a variety of Greek and Turkish pastries are counted as "one."
A $6-per-person minimum charge during peak hours suggests the financially frugal can stop in for a dish of falafel ($2.95), or a bowl of shushbarak soup ($1.95), a basket of bread ($1) and a glass of wine ($3) and come away well-fed, though he or she will run the risk of wanting to return.
First night, we ordered a special of salmon ($15) and gagi mish mish ($11.50), which, according to Susan Daniel, one of the restaurant's two owners, is Lebanese for chicken and fruit. The fillet of salmon was perfectly cooked, and sauced in a cream intensified by Roquefort cheese. (The kitchen uses cream in a number of sauces, but not the overly reduced, sticky, rich creams that have become a cliche in the last couple of years.) To the side, a lovely clump of fresh spinach had been forked gently onto the plate.
Gagi mish mish was a cheerful dish of chicken breast, apricots, prunes, apples and raisins in a fruity cream sauce with rice. That evening we drank a pleasant Gewurztraminer, at $22 the most expensive white on the short wine list.
Our desserts were chocolate mousse ($3.50) and tiramisu ($3.25), house favorites, according to our waiter, whom we liked both for having been well-trained and for persuasively talking up his boss' virtues. The mousse looked like two big scoops of cocoa sorbet, and tasted like an oddly salty, granular cocoa gelatin fluff. Not for me. The tiramisu played up ladyfingers, cocoa and coffee, and played down mascarpone, meaning it tasted agreeably like food rather than like a last, suicidal thrill.
Next night, we began with an appetizer Signature Plate for Two ($10.95) -- a grainy hummus, a very eggplant baba ghanoush, an intense bulgar, aliums and herbs tabouleh, light, homemade stuffed grape leaves, a soothing pita bread salad and the best falafel around. Alone, the combination would have made a satisfying dinner, but we went on to a cornmeal crepe gateau ($5.95) and Rolls Royce ($6.95) from the light-fare menu.
The first played with crackly, paper-thin, spiced, onioned wafers, which chef Tabrizi invented after three months in the provinces outside Madrid. Three such sheets came stacked with corn, sweet and hot peppers, chives and a cross between sour cream and cottage cheese. Rolls Royce used eggplant brilliantly, slicing, sauteing and rolling it up like a crepe around prosciutto and mozzarella, and then setting the rolls in a Chablis cream sauce.
On our way out the night before, we'd stared gluttonously at a tray of pastries on a buffet, which included small phyllo cups, or birds' nests, filled with fat pistachios, green in the middle, deep caramel brown on the outside; miniature kataifis, with sugary shreds of shivered pastry encasing a sweet, powdered pistachio filling; and almond-decorated, dense, syrupy cake squares called namour. All were $1.25 each. Those we tried were delicious.
We also ordered what was listed as muhallabbia ($2.50), because we liked saying muhallabbia. It has an accent on the next to the last syllable -- "bi." Muhallabbia -- an exquisitely light pillow of milk scented with rose water, shaped and flavored by resin, with a sprinkling of coconut and toasted pine nuts over the top. *
Next: Pier 500
Tabrizi's, 1026 S. Charles St., 752-3810
Hours: Tuesdays to Thursdays 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m., Sundays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Accepts: American Express, Master, Visa
Features: Mediterranean foods