There we were, sitting beneath a map of ancient Mesopotamia in the heart of Highlandtown, being served "holy zucchini" by a young man who, in his spare time, is an English Morris dancer.
Sometimes you've just got to love life in the big city.
Every time Syrumie Cafe has been recommended to me, the tipsters never just say, "I went to a nice restaurant last night." It's always something like "It's my favorite restaurant!" or "I love that place!" It's not hard to understand their enthusiasm. This Middle Eastern restaurant -- which seats only 30, so don't everyone head down there at once -- has charm to spare, even before you get to the food. One wall is covered by a map of the Middle East of 3,000 years ago; the other wall, painted to look like a ruin, is highlighted by Richard Dreurer's irreverent bas reliefs depicting iconic Egyptian figures engaged in such modern pursuits as racquetball and tourism.
The food, too, is delightful, and presumably authentic: Syrumie, our waiter told us, means "secrets of my mother," and the Egyptian mother of owner Mohsen Zohir provided the recipes.
We shared a veggie combo ($6.95), including two purees, babaganush (eggplant) and hummus (chickpeas), and two salads, taboula and fatoush, served with tahini and hot pita. The purees were notable for the delicacy of their seasoning; no one-note hit of garlic here. The salads had a lively flavor, although the taboula, which was mostly parsley, was fuzzier than food really ought to be.
Holy zucchini, was the sheik mahshi tasty! "The Middle East's most popular dish" ($14.95) consisted of three small whole zucchini, cored lengthwise, stuffed with ground beef and pine nuts, baked until the vegetable flesh was soft and sinewless. Bathed in yogurt sauce flavored with mint, it epitomized one of the real attractions of Middle Eastern food: It was wholesomely exotic.
The same might be said about the shish tawook ($10.95), boneless chicken breast which had been marinated overnight until the herbs and spices permeated the meat, and aromatically charcoal-broiled. Generous portioning, attractive presentation and exciting seasoning made this dish a standout.
Desserts are also made in-house, and include a robust, less-cloying-than-usual baklava, and an unusual pastry of shredded phyllo and cheese. When I think of cheese in a dessert, I think along the lines of ricotta or mascarpone, but this cheese resembled something that you might find topping a pizza. It's a little disconcerting, but worth a try if you're in the mood for something different. And you must be, or why would you be eating Middle Eastern in Highlandtown in the first place?
Where: 3219 Eastern Ave.
Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays.
Credit Cards: AE, MC, V.
Features: Middle Eastern dishes.
No smoking in dining room.