In 1950 the British cookbook writer Elizabeth David wrote on "hummus bi tahina": "An Arab dish. Tahina is the sesame paste . . . which is mixed with oil and garlic and thinned with water to make a sauce which in Arab countries is eaten as a salad, with bread dipped into it." Her Near Eastern babaganush she called a "salad of aubergines." In describing Greek kebabs, she included a footnote on Greek oregano.
Who was serving tahinis or babaganushes, taboulas or fatoushes, kebabs or taramasalatas back in 1950? No one. Even 20 years later, you made them yourself and wondered whether you had them right. And as for Greek oregano, sellers of that herb were few and far between. For that reason, it seems a luxury now to find Middle Eastern foods served in several local places, including the Syrumie Cafe on Eastern Avenue, a relatively new, unpretentious eatery across the street from the Patterson Theatre.
The menu assembled by Syrumie's Egyptian owner, Mohsen Zohir, includes several classic Middle Eastern appetizers -- babaganush, taboula, hummus, fatoush and falafel ($3.50 each); kebabs made of lamb ($10.95), chicken ($9.95) and a ground beef and lamb mixture ($9.95); a version of kibbe described as "pine nuts and onion encased in spiced chopped beef" ($14.95), and, for Western eaters who won't be converted, a New York strip steak ($13.95). Tahini? At the cafe, it's used mostly in a dipping sauce.
Four of us began a recent evening there with a plate of five stuffed grape leaves, or dolmas ($4.95), and an order of the "Syrumie veggie combo" ($6.95).
A dollar a dolma may sound expensive, but part of the cost of the stuffed grape leaves is the expensive pine nuts mixed into the rice. Some dolmas are plump and light; these were thin and firm, less than lavishly spicy and sensual, but pleasant.
The babaganush on the combination plate of appetizers, like the hummus, lacked garlic in any confident quantity, and as a consequence tasted bland, but nonetheless we liked its delicacy. Generally, taboula is a mixture of soaked, cracked wheat, tomato, onion and parsley. At its best, fine-minced, flat-leaved parsley integrates beautifully with the moistened, separated grains to make something summery, cool green and fluffy. At the cafe, twiggy, whole separate florets and branches of curly- leaved parsley seemed less refined. A likable fatoush resembled a coarse-chopped gazpacho mixed with small squares of pita.
Three of our entrees included American-style salads of romaine, cucumber and carrot, with dressings served in separate individual bottles. While the house mix was timid, a blue cheese cream was bold and appealing.
The Syrumie special ($14.95) consisted of babaganush, two rounds of falafel, lamb and chicken kebabs and a kofta kebab. The falafel patties -- small vegetable hamburgers, prettily sprinkled with sesame seeds -- were made from pureed chickpeas, and tasted unusually acid. Tender, flavorful marinated lamb and chicken gave off lovely aromas of the barbecue grill. The kofta kebab was a little like a long, dark skinless, all-meat, prime hot dog. Made from a combination of seasoned ground beef, ground lamb and chopped onion, the kofta kebabs were also one of our other entrees (three kebabs for $9.95), and were delicious dipped in the cumin-spiced tahini dipping sauce. Both kofta kebab plates offered the meats on a bed of rice and pine nuts. (Unfortunately, cold plates meant tepid food.)
Kosharie ($10.95) was an unusual dish, and one to duplicate some evening at home in the right season. Paper-thin rings of onion, sauteed a rich mahogany brown, lay over tomato sauce spooned onto a mixture of cooked lentils and elbow pasta. A small, fresh salad of tomato, cucumber, parsley and onion came separately. We were surprised by instructions to pour the fresh salad over the hot pasta and legumes, and delighted to discover how good it all tasted together.
"Holy zucchini" seemed high priced at $14.95, considering its simplicity: three hollowed-out zucchini boats cooked in a hot yogurt sauce carrying a light cargo of ground beef and pine nuts. The dish could have used some spark -- say, sauteed chopped garlic and fresh mint over the top, a gesture well within Middle Eastern traditions.
Someone at Syrumie loves sweets, knows how to make them, and likes to serve big ones. We tried, at $3 apiece, a Cleopatra that looked like a Napoleon, and was filled, we were told, with a puree of dates (which tasted like prunes); baklava, packed with syrupy, gooey nuts; a large, honeyed, shredded-wheat-looking roll that sandwiched a thin layer of mozzarella-style cheese inside, and a square of butter-yogurt-and-syrup-soaked cooked cornmeal. Marvelous, all four. *
Syrumie Cafe, 3219 Eastern Ave., 563-2787
Hours: Tuesdays to Sundays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Accepts: ** /- *
Features: Middle Eastern food
No-smoking section: No
Wheelchair access: No