Good Food Here Is Not A Mirage


November 01, 1992|By ELIZABETH LARGE

The Desert Cafe, 1605-7 Sulgrave Ave., (410) 367-5808. Open Tuesdays to Saturdays, closed Sundays and Mondays. No credit cards. No smoking. Wheelchair access: no.

You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that the dessert cafe in Mount Washington -- officially known as Dessert Affairs -- has become the Desert Cafe. Its hours have been expanded, and it now serves Middle Eastern "light fare" as well as gourmet desserts. (The cafe's new logo is a camel with a molded Bavarian cream sitting on its hump.) Coffee and dessert bars may be the hottest new trend going; but the dessert cafe, which was open Friday and Saturday evenings only, didn't manage to survive.

When Luba Barghout and her daughter Mona bought it a few months ago, they decided to drop the second "s"; keep the gourmet desserts and fancy coffees; and add the sandwiches, salads and Middle Eastern specialties that would bring customers in during the day and during the week. If you have to open a new restaurant in this economy, this is the way to go: Make it affordable, make it ethnic, and offer lots of chocolate.

The Desert Cafe is a fun, funky little restaurant with plenty of character. The first thing you'll see when you walk in the door is the refrigerator case where tabbouleh, hummus and baba ghannouj sit side by side with tiramisu cake, chocolate truffle torte and dainty chocolate eclairs.

As for the rest of the room, much has been done with very little. A wooden bench painted black runs the length of one wall; it's covered with black overstuffed cushions. Black marble-topped tables are pushed up to it, with black wicker lounge chairs on their other side. Gray carpeting and off-white walls soften the room; one dusty rose wall and cheerful prints brighten it. A sprinkle of large, white wooden stars hang from the ceiling. There are a few pretty tables set up on the front porch for the last warm days of fall. (Smokers, by the way, are relegated to the porch.)

You place your order at the front counter -- much of the food is on display in the case. When it's ready, Mrs. Barghout or one of her daughters will bring it to your table. The Middle Eastern specialties are standard ones like grape leaves ($3.50) and spinach pie ($3). But if you're used to the Greek versions, you'll find these are very different. The stuffed grapevine leaves are -- for want of a better word -- quite dainty, with a savory rice filling (no meat). The Arabic version is sprinkled with fresh pomegranate seeds instead of served with a sauce; they add tiny bursts of sweet juice to the dish.

Spinach pie starts with a good homemade bread dough instead of phyllo leaves. It's filled with spinach, onion and feta and comes with yogurt sauce and a bit of salad. The grape leaves alone would be a bit skimpy as a lunch; the spinach pie wouldn't.

A sampler of salads and dips ($7) included a creamy, mild hummus; highly seasoned baba ghannouj that still retained the flavor of fresh eggplant; and a tabbouleh well-balanced between couscous and chopped parsley. Each of these can be had separately.

Only an order of zaatar bread ($2.75) didn't appeal. We loved the warm, freshly baked flat bread; but it was covered with too much dried thyme for our taste. (Zaatar means thyme.)

The Desert Cafe does well with its few non-Mideast dishes. The soup of the day, gazpacho, had been sold out both times we were there. A tuna salad sandwich ($4.25) was sparked with grated carrots, parsley, a little red onion and egg and served on pita. (The two other sandwiches are chicken tarragon salad and shrimp salad.)

A Greek salad ($3.50) was made with romaine, not iceberg, and had generous amounts of feta cheese, ripe tomatoes and olives. Its good vinaigrette also dressed the Caesar salad ($3.50), which was a Caesar salad in name only. Think of it instead as a garden salad with croutons.

Of all the desserts we tried, my favorite was the baklava ($1.50), made by the Barghouts and filled with ground pistachios instead of walnuts. Other pastries, baked by suppliers, are perfectly respectable without being memorable. (We tried a very sweet cappuccino mousse cake, $3.50, a chocolate torte, $3.50, and an eclair, $1.50.) If you prefer ice cream, the Desert Cafe serves richer-than-rich Haagen-Dazs. Or you might end with the flavored gourmet coffee of the week, espresso or cappuccino. If you're a purist, as I am, ask for your cappuccino without the canned whipped cream.

The Desert Cafe also does a brisk carryout business -- as far as I could tell, equally divided between those who wanted something light for dinner and those who needed their chocolate fix fast.

$ Next: The Ambassador

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