Share Middle Eastern cuisine at Mount Washington's Desert Cafe

August 26, 1999|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to the Sun

When Kirk Gorman bought the Desert Cafe seven months ago, he decided to keep the Middle Eastern menu in place, even though his background is more along the lines of beurre blanc than baba ghannouj. The 29-year-old Baltimore native trained in classic French cuisine at Peter Kump's Cooking School in New York.

Everything looks the same as before at this well-worn, wood-frame rowhouse in Mount Washington: the green and wine toss pillows on the wall-hugging cushioned bench inside, the jumbo metal stars hanging overhead, and outside, the mismatched tables on the old-fashioned porch.

This inexpensive, casual cafe is a good place to stop for lunch or a light dinner. Peruse the menu board, then order at the counter, where show-stopper cakes are displayed behind glass. The Desert Cafe might well be called the Dessert Cafe. As far as the food goes, the desert moniker makes sense. Mainly, it is appealing Middle Eastern fare, made fresh daily by Gorman, who adds seasonal specials like a popular chicken breast rubbed with mint and ginger and laid on a bed of Caesar salad.

Middle Eastern plates lend themselves to sharing, so order a few and let everyone taste. The combination platter makes it easy with two dips -- a creamy-mild chickpea hummus and garlic-zingy eggplant baba ghannouj. If there are more than two of you, you might fight over the homemade grape leaves that dress the plate. Be kind and cut the pair in half. They are deliciously tender, stuffed with tomato-flecked rice.

Another good plate to share is the mango curry chicken salad on romaine leaves with quartered pita. It stands out as some of the best chicken salad we've ever tasted.

Brightened with bits of mango and white raisins, the salad was bound in a creamy dressing that had a touch of exotic sweetness and a curry flavor that wasn't overpowering. The big pieces of chicken breast were so tender and fresh-tasting, they must have been slowly and lovingly poached that day.

It might be harder for some to appreciate the charms of the zaater flat bread, densely coated with a dark crust of sesame seeds and thyme, or the mijaherah, a dish of steamed rice and lentils adorned with cooked onions and a side of yogurt sauce. We liked them because they were different. We felt the same about the spinach pie, which is nothing like phyllo versions. Instead, it's made with soft dough folded into a flat package and filled with tangy spinach and feta cheese.

The most expensive dish on the menu is the chicken kebab at $8.75 -- a skewer of white-meat chicken and wedges of onions and green peppers. The pieces of chicken were huge, but the herb-covered meat was tender and cooked just right. It was served on golden saffron rice with a small romaine salad.

Ordinarily, there are three or four vegetarian soups, but there was only one choice for us near closing time. It was a summer shoo-in, gazpacho. It was a thick pink puree, made from good-tasting tomatoes.

With at least a dozen cakes on display, there are lots of options for dessert. If you can't decide, go with a local favorite, the chocolate-covered Gondeck cake, named for the former chef at the Pimlico Race Course who created the rum-cream-filled delight.

The Desert Cafe

1605-7 Sulgrave Ave.


Hours: Open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner (closes at 7 p.m. weeknights)

Credit cards: None accepted

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$7.50; entrees, $4.25-$8.75

Food: **1/2

Service: **1/2

Atmosphere: **1/2

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *

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