The bonus for driving out to Ceazar Restaurant in Elkridge is a trip to its adjoining parent store, Ceazar (formerly Sizar) International Market. It's a great place to buy crates of dates, sacks of basmati rice and honey-soaked pastries. It's fun to browse here, too, because it's the kind of place that reunites Americans with roots in the Mediterranean and Middle East with the cherished grocery products from the old country - "Ah, Kurukavechi Turkish Coffee, at last I've found you."
Ceazar Restaurant, which opened this year, is every bit worth seeking out. It's just a few minutes off of Interstate 95, and we had little trouble finding its business park address. The interior is pretty, with lemony walls and crisp white tablecloths under glass. Ordering is done at a counter, and the food is brought to your table when it's ready.
It turned out that a Saturday afternoon was a good time for a first visit. The owner, Mohammad Sizar, was there baking bread for the weekend, and the restaurant itself, because this was the middle of Ramadan, was much quieter than usual. Observant Muslim customers would be coming in after sundown for the nightly buffet that Ceazar is serving until the end of the holiday.
I might go to Ceazar 50 times (and I easily would) and still not be sure exactly what I'm supposed to do with the little plate of parsley, radishes, feta cheese and hunks of raw onions that come to your table when you order certain platters. Because these plates arrive with the appetizers, you're not entirely sure whether you're meant to eat some of them immediately and reserve some for garnishing your entree.
There are a few other minor mistakes you can make here, such as ordering a salad that ends up coming with your platter anyway, or not paying more to have a platter come with rice instead of bread, because the saffron rice here is perfect. Some things need no explanation, though, like the tenderness of good meat, the pleasure of fragrant spicing and the satisfaction of a well-balanced meal. The best idea we had was to order the combination platter, combining one or two kebab meats (tenderloin, sirloin, chicken), which all come with rice, a delectable tzaziki (yogurt-cucumber) sauce, and a small but super-fresh salad of tomato and diced cucumber. The tzaziki and salad arrive early, too, and they are worth hanging onto.
I liked these kebabs very much, especially the chicken, which has peppery, citrus flavors. The marinated and seasoned beef kebabs are served without sauce; they look as if they might be dry, but they aren't; they're moist and full of good flavor. A salmon fillet ordered as part of the platter is simple, freshly grilled and topped with a delicate lemon sauce.
The appetizers include house versions of such standard Middle Eastern fare as hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanouj and falafel. The falafel are served out of pita, for dipping into a strong-tasting tahini sauce. Marinated olives are dressed with a thick beige paste made from walnuts, garlic and herbs. It's a preparation I've never seen but that now seems so obvious. It's delicious. A superb starter is the silkily satisfying sauteed eggplant, tossed with grilled onion, mint and garlic. The bean and barley soup, here called Ash-e Joe, is another delight, with intensely rich and filling buttery flavors.
The only mild disappointments were from the sandwich menu. Vegetarians will find better options than the (relatively) bland vegetarian wrap, and a ground sirloin wrap is a strip of meat served in a really big piece of the restaurant's lavosh bread that makes the meat look lost. (The problem was, in this case, you really were supposed to have held onto the cucumber-tomato salad and tzaziki.)
Dessert options include sweet cookies, baklava and homemade Persian versions of ice cream and shaved ice. After that, with your senses thoroughly engaged, you can take that nice stroll in the International Market.
On the menu
* Shirazi salad - $2.99
* Falafel - $4.99
* Sauteed eggplant - $4.99
* Kalamata olives with walnuts and garlic - $3.99
* Ground sirloin wrap - $6.99
* Salmon fillet platter with lemon sauce - $11.99
* Sirloin & tenderloin combination platter - $12.99
Where: : 6801-D Douglas Legum Drive, Elkridge
Call: : 443-755-9444
Hours: : 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri. & Sat.
Credit cards: : MC, Visa, Amex
Appetizers: : $2.99-$4.99
Entrees: : $5.99-$13.99
Food: : *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)
Service: : *** (3 stars)
Atmosphere: : *** (3 stars)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]