Foreign Indeed

You won't need a hit from the hookah pipe to enjoy Al Diwan's mixed grill.
Amy Spangler

The first time I stopped by Al Diwan Mediterranean Grill was at lunchtime on a Friday. It was 11:45 a.m., to be exact. I almost ran full tilt into the French doors because I didn't expect them to be locked, but locked they were. I peered through the glass into the darkened dining room, glanced around the parking lot -- empty of cars -- checked my watch, then double-checked the sandwich board propped out front advertising a lunch special. Hmm.

The next time I tried a weeknight, but I'd learned my lesson: I called first. "Yes, certainly we are open; we serve dinner until 10 p.m.," a cheery-sounding woman assured me. "Lunch last Friday? Oh, dear, we were here, I'm sure; we must have forgotten to unlock the doors." Put a bit of a damper on the lunch crowd, I'd think.

Twenty minutes later I arrived at the restaurant to findŠ nobody home. The doors this time were open, the lights were on, and a singer softly undulated in Arabic from the stereo speakers, but the place was as deserted and spooky as the Marie Celeste. "Hello?" I called out. No answer. I helped myself to a menu from the hostess station. I waited. I looked behind the bar. No bartender hiding there. Finally I followed the muffled sound of clattering plates through a swinging door in the back, and scared the hell out of the woman washing dishes.

Once the dishwasher got over her fright and found the hostess, though, my friends and I settled in to dine in solitary splendor, happily neither hovered over nor forgotten. We started with the complimentary plate of crisp, curly strips of fried pita bread and a small cup of lemon-tart tahini dip. The pita chips were perfect for scooping up just about anything that came our way, I discovered, as we waded into our appetizers.

To call Al Diwan "Mediterranean" stretches geography somewhat, at least as I understand it. The menu, like the piped-in music, is solidly Middle Eastern. The decor, now, that's Mediterranean, thanks to the room's former incarnation as Cent'Anni. That explains the faux frescoed walls with trompe l'oeil Italianate pillars, and the portrait of a medieval lutist posed over the belly dancer's stage, who looks faintly surprised at his new digs. (It doesn't explain the faint image of Casper the Friendly Ghost painted on the wooden door behind the stage. Maybe there's some truth to the rumor that the previous tenant conducted seances.)

Fully half the menu at Al Diwan is devoted to appetizers served hot or cold. It's like a miniature food festival without all that bothersome walking from stall to stall, a caravan of falafel and kabobs and kibbe that will obligingly come to you. Amused by our dithering over the 30 different offerings, the waitress suggested we compromise with the mezze assortment called the Al Diwan Sampler ($8.95), found only on the lunch menu but available anytime, it seems.

This mixed selection is ample for a full meal for one or a lot of fun for two or more. There are four dainty pyramid-shaped "pies," yeasty golden-brown jackets of baked dough stuffed either with dollops of sautéed spinach and onion scented with allspice, or with spicy ground meat and toasted pine nuts.

Other delicacies joined the quartet of pies: two pointy brown spheres of deep-fried kibbe, stuffed with cinnamon-tinged ground lamb and more toasted pine nuts. A pair of crunchy fried falafel patties. A great lake of hummus, astonishingly light and fluffy and glossy as mayonnaise, and another of baba ghanoush, pureed baked eggplant smoky and rich with sesame paste, garlic and onion, but without a trace of that slimy bitterness that so often plagues eggplant dishes. There's a forest-green mountain of tabbouleh salad, tender bulgur wheat grains tossed with fresh mint and parsley and topped with diced tomatoes, and a pair of plump finger-roll grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice and mint, drenched with lemon juice.

We couldn't resist trying just one more of the appetizers, the sojuk ($5.95), an Armenian beef sausage. These loosely sliced links had tight skins and a crumbly texture that reminded us of chorizo, we decided, with that same telltale slick of rosy red grease beneath them. But we never could agree on the seasoning. It's cinnamon, I insisted. No, it's cardamom, argued my friends, or allspice. "It's just spices," the waitress told us soothingly. I still think it was cinnamon, and I've got the ink, so I win; but, bottom line, that sausage was fragrant and flavorful. I'd love to try it with scrambled eggs.

The other eponymous item on the menu, the Al Diwan Salad ($7.95), is now one of my all-time favorite salads. This is an enormous pasta bowl full of fresh, fashionably spiky greens jumbled with an ingenious array of uncommon treats: fat, sticky date wedges, chunks of firm, not-too-sweet mango, crisp walnut halves and crumbles of an exceptionally fresh, soft goat cheese. Lightly dressed with an understated balsamic vinaigrette, the combination of flavors and textures sparkles. "I've never seen you finish a salad," noted one of my friends, raising his eyebrow as I greedily chased the last bits and pieces around my bowl.

The cucumber and yogurt salad ($3.75) wasn't quite such a showstopper, but was equally fine, thanks to Al Diwan's supremely fresh yogurt. Proportionally speaking, it should probably be called yogurt and cucumber rather than cucumber and yogurt. It's a simple, soupy blend of yogurt and fresh mint ladled over cucumbers, even better as a cool relish for grilled lamb or a dip for pita bread than as a traditional salad.

Main dishes at Al Diwan are all grilled meats, the only two exceptions being a grilled shrimp kabob and a mysterious unidentified fish that, when available, can be fried on request. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that what the menu tersely identified as a lamb cutlet ($16.95) was in fact a bargain-priced rack of lamb, separated into six small and wonderfully tender chops, lightly grilled.

We also liked both versions of the kafta ($12.95), ground beef spiced with garlic, onions and a light touch of chili peppers, then shaped into cylinders, skewered and grilled; the only difference between the two being that the "khashkash" edition is served over tomato puree, while the "halabiyeh" is served without.

Our grilled lamb kabob ($14.95) was the only bummer of the evening. It featured over-large hunks of meat that were too tough and too dry for happy eating, although a quick dunk in the cucumber and yogurt salad helped. The chicken taouk kabob ($13.95), on the other hand, was both moist and tender, marinated in garlic, lemon juice and olive oil before grilling, and dabbed judiciously with minced garlic after. The meats are skewered and grilled with vegetables, bright red tomatoes and pretty fans of white onion, so you can safely ignore the more pedestrian assortment of steamed vegetables that needlessly fills out the plate; ditto for the buttered white rice.

"You must come back and join us on a weekend night," urged our waitress, as she presented the check in a leatherette folder stamped with Cent'Anni's name. Al Diwan is open until 2:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, she explained, and features live entertainment and a belly dancer, too, on its small stage. "Then we are much more busy," she promised.

I'd like to see that. But you can be sure I'll call first.

Al Diwan Mediterranean Grill, 2128 Portsmouth, (713)529-4199.

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