Mediterranean restaurants, which used to be called "Middle Eastern" before we developed an acute case of political correctness and learned to stop mapping cuisines in laughingly broad terms, seem to be popping up all over town. This is a good trend, and not just because the food, when well prepared, is absolutely delicious.
As Paula Wolfert states in her classic cookbook, The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, "For all its honest simplicity, it is extremely elegant food, full of exotic aromas and vibrant colors a variety of tastes and textures that contrast and entwine like the intricate motifs in a Turkish carpet." If that's not enough to stir your juices, consider that Mediterranean cuisine is extremely healthy, ready-made for American diets and lifestyles: heavy on vegetables and grains, yogurt and olive oil, and lightly grilled meats.
In addition, with its mezze, or sampling plates, this food is perfect for grazing; it's an ideal cuisine for those who enjoy making an entire meal of appetizers. And here's the kicker: The restaurants that serve Mediterranean meals are incredibly inexpensive. It's usually difficult for two people to spend more than $25.
Fadi's Mediterranean Delight Restaurant is owned and operated by Fadi Dimassi of the legendary Dimassi family and its equally legendary Dimassi's restaurant; he's also the brother of Nabil Dimassi, former general manager of Cedars Mediterranean Cafe, which I raved about last year. Now, I don't want to start a family feud, but I think that Fadi's, while decent enough, doesn't quite reach the heights of Cedars, which still reflects Nabil's talents.
My hopes were high, though, when I first arrived at Fadi's. There were large Mediterranean families happily eating from expansive platters of food. I followed their lead: As I made my way down the buffet line, marveling at the beautiful foods, I loaded up my trays with a sampling platter ($8.99), a couple of main dishes and sundry other items, and then sat down to what I hoped would be another great meal.
I was, however, mostly disappointed.
The sampling platter, as its name suggests, consists of large tastes of all the vegetables and salads prepared that day, as well as a main dish. If I was expecting, as Wolfert expressed in her artful prose, a "variety of tastes and textures that contrast and entwine like a Turkish carpet," I was soon faced with just the opposite: food with a certain humdrum homogeneity. There were highlights, of course: The hummus and baba ghanoush were rich and delicious, perfect for scooping up with Fadi's impeccably fresh pita bread. I also enjoyed the mashed potatoes, similar to a smooth warm potato salad, and the rice pilaf was light, delicate and altogether wonderful.
Unfortunately the eggplant, an undisputed highlight at Cedars, was merely adequate here, and the cauliflower, though good, wasn't quite good enough to make me forget that I was eating (ugh) cauliflower. As for the rest of the platter, it wasn't memorable.
For the main course on the sampling platter, I had the chicken shish kebab, but I fervently wish I hadn't. I bow to no living soul in my love for garlic (on Thanksgiving, for example, I made a garlic turkey that required two full pounds of cloves!), but the marinade for the chicken was so heavy with it that after the grilling, all I could taste was the bitterness of burned garlic. Accompanying the chicken was a thick and creamy -- gasp! -- garlic sauce, completely dominated by finely chopped raw garlic. The combination of the chicken and the sauce was, as any amateur cook could have predicted, disastrous. For the sake of journalistic integrity, I will note, with some embarrassment, that I belched for hours. (I must also state for the record that the chicken was grilled to a perfectly juicy turn, but with all that garlic, who cared?)
Less gastro-intensive were the lamb shanks ($3.59 with one side order, $7.99 as a platter), which I wholeheartedly recommend. The large, meaty shank, shrouded in spinach leaves, arrives swimming in a rich, dark brown sauce. One light touch from my fork caused the meat to fall from the bone in big, juicy chunks. It was fabulous (as was the sauce that perfectly complemented the accompanying rice pilaf).
But by far my favorite dish was the humble cabbage roll (45 cents each), which at Fadi's is elevated to greatness. Each cigar-shaped roll is filled with a flavorful rice-and-meat concoction similar to the filling used in stuffed grape leaves but even more delicious wrapped in cabbage. The rolls are cooked until the cabbage is tender, then dusted with a hint of cinnamon. An intriguing combination of textures and flavors, the rolls are a little bite of heaven. I could have eaten a platter of them and been a very, very happy man. They are, I think, what Mediterranean cooking strives to be.
The cabbage rolls are tasty enough to make you forgive the lackluster, mostly dry desserts, which range from 99-cent date cookies to the $2.99 kenafa. In fact, you would do well to skip the sweets at Fadi's and stick with the rice pilaf, lamb shank and cabbage rolls, which alone are worth the trip. But I must admit, when faced with a choice of Mediterranean restaurants, I will lean toward Cedars over Fadi's. If this is sibling rivalry, Nabil would appear to be razzing his brother right now.
Fadi's Mediterranean Delight Restaurant, 8383 Westheimer, suite 112, (713)532-0666.
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