My pupils dilated; adrenaline surged. The countermen regarded me quizzically. Time to choose. I stalled. "What's that?" I asked for the eleventh time, my finger jabbing hither and yon. Faced with a whole genre of food that engages me, plus a mandate to make my own combination plate, I had succumbed to the sort of meltdown that afflicts kids in candy stores.
I got over it. After several visits to this big new Galleria-area cafeteria -- think of it as an excruciatingly interesting Luby's -- I've got my drill down. I've learned to cruise the buffet, editing my choices, before the serving line sucks me in. I know that any three items will cost me $5.99, while four are $6.99 and five $7.99; and that the servings are big, but the patient young Lebanese proprietor, Nabil Dimassi, will halve them to give me, for the same price, a little of this and a taste of that.
I've acquired a certain confidence level in the cooking: I know that Dimassi's buoyant seasoning tends to offset the occasional temperature deficits and desiccation cafeteria-style food is heir to, and that it's fun to experiment with even the most alien-looking stuff.
My big problem now is controlling myself in a place that offers two distinct species of cheese pie and eggplant in three different guises -- the most spectacular being a richly caramelized, baked version infused with sweet/sour pomegranate syrup. Shiny with glaze, rimmed with the vivid red of oven-dried tomatoes, it inhabits its huge, flat tray with art-directed aplomb.
Even staples like baba ghanouj and hummus, those ubiquitous sesame-flavored dips of eggplant or chickpeas, are big on presentation here; the counterpeople scallop each serving with a spoon, creating instant valleys to catch the golden
pools of olive oil they squeegee on with a flourish. The purees taste as sunny as they look -- the eggplant variety satisfyingly coarse of texture, with a spark of garlic heat; the smoother mash of chickpeas invigoratingly lemoned and garlicked.
Near them on the appetizer end of the buffet (where the sole danger is acquiring more tart dishes than your palate can handle) are a crisp Lebanese salad of marinated vegetables and a brisk, oniony tabouli -- the verdant sort that's long on chopped parsley, short on grains of bulghur wheat. They're the embodiment of nutritional virtue -- indeed, the thoroughly modern Mrs. Dimassi, a native of Mexico, has studied heart-healthy cooking and used American Heart Association guidelines to compose most of the traditional Middle Eastern first courses. Consider it a bonus. (I do wonder, however, about the beneficial effects of those added-on puddles of olive oil.)
Actually, if there's a more painless place to chalk off the five daily vegetable servings the experts are forever recommending, I'd like to hear about it. Besides the appetizers, Dimassi's routinely serves up fresh, tomatoey green beans or okra; strips of discreetly pan-fried eggplant; sharp little Lebanese-style grape leaves stuffed with parsleyed rice; simple florets of fried cauliflower.
Chopped spinach comes studded with pine nuts, onion and a jot of ground beef, its only flaw a disconcerting tepidness beneath a congealed mantle of cheese. Most of Dimassi's dishes taste fine at the less-than-piping temperatures fostered by the buffet arrangement; this spinach, alas, does not.
But only a few of the vegetables here prove less appealing than they look. Slim, edgy cabbage rolls enclose a rice-and-meat stuffing that's unsettlingly pasty. Gorgeous whole zucchini in a tomato broth hide a similar stuffing that escapes pastiness but does little to lift the dish from blandness. Meaty green fava beans taste, as fava beans are prone to do, like unlaundered socks. And soupy Egyptian spinach with the texture of okra mucilage is something that perhaps only an Egyptian could love (my friend who grew up in Alexandria testifies that sliminess is vital to the dish). Consider it an adventure.
If the entrees along the buffet's home stretch are less consistent than what comes before -- isn't that always the way? -- they give a welcome push to the Middle Eastern envelope in Houston. Grazing among the tenderly braised lamb with oven-browned vegetables, the deliciously musky cayenne-dusted quail, the homey mashed-potato pie sandwiched with pine-nutty ground beef, you get a unique sense of the cuisine's range. There's even a very '90s sensibility at work in this kitchen, where Greek salad meets North African couscous: call it Middle Eastern Fusion, its dishes drawn from across the Arab world and the Mediterranean basin.
Surprises abound. Don't care about kibbee, those fried bullets of ground beef, cracked wheat and pine nuts? Try them swimming in a keen, herby bath of yogurt -- and be converted. Do the meatballs in that colorful tangle of vegetables look too, too browned? Bite into one and discover a heady dose of cinnamon and cayenne; fight with your friends over the wonderfully sour-edged potatoes and peppers and onions that come with it. Think rice is a bore? Sample an intensely fragrant version laced with browned onions and beef, or a saffron-tinted one with pine nuts, or a pilaf threaded with browned vermicelli.
Even the less compelling dishes have their virtues. A stew of white beans and lamb makes up in gentle simplicity what it lacks in excitement. A braise of vegetables and dryish chicken sparkles with cayenne and sour sumac leaves and luxuriously glazed onion. If the whole Cornish hens -- available on a frustratingly irregular basis, mostly on weekends -- occasionally edge toward dryness, an emphatic charcoaly quality still works in their favor.
The only entree that left me utterly unmoved was a trayful of paprika-hued baked fish that seemed strangely devoid of character. Middle Eastern cuisine boasts plenty of interesting fish dishes; bring on the dill, the thyme, the olives, the tahini sauce -- bring on the grilled fish coated with date puree, for that matter. Houston can handle it (or at least I would like to think so).
What else do you need to know about Dimassi's wares? That the felafel is an uncommonly fresh-tasting version bursting with chopped parsley. That the miniature round feta-cheese pies are unusually complex, thanks to thyme and rosemary. That the long, flattened versions are cheese pies of a mellower but not uninteresting sort. That the mauve "Magic Drink" -- a sort of exotic multi-fruit smoothie fleshed out with ground raisins and walnuts -- deserves its name. And that among the honey-drenched desserts lurk a couple that fall short of mega-sweetness: rolled date cookies and the snowy, nut-filled domes called mamoul.
At the end, I want a tiny eggcup-sized Turkish coffee, sweet and silty. At 99 cents, including refills, the price is right. For that matter, all of Dimassi's prices are right, and they have an enigmatic flexibility that seems to work in the customer's favor. "I ate dinner for $1.77 last night!" reported a friend who has fixated on Dimassi's eggplant, sandwiched between slices of pita bread. Her voice was full of wonderment.
With its harsh fluorescent lighting and insistent mauves and teals, the place is no garden of loveliness. But it's clean, cheerful and oddly festive, courtesy of a small retail grocery section and funny floating arbors that drip plastic vegetation. The long buffet, which unfolds beneath industrial lamps, is the focal point, anyway (if only the rest of the restaurant were lit as thoughtfully). It draws a dizzying assortment of folks to this convenient northwest corner of Richmond and Loop 610: Middle Eastern families and lonely-guy bachelors; Post Oak-y bidnessmen; white-haired ladies quaffing carrot juice. And one cranky food writer muttering, "I love this place."
Dimassi's Middle Eastern Cafe, 5064 Richmond, 439-7481.