Restaurant Reviews

Pleasure Palace

Over the years, Aleppo has suffered any number of setbacks. This city in northern Syria was, at various times, controlled by the Hittites, held by the Persians, seized by the Arabs, conquered by the Seljuk Turks, sacked by the Crusaders, captured by Saladin and annexed by the Ottoman Empire. In 1992, it suffered another loss: Hasan Zayed, who had lived in Aleppo all his life, packed his bags and left for Houston. Prompting Zayed to leave his homeland, I should explain, wasn't history, but enterprise. He wanted to open a restaurant. And now he has succeeded. Aleppo's Grille, where he officiates as both owner and chef, is an attractive room with an open kitchen, tiled floors and walls with paneled accents. There is a brick fireplace, too, and, just to the left of it, a large picture of Aleppo's massive citadel. How it ever fell to Saladin is hard to imagine.

Zayed offers what he calls Mediterranean cuisine. The term, embracing as it does everything from Provencal and Greek to Moroccan and Lebanese, is too inclusive to serve much purpose. Syria has a Mediterranean seaboard, yes, but the food Zayed serves might more usefully be described as Middle Eastern.

At Aleppo's Grille, appetizers are displayed for your delectation on a countertop, so theoretically, at least, choosing should be easy. But it isn't, for the reason that there are legions of them. In our case, this array of riches so deranged us, we ended up ordering almost everything in sight: tabouli, fried cauliflower, hommos, baba ghannoug, falafel, a wonderfully moist rice, grape leaves, Armenian salad and fried kebbie.

Our second visit inspired even greater feats of abandon. To accommodate everything we ordered that time, it was necessary to appropriate -- much the way the Ottomans did Aleppo -- an adjoining table. (Deep inside every one of us is an imperialist trying to get out.) No, I didn't have to rush to the bank next morning and plead with a loan officer to extend my overdraft. Aleppo's Grille gives you remarkable value for your money. Almost all these appetizers cost $1.99 for a medium serving, and $2.99 for a large. The only exception is the French fries, a small order of which costs 99 cents, a large order $1.79.

This is all the more astonishing given the quality of the food, most of which is excellent. The hommos, a dip made of chickpeas, is rich and creamy and has a well in the middle filled with olive oil. ("Hommos" is more often spelled "hummus." As a courtesy to Zayed, I use here the spellings that appear on his menu.) The baba ghannoug (another dip, this one containing grilled eggplant) was good, too, though I did find myself wishing that it tasted more of smoke. I also recommend the Armenian salad, a melange of tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes and red peppers made pungent by lemon juice.

Among the other appetizers we sampled was the spongy-tasting fried cauliflower -- off-putting at first, though I did warm to it, finally -- and falafel -- fava beans and chickpeas shaped into balls and fried in oil. I know people who assume a fetal position and whimper at the mention of falafel, and I have no idea why. I happen to love it.

The entrees are almost all first rate. Beef Shawermah ($5.99), described on the menu as "a mountain of beef slices grilled patiently," and chicken Shawermah ($5.99), "a mountain of chicken slices grilled vertically," are cooked on a spit and are wonderfully fragrant. Zayed receives his spices from his father in Aleppo, he tells me, but declined to be any more specific. I don't claim to be an expert on such things, but I detected, I thought, turmeric and cardamom and a maybe a hint of cloves.

The fish of the day ($8.99) -- trout, at the time of our second visit -- was superb: expertly seasoned, lightly grilled, utterly delicious. (This, thank heavens, is not a chef who feels compelled to put his stamp on things.) The trout came with French fries and a mound of rice so large, it put me in mind of an anthill.

The Aleppo chicken ($6.99), two thighs and a breast seasoned overnight and grilled, is nearly as good -- though I think the kitchen must not have liked my looks. My plate arrived minus the thighs. I loved the accompanying rice. Glistening with olive oil, it was dotted with diced carrots and slivers of almonds fried a golden brown.

I'm aware that parsley looms large in the Middle Eastern kitchen, but even by the standards of the region, Zayed, I suspect, uses far too much. (The tabouli is a case in point.) So reliant is he on this overbearing herb that were he, for some reason, ever to find himself deprived of it, I imagine him throwing up his hands and taking the first plane back to Syria. I like parsley, but it should be remembered that, if the herb family has a braggart, this is it. Parsley, the eternal adolescent, loves to throw its weight around, which is why, in my kitchen, it is kept in something resembling solitary confinement: an hour's exercise every other day and one 30-minute visit on the first Sunday of every month.

Don't leave without tasting the sublimely fragrant Turkish coffee -- a steal at just 99 cents. The baklava, also 99 cents, is another remarkable value. (Lots of phyllo, lots of pistachios, lots of honey. Who could ask for anything more?) And on no account should you overlook the ultra-sweet rice pudding ($1.99). This concoction takes all of three hours to prepare, which means, I suppose, that I should have savored it. But I didn't, I'm ashamed to say. It was so exquisite, I polished it off in one fell swoop.

Aleppo's Grille, 6445 Westheimer, 977-2992.

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Eric Lawlor