Restaurant Reviews

Tray Magnifique

Sending me to review a cafeteria is a bit like sending Bill Clinton to judge the Miss America pageant. In theory, it's not such a bad idea. In practice, there's potential for disaster.

Cafeterias bring out the worst in me. Choosing my selections from a menu is difficult enough; when unable to decide between two desserts, I'm the sort who orders both. And when the selections are staring me right in the face, well, let's just say that I'm usually forced to use two trays.

The temptation is especially strong at Cedars Mediterranean Cafe. Cedars is a long way from the kind of cafeteria you knew in high school, where ladies in hair nets and sensible shoes dished out the steam-table glop du jour. At Cedars, lovely platters and trays overflow with fresh fruit and vegetables, and greenery fills in the cracks in the bountiful display. It's the kind of buffet that might be offered by a Mediterranean potentate, were he legally obliged to install sneeze guards.

This loveliness doesn't come as a surprise, since Cedars is a venture of the Dimassi family, which founded Dimassi's and certainly knows its way around Mediterranean food. What is surprising are the prices: Here, the family is working on a smaller scale -- the little restaurant holds only a handful of tables -- and given the quality of the food, you'd expect boutique prices. But in terms of bang for the buck, it doesn't get much better than this. Two of us, ordering almost everything in sight, spent less than $25. (For me in a cafeteria, that sets some kind of record.)

When was the last time you saw red snapper priced at $3.99? All of the entrées at Cedars are priced at $3.99, and they put many more expensive restaurants to shame. The snapper for example, is a well-cooked nice-size fillet, covered with a luscious tahini sauce. (It was also, unfortunately, sprinkled with a few unnecessary raisins, but for $3.99, I'm willing to flick them to the side of my plate.)

The roast lamb was another triumph, shreds and chunks with crispy outer pieces and tender inner ones, moist with the lamb's natural juices, and with no mint jelly or other sauces mucking up that which needs no adornment.

If you're as indecisive or greedy as I am, ordering Cedars's vegetarian platter makes your life infinitely easier. A mere $6.99 gives you generous samples of all the vegetables, dips and salads prepared that day -- which came to a whopping 14, the day I tried it. I particularly enjoyed the smooth, luscious baba ghanoush, a spectacular fresh-tasting tabbouleh loaded with parsley, and the simple sautéed spinach with almonds. Best of all, though, was the eggplant: thin slices of the Mediterranean's favorite vegetable, roasted until the interior was creamy, then brushed with tangy pomegranate molasses.

The biggest surprise, however, was the seasoned cauliflower. Usually I'm not a big fan of that vegetable (to put it mildly), but I found myself happily munching on a beautiful nut-brown roasted stalk, thinking it was broccoli. I was shocked to realize its true identity.

You can, for two more dollars, add an entrée to the vegetable platter. But though the entrées are terrific, the platter stands alone just fine. (And this, mind you, is coming from someone who's usually indifferent to veggies.)

Some foods are made to order and delivered to your table when ready. Falafels (39 cents each), fried chickpea patties, were beautifully crisp and nutty, and for once, the normally humble patties were dressed to kill, served in a stylish geometric pattern and drizzled with yogurt sauce and parsley. The beef shawarma sandwich ($3.99) was another winner; the meat, crunchy vegetables and sauce were wrapped in round flat bread, then given a few minutes in the brick oven, just long enough to toast the bread.

At the end of the line sits the dessert presentation, and I defy anyone to make it past them without selecting at least one or two (99 cents each). The traditional baklava was terrific: not too sweet, crunchy and drizzled with just enough honey to make licking one's fingers a pleasure. A slightly more unusual choice (and my favorite) was the namoura, small squares of moist cake flavored with rose water and honey, a perfect end to one of the best budget meals in town.

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Dennis Abrams