My feelings about hummus and baba ghanoush are perhaps slightly over the top, but you’ll excuse me: Isn’t anyone else horribly tired of those dips? And especially the way we most often meet them – store-bought, served with those ubiquitous “baby” carrots and cardboard pita triangles? Even when I make hummus or baba ghanoush I end up throwing them in the green bin after they languish, rejected, in the fridge for a week.
So isn’t is fabulous that we finally have a Middle Eastern restaurant that rises above hummus and baba ghanoush? At Mideastro, which at times may be trying a little too hard, the servers are very, very formal. Sometimes they don white gloves to deliver things. They speak portentously of daily specials and describe the fancy schmancy fusion dishes in painstaking (and slightly pretentious) detail. And does the world really need their pedestrian mid-meal sorbet?
But service misgivings aside, do not dismiss Mideastro, for their Middle Eastern food is fabulous. From their pedigree, one is not surprised. The restaurant comes to us from the owners of the Mideastro Thornhill. The chef on Yorkville is Benny Cohen, an Israeli whose parents are Moroccan Jews.
Diners who remember the former Lovecraft will be impressed by what $1.5-million has wrought. In the front room there are big snazzy booths and rock tiles on the walls. The back room, a little more restrained, has Middle Eastern photo murals and a view of the open kitchen. In a kitschy touch, the menus light up when opened.
But it’s instantly forgivable when the Middle Eastern food arrives. (More on the Western food later). Shrimp falafel is a dazzling brainwave: Falafel is deliciously reinvented, painted on big fat shrimps and deep-fried. The house-made wild-oregano-spiked tahini and spicy pickled veg take this New World falafel even further upmarket. They also top splendid house-made flatbread with soft ground lamb, chickpeas, green and red pepper, fennel and tomatoes in sheep yogurt with house-made tahini.
Baladi eggplant is renovated baba ghanoush: smoky grilled eggplant spiked with Israeli feta, wild oregano and roasted garlic herb tahini. Even shawarma, that nasty staple of hungover university students, gets a remake at Mideastro. They use good lamb, cook it carefully, and add caramelized onions to make it sing in two-part harmony.
Among mains, my absolute favourite is lamb and beef grilled kufta, the meats ground and stewed with sweet spices and shreds of tomato and carrot in smoky eggplant stew, grandly served in a sauté pan with a hot fresh foccacia lid, with yogurt and tahini sauce.
And for Middle Eastern desserts fig kataiv recalls galactobouriko, the Greek shredded wheat dessert. But more delicate. It’s kataiv (the shredded wheat pastry) with lightly spiced mascarpone, pistachios and fresh figs.
Save for their breathtaking black-truffle carpaccio, don’t let them make anything from west of Jerusalem. The carpaccio is supernal aged Wagyu tenderloin rolled around baby arugula and jazzed with parmiggiano reggiano, balsamic and the sexy scent of truffle oil. No black truffles, but great taste.
Other “fusion” foods range from embarrassing to awful. Shrimp ravioli feature hard pasta pockets with overcooked shrimp (both inside them and grilled on the side) and not very tasty crab bisque. Filet of sea bream is supposed to come with “citrus salts served on smoked goose breast and shrimp mashed potatoes, porcini foam and turmeric butter in a tomato hearts and confit garlic sauce.” We can’t find the goose breast and the fish is overcooked, as are the shrimps in the ho-hum mashed potatoes. What they’re calling porcini foam looks more like purée. Something that looks like it might be turmeric butter is not redolent of turmeric. If such be possible, the lobster chestnut gnocchi are worse: Gnocchi like shoe leather and overcooked lobster tail. The dish’s sole redeeming factor is a spoon-worthy lobster bisque with Middle Eastern sweet spices.
Could things go from bad to worse on the fusion menu? Only if you order the brûlée kebob for dessert. It’s frozen cream custard wrapped in a dry chocolate crepe with no discernible chocolate taste, stuck on a chocolate cinnamon stick, also flavourless, with a side of “white chocolate soup” that tastes faintly of almond extract taste but not of anything else.
But forget all that. And we hope the restaurant will as well. They remind me of other businesses that do one thing really well, and then make the mistake of imagining that their success suggests ability to do other things well too. Kind of like Icarus, to whom I would say: “It’s great that you look good in a bird suit, but don’t jump off that cliff, buddy.” Same deal here. If the Mideastro doesn’t want its feathers to melt, it’ll ditch the fusion food stat, and do more – much more – of the Middle Eastern food it does so well.