Friday, April 27, 2012

Around the Table at Phoenician Kabob

I first dined at Phoenician Kabob in 2009, not too long after it had opened its doors. I enjoyed it and returned a few times but I thought they took too many shortcuts for the prices they charged and I hated the fact that the pita was of the store-bought variety. Then recently I stopped in for a falafel sandwich to-go, opened it and found it surprisingly wrapped in a delicate, house made pita. I was intrigued by the pita upgrade and convinced the prolific Denveater (DV) as well as my most recent food-loving chum, Mantonat (M), to join me for a full meal. What follows is our two cents on what I am calling "the new and improved" Phoenecian Kabob. And for more lovely photos, please visit Denveater

We ate a lot that day, what was your favorite?
M - The stuffed grape leaves seemed to have been pan roasted, which gave them added dimensions of flavor and texture. This dish can tend toward mushy, slimy, and tinny, but these were tightly rolled, firm, and compact like little cigars. 

DOAS - Those were unique, and I am partial to the slimier version, but I can never get enough of stuffed grape leaves. My favorite was the Manakeish Bizzatar—the bubbly, pizza-like flatbread absolutely covered in thyme and sesame seeds and dotted with wonderful fresh pickles. I don't know if they changed how they make it but I remember it as clearly better than the last time I had it there. 

DV - I haven't met the garlic dip I didn't like, but this one's special. It bites you first and tingles all the way down, but it's also silky, ribboned with olive oil and brightened with parsley—and, of course, it comes with those rounds of pita, puffed like sopapillas, straight from the oven. And totally agreed about the grape leaves—they were clearly housemade, which isn’t often the case, and the exterior was unusual, almost crisp.

Did you not like anything?
DV - The hummus isn't my favorite; PK's style emphasizes ground chickpeas, whereas I like it creamy and distinctly laced with lemon juice and tahini.
DOAS – I actually didn’t care for my wife’s dish, makloubeh, I think it was called. It was saffron rice with chunks of beef and potatoes. It was just too plain and way too starchy. At first I was jealous when I saw the heaping plate, but I much preferred my meaty combo.

Anything else worth mentioning?
M - My order of beef shawarma was tender and well-seasoned. I don't eat this dish often enough to know the subtleties of preparation from region to region or chef to chef, but the combination of spicy beef, garlic dip (which also came with the shawarma dish), and fresh pita was well worth the lunch-special price.
DV- A close second to the garlic dip was the airy, naturally tangy-smoky baba ghanoush. I liked the manaqish too, but I prefer Amira Bakery’s, which is more luscious, whether with za’atar or a blanket of spiced ground lamb; they’re pretty liberal with the olive oil
DOAS – I agree with the baba ghanoush. It is my favorite in all of Denver. And true, Amira makes the best that I know of around town. But I was very happy with my lamb shawarma, which had a nice grilled char on the outside but was left just shy of well-done so that it was still nice and tender.

Top to bottom: chicken, lamb, kafta kabobs

When I first wrote about PK I wrote about the irony of the pita bread being clearly store-bought when literally across the street is a pita bakery. The fact that the pita is made in house now and so delicate and fluffy, with perfect little burn marks made me ecstatic. I love it when a restaurant gets better, which is what happened with PK for me since I was last there a couple years ago. Is PK the best Middle Eastern restaurant in Denver? If not, what is? 
M- I was impressed with the service here as well as the food. Our young waiter was polite, knowledgeable, and attentive and kept his smile and good attitude despite how long we stayed and how long the check sat there untouched before we finally paid. I have to give a restaurant credit when they get both right.
DV - It's certainly one of them, in my view; I also really like Amira Bakery, Mecca Grill , and House of Kabob. And I have soft spots for Ya Hala and Jerusalem too.  
DOAS – Yes, I suppose it does depend, but for a sit down table service Middle Eastern place—from service to ambiance to food—it is becoming my top choice.

And on that same theme- what is your "most improved" restaurant? 
M- Bistro Vendome has recently gone from good to great. I've always enjoyed the atmosphere, the drinks list, and the glazed French fries, but last time we ate there I was blown away by the attention to detail and the depth of flavor in everything I tried. With improved service and soulful cooking, I think it has finally become more than just a Larimer Street tourist spot.
DOAS – Good to know, my thrifty nature is always drawn to one thing there: $9 weekday mussels and frites.
DV - The transformations happened some time ago, but I’d vote for The Village Cork since Samir Mohammad came on board and Root Down since Justin Cucci brought in Daniel Asher; both found their culinary identity under those talents. Will Cisa's also brightly polished The Corner Office's edges.

What's up with the Sriracha in a Middle Eastern restaurant? For that matter, what's up with Sriracha everywhere? 
DV- It's the new ketchup. Personally, I could put Chinese black vinegar on anything and everything.
M- Are the Middle Eastern restaurants just responding to demand from customers or does Sriracha actually enhance the flavors of Middle Eastern cuisine? Seems like the heat and sweetness would overwhelm the subtle and complex spices of some of the dishes. I'm all for condiments, but with all the great sauces and dips - like that tangy yogurt-based sauce that came with the stuffed grape leaves - I don't feel the need for the additional cultural pilfering.
DOAS - I burned out on the stuff in college, though I am thankful for its subsistence when the groceries were otherwise scarce--it is surprisingly tasty (and filling) on a plain Saltine.

Having a couple drinks with lunch on a Saturday used to mean a nice nap or a long, long night. Seeing as how I can do neither anymore, did you either of you indulge in these coveted activities? Do tell, much of my enjoyment these days is vicarious. 
DV - We totally napped! But mostly we groaned.
M- I had a glass of arak over ice and a Lebanese beer (Almaza), which may have been one too many considering that we had to return home to finish painting our kitchen. Arak is the Lebanese version of the typical Mediterranean anise-flavored spirit. It's intensely herbal and the oils from the botanicals turn the drink cloudy when cold water or ice are added. I could actually see the oils form a film on the side of the glass. I would recommend it only for the most avid anise fans.
DOAS –  OK, that puts it in perspective. I would have much rather chased my kids around than paint my kitchen. 

We were late because we got distracted by the antique store across the street that is worth checking out. I ended up with an old Michele Shocked LP which was a lot more country than I remember and has left me creepily singing "When I grow up I want to be an Old Woman" all day at work on Monday. Did you end up going? 
M- That was a great little antique store. I think the owner was trying to sell us on an old hospital gurney, but we walked out empty handed. 

We also had some powerful coffee, visit Denveater's site for more on that as well as many more mouth-watering photos. 

Phoenician Kabob on Urbanspoon

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