New frontier

North Dallas' Cafe Mediterranee goes boldly across many borders

Restaurateurs have one goal. Not to cook the finest food, but to make a living.
To do that, they have to make you want to eat at their place. And not just once--simply because it serves the trendiest cuisine or is owned by the sexiest athletes. The trick is, they have to make you want to come back.

Cafe Mediterranee is situated in a lukewarm spot of North Dallas, and is handicapped in that no Dallas Cowboys I know of are investors. But it does serve Mediterranean food. Tres trendy.

Unlike Cajun food or Caribbean food, which both went bust in Dallas, Mediterranean cuisine is actually happening. Everyone loves "Mediterranean" food; its popularity is real, not just something invented by bored food editors desperate for the latest trend.

Restaurateurs must love it, too, because it's so vague, so broad. You could make a claim for all kinds of restaurants being "Mediterranean." And most restaurants that drag out the M word to describe themselves are really just trying to tie into the trend--they're Italian or Lebanese or even French restaurants, really. Or they were. Now, they're the latest thing--they're part of the trend. They're "Mediterranean."

The menu at Cafe Mediterranee is Mediterranean in the very broadest sense--it cruises the coast of the Mediterranean Sea from Morocco to Greece to Lebanon to Italy to Egypt. Yes, a Mediterranean restaurant that recognizes the full geographical implications of the word. And this is not as unlikely as it sounds: one of the chefs is from Basha, a mainly Lebanese place on Greenville; one is from Israel, the country; one is Greek.

Cafe Mediterranee doesn't understand its own interior boundaries quite as well. It's hard to tell exactly where it ends and where its sister business, the adjoining Nostalgia Deli, begins.

For months, the menu at Cafe Mediterranee, which is the blandly plush, upscale white-tablecloth part of the enterprise, was actually borrowed from Nostalgia Deli, a casual, daytime Carnegie Deli-type business. (They say the bread comes from that famous New York institution.) Now that it has its own menu, Cafe Mediterranee's reach often exceeds its grasp. That is, the menu makes very exciting reading (this is a chef with a lot of good ideas), but some of the dishes weren't executed very well. Still, this much imagination is practically revolutionary for such a conservative North Dallas neighborhood--one that is only now getting the share of better-than-burger-joint restaurants its income level deserves.

We ate late; there were only two other tables taken when we arrived. The lone waiter recognized a member of our party from a past restaurant experience, calling him by name and lavishing him and therefore the rest of us with serious attention. Although we were the last diners to leave, we were never hurried. The only urgency came with his recommendation of the night's special, mysteriously described as "rack of veal."

We complied. We ordered rack of veal. We also ordered snapper crusted with pistachios, and grilled duck. But before that, we ordered polenta, bruschetta, couscous, Greek salad, and smoked salmon. Evidently we thought that, like any cruise, the eating on this one was bound to be hefty.

The same proportion between flavor and portion size that professional eaters have been pointing out for years prevailed at Cafe Mediterranee. The smaller the portion, the more intense the chef will make the flavors, the more interesting the food. Maybe the most exciting thing we ate at Cafe Mediterranee was oddly listed as a salad: a plate-sized potato pancake or galette, brown and crisp, topped with silky slices of smoked salmon and a toss of lettuces dressed with capers. The crunch of the potato played brilliantly against the chilly chew of the smoked fish and the tang of the bittersweet greens. Couscous jardinier, the fluffy pasta grains flecked with a confetti of diced vegetables, came with three pieces of spicy homemade chicken sausage, surprisingly moist for nonpork sausage. And the Greek salad, an enormous serving of greens mixed with particularly wonderful feta (less salty than most), came with dolma on the side.

Bruschetta was like a little soft pizza, the pita bread brushed with pesto that was more garlic than basil, and topped with wilted peppers and cheese. We easily could have, and almost did, make a meal out of appetizers and salads, and there were as many more on the menu that tempted us. Next time, I'd give in and end the meal at the beginning. Did I mention the diamond-cut polenta cakes, lavished with melted mascarpone? A version of corn meal mush with milk, and as soothing, but subtly sophisticated and devastatingly rich.

Entrees were not as good. The hut b'noua, described as "an exotic Moroccan dish," was the pistachio-crusted snapper with basil tomato coulis. This reminded us of the pistachio-crusted chicken we'd eaten at Basha, and, Pavlov's diners all, we salivated at the description, but the results were less pleasing than our memories. The fish was hard and dry, as it might be if it had been too quickly thawed before cooking, the coating thick and heavy. And the vaunted special of the evening, the "rack" of veal, was actually a couple of smaller chops--not the best cut--little islands of meat between connective tissue, which is why, I suppose, you received two instead of the single huge steaklike thing you're used to eating if you eat veal chops. The meat was tender--how could veal not be?--the sauce strong and winy. The side dish served with most of our entrees, a pilaf-like dish of rice with raisins and inch-long asparagus pieces, was unusual and good.

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