Belly good

Sinbad's Palace offers superb Middle Eastern cuisine and fabulously hokey ambience

To remind you where I'm coming from: I married into a clan whose family reunions are highlighted by a belly dancer's performance.

Malouf family ties are strong; hundreds of them gather every two years from all over the world to compare their Siti's--that's grandma to you, gringo--tabouleh recipes.

The food's the thing that keeps the culture going, and having joined myself to the gene pool, I've become a big fan of Middle Eastern eats, particularly Lebanese and Syrian style, though the culinary distinctions in the area are considerably more subtle than the political ones.

Anyway, considering the family history, it's odd that I had not been to Sinbad's Palace before now. I hope I can make up for lost time. But it opened during a writing hiatus, and so I only read about it. And what I read about it was mainly that the food was good but the decor was incredibly hokey.

Of course, everyone was wrong and I'm here to correct any false impressions. Actually, Sinbad's is fabulously hokey.

If good taste means Laura Ashley and Ralph Lauren, this ain't it. Sinbad's is pure fantasy--something you desperately need if you live in Dallas.

Enter the restaurant through a fluorescent-flooded awning and you can just imagine the paparazzi popping at you. Look up and see Aladdin and Scheherazade high over your heads, cuddled on a flying carpet, real as any Disneyland character. Sequined maps of Sinbad's voyages and quotes from Kahlil Gibran and Omar Khayyam adorn the walls, but blended in with the kitsch are beautiful inlays and antiques from Syria and Egypt, and the whole effect is glamorous and exotic and out of this world, if by that you mean Dallas, Texas. Sinbad's is the best theme restaurant in town and the only one you'd go to for the sake of the food.

The fun doesn't stop with the decor. On weekend nights, there's live music. I don't know if it's always the same oud player and magic-fingered drummer we saw, but you should hope so. I haven't enjoyed a drum solo so much since I was 16. And then, though it may not seem like the perfect dinner entertainment to watch a woman roll quarters down her stomach, the belly dancer was terrific, with arms as sinuous as snakes and, as I mentioned, supernatural muscle control.

Did I mention this was a family restaurant? High chairs are available--one was being used last Friday--and no one enjoyed the belly dancer or the music more than the kids. Even the baby was dancing in her seat--the whole place is a party. (Actually, it reminded me of a family reunion.)

It's great to see that Middle Eastern cuisine has finally escaped the deli genre; Sinbad's has lots to offer besides food, including a wine list. But it's only so wonderful because the food is great, too.

The maza plate, a selection of small samplings from the hot and cold maza, or appetizer, menu, is the only place to start if you're there for a one-time, or first-time, visit. And though the plates are small, the selection is large.

The smoothly efficient waiter covered the table with an array of delicious dips and spreads to season the puffy pita: pungent hummus, chick-pea pureed with garlic and oil; smoky baba ghanouj, mashed roasted eggplant; tabouleh with lots of parsley, and fatoush, a salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and torn bread. Plus, tender grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice, crisp fried patties of falafel and kibbe, finely ground meat and wheat. In addition, in the family spirit of comparison, we had to order the meat pies; though the pizza-like rounds topped with seasoned beef were nothing like Siti's fragrant lamb ones.

That's right; that was only the first course. We followed up with a plate of three kabobs: kofta, lean, seasoned beef sausage on a stick, shish kabob, grilled (slightly over-grilled) chunks of lamb, and chicken. The tender, pale gold rotisserie chicken came with a ramekin of strong garlic sauce on the side and rice mixed with vermicelli; shawerma was a gentle stew of chicken chunks.

Reviewing this kind of food puts me in the terrible position of comparing a restaurant's dishes to the best I know in the genre: my Siti-in-law's cooking, who brought her recipes from Lebanon to Lubbock. It's like comparing your mom's fried chicken to the colonel's. But Sinbad's food stood the ultimate test well--inspiring its own kind of belly dance.

--Mary Brown Malouf

Sinbad's Palace, 9220 Skillman, 340-4445. Open for lunch daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m. For dinner Sunday-Thursday 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-11 p.m.

Sinbad's Palace:
Mixed Maza $10.95
Meat Pies $3.75
Tabouleh $3.50
Shish Kabob $10.95
Rotisserie Chicken $7.

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