Keeping the pita puffed

Hedary's Lebanese Oven & Grill offers reverent interpretations of ancient dishes

One thing you won't find at Hedary's Lebanese Oven & Grill is a self-conscious striving for minimalist assemblages of ingredients. Nor will you encounter "breakthrough" juxtapositions of native flavors from, say, El Paso and Uranus.

What you will find is a menu that unapologetically adheres to Lebanese culinary traditions reaching back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. "Every dish has a history behind it," says chef-owner George Hedary. "It's not something that somebody just came up with out of culinary school."

Which isn't to say this cuisine isn't the byproduct of a fascinating convergence of influences. For thousands of years, the geographical position, rich soils (nurturing vines, fig trees, and an assortment of succulent fruits and vegetables), and prosperous trade of Lebanon made it a regular target of invasion by succeeding waves of foreigners: Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, and French, among others. Today, Lebanese cuisine represents the impact of all these disruptions from outside forces, each leaving its distinct mark.

Embracing a host of staples including lamb, burghul (crushed wheat), yogurt, olives, pine nuts, rice, chick peas, ground allspice, and grapevine leaves, Lebanese food is far more varied than that of its Middle Eastern neighbors precisely because of these foreign encroachments. The French, who had a 25-year mandate over the country following World War I, added a profoundly refining influence to this culinary melange.

George Hedary--who says he was not only born into the restaurant business, but was literally born in a restaurant--is attempting to recreate this deeply rooted cuisine in North Dallas. And he has a lot of personal history to fall back on. His parents, Antoine and Leila Hedary, operated Antoine Hedary's Lebanese Pizza in Beirut before immigrating to Fort Worth in 1976. Their original ambition was to start a Texas ranch. But high start-up costs squelched that dream, and they quickly redirected their energies into a Lebanese eatery.

The Hedary family currently operates three restaurants in the Fort Worth area--Hedary's Lebanese Restaurant, Byblos, and Celaborelle. The new venture on Belt Line near Coit is just a few blocks from a short-lived Lebanese restaurant George opened in the Promenade Shopping Center a little over eight years ago. His latest incarnation occupies a former Taco Bueno, which he says reminded him of his grandmother's house in Lebanon. Diluting a bit of the exotica inherent in this cuisine, Hedary's is lodged in a strip mall next to a Donut Palace, across from a Taco Bell/KFC combo mortared together in a sort of suburban fast-food bunker. This Tupperware-Party ambience dissipates only slightly as you enter the restaurant: Once you've taken in the intricately paned arched windows and the wood-beam ceilings, you notice that the foliage is plastic and the hewn stones in the arched doorway are actually created with painted mortar lines on shiny beige stucco. The entrance opens directly into a long, narrow dining area: a cold, echoing hollow space that should be skipped. Instead, opt for the warmer, cozier room to the right beyond the bar and exposed kitchen. This dining room is introduced by a decorative touch--a staircase seemingly rising to nowhere--borne of the same germ that inspired the fake foliage and doorway stones, but provides a more inviting atmosphere for sampling the simple, fresh flavors of this cuisine.

Pita bread--the two-layered flat wheat bread that inflates like a small pillow as it bakes--is served with virtually every dish in the Lebanese meal. Ideally, the bread is served right from the oven, hot and billowy, expelling a cloud of steam as the bread is torn open. Chewy, hearty, and a fantastic food dipper, Hedary's pita can be hit-or-miss: On two occasions it was served piping hot and fully puffed, while on two others it was collapsed and almost cold.

Perhaps the best way to enter the savory world of Lebanese cuisine is with the maza, a traditional sampling of salad dishes that varies daily at Hedary's. Here you'll discover hummus, the traditional dip made from chickpeas; batinjan mtabble, mashed eggplant with garlic sesame oil, olive oil, and lemon juice; tabbuli, burghul (or bulghur) with parsley, onion, tomatoes, lemon, and olive oil; and labni matoom, a dry yogurt exhibiting flavors similar to goat cheese. Only two selections, the dull potatoes doused in yogurt and the soggy, bland lentil salad, didn't live up to the fresh sparkle of the other selections.

Lentils, however, were given a far more exciting forum in the soup: a preparation that all too often features over-cooked lentils struggling in a stock tasting like it was made with soapy rags and spent Brillo pads. Hedary's lentil soup has a rich, savory broth with a lemon tang and tiny cubes of potato and spinach shreds; it's simply the best I've ever tasted.

Another typical Middle Eastern dish, stuffed vine leaves, is offered as an appetizer. The mehshe warak aresh--grape leaves stuffed with ground sirloin, rice, and spices, doused with lemon and accompanied by a mint- and garlic-infused yogurt dip--were densely packed, tightly wrapped, and tasty. The presentation, however, was marred by browning lemon wedges and a sliced tomato half with black rot running through the center, unappetizing blemishes that could have been alleviated with only modestly attentive prep work.

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