Keeping the pita puffed

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

Hedary's meat dishes, however, were among the most flavorful and skillfully prepared offerings on the menu. A butcher by trade, George says his secret is knowing which cuts of meat work best with each dish. He's so meticulous that he raises his own lambs in Azle, Texas, and purchases others raised to his own specifications. His careful attention is evident in the sausages. The kafta, ground sirloin sausage with onion and parsley, was fresh and lean with an intense, but not unnerving, spark of cumin. Equally lean and flavorful was the mqaniq, lemon-splashed pork sausage with an appealing surge of coriander--an exotic, pungent herb to which the Bible makes reference--and clove.

Hedary's kibbi--the national dish of Lebanon--is a blend of ground sirloin and burghul that's stuffed with pine nuts and spices before charbroiling. Its dome shape resembles a tennis ball that's been run over by a street sweeper. A bit dense and a little heavy, it also was tasty.

Originally from Turkey and absorbed into the Lebanese culinary tradition during the Ottoman Empire's 400-year lock on the country, sujuk is a spicy hot beef sausage bathed in lemon juice. It's lean and flavorful, if a bit dry. Not as appealing as some of the other dishes was the lahm mishwi, shish kabobs with cubed ribeye, ripe tomatoes, onion quarters, and green peppers on pita bread. The ribeye was a bit overdone, dry, and not particularly flavorful, while the meat and vegetables were separated on two skewers. George says he prepares it this way because most people don't want vegetables touching their meat. I personally prefer a mingling of the roasted meat and vegetable juices.

Hedary's wine list is somewhat lackluster, with a batch of weak-kneed selections from California and France. And as seems to be the rule in far too many Dallas restaurants, the servers don't know enough about the wines to answer even the simplest questions. The list does have a thoroughly enjoyable Spanish red (Torres), however, for just $19. And for the adventurous, there's the pricey Cháteau Musar ($49.50), a Lebanese red wine that is most likely a blend of Cabernet and Cinsault. This menu really calls for a diverse selection of whites for its chicken dishes and range of salads, as well as the addition of some rich, spicy reds from the Southern Rhone in France and some concentrated California Zinfandels to stand up to the pungent spices used in the meat dishes.

The dessert menu is primarily pastries with selections such as baklava--layers of filo pastry with pistachios, sugar, and butter. A big surprise was the rice pudding, made elegant and exotic with hints of rosewater. Another pleasant surprise was the qahwi, or Lebanese coffee. The Colombian beans are roasted on the premises, and the coffee is brewed strong, almost like espresso, and infused with cardamom, a refreshingly aromatic Eastern spice.

While the service was attentive, it lacked warmth and graciousness, and we were struck by the peculiar approach of our Lebanese waiter. I don't know if his tactics were provoked by culture or just a personality quirk, but he consistently ignored my female companion--even when she posed questions to him--always redirecting and deferring to me. It reached a crescendo when he poured our wine, filling my glass first after I tasted it before moving on to hers: a serious wine-service faux pas. In Dallas--a city flush with female executives, professionals, and entrepreneurs--this particular brand of service could take the hot air out of Hedary's billowy pita faster than a hungry tear.

Glop. That's what most of the stuff that passes for Mexican food looks and tastes like. It's also what it feels like as it moils in your digestive tract powdering-up for a 21-gun salute that'll fire for about 24 hours after you eat the stuff. On its most basic level, Mexican food is a highly evolved, brutally efficient calorie-delivery and hunger suppression system fueled with gooey melted cheese, ground meat, fried tortillas, and peppers than can eject the wax from your ears with the shocking force of a Brad Pitt prenuptial glitch.

It's been said there is no real gastronomy in Mexico, no real subtlety that isn't quickly crushed by cholesterol or bulky fibrous mush catapulted out of papier-mache oblivion by a pungent pepper thrust. But these overly broad assertions ignore the rich diversity of authentic Mexican cuisine: from grilled steaks in the arid north to iguana stewed in a broth of tomatoes and chilies in Oaxaca. Coupling pork, rice, and frying--culinary elements introduced by Spanish colonialists--with corn, beans, ragouts, sauces, steaming, and braising that were common preparations among the Indians, Mexico has a cuisine that is among the most intensely colorful, hearty, and lusty in the world. Palate sensations leap from crunchy to creamy to salty to inhumanely spicy.

So it's no surprise that a few restaurateurs might try to punch holes in Tex-Mex putty-coated with the preciously swanky Southwestern glaze that often dominates Dallas' "south of the border" fare. And in the past few years, a handful of eateries boasting authentic Mexican cuisine have emerged. But while Javier's offers an upscale posture with fine but sometimes unexciting fare, Chihuahua Charlie's adds a souvenir-shop feel coupled with hit-and-miss food and service, and La Valentina's offers refinement that perpetually flirts with overdoneness, few restaurants offer an authentic Mexican experience steeped in comfortable sincerity without dramatic adulterations. Until Nuevo Leon, that is. Which is why, perhaps, there were so many Mexican families dining there during our visits.

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