Essential Middle Eastern

Every so often a car pulls into the parking lot at the northeast corner of Park Lane and Greenville Avenue, stops, and then slowly leaves. An animator would draw those cars bewildered and dejected, with down-turned front grilles and hunched fenders. The people in those cars are bewildered and dejected. They're looking for Al's, the import food store that occupied that corner for decades and closed this fall.

Al's customers are still returning like scout bees, buzzing around the place where the honey used to be. Al's was an institution, the original source for a lot of Dallas cooks and eaters, the purveyor of the finest imported meats, cheeses, and olives and, for so many years, the only place in Dallas where many foods now considered essential could be purchased.

One person's misery is another's good fortune, and the owners of Mediterranean Oasis on Lovers Lane, while not rejoicing at Al's demise, feel like its absence certainly hasn't hurt them.

Mediterranean Oasis is no substitute--it's both more and less than Al's used to be. There are rows of glass-doored freezers and refrigerators filled with homemade falafel mix (excellent stuff), flatbread, and pita. There are a few shelves holding rows of rose water, oil, olives, and grape leaves. There's a refrigerator case, but it's mostly filled with pastries, not pastrami.

There are a few tables, too, in Mediterranean Oasis, something Al's never had. Mediterranean Oasis looks like a Cairo convenience store from the outside, a cafe with a winning combination inside--an ambiance like a 7-Eleven, a welcome as warm as toast, and food as good as my mother-in-law's. (OK, so two out of three ain't bad.)

Owner Paul Jacob's past experience includes a restaurant in London (off Oxford Street, near Selfridge's). He met his wife, Sally Morgan, in Paris and they recently moved to Dallas, where she became Mme. Coquette, proprietor of the salon down the street, and he opened the Oasis. The hardworking couple help each other out; every time we visited, Mme. Coquette and the couple's tiny, big-eyed daughter were waiting on people while Paul cooked.

We required a lot of waiting on, because we ordered almost everything. Every few minutes, a new styrofoam plate would arrive, nearly bending under its load and making us wish this cafe dressed the part just a little bit more.

We began with the "taster" selection of dips--smoky baba ghanouj (roasted eggplant mashed with garlic), floury golden hummus (chickpeas pureed with garlic), labneh (cold, sour, fresh yogurt cheese, purpled with puckering olives and chopped thyme), and tahini dip (sesame paste, dusted with yellow cumin). The hot pita bread and soft, creamy dips could have been a meal, but we ordered tabouli, too--clean-tasting, chopped fresh parsley, lemony and tart, with sweet chopped cucumbers and tomatoes, and firm bits of bland bulgur wheat, giving it a little chew factor.

The grape leaves were filled with ground meat, tomato, and rice, and were cooked to perfection.

Most of the entrees we tried were served over beds of brown-colored rice mixed with strands of broken vermicelli. I was taught to make this dish by slowly sauteing onions in oil until black, then steeping them and cooking the rice in the onion-colored water. I don't know if that's how Paul makes it at the Oasis, but it's a good dish, anyway, topped with bits of charcoaled chicken, chunks of grilled lamb and beef, kofta, or souflaki--long, unmentionable-looking cylinders made from a lean spiced beef and pork and parsley sausagelike mixture.

All these benefitted from the addition of some cool yogurt, or a dollop of baba ghanouj, wrapped with meat in some pita bread or just sauced over the rice. (Most of the meats are available as sandwiches, too.) One of the pleasures of Middle Eastern food, especially after eating from menus of hodgepodge, melting-pot "New American" food, is how naturally all the flavors combine and complement each other.

Our favorite dish was called koushari, a layering of lentils and rice topped with sweet, sauteed onions and garlic, sprinkled with powdered cumin, and served with a firecracker red-pepper harissa sauce on the side. It was earthy, fortifying as meat, and soothing in its seeming simplicity and surprising complexity, with a gentle but definite texture. "Macaroni beshamel" was a soft, casserolelike Greek pastichio or moussaka, a puddinglike stir of macaroni, bchamel sauce, and ground meat, the cloud-soft mush sweetened with tomato.

At least one of us finished with the inevitable rice pudding, a Middle East favorite which I am not competent to review, agreeing with the heroine of A.A. Milne's poem that a single serving of rice pudding can ruin your day ("What is the matter with Mary's lovely rice pudding for dinner again"). My taster says this is stellar rice pudding, light-tasting, delicately sweet, the slightly gelatinous grains suspended in the cold cream. This allegedly is really good rice pudding.

There were more desserts--soft apricot pudding, an unexpectedly French creme caramel that was a little bubbly, but with a great bittersweet flavor, and hypersweet baklava. Plenty of people have cried in that baklava as they mourned the loss of Al's, but Dallas could easily have supported Al's and the Mediterranean Oasis.

Mediterranean Oasis, 5219 West Lovers Lane, 353-9225. Open Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

Mediterranean Oasis:
Taster Platter $7.99
Kofta Shish $3.99
Souvlaki $3.99
Lamb Shish Kebab $6.99
Koushari $3.99
Souvlaki Sandwich $2.99
Rice Pudding $1.99


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