Jack Nicholson's famous sandwich tantrum in Five Easy Pieces has been referenced so often, it's become a bit of folklore that exists apart from the movie. His point, made so vehemently about the toast, was: Restaurants are supposed to serve you first, food second. If someone walks into Deep Ellum's Green Room and decides he wants that new-wave kitchen to fix him a plain-old steak sandwich, the Green Room's answer should be, "Yes, how do you want it?"
That's where the diner's path diverges from the critic's. The hardest part of my job as a dining critic is simply choosing what to eat from the menu. It's easy to determine what I feel like eating, but that's not what I'm supposed to do. My job is to determine what dishes best represent a particular restaurant. All Mexican restaurants serve cheese enchiladas, for instance, and cheese enchiladas can be a good barometer of style and a reliable indicator of the kitchen's attention to detail. (Plus, I almost always feel like eating cheese enchiladas.)
But I have to decide whether cheese enchiladas are the best thing to order in that particular Mexican restaurant. Is this a place that specializes in Mexican-style seafood? Is it a Tex-Mex palace, or does it go for authentic interior Mexican food? I don't have the time, money, or even inclination to eat my way through a restaurant's entire list of offerings, so my choices are crucial to my assessment.
You can imagine my relief when I was told that there is no menu at Cafe Izmir, a tiny new place on Greenville Avenue where Spasso's used to be. All the owner-waiter Ali wants to know is whether you're a vegetarian and what kind of wine you'd like. After that, it's up to him and his kitchen.
It's a good thing, because Cafe Izmir describes itself as a "Mediterranean Tapas" restaurant, and since there's no such thing, really, I'd be hard put to know what to order. Ali and "Mo" Nazary are originally from Teheran, and what their mother is cooking in the kitchen is more like Middle Eastern mazas. But since the tapas trend--which never happened even though it was written about extensively by bored food writers several years ago--at least the American public now knows what the word "tapas" means. Although there have been good Middle Eastern restaurants in this area for decades, the word maza is still unfamiliar.
Like tapas, mazas could be described as serial eating instead of a meal. You eat a little, you drink a little, you eat a little more, you drink a little more. It's not eating according to the puritan work ethic; it doesn't get the job done in less than an hour so you can go on to something else. Eating mazas can last hours, and though I'm sure Ali and Mo would rather turn the tables quickly since Izmir is so small, the nature of the food encourages lingering, talking. It's meal as process, not product.
I don't mean the product isn't great. The way it's been going--I've been to Cafe Izmir more times than just on my allotted professional visits--I'll probably become a regular, and that's because the food is as appealing as the concept.
To set the ethnic mood, a kilim is draped over the door to the dining room, which contains only about four booths and five tables. There are big, Indian-looking paintings on the wall (on loan for now). The "world music" (which sounds nostalgically good since KERA-FM no longer pipes it out all day) wraps up the random global references into one theme as the food does on the plate.
There are a dozen or so wines offered by the glass for $4 and $5, with none much more than $25 a bottle. We especially liked the very soft Lebanese wine and the Greek Boutari, its faint echo of resin perfectly complementing the strong flavors of the food. At this point, see, our job was done: We just sipped the wine we had picked and waited for dinner.
By and by--pretty quickly--Ali delivered four little dishes: one filled with garlicky humus as smooth as ice cream and topped with a shiny olive like the cherry on a sundae; one with tabouli, lots of parsley and chopped tomatoes in a lemony, soupy dressing, with just a few grains of soaked bulgur; and one described as "Russian chicken salad" featuring tiny diced potatoes, peas, shreds of chicken, and carrots all stirred into a conglomerate; and a plate with triangles of hot pita bread.
A little later, more plates were delivered--exactly what's on them varies from night to night, but there's always a platter of grilled meats--big chunks of just-charred chicken, marinated in lemon, lime, and hot pepper, but tender and still running juice; long, hot-dog-shaped kofta, a kind of lean, peppery sausage made of ground beef molded around a skewer and grilled till it's slightly chewy. Since one of us was vegetarian, there were thin disks of grilled zucchini and squash, and wedges of tomato grilled until soft. Wrap any combination of these, with some of your leftover dips, into a piece of pita or scoop it up with a forkful of the basmati rice yellowed with saffron. Every bite can be a new combination of tastes.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
A little later, Ali brought us a cold eggplant dip, also described as "Russian," and a smaller plate of grilled lamb chunks. During another visit, we were served "lamb tacos"--soft flour tortillas folded over strips of lamb, with medicinally pungent parsley, chopped tomatoes, and camouflaged serrano peppers giving each mouthful a stinging afterbite. A bowl of Turkish salad--diced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and what was called "Arabic slaw" (shredded purple cabbage and carrot)--cooled things off.
I could imagine even more additions to the menu--like, how about some goat cheese, or feta, to smooth things out? But I'm not complaining. Hey, it's not my decision.
Cafe Izmir, 3711 Greenville Ave., 826-7788. Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; for dinner daily, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.