The finely minced beef filling on the pizza crust is moistened with sour cooked-down fresh tomatoes and flecked with Seven Spices. (The full-crust tart doesn’t include tomato.) Mario prefers the pizza version because “We make it fresh, by the order.” But I found this Levantine concoction on pizza dough as unsettling as a bagel topped with foie gras, or a brioche with pastrami and sauerkraut. Instead, I wished I’d ordered “Fatosh” (as it’s spelled here), a refreshing salad of cukes, tomatoes, onions, red and green bell peppers, and pita croutons soaked in Mediterranean vinaigrette, the Middle Eastern version of Italian panzanella, and perhaps the age-old ancestor of Caesar salad.
By the time we finished our appetizers, we were ready for desserts. But not yet — we’d ordered entrées, too, Mark having gone to the counter with our list of choices and specifications. “I’m not sure he registered it when I ordered the lamb kebab rare,” Mark said. Well, Mario sort of did: the larger chunks had a pink flush left at the center, which by Middle Eastern standards is ultra-rare. The smaller pieces were done-to-death, of course. Good herbs, but desert-on-a-plate.
This and all other entrées came with a pool of pleasant hummus, pita triangles, a heap of flawless rice pilaf, and another heap of fresh salad dotted with feta cheese, sparsely dressed.
Trout with a touch of lemon-garlic sauce was grilled just right — crisp-skinned, tender. We also ordered grilled shrimp, but it never arrived. Out of shrimp that night? Unlike kosher dietary rules, Islamic rules allow shellfish, so that wasn’t it. Maybe we were just ordering too much, and Mario decided we shouldn’t face that many dishes? Intelligent can sometimes mean “I know better” stubborn. A Mystic riddle.
When Mario delivered the lamb shank, he said, winking, “I made it myself, just for you.” The shank had been long and slowly braised in its own juices with onions and seasonings, the meat flavorful but shreddy, perhaps because every molecule of surface fat had been removed. Tasty, but none of us ate much — I guess we love the fat of the lamb.
Nearly all entrées are also available served atop a green salad; several are available as pita-wrap sandwiches with lettuce, tomatoes, onion, and pickles, or mixed into pasta (the most expensive dishes, those). The menu also includes shawarma of chicken, beef, gyros, or combos thereof (no lamb), while additional kebab choices include chicken, beef, shrimp, salmon, and kuftas (sausage-shaped meatballs) of ground chicken, beef, or lamb with complex spice mixes like those in the kibbeh.
Mario particularly recommends the chicken-breast shawarma. “If you try our chicken shawarma, you won’t believe it,” he said. “We have the best chicken shawarma in the whole country. Most restaurants use frozen chicken; ours is fresh. We’re using baby chicken breast, from a small, young chicken, hand-slaughtered halal-style, not machine-slaughtered. It’s seasoned with lemon juice, garlic, cardamom, coriander, and nutmeg. Exquisite!” He’s also especially fond of the pastas, particularly those with Alfredo sauce (marinara is the alternate sauce), which can be topped with chicken or beef shawarma, gyros, seafoods, or combos thereof. Alfredo with Seven-Spices–seasoned grilled shrimp sounds like something I’d really want to eat.
And, yes, we also got a $5 Mystic pizza, the mozzarella seasoned with Middle Eastern za’atar spices (oregano and thyme) and topped with gyro meat and mushrooms (plus $1.50 extra for artichoke hearts). It was regular, pretty-bad American pizza, about on a par with the Julia Roberts comedy, with the usual underdone, glutinous crust. It’s available as a sit-down entrée only when you order more dishes — solo, it’s to-go. (That keeps the local teens from colonizing all the tables.)
The pastry case holds savory mini-pies on the left and desserts on the right. That evening, baklava variations were the only sweet choices, in pistachio, walnut, and almond versions. The pistachio is almost totally nuts, all crunchy, only a bit sweet between top and bottom layers of filo. The walnut was my friends’ least favorite, but I really warmed up to the leftovers over the next two days of breakfasts: the low-key filling consists of ground walnuts, slightly sweetened and held together by butter and flour or fine crumbs, studded with larger nut pieces, and with just a little syrup. The almond baklava, my friends’ overwhelming favorite, is more of the standard splashy rendition, dripping syrup — indulgent but not disgustingly sweet. At the restaurant, I didn’t get even a taste — my friends managed to cut it into four pieces for our fivesome and gobbled them all up to the last filo flake. (No blame. I had mine later.)
I ordered a Turkish coffee to go with dessert. “Are you sure? VERY strong Arab coffee!” said Mario. I was sure. “All right, it will take me five or seven minutes.” Time came and went. Mark returned to the counter. “Five, six more minutes,” said Mario. We finished desserts and grew restive, ready to leave. Mario had just brewed a big pot of sweet tea for the tableful of men that included the bearded guy in the caftan. He poured me a splash into a paper cup. It was super-hot. “We need to get home,” I told him. “Can I exchange my Turkish coffee for a piece of almond baklava?” (The coffee is $3, the baklava $1 apiece.) He was happy to make the trade. He did not want to make Turkish coffee for me or maybe anyone else. (Well, it is sort of a pain.) He gave me not just the single piece I asked for, nor the three-pieces priced equivalent to the coffee I’d paid for, but four pieces. “An extra, because you had to wait so long,” he said, with a smile as sweet as baklava.
High-Class Bargain Meals
Vivande, the beautiful upscale Italian restaurant at Four Seasons Aviara in Carlsbad, is offering tasting dinners starting at $44 for three courses, rising by $10 per additional course up to $74 for the six-course tasting special.