Saturday, December 16, 2006

North Kedzie brings us the Middle East

Semiramis: (Albany Park) Chicago
4639-41 N. Kedzie Ave.
(773) 279-8900

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Semiramis had run out of the night's special vegetarian (and vegan) moussaka just as we ordered it, and even though Amod said, "it's been [a] really long time since, you know, a waitress had a special which I really wanted to eat," we still got excited about the menu. Semiramis offers the often seen tabbouleh, lentil soup, hummus and baba ganoush, but they go quite farther. They serve tasty sounding lubieh bel zeit (grean beans cooked with garlic, tomato and olive oil), fattoush (salad of cucumber, tomato, green onion, green pepper, radish, mint and pita in olive oil, lemon juice and sumac), and warakenab belk zeit (grape leaves suffed with rice, green pepper, green onion, tomato, mint, parsley and olive oil; but we ordered somethings entirely different.

Green olives and turnips slices pickled in beet juice and vinegar came first, to help us get through all of the menu choices. We ordered everything vegan to share. Getting excited about the menu, Satya exclaimed, "This is really good."

The small stovetop kettle of coffee with cardamom that came to our table just as I returned with a bottle of wine from next door was just for table service, strained from another but larger stovetop kettle used to brew it. I would like to come back and watch them brew this sweet and smooth Intelligentsia Lebanese style (presumably Intelligentsia from the insignia on the demitasses), perhaps while sipping some of the fresh carrot juice from the menu.

A bright lemon flavor on the long wide French fries from the sumac they dusted on was quite brilliantly different for me; and so was the gentle garlic spread served with.

The fava beans with lemon juice and olive oil (ful moudammas) -most of them so soft that they had lost their individual identities- and their cubed tomatoes, four mint leaves and onion slices scooped up quite well with ripped up pita. They satisfied as well as any comfort food, just without a heavy onset. Amod smothered the last of our fava beans in the fries' garlic sauce. At least one bumpy techno softly thumped in the background.

Our falafel wrap, the "falafel special", came loaded with (or course) falafel, eggplant, pickle (Satya took one out to eat), red cabbage, tomato and tahini sauce, with a scoop on the side of cool and refreshing mashed potato colored with tomato sauce with specs of green onion. As Satya took more fries, she told me, "I think I'm going to die on these ... I need to buy sumac now." I can't wait to get a hold of some, either. As I commented on my love for the fries and we thought of how great it was to come here instead of somewhere else for dinner instead, Amod told me "I think it was a good idea coming here."

Long crispy onion slivers gave a very welcomed crunch to the soft lentils and rice (moujaddara) -so full they felt like more comfort food, heavily distracting from the a side salad anchored in tomato and cucumber wedges. I think everything we ordered felt like the Lebanese version of comfort food.

Looking at the curtains dividing the dining room, Satya comments, "these are so tasteful," and decided to hang a rug in her home, like the textiles hanging the walls here.

The meal was much more elaborate than we would have prepared on any of the hiking trips we talked about (days in the Grand Canyon or day hikes through tropical waterfalls outside Bombay). The falafel alone would require an utterly obscene backpacking edition deep fryer, and carrying oil might be a burden, not to mention a terrible fire hazard in desert brush when the oil is hot. Perhaps Amod could take such a fryer on his upcoming bus ride over the Andes in to Argentina from Santiago.

The bill: $24.03 (including a $3 BYOB charge). Amod excites, "I can't believe this." Satya continues, "Can you imagine?" It's hard to believe they give 20 percent off to college and university students on lunch. And they're open to 11 on Friday and Saturday and 10 other nights.

As I've been writing this, I've been listening to the jittery pop punk group The Dials. So I've gone back to their site, hitting play over and over on the four songs I see they have up. It goes well with Chicago squad cars racing by my window, making me feel even more alive that this amazing night already has.

I love dining with Satya and Amod because I feel they get just as excited about good food as I do. "I'm so glad we came here", Satya told me, "this food is exactly what I was looking for." We moved on, walking across the street-level Brown Line tracks to window shop at Alkhyam Bakery (4744-46 N. Kedzie Ave.). I've bought their whole-wheat pitas (with "king of pita" on the bag) at Sunflower market on Clybourn. When they're open, I would like to explore what's beyond their stacks of canned bab ganoush, gallons of olive oil, bakery cases and the bags of just-made crispy bread I see from the windows.

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Next Stop: Turkish Coffee at a Diner

Mataam Al Mataam: (Albany Park) Chicago
Kedzie and Lawrence Avenues

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It's a smoky late-night diner (24-hour I hear), or ethnically called a shaan (literally "pride"). I felt like I stumbled in to a hidden world of both community and decor not easily findable anymore. Locals, if not the owner(s), seemed to switch between a table and the bar; a "God Bless America" plaque with the flag and Twin Towers on the back wall near one for Elvis; ketchup and mustard colored walls; vinyl chairs tacked around the top; simulated wood-grained laminated tables with rubberized edges; low-back dusty rose vinyl bar stools with foot rings; a flower clock on the wall that has petals and a pot base for a pendulum; an empty chrome and glass rotating pie case; and a kids cartoon on the TV that reminded Satya and I of Sesame Street. When we walked in and looked for a table, a man at the bar motioned us to take whichever one we wanted.

Satya read me the special menu written in English and (presumably) Arabic over the bar:
  • Monday: eggplant and white beans
  • Tuesday: potato and spinach
  • Wednesday: okra and white beans
  • Thursday: green beans
  • Friday: fava beans
I really didn't need more coffee, but I needed more food even less and we wanted to stop here; and the coffee did come in demitasse cups and on saucers with softly appealing gold line art depicting flowers with a gold weave capturing the edges. The Turkish coffee ($2 and not the default coffee) Amod and I took felt sludgy and nuttier, thicker, grainier and rougher than the Lebanese version at Semiramis. But it tasted sweeter -more appropriate for dessert. Satya took on a yogurt dairy shake ($1) and topped it from a shaker of sumac on the table.

As we walked back to their car, we looked in one more shop -with isles of packaged Middle Eastern food I would like to return to explore, and sets of demitasse cups that would look quite nice on my table when filled with strong coffee on a lazy morning. I loved this exploration with my pals, and the vigor and curiosity it has brought to me, but coming back to Wicker Park made me realize North Kedzie seemed to lack the street crowds, bicycle traffic, and late-night stops that vitalize me. I felt invigorated among the Saturday night energy here. After all of this stimulation plus Wicker Park two movie stops, leaving with a bag of incredibly chili covered crispy lima beans, Nine Queens on VHS from Earwax and Good Night and Good Luck on DVD, I feel like I won't want coffee in the morning.

photos: Chris B.


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