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I hate being overheard in restaurants.
One day at Sushi Hana, where the tables are ridiculously close together, I was telling my in-laws an anecdote I'd heard at the office. The man at the next table, a stranger, began glaring at me.
"Where'd you get that information?" he demanded rudely.
I wasn't about to say (I can't even remember what the anecdote was about, it was that important), but it was on the tip of my chopsticks to tell him to keep his nose in his own sushi boat. Thank goodness for mothers-in-law. Mine successfully defused the tension by asking the guy if he was from New York. When he said he was, she proceeded to list all her acquaintances from the area. Nothing like a good game of Jewish Geography to restore everyone's temper to teriyaki sweetness.
On the other hand, I love to eavesdrop.
I get my best information about restaurants by listening to patrons expressing admiration or discontent, or telling where they heard about the place and who they're going to pass the word to. Of course, most of what I hear has nothing at all to do with the eatery, and everything to do with personal lives. I enjoy this part just as much, as it gives me insight into people's characters -- valuable stuff for a writer.
The key to successful eavesdropping, I always thought -- more so than the distance between tables -- is the ability to refrain from interrupting. That's where the Sushi Hana stranger made his mistake, churlishly clueing us in to his interest and ruining any chance of learning more. Even if the tables are set a reasonable distance apart, if you maintain a polite silence you can usually tune in to other conversations and have some theater with your dinner.
Why no eavesdropping the night I visited? Because the customers were intent on making friends with each other. Leaning back in my black Formica chair with the white vinyl seat, I learned about the German immigration lawyer's five heart bypasses, the Middle Eastern man's penchant for red wine despite his religion's ban on the stuff, and both their wives' workout habits. And if I didn't feel like taking the floor in those conversations, I could chirp to my guests' newborn son (who slept soundly through his first review), talk to the waiter about his two-year-old daughter's craving for anchovies, or chat with chef-owner Ali Husseini about how it feels to finally have a culinary baby of his own after spending 35 years as a kitchen nanny for others.
Verbal entertainment, whether you're creating it or observing it, might just be a necessity here; Husseini's one-chef kitchen is undeniably slow. Still, I'd rather spend hours waiting for his wonderful creations than be quickly served an indifferently prepared meal.
Al Amir opened in the former location of Nastasi's, an Italian restaurant. The door mat says "Sizzler." And the inscription on the window beneath the name reads "Mediterranean restaurant." Ignore all that. Husseini's from Lebanon, and so's his menu. I suppose it's a coincidence that a few columns ago, in a piece about Grazie Cafe -- which also opened in a former Di Napoli location -- I wished the Israeli owner had given some thought to opening a Middle Eastern rather than an Italian restaurant. Thanks to fairy godfather Husseini, who named his restaurant for the popular South Beach Lebanese eatery that had a short run in the early Nineties and where he was chef, wish granted.
And granted, and granted, and granted. Meze, or appetizers, are one of the pleasures of Lebanese cuisine; servings are big enough to pass around the table but not so large that they fill you up -- which is probably why we felt free to order five. Or maybe it was the fact that the menu lists 35 starters, and an equal number of entrees. Though not all the selections are always available, you'd probably do best to leave indecisive dining companions at home.
Pickled turnips and sour cucumbers, along with pita bread, are both gratis beginnings and a pleasant accompaniment to any number of the refreshing cold appetizers. Tabbouleh was particularly masterful, a tangy concoction of chopped parsley, bulgur, tomatoes, onions, and mint. A light sprinkling of lemony olive oil dressing took down the overpowering herbs a notch, rendering them more like soft, fragrant greens. One guest, a University of Florida alum, declared this tabbouleh even better than the stuff at Falafel King, one of Gainesville's requisite student hangouts -- a compliment of the highest order.
The restaurant had run out of a more unusual offering, dandelions sauteed with onions and garlic, but did provide a marvelous (if familiar) baba ghannouj. This eggplant spread, chunky with the charcoaled vegetable, was blended with tahini and lemon juice for a smooth, aromatic presentation. We went through basket after basket of warmed pita bread mopping it up, and also a lovely salatah laban, yogurt spiked with cucumber, cracked pepper, garlic, and mint. Called tzatziki in Greece and cacik in Turkey (two of its more common names), this popular dip was a little bit thinner but no less delicious than the Greek version, in which the yogurt is first strained through a cheesecloth.