Middle Eastern Pleaser
Ma-roosh goes the fan as it sweeps across gray embers and revives their red glow, which is how this Mediterranean restaurant in Coral Gables gets its name. Although new to the neighborhood, owner Samir Al-Barq has been dishing Middle Eastern specialties at Maroosh's former Kendall site for more than a dozen years. The new digs are stylish, a two-story structure fronted by potted palms and gracefully porticoed balconies. The interior, spare and tasteful, seats 50 downstairs, 30 upstairs, and another 20 outdoors; fanciful artwork on the walls colorfully depicts characters that could have been culled from The Arabian Nights.
Pale white semicircles of pita that filled a linen-lined basket tasted as though they, too, were leftovers from the times of Scheherezade (a return visit brought warmer and fresher bread, if not better quality). Admittedly pita is not the most flavorful or richly textured bread to begin with, but these hard-edged discs were noteworthy in their blandness -- and incongruous with the stellar starters that followed. The pita principle: Even if you do nothing else right at a Middle Eastern restaurant, make sure your bread is fresh.
Maroosh does a lot of things right, especially when it comes to appetizers. Everyone at the table agreed that the moutabel, a smoothly puréed blend of smoky eggplant, tahini, and lemon juice (known to most in this country as baba ghannouj), was one of the best they'd had. A velvety version of hummus likewise impressed, a proper blend of sesame and lemon flavors playing off each other, with mere whispers of garlic in the backdrop. Five crisply fried, highly spiced falafel balls, with puréed broad beans added to the chickpea mix, and a tabbouleh salad of cracked wheat, parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil were also first-rate.
Maroosh's menu meanders beyond mundane Middle Eastern combo-platter components. Shanklish is a spicily marinated feta cheese topped with chopped onions, tomatoes, and olive oil; bamia features sautéed okra with cilantro-accented tomato sauce; foul madamas combines fava beans, tomato, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil in sprightly fashion; and fatoush, a salad of chopped lettuce, cucumber, green pepper, tomato, and hard shards of toasted pita, is doused in a house vinaigrette animated with sumac (a dark red, astringent berry ground into spice and used in all sorts of Middle Eastern dishes). Most salads and appetizers are under $5, but you can choose five of your liking for $18.95 -- served on separate plates, not crammed onto one family-sized platter. Splendid deal considering the quality.
Not all of the main courses were as satisfying. Two skewers of lamb shish kebab, ordered medium-rare, arrived as dry, well-done cubes interspersed with squares of grilled green pepper and onion. Raw slices of red onion on the side were redundant and tasted day-old, but an accompanying dome of Mediterranean rice was nice, laced with toasted slivered almonds and thin, buttery brown fedelini noodles (which translates to "little faithful ones").
Same rice sided all entrées, along with unseasoned, overcooked carrot nubs -- the type that are deceptively marketed in stores as "baby carrots." The menu description of lamb medallions as "thinly sliced tenderloin of lamb grilled to your liking" likewise gives a false impression. Our liking was medium-rare, but the waiter didn't inform us that the flavorfully seasoned lamb was pounded to a thinness that made this impossible -- there simply wasn't enough space between the top and bottom of these paper-like pieces of meat to contain any red whatsoever. A trio of American lamb chops looked much better.
Mediterranean chicken was much better, half a boneless bird potently marinated in lemon and garlic and succulently bursting with the full thrill of charcoal-grilled flavor. Mediterranean fish fillet of the day came off the grill too -- grouper was announced as that evening's catch, but a curiously pink slab of seafood arrived on the plate. The waiter graciously offered to get us grouper instead, but we stuck with a scrumptious salmon topped with golden pine nuts in cilantro-flecked lemon-garlic sauce. Main courses, priced between $12.95 and $17.95, are served with a generous salad dressed with fruity olive oil, lemon juice, and lots of oregano. For a dollar extra the greens come covered with a snowfall of shredded feta cheese.
The nice thing about Maroosh is that it tries hard to please. Samir stops by each table to check that all is fine. The waiters are friendly and fairly strong at service, though they could have done a better job in wiping down the table between courses -- the shiny lacquered tops are easily smudged. And when it comes to dessert, Maroosh isn't content with just trotting out the obligatory baklava, but offers another half-dozen phyllo-honey-nut combinations as well -- like roses of phyllo filled with honey and chopped pine nuts; fingers of phyllo rolled around honey and ground cashews; and shredded phyllo embedded with honey and pistachios. For something different try namoura, a delicious tres leches-textured square of farina butter dough soaked in sugar syrup and topped with almonds. For something really different, at least in the context of finishing off a falafel/shish kebab-type dinner, you can sample one of a line of imported frozen Italian desserts -- but only if you're in the mood for an unspectacular, un-Middle Eastern, very cold treat. Sometimes you can try too hard to please.
Weekends bring a more robust crowd to the restaurant -- perhaps it's the belly dancers who draw them in. In any case those who appreciate wiggling stomachs might want to know that shows take place Friday and Saturday nights at 8:30, 9:30, and 10:30. Diners who prefer their hummus without the spectacle of undulating body parts should likewise take note. Most fans of Middle Eastern food will probably enjoy this restaurant any old time, though one would hope Maroosh irons out some of its kinks just the same.
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