Maroosh is the busiest restaurant I've seen that not one person claims to have heard of.
On a recent Saturday evening, it was packed tighter than Lil' Kim's silicon-plumped zeppelins. And why not? The food is consistently tasty and well prepared, the portions are huge, and the prices are on the saintly side of moderate. It has a creditable and not overly extortionate wine list, friendly and efficient staff, and a comfortable room that bubbles with energy and good humor.
But when was the last time you heard anything about it?
Where is the buzz, the press, the column mentions? The hordes of food-crazed bloggers, the relentless restaurant publicists, the foodie gossips who can sniff out a sous chef's temper tantrum as if it were a fresh Alba truffle? As the great philosopher Yogi Berra once said, "Nobody goes there any more. It's too crowded."
Maroosh styles itself a Mediterranean restaurant. Well, okay. There are some varyingly Mediterranean-esque dishes on the menu lemon-and-garlic-marinated grilled chicken, scampi with the exotic touch of cilantro added to the standard lemon-butter sauce, pepper steak, and rack of lamb. You could order them and they would probably be very good.
But the soul of Maroosh is its familiar yet thoroughly delicious Middle Eastern fare hummus, dolmades, kibeh, kebabs, baklava. You might assume they are so overly popular that nobody would order them. But they do. And you should too.
Two people can make an entire meal of Maroosh's create-your-own appetizer platter. Twenty-eight bucks brings a choice of five salads or apps from a roster of 27, spanning everything from the ubiquitous tabbouleh to finger-size Lebanese lamb sausages. The sausages, by the way, are good stuff, perhaps a tad dry, but with lots of meaty flavor enhanced by a tangy lemon-parsley sauce. The tabbouleh is good too if you enjoy eating lawn clippings. We had to search to find the few meager grains of bulgur wheat amid the verdant fields of parsley.
You're better off skipping the tabbouleh. Instead try the juicy dolmades, which comprise ground lamb and a small amount of rice wrapped in grape leaves and served with terrific housemade yogurt. Or opt for the small, empanadalike pies filled with meat, cheese, or refreshingly lemony spinach. Foul medamas actually taste better than they sound (the relevant word is pronounced fool). This thick purée of dried fava beans, lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil has a pronounced nutty-earthy flavor that can be a little startling. But the slices of marinated tomato served alongside mellow things out nicely; their bright acidity tempers a vaguely Burgundian mustiness.
Speaking of Burgundy, you can get one here. And Barolo and Chianti and high-end Cabernet and even a handful of wines from Lebanon. Maroosh also serves Rioja, a wine whose light-to-medium body, restrained fruit, and relatively high acidity complement the food. The 1995 Marques de Caceres Reserva is a lovely wine in its own right and an exceptional value at $32.
Of course, you must have kebabs. Choose from lamb in chunks or ground beef, chicken, or shrimp. The spice-scented kafta kebab is first-rate, the coarsely ground lamb moist and flavorful. It's almost as good as the fork-tender lamb threaded in big chunks on skewers and grilled to lusty, garlicky, lightly charred deliciousness. Even the lemony chicken white meat, no less is juicy and tender. Order the combo, which brings a skewer of each and guarantees two hungry carnivores a gnawing good time for only $20.
The baklava is a must-have for dessert. It's a great rendition light and flaky pastry, lots of honey-bound walnuts, sweet but not insipid, elegant rather than homey. This dish alone shows why Maroosh is always so crowded.
Even if nobody goes there.