With a name that translates as "hors d'oeuvres," the restaurant could be expected to do a great job on mixed platters, and it does. Served with pita bread, the seven-item plate included an assertive hummus, whose creamy texture was made more interesting by the inclusion of some chickpeas that had not been entirely pulverized; smoky strips of red pepper; a Mediterranean salad of diced tomatoes and cukes in a mint-refreshed olive oil/lemon dressing; balsamic-dressed chicken salad; a spicy Turkish-style pepper salad; marinated mushroom slices that had a bit too much vinegary bite; and a "babaganouch" whose only pain came from the "ouch" in the menu's misspelling. The baba ghannouj itself was lovely, slightly tangy rather than glopped up by the standard overdose of mayonnaise, and flavored with cilantro as well as garlic. The amount was enough for three to share -- a lot of food for nine dollars.
While Kemia's platter price stayed the same at lunch and dinner, some prices go up a few bucks at night, when several additional, higher-priced dishes ($20 to $30) are also offered. But most items stay in the $6-to-$15 range all day. Another item well worth its modest tag was a $6.50 entrée of pastilla au poulet et aux amandes. This was explained by a server as identical to brick (alternatively, in Tunisia, spelled brik), generally a triangle of thin, deep-fried pastry stuffed with egg, tuna, mashed potatoes, ground meat, or some combination of fillings. Two versions using customary stuffings were on Kemia's menu, but the pastilla, filled with chicken, walnuts, and cilantro, sounded more interesting -- and was. The cylindrical filo shell was super-crisp, and the minced chicken filling a balanced mix of savory, sweet, spicy, and nutty. A Middle Eastern spring roll.
Many of Kemia's entrée-size kebabs and grilled-meat plates are also available as sandwiches, a budget-wise (and otherwise wise) way to try them, since the place bills itself as "the specialist in Mediterranean sandwiches." A veggie sandwich (grilled eggplant, zucchini, peppers, and carrot) was excellent, topped with Kemia's hummus. A kefta (grilled meatball) sandwich was bland. But a merguez (grilled lamb sausage) was an eye opener, very spicy and supplemented with additional creamed hot chili sauce. It was supposed to arrive on a baguette, but came on pita -- twice. All sandwiches included salads, which on one occasion were based on an interesting mesclun mix, another day on a boring heap of iceberg lettuce.
The only thing seriously working against Kemia's success in its increasingly hip neighborhood was its décor. The room is basically quite cute, its smallness enveloping and cozily warm rather than claustrophobic. But it was hard to ignore the cartoonish mural that dominates one wall, depicting, along with many bearded rabbis and Jewish peasants, a Native American in full Fifties cowboys-and-Indians regalia, plus a slant-eyed and pigtailed Chinese fellow with an absolutely idiotic grin -- a veritable parade of outmoded stereotypes. Undoubtedly meant to be funny, it cheapens the room. With a coat of off-white paint over Dr. Fu Manchu and Chief Thunderthud, Kemia would be a welcome upgrade to the area's restaurant scene.