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False Modesty 

Unlike most restaurants, CLEOPATRA MEDITERRANEAN CUISINE doesn't over-sell its menu. Maybe it should.

Ordinarily an appeal for truth in menu is a plea against misleading language, such as calling cultivated portobellos "wild mushrooms," or including mass-produced cheesecake on a list of "homemade desserts." Simple aggrandizement in menu descriptions is a lesser offense but still objectionable; in most restaurants, diners should be able to take for granted that the iced tea is "freshly brewed" and that the pork chops are "grilled to perfection."

Rare is the case that a restaurant doesn't toot its own horn forcefully enough, but such is the marketing strategy at Cleopatra, a new restaurant with substantial bragging rights muted by a deceptively humble menu.

Cleopatra's menu does boast of pita bread baked on-site, a self-evident fact once you've seen the full-figured pouches, rubbed your fingertips against their flour-roughened surfaces and torn into their baked duality -- each soft piece bisects horizontally into a sort of unleavened flap on one side and a plumper, bready frisbee on the other. A lone waiter who seems to work every shift, his method as crisp as his white shirt, encourages eating the pita with a dipping sauce that he concocts by shaking dried oregano and sesame seeds into pools of olive oil.

What the menu and the waiter neglect to mention is a detail that, even more than newly baked pita bread, separates Cleopatra's repertoire of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes from the bevy of similar foods offered across town. Namely, proprietor Khalil Jamhour purchases the restaurant's lamb, beef and chicken from Kased Brothers Halal Meat market in Kenner, the Palestinian owners of which raise the animals on a small farm in Mississippi. The one time I stopped by Kased Brothers, butchers were busy hauling whole sides of calf from a refrigerated truck. You could only get fresher meat by eating on the farm itself, and yet as of early September there wasn't a "farm-raised," a "free-range" or a "grain-fed" mention on Cleopatra's menu.

A superhuman palate might have guessed the truth by taste alone -- by the wild grassiness of the lamb, by the superior marbled savor of the beef, and by the fact that the chicken has flavor at all -- but if the owner of Kased Brothers hadn't revealed the origin of Cleopatra's meats, I probably would have chalked the fertile flavors and tenderness up to unknown seasonings or a potent marinade. Knowing that the meat came from a bona fide butcher also softened the blow, if not the discomfort, of excess gristle on two occasions: Both the hummus with lamb and the chicken shawarma platters featured heaps of virtually unchewable nibbles.

Jamhour, who was raised in Jordan by Palestinian parents, classifies Cleopatra's menu as an amalgam of Greek, Lebanese and Egyptian specialties; it could also be described as an exposition on carnivorous yearnings. A combination kabob platter allows sampling of several grill-charred meats, including moist, spice-yellowed chicken and herbed lamb meatballs (kafta), which hold together just long enough to collapse between your teeth.

The Cleopatra Super Special is a jamboree of vegetables -- a hollowed-out potato, similarly excavated summer squash, a side of baked eggplant and roasted tomato -- all stuffed and scattered with outrageous quantities of ground beef or lamb, and served with a side kabob of your choice (the menu erroneously advertises beef or lamb shank). Cleopatra's atypical mousaka is a tidier variation on the Super Special theme, layering sliced tomato and eggplant roasted to candy over a stockpile of coarsely ground lamb and pine nuts.

Musakhan, the most extraordinary main course, is half a roasted chicken blanketed in an exaltation of flavors and textures: sweetly golden onions, meaty pine nuts, tangy ground sumac and fresh, astringent parsley. And you can still taste the chicken. This, and most everything else, is bettered by a side of thick yogurt and cucumbers.

Vegetarians have options here, too, and the split pea-green lentil soup and nearly weightless but mysteriously substantial falafel are the best of them. An appetizer sampler unites several basic familiarities, including meatless grape leaves; fried kibbeh, little pinatas of bulgar wheat that spill ground meat; and hummus, a fairly bland puree of chickpeas and tahini.

Already a minor draw, desserts and Turkish coffee layered with waves of breathy cardamom and bitter earth will star at a Middle Eastern sweets shop that Jamhour is set to open next month just two doors down. I look forward to more kunafa, a syrup-soaked dessert of shredded pastry and ricotta cheese, and I hope for fresher baklava when the turnover increases. Cleopatra's smart surroundings set it apart from most other restaurants specializing in hummus and kabobs. White-clothed tabletops, beaded chandeliers from Syria, and hand-painted Egyptian parchment ornament a large dining room softened by dim lighting and nougat-colored walls. It's a setting that's likely to inspire drinkers to reach for the wine list -- in vain: No alcohol is allowed on the premises. Given that, the cold beverage selection, which earlier this month comprised iced tea and soda, could use some more thought. Farm-fresh, free-range, halal meats call for sparkling, well-sourced, bottled water at the very least.

click to enlarge Main event: The musakhan, half of a roasted chicken - loaded with flavors and textures, is the dish to look for - at CLEOPATRA MEDITERRANEAN CUISINE. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Main event: The musakhan, half of a roasted chicken loaded with flavors and textures, is the dish to look for at CLEOPATRA MEDITERRANEAN CUISINE.


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