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Thursday, June 22, 2006

'Bob's Your Uncle

Posted on Thu, Jun 22, 2006 at 4:00 AM

The kebab: a contribution to world cuisine from ancient Mesopotamia. Those Babylonian brochettes have found their way to all corners of the globe, where they've become the favored fare of the streets. Over in Winter Park, the skewers of succulence have taken on a decidedly Persian twist. If you catch a whiff of sizzling flesh as you pull into the chichi strip mall off Fairbanks and New York avenues, chances are it's emanating from the House of Kabob and not the Elite tanning salon next door. Nevertheless, be wary of golden-griddled gals when you navigate through the tight lanes of the parking lot, and when navigating the tight quarters of Masoud Sadeh's popular meat shack. To say the interior is cramped would be an understatement. Three tables lie between the entrance and the counter where all orders are placed, but getting to that promised land requires a parting of various furnishings, not to mention the occasional rub-up against a fellow patron (cue the tanned blonde). Throw in some high-backed chairs, a couple of upright fans and three giant pre-revolutionary Iranian flags emblazoned with a lion clasping a sword in its paw (or is it a skewer?) and things can feel a tad claustrophobic. My advice: Order your kebabs and take 'em to the patio, where you have some room to de-skewer. It should be noted that soon after Sadeh took over operations from HOK's previous owners, there was a marked improvement in both quality and quantity of the kebabs. But on a recent visit, a noticeable diminution was detected, particularly with the chicken kebab platter ($8.95). The once plump, saffron-marinated morsels sprinkled with lemony sumac had been reduced to bite-sized portions (albeit delicious bite-sized portions) on a single lance. Same went for the shish kebab platter ($9.95), exceptionally pliant yet not overly moist beef tenderloin, and the beef kebab ($7.95), a cylinder of seasoned ground beef. Sure, you get a couple of sides, but even repetitive dunks of pita bread into the refreshing cucumber-mint-yogurt dip leave you unsatiated. So preludes like the grape leaves ($4.95) stuffed with rice, split peas and herbs bathed in olive oil, and the halim ($5.95), a pasty blend of eggplant, lentils and garlicky yogurt flecked with walnuts, help to fill the void. The falafel ($5.95) suffered from a mealy texture that even the tzatziki sauce couldn't redeem, probably because it was left out or deep-fried too long. If the ghormeh sabzi ($7.95) is available, dive in. Cilantro, fenugreek, spinach and dried lime infuse the hearty beef-and-bean stew, and the accompanying fried rice cakes make the dish a meal in itself. The yogurt-mint beverage doogh ($2.25) will meet your sodium requirement for the day while serving to enhance the acidity level in your meal. Nectarous baklava ($1.50) with a spot of Persian tea ($1.05) balances out the bite. A disturbing trend I'm noticing in many 'ethnicâ?� restaurants around town is the appearance of such populist fast food staples as pasta, wings and deli sandwiches on the menu. Sadeh says it's to attract Rollins College students, but how is a student, even one who goes to Rollins, expected to infer that Cuban sandwiches and lasagna are offered at a place called 'House of Kabobâ?�? There's no such culinary dumbing-down at Kanoon Mediterranean Grill, where a motif of flames and chili peppers pervades the interior, right down to the trio of jokesters playing with fire behind the counter. You don't need a degree in culinary arts to understand the offerings listed on the large whiteboard: grilled meat, salad and bread. The proprietor may be Lebanese, but when it comes to kebabs, it's the proportionality of seasonings that subtly differentiates one from Tehran from one from Beirut. The 'meat lovers comboâ?� ($11.50) is a hit-and-miss platter with five small cubes of grilled beef, two sausage-like rolls of kofta (ground beef) and a duo of diminutive chicken kebabs resting atop a layer of flatbread. The grilled beef was largely flavorless (unless dipped in tzatziki sauce) and the kofta kebabs too salty. The smoky chicken was nicely seasoned and, by far, the best of the lot. There's a Goldilocks and the Three Bears reference here somewhere. Tender chunks of flame-licked, sumac-seasoned lamb are stuffed into a pita ($6.75) along with parsley, red onions and tomato to appease alterna-burger seekers. Odd to see chicken and beef shawarmas ($9.95) offered, yet no rotating vertical spit in sight. That's because it's a relatively new menu item and before owner Mohammed Abdullah invests in an expensive cooking machine, he'll offer patrons a taste by cooking them up like a Philly cheese steak. The beef version is particularly meaty and an ideal lunchtime wrap. The kebabs, like most everything else here, are mildly spiced. Somewhat surprising considering the motif, though heat seekers can dip their forks into the blistering sauce doled out on request. The creamy hummus ($4.25) and tart edge of the fattoush salad ($6.25) will appeal to vegetarians, though be careful when biting down on a pita crouton ' they're like lethal weapons in your mouth. Garbanzo's Inferno ($4.75) amounts to hummus with pureed vegetables and peppers, but the acerbic zing failed to make it enjoyable. Kanoon's slogan, 'Where's there's smoke, there's flavor,â?� seemingly applies to the sheesha pipes behind the counter as well. Eight bucks will get you tobacco flavored with everything from apple to strawberry and, judging from the dearth of dessert offerings, is one sweet way to blow your money away.


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