Middle Eastern in Orlando with Kid Friendly

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    Here's the thing: I don't know much about Turkish cuisine. But here's the other thing: You don't have to know much to know that Bosphorous, a new Turkish restaurant gracing Park Avenue, has exceptional food. After being initiated into the world of Turkish food by Bosphorous, I daydream about a culinary journey to Turkey. Aren't daydreams what good ethnic cuisine should inspire? Shouldn't foreign foods hold adventure with a healthy dose of curiosity to wash it down?

    When thinking about Turkish food, think ancient fusion. The crescent-shaped region lies on a swath of land that juts out between the Black and the Mediterranean seas, dividing Europe from the Middle East. Turkey was touched by all the major spice routes in the 15th century and was a major hub of other trade during its heyday under Ottoman rule, which lasted 600 years. Not surprisingly, Turkish food is an amalgamation of the many people who have passed through. I noticed hints of Italian, Lebanese and Greek, yet this food has a style all its own. It's rich in eggplant and lamb and spices of all sorts; citrusy red sumac is served alongside verdant dill, while zesty coriander, cumin and cayenne are also likely to make appearances.

    We started with lavas ($4.99), an unleavened, griddle-baked bread. This oversized, hollow pocket puffed up into a feathery pillow and was served with a light smattering of butter and sesame seeds. The flavor was superbly sweet with a pleasing sour tang. I loved tearing off small pieces and dipping it into one of the many cold appetizers scattered across our table. We tried three different eggplant appetizers: One grilled, with a heavy dose of dill, called patlican salatasi; another, soslu patlican, was made with fried eggplant in a tomato sauce; and a third was smoky and garlicky and familiar – baba ghanoush ($7.50 each). In addition, we got tarama ($7.50), an emulsion of olive oil and lemon juice whipped with orange caviar, and haydari ($6.95), a creamy yogurt dip made with lemon, walnuts and fresh dill. Oh, and some of the best hummus ($6.95) I've ever tasted.

    Among my favorite entrees, there were many made with dšner kebab, a spiced mixture of ground lamb that originated in Anatolia and was the predecessor of Greek gyro and Arabic shawarma. I especially liked the iskender kebap ($18.95), which featured this spiced lamb meat served with a delicate tomato sauce and a heap of yogurt. The beautiful and popular C. got etli manti ($15.95), a Turkish-style ravioli stuffed with lamb (what else?), squash and onions. A whole section of the menu is dedicated to pide, a pizza-like Turkish pastry that is stuffed with various ingredients. We tried the spinach pide ($12.99), which came with a hearty mix of feta, onions, tomatoes and spinach.

    Special mention should be made of Bosphorous' wine selection from the Turkish Kavaklidere winery. A deliciously tannic red paired well with the olive oil-rich cuisine, while the white variety was refreshingly fruity. I also couldn't get enough of the nonalcoholic beverages imported from Turkey, especially the mouth-puckering cherry juice ($2).

    After making our way through the surfeit of victuals that Bosphorous has to offer, we went outside so that some of my friends could smoke the nargile, or water pipe, while I chowed on some homemade baklava ($5.50) and Turkish coffee ($2.50). Wafts of apple-scented smoke piled up around us as straight-laced Winter Parkers passed with mouths agape at this beautifully derelict form of entertainment taking over the block. The owners of Bosphorous fell in love with Park Avenue and moved down from New York, bringing four Turkish chefs in tow, just to open their restaurant. I'd go a lot further than that for this food.

    I'm an appetizer fanatic. Gimme a big assortment of little dishes and I am happy. That's why Korean, Indian and Chinese food pleases me so much. Now, with the opening of Cedar's Restaurant, I can add Lebanese to that list.

    In a break from the Corporate Fooding of the Sand Lake Road corridor through the Dr. Phillips area, Cedar's is privately owned, and it's hard to beat the hands-on care. With a background in restaurants in New York, the owners say they wanted to "present healthy, well-made food" to Central Florida, and they've succeeded.

    In a break from the Corporate Fooding of the Sand Lake Road corridor through the Dr. Phillips area, Cedar's is privately owned, and it's hard to beat the hands-on care. With a background in restaurants in New York, the owners say they wanted to "present healthy, well-made food" to Central Florida, and they've succeeded.

    My other obsession is food that is authentically traditional, and Cedar's, in a pistachio nutshell, does it right. Their spin on traditional Lebanese seems to be a lightness of texture and flavor that is both refreshing and inviting. If you're familiar, with Middle Eastern food you won't be disappointed. But if your only experience has been leaden falafel and overwhelming spices, you are in for a treat.

    My other obsession is food that is authentically traditional, and Cedar's, in a pistachio nutshell, does it right. Their spin on traditional Lebanese seems to be a lightness of texture and flavor that is both refreshing and inviting. If you're familiar, with Middle Eastern food you won't be disappointed. But if your only experience has been leaden falafel and overwhelming spices, you are in for a treat.

    There are far too many appetizers to describe. Even the small pitas are splendid, puffy and hot from the clay oven. Use them to scoop up baba ghannouj, a smooth roasted eggplant and garlic puree with a wonderfully smokey taste ($3.75), as well as shanklish, crumbled cheese blended with thyme, onions and tomato that's so creamy it literally does melt in your mouth ($4.75). Falafel (fried chick peas and bean patties; $3.75) is far lighter than I've ever come across, and a tasty pleasure. The very traditional kebbeh ($4.25) is a flavorful cracked wheat ball stuffed with ground meat and onions.

    There are far too many appetizers to describe. Even the small pitas are splendid, puffy and hot from the clay oven. Use them to scoop up baba ghannouj, a smooth roasted eggplant and garlic puree with a wonderfully smokey taste ($3.75), as well as shanklish, crumbled cheese blended with thyme, onions and tomato that's so creamy it literally does melt in your mouth ($4.75). Falafel (fried chick peas and bean patties; $3.75) is far lighter than I've ever come across, and a tasty pleasure. The very traditional kebbeh ($4.25) is a flavorful cracked wheat ball stuffed with ground meat and onions.

    If you want to start with something familiar, here's a restaurant that knows its shish kabobs ($14.75) – cubes of marinated lamb, slow roasted and tender. When you feel adventurous, move on to mouloukhieh ($10.75), chicken with malow leaves, cilantro and garlic.

    If you want to start with something familiar, here's a restaurant that knows its shish kabobs ($14.75) – cubes of marinated lamb, slow roasted and tender. When you feel adventurous, move on to mouloukhieh ($10.75), chicken with malow leaves, cilantro and garlic.

    "Sultan Ibrahim" ($16) is a plateful of small red mullet (I had five), an ancient coastal fish that has a deep, freshwater flavor and is seldom served in the U.S. The fish are served whole and it takes work to get around the bones. But it's delicious, accompanied by tender fried-eggplant rounds and sesame tahini sauce, and worth the effort.

    "Sultan Ibrahim" ($16) is a plateful of small red mullet (I had five), an ancient coastal fish that has a deep, freshwater flavor and is seldom served in the U.S. The fish are served whole and it takes work to get around the bones. But it's delicious, accompanied by tender fried-eggplant rounds and sesame tahini sauce, and worth the effort.

    The place itself is light and window-filled, with Ottoman arches, columns and a pleasant dining terrace. Be sure to eat just the right amount so you're sleepy enough to offset the jolt of pure caffeine disguised as Turkish coffee. It's a delicate balance that may take two or three visits to get right. Fortunately, you'll enjoy every attempt.

    College students and cheap, ethnic eateries seem to go hand in hand. Where there's a school of higher learning, you'll usually find a stable of offbeat, funky restaurants where the young and impoverished can chart untried culinary territory.

    For sure, the University of Central Florida area needs more of these type of restaurants. But for the last nine years, while the surrounding area exploded with cookie-cutter subdivisions and food chains, the low-key Falafel Cafe has been dishing out a taste of the Middle East to students and others hooked on the culture's culinary favors.

    Falafel Cafe is quite small, with less than two dozen tables. There's no view to speak of, but an enormous painting dominates the entrance, capturing a scene from the Beirut waterfront. Back in the 1970s, that's where chef Hind Dajani perfected her recipes as a mother of four. Piped-in Middle Eastern music enhances the cuisine. And while service isn't always fast, it's usually friendly.

    Descriptions of each dish make the menu reader-friendly. And if you can't commit to any one item, skip the entrees and fill up on tapas-style appetizers, which are in the $2 to $5 range.

    Vegetarian dishes are a Middle Eastern strength, and Dajani is particularly deft with the namesake falafels ($3.99) – fried croquettes made with crushed garbanzo and fava beans, onions and a mixed bag of seasonings. They're delicious by themselves or dipped in the accompanying tahini sauce, a thick paste of ground sesame seeds. Kibbe balls ($4.99) are similar, except they're made with bulghur wheat and seasoned ground beef.

    Falafel Cafe's hummus ($2.49) is creamy and tempting, made with pureed garbanzo beans, sesame sauce, olive oil and garlic. A splash of lemon brings out the naturally nutty flavors. Baba ghanoush ($2.49) gets a similar treatment, made of eggplant mashed to a pulp and mixed with yogurt. Use it as a dip for pita bread, or better yet, ask for the garlic bread pita ($1.99), which is brushed with butter and minced garlic.

    The success of the simple "cedar salad" ($7.99) is in the fresh ingredients. Bright greens are topped with herb-crusted chicken kababs, olives and peppers. Pickled turnips add hot-pink color.

    When you're in the mood for warm, hearty Middle Eastern cooking, you'll find it here.

    Tucked in a corner of the Dr. Phillips Marketplace, this humble eatery may not have the cachet of its neighbor Anatolia, but as a kebaberia, it more than holds it down. The exclellent rice complements flavorful kafta kebab, shish tawook and rack of lmb. Traditional starters are all worthy, but consider crunchy fattoush sala and pizza-like safiha for a change. Baklava is served cold, but Turkish coffee is properly steaming,.


    Teaser: Tucked in a corner of the Dr. Phillips Marketplace, this humble eatery may not have the cachet of its neighbor Anatolia, but as a kebaberia, it more than holds its own. The excellent rice complements flavorful kafta kebab, shish tawook and rack of lamb. Traditional starters are all worthy, but consider crunchy fattoush salad and pizza-like safiha for a change. Baklava is served cold, but Turkish coffee is properly steaming.

    I've never been to Greece, but I hear that eating at restaurants is mostly an outdoor affair. This fact bodes well for the Greek Corner on Orange Avenue, where the outside tables afford a picturesque view over Lake Ivanhoe. Formerly the home of Tiramisu Café, the new restaurant has a better grasp of Greek food than Tiramisu had of Italian. And there's a logical reason for that: The Greek Corner is owned by Demetrius and Tia Tsafonias, a husband-and-wife team from a small village outside Athens, Greece. The couple ran restaurants in the northern U.S. for years before coming south.

    The inside space is still cramped and a little cheesy, but fortunately the outside space has been gussied up in Greek décor and is still a great asset. When the weather is right, it's lovely to sit on the patio, looking over the lake that's pooled in front of the downtown skyline, nibbling dolmathakia ($6.50), tightly wrapped cigars of grape leaves surrounding rice spiced with dill, mint and pungent lemon.

    Some of the earliest written records about Mediterranean cuisine come from ancient Greece, but the Greek cuisine of today is more closely linked with the Albanians and Turks. Proud of their culinary history, many Greeks would be distressed to hear that their country's cuisine was influenced by surrounding Mediterranean countries, rather than the other way around. For instance, we can thank the Albanians on the Isle of Crete for the technique of spit-roasting used in traditional Greek kebab dishes. Another influence on modern Greek cooking comes from the Byzantine era, which heralded the emergence of the popular dish moussaka ($13.50), concocted with eggplant and lamb baked in béchamel sauce.

    The most awe-inspiring dish I ordered at Greek Corner was the hot meze platter ($12.50), one of the restaurant's specialties. Four of us ordered the appetizer, which is recommended for two people, and we were stuffed silly before we finished. The platter has a dizzying array of samplings from the menu, including two distinct salads that deserve honorable mention: melitzanosalat, made from roasted eggplant and red pepper, is smoky and sultry; and taramosalata, featuring the oceany flavor of whipped orange caviar. Besides these two salads, the big fat Greek appetizer brimmed with baked feta, gyro meat, braised lamb and more. If we had known the huge portions on the meze, we wouldn't have ordered the calamari ($8.50) appetizer, which was chewy but had flavor. Its red sauce tasted mostly of the grassy finish of Greek olive oil.

    There were many other starters, including the ever-present spanikopita ($6), which stems from a traditional Lent snack. Greek Corner's is a standard envelope of phyllo stuffed with tangy feta and spinach so well-cooked that it almost tastes more like an herb than a vegetable. The Greek salad ($6.75) is an OK version of what you'd expect – mixed greens with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, kalamata olives and fresh feta cheese with a dressing loaded with oregano. Avgolemono soup ($3), so named from the Greek words for "egg" and "lemon" and heavy on both ingredients, is a chicken soup stocked with bright lemon juice and musky black pepper as well as ribbons of egg yolk.

    Among the entrees, the braised lamb ($13.95) was one of the best. The meat was succulently tender and had a heavy sauce rich with sweet spices – I tasted cinnamon, nutmeg and garlic. Pastitsio ($13.50), the Greek version of lasagna, was perfectly crusty and crunchy on the outside, while having an inner layer that was pliable and soft. Spiced beef and cream sauce with a hint of nutmeg rounded out the ziti-like pasta. Culinary historians might be interested to know that pastitsio has both Italian and Muslim influences – Italian in name but Muslim in technique.

    We couldn't leave without indulging in the baklava ($2.50) with walnuts drenched in simple syrup. The homemade galaktoboureko ($3.50) may be more difficult to say but is vastly better, featuring a lemony custard. As is Greek tradition, your belly will be full as you finish those last bites of dessert and look out over Lake Ivanhoe, wondering if you'll be able to get up and walk.

    For grammatical correctness, the name of this Winter Park newcomer should be "House of Kabobs" – plural, not singular, as the family-owned enterprise serves several varieties of grilled skewers. But the sound of the singular "House of Kabob" has a quirky ring to it – "Hey, I'm headed over to House of Kabob, want something?" – that matches its quirky vibe. There just aren't that many Iranian fast-food joints around.

    "Persian" is how one of the counter workers described the atmospheric music playing during a busy lunch hour. Further inquiry revealed that it was contemporary music from Iran – an interesting subject in itself, what with all the censorship. So while there's a sunny, modern, generic feel to House of Kabob, there is more than food inspired by Middle Eastern culture to be tasted. Traditionally, Persian cuisine makes use of spices that come together gently (no burning sensations); the lemony taste of sumac in particular imparts a clean flavor.

    House of Kabob is in an upscale shopping plaza with a culinary history – The Mill brewery was the first anchor and Taqueria Quetzalcoatl originally opened there. And several other restaurants currently are under construction. It's good to see some places to eat returning to an area that's most recently been dominated by a bridal salon. The menu is small but satisfying. There are kabobs made from ground beef, chicken, scolar (a mild white fish) and "shiesh" (beef tenderloin). The kabobs can be prepared as a platter ($4.95 to $7.95), served with rice (they call it white rice but it's saffron yellow), flatbread and "shiraz" salad (with chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, mint and lemon juice). Or they can be prepared as a sandwich with lettuce, tomato, red onion and cucumber ($2.95 to $4.95). Ordered cooked medium, the shiesh was bloody raw in the middle but tender; the tart sumac did wonders for the chicken, which was a favorite, as was the shiraz, a harmonious concoction.

    Reasonably priced vegetarian wraps – hummus, baba ghanoush and tabouli ($3.90 small, $5.90 large) – were filling. Ask for some feta to be thrown into the mix, a worthy recommendation from the sandwich maker. There's much to be appreciated at the House of Kabob – nothing is heavy but it's protein-rich, and the centuries-old spicing is a refreshing discovery.

    Mediterranean Deli tops my list of places to eat for $10 or less. Located in a 1950s-style strip mall on the western edge of Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, it sits like an oasis of authenticity.

    I'm not talking about the kind of quaint Mediterranean place that makes you feel as if you're sipping Monacos at a resort by the sea. That's tourist-variety authenticity. Mediterranean Deli makes you feel like you're eating the way the residents of the Mediterranean region really eat: From small, run-down places with odd decorations, exhilaratingly exotic smells and hearty but inexpensive meals.

    Chipped terrazzo flooring, an industrial sink in the dining room and crooked counters are mere blemishes when it comes to tasting the homemade Greek and Lebanese dishes that are prepared by owner Walaid Ali and his wife. Besides, you can always gaze upon the beaded screen of palm trees that leads to the bathroom or the holographic eagle paintings or the fruit-decorated place mats.

    The hummus ($2.80) was perfect, both nutty from the garbanzos and pleasingly tart from the fresh lemon juice. Although chickpeas are the dominant ingredient, they nicely hold the flavors of tahini and garlic.

    Kibbeh ($4.99), one of my favorite Mediterranean dishes, is made in advance and reheated on the spot. These flavorful balls of seasoned ground lamb and pine nuts swaddled in an outer shell of deep-fried buckwheat were superior specimens.

    If you like spinach pies, don't miss Mediterranean Deli's boreeka ($4.99), rich with verdant spinach and tangy feta cheese in puff pastry. It's not served as the typical individual pie, but cut from a larger sheet pan. This is one of the best I've tried.

    The visit wouldn't have complete without at least sampling a gyro sandwich ($4.99), and the Mediterranean Deli rendition is superb. The sauce is cool and creamy and complements the ground lamb and beef. The bread enhances the sandwich rather than just sitting around the ingredients. Visiting Mediterranean Deli may not be like a vacation, but the fare is tasty enough for everyday eating.

    Funny about the side streets off Park Avenue in Winter Park. While the main strip retains its, shall we say, "upscale" image, little spots along Welbourne and Morse house stores filled with small brass Buddhas, dog toys and ice cream.

    Just off the corner of East Lyman, hovering near the latest and greatest shopping additions, is a little restaurant called the Power House Café. Some might call it a throwback to simpler, hippier times; this is what used to be called a "health food" restaurant. The menu is replete with tabbouleh and yogurt, sunflower seeds and bulgur wheat. But with the increased popularity of stores like Whole Foods, Power House might simply be ahead of its time.

    Just off the corner of East Lyman, hovering near the latest and greatest shopping additions, is a little restaurant called the Power House Café. Some might call it a throwback to simpler, hippier times; this is what used to be called a "health food" restaurant. The menu is replete with tabbouleh and yogurt, sunflower seeds and bulgur wheat. But with the increased popularity of stores like Whole Foods, Power House might simply be ahead of its time.

    Although current owner Milad Bassil took over only last year, Power House has been in business since 1970, an enviable accomplishment in a town where far more ambitious restaurants have closed and reopened several times in that span. There are tables throughout the relatively recently expanded place, but most of the action takes place at the counter, sort of a Whole Earth diner concept, where you're invited to join your fellow diners. Pitas and salads rule, as does the delicacy that single-handedly revived the blender -- the smoothie, a big glass of sweetness for $3.

    Although current owner Milad Bassil took over only last year, Power House has been in business since 1970, an enviable accomplishment in a town where far more ambitious restaurants have closed and reopened several times in that span. There are tables throughout the relatively recently expanded place, but most of the action takes place at the counter, sort of a Whole Earth diner concept, where you're invited to join your fellow diners. Pitas and salads rule, as does the delicacy that single-handedly revived the blender -- the smoothie, a big glass of sweetness for $3.

    From the vantage point of a counter stool, strange happenings are spotted. What's that, being spooned into the blender for a smoothie? Real strawberries? Where's the prefrozen, melted, sugared syrup we've come to expect at smoothie bars? And wait -- bananas? Not powdered 'nana extract? And they use real honey instead of white sugar. Are they trying to put me in shock? To watch the whole ingredients being placed in a well-used blender and shaken into submission is an almost thrilling reminder of how food used to be made in our younger, precorporate days. There's also a big list of yogurt shakes with granola, peanut butter and all-natural fruit juices. They're a bargain at $3.25, and if you buy six you get one free.

    The solids on the menu ain't bad, either. I was very impressed with the hummus, chick peas puréed with garlic, lemon and tahini paste. The "Middle Eastern platter" ($6.95) is accompanied by lovely fried falafel patties and tabbouleh, the rich, green parsley salad mixed with cracked wheat and fresh tomato. An unusual item is a chicken salad mixed with carrots, deliciously sweet and served on apple slices and raisins ($4.50). Or try something as simple as a veggie sandwich with avocado on a pita ($4.50), and savor the fresh aromas.

    The solids on the menu ain't bad, either. I was very impressed with the hummus, chick peas puréed with garlic, lemon and tahini paste. The "Middle Eastern platter" ($6.95) is accompanied by lovely fried falafel patties and tabbouleh, the rich, green parsley salad mixed with cracked wheat and fresh tomato. An unusual item is a chicken salad mixed with carrots, deliciously sweet and served on apple slices and raisins ($4.50). Or try something as simple as a veggie sandwich with avocado on a pita ($4.50), and savor the fresh aromas.

    Every menu item has a calorie listing, and side items like yogurt-cucumber dressing or lemon sauce make for great touches. Join the gang at the counter.

    What do you make of a restaurant that beckons to customers with the hand-painted words "grapeleaves, hot wings, falafel, Greek salad, french fries and fried chicken" on its front window? And what if the restaurant has been in your periphery for about a decade, as the items were added to the window like a roster of star attractions? Eventually, you might want to try it – so that's what I did, finally stopping into Theo's, a shanty on Michigan Street with a willy-nilly menu of Greek, Syrian and fried Southern specialties.

    Theo's has managed to be a subtle, steady spot for regulars to pop in to pick up a family-pack chicken meal with hummus on the side. Inside it's awash in bright-blue booths and decorated with Greek Orthodox paraphernalia; it's been around for so long it feels lived-in and homey but not in an accommodating sort of way.

    The woman behind the counter will take your order then proceed to the kitchen to make your food. Her young daughter will watch you. It's that kind of place. I took a haphazard approach to ordering, getting one of just about everything. The gyro ($4.29), a standard pita wrapped around compressed lamb meat, was better than the shawarma ($4.49), a tahini-laden sandwich, or the less-than-spectacular but good-value hummus ($2.99).

    Surprisingly, what made my multinational meal stand out was the fried chicken, which was superbly seasoned then fried in peanut oil. Chicken selections range from a two-piece snack for $2.35 to a 21-piece family dinner for $25.99. Even the chicken livers ($4.49) are great. Forget KFC – Theo's is much better. And you can finish off with a toothsome baklava ($1.99).

    So, what to make of Theo's? Stick with the fried chicken at this Syrian/Greek establishment, and you can't go wrong.

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