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Something to sing about at the Middle East

(617) 864-3278, ext. 237
474 Mass Ave (Central Square), Cambridge
Open Sun–Wed, 5:30–10:30 p.m., and Thu–Sat, 5:30 p.m.–midnight
AE, Di, DC, MC, Vi
Full bar
No valet parking
Sidewalk-level access

It may be hard to believe that the Middle East was a restaurant before it was a venue for music. But with cheap and tasty Lebanese food, the restaurant was part of the Central Square scene before most of the performers it now hosts were born. And that menu is still served at its two storefronts on either side of ZuZu, which was formerly leased to another restaurant. Now the owners of the Middle East are auditioning ZuZu as an upscale bistro based on the same Lebanese flavors, and I think this is really something to sing about.

The room is done up with lemon-yellow walls and an ochre ceiling. The ceiling makes the flatware look like gold against cherry-stained tables and chairs. The bare-oak floor creates the potential for noise, but on my two weeknight visits, the restaurant wasn’t crowded, nor was there a noise problem. The background music is French pop and American hard bop, with an occasional leak of rock from the performance spaces when the kitchen door is open. The restaurant’s main link to the hip-nightclub aspect of the Middle East is its use of modern art on the walls. The current group of three paintings by David Zaig combines enlarged photo images with airbrushed color washes, to good effect.

Food starts with a basket of bread — a lot of fresh pitas, with soft, thyme-scented chunks sometimes included as well. The real star is olive oil loaded with zahtar, a spice mixture of thyme, salt, and sesame seeds that makes a great dip.

There are two dozen appetizers, or " mazza, " enough to make a small-plates dinner a real option. The " grilled kebab tastes " ($6) captures several wonderful flavors. Our skewers had a cube or two each of lamb, beef, and chicken — each more perfectly plump and juicy than the next. The condiments are a fabulous " whipped garlic " as light as mayonnaise and a spicy-cumin-bean " harissa. "

" Tagen " ($5.50) is also good, a mess of flaked fish that develops a smoky-rich, herring-like flavor in a sauce of sesame oil, lemon, and plenty of garlic, garnished with snoubar (pine nuts). " Pan-fried spinach and yogurt-cheese dumplings " ($5.50) are three small, triangular spinach pies bursting with flavor. I also liked the kibbeh mishi ($5), three lamb-filled little footballs in a yogurt sauce.

The rock shrimp with falafel ($7.75), along with a salad, makes for a fine light dinner. With lots of small, plump shrimp and a pair of spicy falafel cakes, the dish holds together with a slightly sweet tomato-onion sauce. For the salad, the " fattoush " ($7) is a high mound of garden salad with fried-pita bits substituting for the usual stale bread. I might have liked a little more mint. The Chanklich salad ($5.50) is a more reasonable mound, topped with a Lebanese cheese that tastes like an aged feta marinated in oil and thyme. Both salads have lots of onion, so make sure everyone has a little.

The tomato sauce on the shrimp and falafel makes a triumphant reappearance in the Middle Eastern bouillabaisse ($17). This isn’t much like a French bouillabaisse flavored with anise and scorpion fish, but it is like the New Orleans " court bouillon " in that the thickened tomato-onion sauce with some sweet spice makes a stew of some disparate fish and shellfish. The salmon and a whitefish (maybe scrod?) are actually the highlights of this stew, although scallops and a heap of mussels are also very good. In reference to the French soup, there is a slice of roll topped with both the lovely whipped garlic from the appetizers and the spicy-bean harissa.

Moroccan seven-vegetable couscous ($14) is a welcome vegan entrée, with excellent couscous, although the seasonal vegetables are not very seasonal: green beans, yellow squash, tomatoes, chickpeas, onions, green pepper, and carrots. The Moroccan spices aren’t very evident either, and you might consider asking for a scoop of that tomato sauce, although this would make the dish entirely Lebanese. The other vegan entrée is " vegetable terrine " ($15), which looks like a square of lasagna, but doesn’t come together at all. Some of the layers, such as eggplant, roasted red pepper, and portobello mushroom, are very good individually, but many of the vegetables just get lost in the shuffle. Our slab was also over-salted and in a thinner tomato-onion sauce. (The original Middle East restaurants still feature a pumpkin kibbeh that I think could be refined into a superior vegetable terrine.)

Carnivores may be happier, especially if they order the grilled sirloin steak ($18). Ours was actually two small steaks, done to order, with fine whipped potatoes and a side dish of sautéed vegetables with a lot of garlic — a treatment especially favorable for eggplant, string beans, broccoli, and the usually dull yellow and green squash.

Breast of duck seems to be roasted, sliced, and re-heated, leaving a somewhat dry slice, but with a delicious sauce of pomegranate molasses and a nice pilaf. The same treatment fully dries out the " seared spice-rubbed breast of chicken " ($15), as it is seared, sliced, and then grilled. The accompanying makhlouta bean stew is a somewhat sweet mass of favas, black beans, lentils, and some corn. The " oven-dried tomatoes " are barely wilted, and the cilantro purée is beautiful but almost tasteless, probably because the medium is oil. The aroma and flavor of cilantro seem to be more soluble in water, and brought out by acids. Oil works better for basil.

The wine list is nicely priced, with some interesting bottles in the $20s and $30s, although only five wines by the glass. There is a Lebanese chardonnay, but I would stick with the Almaza ($4.05), a light pilsner beer brewed in Lebanon since 1933.

The best of the desserts is the light, lemony crème caramel ($6), served with kiwi and strawberries. White-chocolate mousse ($6) is nicely flavored, but has an unfortunate granular texture. A " bird’s nest " ($6) of shredded pastry has a dry filling of walnuts and pistachios, along with interesting blobs of chocolate mousse; with more butter and honey this would be a fun update of many typical Eastern Mediterranean desserts. As is, the ripe banana with the kiwi and strawberry steal the show. A trio of sorbets ($6) is actually a quartet: mango, pineapple, lemon, and strawberry. The mango and strawberry might be better as a duet. Zalaaby fritters with chocolate sauce ($6) turned out to be 10 somewhat hard doughnut holes, with a chocolate dipping sauce.

Service at ZuZu is probably better on busier nights. Our servers were positive and accurate, but waited out some kitchen pauses and lost focus both nights. ZuZu has neither the excitement of Oleana nor the buzz of Argana or Tangierino, but it’s a fine restaurant with some wonderful dishes. For the price of a tour T-shirt or two, you can add a great meal to an evening of music.

Robert Nadeau can be reached at

Issue Date: May 2-9, 2002
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