Texoma’s claim to ethnic food diversity usually does not stray far beyond Tex-Mex, Chinese buffets and pizza, but a new restaurant in Van Alstyne, Jafar’s Mediterranean Grill, is bringing a more cosmopolitan menu to the mix. Let me say up front that I not very familiar with Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cuisine, so I have no benchmark for comparing the fare at Jafar’s. I have had several people recommend it, and the online reviews I read were positive, so a friend and I headed south a few days ago for a new food adventure.
We got there about 11:45 a.m. on a cool and rainy day and joined six or seven other diners in the big, open room that once housed a bank. (The vault is still visible on the back wall.) After studying the menu, I ordered the beef kebab platter which came with three sides. I chose lentil soup, basmati rice, tabouli and a cup of hot mint tea. My lunch companion went for chicken curry with hummus, tabouli, roasted potatoes, and a cup of Turkish coffee. The service was slow, but not too slow, (fast is not necessarily a good thing) and when the meals were delivered, everything came at once, except the coffee.
I started with the soup; it was excellent, smooth and warm for a cold day pick-me-up. Tabouli is chilled bulgur wheat with minced parsley, tomatoes and onions and dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, and this I knew something about. I went on a tabouli kick a few years back and made a big batch weekly for a couple of months. Jafar’s matched my expectations with the cool and refreshing salad. Then I tried the kebab.
My idea of a kebab is a skewer threaded with pieces of meat and vegetables and grilled. The kebab I got was a single log of beef served on a bed of rice with no vegetables to speak of. A nice mix of spices made for an interest flavor, but it was dry, and in need of something to brighten it up. In between bites of this and that and sips of the tea, I would pull a piece of soft, fresh pita bread from the basket, borrow a spoonful of hummus from my friend’s plate for a smear, and take a bite.
Across the table, I caged a couple of pieces of the chicken curry and a few spoons of the red sauce that filled the bowl, mixed it with some rice and found it quite tasty. My idea of curry is something packing heat, but this dish was mild and the flavor of the mix of spices that went into the sauce came through, although I could not identify them.
When we finished, we decided to split a piece of baklava and again asked for the Turkish coffee. I am not a coffee drinker, so I will rely on my friend’s assessment. Turkish coffee is very strong and usually very sweet; this cup sewed up the strong part, but fell down on the sweetness index, so my friend went up to the counter to ask some questions. The owner told him that for the sweet version, the coffee had to be brewed with the sugar, and offered to make him another cup. The coffee came along with the baklava, which was served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. The portion was small, and the bottom of the layered phyllo filled with honey and nuts was a little burnt, but with the ice cream it made for a sweet finish.
Speaking with the owner, we learned some more about what was what. He is Palestinian and grew up in a family of restaurant owners who have a place in Richardson. He recently moved his family to Anna to get out of the Metroplex, and found this promising restaurant site in Van Alstyne.
I asked about the kebab. He said it was different style from Middle Eastern recipes. It was a single log of beef or lamb that is marinated overnight in a mixture of spices with a seven spice mix and sumac being particularly popular, before being baked. It is a popular street food for people to eat on the go. Sumac is a dark red powder made from the red berries of a variety of the sumac bush. It brings a bright lemony flavor to dishes and is widely used in Middle Eastern cooking. White sumac berries mark the poisonous cousin of the plant akin to poison ivy.
Did my trip to Jafar’s convert me to a fan of Mediterranean food? I do not know. It was different, and that usually calls for more than one evaluation before making a decision. The Mediterranean is a big pond, and its cuisines run from the south of France around the Middle East curve to encompass all of North Africa. Jafar’s Van Alstyne outpost covers only a small segment of the wonders of what is the region’s cooking, with Greek, Turkish and Lebanese being the dominate influences, but if your curiosity and taste buds are piqued, it is a place to start.