The last time I ate lamb shawarma, I was standing next to a food cart in New York City trying not to dribble garlic sauce on my shoes. Petra Mediterranean Bistro serves an even better version of this Middle Eastern street-food staple — and much else besides — that you can savor sitting down in upholstered comfort.
Petra is named for the ancient city in Jordan. Fans of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” will recognize its famous rose-tinted ruins in gilt-framed images that adorn the restaurant’s deep ocher walls. Together with the ornate furniture, thick carpeting and damask drapes belted with golden tassels, they transform this contemporary Belltown retail space into a gracious refuge offering comfort and hospitality — along with a healthy dose of garlic — to a diverse neighborhood clientele.
Chef/owner Khal Beleh, the former “Falafel King” of Pike Place Market, and for many years a partner in Mediterranean Kitchen, hails from Amman, Jordan. His menu traverses a wider geography, from Greece to the edge of North Africa, but it is familiar terrain: hummus and baba ghanouje; dolmathes and falafel; and shawarmas, shish kebabs and platters of grilled meats, fish or vegetables arrayed over savory rice.
Among the latter at dinner, I recommend Ouzi, a traditional Jordanian dish for special occasions, according to the menu. Tender slices of full-flavored lamb (or chicken or beef, if you prefer) doused with tzatziki cover seasoned yellow rice embedded with carrots, peas, almonds, pine nuts and crisp bits of ground beef. It makes a good impression, but so does “Petra Spice Chicken,” tender thigh meat fragrant with cinnamon and cumin presented over plainer rice.
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These platters are ideal for sharing, as is the mezza tray. Sumac, cayenne and olive oil anoint the hummus, baba ghanouje and labnie. Tzatziki brightens the rice-stuffed grape leaves. Garlicky tahini sauce cloaks the crisp falafel. Lettuce, tomato, cucumber and lots of kalamatas complete the ensemble, accompanied by a basket of warm, soft pita triangles snug in a cloth napkin.
Our waiter repeatedly offered to replenish the bread, but it was more than enough. Cordiality seems to be a job requirement here. Servers excel at civility.
“This is what the Middle Eastern table should look like — crowded, like a teenager’s bedroom where you can’t even see the floor,” said the genial waiter who fussed over us at lunch.
Indeed our cozy corner table was wall to wall with plates: fried cauliflower and tabbouleh, two bowls of lentil soup, pita, a cup of hot mint and oregano tea, and a tall, frosty glass of tamarind juice. Later would come spanakopita and kafta kebabs; after that, baklava — a veritable feast for a very reasonable price.
Appetizers are somewhat superfluous, since entrees include a choice of soups or the sumac-dusted house green salad, moistened (though not tossed) with garlicky red-wine vinaigrette. But the bite-size, sumac-speckled, fried cauliflower is worth ordering. Drizzled with tahini sauce and prettily arranged over salad greens, onion and tomato, it is lighter than it sounds, and it was better than tabbouleh. Though that parsley-and-bulgur salad had just the right high ratio of green to grain, its seasoning was off-kilter.
Soups were both lentil (red and brown) thickened with rice. The red lentil was consistently bright and pleasingly sour; the brown lentil version was rich and robust on one occasion, lackluster on another.
Those soups represent the yin and yang of two spice blends that are fundamental to the cooking here: one light and herbaceous, the other spicier and exotic. They are packaged for sale, as are the lentil soup mixes, the yellow rice and the various garlic sauces.
I couldn’t taste much difference between the garlicky tahini sauce and the plain garlic sauce that enhanced excellent kafta kebabs. Vigorously seasoned minced beef loaded with parsley and onion wrapped two wooden skewers; a third held lightly charred onion, tomato, zucchini and mushroom.
Garlic sauce also zigzagged across the unevenly browned spanakopita. Its spinach and feta filling was sparse, the phyllo a little tough. The baklava pastry was more tender. Try the sampler trio, or go with my favorite, Burma: dark-roasted, delicately shredded pastry stuffed with whole pistachios kissed with sugar-cane syrup.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts “Let’s Eat” with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Listen to past shows at www.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at firstname.lastname@example.org.