I was driving up Frenchmen Street when a willowy, toe-headed woman bounced sideways into the road and motioned me to stop. A friend cracked the passenger seat window. "You were trying to flatten me like a pancake, weren't you?" she accused. "Why don't you fry me like a tortilla instead and flip me up there?" She pointed towards the twilit sky, above a balcony of onlookers who appeared as puzzled as we were. Then she bounced away. Fact is, she was getting warmer. We were a block from the 4-month-old Mona's Café, where we aimed to sup on what could be considered the tortilla of Middle Eastern cuisine: baskets of supple pita bread baked at Mona's Banks Street bakery. While our run-in with this ... say, culinary mystic ... might have been happenstance, our successes at dinner that evening were not. Despite a few taste mishaps, Mona's and the Faubourg Marigny clearly make a happy coupling.
At the scattering of Middle Eastern restaurants around the city, including Mona's Cafés in Mid-City and Uptown, some of the greatest meal deals come from swabbing warmed pita through rib-sticking fava beans pureed with hot pepper, smooth chick peas with sesame seed butter, and thick, whole-milk yogurt sprinkled with sumac. In a value system based upon garlicky-might-per-cube-inch of stomach, these spreads rate second only to the Middle East's inexpensive, blissful croquettes of oil-sealed chickpea batter. (Deep-fried, coated in a pasty sesame dressing and wrapped in pita, falafel somehow -- thankfully -- maintains the status of a health food).
Menu standards at Mona's smart, new cafe preserve these traditions. No discerning diner leaves the premises without a stronger swabbing arm, a full belly and breath to ward off a flock of vampires. Hummus is a (sometimes too) puckery marriage of chick peas, tahini and garlic; baba ghanoush, also rife with tahini and garlic, is hummus' smoky cousin made with roasted eggplant; sour, cream-rich lebna, like the other spreads, is puddled with fruity olive oil. While the frying process seems to leech out any moisture once lodged in Mona's herb and garlic-packed falafel balls, a roll through a saucer of lebna works like a three-second hydration makeover.
Fried kibbi on the Mona's Special appetizer plate further stretches the popular notion that all Middle Eastern food is healthy. Shaped like miniature footballs, the crumbly loaves of bulgar, pine nuts, lamb, beef and allspice-type seasonings had the sweet-fried allure of a doughnut. (The platter's dull stuffed grape leaves and mushy tabouli aren't worth mentioning; pretend I didn't.) And gyro sandwiches spilled wickedly good bits of crunchy-edged, greasy, spiced meat (a beef and lamb blend) -- not the leathery sheets of lesser gyro purveyors. One evening, half the Marigny seemed to pause VCRs at once in order to fetch foil-wrapped sandwiches, grab Oranginas and browse tidy rows of spice jars and Jordan almonds in Mona's adjoining store.
Beyond the customary stock of dips and sandwiches, meals amid the glossy wooden floors and slow-spinning ceiling fans unveiled a rare spot to take my visiting family members of limited countenance who, after two days eating New Orleans-style, inevitably "just want a salad." The fatouche was a bright bowl of romaine, red cabbage, parsley, cucumber, kalamata olives and pita bread croutons, served with a garlicky yogurt and vinegar dressing. An order of flat zaater bread crusted with sesame seeds and dried herbs, and a mug of hot sage tea, enhanced the salad's recuperative powers. With added salt, homey split red lentil soup scored high on the just-like-mom's scale.
Entree plates buffed out with sides of hummus or salty yellow rice came with simple salads dressed with yogurt and dill. My favorites included lula kabobs of gyro-style meat formed around a stick and sizzled, shrimp kabobs that took the form of a peppery, tomato-based stew, and fat-ridged lamb chops juicy with tartness and herbs. An 8-year-old friend and I banished rubbery chicken strips on a kid's plate and half a dried-out grilled chicken tecka to never-never-again land.
It had been months since my last Middle Eastern bender. In the meantime, I had forgotten about all the pine nuts. Buying the teardrop kernels by the pound can be scarier than investing in the stock market. But at Mona's, oodles of the nuts sewed together pleasing bowls of hummus, chickpeas, torn pita and olive oil (fatet hummus). Each portion of yellow semolina cake soaked in honeyed rosewater like perfumed Cream of Wheat (nammura) was stamped with a modest pile. And when my vigilant server refilled orange flower-flavored iced tea for free, she floated another handful of the raw, meaty nuggets on top like it was small change.
While flower waters and Turkish coffee are the strongest shots you'll find at Mona's, the waitstaff gladly hands over corkscrews, bottle openers and extra-tall water glasses to diners who BYOB. I heard the occasional cork rubbing free from an imported wine bottle, but most diners seemed content with tea in one of the Marigny's few dry establishments. To the last bite of my gyro sandwich swabbed through lebna, so was I.
- Cheryl Gerber
- The new MONA'S CAF conveys a leisurely atmosphere with its glossy hardwood floors, slow-spinning ceiling fans and open food store on the side.