Safier brings Mid-Eastern Cuisine Downtown
Slowly but surely, downtown is growing into a diner's dream, as many distinctive little places have popped up near Fourth Street Live. One of the newest (directly across from LEO) is Safier Mediterranean Deli.
In this case, Mediterranean connotes a kind of pan-Arab menu featuring an assortment of foods that in the Middle East -- for that matter in some larger American cities, lucky them -- would be prepared and purchased in street stands and consumed on the spot.
Safier isn't a street stand, but it's the next best thing: a humble little storefront with friendly counter service, a scattering of simple tables, and some folks who know how to whip up a meal.
The most distinctive item on the menu is a sandwich called shawarma. Think of it as a distant -- and vastly superior -- cousin to the ubiquitous gyros (one Internet pundit refers to shawarma as the Arabian taco). Where the American gyros is typically constructed from pre-processed meat, Safier's shawarma is based on beef tenderloin (or chicken), marinated in an enticing bath of flavors, then sliced vertically into thin layers (the only real relationship to the gyros), coupled with tahini, pickles and vegetables, then rolled tightly in flatbread pita and wrapped for convenience. The result is a tangy, generously large, succulent sandwich, both filling and light. It's no wonder that at lunchtime Safier's lines are spilling out onto the street (it's a good idea to get there a bit early or wait for a late lunch).
My wife Mary and I dropped in one evening, when things were a bit less hectic, and sampled widely from the menu. We started with hummos and falafel. The hummos was a joy to behold. In the good old days, I relied on the late lamented Pita Delites for hummos, often buying it by the quart for picnics and dinner parties. Safier's version has that same sublime creaminess and, if anything, a richer flavor profile, with a pungent lemon-garlic bite. Our four falafel were crunchy, piping hot lozenges of ground pureed, fried beans served with cooling tahini. On a return weekend visit, I picked up some mutabal (aka baba ghanoush) and found the eggplant dip, with its tantalizing hint of smoke, even better.
Salad offerings include a light, cooling cucumber and yogurt concoction, zippy with the scent of mint and lemon; fatoush, a mix of greens and other fresh veggies, including some remarkable out-of-season tomatoes and croutons of toasted pita; and tabouleh, the fine-textured parsley-rich salad.
We sampled a mixed grill that included shish kabob (skewered beef tenderloin), kafta kabob (finely ground beef) and shish tawook (marinated chicken). Boldly flavored, juicy and lovely on the disposable plate, they were the essence of street food, simple, satisfying and inexpensive.
Vegetarians can assemble an ad hoc meal or opt for a platter consisting of any four of the following: grape leaves, hummos, falafel, mutabal, rice, tabouleh or mujadarah. The mujadarah, when ordered as an entree, is a meal in itself, a mix of lentils and rice adorned by long, aromatic strips of caramelized onions, served with a refreshing yogurt sauce.
Folks who insist on American food (and kids unwilling to sample from the global pantry) can resort to a hamburger with fries or fried chicken strips. But even a kid who just isn't ready for stuffed grape leaves should have no trouble making the cultural leap to baklava or namoura. The latter, in particular, deserves any diner's attention. It's a yellow cake made of semolina flour, with the coarse grain and look of cornbread. Topped with an almond, it's then drenched in a honey syrup. It's the kind of dessert that could easily have emanated from any kitchen in the American South, light, lively and addictive, one more piece of evidence that when it comes to desserts, at least, all of our kitchens are one.