Middle East Piece
Lebanese or Not, the Carlyle Club Avoids a Pita Pan
The Carlyle Club specializes in Lebanese cuisine--this much we knew before our visit to its rather formal home in the Carlyle hotel, a location previously occupied by Preston's 500. (It's the kind of dining room now, as it was before, where guys in movies take women they intend to dump so they won't "make a scene.") But I left there as unwise about Lebanese cuisine as when I entered. Which items were particularly Lebanese and which were fell into a more general Middle Eastern stew? Were some of the entrées regional specialties from within Lebanon, or had the Carlyle Club found a chef who was boldly re-creating millennia-old dishes for Baltimore epicures?
I hasten to add that if the Carlyle Club is under no obligation to inhabit the role of a Lebanese restaurant for my or anybody's amusement or edification, much less is it obliged to be a traditional Middle Eastern restaurant for grad students, even in a city so desperately starved for just such restaurants. Still, some statement of purpose, that almost inevitable menu mission statement, might have helped persuade me and my fellow diners that we were having a better time of it than we were, or at least have made some sense out of that baba ghanouj.
The menu lists about 40 different items, with no clear distinction between appetizer and entrée, except that most of the lower-priced items are grouped on top. And although the menu doesn't list anything like an appetizer platter--in clear violation of the Geneva convention--one is available on request for $14.95. It was here that we found our baba ghanouj, along with, in order of our preference, Lebanese feta, stuffed grape leaves, tabbouleh, hummus, and Lebanese potato salad.
The baba ghanouj, an eggplant-based dip for the crispy and frequently replenished pita bread, had an overpoweringly smoky flavor that variously intrigued and repulsed our dining party. This smokiness came about naturally enough, from the roasting of the eggplant, but all we could taste was smoke. To me, it tasted oddly, and exactly, like smoked trout. Regional specialty? Chef's twist? Not sure.
This platter arrived before our entrées but after a wonderful opening volley--a roasted red pepper salad with balsamic vinaigrette ($7.95), one of the prettiest salads we've seen in a long time, topped with plenty of brilliant red peppers and a delightful vinaigrette, all surmounted by delicious (and unbilled) peppercorn-encrusted goat cheese. A spiced pumpkin soup ($5.95) also won high marks; my companion said it was seasoned with spices like those one finds in Indian dal recipes, but it retained a clear pumpkin flavor and toasted pine nuts added even more complexity.
Among the entrées we tried, only a spinach pie ($7.95) was a real disappointment; although the filling was tasty, the encasing dough was fried to a greasy crunch that recalled innumerable egg rolls we have known. Iskander kebab ($12.95) matched two large hamburger-sized lamb patties with a surprisingly spicy tomato sauce, pine nuts, and a good, cooling yogurt sauce.
Our waiter, who was thoughtful and attentive, if not prodigiously informed about the niceties of the inner workings of the Carlyle Club's kitchen, recommended two entrées to us, the mishmisha ($15.95) and the yengec bamia ($17.95). The first combined sautéed breast of chicken with Turkish apricots; the second sautéed lump crabmeat together with okra. The sauce for the mishmisha evenly divided our party, half finding it excessively salty, half taking taste after taste in attempts to divine its ingredients. All agreed that there is such a thing as too many slivered almonds added as garnish and that the chicken was kind of tough. It occurred to us that dark-meat chicken would have tasted better.
The crab dish was fine; we all loved the okra, along with the second appearance that evening of corn in a dish that seemed to span continents. If that was the intention, it was largely a success. Several of our entrées came with aromatic rice and sautéed vegetables, including carrots, squash, and parsnips, the last of which should show up more often, we thought (once we were told what it was--duh).
Over good strong, cardamom-flavored Turkish coffee and herbed tea, we shared sweet desserts like baklava, agreeing that we never completely adapted to the Carlyle Club's soft, somber room, which we decided was a place for grownups. Although within about 100 feet of Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus, this is not, perhaps, the best place for a meze, in which good friends gather to share earthy fare. It would make a good Valentine's day destination, though.