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Cafe Phoenicia a flavorful dining adventure

Restaurant reviewer
5647 Main St., Suite A, (Zachary)
Phone: 658-9158
Hours: Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-10 .m. Fri. and Sat.; 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.
Credit Cards: Major credit cards accepted. Checks accepted.

Cafe Phoenicia, in Zachary, takes diners on a taste treat to the eastern Mediterranean. The foods of Greece, Lebanon and Egypt are featured, along with a nod to Turkey and Italy.

Situated in a shopping center on Main St. about a half-mile from La. 19, the restaurant's decor reminded us of a taverna we once visited on a walk to the Acropolis in Athens. Wall murals capture scenes of the Mediterranean while a small fountain and feathery green plants lend a courtyard feel to the cafe.

While waiting for dinner, we were presented with zaatar, a dip on a small plate dusted with a mixture of crushed oregano and thyme and roasted sesame seeds. This was blended with olive oil and we dipped into the mixture with pieces of pita bread. By adding a few drops of balsamic vinegar to the mixture, we found the fragrant oil and sweetened vinegar an appealing appetizer.

The Phoenicia sampler for one ($12.99) seemed like a good way to try most of the cafe's specialties. It's perfect when you're really hungry and in the mood for authentic Mediterranean cooking. The chicken shawarma was tender slivers of slightly seasoned spit-cooked chicken. The gyros was similar slivers of spit-cooked pressed beef and lamb. Chunks of beef kebab, already removed from the skewer, were tender and grilled throughout. Both the small grape leaf roll and cabbage roll were stuffed with a mixture of ground beef and rice, seasoned with a slight amount of onion and garlic, and steamed perfectly. The kibbi, not a favorite with us, was one of the best we've tasted. Shaped like a miniature football and stuffed with ground meat, rice, pine nuts, onion, garlic and a bit of parsley, it was breaded and deep-fat fried, presenting a soft interior and crunchy exterior.

Fish, a major part of the Mediterranean diet is handsomely presented at Cafe Phoenicia. The Byblos fish ($11.99) was a delicate pan-seared tilapia seasoned with small diced pieces of garlic and shallots, then topped with thin slices of mushrooms and a light sauce, slightly sweet, of dry vermouth and cherry wine.

Both dinner entrees were accompanied by a small feta salad, a blend of crispy romaine and iceberg lettuce, topped with finely crumbled feta cheese and garnished with a slice of Roma tomato. We especially liked the house dressing, a well-balanced blend of olive oil and lemon juice seasoned with a medium amount of garlic and oregano with a hint of fresh mint. Also accompanying the entrees was a small plate containing a helping of fluffy rice pilaf and hummus. The pilaf, accented with green peas and small pieces of diced carrots, was cooked to perfection with each grain of rice looking like a little seed pearl. The hummus, a blend of chickpeas, sesame seed pate, olive oil, garlic and lemon juice, was garnished with a sprinkling of parsley and several whole chickpeas.

On a second visit, we discovered how easy it is to make a meal out of Cafe Phoenicia's appetizers. The spinach pies ($3.99) are savory triangular pies of phyllo pastry filled with a creamy mixture of spinach saut�ed with finely chopped onion and olive oil, blended with a creamy white cheese and baked until slightly crisp. The meat pie ($3.99) seemed more like a Mediterranean version of quesadillas. A slice of compressed ground meat, which tasted like the beef/lamb gyros, along with bits of tomato, parsley and onions, was stuffed between pita bread and grilled until crisp. Each of these dishes is served with a generous amount of Grecian dip, a mixture of sour cream, diced cucumber and slight amounts of onion and mint.

Our top pick of the menu was the tabbouleh salad ($5.99), which can easily serve two. This dish is a mixture of finely chopped parsley, a bountiful amount of diced tomato, cracked wheat, shallots and mint tossed with a generous amount of olive oil and lemon juice. The vegetables were extremely fresh and luscious.

Almost every Mediterranean-style restaurant has its own version of mousaka. Cafe Phoenicia's meat mousaka ($9.99) arrives piping hot in an individual casserole. A generous amount of ground beef, seasoned with onion, garlic and a tomato-based sauce is layered with paper-thin slices of potato and eggplant, topped with a thick bechamel sauce and mozzarella cheese and baked until the cheese topping is burbling. It's a mild, hearty dish.

Seafood lovers will truly enjoy the shrimp scampi platter ($12.99) with 10 large shrimp saut�ed with a large helping of mushrooms and shallots in olive oil and lightly flamed with lemon juice and white wine. The delicate flavor of this dish is especially appealing, and the shrimp is not in the least bit overpowered by the seasoning.

One really doesn't need dessert after eating a meal here, but if you must, try the baklava ($2), a small but rich pasty made with thin buttered layers of phyllo dough, ground pecans and walnuts, drenched in sweet honey sauce and topped with finely chopped nuts. The tiramisu ($3.50), a popular Italian dessert, is concocted with the traditional layering of cake, coffee liqueur, a whipped cream filling and topped with a dusting of cocoa. Although light in taste, it's a rich treat indeed.

Cafe Phoenicia welcomes children and has an appropriate kids menu. The wait staff is extremely accommodating, and the taped music from eastern Mediterranean countries might make you want to dance.

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