Sometimes dining out isn't all about the food. Sometimes it's about having had a really crummy day, but you went to this restaurant and everyone there was so nice, so pleasant, so glad to see you, like they were inviting you into their own home, that you left feeling better than when you walked in. You left thinking, "Hey, maybe life doesn't suck after all."
Sometimes it's about taking your nose off the daily grindstone, the get up/get dressed/go to work/come home/cook dinner/watch TV/go to bed/get up/get dressed/repeat 7/52/365.
Sometimes it's about getting out, experiencing different people and culture and energy and, yes, food too. So if this dish is a little overcooked or that is a little chewy or those could have used a little more salt, well... you'd have to be some kind of asshole to make a big deal over it.
Sefa Mediterranean Grill
Sefa Mediterranean Grill, 165 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach. Call 561-330-0004.
Luckily, no matter what kind of asshole you are (or if you aren't one at all), there's not much to make even the slightest deal over at Numan Unsal's ridiculously charming Sefa Mediterranean Grill. From chef/owner Unsal to his two sisters who work the front of the house to the servers who flit back and forth bearing dishes from the tiny kitchen, everyone here is as sweet as human sugar.
The restaurant is pretty sweet too, with a quirky, design-on-a-dime look that could have come straight from an episode of one of the hipper shows on HGTV. Housed in a particularly undistinguished example of provincial Stalinist strip-mall architecture, the space itself is fiercely individual, a witty, perceptive mix of periods and styles, from the floor of brightly polished terrazzo to the ornate crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling; from the big, vibrant contemporary paintings on the walls to the mismatched, antiquey, Victorian-era furnishings placed around the room. There's a small counter at the back, behind it an equally diminutive kitchen. A handful of tiny tables crowds onto a patio facing the street.
As for the food, it reflects Unsal's heritage and experience as a chef and restaurateur in his native Turkey. Unlike most local "Mediterranean" restaurants, which are basically Italian with a block of feta hiding somewhere in the kitchen, Unsal's menu is Turkish-slash-Middle Eastern, with a handful of other dishes thrown in for the sake of diversity (caesar salad, fettuccine alfredo, profiteroles, and in one of those "ya gotta do what ya gotta do" nods to the primitive American palate, a trio of miniburgers, fries, and cold Bud).
Although the roster of dishes — hummus, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, falafel, gyro, shish kebab — doesn't seem any different from what you'd find on the tables of every Turkish or Middle Eastern restaurant from Atlantic Avenue to Ulaanbaatar, what sets Sefa apart is its uncommon subtlety and refinement. Garlic here whispers rather than tears down the wallpaper and pees on the carpet; olive oil is a drizzle rather than an ocean.
Beyond a chili-enraged smoked eggplant salad that could set off fire alarms, the food at Sefa is about restraint, balancing flavors and textures, imparting a certain elegance even to something as basic as chunks of marinated meat threaded on skewers and grilled. If you're used to the palate-slapping dishes of other Middle Eastern restaurants, you almost have to recalibrate your taste buds to appreciate what Unsal is doing.
There's no better place to start appreciating that than his absurdly generous cold appetizer platter ($16), which alone is practically an entrée for two and sufficient reason to brave Delray's ceaseless scrum of traffic, its frustrating parking, and its ticket-happy cops. The dish makes a gorgeous presentation — triangles of tabbouleh, smoked eggplant salad, baba gannouj, and ezme around a little ramekin of tzatziki and separated by cigarette-thin grape-leaf rolls stuffed with seasoned rice. Off to the side are twin mounds of hummus and two hand-grenade-sized lumps of orange lentil kofte.
Hummus was the lone clunker, what spackling paste would be if it were made with ground-up chickpeas and tahini. Everything else was terrific — the bright-tasting tabbouleh colored red with tomatoes and pomegranate, the creamy and refreshing baba gannouj, the kofte that was more flavorful than mere lentils have any right to expect. First among equals were the surprisingly delicate stuffed grape leaves; the intensely smoky, sinus-reaming eggplant salad; and the wicked-good ezme, a fine mince of tomatoes and an array of other veggies, flavored with pomegranate juice and olive oil and slightly jelled. It tasted like fresh summer gazpacho you could eat with a fork.
There's another platter too, of hot apps ($16), though this one didn't light up my mouth like its room-temperature counterparts. There are phyllo rolls called borek, fat cigars filled with salty feta and parsley. There are bracingly cuminy falafel, the ubiquitous chickpea patties that say vegetarian better than a membership in PETA. And there are pan-fried zucchini cakes and kibbe, fried meatballs of finely ground bulgur encasing a nugget of ground beef.
All of these elements were nice and nicely done, with the exception of the zucchini cakes, which managed to be overbrowned and undercooked at the same time. But they were also pretty heavy going, with a flavor profile that ranged from A to B. Ordered individually as part of a larger meal, they'd probably seem less ponderous and more interesting; taken together, they were way too much of a just-OK thing.
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But there's plenty more, and plenty more to like, on Sefa's mixed grill ($24), a platter that would groan if it were able, with five different meats, a big mound of lemony bulgur, and salad of chopped romaine, with roasted tomato and (Sweet Jesus, that's hot!) long pepper. This is the cold apps plate for carnivores, each element carefully seasoned, precisely cooked, utterly delicious.
Choose, if you must, among tender chunks of chicken and lamb, marinated in yogurt and herbs and quickly grilled; a single perfect medium-rare lamb chop, the bone frenched and wrapped in foil to keep it from burning; outrageously good kofte, nuggets of herb- and garlic-spiked ground beef; and thin sheets of salty-savory-irresistible gyro meat, a blend of beef and lamb cooked on the Middle East's traditional vertical rotisserie and sliced off to order. I want to make a jacket of it and wear it whenever I go out, just in case I get hungry.
Then there's dessert. We skipped the profiteroles; they might have been good, but they're French, and really, would you order baklava at Chez Le Snob? We did order baklava, and rice pudding too. The rice pudding was unremarkable, but the baklava was something else. Although most baklava is an exercise in dousing nuts and phyllo with enough sugar syrup to induce diabetic shock, this was baklascivious — crispy phyllo, lots of crunchy pistachios, just enough syrup. Really sexy stuff.
Perhaps it is about the food after all.