Restaurant Reviews

All Roads Lead To…

Curses on the foodie(s) who came up with the term Mediterranean cuisine. The tag sounds specific, as if this type of fare could be neatly identified and pigeonholed. But the label is actually nebulous, since it takes into account all the regions of southern Europe, northern Africa, and various other countries and islands that have at least one geographical toe in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus a diner never really knows what to expect -- pasta? paella? hummus? tagine? -- from a restaurant that calls itself simply Mediterranean.

And then there's Middle Eastern cuisine, another all-encompassing phrase that can be even cloudier. What, exactly, is the Middle East? Generally we take it to mean Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, and the Arabian Peninsula, but somehow Morocco, Turkey, and Greece -- three places that are often included under the heading "Mediterranean" -- get thrown into the mix. This is especially likely when it comes to the foods of these countries, which are similar in origin and derivation.

So it's really no wonder that people get confused. Take for example Finjan Bar & Grille, a two-month-old Mediterranean -- or is it Middle Eastern? -- eatery located on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach. The Palm Beach Post Website lists the restaurant under both those very categories, but you can't blame the paper for not knowing which way to go. The actual lineage of the place, via proprietor Alan Belolo, is French, Belgian, and Israeli. Co-proprietor Daniel Jwta and other members of the staff bring in even more Middle Eastern -- or is it Mediterranean? -- influences, including Moroccan, Turkish, Egyptian, and Lebanese. As a result the menu ranges from a grilled cheese pita filled with a melted Holland cheese similar to Gouda, to lamb shawarma sandwiches, to Bavarian cream or chocolate mousse for dessert. A beer list highlights Newcastle Brown Ale and our local Hurricane Reef, while a wonderfully priced wine list draws from world resources such as Australia. The Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc, a New Zealand vintage, has citrusy notes that went beautifully with the lighter fare.

For the most part, however, the menu hangs together as Middle Eastern/Mediterranean, with all the mainstays we associate with both regional cuisines: falafel, salade Niçoise, shish kebab, baklava. And items are generally very good, with several outstanding dishes sprinkled among them.

Even the mundane gets magical treatment at Finjan, which is named for the large ceramic teapots that dominate the larger tables in the 160-seat place. No doubt falafel, hummus, baba ghannouj, tahini, and tabbouleh are household items for natives and plenty recognizable to those who have consumed this fare at least once before. But fortunately familiarity does not breed contempt here; Finjan does each preparation justice.

Falafel in particular was exceptional -- deep-fried little balls of puréed chickpeas, with the fluffy interior a wonderful textural contrast to the doubloon-gold exterior. Hummus was smooth, not lumpy, with a nice lemony bite, while baba ghannouj, a salad of chopped grilled eggplant, had a pleasant smoky aroma. Intensely flavored tahini, or sesame sauce, and nubby tabbouleh, a cracked-wheat salad loaded but not overwhelmed with minced parsley and fresh mint, were both eminently satisfying. You can order these appetizers singly or get all of them as a sampler plate, garnished with cucumbers, olives, and tomatoes, to share. Our only complaint lay in the pita bread, which tasted commercially packaged; the eatery also charges for refills on the pita, which wasn't adequate to begin with.

The "Sahara cigars," a starter not included on the sampler plate, were worth investigating too. Arranged around a puddle of tahini that had been drizzled with olive oil, the long, thin tubes of baked phyllo dough were stuffed with a savory minced-beef mixture. The beef had a spicy little bite -- nothing too serious, but Finjan provides about six different condiments for those who like their food zesty to chile-powered. Tzatziki, or Greek yogurt-cucumber dip spiked with mint, was among the best of the lot. And a Turkish tomato-onion chutney was especially exuberant but paled in comparison to a jalapeño relish that could delete the taste buds from your tongue. After that we were looking forward to a soothing Lebanese lentil soup, but the bowl we'd ordered never arrived.

So the restaurant currently has one or two kinks, including a server who liked to whirl around from our table and plow into whoever might be in the aisle. (She caused one accident with a tray of drinks and nearly instigated two others involving food.) However, that same waitress was awfully considerate and attentive to our water/napkin/wine refill needs, as was the entire staff, it seemed. Belolo acknowledges the difficulty in finding good servers, especially since he opened just before the summer doldrums, but he believes "now is the right time to do a tune-up."

He might want to start by separating the meat from the bone and gristle in the lamb platter, a main course. We were delighted that the slightly musky shawarma meat was freshly roasted lamb, rather than that pressed, molded, and ever-turning stuff you get carved off an electric spit. But the staff needs to take more care in chopping the lamb; our portion required as much sifting-through as a fish with all its bones. If you can't deal with tiny particles of bone, go for the bigger version in the North African goulash. Softened by gravy, the lamb in this dish fell off the bone in juicy shreds, so it wasn't hard to manage. Hunks of roasted vegetables -- squash, zucchini, and carrots -- brightened the plate, and an enormous pile of couscous was an important counterpoint.

The "chicken steak," a grilled, boneless breast served with aromatic basmati rice and a fresh Israeli vegetable salad, was another main course that we thought could use some adjustment. The chicken was flavored with lemon and spices, but it also tasted chemically tenderized, a practice often used in lieu of pounding to disguise the grade of the poultry. On the other hand, a ten-ounce beef steak napped with green-peppercorn sauce had been simply grilled without interference, or so it appeared, and the succulent meat was neither too soft nor tough. And there was no question about the quality of the tilapia main course. The mild fillet had been doused with a tangy mushroom, tomato, and caper sauce and was partnered by an assortment of vegetables and a dish of couscous.

Belolo already has plans for some improvements. Hookahs, from which guests can smoke flavored tobacco, are on the way. Our server admitted that the assorted-baklava platter from which we'd ordered had originated in a local bakery, but she said the proprietors would soon begin baking their own. (They currently make a delicate apple strudel on the premises.) Plans for the courtyard in back of the restaurant, which has an Arabian Nights atmosphere, are top-secret, but since Belolo was chuckling when he told me this, I'm thinking some belly dancers or other live entertainment may be in the cards.

One area where Finjan doesn't need any work is presentation: Plates were carefully designed, with geometrically sliced cucumbers and tomatoes forming patterns. Such attention to detail warrants the $15 to $20 price tags for main courses, and it also can be seen in the sophisticated room décor. The restaurant was scheduled to open last September, but the designer wasn't satisfied with the products she could get in the States. So she wound up importing the blond wood­and-metal tables and metal chairs from Belgium, where Belolo has another Middle Eastern -- or is it Mediterranean? -- restaurant. The hand-detailed cement floor, an intriguingly swirled rust color, took six different finishes to achieve the desired effect, and the long, open bar, which is lit from underneath the counter, required another few months. All in all the restaurant has an airy but upscale feel. It's an ideal fit for Clematis Street, where many eateries have opened their doors but only a few have survived.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick