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Serious Syrian

When I met the man who would become my husband, I gave him the lowdown right off the bat. "I'm always right," I told him. "If I'm not right, my sister is. And if my sister's not right, my mother is." He got the picture: I don't like to be wrong. I can't stand being corrected. I must know everything. And I will defer only to an older, related female. This arrogant aspect of my personality clearly translates to my vocation as a critic, in which it is unnecessary for me to accede to anybody, regardless of age or gender. Oh, OK, there's the occasional editor or two. But for the most part, mine is the only voice I must obey, and I tell you, it's good to be queen.

Of course, having put myself in the position of knowing it all, I also frequently have to prove that I am, indeed, the conduit between the goddess's mouth and your eyes. My most challenging moments usually come not in a restaurant that I'm reviewing but when I'm a guest on cookbook writer and columnist Linda Gassenheimer's WLRN-FM (91.3) radio show, Food News and Views. The listeners, who seem to think I am a walking culinary database, pretty much flood the station with questions like, "Where do I go for the best [fill in the blank]?" Fortunately the categories are, for the most part, maddeningly easy (Italian), and I can punch in an answer readily (just about any street corner, dude).

Until a few months ago: That's when a caller stumped me.

I knew the steak knife would drop sooner or later. Even so, I was unprepared for the cuisine it would slice: Middle Eastern. Where, the caller wanted to know, could someone get decent hummus, falafel, yadda yadda, in Fort Lauderdale? My answer was about as intelligent-sounding as the replies of the majority of contestants on that game show run by the middle-aged British dominatrix: "Um, I dunno." Good-bye! I was the weakest link. And the caller was left with nothing.

However, like any intellectual bully, I maintain that my ignorance was not my fault. It was the result of eastern Broward County's complete lack of memorable Middle Eastern joints. But right around the time that I was befuddled on air, an answer was opening its doors. Now, three months later, I would gracefully respond: "Oh, yeah, I know a great new place on North Federal Highway. It's called Ferdos Grill."

A pleasant, semiformal dining room with linen-draped tables and light woods, Ferdos is subtitled "Home of the Kabob" and offers "Eastern Mediterranean dining." However, the roots of chef-owner Ahmad Barazi and his family are more narrowly defined as Syrian, and that country is showcased in framed posters on the walls. So while the menu highlights the popular dishes of the Middle Eastern region, its heaviest influence traces to Syria and its bordering countries, most notably Lebanon.

Hence Ferdos serves an exemplary kibbeh, a national dish of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. You can prepare this concoction of ground lamb, cracked wheat, and spices in a number of ways including raw; it's the Middle Eastern cousin of steak tartare. Ferdos delivers it with a cruet of olive oil and a dish of white onions on the side. The waiter might raise his eyebrows when you order it -- apparently it's not too popular among, well, non-Syrians at the moment -- but withstand his scrutiny and you'll be rewarded with a fresh, mild kibbeh spread in a thick oval on a plate. Less adventurous diners will no doubt appreciate the vegetarian version of the dish, a combination of wheat, onions, tomatoes, olive oil, and spices similar to tabbouleh.

While an entire dish of raw meat can be overwhelming, a generously proportioned sampler appetizer platter offers both variety and flair. A tasty dollop of hummus complements a pair of crisp falafel patties, which contain a savory blend of ground fava beans and chickpeas. I didn't care for an overly smoky baba ghanouj, puréed, char-grilled eggplant smoothed with tahini, but the rice-stuffed grape leaves, usually not a favorite of mine, were wonderfully mild and tender with just a touch of lemon for accent. Best of all, a rustic fatoush salad, comprising chopped tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, radishes, onions, and pita chips tossed with parsley, was outstanding. Traditional fatoush calls for pita chips that have been soaked overnight in water and lemon juice, but modern tastes require the chips be crunchy, like croutons; Ferdos complies beautifully with the contemporary philosophy.

While all the aforementioned items are rather standard on Middle Eastern menus, escargots are not. My party was happy to take advantage of Ferdos's version of this ubiquitous French starter, which justifies the "Mediterranean" tag applied to the restaurant. The snails had been sautéed in garlic-herb butter and adrenalized with shallots, then finished with a delicate puff pastry.

Even more than the escargots, a main course of blackened mahi-mahi stretches the boundaries of Ferdos's culinary definition. But it is a worthy venture outside the parameters of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. The thick fillet had been dipped in a light coating of cayenne pepper, then pan-fried and doused with a green apple-mango salsa and vanilla-rum butter. Though it was nearly impossible to identify any green apple or rum flavor, the mango and butter ingredients were fairly apparent, not to mention tasty. A smattering of sea scallops and jumbo shrimp over the top of the fish heightened the dish's richness.

After finishing the seafood, try a Mediterranean classic: the excellent gyro, slices of pressed lamb and beef scattered over pita bread and topped with onions and tomatoes. The tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt sauce) that dressed the gyro was thick and creamy, as was the garlic sauce that accompanies every plate of kebabs. Ferdos lives up to its nickname with a choice of five different kinds of kebabs, including shrimp and a vegetarian option. We opted for the Mediterranean Delight, a combo platter comprising chicken, tenderloin, and kaftah (ground beef flavored with parsley and onions) kebabs. Without exception all were highly flavored, convincingly marinated, and perfectly seared on the grill, though the tenderloin was a little tough in spots.

With all the main courses, the two side dishes -- fragrant rice (accented with carrots) and steamed and buttered vegetables (broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, carrots, and cauliflower) -- had a welcome freshness I rarely see in South Florida's most expensive restaurants. (Ferdos, thank goodness, is not one of them, by the way.) Our only complaint about the restaurant was the commercially packaged quality of the pita bread, along with a predictable -- if nicely prepared -- baklava for dessert. On the plus side, Ferdos's wine list throws a curve or two with atypical vintages, including labels from New Zealand. All in all, Ferdos Grill not only makes an accomplished addition to the Middle Eastern scene in Fort Lauderdale, it pretty much is the scene. Take it from me: As my husband will tell you, when I'm right, I'm right.

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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

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