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Publication Date: Friday, February 15, 2002

Hummus, falafel and more Hummus, falafel and more (February 15, 2002)

Kan Zeman offers unique and affordable Middle Eastern cuisine

by Kelsey Lane

W>hen a coffee shop like Jim's has been in the same spot for 30 years, it's hard to imagine a new restaurant taking its place on University Avenue. So the owner of the new Kan Zeman eatery has tried to make it a smooth transition, keeping the breakfast menu intact.

In fact, a new painted sign of a broken egg hangs above the entrance door, alerting passersby that the restaurant still serves basic American-style breakfasts.

Owner Abraham Khalil chose to honor the building's history by naming the restaurant Kan Zeman, meaning "once upon a time" in both Hebrew and Arabic. But he is clearly focused on the new Middle Eastern menu, which encompasses foods from Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

No stranger to hummus and falafel, Khalil comes from a Jordanian background and owns Mediterranean Wraps on California Avenue. He also hails from a family of restaurateurs.

Lunches and dinners at Kan Zeman are the primary focus, dishing up the likes of kabobs, shawerma wraps and baba ghanoush.

Dinners -- slightly more expensive than midday dishes -- begin with complimentary warm pita and zaatar dip, an intriguing mixture of thyme, toasted sesame seeds, salt, olive oil and sumac (a sour-flavored spice made from the ground berries of the sumac shrub). And though you will have this palate-appeaser on your table, don't be dissuaded from ordering the hummus as an appetizer. Kan Zeman's version ($3.99) sets a new standard for me in the Bay Area. Khalil swears it is the same garlicky chickpea dip served at Mediterranean Wraps, but I found it creamier, more savory and one of the best I've had in a long while.

The baba ghanoush dip ($4.99) was also pleasant, with the creamy eggplant mixture boasting an especially roasted taste. Another standby, the falafel (chickpea croquettes), proved delicious due its browned, crusty outer layer and flavorful, moist and spicy inside ($3.99).

The salads were a bit of a disappointment -- they may be authentic to the region's cooking, but not suited to my Western taste buds. The Laban salad ($3.99) of cucumbers in minted yogurt was tart and sour with nothing to cut through it.

The Fatoush ($4.99) of romaine, tomato and green pepper had a sweet balsamic dressing with hints of parsley and mint -- it would have been merely so-so if the toasted pita chips on top hadn't saved it. (And to think they almost didn't arrive because our waiter had forgotten them and rushed back later to pour them on the greens.) My opinion: Just bring me a plate of those crispy, salty pita chips! The basic Caesar ($4.99), though not Middle Eastern, proved a suitable way to add greens to the meal.

Lentil soup, a good choice, also comes with entrees and is considered a Kan Zeman specialty. Made from a vegetable stock base, it includes savory crushed lentils, onions, garlic, black pepper, parsley and sumac ($4.99).

Two main dishes tied for first place: the messakhan and the magluba . The former consists of tender and juicy broiled chicken pieces, encased with caramelized onions in a toasted lavash wrap, its flavor enhanced by sumac ($11.99). The magluba features broiled, marinated chicken as well, but it is served alongside a beautiful timbale (formed round) of rice, eggplant, pan-fried cauliflower and roasted pine nuts ($12.99). All entrees come with sauteed vegetables, such as zucchini, a rice akin to Rice-a-Roni, and Laban salad. If augmented by appetizers, main dishes are large enough to share as a light meal for two.

One Jordanian dish, manssaf , had tender lamb cooked in a yogurt sauce and served on lavash flatbread and rice ($13.99). The lamb, although slightly perfumey, did not have an unpleasant aftertaste as some lamb is apt to have; however, the aged yogurt sauce that accompanied the dish had a very strong flavor reminiscent of game and old goat cheese -- again, an acquired taste for Western palates.

My recommendation is to try the sauce before slathering it on the lamb -- my friend neglected to do just that, and he needed to order a replacement. To Kan Zeman's credit, they brought him a complimentary plate of delicious grilled, marinated steak.

Other friends tried the chicken shawerma wrap ($7.25, with tomatoes, parsley, onion and tahini) and the falafel wrap ($5.25, with Mediterranean salad and tahini). Both reported back favorably, and the prices are certainly right.

The kabobs were decent but did not make me sing ($11.99-13.99). Choices range from chicken, to beef, lamb, or kuffta (a beef and lamb mixture). Broiled chunks of these come with rice, the usual sides and grilled tomatoes -- the latter a nice, warm tangy addition to the kabob plates. Another not-half-bad kabob dish called prawns fra diablo was mildly spicy, with the shrimp bathed in a dark, herbed tomato sauce ($13.99). Of course, you won't find any pork on the menu due to Islamic dietary practices.

Kan Zeman devotes a menu section to vegetarians, and one of the choices is the foul modammas -- crushed fava bean dip with garlic and tahini ($6.99). I had been looking forward to eating the fava beans -- not something widely available -- but ended up regretting the choice, as the dip was swimming in an oily pool.

If you're feeling really gregarious, try the abali doogh yogurt drink ($2.25), a sour and salty beverage that "people either love or hate," according to our server. Another regional drink offered is the Turkish coffee ($2.25).

Of the desserts I tried, the bowl of rice pudding ($2.75) made my face light up with a smile. A generous portion, it was sweet and creamy, with slightly chewy rice and a perfect sprinkling of cinnamon on top.

I feel fortunate to live in a metropolitan area where foods from around the world are available, and Kan Zeman is one place that delivers unique and healthy dishes at reasonable prices. And the wait is shorter than other University Avenue destinations -- at least so far.

Kan Zeman, 274 University Ave., Palo Alto, (650) 328-5245

Hours: Mon.-Sun. breakfast 6 a.m.-2 p.m.; Mon.-Sun. lunch 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Tues.-Sun. dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. (closed Monday for dinners).

Atmosphere: Clean, with a basic remodeled interior, Kan Zeman is suitable for conversation and you can wander in wearing your holey jeans if desired.

Highlights: Kan Zeman is great for experiencing Middle Eastern dishes in a casual environment. Along with the more familiar dish of hummus (their version is outstanding; $3.99), try either the chicken magluba that comes with a rice-eggplant-cauliflower timbale ($12.99) or the chicken messakhan lavash wrap ($11.99).
Reservations: Yes Credit Cards: Yes Valet Parking: No Alcohol: Yes Takeout: Yes Highchairs: Yes Wheelchair Access: Yes Banquet: No Outdoor seating: No Noise Level: Low Bathroom cleanliness: Medium to High


 

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