4201 University Dr.
Review Date: (prior to 1997)
Reviewers: Dave Crescenzo, Linda & John Meckley, Jeremey Horne, Dilip Barman
I grew up in suburbia, in the Sixties, in the dawn of the fast-food, hamburger age. Absent an ethnic connection, folks in suburbia were not exposed to much "non-mainstream" cuisine. Sadly, the reaction then to foods like humus, grape leaves, or spanakopita was the rection one sees now when you suggest to some carnivore that cereal and fruit might be a healthier breakfast than eggs, corned beef, bacon and sausage: knit brow, pained frown, or worse. Set in our ways, indisposed to change, spooked by unusual, foreign names and things, we remained narrowly within the familiar.
I had sampled Middle Eastern cuisine over the years, but had never adopted it as a large part of my diet. While tasty, for me it was either too strange, or too different, or just inconvenient. Moreover, it was wont to produce a next day echo of its more salient flavors, or even a pointed reminder of fiber's efficacy. So I never developed a habit of kicking back over a beer at the end of the day and thinking "You know, I've got a powerful hankering for a plate of tabouli. And some zaatar 'til they roll me home."
But a vegetarian diet connotes a lifestyle: rational, life-affirming, open-minded -- willing, even eager, to sample the new and the different. I didn't know a heck of a lot about Middle Eastern food when I started participating in restaurant reviews for TVS. I still don't know a heck of a lot, but I've learned, I believe, some valuable things. (1) this cuisine is ideal for the vegetarian, because it is flavorful, healthy, inexpensive, and varied. (2) there is no shortage of outlets in the Triangle, and (3) the names of dishes, their recipies, and their spelling, all can vary widely (or wildly).
We visited two Middle Eastern places recently. Neomonde Bakery & Deli (3817 Beryl Road, Raleigh, not far from NCSU and Meredith) and Saladelia Cafe, across from South Square in Durham. Not only is Neomonde a bakery, but it also has a grocery section featuring Mediterranean spices, olives, seeds and nuts, and dried fruit. (And a shelf of Middle Eastern tapes behind the checkout counter, providing the soundtrack for our meal.) We went for Sunday brunch and sat outside. The atmosphere inside is deli-grocery-bakery: cozy and utilitarian. Saladellia, in contrast (and like the "cafe" name suggests), with potted plants and dimmer lighting, is reminicent of a coffee house.
These are simple, comfortable, casual places. Both provide counter service and take-out. Both have outside tables available, although Neomonde has many more, and under cover. Their fare is very similar: Neomonde offers Middle Eastern sandwiches and specialties, deli sandwiches, and salads. Saladelia has sandwiches, platters, and "homemade" specialties. The Saladelia owners are from Lebanon by way of Cyprus, and they characterized their food as "Lebanese-Greek- Cypriot." (And with roast beef, reubens, and turkey-swiss sandwiches, definitely "American") Significantly, Saladelia obtains its baked goods from the Neomonde Bakery, and that defines their difference: Saladellia is like Neomonde, once removed.
Neomonde enjoyed at least an edge in every significant category: selection, taste, ambience, even price. The food was good at Saladellia, but at Neomonde, it was a little better (and similarly superior to Ambrosia) As is thankfully the case in most places which cater to vegetarians, the people in all these places were sensitive, hospitable, and supportive of our needs -- good people, it seems, are drawn to good things.
We loved Neomonde's Small Sampler Platter ($3.99) - hummos, baba ghanouj, tabouli, grape leaves, labneh (concentrated homemade yogurt), black Calamata olives, and pita bread. (Skip the large sampler: it includes kibbeh, a beef dish.) The Garbanzo Salad ($3.79/lb.) - chick peas, parsley, scallions, olives, vinegar and oil, was excellent. Their Middle Eastern specialties included a Spinach Fatayer ($1.79) - spinach, tomato, onion, lemon, olive oil and spices baked inside pita dough - and Kishk ($1.79), a combination of dried yogurt, onion, tomato sauce, walnuts, olive oil and spices spread on pita bread and baked. My fatayer was super, especially with their added "delight"; a topping of hummus, lettuce, and tomato, drizzled with olive oil (this touch is available on anything you order).
While Glenn did complain (his only complaint) of "too much oil, in everything", Lauren rhapsodized over "the extic selection of Middle Eastern delight." We agreed over the wide range of selection, quality, and price: all extremely good. (Though self-service, the help was great and "very generous in talking about the flower and herb garden and in sharing from the bed of mint.") The general comments: "A great place", "excellent selection," "very good food!" "I'll definitely be coming back," said John. If you live in Raleigh, you should get back too. (If only for the pastries: baklava, cheese cake, lots of stuff I've never heard of but drooled over. After Lauren raved about the main dishes, she noted that "the desserts are the best").
Saladelia, on the other hand, got somewhat less than unalloyed praise. John, this time, loved his Greek Grilled Cheese ($2.65) ("Exceptionally good. I could have eaten two!") but thought his Lentil Soup ($2.35) could have been thicker. Linda Meckley found her Orzo Pesto with Roasted Pine Nuts Salad (available on a combination platter for about $5.00) very pleasing and properly flavored (neither too bland nor strong). The orzo was the best part of Dilip's dinner, but that's the good news. Dilip was plainly unhappy with Saladelia: "I didn't like the food very much... disappointing... Why come back when Ambrosia is only a few miles away?" Certainly don't bother with the Spanakopita, says Dilip: "worst I've ever had." (If you really want some, go to Dilip's "Mine is much better.") Home-cooking was on Linda's mind as well: her comment on her Mediterranean Eggplant Melt Sandwich ($3.99): "The eggplant salad is not nearly as good as Dave Crescenzo's." (I had the same sandwich and found it bland and unwieldy. I've got to agree with Linda.) My Feta Cilantro Bowtie Pasta Salad (Bowtie pasta, feta, cilantro, scallions, tomato, vinegar, olive oil and spices, a "homemade specialty" available like the orzo above, or as a sandwich side dish) was much better.
There was a steady flow of Middle Eastern looking folks shopping at Neomonde when we were there, and I took that as a very good sign. In contrast, Saladelia, I was told, gets a lot of traffic due to its location - on a major route; proximity to shops, offices, apartments (reviewer Jeremy Horne biked over), and oddly, school teachers have apparently gotten the word of Saladelia's (relative) quality and convenience. They pop in before or after class.
And that is our recommendation: Saladelia offers good Middle Eastern veggie fare. We'd not hesitate to visit when convenient. But if you want better Middle Eastern food (or tapes, or groceries, or bread), go to Ambrosia or, perhaps best of all, Neomonde.