222 S. 40th St.
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Appetizers, those delicious morsels that whet the appetite, are among my favorite things to eat. Whether they are called hors d’oeuvres, tapas, vorspeise, antipasti, mezze or mezza, these preludes to a meal are sometimes tastier and better prepared than entr�es. The mezze of the Eastern Mediterranean have their origins in Greece, Israel, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon and just about any nation that hugs the sea.
My husband Edward and I have enjoyed marvelous mezze at Cedar’s in Queen Village and at Sawan just off Rittenhouse Square. Delicious Greek mezze also can be found at Effie’s on Antique Row and Zorba’s in Fairmount. Dmitri’s has been serving little plates at its two locations for a number of years. We have not enjoyed Middle Eastern fare in a long time and looked forward to Simsum, the Bitar family’s newly renovated restaurant near Penn’s campus.
Simsum. Sounds Asian, no? Actually, it means "sesame" in Arabic. A delightful woman with an engaging smile greeted us and showed us to a roomy, deep-brown leather booth by the window. She opened the 2000 Laurus C�tes du Rh�ne we brought and gave us menus.
The bill of fare, created by chef and South Philly native Tom Deeney, lists any number of enticing mezze and entr�es at downright unbeatable prices. Before our dinner, I visited Simsum’s Web site (www.ucnet.com) and became familiar with the choices. I immediately got big eyes.
We enjoyed fresh pita, warm from the oven, which we dipped into extra-virgin olive oil. Everything sounded delicious, so Edward and I decided on three mezze and two entr�es.
Baba ganuj ($4), that tasty, spreadable mainstay of Middle Eastern cuisine, is made from roasted eggplant. After the eggplant cools, the pulp is scooped out, chopped and mixed with olive oil and tahini, a pureed sesame-seed sauce with a marvelous nutty flavor and texture. We both found the eggplant bitter, but this is not the fault of the chef, as the vegetable can sometimes just taste that way. It was also on the warm side. As we were just about to taste the calamari mish-wi ($5), a man came to our table (we later discovered he was the floor manager) with a replacement dish of baba ganuj. This one was delicious, cool and not at all bitter. We spread it on pita and enjoyed.
The calamari mezze consisted of three tubes of small squid that were stuffed with a shrimp and scallop mousse and grilled. The squid was tender, but we found the mousse a bit bland. Edward and I enjoyed a relish of chopped sweet red onion, which gave the mousse a better flavor.
Now the star of the evening: Lamb kefta ($5) was about a quarter-pound of perfectly seasoned minced lamb that had been shaped into a fat bullet and seared crisp outside and cooked medium-rare inside. The kefta sat atop a bed of cool, diced red peppers. I enjoyed it so much, I wanted to order another but had to save room for the entr�es.
Cooking fish in parchment paper was all the rage in the 1980s. Many restaurants were offering patrons a "package" to carefully open and discover the ingredients. At Simsum, Deeney uses a filet of red snapper ($17) called bil warak. He takes a rectangle of parchment paper and butters it, lays celery and carrots on the paper, then places the snapper on the bed of vegetables and tops it with jumbo lump crabmeat. A sauce is prepared using ginger and sumac. Sumac berries grow wild on bushes throughout the Middle East. They are dark purple and impart a fruity flavor. Our waitress opened the package, steam escaped and we dug in. The fish was perfectly cooked, the crabmeat of fine quality. The sauce fell to the bottom of the package, but we mixed it about and enjoyed the combinations of tastes and textures.
The only disappointing dish was pallea ma harisa ($17), a Middle Eastern twist on paella, the great dish of Spain. I received a mound of slightly tan rice that looked like a tiny Mount Etna. Saffron rice was noted on the menu and on the Web site. Harisa, the famous hot sauce of Tunisia, was also mentioned and would have added flavor, but I could not detect it. The mussels were dry and scrawny. Two mid-sized scallops were cut in half, but not overcooked. Several pieces of boneless chicken breast spent too much time on the grill and were dry. Tiny shrimp, about the size of a baby’s thumbnail, were scattered throughout the rice. Edward and I felt the dish was not executed properly and lacked flavor.
The floor manager came to our table and saw I had barely made a dent in my dinner. When we received our check, he removed the charge from the bill.
Service was excellent and Simsum was doing a nice business. A woman arrived for takeout. Three women sitting next to us were enjoying a host of cool salads, which looked very tempting. At another table, two women shared some mezze and then shared an entr�e of lamb shank with cous cous ($13). I’ve seen this dish priced as high as $25 in a number of restaurants.
Although one dish was not up to par, Edward and I had a delightful evening. Simsum fills an affordable gap on Penn’s campus. But you don’t have to be a student to take in the array of mezze.
Two tips of the toque to Simsum.