In 2001, when Aladdin's opened in Woodhill Center, Lexington had yet to be exposed to amazing Mediterranean cuisine. Now, just eight years later, thanks to chef Mahmoud Ahmed's superb introduction, we are officially converted, with choices peppered all over a town that loves its pita bread, hummus and kebabs. If anyone used to have trouble pronouncing baba ghanouj, they don't anymore.
All of these places, however, are relatively small, a scale that works perfectly for the intimacy of shared mezze and a cup of good, strong coffee.
Yet I have wondered how a larger operation with a full bar would play out. There is something about such savory food that cries out for wine. It was only a matter of time before someone would break the mold, and finally, someone has.
That someone is Petra Mediterranean Bar and Grill.
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With the addition of alcohol and the ambience of its emporium-size location (the former Romano's Macaroni Grill), certain other cultural compromises have been made. Even though you can enjoy a flavored water pipe here, the service could be anywhere: American informal. And I presume that the jarring appearance of French onion soup, quesadillas and buffalo wings on the menu caters to those friends and family put off by the unfamiliar or exotic. Presentation is as lovely as Mediterranean hospitality requires, or it can be surprisingly haphazard. In short, some authenticity has been lost in the process of making the experience more accessible.
Nevertheless, like almost every restaurant in Lexington, Petra is a mixed bag of some good dishes with a few clunkers.
Let's dispense with the gaffes first. The hummus be loham ($8.95) was bitter from too much tahini (sesame seed paste), and its garnish of bits of lamb — some tender, some dry — added nothing. Fresh mint and riper tomatoes and green peppers would have helped the fatoush salad ($7.95). I wished the dolmades ($9), grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice, had actually come with the lemon-spiked glaze of tomato, onion, and garlic the menu promised (I had to request some); without it, this appetizer was simply bland. Other than three excellent piping hot falafel, the mezza sampler ($8.95, for a two-person serving) consisted of hummus and the only tabbouleh I have ever seen with barely any bulgur. Finally, butter and cheese all but obscured the onions in the French onion soup ($5.50 at lunch).
Now that that's off my chest, it's time to name the winners.
Petra's pita bread really resembles fluffy white bread, but it is delicious anyway. You can get a great glass of René Barbier white wine from Spain for the ridiculously low price of $5.50. It's nice to bite through crisp phyllo dough into the center of spanakopita triangles ($8.95 for four) packed with garlicky spinach and cheese.
There is a wide selection of stuffed or wrapped sandwiches, usually served with creamy garlic sauce. My personal picks, in ascending order of preference, were the shish kefta kebabs, followed by chicken schwarma, both accompanied by condiments of pickles, onions and tomatoes but both a bit dry ($6.95 each).
Head and shoulders above all, however, must be the gyro ($9.90 with a fatoush salad replacing the fries): thin and butter-tender slices of spit-roasted lamb that melt in your mouth with lettuce, tomatoes and onions spilling over the top. If I never ordered anything else at Petra's, I would be totally satisfied.
But then I would miss the moussaka ($12.95), which is close to the real Greek deal of eggplant and meat with tomato and a béchamel redolent of cinnamon. You can't find a heartier dish than this, especially with the additional layer of potatoes. I only hope the next time it won't have half-melted shredded cheese on top.
It would also be wrong to pass up a chance to enjoy feri ($18.95), two succulent charbroiled quails, an item I had not seen on Lexington menus until my visit to Petra. This light bite is served, as are most entrees at Petra, with a sautéed medley of peppers, onion and zucchini, and a side of rice with almonds. Not terribly imaginative, but seasonal, which is what we all claim to want.
Petra has potential. It also has an enormous space to fill, which, along with the desire to be all things to all diners, creates some distraction from the task at hand: making every luscious Mediterranean dish that comes out of the kitchen perfect.