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APPEAL OF MIRAGE IS CLEAR

Mideast feasts at lunch or a la carte dinners offer a diplomatic solution to exotic cravings.

It had to win me over from two biases I carry deep. First, I fear belly dancers. Not their undulating midsections, per se, but the likelihood that at some point they will reach into the audience for a volunteer and that this quasi-amenable subject with the wretched grin will be me. And second, all-you-can-eat lunch buffets can seem as safe as shooting a gun straight into the air. (Remember that scene in Fargo with Marge and Norm Gunderson and those obscenely piled plates?) A 2 p.m. coma state is as unavoidable as gravity.

That said, a couple of recent visits to Mirage made me wonder why I'd driven on past so many times. There's precious little Middle Eastern food in these parts (an unfortunate national trend that seems to track back to Sept. 11). It's a part of the world with lots of interesting mix-and-match flavors - healthfully veggie-heavy, with zippy lemon and tahini contrasting simply grilled meats.

At lunch, get the ball rolling with a pool of mellow smoked eggplant dip with nice textural bits of eggplant throughout, a textbook hummus, a heap of parsley-intensive tabouleh, a scoop of chopped cucumber and tomato salad, and a couple of falafel balls (their crunchy brown surface giving way to a moist, pale green interior). Wipe swaths of warm pita here and there with abandon.

Then change gears. Stand a moment and take stock of the many labeled stainless steel inserts. Most of the buffet trawlers head for the kebabs (the koobideh chicken and beef are best, moist skewers of seasoned minced meat). But this nearly 8-year-old stalwart, with its inviting canopied patio, purveys an equal number of traditional Persian stews, dips and rice dishes. Eggplant and lamb, long simmered, married beautifully with a juicy charred tomato and a scoop of dilled basmati. Tomato steeped with lengths of green bean made a lovely pairing with a yellow split pea and beef stew. Robust and straightforward, almost all of the buffet options play nicely with each other, again with lengths of warm pita acting as intermediary.

The most dynamically flavored dishes don't seem to appear on the weekday lunch buffet; thus a dinner visit is in order (caution: belly dancing Friday and Saturday evenings). Two of the most famous Persian dishes, fesenjan ($12.99) and shirin polo ($16.99), are elegantly rendered at Mirage. The former is chicken bathed in a sweet-sour sauce made of ground walnut and pomegranate juice, the tangy stew ladled over basmati. The latter is a traditional Iranian wedding dish, a chicken-rice hootenanny of saffron, orange peel, pistachio and slivered almonds. Sweet but with the sharp taste of barberry (like a cranberry with 'roid rage), it's a lovely dish.

For the buffet, servers are essentially charged with filling up your beverage and whisking away hummus-smeared empties. But with a la carte dinners, they step it up nicely to offer guidance and careful attention in the spare dining room. Customer satisfaction is the owners' palpable goal, which perhaps explains this Mirage's longevity.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced.

Review

Mirage Restaurant

2284 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater

(727) 724-3604; miragerestaurant.com

Cuisine: Middle Eastern

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Details: Amex, V, MC, Disc.; reservations accepted; beer and wine; vegetarian friendly

Prices: Entrees $7.95 to $16.95; lunch buffet $9.99 weekdays, $11.99 weekends

Rating out of four stars:

Food: *** Service: ** Atmosphere: **

Overall: ** 1/2

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