Recently geographic illiteracy has been identified as yet another of the problems rampant in our schools. According to some surveys, U.S. students can barely locate the Mississippi let alone Moscow.
Some critics blame inadequate techniques or boring texts; other observers point the finger at television and rock music. Personally, I'm inclined to take aim at a diet that many Americans subsist on - processed meats, white bread, huge cups of carbonated drinks, pizza memorable more for death-defying delivery than taste, and an occasional night out for chop suey or a Mexican combination plate covered with melted American cheese.I am convinced that we could learn a great deal about our shrinking planet by sampling the international cuisine offered in the Salt Lake area and exploring the different cultures and countries celebrated in diverse eateries around the Wasatch Front. Whether its Thai, Korean, Mongolian, French, German, Italian, Argentine, Japanese, Chinese, Australian, Vietnamese, Persian, Lebanese, Greek or Mexican, appetites for both food and global understanding can be readily satisfied.
Cafe Mediterranean, a modest restaurant located in the Central City area of Salt Lake, certainly pleased our palates and added to our appreciation of international cuisine. Our lunch and dinner there also allowed me to recall my first exposure to Middle Eastern cuisine as a student in Washington, D.C. Mama Iish's specialties at the Calvert Cafe, combined with the company of many Arabic students, opened up windows on the world for me that I have never forgotten.
The atmosphere at Cafe Mediterranean is considerably less electric than the Calvert Cafe in the late '60s. Here the clientele arrive on bicycles, sport healthy tans and talk more of New Age hopes than the political passions that are so easily ignited by problems facing the world. The pace is definitely relaxed, even laid back, frustrating those who seek a "power" (or even fast) lunch or dinner.
On the other hand, the food, mostly vegetarian specialties, generates a special energy within. The red lentil and spinach soup, served with a wedge of lemon and slices of warm pita bread, had a distinctiveness and authority that was also present in most of the other dishes we sampled. The tandori chicken ($5.95), a quarter chicken, marinated in yogurt and lively seasonings, grilled to moist perfection, was wonderful.
So was the colorful display and tastes on the Middle Eastern plate ($4.95), which included hummus (ground chick peas, garlic and sesame tahini), babaganoosh (pureed eggplant, garlic and olive oil), tabouleh, cucumber and tomato salad, and three scrumptious orbs of falafel. The falafel were perfectly crisp on the outside and verdant within, radiating with the color and tastes of the parsley, mashed garbanzo beans, onions and garlic. They tasted even better with a minty yogurt dipping sauce.
Mujadara ($2.95) is a Palestinian specialty of lentils and rice encircled by cucumber and tomatoes in a mild dressing. It was good, though not as exciting as the other dishes we sampled.
Other specialties that rotate through the modest bill of fare include Spanish shrimp ($6.50), sauteed in parsley, garlic and sherry; Morrocan couscous ($4.95), with lean lamb; vegetarian lasagne ($4.50); and Turkish quiche ($4.50), accentuated with feta cheese. Boston-style grilled sandwiches include pepper steak, ham, turkey, pastrami, and cheese and avocado, each priced around $3. The falafel sandwich is $2.75 for the whole, $1.75 for the half.
There is a handcrafted care with each of the dishes, causing some of the delay, from the custom-made Italian sodas to the delightful half- moon cookies.
Cafe Mediterranean is presided over by a Palestinian couple, Randa and Ryad Mousa. Their little restaurant has a serenity all its own, a far cry from the strife that plagues the Middle East and other parts of the world. Perhaps that alone makes it a place worth learning from and visiting.
Cafe Mediterranean, 542 E. Fourth South, 364-4914. Open from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and until 8 p.m. on Sundays. Checks accepted with guarantee card.