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Hala Grill
***
Out of a possible five
$$$

BBQ gyro, Hala Salad create fusion of flavor

It was a fusion dish that sort of scared me.

The specials board at Hala Grill in Leo Crossing promoted a barbecued gyro. Now, I love gyros and love barbecue, but mixing the two just seemed wrong. But I should have known better than to doubt Hala owner Nasser Anabtawi.

Not only was it good, it was great. The zesty, spice-infused lamb and beef gyro meat was just lightly brushed with a super sweet barbecue sauce and served in a traditional Greek pita with onions and tomatoes. It also came with tzatziki sauce, but I didn’t use a drop because, really, did this sandwich need another flavor profile?

The only problem was that now I can’t wait to try another of Anabtawi’s spins on the gyro, this one a spicy version with jalapeno peppers and some hot spices.

“I have regulars who come in just for those,” Anabtawi said, proudly.

It is not surprising that this new spot already has regulars. Anabtawi’s first restaurant, Maza Grille, once received five stars from me for its delicious Mideastern/Mediterranean fare. Not long after opening, however, Anabtawi had to head overseas for work (he’s an engineer by trade) and left Maza in the hands of a relative. It eventually changed hands again before closing.

Signs of what I loved at Maza were found at Hala.

You can still get a sampler of appetizers with the Vegetarian Combo, which includes falafel, hummus, yalangie (stuffed grape leaves) and baba ghanoush. The hummus is silky smooth and has a wonderful flavor, with a touch of lemon. The baba ghanoush has that same signature slightly charred roasted eggplant flavor and is a little chunky, which I loved. The rice inside the grape leaves also packed a lemony punch, and the leaves were blanched nicely so they were not too bitter.

But the best starters were the falafel and kibbeh, which I am not sure you can find anywhere else in Fort Wayne. The falafel – little fried hush puppy-like balls of ground chick peas – were a little sweet, crunchy, not at all oily and just fantastic. The kibbeh had a perfect crispy outer shell of cracked wheat and a center of loose ground meat heavy in Middle Eastern spices. These football-shaped delicacies were as addictive as they were delicious.

I also loved the Hala Salad. It comes with the kabob dinners and can be substituted for the garden salad with any entrée. But on its own next to the Vegetarian Combo, it completed the perfect lunch.

The salad was made with fresh romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and fresh chopped mint and was dressed with just lemon juice and olive oil. It was a bright, fresh-tasting salad that really hit the spot on a hot August day. The Greek Salad has the same ingredients plus crumbled feta and black olives. Its Greek house dressing was tasty, but I would always ask for the lemon and oil instead.

The best way to have the Hala Salad, however, was with a little of the Hala Feta on top of it. This appetizer mixes the salty cheese with tomatoes, diced green peppers, black olives and olive oil and comes with pitas for dipping. It was the kind of dip I would want in my refrigerator all of the time and the kind of dip that made the Hala Salad one of the best salads around.

The best dinner entrée was the Kabob Combo Platter, which included beef kafta, lamb and chicken kabobs. The chicken and lamb were phenomenal – tender, juicy and perfectly seasoned. The kafta – ground beef, onions and spices in a sort of meatloaf form – was flavorful but a tad dry and just paled in comparison to the lamb and chicken.

My lamb shawarma – marinated lamb in a pita with tomatoes, onions, parsley and tahini – also paled in comparison to the kabob. This lamb was just as tender and juicy, but it did not have an ounce of salt, pepper or any other seasoning on it. The tahini couldn’t even mask this error.

Seasoning also killed the only American dish I tried – Hala Grill offers several for those folks who might be intimidated by the Mediterranean offerings. The New York strip wasn’t a great cut of meat to start with, but it could have at least been enjoyable had it not been overcooked and had it had just a little seasoning on it. Instead, it was just a bland, gray slab of beef.

The chili at Hala Grill lacked heat, but it had a nice rustic flavor that made it a solid bet. Just a little hot sauce was all it needed to meet my expectations, but those who like mild chili will love it as is.

The chicken soup was also worth trying, and it was as unique as the chili was normal. Bits of chicken, diced carrots and potatoes were swimming in an intense yellow broth that I assume was heavy on turmeric. It was robust and the combination of salt, turmeric and whatever other ground spices were used in it made it a real belly warmer.

The lentil soup, however, was just flat out bad. It was a pureed soup that looked like applesauce. It was thick and gritty, and it, too, lacked salt.

The parts of my meals at Hala Grill that need no improving upon were the endings. In addition to some top-notch baklava, Hala offers a creamy, rich, cinnamon- and coconut-topped rice pudding that is better than most grandmothers’, and an interesting Middle Eastern delicacy called kenafeh. It is a mix of soft white cheese and pastry soaked in a sweet syrup and topped with pistachios and more tiny strands of pastry that are crispy and dyed orange. It was somewhat savory but has the right amount of sweet syrup so it went perfectly with the best thing on Hala’s entire menu – the Turkish coffee.

Maza Grille was the only place I have ever found these tiny, dark, murky, strong cups of coffee. The coffee, brewed by the cup with the unfiltered grounds settling on the bottom of the cup, has sort of a natural sweetness to it, and also notes of cinnamon and maybe clove.

It is so good, you will want to drink every drop, but don’t try it, as the grounds are very bitter. Every time I order it, I end up going too far and getting grounds in my last gulp.

The coffee was the perfect ending to my visits to this new – but not really new – restaurant. And with it and so many other tasty offerings, there is no doubt I will go back soon.

Restaurant: Hala Grill

Address: 10368 Leo Road

Phone: 471-4848

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Cuisine: Mediterranean

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Smoking status: Non-smoking

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Vegetarian Combo ($10.99), kibbeh ($8.99), Hala Feta ($6.99), Hala Salad ($6.99), lamb shawarma ($4.99), Kabob Combo ($18.99), New York strip ($16.99), soup ($2.59 cup; $3.99 bowl), rice pudding ($1.99), kenafeh ($3.99), baklava ($2.99), Turkish coffee ($1.99)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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