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DINING OUT

Ho-hum flavors shatter promise of fine dining

The Phoenician Restaurant

355 South Broadway

Salem, N.H.

11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 4 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Major credit cards accepted

603-870-0045

The Phoenician Restaurant bills its food as Middle Eastern and American cuisine. The restaurant might more accurately be described as one-10th the former and nine-10ths the latter. Among the inauthentic touches: The pita served in lieu of bread comes not with hummus or olive oil, but with small plastic packets of butter. French fries proliferate, and the only two entrees I would identify as decisively Middle Eastern, adrift in a sea of steaks and chops, were shish kebabs.

The Phoenician's primary concessions to Middle Eastern fare are its appetizers. The combo platter ($11.50), featuring baba ganouj, hummus, and tabouleh, was a good choice. The two spreads were creamy and garlicky, and the tabouleh, heavier on the parsley than the bulgur, was fresh and tasty.

The effect, however, was marred by the Phoenician's cold pita, which gave every indication of having been pulled straight from a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

The small appetizer assortment ($14.95) was hit-and-miss. Served with a tangy tomato sauce, the lima beans and a stuffed pepper were very good. But the stuffed grape leaves and stuffed cabbage were listless, devoid of the lemon juice or olive oil that usually bring life to such a dish.

The kibbeh, ordinarily savory minced lamb mixed with bulgur and spices, was a dry, insipid, and scarcely edible slab.

The two Middle Eastern entrees, dubbed lamb on a stick ($17.50 for a standard portion) and beef on a stick ($14.95 for a 7-ounce, "lighter fare" portion) were inconsistent, with the beef much tastier and better charred than the lamb. The small side of peppers and onions was sautéed rather than grilled alongside the meat, with predictably flavorless results.

An additional charge of several dollars is levied for more authentic grilled vegetables, inexcusably stingy at this price.

Two American entrees were lackluster. The chicken piccata ($14.95) was generous, consisting of three breaded chicken breasts, but the accompanying bowl of yellow sauce was gloppy, tepid, and frankly unappetizing. The broiled haddock meuniere ($17.95) was said on the menu to feature a lemony coating; in fact, it seemed to be a standard batter-dipped fish filet, with no discernable lemon flavor even after a squeeze of lemon juice.

The optional sides of rice pilaf and steamed vegetables were bland, and the vegetables crude -- an entire half of a broccoli crown, and jagged chunks of carrot. Some may enjoy sawing apart their vegetables, but I was put off by the coarseness and evident lack of care in these sides' preparation.

After these entrees, the desserts were a pleasant surprise. The baklava ($3.75) was sweet and nutty, and the excellent baked Alaska ($5.50) was immense and bursting with the flavor of strawberries.

The restaurant's main dining room is pleasant, its cathedral ceiling punctuated with skylights. But one glowering waitress ranked among the surliest I've ever encountered. She practically snarled with displeasure and exasperation when I dared to inquire about the contents of the stuffed vegetable appetizers, generally providing a level of service I find unacceptable when paying $60 for dinner for two.

The Phoenician's website promises fine dining, but it seems the proprietors of this eatery have lost sight of the fact that fine dining means much more than just high prices.

STEVE BRADT

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