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A breath of fresh air at the food court

Middle Eastern dishes delivered flavorful and fast

By Kelly Horan
Globe Correspondent / February 23, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — Walid Masoud seems an unlikely revolutionary. At 62, he is sweet-faced and humble, with a gentle demeanor and a manner of speaking that obliges a reporter to lean in to catch everything he says. Including this: “I want to change the face of fast food.’’

His low-key delivery aside, Masoud’s direct gaze suggests that he means business. So does everything about his recently opened Sepal location, an oasis of natural wood, minimalist design, and simply-prepared, freshly-made Middle Eastern food in the most unlikely of places to find all three: the Cambridgeside Galleria food court. Where neon and its culinary equivalents prevail, Sepal occupies 714 sparely adorned square feet — diminutive headquarters for a culinary insurrection that Masoud hopes to spread to food courts across Massachusetts and beyond. His killer app: grass-green falafel, a blend of eight fresh herbs and vegetables, fried golden brown and greaseless, or baked. The 2002 PBS documentary “Sandwiches You Will Like’’ featured it as one of the best in the country.

More than one competitor has tried, unsuccessfully, to replicate it, says Masoud. That includes, somewhat inexplicably, the owner of a Chinese restaurant. “He invited me into his kitchen and said, ‘OK, now let’s make falafel,’ ’’ recalls Muhamad Idelkhanoun, Sepal’s longtime chef. Idelkhanoun met Masoud just two weeks after arriving in Watertown from Casablanca, Morocco, in 1995. He has been a steady — and loyal — presence in Sepal’s kitchen ever since. “We are more than employer-employee,’’ Masoud says. “We are family.’’

Long lines at lunch attest to the appeal of Masoud’s counter-cultural idea: selling freshly prepared vegetarian, vegan, and halal meat dishes; keeping the cost of everything to well under $10; and serving it fast. Sepal’s other bestseller: chicken maklouba, a gently spiced medley of brown rice, tender baked chicken, roast eggplant and cauliflower, and Middle Eastern spices.

Another standout is chicken zanzabeel, a dish Masoud came up with because, he says, “I like ginger. I like chicken. So I combined them.’’ Breast meat, infused with the zing of fresh ginger, is perfectly moist, thanks to an overnight smother in marinade. A creamy red lentil soup is soothing and warming. The surprise: It’s vegan. And Sepal’s mint-inflected beef kafta kabab is what food court burgers everywhere might have been, had the heat lamp not gotten to them first. Masoud’s goal is at once simple and daunting: Give mall food a good name and turn a profit in the process.

This last feat has proved elusive in the past. In previous incarnations over nearly 20 years, Sepal restaurants have opened and closed in Watertown, East Arlington, and Somerville. Masoud may be the new guy in the food court, but he’s a veteran of the vicissitudes and dashed hopes of restaurant ownership. A move from Mount Auburn Street in Watertown, where Sepal had a presence from 1992 until 2000, to less central Nichols Avenue nearby hurt business. So did a post-9/11 wariness for all things Middle Eastern. Masoud closed the Watertown location in 2004, and took a financial hit. East Arlington and Somerville both closed after less than a year.

In 2005, he opened a Sepal on the second floor of MIT’s Lobdell Student Center. Not every restaurant can reinvent itself for a university food court. Richard Berlin, director of campus dining at MIT, helped Masoud make the transition. “This is what is great about Walid: He is very imaginative. He really worked on adapting his menus from a sit-down restaurant, listening to people with experience in college dining about the speed and pace that you have to feed people.’’

One customer in particular took notice. Mahmoud Shihadeh, a mechanical engineer who hails from the same West Bank town as Masoud’s family, was on a college tour with his daughter when lunch at Sepal gave him an idea. “Because of the quality of the food, I saw a very good opportunity to start a chain of restaurants,’’ Shihadeh recalls.

Today, he is Masoud’s business partner. “He’s obsessed with food. And he has beautiful dreams,’’ Shihadeh says. As he sees it, Masoud’s role is to focus on those dreams, while Shihadeh keeps an eye on the bottom line.

One recent afternoon, an Afghan college student, a German journalist, and an English computer engineer, each a self-described regular at Sepal’s Cambridgeside Galleria location, queued up for lunch. The food court is their culinary destination. Stephen Harrison, the Englishman, runs engineering at NimbusDB, a nearby Cambridge start-up. “I discovered [Sepal] the day after Christmas, when it opened, and I have been here every workday since then. This is real food,’’ Harrison says. “If [Sepal] closed, there would be no Plan B. I would not know what to do. I guess I could get a sandwich. I guess I could get food court sushi.’’

Masoud is banking on his falafel that Harrison won’t have to.

Sepal, Cambridgeside Galleria, 100 Cambridgeside Place, Cambridge, 617-324-5570

Kelly Horan can be reached at kelly.horan@mac.com.

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