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Thursday, December 7, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurants

Lots To Like At Bellevue's Mediterranean Kitchen

Seattle Times Restaurant Critic

----------------------------------------------------------------- Restaurant review

XX 1/2 Mediterranean Kitchen, 103 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue. ($$) Lunch ($4.50-$8) 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily. Dinner ($7.50-$15) 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 10 p.m. Friday, Saturday. Beer, wine. Major credit cards. No smoking. Reservations: 462-9422. -----------------------------------------------------------------

The waiter in crisp black-and-whites hurried out of the kitchen bearing steaming plates of Shish Tawook and Kafta Kabob. He plunked them smoothly at an adjacent table. I snooped.

"Wow!" said the gentleman.

"What's the matter?" asked the lady. "Too much garlic?"

"No," said the guy. "The rice. It's the best rice I've ever had!"

He beckoned the waiter over and asked for the secret ingredients of the best rice he'd ever had.

"I'm sorry, sir," said the waiter. "But we are not yet ready to . . . ah . . . make public the recipe."

Two days later I'd change his mind.

The Mediterranean Kitchen is full of little secrets (and not a few "Wows!"). But one ingredient is no secret at all. Garlic. Not too much of it for some, perhaps, but a prodigious amount for most, and a godsend to the health-conscious.

If garlic is a new-found key to health in the 1990s, then the Med Kitchen is not merely the Mayo Clinic of garlic therapy, it is Lourdes.

Offshoot of Seattle's Kitchen

The Mediterranean Kitchen is an Eastside spinoff of a well-established, perennially popular Seattle restaurant of the same name at the foot of Lower Queen Anne Hill (4 W. Roy St.) opened years ago by the able and congenial Kamal Aboul Hosn, who believes in garlic - strongly.

The Bellevue restaurant is run along similar predilections by Bassam Aboul Hosn, Kamal's son, who shares all of the elder Hosn's botanical enthusiasms. It is small (15 tables), neat and, in a simple, lace white-curtained way, charming.

The restaurants are aptly named. Kamal Aboul Hosn is Lebanese (recently returned from a trip of sunny renewal; "It snowed," he said). But he has traveled and cooked all over the Mediterranean - from Turkey to North Africa. His menus reflect that focus and its diversity.

For two decades he has prepared the most sumptuous North African lamb-shank couscous in Seattle ($9 or $12, depending upon portion size - both are large), rich with braised onions, carrots, potatoes and zucchini, in a tomato-laced broth; the lamb meltingly falling off the bone.

Another North African choice, the Seafood Couscous ($9.25) centers around sauteed shrimp combined with broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, celery, cauliflower, green peppers and onions in a highly spiced tomato sauce (Bassam will adjust the degree of hotness to the diner's level of thermal adventure).

I always start a meal at Hosn's with either the heady Zahrah ($4; deep-fried cauliflower with tahini sauce) or the Lebanese Labnie (same price; drained, creamy yogurt with Greek olives and slices of tomatoes and cucumbers topped with a splash of extra-virgin olive oil and a heavy scattering of fresh crushed mint.

It is a timeless combination of scents and flavors; as old as cold mountain water.

Salads follow: Romaine lettuce, sliced mild onions, tomato wedges - served without dressing. Cruets of extra-virgin olive oil and the house "special" garlic dressing are on the tables, and refilled periodically.

Irresistible rice

A bowl of what may be the best lentil soup in the area arrives next - heady with traces of lemon and cinnamon.

Almost all entrees are served over a heaping mound of steaming rice. It's irresistible - and the secret is simple. The rice is cooked in chicken stock that has been colored with a careful pinch of saffron (the flavor is elusive), and Mideastern fashion, it is fork-fluffed before being served.

Farmer's Dish ($8.50), from Btickny, Lebanon, is the Hosn family's response to Buffalo wings. The chicken wings are marinated, charbroiled and then presented under a coverlet of the house's potent special garlic sauce. They claim to have sold more than a million of them. Over four generations (and three continents), I suspect it's possible.

All of the kabobs ($13.50 to $15) are reliable; the gyros at lunch ($4.85) are grand. Some flavors don't blend well. I find the Chicken Shawarma ($8.25 for wine-marinated chicken thighs with mixed vegetables) a bit busy, but almost everything else works - and served in the kind of profusion that signals a generosity of spirit.

You must try the cardamom-perfumed Lebanese coffee. It makes the average Seattle latte taste like a routine breakfast slurp. (Copyright, 1995, John Hinterberger. All rights reserved.) John Hinterberger, who writes the weekly restaurant review in Tempo and a Sunday food column in Pacific, visits restaurants anonymously and unannounced. He pays in full for all food, wines and services. Interviews of the restaurants' management and staff are done only after meals and services have been appraised. He does not accept invitations to evaluate restaurants.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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