Well, it's finally come to this. I auctioned myself to the highest bidder. I know that some of you are not at all surprised. Sadly, that's probably the people who know me best — traitors! Can I just defend my honor by saying that it was for a good cause? No? I didn't think so.
It started when Melissa English from Cincinnati Arts Association contacted me at my day job about sponsorship for their online auction, "Backstage Treasures." I felt inspired. I realized that instead of hauling my traitorous friends (see above) along as company for my exciting dining reviews for CityBeat, I could auction off the experience. The arts would benefit!
The arts and me, honey, we go way back. Melissa saw the wisdom in my idea and I went on the block — so to speak.
The competition was ferocious! Dollars flew like confetti. I was like a rare pair of python cowboy boots on eBay. "Slightly worn at the heels, but fun for a night on the town." That's what Melissa wrote in the item description, I think.
Anyway, once the mad bidding ceased, I made plans with Sandy from the West Side to meet me at Phoenicia Mediterranean Bar and Grill in Montgomery.
Melissa's the one who threw me for a loop. "I'm not sure if Sandy is a male or a female," she mentioned as a casual aside. Oh, great. So I fished for clues in my appointment-setting correspondence. I got one: Sandy was a Desperate Housewives fan. The morning after that revelation, all the males in the graphics department at my office were hotly discussing the latest Desperate Housewives plot twist.
Thus I approached the desk at Phoenicia with some trepidation. "I'm meeting a ... friend," I stammered. "Do you have any, ummm, people, here, ummm, alone, who are meeting a ... friend?"
I was relieved to see the place was inhabited entirely by couples. I sat back to wait. A man walked in, solo. He went back to join the couple in the far booth.
A petite brunette female, looking hesitant, arrived. Instinctively, I waved. She looked as relieved as I felt. And Sandy was already thinking like a restaurant critic. "The front door was locked! I had to come to the side! I'm not sure that's a good sign!"
"Bar and Grill! I didn't know what to expect!" But once she had a seat and looked around at the white tablecloths and tasteful artwork, she seemed relieved. I began to reveal the trade secrets of dining undercover — stuff that Sandy paid big bucks to learn, so I'm not telling the rest of you freeloaders. Hey, did Ruth Reichl give her book away? I think not!
I explained that we had to taste a lot of food to get a good overview — obvious, so not really a secret. So we started with two selections from the "mezza" page. The Stuffed Pockets trio ($7.50) seemed like a good choice, especially when our agreeable server said we could get one of each of the suggested fillings instead of all three of one kind. The oregano filling was a little dry, reminding me of the seeds and stems of my misguided youth. The spinach and beef were quite worthwhile, though. A bit dry, too, was the Shanklish ($7.95), homemade cheese heavily spiced with thyme and oregano, topped with chopped tomato, onion and a drizzle of olive oil.
Sandy was a better conversationalist than an eater. This woman needed a bigger appetite for the job! By the time our salads arrived, I could see her losing momentum. She barely nibbled at her Phoenicia salad (a $2.50 upcharge), while I made an impression on the Sharwarma salad (another $2.50 upcharge) which included flavorful, tender beef Sharwama and tasty pita croutons. I snitched the beets from her plate, and they were excellent. She learned the hard way that when you're on a restaurant review, there is no "your plate" and "my plate." It's all mine.
Probably the high spot of the evening was the Moussaka ($12.95). The eggplant was baked to creamy perfection, layered with cheese, and topped with rich bechamel sauce. Vegetarians be warned, though. Phoenicia's recipe for this usually-meatless dish does contain beef, as does the Phoenicia rice side dish.
After Sandy nibbled at her Kafta Kabab ($13.95), I had to beg her to taste the baklava ($3.95) for dessert. This was her first experience of Lebanese food, and I don't think it will become her new favorite cuisine. But I know she appreciated the adventure of dining undercover. She listened attentively as our server told us about the belly dancing on Friday and Saturday nights, the live music, and the future revisions to the menu that will add more seafood. I'd enjoyed our delightful dinner conversation, and thanks to Sandy, my doggie bags runneth over.
Melissa, call me again next year! Anything for art. ©
Phoenicia Mediterranean Bar & Grill
Go: 10780 Montgomery Road, Montgomery
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; Dinner: 3-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday
Payment: Visa, MasterCard and American Express
Red Meat Alternatives: Vegetarian appetizers, variety of salads, vegetable ghallba, seafood