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Published: Thursday, 1/11/2001

Beirut: A feast from Mideast

Don't simply take my word that the Beirut is one of the Toledo area's best restaurants. Full parking lots and customers waiting for tables every night are further evidence that it is a very special place.

A key to the Beirut's success is its commitment to an authentic ethnic menu. Yes, it makes a few concessions - steaks, chicken, seafood, and familiar Italian dishes - but for most of the menu, an infrequent guest will need help from the server.

And it shouldn't be a surprise that what's good eating at a Middle Eastern table is good eating in Toledo. What's more, the Beirut heaps lots of food on the plate for a very modest price.

Dining at the Beirut begins with water, perhaps a cocktail, and a basketful of pita bread - 11/2 large pitas quartered - to nourish one's patience while the kitchen, which doesn't rush its work, prepares dinner.

Behind the unfamiliar names, dinner brings together familiar basics such as meat and vegetables in fresh, original arrangements: with yogurt (leban), for example, feta cheese, and cold coarse-sliced onion, radishes, and cabbage, all distinctively seasoned. Contrasting temperature and texture between shish kafta (grilled ground lamb rolled together with rice) and bites of cold green beans, tastefully seasoned and sharing the same plate, open a new and welcome perspective on conventional presentation.

Lamb is a mainstay in Middle Eastern cuisine, and the Beirut's kitchen knows how to season it without overwhelming the meat's delicate flavor. Beef and chicken are alternatives, and you'll find them all in the small type beneath the entree listings.

The shish kebab, grilled but not overdone, is a delight. But don't order it just because it's a familiar name leading off a more obscure list. I find the ara-yes kebab halabi one of the Beirut's most satisfying dinners. A pita is stuffed with seasoned chopped kafta, cut into small wedges and baked. Simply prepared, with no more than a scattering of crisp, fresh raw onions and such to complement the meaty wedges, it is a filling and pleasing variation on the ordinary.

Mediterranean cuisine includes Italian as well as Lebanese, and so does the Beirut's kitchen. And tops on that list is one of the most spectacular, delicious entrees imaginable, combining a medley of flavors and textures: braciola.

Braciola is an upscale relative of German roulade and cordon bleu breast of chicken: beef tenderloin, sliced very thin, rolled around ham and cheese, and, with mushrooms, baked in a red wine sauce. The Beirut's version is the best I've had, and the generous spoonful of cold green beans as well as salad vegetables lends an unexpected touch, just the right touch to a plate that would otherwise be too rich.

Helping with the menu, the servers offer plain descriptions and appraisals of whatever you ask about. Moreover, they are accurate, swift, and attentive. The dining room is cheerfully noisy, and the decor has pleasantly restful, exotic touches. There is parking on both sides of the building.

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