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Less than meets the eye at Logan Square's Masada

Food takes a backseat to the spectacle at this Middle Eastern boite.

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Just before the 960 Jewish inhabitants of the lofty fortress of Masada committed mass suicide in the year 73, they torched everything within the walls except their food stores, so that the invading Roman legion would know the defenders died willingly and not by starvation.

Unrelatedly, "Masada" happens to be the name of the Jordanian immigrant who 23 years ago opened Wicker Park's popular Middle Eastern deli Sultan's Market. She's also the mother of Shadi Ramli, who presciently purchased a building across from the California Blue Line stop in Logan Square ten years ago and embarked on his own epic struggle, spending the intervening period transforming the three-floor space, piece by piece, into a baroque fantasyland that rivals the flamboyance (if not the size) of the enduring Alhambra Palace on Randolph Street.

There's a giant and vaguely cephalopodic hamsa talisman that hangs above the entrance to ward off the evil eye. There's a lovely outdoor patio and rooftop hung with arabesque lanterns and draped with snaking grapevines. There's a subterranean bar, disco, and stage, with a gallery annex of photoshopped Hollywood poobahs (Paris Hilton in a hijab, John Travolta in a kaffiyeh). And everywhere you look there's a flat screen broadcasting Levantine screwball comedies and musicals. One night you may nibble on kebabs and dolma while a belly dancer shakes her thing, and on another a chill dude noodling on an amped oud may greet you at the door.

And there's no chance of starving. Ramli clearly intended for Masada to be something more than a place for hummus, baba ghanoush, and shawarma. There are some rare dishes on the menu—things you'd otherwise need to journey to Bridgeview for: parsley-and-garlic-stuffed broiled lamb spleen; sauteed lamb kidneys and hearts; the inverted chicken, vegetable, and rice casserole known as meklooba; and koshari, Egypt's national dish of lentils, rice, pasta, and chickpeas. The Shadlis should be commended for this bold presentation of uncommon foods, and also for the inclusion of some interesting Lebanese wines and an Israeli beer, as well as a selection of five of the potent anise-based spirits known as arak. None of the araks, however, find their way onto the perfunctory cocktail list—required of any new Logan Square restaurant—that nonetheless includes a not especially fizzy but intensely gingery Dark & Stormy (here known as the Dark & Shamali).

There are all the expected mezes, salads, and kebabs, the latter also available stuffed into wraps for a more hands-on experience. These dishes vary wildly in value and presentation. A small dish entitled "tomato skillet"—which I expected to be more like the tomato-and-vegetable-based stir-fry known as kalaya—is simply a flat plate of mildly spicy tomato sauce and nothing else. It's a puzzling thing to see on the table—good for sopping up with pita, but you'll feel silly paying $7 for it. Three double-jointed chicken wings, unbreaded and glistening with olive oil and lemon, go for a relatively extravagant $8, while for the same price a huge portion of gnarly, gray chicken gizzards drenched in olive oil and sprinkled with fried onions is almost insurmountable. Chunky but unspectacular baba ghanoush takes a backseat to the more visually and texturally interesting fetit betinjan, bites of sauteed eggplant plated with crunchy pita chips, all slathered in tahini dressing. The best value among these plates is the "falafel and its entourage," a snack plate of hot, fat, moist chickpeas fritters, sauteed eggplant, fried cauliflower florets, and zucchini and potato planks served with a garlic-jalapeño-lemon sauce.

Masada is at its most discouraging with its kebabs. At first glance these are impressive arrangements—platters loaded with greenery, rice, and charred vegetables. But $19 for a single small ground-lamb-and-beef kefta kebab—or $23 for a handful of overcooked lamb nuggets—is galling, particularly when the ample portion of rice tossed with short pasta noodles is so overcooked. The only dish that comes close to satisfying a healthy meat tooth is a set of three grilled lamb chops served with overroasted brussels sprouts and the same arrangement of rice, charred onions and tomato, and peppers.

Other larger entrees are at odds with the visual and aural stimulation all around. A large bowl of lentils and eggplant drizzled with pomegranate syrup is a utilitarian and filling bowl, if a homely one despite its array of garnishes—hot sauce, pickles, radishes, onions, and pita chips. Meanwhile, a few planks of breaded and crispy fried salt cod are degraded by way of a one-dimensional tomato sauce.

Plodding your way through a selection of these dishes feels peculiar. It's not that many of them are poorly prepared. They simply underperform in an environment of sensory overload. Logan Square's Masada has more in common with the fortress of antiquity than it first appears—it's an impressive, even awe-inspiring structure where the food is of little importance.

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