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Restaurant Tours: Souk's Middle Eastern improv

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Souk's chef, Neamet El Sayed, insists, "This is authentic Egyptian food, except for the presentation. That is all my own." But Maher Chebaro, owner of the new Wicker Park restaurant, good-naturedly disagrees: "It is really the same food you will find in Lebanon, in Syria, in other parts of the Middle East, where there is also a Turkish influence." It also reminds me of Moroccan food, with fruits, honey, and other sweet things worked in. Chebaro concurs: "Yes, it is more like North African, but the spice blend is not as complicated. Neamet has been more influenced by his training here in the United States than he wants to believe."

It would be hard not to be, with formal schooling at the Culinary Institute of America and a ten-year stint in New York cooking in such highly regarded restaurants as March, Arcadia, and San Domenico--none of which serve Egyptian, Turkish, Middle Eastern, or North African cuisine. And cooking is not El Sayed's first career. He was a professional soccer player for 13 years, including 4 with his native Egypt's national team, which twice won the African championship. In 1986, visiting the U.S. as a member of the Jordanian national team, he found himself unable to return home because of a problem with his papers. Stranded, he decided to enroll in cooking school. Then, after nearly a decade of preparing Italian, French, and modern American food, he was made head chef at Casa La Femme in Soho, where he created his version of Egyptian nouvelle cuisine.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese-born Chebaro, who first came to the States in 1976, at age 16, to go to the University of Arizona, bounced around several enterprises here and in his homeland. He worked in his family's shipping business, then went to Kansas City and opened a shoe store. He went back to Beirut to start a water-bottling plant, then returned to Kansas City to open his first small restaurant, which served tapas and mezzes, Middle Eastern snacks.

Chebaro moved to Chicago in 1995 and opened the Tribal Grill at Erie and Noble, featuring a menu inspired by the nomadic tribes of the Middle East. The place got good reviews, but it closed recently under mysterious circumstances, and Chebaro acknowledges an ongoing wage dispute with some of his former waitstaff. Soon afterward, he started planning Souk, which means "market" in Arabic. He hired designer Anton Paul Kobrinetz to do the Middle Eastern-accented interior and ultimately lured El Sayed from New York.

At Souk, which opened in March, waiters immediately bring out hot, pancakelike flatbread called saj, a bowl of olive oil and another of zaatar, a mix of dried thyme, sesame, oregano, and sumac. Tear off a bit of the saj, dip it in the oil, then into the zaatar. The menu has familiar items such as baba ghannouge and hummus ($5 each), the latter quite hot due to the addition of an incendiary harissa sauce. Tamiya is a routine falafel ($5), but almost everything else is a departure from the typical Middle Eastern menu.

Kebda, for instance, is grilled cubes of cumin-and-garlic-marinated liver served with spicy pickled turnip ($7). Gambari mashwy is whole grilled shrimp seasoned with anise and arranged on a bed of watercress and arugula in a sea-urchin vinaigrette ($8.50). My companions found it peppery but couldn't taste the sea urchin. The mombar ($8.50) is a unique skinless crabmeat sausage, heavily spiced, with couscous and mixed nuts. Though Chebaro says it's the best-selling item, all the crab flavor was subsumed by the spice and filler.

We agreed the best appetizer was the mokh danni, a large nugget of pistachio-crusted veal brain ($7), which was creamy and flavorful even to a slightly anxious first-time brain eater. But we couldn't come to an agreement on eel bil zebeeb: excellent, rich bits of eel on a nest of corn, all encased in a grilled apricot and set on a plate painted with black honey and strewn with raisins ($8). The presentation was masterful, but some felt the apricot and honey tilted the combination too much to the sweet side.

The sweetness of apricots and a light bread pudding worked very well, however, in the braised lamb shank entree, mozza danni, served with basmati rice sauteed with garlic and vinegar ($15). Lahme mashwy was another savory meat entree consisting of skewered grilled rib-eye chunks and a couple of skinless lamb sausages (kofta) on a thin tomato sauce with wild mushrooms and sweet peas ($18).

Apricots, raisins, and cherries are stuffed into quail that has also been marinated in black honey ($18)--a pleasant, mildly flavored dish. The bran-crusted, crab-stuffed baby salmon, however, was dry and surprisingly bland ($18). A vegetarian entree of cabbage leaves, grape leaves, and sweet red pepper with various stuffings used so much rice in each that the distinctions among them faded and there was little variety of flavor ($13.50). But everyone liked the sayadiah--a large mix of shrimp, squid, and baby octopus served in a lush onion broth with baby fennel ($18).

Desserts include a fine baklava, an interesting combination of chocolate with shredded phyllo, a posh bread pudding, and a wonderful if syrupy sweet goblet of apricots, fresh figs, and dried cherries in a jasmine-scented broth ($6.50 each).

Souk, 1552 N. Milwaukee, is open for dinner daily from 5:30 to 2. Brunch is served Sundays from 10 to 3. Call 773-227-9110. --Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Neamet El Sayed, Maher Chebaro/ interior photos by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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