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Al-Sultan a fine entrée to Mideast cuisine

Though we are fortunate to have a broad range of places to choose from when dining out in Victoria, restaurants focusing on the cuisine of one of the world's oldest corners are relatively new here.

Though we are fortunate to have a broad range of places to choose from when dining out in Victoria, restaurants focusing on the cuisine of one of the world's oldest corners are relatively new here.

Many of the dishes we know today with roots in what we call the Middle East are so culturally entrenched that no one can really say where they began. The Sumerians feasted on chickpeas, lentils, lamb and grilled fish; Mesopotamians cultivated barley, preserved fruit and harvested more than 50 kinds of fish from the ocean and rivers. Techniques evolved as the Persian, Umayyad and Ottoman empires shifted people and borders, using olive oil, herbs, nuts, raisins, pomegranates and spices such as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin and saffron to put their own spin on things.

It's no surprise, then, that the sign outside Al-Sultan Restaurant proclaims Arabian and Mediterranean dishes, but driving by on an empty stomach, there was one word in particular that made me pull over. Shawarma is the best fast food sandwich in the world, as far as I am concerned: Grilled pita bread filled with spit-roasted marinated meat, vegetables and sauce. Choosing chicken, I was rewarded with dark meat with a hint of smoke and spice holding their own against what I believe was tarator sauce (the Lebanese version of aoili), tahini and fresh vegetables. I ate it so fast, I can't be sure. Whatever it was, it was well worth the $7 or so I paid for it.

Noticing they had a buffet in the evenings, I returned a couple of weeks later with my friend Marnie, an admitted Lebanese food addict who doesn't like to cook and would be a lot happier if she could eat dinner in Toronto every night.

I began with green salad and freshly made pita bread, hummus and tzatziki, while Marnie chose gently spiced lentil soup and ful medames, a classic preparation of fava beans simmered with olive oil, garlic, lemon and smoky cumin, which is both a national favourite in Egypt and a protein-rich breakfast choice for observers of Ramadan.

We agreed the falafel here is the best either of us has eaten in Victoria, not the usual chickpea bullets, but crisp on the outside, dense but soft in the middle, with a touch of aromatic spices.

Tandoori chicken went well with a trio of tomato-based stews flavoured with garlic and lemon featuring white kidney beans, okra and potato, but our favourite dishes were regional specialties from the owners' homeland, urog tawa (wheat-based fritters with ground meat, tomato and eggplant) and cheikh al mahchi (tiny eggplants stuffed with spiced meat).

The buffet was good value at $14 per person and one of those guilt-free meals where you know everything you ate was good for you. We also ordered a couple of meat dishes to get a sense of the à la carte menu, which were a mixed success. Shish taouk -- skewers of grilled chicken -- were delicious, simply flavoured with lemon, olive oil and garlic, but lamb kabsah arrived minus the advertised flavourings and garnish of nuts and raisins. This probably explains why we were told several minutes after ordering that the Iraqi red rice wasn't available.

Though I give some leeway in terms of timing (these dishes took half an hour to produce, though we were the only people eating à la carte) to a self-taught kitchen, I offer the following advice: If you're out of the ingredients, just say so. It doesn't pay to try to pass something off. Each cost slightly more than the buffet, and the result was that neither of us would be inclined to order either of them again.

If you are only comfortable in restaurants with hardwood floors, stemware and linens, keep walking -- the ambience is more homey than upmarket. If you like ethnic food and don't suffer from chain-restaurant mentality, however, open the door, go in and enjoy yourself. The greeting is genuinely welcoming and the owner charming. Though we agreed we would return, as Marnie noted, something needs to be done to charge the atmosphere a little, because like many small, independent restaurants these days, it was shockingly empty, and the pile of newspapers and laptop

the employees were using didn't help much. The simple solution might be to go in a group, but please note this is a halal establishment, meaning no alcohol is served.

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