It may not be Suez, but... 

Canal Bistro capitalizes on prime property for serving Mediterranean staples

There’s something about outdoor dining that packs in the customers. Perch your café’s patio above water and, well, you could serve just about any sort of food and be guaranteed people will wander over. Back in May, when I strolled up Guilford Avenue on my way to another recent Broad Ripple addition with al fresco seats and saw that a new eatery was under construction in the complex of shops just north of the canal bridge, I thought, “Perfect! Why hadn’t someone snatched up this little corner before?” I skulked around the place wondering what sort of dishes would emanate from inside. “Canal Bistro” was all the sign said, a name innocuous enough that it could have been anything.

It didn’t take long to find out that this place would be serving Middle Eastern and Mediterranean classics — or to hear that lunchtime crowds were already making it hard to get a table overlooking the canal. But it took me a while to get back there with an adventurous crew to see if this place was up to its location, if it was earning those throngs of diners. Indy has no shortage of places serving hummus, kabobs, gyros and calamari. But few other places have such a promising address.

One can’t deny Canal Bistro exhibits a spirit and atmosphere different from your average kabob shop. Even without its patio of umbrella-topped tables, the bright, well-dressed interior recalls the calming vistas of the Mediterranean with a seacoast scene painted directly on the wall. The open kitchen makes you feel like you’re part of the action — perhaps almost too much, considering the narrowness of the inside dining room. The day we dropped in, the staff seemed somewhat harried from having to take so many steps in such little square footage. More than a couple of things were dropped.

All in all, however, it’s a welcoming spot, with a menu that reaches toward more humor than most. The description of the “grilled fresh fish” jokes that the fish has been pulled up from the canal or that, at least, they get the “secret sauce” from that murky waterway. The boldest claim comes right at the top: “You are about to experience the freshest, tastiest, most authentic Mediterranean food you can get without a passport.” But who would want to eat at a restaurant that wasn’t proud of its product?

Unfortunately, dishes at our enormous lunch were hit and miss, and some claims about certain dishes didn’t deliver quite what we’d hoped for. Still, a mazza plate ($11) did have some quite respectable falafel with a nice garlicky sauce, a tasty if a bit timid hummus and some rich spinach pies. Tabouli was clearly fresh, but seemed almost entirely comprised of parsley without any of the requisite bulgur wheat. Salads, more than just an afterthought here, were also a little underwhelming. A house salad ($7) with calamari had far too much of the white tough ribs of romaine lettuce, and the calamari was a tad rubbery without the crispness of the best. A “luscious” house dressing could have had more tang to it.

Among entrees, the chicken shawarma ($8) was the clear winner, stuffed with a generous heaping of exceptionally tender threads of chicken breast. A garlic sauce that turned up in several dishes found its best use in this delicious sandwich. A kafta kabob sandwich ($10), on the other hand, puzzled us with it strong flavors. While the ground lamb was juicy enough, it had so much of “George’s spices” and so much time on the grill that it was left tasting bitter and burnt. A beef tenderloin kabob came with traditional accompaniments, but it too was so well-grilled as to be a bit charred and tough. In the hubbub of lunch, a complimentary side salad never arrived.

Nonetheless, a very friendly manager caught the error and offered us a free dessert to go along with the one we’d ordered. Baklava ($5) was quite good here, the phyllo crust light and buttery and the spicing not too overwhelming. Grilled “fruits” ($6), however, left us again scratching our heads. Only one fruit — pineapple — arrived and it seemed to have been grilled on the same griddle as our kabobs. Deeply burnt marks on the pineapple and flavors reminiscent of lamb and garlic couldn’t be masked by a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream. The general spirit of the place definitely made a fine backdrop for a convivial lunch. A few improvements might be in order to bring the cuisine up to the level of the real estate.

Canal Bistro Mediterranean Grille
6349 N. Guilford Ave.

Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Food: Two and a half stars
Atmosphere: Three and a half stars
Service: Three stars

Handicapped accessible, Hookahs with flavored tobaccos available

Recommended dishes: chicken shawarma, mazza plate, baklava

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