Come for the floorshow, stay for the food at Café Trevi The menu at Café Trevi depicts the famed Italian fountain from which the restaurant borrows its name. Muscular Neptune drives his horse-drawn chariot through the gushing waters of a Roman aqueduct. But when a quartet of lithe young women take the stage with many more than three coins strung on sashes that act as a kind of percussive accompaniment to their seductive dance, you’ll know you’re no longer in the city of pasta and passion. Follow that with stately flamenco dancers in vibrant frocks, roses in their hair, and you’ll wonder if your cruise ship has suddenly steered back toward the Iberian peninsula. Rest assured, however, that you’re safe in the heart of Fountain Square. Kibbeh ($12.95), a layered Lebanese “delight” of bulgur, pine nuts and ground beef, was slightly solid but bore an undertone of allspice. A black vinyl banquette runs the length of the shotgun storefront on Prospect, affording most diners excellent views of the evening’s entertainment. Service stops or at least slows considerably while the dancing is in full swing, so if you’re in a hurry or don’t want to talk over clacking castanets during dinner, you might want to dine before the show, which starts around 8 on Friday and Saturday night. But while the nearly hour-long pageant includes a whirling dervish, the dizzying dance of a Muslim peasant hoping to inspire wealth his way, the dancers do not come out into the crowd to solicit tips or to get patrons to embarrass themselves with an impromptu cut of the rug.
The food spans the Mediterranean as well, but docks in Egypt more often than not. By now, one can almost predict the list of appetizers at local Middle Eastern restaurants. So it’s nice when hummus and tabouleh find a few new friends. A Mezzah Café Trevi sampler ($13.95) seemed the best route to try four familiar starters. Fatoosh, a salad with cucumbers and tomatoes, took on a nice crunch from pita croutons in a light dressing, and hummus benefited from good amounts of tahini and garlic. Tabouleh was almost more parsley than bulgur, making for a very mild flavor, lacking a citrus zip.
Falafel patties, made with fava beans instead of chickpeas, were perfectly browned on the outside and a deep green throughout from cilantro and parsley. Even the curiously named “cottage cheese à la mode” was a delicious reminder of simple flavor, topped with tomatoes, olives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Appetizers came with baskets of warm pita and aromatic olive bread with a nicely chewy crust.
Entrées ranged from simple stews to elegant pastas. The lamb shish kebab ($17.95), though not served on its skewer, offered tasty, lightly charred hunks of grilled lamb with rice and green beans in tomato sauce. Kibbeh ($12.95), a layered Lebanese “delight” of bulgur, pine nuts and ground beef, was slightly solid but bore an undertone of allspice that one member of our party said lingered like a memory of carrot cake. It grew on us more with every bite.
Though similarly named, beef Egyptian style ($10.50) and beef cubes in tomato sauce ($9.95) were strikingly different in flavor. The former consisted of straightforward but tender stewed beef with penne in marina sauce, and the latter packed a spicy bite of garlic and cumin though with perhaps more rice than beef. Fortunately, Italian dishes here are not just an afterthought to satisfy local palates. A plate-sized square of lasagna al forno ($15.95) came bubbling from the broiler with a creamy béchamel sauce rather than ricotta cheese.
Desserts consisted of rich, buttery pastries that would go well with a cup of tea or a demitasse of ink-thick, spiced Turkish coffee ($2.50). Just be careful not to drink the grounds! Basbusah recalled macaroons in bar form and the rice pudding was cool and creamy, not too loose. Crostata were a bit like flaky shortbread with orange and strawberry marmalade. To satisfy the Italian theme, a light tiramisu with a good afterburn of liquor ($3.50) came served in its own pretty bowl.
Only a few quirks tarnished the café’s charm. The busboy insisted on clearing away every utensil or glass we weren’t presently using, and we had to rescue a few unfinished plates before he whisked them away to the dish tank. But the magnanimous owner, Faten Unger, who wears many hats as chef, choreographer and featured dancer, paid several visits to our table to ensure that every bite was to our liking and that the show served a feast to our eyes. She didn’t have to convince us on either account.
Café Trevi 1106 Prospect St. 685-2569 Monday-Friday, 11-9 Saturday, 5-11 Food: 3 1/2 stars Atmosphere: 4 stars Service: 3 1/2 stars