Our critic finds out what makes the Midwest the holy land.

Holy Grail 

Our critic finds out what makes the Midwest the holy land.

Lenexa's Holy Land Cafe isn't the only local restaurant specializing in the Middle Eastern cuisine influenced by the "five general spheres" Rose Dosti names in her book Mideast & Mediterranean Cuisines. Dosti cites Persia (now Iran), the Near East (Turkey, Armenia and Greece), the Arab countries (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt) and the North African regions of Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco as the major influences on this style of food preparation.

The fifth, Israel, "remains separate because its cuisine is based on culinary influences of scores of countries," Dosti writes.

In Kansas City, diners can sample Middle Eastern fare at a number of restaurants with romantic names evoking the spirit of the region's ancient history: Pyramids Cafe (3615 Broadway), the Promise Land Cafe (7630 Wornall Road) and the Jerusalem Cafe (431 Westport Road).

There's also the Jerusalem Pita Bakery Deli & International Grocery, located in a former Laundromat at 1404 Westport Road. At the rear, a tiny grocery store sells a variety of imported goods and foodstuffs (including wonderful packaged cookies from Turkey). Closer to the front of this tidy and fragrant shop are racks of freshly baked breads, including semisweet "hot tea bread sticks" that make an excellent late-night snack with a cup of mint tea.

Just beyond the display case filled with varieties of honey-drenched baklava and mamoul is a miniature cafeteria line boasting hot and cold dishes, from chilled salads to fat boiled potatoes stuffed with lamb. Diners can eat at the few tables near the entrance or have a meal wrapped up to go.

On one visit, I had a succulent Chicken Shawarma sandwich wrapped in crêpe-thin unleavened bread and a generous portion of hummus with fresh pita sealed in plastic wrap. Hot sandwiches in pastry crusts wait under a heat lamp, ready to be picked up and eaten.

Like many of the city's Middle Eastern restaurants, the Jerusalem Bakery is unglamorous and unabashedly casual. But across the Missouri River, in Parkville, the Cafe Cedar (160 S. Main) is another story. Polished and attractive, it's a high-gloss Middle Eastern restaurant, with walls of terra-cotta and tables set with oil lamps and burgundy cloth napkins.

Prices are slightly higher here, but the food is exquisite. Vegetarian grape leaves are thick and stuffed with rice, chopped vegetables and spices; the hummus is as smooth as silk and served with a basket of freshly grilled pita bread; and falafel patties, made with lots of chopped parsley, are emerald green. A memorable house salad comes with a tangy olive oil vinaigrette. One of Cafe Cedar's creative dinner offerings is the Lahamei Pasta -- linguini tossed with grilled beef or lamb, chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers in a sauce of garlic, tomato and fresh dill.

For an intimate supper, a couple might share the $22.95 Cedar Combination Plate -- a skewer of juicy marinated chicken, a beef kafta kabob and a plate of falafel and hummus. Most diners will have enough left for lunch the following day. Cafe Cedar is also one of the city's few Middle Eastern restaurants that serve a filet mignon and a Kansas City strip (each with a baked potato) as well as a cheeseburger with french fries.

And the delicate, warm walnut baklava is the best I've ever tasted. The Turks and Greeks both lay claim to inventing this rich pastry, but after sampling it in Parkville, you'll know Missouri is the real Promised Land.

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