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Restaurant Review: Brunch at The Middle East Unique But Inconsistent

Classic American Fare Mixed with Middle Eastern Flavors Worth a Try ... But Only One

By Yaa-Lirng Tu

The Middle East

472 Massachusetts Ave

Cambridge, MA

(617) 492-9181

As many of you may know, The Middle East’s entertainment repertoire has expanded from belly dancers to rock gods, making for shows where names big and small join to capture audiences with nights of unrestrained merrymaking.

A small family-owned Lebanese restaurant that first opened its doors in 1970 to a neighborhood of ethnic food hungry customers, The Middle East expanded over the years from what was later called “the Upstairs” next door to what is now the restaurant “Zuzu,” around the corner to “the Corner,” and finally out again to “the Downstairs.” Together these comprise three performance rooms and three restaurants, though the mystery of the relationship between three similar but disconnected restaurants still confounds the best of us.

People who have enjoyed good music and the occasional Middle Eastern dish here may be surprised to find that this restaurant has a brunch menu — or at least the downstairs of the Upstairs does. The brunch offers, for the most part, the same old American items: omelettes, waffles, and bacon. The bacon, however, comes as a side on a plate of lettuce, and everything is topped with a liberal helping of fruit, from kiwis to strawberries to thin orange slices. The non-sweet meals each arrive with a small glop of a spicy paste.

Having tried brunch at Middle East once before, we were disappointed. The drinks were nothing special — though the carrot juice was excellent, the grapefruit juice was too sour and tasted artificial. The fruit, too, was not as fresh this visit, but the “fresh fruit waffle” ($7.95) was still tasty. The chocolate chip pancakes ($5.25) were sickeningly sweet because of an excess of chocolate chips and cheap-tasting chocolate syrup, which also ruined the chocolate baklava ($5.50). A rich phyllo pastry layered with chopped nuts and, in this case, chocolate, the baklava was not sweet enough, even with the cheap-tasting sauce, and its layers mushed together.

Despite the disappointments, The Middle East did have quite a few treats to offer. Egg dishes varied in quality, from tasteless scrambled eggs accompanied with a very good chicken shish kebob ($7.50) to delicious poached eggs with a dry but rather generous serving of salmon ($7.95). The Bith Ala Bonadoura ($6.25), a scrambled egg platter cooked with chunks of garlic and tomato, was the most flavorful of the bunch. The garlic made a huge difference in the taste of the eggs, which had a Mexican flavor but were not as meaty and greasy as a taco. In addition, the home fries — potato quarters roasted and saut ed with bits of peppers and onions — were also very well-prepared.

The flaws in the meals accompanied the unfortunate atmospheric faux pas, such as strings of half-broken Christmas lights along the ceiling. Perhaps the Middle East is more conducive to sultry nighttime forays and not the bright and warm feeling of Sunday morning brunch. That would explain the slow service, and the automatic 18 percent gratuity for only five people.

Even though the Middle East is a great place for inspired musical enlightenment, its brunch has proven to be inconsistent. On the right day, brunch can be a delicious experience, topped off with ever-abundant fruit; on the wrong day, it’s all a bit dull. Still, the uniqueness of their ethnically-derived meals make it worth at least a try.