By Frank Sabatini Jr.
When asked if the surrounding competition of at least five other Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurants was a deterrent when opening Blue Fourno Grill in Hillcrest earlier this year, owner Abed Shadfan replied, “No. We’re different.”
He explained that everything is made from scratch, including the chicken and lamb-beef shawarma, for which the meats are spiced in-house and stacked by hand onto a vertical rotisserie until forming a large self-basting cone.
He further pointed to a few menu items uncommon to traditional Middle Eastern restaurants, such as “Mediterranean tacos” filled with a choice of falafel or shawarma.
“We mix Mexico with the Middle East,” he said, referring also to a heaping stack of nachos we ended up ordering.
The nachos are constructed with either pita or tortilla chips. We chose the latter and took pleasure in the unique combination of feta and cheddar cheeses strewn throughout the pile, which harbored a thick sauce of tomato paste, garlic and chipotle.
There’s also plov, an Eastern European dish that Shadfan likely encountered growing up in Jordan, since it’s embraced by certain Middle Eastern cultures.
It features a girthy lamb shank encircled by rice and cooked in seasoned broth. Locally, your best chances of finding it outside of Blue Fourno would be at Pomegranate Russian-Georgian Restaurant in North Park or Kafe Sobaka Restoran in Golden Hill.
With the exception of the nachos, hubby and I stuck to the more traditional fare, starting with a three-piece (instead of five) order of kibbeh. This is one of my favorite Middle Eastern appetizers, in which ground beef is blended with nuts, spices and crushed wheat, and then shaped into little footballs before hitting the deep fryer.
These were done right — crunchy and grainy on the outside and moist and gently flavored on the inside — to the point where we didn’t need to dip them into the accompanying yogurt sauce. Had I not been in review mode, I would have devoured a full order of them as my main course.
The baba ghanoush was fresh and creamy, although it lacked that desirable smoky flavor that sings so well to pureed eggplant. Pita bread served alongside was warm and springy, straight out of the kitchen’s stone oven, we were told.
Hubby ordered the grilled lamb tikka for his main entrée, and I gravitated to the chicken shawarma plate. Both dishes came with fluffy rice and juicy fattoush salad, which blends together tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh herbs and pita croutons in lemony vinaigrette.
The charred lamb was fabulous, offering chunks of de-skewered, marinated meat that was subtly gamy and blissfully herby. At times, we detected whispers of cinnamon, which Shadfan later confirmed is indeed used sparingly in the marinade. The plate also featured excellent grilled veggies.
My chicken shawarma was tasty but drier than expected. However, generous squiggles of frothy, white garlic sauce on top helped re-hydrate the meat, as did the fattoush salad sitting beside it. Also included was a serving of plain hummus with a pond of olive oil in the middle. Smooth and slather-able, it mingled naturally with everything on the plate.
Lentil soup, falafel, stuffed grape leaves, kabobs and cheese, spinach or meat pies are among the usual suspects also available from a menu that wanders largely through Greece, Lebanon, Iran and Turkey.
The homey atmosphere features tall ceilings, antique appointments and a cozy bar in the back flaunting nearly two dozen taps of local and regional craft beers.
Blue Fourno also serves breakfast from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Friday through Sunday. Among the offerings are stuffed granola pancakes, tahini-avocado brioche toast and “breakfasts from Jordan,” featuring egg pies, fried tomatoes topped with eggs, and more.
In addition, happy hour is held daily from 3 to 7 p.m., when prices on appetizers and beer drop down a couple bucks.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.