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March 11, 2014

We ‘C’ no evil at Alwatan

I’ve been eager to get back to Alwatan ever since I heard that this lovable little Eastern Mediterranean eatery had outgrown the small space it shared with its sibling Palestinian bakery and moved into larger quarters next door. We wheeled in and grabbed the last parking spot.

Suddenly, a scream shattered the wintry silence.

“GAAAAH!” Mary was staring at the door. No, she was staring at a placard on the door. “GAAAAH!,” she repeated, pointing at a large, scarlet letter. “THEY GOT A ‘C’!”

D’oh! Yet, while this may surprise some of you, we went right in, enjoyed a fine Mediterranean meal and survived to tell the tale.

Was this brave or foolish? Neither, really. If we consider the realities of the Metro Department of Public Health & Wellness Food Hygiene Program, a “C” on the door may indicate that diners can eat there with confidence.

How’s that again? Simply enough, assuming the failing grade is based on a “critical violation” found in a recent inspection, the inspector will be coming back for a re-check within 10 days. You can bet the proprietor is going to be ready.

Still, the red-letter score is enough to scare many of us. Even a lot of my savvy foodie friends will turn away from a “C” or even a mediocre blue “B.” Some food geeks who really ought to know better simply assume that the Red C of Death reveals something like “Chef has MRSA” or “Army of rats found in basement.”

In fact, with the rare exception of establishments that scored below 84 percent on the most recent inspection, virtually all “C” grades reveal the restaurateur’s careless or unlucky acquisition of a “critical violation,” any of about 18 culinary sins considered sufficiently unsafe or unhealthful as to warrant a painful slap on the wrist.

If you have a morbid curiosity, you can review all of the critical violations on the Health Board’s website at louisvilleky.gov/health/aboutinspectionscores.htm. “Spoiled food” will do it, for instance. So will “improper disposal of sewage and waste.” Or, if you’re up for this, “improper re-serving of food,” which I fear may mean, “the guy before you didn’t like his beef stew, so you get it.”

But some violations seem awfully trivial, and a few seem to me to reflect mindlessly rigid enforcement. In short, not all “C”s are equal. A bottle of Windex left on an empty table once got a popular spot placarded for “toxic items ... stored next to food.” Or that warning about the hazards of raw or undercooked seafood or meat? Leave it off the menu, and you may earn a “C.”

Here’s my advice: The placard is posted in plain sight. Walk right up and check the small print. Specific violations will be marked, so you can make your own decision whether to worry.

Alwatan’s Sheet of Shame showed two issues: “toxic chemicals stored with food,” which we’ve already discussed, and “food at unsafe temperature,” which could be a concern, but a quick peek inside revealed a clean, empty buffet that’s apparently no longer in use.

I wasn’t worried about either of those issues, particularly knowing that management was expecting the inspector to return soon, so we settled in and enjoyed lunch. (Indeed, a later check at Metro Public Health’s online database revealed that Alwatan’s past record is good; they earned an honest “A” with inspection grades of 92 and 93 in March and October 2013.)

Alwatan, which seems to have modified its name from Al Watan since the move — it’s spelled the same either way in Arabic — boasts good and affordable “Mediterranean” cooking, centered on Palestinian heritage but extending to the pan-Southwest Asian fare of the Eastern Mediterranean. Service comes with a smile but can be a bit basic at times, and the quarters are clean but sparse.

Most of the menu comes in at under $10, with quite a few items (salads, “plates” and “combo meals” with American-style fries and a fountain drink) in the range of $3.50 to $8. A few festive items — a whole stuffed lamb and a paella-style platter called Minsaf — are apparently in the if-you-have-to-ask department but look great for a feast.

We loaded up with falafel ($7.99) and lamb gyros ($10.49) entrees and found both satisfying, although served in an unusual build-your-own fashion with five crisp-fried chickpea patties and a sizable portion of halal gyros meat shaved from the spinning cone, perched on beds of subtly aromatic, yellow-tinted rice, with pitas and tzatziki sauce or creamy hummus on the side.

An eggplant appetizer billed as baba ganoush ($4.99) was actually a different dish, rough-chopped eggplant bits stewed with tomatoes and onions. If you want the eggplant-and-tahini puree, ask for Mutabil ($4.99). Four grape leaves ($1.99) were stuffed with rice and onions flavored with a tangy lemon-and-olive-oil mix, and a simple “Mediterranean salad” served with the meals was fresh-made and appetizing.

A filling meal for two, with hot tea ($1.25) came to $28.34, plus a $6 tip.